- Author: Robert Sheckley
Read book online «The Leech by Robert Sheckley (top 10 best books of all time txt) 📕». Author - Robert Sheckley
Illustrated by CONNELLBy PHILLIPS BARBEE
A visitor should be fed, but this one could eat you out of house and home ... literally!
The leech was waiting for food. For millennia it had been drifting across the vast emptiness of space. Without consciousness, it had spent the countless centuries in the void between the stars. It was unaware when it finally reached a sun. Life-giving radiation flared around the hard, dry spore. Gravitation tugged at it.
A planet claimed it, with other stellar debris, and the leech fell, still dead-seeming within its tough spore case.
One speck of dust among many, the winds blew it around the Earth, played with it, and let it fall.
On the ground, it began to stir. Nourishment soaked in, permeating the spore case. It grew—and fed.
Frank Conners came up on the porch and coughed twice. "Say, pardon me, Professor," he said.
The long, pale man didn't stir from the sagging couch. His horn-rimmed glasses were perched on his forehead, and he was snoring very gently.
"I'm awful sorry to disturb you," Conners said, pushing back his battered felt hat. "I know it's your restin' week and all, but there's something damned funny in the ditch."
The pale man's left eyebrow twitched, but he showed no other sign of having heard.
Frank Conners coughed again, holding his spade in one purple-veined hand. "Didja hear me, Professor?"
"Of course I heard you," Micheals said in a muffled voice, his eyes still closed. "You found a pixie."
"A what?" Conners asked, squinting at Micheals.
"A little man in a green suit. Feed him milk, Conners."
"No, sir. I think it's a rock."
Micheals opened one eye and focused it in Conners' general direction.
"I'm awfully sorry about it," Conners said. Professor Micheals' resting week was a ten-year-old custom, and his only eccentricity. All winter Micheals taught anthropology, worked on half a dozen committees, dabbled in physics and chemistry, and still found time to write a book a year. When summer came, he was tired.
Arriving at his worked-out New York State farm, it was his invariable rule to do absolutely nothing for a week. He hired Frank Conners to cook for that week and generally make himself useful, while Professor Micheals slept.
During the second week, Micheals would wander around, look at the trees and fish. By the third week he would be getting a tan, reading, repairing the sheds and climbing mountains. At the end of four weeks, he could hardly wait to get back to the city.
But the resting week was sacred.
"I really wouldn't bother you for anything small," Conners said apologetically. "But that damned rock melted two inches off my spade."
Micheals opened both eyes and sat up. Conners held out the spade. The rounded end was sheared cleanly off. Micheals swung himself off the couch and slipped his feet into battered moccasins.
"Let's see this wonder," he said.
The object was lying in the ditch at the end of the front lawn, three feet from the main road. It was round, about the size of a truck tire, and solid throughout. It was about an inch thick, as far as he could tell, grayish black and intricately veined.
"Don't touch it," Conners warned.
"I'm not going to. Let me have your spade." Micheals took the spade and prodded the object experimentally. It was completely unyielding. He held the spade to the surface for a moment, then withdrew it. Another inch was gone.
Micheals frowned, and pushed his glasses tighter against his nose. He held the spade against the rock with one hand, the other held close to the surface. More of the spade disappeared.
"Doesn't seem to be generating heat," he said to Conners. "Did you notice any the first time?"
Conners shook his head.
Micheals picked up a clod of dirt and tossed it on the object. The dirt dissolved quickly, leaving no trace on the gray-black surface. A large stone followed the dirt, and disappeared in the same way.
"Isn't that just about the damnedest thing you ever saw, Professor?" Conners asked.
"Yes," Micheals agreed, standing up again. "It just about is."
He hefted the spade and brought it down smartly on the object. When it hit, he almost dropped the spade. He had been gripping the handle rigidly, braced for a recoil. But the spade struck that unyielding surface and stayed. There was no perceptible give, but absolutely no recoil.
"Whatcha think it is?" Conners asked.
"It's no stone," Micheals said. He stepped back. "A leech drinks blood. This thing seems to be drinking dirt. And spades." He struck it a few more times, experimentally. The two men looked at each other. On the road, half a dozen Army trucks rolled past.
"I'm going to phone the college and ask a physics man about it," Micheals said. "Or a biologist. I'd like to get rid of that thing before it spoils my lawn."
They walked back to the house.
Everything fed the leech. The wind added its modicum of kinetic energy, ruffling across the gray-black surface. Rain fell, and the force of each individual drop added to its store. The water was sucked in by the all-absorbing surface.
The sunlight above it was absorbed, and converted into mass for its body. Beneath it, the soil was consumed, dirt, stones and branches broken down by the leech's complex cells and changed into energy. Energy was converted back into mass, and the leech grew.
Slowly, the first flickers of consciousness began to return. Its first realization was of the impossible smallness of its body.
When Micheals looked the next day, the leech was eight feet across, sticking out into the road and up the side of the lawn. The following day it was almost eighteen feet in diameter, shaped to fit the contour of the ditch, and covering most of the road. That day the sheriff drove up in his model A, followed by half the town.
"Is that your leech thing, Professor Micheals?" Sheriff Flynn asked.
"That's it," Micheals said. He had spent the past days looking unsuccessfully for an acid that would dissolve the leech.
"We gotta get it out of the road," Flynn said, walking truculently up to the leech. "Something like this, you can't let it block the road, Professor. The Army's gotta use this road."
"I'm terribly sorry," Micheals said with a straight face. "Go right ahead, Sheriff. But be careful. It's hot." The leech wasn't hot, but it seemed the simplest explanation under the circumstances.
Micheals watched with interest as the sheriff tried to shove a crowbar under it. He smiled to himself when it was removed with half a foot of its length gone.
The sheriff wasn't so easily discouraged. He had come prepared for a stubborn piece of rock. He went to the rumble seat of his car and took out a blowtorch and a sledgehammer, ignited the torch and focused it on one edge of the leech.
After five minutes, there was no change. The gray didn't turn red or even seem to heat up. Sheriff Flynn continued to bake it for fifteen minutes, then called to one of the men.
"Hit that spot with the sledge, Jerry."
Jerry picked up the sledgehammer, motioned the sheriff back, and swung it over his head. He let out a howl as the hammer struck unyieldingly. There wasn't a fraction of recoil.
In the distance they heard the roar of an Army convoy.
"Now we'll get some action," Flynn said.
Micheals wasn't so sure. He walked around the periphery of the leech, asking himself what kind of substance would react that way. The answer was easy—no substance. No known substance.
The driver in the lead jeep held up his hand, and the long convoy ground to a halt. A hard, efficient-looking officer stepped out of the jeep. From the star on either shoulder, Micheals knew he was a brigadier general.
"You can't block this road," the general said. He was a tall, spare man in suntans, with a sunburned face and cold eyes. "Please clear that thing away."
"We can't move it," Micheals said. He told the general what had happened in the past few days.
"It must be moved," the general said. "This convoy must go through." He walked closer and looked at the leech. "You say it can't be jacked up by a crowbar? A torch won't burn it?"
"That's right," Micheals said, smiling faintly.
"Driver," the general said over his shoulder. "Ride over it."
Micheals started to protest, but stopped himself. The military mind would have to find out in its own way.
The driver put his jeep in gear and shot forward, jumping the leech's four-inch edge. The jeep got to the center of the leech and stopped.
"I didn't tell you to stop!" the general bellowed.
"I didn't, sir!" the driver protested.
The jeep had been yanked to a stop and had stalled. The driver started it again, shifted to four-wheel drive, and tried to ram forward. The jeep was fixed immovably, as though set in concrete.
"Pardon me," Micheals said. "If you look, you can see that the tires are melting down."
The general stared, his hand creeping automatically toward his pistol belt. Then he shouted, "Jump, driver! Don't touch that gray stuff."
White-faced, the driver climbed to the hood of his jeep, looked around him, and jumped clear.
There was complete silence as everyone watched the jeep. First its tires melted down, and then the rims. The body, resting on the gray surface, melted, too.
The aerial was the last to go.
The general began to swear softly under his breath. He turned to the driver. "Go back and have some men bring up hand grenades and dynamite."
The driver ran back to the convoy.
"I don't know what you've got here," the general said. "But it's not going to stop a U.S. Army convoy."
Micheals wasn't so sure.
The leech was nearly awake now, and its body was calling for more and more food. It dissolved the soil under it at a furious rate, filling it in with its own body, flowing outward.
A large object landed on it, and that became food also. Then suddenly—
A burst of energy against its surface, and then another, and another. It consumed them gratefully, converting them into mass. Little metal pellets struck it, and their kinetic energy was absorbed, their mass converted. More explosions took place, helping to fill the starving cells.
It began to sense things—controlled combustion around it, vibrations of wind, mass movements.
There was another, greater explosion, a taste of real food! Greedily it ate, growing faster. It waited anxiously for more explosions, while its cells screamed for food.
But no more came. It continued to feed on the soil and on the Sun's energy. Night came, noticeable for its lesser energy possibilities, and then more days and nights. Vibrating objects continued to move around it.
It ate and grew and flowed.
Micheals stood on a little hill, watching the dissolution of his house. The leech was several hundred yards across now, lapping at his front porch.
Good-by, home, Micheals thought, remembering the ten summers he had spent there.
The porch collapsed into the body of the leech. Bit by bit, the house crumpled.
The leech looked like a field of lava now, a blasted spot on the green Earth.
"Pardon me, sir," a soldier said, coming up behind him. "General O'Donnell would like to see you."
"Right," Micheals said, and took his last look at the house.
He followed the soldier through the barbed wire that had been set up in a half-mile circle around the leech. A company of soldiers was on guard around it, keeping back the reporters and the hundreds of curious people who had flocked to the scene. Micheals wondered why he was still allowed inside. Probably, he decided, because most of this was taking place on his land.
The soldier brought him to a tent. Micheals stooped and went in. General O'Donnell, still in suntans, was seated at a small desk. He motioned Micheals to a chair.
"I've been put in charge of getting rid of this leech," he said to Micheals.
Micheals nodded, not commenting on the advisability of giving a soldier a scientist's job.
"You're a professor, aren't you?"
"Good. Smoke?" The general lighted Micheals' cigarette. "I'd like you to stay around here in an advisory capacity. You were one of the first to see this leech. I'd appreciate your observations on—" he smiled—"the enemy."
"I'd be glad to," Micheals said. "However, I think this is more in the line of a physicist or a biochemist."
"I don't want this place cluttered with scientists," General O'Donnell said, frowning at the tip of his cigarette. "Don't get me wrong. I have the greatest appreciation for science. I am, if I do say so, a scientific soldier. I'm always interested in the latest weapons. You can't fight any kind of a war any more without science."
O'Donnell's sunburned face grew firm. "But I can't have a team of longhairs poking around this thing for the next month, holding me up. My job is to destroy it, by any means in my power, and at once. I am going to do just that."
"I don't think you'll find it that easy," Micheals said.
"That's what I want you for," O'Donnell said. "Tell me why and I'll figure out a way of doing it."
"Well, as far as I can figure out, the leech is an organic mass-energy converter, and a frighteningly efficient one. I would guess that it has a double cycle. First, it converts mass into energy, then back into mass for its body. Second, energy is converted directly into the body mass. How this takes place, I do not know. The leech is not protoplasmic. It may not even be cellular—"
"So we need something big against it," O'Donnell interrupted. "Well, that's all right. I've got some big stuff here."
"I don't think you understand me," Micheals said. "Perhaps I'm not phrasing this very well. The leech eats energy. It can consume the strength of any energy weapon you use against it."
"What happens," O'Donnell asked, "if it keeps on eating?"
"I have no idea what its growth-limits are," Micheals said. "Its growth may be limited only by its food source."
"You mean it could continue to grow