Prospector's Special

by Robert Sheckley

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Lost in the vast Scorpion Desert of Venus, he needed all the courage a man could own--and every bit of credit he could raise!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

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, heat-stroke 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 Edmonson 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.”

“All right.”

“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.”

“Bank account?”

“Stripped clean.”

“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.”

He opened the back of the sandcar and began to unload, piling his equipment on the sand. He would have to choose carefully; anything he took would have to be carried on his back.

The telephone had to go with him, and his lightweight testing kit. Food concentrates, revolver, compass. And nothing else but water, all the water he could carry. The rest of the stuff would have to stay behind.

By nightfall, Morrison was ready. He looked regretfully at the twenty cans of water he was leaving. In the desert, water was a man’s most precious possession, second only to his telephone. But it couldn’t be helped. After drinking his fill, he hoisted his pack and set a southwest course into the desert.

For three days he trekked to the southwest; then on the fourth day he veered to due south, following an increasingly rich trace. The sun, eternally hidden, beat down on him, and the dead-white sky was like a roof of heated iron over his head. Morrison followed the traces, and something followed him.

On the sixth day, he sensed movement just out of the range of his vision. On the seventh day, he saw what was trailing him.

Venus’s own brand of wolf, small, lean, with a yellow coat and long, grinning jaws, it was one of the few mammals that made its home in the Scorpion Desert. As Morrison watched, two more sandwolves appeared beside it.

He loosened the revolver in its holster. The wolves made no attempt to come closer. They had plenty of time.

Morrison kept on going, wishing he had brought a rifle with him. But that would have meant eight pounds more, which meant eight pounds less water.

As he was pitching camp at dusk the eighth day, he heard a crackling sound. He whirled around and located its source, about ten feet to his left and above his head. A little vortex had appeared, a tiny mouth in the air like a whirlpool in the sea. It spun, making the characteristic crackling sounds of ‘porting.

“Now who could be ‘porting anything to me?” Morrison asked, waiting while the whirlpool slowly widened.

Solidoporting from a base projector to a field target was a standard means of moving goods across the vast distances of Venus. Any inanimate object could be ‘ported; animate beings couldn’t because the process involved certain minor but distressing molecular changes in protoplasm. A few people had found this out the hard way when ‘porting was first introduced.

Morrison waited. The aerial whirlpool became a mouth three feet in diameter. From the mouth stepped a chrome-plated robot carrying a large sack.

“Oh, it’s you,” Morrison said.

“Yes, sir,” the robot said, now completely clear of the field. “Williams 4 at your service with the Venus Mail.”

It was a robot of medium height, thin-shanked and flat-footed, humanoid in appearance, amiable in disposition. For twenty-three years it had been Venus’s entire postal service--sorter, deliverer, and dead storage. It had been built to last, and for twenty-three years the mails had always come through.

“Here we are, Mr. Morrison,” Williams 4 said. “Only twice-a-month mail call in the desert, I’m sorry to say, but it comes promptly and that’s a blessing. This is for you. And this. I think there’s one more. Sandcar broke down, eh?”

“It sure did,” Morrison said, taking his letters.

Williams 4 went on rummaging through its bag. Although it was a superbly efficient postman, the old robot was known as the worst gossip on three planets.

“There’s one more in here somewhere,” Williams 4 said. “Too bad about the sandcar. They just don’t build ‘em like they did in my youth. Take my advice, young man. Turn back if you still have the chance.”

Morrison shook his head.

“Foolish, downright foolish,” the old robot said. “Pity you don’t have my perspective. Too many’s the time I’ve come across you boys lying in the sand in the dried-out sack of your skin, or with your bones gnawed to splinters by the sandwolves and the filthy black kites. Twenty-three years I’ve been delivering mail to fine-looking young men like you, and each one thinking he’s unique and different.”

The robot’s eyecells became distant with memory. “But they aren’t different,” Williams 4 said. “They’re as alike as robots off the assembly line--especially after the wolves get through with them. And then I have to send their letters and personal effects back to their loved ones on Earth.”

“I know,” Morrison said. “But some get through, don’t they?”

“Sure they do,” the robot said. “I’ve seen men make one, two, three fortunes. And then die on the sands trying to make a fourth.”

“Not me,” Morrison said. “I just want one. Then I’m going to buy me an undersea farm on Earth.”

The robot shuddered. “I have a dread of salt water. But to each his own. Good luck, young man.”

The robot looked Morrison over carefully--probably to see what he had in the way of personal effects--then climbed back into the aerial whirlpool. In a moment, it was gone. In another moment, the whirlpool had vanished.

Morrison sat down to read his mail. The first letter was from his jewel broker, Max Krandall. It told about the depression that had hit Venusborg, and hinted that Krandall might have to go into bankruptcy if some of his prospectors didn’t strike something good.

The second letter was a statement from the Venus Telephone Company. Morrison owed two hundred and ten dollars and eight cents for two months’ telephone service. Unless he remitted this sum at once, his telephone was liable to be turned off.

The last letter, all the way from Earth, was from Janie. It was filled with news about his cousins, aunts and uncles. She told him about the Atlantic farm sites she had looked over, and the wonderful little place she had found near Martinique in the Caribbean. She begged him to give up prospecting if it looked dangerous; they could find another way of financing the farm. She sent all her love and wished him a happy birthday in advance.

“Birthday?” Morrison asked himself. “Let’s see, today is July twenty-third. No, it’s the twenty-fourth, and my birthday’s August first. Thanks for remembering, Janie.”

That night he dreamed of Earth and the blue expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. But toward dawn, when the heat of Venus became insistent, he found he was dreaming of mile upon mile of goldenstone, of grinning sandwolves, and of the Prospector’s Special.

Rock gave way to sand as Morrison plowed his way across the bottom of a long-vanished lake. Then it was rock again, twisted and tortured into a thousand gaunt shapes. Reds, yellows and browns swam in front of his eyes. In all that desert, there wasn’t one patch of green.

He continued his trek into the tumbled stone mazes of the interior desert, and the wolves trekked with him, keeping pace far out on either flank.

Morrison ignored them. He had enough on his mind just to negotiate the sheer cliffs and the fields of broken stone that blocked his way to the south.

By the eleventh day after leaving the sandcar, the traces were almost rich enough for panning. The sandwolves were tracking him still, and his water was almost gone. Another day’s march would finish him.

Morrison thought for a moment, then unstrapped his telephone and dialed Public Utility in Venusborg.

The video screen showed a stern, severely dressed woman with iron-gray hair. “Public Utility,” she said. “May we be of service?”

“Hi,” Morrison said cheerfully. “How’s the weather in Venusborg?”

“Hot,” the woman said. “How’s it out there?”

“I hadn’t even noticed,” Morrison said, grinning. “Too busy counting my fortune.”

“You’ve found goldenstone?” the woman asked, her expression becoming less severe.

“Sure have,” Morrison said. “But don’t pass the word around yet. I’m still staking my claim. I think I can use a refill on these.”

Smiling easily, he held up his canteens. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes, if you showed enough confidence, Public Utility would fill you up without checking your account. True, it was embezzling, but this was no time for niceties.

“I suppose your account is in order?” asked the woman.

“Of course,” Morrison said, feeling his smile grow stiff. “The name’s Tom Morrison. You can just check--”

“Oh, I don’t do that personally,” the woman said. “Hold that canteen steady. Here we go.”

Gripping the canteen in both hands, Morrison watched as the water, ‘ported four thousand miles from Venusborg, appeared as a slender crystal stream above the mouth of his canteen. The stream entered the canteen, making a wonderful gurgling sound. Watching it, Morrison found his dry mouth actually was beginning to salivate.

Then the water stopped.

“What’s the matter?” Morrison asked.

His video screen went blank. Then it cleared, and Morrison found himself staring into a man’s narrow face. The man was seated in front of a large desk. The sign in front of him read _Milton P. Reade, Vice President, Accounts_.

“Mr. Morrison,” Reade said, “your account is overdrawn. You have been obtaining water under false pretenses. That is a criminal offense.”

“I’m going to pay for the water,” Morrison said.


“As soon as I get back to Venusborg.”

“With what,” asked Mr. Reade, “do you propose to pay?”

“With goldenstone,” Morrison said. “Look around here, Mr. Reade. The traces are rich! Richer than they were for the Kirk claim! I’ll be hitting the outcroppings in another day--”

“That’s what every prospector thinks,” Mr. Reade said. “Every prospector on Venus is only a day from goldenstone. And they all expect credit from Public Utility.”

“But in this case--”

“Public Utility,” Mr. Reade continued inexorably, “is not a philanthropic organization. Its charter specifically forbids the extension of credit. Venus is a frontier, Mr. Morrison, a farflung frontier. Every manufactured article on Venus must be imported from Earth at outrageous cost. We do have our own water, but locating it, purifying it, then ‘porting it is an expensive process. This company, like every other company on Venus, necessarily operates on a very narrow margin of profit, which is invariably plowed back into further expansion. That is why there can be no credit on Venus.”

“I know all that,” Morrison said. “But I’m telling you, I only need a day or two more--”

“Absolutely impossible. By the rules, we shouldn’t even help you out now. The time to report bankruptcy was a week ago, when your sandcar broke down. Your garage man reported, as required by law. But you didn’t. We would be within our rights to leave you stranded. Do you understand that?”

“Yes, of course,” Morrison said wearily.

“However, the company has decided to stretch a point in your favor. If you turn back immediately, we will keep you supplied with water for the return trip.”

“I’m not turning back yet. I’m almost on the real stuff.”

“You must turn back! Be reasonable, Morrison! Where would we be if we let every prospector wander over the desert while we supplied his water? There’d be ten thousand men out there, and we’d be out of business inside of a year. I’m stretching the rules now. Turn back.”

“No,” said Morrison.

“You’d better think about it. If you don’t turn back now, Public Utility takes no further responsibility for your water supply.”

Morrison nodded. If he went on, he would stand a good chance of dying in the desert. But if he turned back, what then? He would be in Venusborg, penniless and in debt, looking for work in an overcrowded city. He’d sleep in a community shed and eat at a soup kitchen with the other prospectors who had turned back. And how would he be able to raise the fare back to Earth? When would he ever see Janie again?

“I guess I’ll keep on going,” Morrison said.

“Then Public Utility takes no further responsibility for you,” Reade repeated, and hung up.

Morrison packed up his telephone, took a sip from his meager water supply, and went on.

The sandwolves loped along at each side, moving in closer. Overhead, a delta-winged kite found him. It balanced on the up-drafts for a day and a night, waiting for the wolves to finish him. Then a flock of small flying scorpions sighted the waiting kite. They drove the big creature upstairs into the cloud bank. For a day the flying reptiles waited. Then they in turn were driven off by a squadron of black kites.

The traces were very rich now, on the fifteenth day since he had left the sandcar. By rights, he should be walking over goldenstone. He should be surrounded by goldenstone. But still he hadn’t found any.

Morrison sat down and shook his last canteen. It gave off no wet sound. He uncapped it and turned it up over his mouth. Two drops trickled down his parched throat.

It was about four days since he had talked to Public Utility. He must have used up the last of his water yesterday. Or had it been the day before?

He recapped the empty canteen and looked around at the heat-blasted landscape. Abruptly he pulled the telephone out of his pack and dialed Max Krandall in Venusborg.

Krandall’s round, worried face swam into focus on the screen. “Tommy,” he said, “you look like hell.”

“I’m all right,” Morrison said. “A little dried out, that’s all. Max, I’m near goldenstone.”

“Are you sure?” Krandall asked.

“See for yourself,” Morrison said, swinging the telephone around. “Look at the stone formations! Do you see the red and purple markings over there?”

“Traces, all right,” Krandall admitted dubiously.

“There’s rich stuff just beyond it,” Morrison said. “There has to be! Look, Max, I know you’re short on money, but I’m going to ask you a favor. Send me a pint of water. Just a pint, so I can go on for another day or two. We can both get rich for the price of a pint of water.”

“I can’t do it,” Krandall said sadly.

“You can’t?”

“That’s right. Tommy, I’d send you water even if there wasn’t anything around you but sandstone and granite. Do you think I’d let you die of thirst if I could help it? But I can’t do a thing. Take a look.”

Krandall rotated his telephone. Morrison saw that the chairs, table, desk, filing cabinet and safe were gone from the office. All that was left in the room was the telephone.

“I don’t know why they haven’t taken out the phone,” Krandall said. “I owe two months on my bill.”

“I do too,” said Morrison.

“I’m stripped,” Krandall said. “I haven’t got a dime. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not worried about myself. I can always eat at a soup kitchen. But I can’t ‘port you any water. Not you or Remstaater.”

“Jim Remstaater?”

“Yeah. He was following a trace up north past Forgotten River. His sandcar broke an axle last week and he wouldn’t turn back. His water ran out yesterday.”

“I’d bail him out if I could,” said Morrison.

“And he’d bail you out if he could,” Krandall said. “But he can’t and you can’t and I can’t. Tommy, you have only one hope.”

“What’s that?”

“Find goldenstone. Not just traces, find the real thing worth real money. Then phone me. If you really have goldenstone, I’ll bring in Wilkes from Tri-Planet Mining and get him to advance us some money. He’ll probably want fifty per cent of the claim.”

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