Cosmos (serial novel)/Chapter 4

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Chapter 4 – The Murderer From Mars by Alfred Johannes Olsen
2226636Cosmos — Chapter 4 – The Murderer From MarsAlfred Johannes Olsen

Zoy Kera, the supreme dictator of Planet Four, the reddish-hued spheroid which Earth-folk have named ‘Mars’ but which the inhabitants of the planet itself call ‘Radak,’ had called together a group of prominent counselors, including some of the greatest thinkers of his domain. In addition to the leader there were none savants present at this meeting; but only three of them need to be mentioned specifically, namely: Bix Dunis, the noted archeologist; Lux Mibak, the equally famous astronomer; and Fax Gatola, Radak’s leading authority on aviation and interstellar communication.

Has a visitor from Earth been permitted to witness that strange assemblage he might have imagined himself in some strange zoo rather than among the masters of a planet.

Their bodies were covered completely with thick, coarse fur, resembling the hair of an Alaskan huskie dog. Uncouth as these natural coverings seemed to be, they provided excellent protection against Mars’ severe climate.

Like men, they walked erect, although their short stubby legs seemed grotesquely disproportionate with their slender arms, which were so long that they almost touched the ground. These amazing arms were attached to the sides of the barrel-like torsos by means of triangular membranes which were stretched taut whenever the arms were extended at right angles to the bodies. To an Earthian this peculiarity would have suggested the gliding membranes of certain types of flying squirrels. Tails also these queer beings had – not bushy like squirrels’ but flat and smooth, like the tails of beavers.

The faces of these weird creatures were similarly fantastic. Most conspicuous of their features were their noses, which consisted principally of enormous noserils plugged with heavily matted, growing hair. Nature had apparently provided them with these efficient ‘purelators’ in order that they could inhale huge quantities of air into their voluminous lungs and at the same time exclude the choking dust with which the atmosphere of Mars is laden.

In spite of their unhuman hairly bodies and their snout-like noses, the Radakans conducted themselves in a manner which unquestionably denoted superior fitness and intellect. In their small, oval eyes was a gleam of intelligence which no beast could possibly simulate. And above these expressive eyes were high foreheads, indicative of unusual brain capacities.

Of raiment none of them wore a single stitch. Yet, in a certain sense they were not naked, since all of them bristled with odd-shaped receptacles, utensils and other apparatus, which were attached to their bodies by cords and thongs. To anyone who was not familiar with the Radakans’ habits, the purposes of these strange articles could only be conjectured.

Squatting on their haunches with the palms of their hands resting on the floor of Zoy Kera’s transparent-walled office, the eleven Martians formed an oval, with the Dictator at one end and Bix Dunis, the archeologist, at the other. In the middle of this ring lay a scored and battered cylinder which had carried a mysterious message from the airless void of space. The communication itself, inscribed with waterproof ink on a parchment-like material was spread out on the floor in front of Bix Dunis.

For a few minutes the noted cipher expert studied the characters, which consisted solely of ingeniously drawn pictures.

“Well, Dunis,” the dictator demanded. “What do you make of it? Or perhaps it is too difficult for even your colossal intellect to solve?”

“On the contrary, your Supremacy,” Dunis replied. “The message is very simple, so simple in fact that even you might be able to interpret it.”

At this bold answer, all the others gasped, expecting the imperious ruler to punish Dunis severely for his insolence. Had any ordinary Radakan made a similar remark he would undoubtedly have been tortured and possibly executed. Dunis, however, being as great an intellectual leader as Kera was a political leader, was a privileged character.

Though it was apparent that the dictator did not relish his counsellor’s familiarity, he pretended to take it good naturedly.

“Very well then,” he leered. “Suppose you quit trying to be facetious and tell us the substance of the message.”

“It is a summons, your Eminence.”

“A summons?”

“Yes, a summons to a war conference.”

“War conference, eh?” the dictator snorted. “And who is it that has the colossal effrontery to summon US to a war conference?”

“As nearly as I can make it out, the message is signed, ‘Dos-Tev, the great,’ ‘Dos-Tev, the Superior,’ or something like that.”

“The Superior! The Great! What colossal nerve! Whoever that imbecile is he ought to know that there are only two individuals in the Universe who are entitled to use titles of that caliber.”

“I assume you mean God and Yourself,” Fax Gatola said with mock servility.

“Certainly. Who else deserves to be called ‘The Great Ones’ – who else except Myself and the Supreme Being.”

“At least he gives God second place,” Dunis whispered to the one who sat next to him.

Fortunately for him, Kera did not overhear this disrespectful remark.

“And who is this upstart who so egotistically calls himself The Great?” Kera demanded.

“That I cannot say for certain,” Dunis hedged. However, it is clear that he desires us to send a representative of our planet to a certain crater on the satellite of Planet Three. Presumable he himself is an inhabitant of that satellite.”

“Ridiculous!” Mibak, the astronomer, ejactulated. “Life on Planet 3’s satellite is impossible.”

“How can you be so sure of that?” Kera asked.

“Because life – at least the sort of life which exists here on Radak, needs air and water. Even a superficial examination of Planet Three’s moon through an ordinary telescope reveals that the satellite in question has no atmosphere. And if there is any moisture there at all it must be frozen solid during the long, frigid nights and boiled to vapor during the terrifically hot days.”

“That’s true enough,” Gatola, the inventor interposed. “But isn’t it conceivable that some other form of life could exist on this satellite – some species of beings which do not require water and air?”

“Such a thing is conceivable,” Mibak conceded, “But hardly plausible.”

“That is a matter of opinion,” Gatola disputed. “But even if we exclude the likelihood of a unique form of life, isn’t it possible that even highly developed beings like ourselves could live on Planet Three’s moon if they brought their water and air with them?”

“I suppose that would be possible,” the astronomer admitted grudgingly. “Nevertheless –“

He was interrupted by Zoy Kera, who shouted, “Enough of this silly bickering. Is there anything else important in that message, Dunis?”

“Only instructions for building a space flyer capable of consummating the journey from Radak to the rendezvous,” the archeologist replied. “The cylinder itself is a miniature model of a space flyer. This second paper contains plans for constructing a full-sized ether-ship, large enough to transport two persons and sufficient supplies to last them until they arrive on the satellite.”

“Does it say anything about getting back?” Gatola inquired.

“Yes. The signers of the document guarantee that any number of representatives from Radak will be taken care of subsequent to their arrival on the moon, and that they will also be assured safe transportation back to their native planets at the close of the conference.”

Pointing to the cylinder, Kera asked, “What is your opinion of this contrivance, Gatola? Do you think it is practical for transporting people as well as it conveyed this message?”

“I could hardly express an intelligent opinion without first studying it,” was Gatola’s sarcastic response.

“Very well, suppose you study it right now. Since you are our leading inventor and authority on interstellar travel it ought not take you long to determine the merits of this particular invention.”

Gatola waddled over to the cylinder and examined it. Then he glanced over the plans which Bix Dunis handed to him.

“Well,” the dictator growled impatiently. “What is your verdict?”

“Crude,” was the reply. “Childishly crude. According to this design the space ship which this Dos-Tev would have us build is extremely primitive. It makes use of the antiquated rocket principle of propulsion – similar to that which was employed by Wozag on his ill-starred expedition to Deimos over fifty years ago.”

“But Wozag’s flyer was a success,” one of the counselors, a historian of note, reminded him. “To be sure it did not land on Deimos, but it did succeed in circumnavigating the satellite and in returning to Radak.”

“True enough,” Gatola conceded. “I suppose the fact that Wozag’s crushed and lifeless body was found inside the rocket ship was of minor consequence.”

“Wozag must have died from the effects of the final collision,” the historian asserted. “That was clearly proved by his written records, which described everything that happened on the journey up to the time the space-ship reentered the atmospheric envelope of Radak.”

“Nevertheless the rocket principle is obsolete,” persisted Gatola. “And there is no use arguing about the matter anyway. My newly perfected space-flyer is much more efficient than Wozag’s crude device; and – what is far more important to me – it is inifinately safer to the persons who use it.”

“Tell us about it,” Zoy Kera commanded.

“Gladly. In the first place, instead of being cylindrical in shape, my ether-ship is in the form of a regular tetrakaidecagon.”

“I was never especially brilliant in mathematics,” the dictator confessed. “Suppose you explain what a tetra – whatever you call it – looks like.”

“With pleasure. But, wait a moment. We are fortunate in having with us an eminent mathematician. Sozak, won’t you be good enough to tell us what a tetrakaidecagon is, and also explain the advantages of this particular shape over other geometrical forms.”

Beaming with pleasure over this opportunity to display his learning, the mathematician said in his best lecture-room manner, “Thank you, Fax Gatola. A tetrakaidecagon is a solid bounded by fourteen faces, each of which is a regular pentagon. The tetrakaidecagon is one of the most interesting of the three dimensional figures. If a number of spheres of soft clay are placed in a receptacle and pressed together, they will assume the form of a regular tetrakaidecagon. When several flexible balloons are pressed together they will take this fundamental form. A tetrakaidecagon is –“

“That is sufficient,” Kera cut him off. “What else can you say about your new space ship, Gatola?”

“For one thing it requires very little energy to operate it. This is extremely important since it increases the pay load capacity enormously. Very little space is required for fuel thus making ample room for water, compressed air, food, and other supplies.”

“But if you do not use rockets, how do you propel your flyer,” Dunis inquired.

“I make use of a natural force which is available in tremendous quantities everywhere, namely gravitation. Recently I have developed a device which generates two different kinds of beams, one of which intensifies gravitational attraction and the other nullifies this force, actually producing repulsion in the place of attraction.”

“And do you use these beams to propel your space-ship?” Kera asked.

“Yes, your Supremacy. Each of the fourteen faces of my flyer contains two projectors , one for the positive beam and one for the negative beam. By directing these beams at various heavenly bodies, such as the sun, the various planets and the stars outside the Solar System, I can produce any degree of attraction or repulsion and in any desired direction. You understand, of course, that the actual path of the flyer is a resultant of the various co-ordinate forces which are brought to bear upon it in the manner I have just described.”

“And you can change your course or retard at will?” queried Dunis.

“Certainly. Change of direction is accomplished by the simple process of focusing one of the attraction beams on an object which happens to be in the direction toward which I desire to turn the flyer. Since the intensity of both the attractive and the repulsive beams may be regulated indefinitely, it is also easy to control both the acceleration and the retardation of the craft’s motion in sch a way that no injury or even discomfort will be inflicted upon the passengers.”

“Good!” Kera exclaimed. “When will your space-ship be ready to take off for the moon of Planet Three?”

“At the rate work has been progressing of late it will take at least a hundred days,” the inventor informed him. But if I could obtain governmental assistance for which I have been clamoring since the inception of my idea, I could finish in ten days.”

“Very well,” the ruler declared. “I hereby grant you full authority to requisition whatever materials and assistance you may require. I shall expect you to be ready to embark for the satellite of Planet Three ten days from today.”

“Am I to infer from this that you expect me to represent Radak in this interplanetary conference!” Gatola asked.

“I not only infer it but I command it,” was Kera’s imperious assertion. “I know of no one who is more capable or better qualified to perform this mission than you, Fax Gatola.”

“Thank you, Dictator,” Gatola rejoined. “I appreciate the honor which you have conferred on me. But you must understand that it will be absolutely impossible for me to carry out this mission single-handed.”

“Why not?”

“Because it will take me days to complete the journey. Someone must be at the controls of the space-ship constantly. You could hardly expect me to remain alertly wakeful for such a long period.”

“I understand. How large a crew will you require?”

“I can get along with one other person – providing he is the right one for the job.”

“Very well. You have my permission to draft any one of my subjects whom you wish to act as your assistant. As soon as you have decided on your choice, tell me, and I shall command him to accompany you.”

“My decision is already made, your Eminence.”

“Name him.”

“Jek Hodar!”

If a bomb had exploded in the room it could not have created more excitement than the mention of that ominous name.

As if he could not believe his own ears, Kera roared, “Jek Hodar? Surely Gatola you do not mean Jek Hodar.”

“Your hearing is correct,” said Gatola quietly. “Only Jek Hodar will be acceptable to me as a companion on this venture. You gave me your word that I might name my own assistant. I have done so and you must heed your promise.”

“But Jek Hodar, of all persons! You must be insane to think of such a thing! Jek Hodar is a criminal of the deepest dye. Even now he is being tortured for committing the basest crimes that any citizen of Radak could perpetrate, namely murder and treason!”

“Of that I am fully aware, your Supremacy. Nevertheless I must insist that Hodar be drafted to accompany me on this space voyage to the moon of Planet Three. I demand that he be released from the torture chamber before it is too late.”

“I grant that you are within your rights in making such a demand,” the ruler admitted. “But I must ask you to reconsider your request. You should know that Hodar is utterly unprincipled. For years he has been plotting against me and against the state. His treachery culminated in a deliberate attempt to assassinate me. Had it not been for the vigilancy of my body-guard, who hurled himself in the path of Hodar’s ray-gun, he would undoubtedly have succeeded. As it was, he murdered one of the bravest soldiers who ever gave his life for the welfare of Radak. There is no question concerning his guilt.. Thousands of people witnessed this crime. He himself bragged about it when he made his confession.”

“All this is, of course, well known to me,” Gatola rejoined. “But regardless of the outcome of his efforts, one must concede that Hodar possesses rare courage and indomitable determination. Perhaps he believed he was performing a patriotic service for his country.”

“Am I to infer that you condone Hodar’s unspeakable crimes?” Kera bellowed in a menacing voice.

“Not at all, your Supremacy. I neither condone nor excuse his crimes. I merely call attention to certain qualities he unquestionably has – qualities which must be possessed by the person who accompanies me on this hazardous venture and helps to insure its success.”

“But surely there must be others who are –“ interrupting himself Kera went on, “You seem to have forgotten, Gatola, that Hodar is a rival of yours, and an unforgivably jealous one at that. He too has been laboring on a craft with which he hoped to excel you in navigating interplanetary space. Prior to your sudden rise to fame, Hodar was supposed to know more about cosmonautics than any other person in the world.”

“Precisely! And it is for that very reason that I insist on having him with me when I hop off for the satellite of our neighboring planet.”

“But the man is a constant menace to the peace of Radak.”

“All the more reason for removing him from this planet. This is only very remote chance that he will ever return, even if we are fortunate enough to reach our destination alive. I myself shall assume full responsibility for his future conduct.”

“Very well, then,” the Dictator sighed resignedly. “No one can say that Zoy Kera ever goes back on his word. I shall give immediate orders to release Jek Hodar from the torture chamber.”

And thus it came about that two inhabitants of Planet Four – one a man of high moral principles, of probity and loyalty and on the other an infamous, treacherous criminal, prepared to hurl themselves into the void in the wan hope of reaching the distant satellite which had been chosen as an interplanetary rendezvous.

Everything was in readiness for the embarkation, and Gatola was just about to give the word to close the heavily insulated hatch, when Bix Dunis rushed into the control chamber and panted, “I must talk to you, Fax. Something terrifically menacing has just transpired – so menacing in fact that it will make it imperative for you to change your plans.”

“Change my plans, at this late date?” Gatola scoffed. “Why the idea is utterly preposterous! Everything is ready for —“

“I know all that. But you must not depart until you have learned of the treachery which is being plotted against you.”

“Treachery?” Gatola exclaimed. “You mean that Jek Hodar –“

“Yes,” Dunis cut in. “Hodar is deliberately plotting to destroy you.”

“Nonsense. Hodar is no longer an enemy of mine. He knows that I saved his life. Surely he would not —“

“Oh, wouldn’t he though? If you knew Hodar like I do you would understand that gratitude means nothing to him. Listen, Fax. I just overheard him talking to a group of his former associates. Though they were never apprehended, it is certain that they were implicated in Hodar’s conspiracy against the government.”

“What of it?”

“Just this. I heard Hodar boast to them that you will never reach the satellite of Planet Four.”

“Hodar always was a pessimist,” Gatola laughed. “He was undoubtedly referring to the unknown perils which we are certain to encounter on our journey.”

“I am sure he had no such idea. Otherwise he would have said, ‘We shall never reach the satellite,’ or ‘The space-ship will never reach its destination.’ What he did say had an entirely different connotation.”

“Just what did he say?”

“He said, ‘Leave it to me. I shall see to it that Fax Gatola does not reach the satellite of Planet Three alive.’”

“And did you infer from that statement that Hodar plans my murder?”

“How else could I interpret those words? You know as well as I that Hodar is quite capable of committing dastardly crimes like that.”

“That I grant; but it is also well known that Hodar is fond of making threats – most of which he forgets soon afterward.”

“Nevertheless, he may carry out this threat – if he gets a chance.”

“I am not afraid of that. Hodar may be a scoundrel but he is not a fool. He knows that it would be utterly impossible for one person to navigate my space-ship for any considerable distance. If he did away with me while we were out in interplanetary space it would be suicide for him.”

“Even suicide, in addition to murder, Hodar is perfectly capable of committing. Once he gets that stubborn mind of his set on an idea, nothing in the universe can stop him.”

“That is one of the reasons why I picked Hodar to be my assistant. It will require all the stubborn determination that both of us can muster to win our way through to our goal.”

“But won’t you please take time to think this thing over before subjecting yourself to this terrible risk? Won’t you select someone else to take Hodar’s place as your lieutenant?”

“That is utterly out of the question. I need a navigator who is a thorough master of the science of cosmonautics. Only Jek Hodar can qualify. And now, good-bye, my friend. I cannot thank you sufficiently for you solicitude. But do not fear. There will be no weapons on the ether-ship and if it comes to a free-for-all fight, my youth, size and superior muscular development should enable me to hold my own against an elderly weakling like Hodar.”

But though Gatola gave little heed to his friend’s warning, he did exercise special care to safeguard himself against Hodar’s perfidy. Following his orders, the convict was stripped of all his equipment and his fur was searched thoroughly for knives or ray-pistols immediately prior to his being admitted to the space-ship.

Despite these precautions, Hodar, with consummate craft, succeeded in smuggling aboard something that was far more dangerous that any of the Radak weapons. Inside one of his broad nostrils, concealed by the thick growth of hair, the criminal had secreted a moisture-proof envelope full of konide, one of the more deadly poisons known. There was enough of the powder to annihilate a hundred men.

The take-off from Planet Four was uneventful. An enormous crowd assembled to witness the departure. It was apparent that many of them hoped to see a disaster but in this they were disappointed.

Its gravitational beams held under the absolute control of the masterful mind of the inventor, the space ship rose slowly and majestically from its mooring place. Gradually but steadily its motion was accelerated until it was traveling with such velocity that it soon became a mere speck in the sky.

During that long and nerve-racking journey, Hodar seemed to justify the confidence which his youthful companion had placed in him. Seemingly oblivious to the passage of time of the need for sleep and relaxation, the elderly scientist labored assiduously over the voluminous and complicated calculations which had to be made to keep the craft on its course.

Gatola had to strap him into his hammock several times, compelling him to take enough rest to avoid cracking under the strain.

It wasn’t until they were so close to their desination that they could distinguish even the minute details of the moon’s landscape that Hodar showed his true colors.

Hodar was at the controls and Gatola was squatted in from of a porthole gazing with enraptured eyes at the spectacle which lay before him.

“Isn’t it marvelous, Jek?” he exclaimed. “Compared with the bare, level, monotonous landscape of Radak, this satellite is like a paradise of beauty. Unquestionably it is the grandest example of scenic splendor in the entire Universe!”

“How can you be so sure of that?” Hodar growled.

“I don’t see how there could be any place in creation more lovely than this. Just look at those mountains down there near the south pole! Their bases are in dense shadow yet their peaks are so lofty that they are drenched in light! If I were a poet I would call them ‘The Mountains of Eternal Light.’ And notice those wide bands of metallic brilliancy radiating from that medium sized crater about halfway between the south pole and the equator. Observe how those enormous lanes of brightness run across the entire visible surface of the moon, utterly ignoring the loftiest mountains and the deepest ravines and running as straight as if they were drawn with a cosmic ruler.”

“I see nothing so remarkable about that measly satellite,” Hodar snarled.

He did something to the controls and the ship gave a gentle lurch.

“In heaven’s name, what are you doing, Jek?” the commander of the craft demanded. “You have changed our course. We are flying away from the moon instead of toward it.”

“Listen, Gatola,” the old man told him. “You may as well learn right now that I do not intend to land on that satellite.”

“Oh, is that so?” Gatola said sarcastically. “Any may I inquire just where you do intend to land?”

“I intend to navigate the ship to Planet Three and land there. This idea of alighting on an airless, waterless moon is utterly preposterous.”

“And just why do you desire to visit Planet Three, if I may be so bold as to ask?”

“Because I do not intend to return to Zoy Kera’s unspeakable torture chamber. Listen, Gatola, you know as well as I do that if we land on the moon it will undoubtedly be necessary for me to return with you to Radak to report the result of that conference. On the other hand we know that Planet Three has plenty of air and an abundance of water. Its climate is much more favorable to beings like us than that of Radak. Why won’t you be reasonable, Gatola? Why not consent to go with me to Planet Three?”

“But what about the war conference on the moon?” Gatola asked.

“Obviously there must be something queer about that conference. I have no confidence whatever in the integrity of the being who signed himelf ‘The Great One’. If his proposition is a legitimate one, why did he call the conference in a forbidding, airless, waterless satellite where no one can live without putting up with unspeakable discomfort and suffering? Why didn’t he select a more pleasant meeting place – like Planet Three itself for instance?”

“Perhaps Planet Three is in the hands of the enemy against whom the other Planets must fight,” Gatola suggested.

“Piffle!” Hodar sneered. “At any rate I refuse to land on the moon.”

“Oh, you do, do you?”

Gatola spoke quietly but there was a menace in his voice which suggested the glittering coldness of a drawn sword.

“Get away from those controls, you ungrateful traitor!”

Hodar hesitated from an instant, but when Gatola seized him by the scruff of the neck and lifted him out of the control seat as easily as he would have picked up a puppy, he did not attempt to resist, but merely uttered a growl of impotent rage.

Still snarling, like the angry animal he was, Hodar waddled out of the control chamber. Knowing that he could do no damage in any other part of the ship, Gatola let him go. He had hs hands full righting the course of the flyer, searching for the trysting place, and retarding the terrific speed of the craft preparatory to setting it down. In the cylinder had been enclosed an excellent map of the satellite, with the meeting place clearly indicated. He easily recognized the enormous crater by its position on the map near the center of an especially bright region which was almost a perfect square and was bounded on the north by a magnificent range of mountains.

With consummate skill Gatola guided the space-ship until it was hovering over the crater. He regulated the speed so accurately that the craft kept in perfect pace with the satellite as it rolled through space.

Gatola knew he had found the right place, for, even with his naked eyes he could distinguish in the space within the crater three or four grotesquely shaped objects which could only be space-ships.

So absorbed was he in the tense work of controlling his craft that he forgot all about Hodar, until he heard a low cough and turned to his assistant crouching beside him. In his hand he was holding a goblet containing a white fluid.

“Here my friend,” the old man said as he proffered the cup to him, “You have worked for a long while without food or drink. Take this draught of processed milk. You need it to strengthen you for the task of setting the craft down on the satellite.”

“Thank you, Jek,” Gatola smiled. “I am glad you have decided to remain my friend. It was very thoughtful of you to bring this drink to me. I am indeed hungry and thirsty.”

Then he took the goblet and drained it to the last drop.

For a while Hodar watched him with a crafty look of triumph in his green eyes.

“Why do you look at me like that, Jek,” Gatola asked him.

“For no reason in particular,” Hodar lied. “How do you feel, my friend? You are beginning to turn pale. Have you any pain?”

“Now that you mention it, I do feel rather queer,” Gatola groaned, “I have a terrible cramp in my stomach. I suppose the excitement of reaching our destination has brought on an attack of nervous indigestion.”

“It isn’t indigestion that is causing that pain,” Hodar snarled.

“What do you know about it?” Suddenly the horrible truth flashed into Gatola’s mind. “Surely, Jek — Surely you didn’t — That milk you just gave me — it wasn’t –“

“Yes,” Hodar leered. “The milk which you just drank was poisoned. You are done for, Fax Gatola.”

Moaning in agony, Gatola said, “Why did you do this to me, Jek? Don’t you know that I am your friend – that it was I who saved you from torture and death?”

“What difference does that make? I hate you just the same.”

“But why do you hate me? Can’t you realize –“

“I hate you because you have thwarted me. In a short time you have thwarted me. In a short time you have accomplished what I worked for all my life without achieving. You tried to prevent me from escaping to Planet Three. But you will thwart me no more, Fax Gatola. In a few moments you will be dead. Then I shall take this ship to Planet Three and do with it as I please. I would have killed you long ago had I not needed your help to navigate the space-ship from Radak to here. The rest of the journey is comparatively short. I can easily manage that alone.”

His face distorted with anguish, Gatola asked, “I can’t believe you, Jek Hodar. What sort of poison did you put in that milk?”

“Konide. I smuggled it aboard by concealing it in my nostrils. The chemist who have it to me said that a few grains of it would be enough to kill you instantly. I gave you a whole spoonful.”

“Did you say the poison was Konide?”

“Yes. And there was more than enough of it to do the work.”

“And you placed the konide in that goblet of milk?”

“That is precisely what I did. If you have any preparations to make before you die, you had better complete them quickly.”

Gatola’s answer was a loud and hearty laugh.

“What are you laughing at?” Hodar demanded. “Is the prospect of a sudden, painful death so amusing to you?”

“No. It is you who amuse me, Hodar.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just this. You are an excellent space-navigator, Hodar – but a rotten chemist. There is only one sure antidote for Konide. Do you know what that is. Is it milk, you fool, MILK!”

“Then you are not going to die?”

“Certainly not. Naturally the stuff made me sick, but I am not going to die, because when you gave me that poison you were thoughtful enough to give me the antidote with it.”