One Man's Poison

       Robert Sheckley / Science Fiction

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One Mans Poison Produced by Sankar Viswanathan, Greg Weeks, and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at

Transcriber's Note:

This etext was produced from Galaxy Science Fiction December 1953. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.

One man's poison


Illustrated by EMSH

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

* * * * *

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

”Hell of a meal for two grown men,” Casker said, flopping down in oneof 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 andexamined its edge critically.

”Don't make a production out of it,” Casker said, glancing at theship's instruments. They were approaching a red dwarf, the onlyplanet-bearing sun in the vicinity. ”We want to be through with supperbefore we get much closer.”

Hellman made a practice incision in the radish, squinting along thetop of the razor. Casker bent closer, his mouth open. Hellman poisedthe 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. Hellmanchewed more slowly. The sharp taste seemed to explode along hisdisused 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. Theirlast meal had been three days ago ... if two biscuits and a cup ofwater could be called a meal. This radish, now resting in the vastemptiness 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 faulthad been. Could he have made out the food requisitions wrong, whenthey took on supplies at Calao station? After all, he had beendevoting most of his attention to the mining equipment. Or had theground 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 toCalao. But they would be a pair of singularly emaciated corpses by thetime the ship reached there.

”We're coming in now,” Casker said.

And to make matters worse, this unexplored region of space had fewsuns and fewer planets. Perhaps there was a slight possibility ofreplenishing their water supply, but the odds were enormous againstfinding 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 amillion needle-sharp mountains glittered in the red dwarf's feeblelight. And as they spiraled lower, circling the planet, the pointedmountains 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 jaggedisland-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 lowerinto the atmosphere, braking against it. And still there was nothingbut mountains and lakes and oceans and more mountains.

On the eighth run, Hellman caught sight of a solitary building on amountain 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 ofthe mountain. There was a wide, level lip around it, which Caskerscorched as he landed the ship.

* * * * *

From the air, the building had merely seemed big. On the ground, itwas enormous. Hellman and Casker walked up to it slowly. Hellman hadhis 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 ona 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, itmust have been affected by several gigantic moons that are now brokenup. The strains, external and internal, wrenched it into its presentspined appearance and--”

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

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

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, stackedhaphazardly against the walls. There were boxes and containers of allsizes and shapes, some big enough to hold an elephant, others the sizeof thimbles.

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

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

”This is interesting,” Hellman said, discarding all the books exceptone.

”Let's eat first,” Casker said, ripping the top off the box. Insidewas 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'sanything to eat here? For all you know, this could be a paintfactory.”

”It's a warehouse!” Casker shouted.

He opened a kidney-shaped can and lifted out a soft purple stick. Ithardened quickly and crumpled to dust as he tried to smell it. Hescooped 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--acache, if you wish--we don't know what the late inhabitants consideredgood fare. Paris green salad, perhaps, with sulphuric acid asdressing.”

”All right,” Casker said, ”but we gotta eat. What're you going to doabout all this?” He gestured at the hundreds of boxes, cans andbottles.

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

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

”I know,” Hellman said, ”but we should. It's the right way to go aboutit.”

”Sure. In the meantime, though, just until a chemist drops in, what'llwe do?”

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

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

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


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

Casker raised an eyebrow. ”Never
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