Robert Sheckley

The Laxian Key

Richard Gregor was at his desk in the dusty office of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service. It was almost noon, but Arnold, his partner, hadn't showed up yet. Gregor was just laying out an unusually complicated game of solitaire. Then he heard a loud crash in the hall.

The door of AAA Ace opened, and Arnold stuck his head in.

"Banker's hours?" Gregor asked.

"I have just made our fortunes," Arnold said. He threw the door fully open and beckoned dramatically. "Bring it in, boys."

Four sweating workmen lugged in a square black machine the size of a baby elephant.

"There it is," Arnold said proudly. He paid the workmen, and stood, hands clasped behind his back, eyes half shut, surveying the machine.

Gregor put his cards away with the slow, weary motions of a man who has seen everything. He stood up and walked around the machine. "All right, I give up. What is it?"

"It's a million bucks, right in our fists," Arnold said.

"Of course. But what is it?"

"It's a Free Producer." Arnold said. He smiled proudly. "I was walking past Joe's Interstellar Junkyard this morning, and there it was, sitting in the window. I picked it up for next to nothing. Joe didn't even know what it was."

"I don't either," Gregor said. "Do you?"

Arnold was on his hands and knees, trying to read the instructions engraved on the front of the machine. Without looking up, he said, "You've heard of the planet Meldge, haven't you?"

Gregor nodded. Meldge was a third-rate little planet on the northern periphery of the galaxy, some distance from the trade routes. At one time, Meldge had possessed an extremely advanced civilization, made possible by the so-called Meldgen Old Science. The Old Science techniques had been lost ages ago, although an occasional artifact still turned up here and there.

"And this is a product of the Old Science?" Gregor asked.

"Right. It's a Meldgen Free Producer. I doubt if there are more than four or five of them in the entire universe. They're unduplicatable."

"What does it produce?" Gregor asked.

"How should I know?" Arnold said. "Hand me the Meldge-English dictionary, will you?"

Keeping a stern rein on his patience, Gregor walked to the bookshelf. "You don't know what it produces—"

"Dictionary. Thank you. What does it matter what it produces? It's free! This machine grabs energy out of the air, out of space, the sun, anywhere. You don't have to plug it in, fuel or service. It runs indefinitely."

Arnold opened the dictionary and started to look up the words on the front of the Producer.

"Free energy—"

"Those scientists were no fools," Arnold said, jotting down his translation on a pocket pad. "The Producer just grabs energy out of the air. So it really doesn't matter what it turns out. We can always sell it, and anything we get will be pure profit."

Gregor stared at his dapper little partner, and his long, unhappy face became sadder than ever.

"Arnold," he said, "I'd like to remind you of something. First of all, you are a chemist. I am an ecologist. We know nothing about machinery and less than nothing about complicated alien machinery."

Arnold nodded absently and turned a dial. The Producer gave a dry gurgle.

"What's more," Gregor said, retreating a few steps, "we are planetary decontaminationists. Remember? We have no reason to—"

The Producer began to cough unevenly.

"Got it now," Arnold said. "It says, 'The Meldge Free Producer, another triumph of Glotten Laboratories. This Producer is Warranted Indestructible, Unbreakable, and Free of All Defects. No Power Hook-up Is Required. To Start, Press Button One. To Stop, Use Laxian Key. Your Meldge Free Producer Comes With an Eternal Guarantee against Malfunction. If Defective in Any Way, Please Return at Once to Glotten Laboratories.'"

"Perhaps I didn't make myself clear," Gregor said. "We are planetary—"

"Don't be stodgy," Arnold said. "Once we get this thing working, we can retire. Here's Button One."

The machine began to clank ominously, then shifted to a steady purr. For long minutes, nothing happened.

"Needs warming up," Arnold said anxiously.

Then, out of an opening at the base of the machine, a grey powder began to pour.

"Probably a waste product," Gregor muttered. But the powder continued to stream over the floor for fifteen minutes.

"Success!" Arnold shouted.

"What is it?" Gregor asked.

"I haven't the faintest idea. I'll have to run some tests."

Grinning triumphantly, Arnold scooped some powder into a test tube and hurried over to his desk.

Gregor stood in front of the Producer, watching the grey powder stream out. Finally he said, "Shouldn't we turn it off until we find out what it is?"

"Of course not," Arnold said. "Whatever it is, it must be worth money." He lighted his bunsen burner, filled a test tube with distilled water, and went to work.

Gregor shrugged his shoulders. He was used to Arnold's harebrained schemes. Ever since they had formed AAA Ace, Arnold had been looking for a quick road to wealth. His shortcuts usually resulted in more work than plain old-fashioned labour, but Arnold was quick to forget that.

Well, Gregor thought, at least it kept things lively. He sat down at his desk and dealt out a complex solitaire.

There was silence in the office for the next few hours. Arnold worked steadily, adding chemicals, pouring off precipitates, checking the results in several large books he kept on his desk. Gregor brought in sandwiches and coffee. After eating, he paced up and down and watched the grey powder tumble steadily out of the machine.

The purr of the Producer grew steadily louder, and the powder flowed in a thick stream.

An hour after lunch Arnold stood up. "We are in!" he stated.

"What is that stuff?" Gregor asked, wondering if, for once, Arnold had hit upon something.

"That stuff," Arnold said, "is Tangreese." He looked expectantly at Gregor.

"Tangreese, eh?"

"Absolutely."

"Then would you kindly tell me what Tangreese is?" Gregor shouted.

"I thought you knew. Tangreese is the basic food of the Meldgen people. An adult Meldgen consumes several tons a year."

"Food, eh?" Gregor looked at the thick grey powder with new respect. A machine which turned out food steadily, twenty-four hours a day, might be a very good moneymaker. Especially if the machine never needed servicing, and cost nothing to run.

Arnold already had the telephone book open. "Here we are." He dialled a number. "Hello, Interstellar Food Corporation? Let me speak to the president. What? He isn't? The vice-president, then. This is important ... Channels, eh? All right, here's the story. I am in a position to supply you with an almost unlimited quantity of Tangreese, the basic food of the Meldgen people. That's right. I knew you'd be interested. Yes, of course I'll hold on."

He turned to Gregor. "These corporations think they can push — yes? ... Yes sir, that's right, sir. You do handle Tangreese, eh? ... Fine, splendid!"

Gregor moved closer, trying to hear what was being said on the other end. Arnold pushed him away.

"Price? Well, what is the fair market price? ... Oh. Well, five dollars a ton isn't much, but I suppose — what? Five cents a ton? You're kidding! Let's be serious now."

Gregor walked away from the telephone and sank wearily into a chair. Apathetically he listened to Arnold saying, "Yes, yes. Well, I didn't know that... I see. Thank you."

Arnold hung up. "It seems," he said, "there's not much demand for Tangreese on Earth. There are only about fifty Meldgens here, and the cost of transporting it to the northern periphery is prohibitively high."

Gregor raised both eyebrows and looked at the Producer. Apparently it had hit its stride, for Tangreese was pouring out like water from a high-pressure hose. There was grey powder over everything in the room. It was half a foot deep in front of the machine.

"Never mind," Arnold said. "It must be used for something else." He returned to his desk and opened several more large books.

"Shouldn't we turn it off in the meantime?" Gregor asked.

"Certainly not," Arnold said. "It's free, don't you understand? It's making money for us."

He plunged into his books. Gregor began to pace the floor, but found it difficult wading through the ankle-deep Tangreese. He slumped into his chair, wondering why he hadn't gone into landscape gardening.

By early evening, a grey dust filled the room to a depth of several feet. Several pens, pencils, a briefcase and a small filing cabinet were already lost in it, and Gregor was beginning to wonder if the floor would hold the weight. He had to shovel a path to the door, using a wastepaper basket as an improvised spade.

Arnold finally closed his books with a look of weary satisfaction. "There is another use."

"What?"

"Tangreese is used as a building material. After a few weeks exposure to the air, it hardens like granite, you know."

"No, I didn't."

"Get a construction company on the telephone. We'll take care of this right now."

Gregor called the Toledo-Mars Construction Company and told a Mr O'Toole that they were prepared to supply them with an almost unlimited quantity of Tangreese.

"Tangreese, eh?" O'Toole said. "Not too popular as a building material these days. Doesn't hold paint, you know."

...
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