Robert Sheckley

The Necessary Thing

Richard Gregor was seated at his desk in the dusty offices of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service, staring wearily at a list. The list included some 2,305 separate items. Gregor was trying to remember what, if anything, he had left out.

Anti-radiation salve? Vacuum flares? Water-purification kit? Yes, they were all there.

He yawned and glanced at his watch. Arnold, his partner, should have been back by now. Arnold had gone to order the 2,305 items and see them stowed safely aboard the spaceship. In a few hours, AAA Ace was scheduled to blast off on another job.

But had he listed everything important? A spaceship is an island unto itself, self-sufficient, self-sustaining. If you run out of beans on Dementia II, there is no store where you could buy more. No Coast Guard hurries out to replace the burned-out lining on your main drive. You have to have another lining on board, and the tools to replace it with, and the manuals telling you how. Space is just too big to permit much in the way of rescue operations.

Oxygen extractor? Extra cigarettes? It was like attaching jets to a department store, Gregor thought.

He pushed the list aside, found a pack of tattered cards, and laid out a hopeless solitaire of his own devising.

Minutes later, Arnold stepped jauntily in.

Gregor looked at his partner with suspicion. When the little chemist walked with that peculiar bouncing step, his round face beaming happily, it usually meant trouble for AAA Ace.

"Did you get the stuff?" Gregor asked.

"I did better than that," Arnold said proudly.

"We're supposed to blast off—"

"And blast we will," Arnold said. He sat down on the edge of his desk. "I have just saved us a considerable sum of money."

"Oh, no," Gregor sighed. "What have you done?"

"Consider," Arnold said impressively, "just consider the sheer waste in equipping the average expedition. We pack 2,305 items, just on the offchance we may need one. Our payload is diminished, our living space is cramped, and the stuff never gets used."

"Except for once or twice," Gregor said, "when it saves our lives."

"I took that into account," Arnold said. "I gave the whole problem careful study. And I was able to cut down the list considerably. Through a bit of luck, I found the one thing an expedition really needs. The necessary thing."

Gregor arose and towered over his partner. Visions of mayhem danced through his brain, but he controlled himself with an effort. "Arnold," he said, "I don't know what you've done. But you'd better get those 2,305 items on board and get them fast."

"Can't do it," Arnold said, with a nervous little laugh. "The money's gone. This thing will pay for itself, though."

"What thing?"

"The one really necessary thing. Come out to the ship and I'll show you."

Gregor couldn't get another word out of him. Arnold smiled mysteriously to himself on the long drive to Kennedy Spaceport. Their ship was already in a blast pit, scheduled for take-off in a few hours.

Arnold swung the port open with a flourish. "There!" he cried. "Behold the answer to an expedition's prayers."

Gregor stepped inside. He saw a large and fantastic-looking machine with dials, lights, and indicators scattered haphazardly over it.

"What is it?" Gregor asked.

"Isn't it a beauty?" Arnold patted the machine affectionately. "Joe the Interstellar Junkman happened to have it tucked away. I conned it out of him for a song."

That settled it, as far as Gregor was concerned. He had dealt with Joe the Interstellar Junkman before and had always come out on the disastrously short end of the deal. Joe's gadgets worked; but when, and how often, and with what kind of an attitude was something else again.

Gregor said sternly, "No gadget of Joe's is going into space with me again. Maybe we can sell it for scrap metal." He began to hunt around for a wrecking bar.

"Wait," Arnold begged. "Let me show you. Consider. We are in deep space. The main drive falters and fails. Upon examination, we find that a durralloy nut has worked its way off the number three pinion. We can't find the nut. What do we do?"

"We take a new nut from the 2,305 items we've packed for emergencies just like this," Gregor said.

"Ah! But you didn't include any quarter-inch durralloy nuts!" Arnold said triumphantly. "I checked the list. What then?"

"I don't know," Gregor said. "You tell me."

Arnold stepped up to the machine and punched a button. In a loud, clear voice he said, "Durralloy nut, quarter-inch diameter."

The machine murmured and hummed. Lights flashed. A panel slid back, revealing a bright, freshly machined durralloy nut.

"That's what we do," Arnold said.

"Hmm," Gregor said, not particularly impressed. "So it manufactures nuts. What else does it do?"

Arnold pressed the button again. "A pound of fresh shrimp."

When he slid back the panel, the shrimp were there.

"I should have told it to peel them," Arnold said. "Oh well." He pressed the button. "A graphite rod, four feet long with a diameter of two inches."

The panel opened wider this time to let the rod come through.

"What else can it do?" Gregor asked.

"What else would you like?" Arnold said. "A small tiger cub? A model-A downdraught carburetor? A twenty-five watt light bulb or a stick of chewing gum?"

"Do you mean it'll turn out anything?" Gregor asked.

"Anything at all. It's a Configurator. Try it yourself."

Gregor tried and produced, in rapid succession, a pint of fresh water, a wristwatch, and a jar of cocktail sauce.

"Hmm," he said.

"See what I mean? Isn't this better than packing 2,305 items? Isn't it simpler and more logical to produce what you need when you need it?"

"It seems good," Gregor said. "But…"

"But what?"

Gregor shook his head. What indeed? He had no idea. It had simply been his experience that gadgets are never so useful, reliable, or consistent as they seem at first glance.

He thought deeply, then punched the button. "A transistor, series GE 1324E."

The machine hummed and the panel opened. There was the tiny transistor.

"Seems pretty good," Gregor admitted. "What are you doing?"

"Peeling the shrimp," Arnold said.

After enjoying a tasty shrimp cocktail, the partners received their clearance from the tower. In an hour, the ship was in space.

They were bound for Dennett IV, an average-sized planet in the Sycophax cluster. Dennett was a hot, steamy, fertile world suffering from only one major difficulty: too much rain. It rained on Dennett a good nine-tenths of the time, and when it wasn't raining, it was threatening to rain.

This made it an easy job. The principles of climate control were well known, for many worlds suffered from similar difficulties. It would take only a few days for AAA Ace to interrupt and alter the pattern.

After an uneventful trip, Dennett came into view. Arnold relieved the automatic pilot and brought the ship down through thick cloud banks. They dropped through miles of pale gossamer mist. At last, mountaintops began to appear, and they found a level, barren gray plain.

"Odd color for a landscape," Gregor said.

Arnold nodded. With practiced ease he spiraled, leveled out, came down neatly above the plain, and, with his forces balanced, cut the drive.

"Wonder why there's no vegetation," Gregor mused.

In a moment they found out. The ship hung for a second, then dropped through the plain and fell another eight feet to the ground.

The plain, it seemed, was fog of a density only Dennett could produce.

Hastily they unbuckled themselves and tested various teeth, bones, and ligatures. Upon finding that nothing personal was broken, they checked their ship.

The impact had done the poor old spacecraft no good. The radio and automatic pilot were a complete loss. Ten stern plates had buckled, and, worst of all, some delicate components in the turn-drive control were shattered.

"We were lucky at that," Arnold said.

"Yes," Gregor said, peering through the blanketing fog. "But next time we use instruments."

"In a way I'm glad it happened," Arnold said. "Now you'll see what a lifesaver the Configurator is. Let's go to work."

They listed all the damaged parts. Arnold stepped up to the Configurator, pressed the button, and said, "A drive plate, five inches square, half-inch in diameter, steel alloy 342."

The machine quickly turned it out.

"We need ten of them," Gregor said.

"I know." Again Arnold pushed the button. "Another one."

The machine did nothing.

"Probably have to give the whole command," Arnold said. He punched the button again and said, "Drive plate, five inches square, half-inch in diameter, steel alloy 342."

The machine was silent.

"That's odd," Arnold said.

"Isn't it, though," Gregor said, with an odd sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach.

Arnold tried again, with no success. He thought deeply, then punched the button and said, "A plastic teacup."

The machine turned out a teacup of bright blue plastic.

"Another one," Arnold said. When the Configurator did nothing, Arnold asked for a wax crayon. The machine gave it to him. "Another wax crayon," Arnold said. The machine did nothing.

"That's interesting," Arnold said. "I suppose I should have thought of the possibility."

"What possibility?"

"Apparently the Conf ...

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