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     The Leech, p.1

       Robert Sheckley / Science Fiction
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The Leech Produced by Greg Weeks, Stephen Blundell and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net



Illustrated by CONNELL]

the Leech

By 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 driftingacross the vast emptiness of space. Without consciousness, it had spentthe countless centuries in the void between the stars. It was unawarewhen it finally reached a sun. Life-giving radiation flared around thehard, 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, playedwith it, and let it fall.

On the ground, it began to stir. Nourishment soaked in, permeating thespore 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-rimmedglasses were perched on his forehead, and he was snoring very gently.

”I'm awful sorry to disturb you,” Conners said, pushing back hisbattered felt hat. ”I know it's your restin' week and all, but there'ssomething damned funny in the ditch.”

The pale man's left eyebrow twitched, but he showed no other sign ofhaving heard.

Frank Conners coughed again, holding his spade in one purple-veinedhand. ”Didja hear me, Professor?”

”Of course I heard you,” Micheals said in a muffled voice, his eyesstill 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' restingweek was a ten-year-old custom, and his only eccentricity. All winterMicheals taught anthropology, worked on half a dozen committees, dabbledin 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 invariablerule to do absolutely nothing for a week. He hired Frank Conners to cookfor that week and generally make himself useful, while ProfessorMicheals slept.

During the second week, Micheals would wander around, look at the treesand fish. By the third week he would be getting a tan, reading,repairing the sheds and climbing mountains. At the end of four weeks, hecould hardly wait to get back to the city.

But the resting week was sacred.

”I really wouldn't bother you for anything small,” Conners saidapologetically. ”But that damned rock melted two inches off my spade.”

Micheals opened both eyes and sat up. Conners held out the spade. Therounded end was sheared cleanly off. Micheals swung himself off thecouch 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, threefeet 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 couldtell, 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 andprodded the object experimentally. It was completely unyielding. He heldthe spade to the surface for a moment, then withdrew it. Another inchwas gone.

Micheals frowned, and pushed his glasses tighter against his nose. Heheld the spade against the rock with one hand, the other held close tothe surface. More of the spade disappeared.

”Doesn't seem to be generating heat,” he said to Conners. ”Did younotice any the first time?”

Conners shook his head.

Micheals picked up a clod of dirt and tossed it on the object. The dirtdissolved quickly, leaving no trace on the gray-black surface. A largestone 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 ithit, he almost dropped the spade. He had been gripping the handlerigidly, braced for a recoil. But the spade struck that unyieldingsurface and _stayed_. There was no perceptible give, but absolutely norecoil.

”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 fewmore times, experimentally. The two men looked at each other. On theroad, 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 beforeit 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 eachindividual drop added to its store. The water was sucked in by theall-absorbing surface.

The sunlight above it was absorbed, and converted into mass for itsbody. Beneath it, the soil was consumed, dirt, stones and branchesbroken down by the leech's complex cells and changed into energy. Energywas converted back into mass, and the leech grew.

Slowly, the first flickers of consciousness began to return. Its firstrealization was of the impossible smallness of its body.

It grew.

* * * * *

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 followingday it was almost eighteen feet in diameter, shaped to fit the contourof the ditch, and covering most of the road. That day the sheriff droveup 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 lookingunsuccessfully for an acid that would dissolve the leech.

”We gotta get it out of the road,” Flynn said, walking truculently up tothe 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 rightahead, Sheriff. But be careful. It's hot.” The leech wasn't hot, but itseemed the simplest explanation under the circumstances.

Micheals watched with interest as the sheriff tried to shove a crowbarunder it. He smiled to himself when it was removed with half a foot ofits length gone.

The sheriff wasn't so easily discouraged. He had come prepared for astubborn piece of rock. He went to the rumble seat of his car and tookout a blowtorch and a sledgehammer, ignited the torch and focused it onone edge of the leech.

After five minutes, there was no change. The gray didn't turn red oreven seem to heat up. Sheriff Flynn continued to bake it for fifteenminutes, then called to one of the men.

”Hit that spot with the sledge, Jerry.”

Jerry picked up the sledgehammer, motioned the sheriff back, and swungit 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 answerwas easy--no substance. No _known_ substance.

The driver in the lead jeep held up his hand, and the long convoy groundto a halt. A hard, efficient-looking officer stepped out of the jeep.From the star on either shoulder, Micheals knew he was a brigadiergeneral.

”You can't block this road,” the general said. He was a tall, spare manin suntans, with a sunburned face and cold eyes. ”Please clear thatthing away.”

”We can't move it,” Micheals said. He told the general what had happenedin the past few days.

”It must be moved,” the general said. ”This convoy must go through.” Hewalked closer and looked at the leech. ”You say it can't be jacked up bya crowbar? A torch won't burn it?”

”That's right,” Micheals said, smiling
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