Meeting of the Minds: Short Stories of Robert Sheckley, Volume 1 [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Robert Sheckley
eBook Category: Science Fiction/Fantasy
eBook Description: Robert Sheckley (July 16, 1928 -- December 9, 2005) was a Hugo- and Nebula-nominated American author. First published in the science fiction magazines of the 1950s, his numerous quick-witted stories and novels were famously unpredictable, absurdist and broadly comical. Sheckley was given the Author Emeritus honor by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2001. Included in this collection are nine of some of his best stories written in the 1950s. Includes the following stories: MEETING OF THE MINDS, THE LEECH, UNTOUCHED BY HUMAN HANDS, WARRIOR RACE, SHAPE, WRITING CLASS, SEVENTH VICTIM, COST OF LIVING, and THE LAST WEAPON
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks
Fictionwise Release Date: June 2010
First Published in Galaxy Magazine, February 1960
What mission had the Quedak been given? Even he couldn't remember any more--but he refused to die till it was completed!
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MEETING OF THE MINDS
The Quedak lay on a small hilltop and watched a slender jet of light descend through the sky. The feather-tailed jet was golden, and brighter than the sun. Poised above it was a glistening metallic object, fabricated rather than natural, hauntingly familiar. The Quedak tried to think what it was.
He couldn't remember. His memories had atrophied with his functions, leaving only scattered fragments of images. He searched among them now, leafing through his brief scraps of ruined cities, dying populations, a blue-water-filled canal, two moons, a spaceship....
That was it. The descending object was a spaceship. There had been many of them during the great days of the Quedak.
Those great days were over, buried forever beneath the powdery sands. Only the Quedak remained. He had life and he had a mission to perform. The driving urgency of his mission remained, even after memory and function had failed.
As the Quedak watched, the spaceship dipped lower. It wobbled and sidejets kicked out to straighten it. With a gentle explosion of dust, the spaceship settled tail first on the arid plain.
And the Quedak, driven by the imperative Quedak mission, dragged itself painfully down from the little hilltop. Every movement was an agony. If he were a selfish creature, the Quedak would have died. But he was not selfish. Quedaks owed a duty to the universe; and that spaceship, after all the blank years, was a link to other worlds, to planets where the Quedak could live again and give his services to the native fauna.
He crawled, a centimeter at a time, and wondered whether he had the strength to reach the alien spaceship before it left this dusty, dead planet.
Captain Jensen of the spaceship Southern Cross was bored sick with Mars. He and his men had been here for ten days. They had found no important archeological specimens, no tantalizing hints of ancient cities such as the Polaris expedition had discovered at the South Pole. Here there was nothing but sand, a few weary shrubs, and a rolling hill or two. Their biggest find so far had been three pottery shards.
Jensen readjusted his oxygen booster. Over the rise of a hill he saw his two men returning.
"Anything interesting?" he asked.
"Just this," said engineer Vayne, holding up an inch of corroded blade without a handle.
"Better than nothing," Jensen said. "How about you, Wilks?"
The navigator shrugged his shoulders. "Just photographs of the landscape."
"OK," Jensen said. "Dump everything into the sterilizer and let's get going."
Wilks looked mournful. "Captain, one quick sweep to the north might turn up something really--"
"Not a chance," Jensen said. "Fuel, food, water, everything was calculated for a ten-day stay. That's three days longer than Polaris had. We're taking off this evening."
The men nodded. They had no reason to complain. As the second to land on Mars, they were sure of a small but respectable footnote in the history books. They put their equipment through the sterilizer vent, sealed it, and climbed the ladder to the lock. Once they were inside, Vayne closed and dogged the hatch, and started to open the inside pressure door.
"Hold it!" Jensen called out.
"What's the matter?"
"I thought I saw something on your boot," Jensen said. "Something like a big bug."
Vayne quickly ran his hands down the sides of his boots. The two men circled him, examining his clothing.
"Shut that inner door," the captain said. "Wilks, did you see anything?"
"Not a thing," the navigator said. "Are you sure, Cap? We haven't found anything that looks like animal or insect life here. Only a few plants."
"I could have sworn I saw something," Jensen said. "Maybe I was wrong ... Anyhow, we'll fumigate our clothes before we enter the ship proper. No sense taking any chance of bringing back some kind of Martian bug."
The men removed their clothing and boots and stuffed them into the chute. They searched the bare steel room carefully.
"Nothing here," Jensen said at last. "OK, let's go inside."
Once inside the ship, they sealed off the lock and fumigated it. The Quedak, who had crept inside earlier through the partially opened pressure door, listened to the distant hiss of gas. After a while he heard the jets begin to fire.
The Quedak retreated to the dark rear of the ship. He found a metal shelf and attached himself to the underside of it near the wall. After a while he felt the ship tremble.
The Quedak clung to the shelf during the long, slow flight through space. He had forgotten what spaceships were like, but now memory revived briefly. He felt blazing heat and freezing cold. Adjusting to the temperature changes drained his small store of vitality, and the Quedak began to wonder if he was going to die.
He refused to die. Not while there was still a possibility of accomplishing the Quedak mission.
In time he felt the harsh pull of gravity, and felt the main jets firing again. The ship was coming down to its planet.
After a routine landing, Captain Jensen and his men were taken to Medic Checkpoint, where they were thumped, probed and tested for any sign of disease.
Their spaceship was lowered to a flatcar and taken past rows of moonships and ICBMs to Decontamination Stage One. Here the sealed outer hull was washed down with powerful cleansing sprays. By evening, the ship was taken to Decontamination Stage Two.
A team of two inspectors equipped with bulky tanks and hoses undogged the hatch and entered, shutting the hatch behind them.
They began at the bow, methodically spraying as they moved toward the rear. Everything seemed in order; no animals or plants, no trace of mold such as the first Luna expedition had brought back.
"Do you really think this is necessary?" the assistant inspector asked. He had already requested a transfer to Flight Control.
"Sure it is," the senior inspector said. "Can't tell what these ships might bring in."
"I suppose so," the assistant said. "Still, a Martian whoosis wouldn't even be able to live on Earth. Would it?"
"How should I know?" the senior inspector said. "I'm no botanist. Maybe they don't know, either."
"Seems like a waste of--hey!"
"What is it?" the senior inspector asked.
"I thought I saw something," the assistant said. "Looked a little like a palmetto bug. Over by that shelf."
The senior inspector adjusted his respirator more snugly over his face and motioned to his assistant to do the same. He advanced slowly toward the shelf, unfastening a second nozzle from the pressure tank on his back. He turned it on, and a cloud of greenish gas sprayed out.
"There," the senior inspector said. "That should take care of your bug." He knelt down and looked under the shelf. "Nothing here."
"It was probably a shadow," the assistant said.
Together they sprayed the entire interior of the ship, paying particular attention to the small box of Martian artifacts. They left the gas-filled ship and dogged the hatch again.
"Now what?" the assistant asked.
"Now we leave the ship sealed for three days," the senior inspector said. "Then we inspect again. You find me the animal that'll live through that."
The Quedak, who had been clinging to the underside of the assistant's shoe between the heel and the sole, released his hold. He watched the shadowy biped figures move away, talking in their deep, rumbling, indecipherable voices. He felt tired and unutterably lonely.
But buoying him up was the thought of the Quedak mission. Only that was important. The first part of the mission was accomplished. He had landed safely on an inhabited planet. Now he needed food and drink. Then he had to have rest, a great deal of rest to restore his dormant faculties. After that he would be ready to give this world what it so obviously needed--the cooperation possible only through the Quedak mind.
He crept slowly down the shadowy yard, past the deserted hulls of spaceships. He came to a wire fence and sensed the high-voltage electricity running through it. Gauging his distance carefully, the Quedak jumped safely through one of the openings in the mesh.
This was a very different section. From here the Quedak could smell water and food. He moved hastily forward, then stopped.
He sensed the presence of a man. And something else. Something much more menacing.
"Who's there?" the watchman called out. He waited, his revolver in one hand, his flashlight in the other. Thieves had broken into the yards last week; they had stolen three cases of computer parts bound for Rio. Tonight he was ready for them.
He walked forward, an old, keen-eyed man holding his revolver in a rock-steady fist. The beam of his flashlight probed among the cargoes. The yellow light flickered along a great pile of precision machine tools for South Africa, past a water-extraction plant for Jordan and a pile of mixed goods for Rabaul.
"You better come out," the watchman shouted. His flashlight probed at sacks of rice for Shanghai and power saws for Burma. Then the beam of light stopped abruptly.
"I'll be damned," the watchman said. Then he laughed. A huge and red-eyed rat was glaring into the beam of his flashlight. It had something in its jaws, something that looked like an unusually large cockroach.
"Good eating," the watchman said. He holstered his revolver and continued his patrol.
A large black animal had seized the Quedak, and he felt heavy jaws close over his back. He tried to fight; but, blinded by a sudden beam of yellow light, he was betrayed by total and enervating confusion.
The yellow light went off. The black beast bit down hard on the Quedak's armored back. The Quedak mustered his remaining strength, and, uncoiling his long, scorpion-jointed tail, lashed out.
He missed, but the black beast released him hastily. They circled each other, the Quedak hoisting his tail for a second blow, the beast unwilling to turn loose this prey.
The Quedak waited for his chance. Elation filled him. This pugnacious animal could be the first, the first on this planet to experience the Quedak mission. From this humble creature a start could be made....
The beast sprang and its white teeth clicked together viciously. The Quedak moved out of the way and its barb-headed tail flashed out, fastening itself in the beast's back. The Quedak held on grimly while the beast leaped and squirmed. Setting his feet, the Quedak concentrated on the all-important task of pumping a tiny white crystal down the length of his tail and under the beast's skin.
But this most important of the Quedak faculties was still dormant. Unable to accomplish anything, the Quedak released his barbs, and, taking careful aim, accurately drove his sting home between the black beast's eyes. The blow, as the Quedak had known, was lethal.
The Quedak took nourishment from the body of its dead foe; regretfully, for by inclination the Quedak was herbivorous. When he had finished, the Quedak knew that he was in desperate need of a long period of rest. Only after that could the full Quedak powers be regained.
He crawled up and down the piles of goods in the yard, looking for a place to hide. Carefully he examined several bales. At last he reached a stack of heavy boxes. One of the boxes had a crack just large enough to admit him.
The Quedak crawled inside, down the shiny, oil-slick surface of a machine, to the far end of the box. There he went into the dreamless, defenseless sleep of the Quedak, serenely trusting in what the future would bring.