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by Robert Sheckley
Category: Science Fiction/Humor
Description: Robert Sheckley (1928-2005) 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. "Prospector's Special" originally appeared in "Galaxy" science fiction magazine, December 1959, under the editorship of H.L. Gold.
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1959 Galaxy
eBookwise Release Date: August 2009
9 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [43 KB]
Reading time: 23-32 min.
THE sandcar moved smoothly over the rolling dunes, its six fat wheels rising and falling like the ponderous rumps of tandem elephants. The hidden sun beat down from a dead-white sky, pouring heat into the canvas top, reflecting heat back from the parched sand.
"Stay awake," Morrison told himself, pulling the sandcar back to its compass course.
It was his twenty-first day on Venus's Scorpion Desert, his twenty-first day of fighting sleep while the sandcar rocked across the dunes, forging over humpbacked little waves. Night travel would have been easier, but there were too many steep ravines to avoid, too many house-sized boulders to dodge. Now he knew why men went into the desert in teams; one man drove while the other kept shaking him awake.
"But it's better alone," Morrison reminded himself. "Half the supplies and no accidental murders."
His head was beginning to droop; he snapped himself erect. In front of him, the landscape shimmered and danced through the polaroid windshield. The sandcar lurched and rocked with treacherous gentleness. Morrison rubbed his eyes and turned on the radio.
He was a big, sunburned, rangy young man with close-cropped black hair and gray eyes: He had come to Venus with a grubstake of twenty thousand dollars, to find his fortune in the Scorpion Desert as others had done before him. He had outfitted in Presto, the last town on the edge of the wilderness, and spent all but ten dollars on the sandcar and equipment.
In Presto, ten dollars just covered the cost of a drink in the town's only saloon. So Morrison ordered rye and water, drank with the miners and prospectors, and laughed at the oldtimers' yarns about the sandwolf packs and the squadrons of voracious birds that inhabited the interior desert. He knew all about sunblindness, heatstroke and telephone breakdown. He was sure none of it would happen to him.
But now, after twenty-one days and eighteen hundred miles, he had learned respect for this waterless waste of sand and stone three times the area of the Sahara. You really could die here!
But you could also get rich, and that was what Morrison planned to do.
His radio hummed. At full volume, he could hear the faintest murmur of dance music from Venusborg. Then it faded and only the hum was left.
He turned off the radio and gripped the steering wheel tightly in both hands. He unclenched one hand and looked at his watch. Nine-fifteen in the morning. At ten-thirty he would stop and take a nap. A man had to have rest in this heat. But only a half-hour nap. Treasure lay somewhere ahead of him, and he wanted to find it before his supplies got much lower.
The precious outcroppings of goldenstone had to be up ahead! He'd been following traces for two days now. Maybe he would hit a real bonanza, as Kirk did in '89, or Edmonton and Arsler in '93. If so, he would do just what they did. He'd order up a Prospector's Special, and to hell with the cost.
The sandcar rolled along at an even thirty miles an hour, and Morrison tried to concentrate on the heat-blasted yellow-brown landscape. That sandstone patch over there was just the tawny color of Janie's hair.
After he struck it rich, he and Janie would get married, and he'd go back to Earth and buy an ocean farm. No more prospecting. Just one rich strike so he could buy his spread on the deep blue Atlantic. Maybe some people thought fish-herding was tame; it was good enough for him.
He could see it now, the mackerel herds drifting along and browsing at the plankton pens, himself and his trusty dolphin keeping an eye out for the silvery flash of a predatory barracuda or a steel-gray shark coming along behind the branching coral.
Morrison felt the sandcar lurch. He woke up, grabbed the steering wheel and turned it hard. During his moments of sleep, the vehicle had crept over the dune's crumbling edge. Sand and pebbles spun under the fat tires as the sandcar fought for traction, The car tilted perilously. The tires shrieked against the sand, gripped, and started to pull the vehicle back up the slope.
Then the whole face of the dune collapsed.
Morrison held onto the steering wheel as the sandcar flipped over on its side and rolled down the slope. Sand filled his mouth and eyes. He spat and held on while the car rolled over again and dropped into emptiness.
For seconds, he was in the air. The sandcar hit bottom squarely on its wheels. Morrison heard a double boom as the two rear tires blew out. Then his head hit the windshield.
When he recovered consciousness, the first thing he did was look at his watch. It read 10:35.
"Time for that nap," Morrison said to himself. "But I guess I'll survey the situation first."
He found that he was at the bottom of a shallow fault strewn with knife-edged pebbles. Two tires had blown on impact, his windshield was gone, and one of the doors was sprung. His equipment was strewn around, but appeared to be intact.
"Could have been worse," Morrison said.
He bent down to examine the tires more carefully.
"It is worse," he said.
The two blown tires were shredded beyond repair. There wasn't enough rubber left in them to make a child's balloon. He had used up his spares ten days back crossing Devil's Grill. Used them and discarded them. He couldn't go on without tires.
Morrison unpacked his telephone. He wiped dust from its black plastic face, then dialed Al's Garage in Presto. After a moment, the small video screen lighted up. He could see a man's long, mournful, grease-stained face.
"Al's Garage. Eddie speaking."
"Hi, Eddie. This is Tom Morrison. I bought that GM sandcar from you about a month ago. Remember?"
"Sure I remember you," Eddie said. You're the guy doing a single into the Southwest Track. How's the bus holding out?"
"Fine. Great little car. Reason I called--"
"Hey," Eddie said, "what happened to your face?"
Morrison put his hand to his forehead and felt blood. "Nothing much," he said. "I went over a dune and blew out two tires."
He turned the telephone so that Eddie could see the tires.
"Unrepairable," said Eddie.
"I thought so. And I used up all my spares crossing Devil's Grill. Look, Eddie, I'd like you to 'port me a couple of tires. Retreads are fine. I can't move the sandcar without them."
"Sure," Eddie said, "except I haven't any retreads. I'll have to 'port you new ones at five hundred apiece. Plus four hundred dollars 'porting charges. Fourteen hundred dollars, Mr. Morrison."
"Yes, sir. Now if you'll show me the cash, or a money order which you can send back with the receipt, I'll get moving on it."
"At the moment," Morrison said, "I haven't got a cent on me."
"Bonds? Property? Anything you can convert into cash?"
"Nothing except this sandcar, which you sold me for eight thousand dollars. When I come back, I'll settle my bill with the sandcar."
"If you get back. Sorry, Mr. Morrison. No can do."
"What do you mean?" Morrison asked. "You know I'll pay for the tires."
"And you know the rules on Venus," Eddie said, his mournful face set in obstinate lines. "No credit! Cash and carry!"
"I can't run the sandcar without tires," Morrison said. "Are you going to strand me out here?"
"Who in hell is stranding you?" Eddie asked. "This sort of thing happens to prospectors every day. You know what you have to do now, Mr. Morrison. Call Public Utility and declare yourself a bankrupt. Sign over what's left of the sandcar, equipment, and anything you've found on the way. They'll get you out."
"I'm not turning back," Morrison said. "Look!" He held the telephone close to the ground. "You see the traces, Eddie? See those red and purple flecks? There's precious stuff near here!"
"Every prospector sees traces," Eddie said. "Damned desert is full of traces."
"These are rich," Morrison said. "These are leading straight to big stuff, a bonanza lode. Eddie, I know it's a lot to ask, but if you could stake me to a couple of tires--"
"I can't do it," Eddie said. "I just work here. I can't 'port you any tires, not unless you show me money first. Otherwise I get fired and probably jailed. You know the law."
"Cash and carry," Morrison said bleakly.
"Right. Be smart and turn back now. Maybe you can try again some other time."
"I spent twelve years getting this stake together," Morrison said. "I'm not going back."
He turned off the telephone and tried to think. Was there anyone else on Venus he could call? Only Max Krandall, his jewel broker. But Max couldn't raise fourteen hundred dollars in that crummy two-by-four office near Venusborg's jewel market. Max could barely scrape up his own rent, much less take care of stranded prospectors.
"I can't ask Max for help," Morrison decided. "Not until I've found goldenstone. The real stuff, not just traces. So that leaves it up to me."