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MEETING OF THE MINDS ***




Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net









Meeting of the Minds

By ROBERT SHECKLEY

Illustrated by DICK FRANCIS

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Magazine February 1960.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]




What mission had the Quedak been given?
Even he couldn't remember any more - but
he refused to die till it was completed!


PART ONE

The Quedak lay on a small hilltop and watched a slender jet of light
descend through the sky. The feather-tailed jet was golden, and
brighter than the sun. Poised above it was a glistening metallic
object, fabricated rather than natural, hauntingly familiar. The Quedak
tried to think what it was.

He couldn't remember. His memories had atrophied with his functions,
leaving only scattered fragments of images. He searched among them now,
leafing through his brief scraps of ruined cities, dying populations, a
blue-water-filled canal, two moons, a spaceship....

That was it. The descending object was a _spaceship_. There had been
many of them during the great days of the Quedak.

Those great days were over, buried forever beneath the powdery sands.
Only the Quedak remained. He had life and he had a mission to perform.
The driving urgency of his mission remained, even after memory and
function had failed.

As the Quedak watched, the spaceship dipped lower. It wobbled and
sidejets kicked out to straighten it. With a gentle explosion of dust,
the spaceship settled tail first on the arid plain.

And the Quedak, driven by the imperative Quedak mission, dragged itself
painfully down from the little hilltop. Every movement was an agony. If
he were a selfish creature, the Quedak would have died. But he was not
selfish. Quedaks owed a duty to the universe; and that spaceship, after
all the blank years, was a link to other worlds, to planets where the
Quedak could live again and give his services to the native fauna.

He crawled, a centimeter at a time, and wondered whether he had the
strength to reach the alien spaceship before it left this dusty, dead
planet.

* * * * *

Captain Jensen of the spaceship _Southern Cross_ was bored sick with
Mars. He and his men had been here for ten days. They had found no
important archeological specimens, no tantalizing hints of ancient
cities such as the _Polaris_ expedition had discovered at the South
Pole. Here there was nothing but sand, a few weary shrubs, and a
rolling hill or two. Their biggest find so far had been three pottery
shards.

Jensen readjusted his oxygen booster. Over the rise of a hill he saw
his two men returning.

"Anything interesting?" he asked.

"Just this," said engineer Vayne, holding up an inch of corroded blade
without a handle.

"Better than nothing," Jensen said. "How about you, Wilks?"

The navigator shrugged his shoulders. "Just photographs of the
landscape."

"OK," Jensen said. "Dump everything into the sterilizer and let's get
going."

Wilks looked mournful. "Captain, one quick sweep to the north might
turn up something really - "

"Not a chance," Jensen said. "Fuel, food, water, everything was
calculated for a ten-day stay. That's three days longer than _Polaris_
had. We're taking off this evening."

The men nodded. They had no reason to complain. As the second to land
on Mars, they were sure of a small but respectable footnote in the
history books. They put their equipment through the sterilizer vent,
sealed it, and climbed the ladder to the lock. Once they were inside,
Vayne closed and dogged the hatch, and started to open the inside
pressure door.

"Hold it!" Jensen called out.

"What's the matter?"

"I thought I saw something on your boot," Jensen said. "Something like
a big bug."

Vayne quickly ran his hands down the sides of his boots. The two men
circled him, examining his clothing.

"Shut that inner door," the captain said. "Wilks, did you see anything?"

"Not a thing," the navigator said. "Are you sure, Cap? We haven't found
anything that looks like animal or insect life here. Only a few plants."

"I could have sworn I saw something," Jensen said. "Maybe I was
wrong.... Anyhow, we'll fumigate our clothes before we enter the ship
proper. No sense taking any chance of bringing back some kind of
Martian bug."

The men removed their clothing and boots and stuffed them into the
chute. They searched the bare steel room carefully.

"Nothing here," Jensen said at last. "OK, let's go inside."

Once inside the ship, they sealed off the lock and fumigated it. The
Quedak, who had crept inside earlier through the partially opened
pressure door, listened to the distant hiss of gas. After a while he
heard the jets begin to fire.

The Quedak retreated to the dark rear of the ship. He found a metal
shelf and attached himself to the underside of it near the wall. After
a while he felt the ship tremble.

* * * * *

The Quedak clung to the shelf during the long, slow flight through
space. He had forgotten what spaceships were like, but now memory
revived briefly. He felt blazing heat and freezing cold. Adjusting to
the temperature changes drained his small store of vitality, and the
Quedak began to wonder if he was going to die.

He _refused_ to die. Not while there was still a possibility of
accomplishing the Quedak mission.

In time he felt the harsh pull of gravity, and felt the main jets
firing again. The ship was coming down to its planet.

* * * * *

After a routine landing, Captain Jensen and his men were taken to Medic
Checkpoint, where they were thumped, probed and tested for any sign of
disease.

Their spaceship was lowered to a flatcar and taken past rows of
moonships and ICBMs to Decontamination Stage One. Here the sealed outer
hull was washed down with powerful cleansing sprays. By evening, the
ship was taken to Decontamination Stage Two.

A team of two inspectors equipped with bulky tanks and hoses undogged
the hatch and entered, shutting the hatch behind them.

They began at the bow, methodically spraying as they moved toward the
rear. Everything seemed in order; no animals or plants, no trace of
mold such as the first Luna expedition had brought back.

"Do you really think this is necessary?" the assistant inspector asked.
He had already requested a transfer to Flight Control.

"Sure it is," the senior inspector said. "Can't tell what these ships
might bring in."

"I suppose so," the assistant said. "Still, a Martian whoosis wouldn't
even be able to live on Earth. Would it?"

"How should I know?" the senior inspector said. "I'm no botanist. Maybe
they don't know, either."

"Seems like a waste of - hey!"

"What is it?" the senior inspector asked.

"I thought I saw something," the assistant said. "Looked a little like
a palmetto bug. Over by that shelf."

The senior inspector adjusted his respirator more snugly over his face
and motioned to his assistant to do the same. He advanced slowly toward
the shelf, unfastening a second nozzle from the pressure tank on his
back. He turned it on, and a cloud of greenish gas sprayed out.

"There," the senior inspector said. "That should take care of your
bug." He knelt down and looked under the shelf. "Nothing here."

"It was probably a shadow," the assistant said.

Together they sprayed the entire interior of the ship, paying
particular attention to the small box of Martian artifacts. They left
the gas-filled ship and dogged the hatch again.

"Now what?" the assistant asked.

"Now we leave the ship sealed for three days," the senior inspector
said. "Then we inspect again. You find me the animal that'll live
through that."

* * * * *

The Quedak, who had been clinging to the underside of the assistant's
shoe between the heel and the sole, released his hold. He watched the
shadowy biped figures move away, talking in their deep, rumbling,
indecipherable voices. He felt tired and unutterably lonely.

But buoying him up was the thought of the Quedak mission. Only that
was important. The first part of the mission was accomplished. He had
landed safely on an inhabited planet. Now he needed food and drink.
Then he had to have rest, a great deal of rest to restore his dormant
faculties. After that he would be ready to give this world what it so
obviously needed - the cooperation possible only through the Quedak mind.

He crept slowly down the shadowy yard, past the deserted hulls of
spaceships. He came to a wire fence and sensed the high-voltage
electricity running through it. Gauging his distance carefully, the
Quedak jumped safely through one of the openings in the mesh.

This was a very different section. From here the Quedak could smell
water and food. He moved hastily forward, then stopped.

He sensed the presence of a man. And something else. Something much
more menacing.

* * * * *

"Who's there?" the watchman called out. He waited, his revolver in one
hand, his flashlight in the other. Thieves had broken into the yards
last week; they had stolen three cases of computer parts bound for Rio.
Tonight he was ready for them.

He walked forward, an old, keen-eyed man holding his revolver in a
rock-steady fist. The beam of his flashlight probed among the cargoes.
The yellow light flickered along a great pile of precision machine
tools for South Africa, past a water-extraction plant for Jordan and a
pile of mixed goods for Rabaul.

"You better come out," the watchman shouted. His flashlight probed at
sacks of rice for Shanghai and power saws for Burma. Then the beam of
light stopped abruptly.

"I'll be damned," the watchman said. Then he laughed. A huge and
red-eyed rat was glaring into the beam of his flashlight. It had
something in its jaws, something that looked like an unusually large
cockroach.

"Good eating," the watchman said. He holstered his revolver and
continued his patrol.

* * * * *

A large black animal had seized the Quedak, and he felt heavy jaws
close over his back. He tried to fight; but, blinded by a sudden beam
of yellow light, he was betrayed by total and enervating confusion.

The yellow light went off. The black beast bit down hard on the
Quedak's armored back. The Quedak mustered his remaining strength, and,
uncoiling his long, scorpion-jointed tail, lashed out.

He missed, but the black beast released him hastily. They circled
each other, the Quedak hoisting his tail for a second blow, the beast
unwilling to turn loose this prey.

The Quedak waited for his chance. Elation filled him. This pugnacious
animal could be the first, the first on this planet to experience the
Quedak mission. From this humble creature a start could be made....

The beast sprang and its white teeth clicked together viciously.
The Quedak moved out of the way and its barb-headed tail flashed
out, fastening itself in the beast's back. The Quedak held on grimly
while the beast leaped and squirmed. Setting his feet, the Quedak
concentrated on the all-important task of pumping a tiny white crystal
down the length of his tail and under the beast's skin.

But this most important of the Quedak faculties was still dormant.
Unable to accomplish anything, the Quedak released his barbs, and,
taking careful aim, accurately drove his sting home between the black
beast's eyes. The blow, as the Quedak had known, was lethal.

The Quedak took nourishment from the body of its dead foe; regretfully,
for by inclination the Quedak was herbivorous. When he had finished,
the Quedak knew that he was in desperate need of a long period of rest.
Only after that could the full Quedak powers be regained.

He crawled up and down the piles of goods in the yard, looking for a
place to hide. Carefully he examined several bales. At last he reached
a stack of heavy boxes. One of the boxes had a crack just large enough
to admit him.

The Quedak crawled inside, down the shiny, oil-slick surface of a
machine, to the far end of the box. There he went into the dreamless,
defenseless sleep of the Quedak, serenely trusting in what the future
would bring.


PART TWO


I

The big gaff-headed schooner was pointed directly at the reef-enclosed
island, moving toward it with the solidity of an express train. The
sails billowed under powerful gusts of the northwest breeze, and the
rusty Allison-Chambers diesel rumbled beneath a teak grating. The
skipper and mate stood on the bridge deck and watched the reef approach.

"Anything yet?" the skipper asked. He was a stocky, balding man with
a perpetual frown on his face. He had been sailing his schooner among
the uncharted shoals and reefs of the Southwest Pacific for twenty-five
years. He frowned because his old ship was not insurable. His deck
cargo, however, _was_ insured. Some of it had come all the way from
Ogdensville, that transshipment center in the desert where spaceships
landed.

"Not a thing," the mate said. He was watching the dazzling white wall
of coral, looking for the gleam of blue that would reveal the narrow
pass to the inner lagoon. This was his first trip to the Solomon
Islands. A former television repairman in Sydney before he got the
wanderlust, the mate wondered if the skipper had gone crazy and planned
a spectacular suicide against the reef.

"Still nothing!" he shouted. "Shoals ahead!"

"I'll take it," the skipper said to the helmsman. He gripped the wheel
and watched the unbroken face of the reef.

"Nothing," the mate said. "Skipper, we'd better come about."

"Not if we're going to get through the pass," the skipper said. He was
beginning to get worried. But he had promised to deliver goods to the
American treasure-hunters on this island, and the skipper's word was
his bond. He had picked up the cargo in Rabaul and made his usual stops
at the settlements on New Georgia and Malaita. When he finished here,
he could look forward to a thousand-mile run to New Caledonia.

"There it is!" the mate shouted.

A thin slit of blue had appeared in the coral wall. They were less than
thirty yards from it now, and the old schooner was making close to
eight knots.

* * * * *

As the ship entered the pass, the skipper threw the wheel hard over.
The schooner spun on its keel. Coral flashed by on either side, close
enough to touch. There was a metallic shriek as an upper main-mast
spreader snagged and came free. Then they were in the pass, bucking a
six-knot current.

The mate pushed the diesel to full throttle, then sprang back to help
the skipper wrestle with the wheel. Under sail and power the schooner
forged through the pass, scraped by an outcropping to port, and came
onto the placid surface of the lagoon.

The skipper mopped his forehead with a large blue bandanna. "Very snug
work," he said.

"_Snug!_" the mate cried. He turned away, and the skipper smiled a
brief smile.

They slid past a small ketch riding at anchor. The native hands took
down sail and the schooner nosed up to a rickety pier that jutted out
from the beach. Lines were made fast to palm trees. From the fringe of
jungle above the beach a white man came down, walking briskly in the
noonday heat.

He was very tall and thin, with knobby knees and elbows. The fierce
Melanesian sun had burned out but not tanned him, and his nose and
cheekbones were peeling. His horn-rimmed glasses had broken at the
hinge and been repaired with a piece of tape. He looked eager, boyish,
and curiously naive.

One hell-of-a-looking treasure-hunter, the mate thought.

"Glad to see you!" the man called out. "We'd about given you up for
lost."

"Not likely," the skipper said. "Mr. Sorensen, I'd like you to meet my
new mate, Mr. Willis."

"Glad to meet you, Professor," the mate said.

"I'm not a professor," Sorensen said, "but thanks anyhow."

"Where are the others?" the skipper asked.

"Out in the jungle," Sorensen said. "All except Drake, and he'll be
down here shortly. You'll stay a while, won't you?"

"Only to unload," the skipper said. "Have to catch the tide out of
here. How's the treasure-hunting?"

"We've done a lot of digging," Sorensen said. "We still have our hopes."

"But no doubloons yet?" the skipper asked. "No pieces of eight?"

"Not a damned one," Sorensen said wearily. "Did you bring the
newspapers, Skipper?"

"That I did," Sorensen replied. "They're in the cabin. Did you hear
about that second spaceship going to Mars?"

"Heard about it on the short wave," Sorensen said. "It didn't bring
back much, did it?"

"Practically nothing. Still, just think of it. _Two_ spaceships to
Mars, and I hear they're getting ready to put one on Venus."

The three men looked around them and grinned.

"Well," the skipper said, "I guess maybe the space age hasn't reached
the Southwest Pacific yet. And it certainly hasn't gotten to _this_
place. Come on, let's unload the cargo."

* * * * *

This place was the island of Vuanu, southernmost of the Solomons,
almost in the Louisade Archipelago. It was a fair-sized volcanic
island, almost twenty miles long and several wide. Once it had
supported half a dozen native villages. But the population had begun to
decline after the depredations of the blackbirders in the 1850s. Then
a measles epidemic wiped out almost all the rest, and the survivors
emigrated to New Georgia. A ship-watcher had been stationed here during
the Second World War, but no ships had come this way. The Japanese
invasion had poured across New Guinea and the upper Solomons, and
further north through Micronesia. At the end of the war Vuanu was still
deserted. It was not made into a bird sanctuary like Canton Island,
or a cable station like Christmas Island, or a refueling point like
Cocos-Keeling. No one even wanted to explode alphabet bombs on it.
Vuanu was a worthless, humid, jungle-covered piece of land, free to
anyone who wanted it.

William Sorensen, general manager of a chain of liquor stores in
California, decided he wanted it.

Sorensen's hobby was treasure-hunting. He had looked for Lafitte's
treasure in Louisiana and Texas, and for the Lost Dutchman Mine
in Arizona. He had found neither. His luck had been better on the
wreck-strewn Gulf coast, and on an expedition to Dagger Cay in the
Caribbean he had found a double handful of Spanish coins in a rotting
canvas bag. The coins were worth about three thousand dollars. The
expedition had cost very much more, but Sorensen felt amply repaid.

For many years he had been interested in the Spanish treasure galleon
_Santa Teresa_. Contemporary accounts told how the ship, heavily laden
with bullion, sailed from Manila in 1689. The clumsy ship, caught in a
storm, had run off to the south and been wrecked. Eighteen survivors
managed to get ashore with the treasure. They buried it, and set sail
for the Phillipines in the ship's pinnacle. Two of them were alive when
the boat reached Manila.

The treasure island was tentatively identified as one of the Solomons.
But which one?

No one knew. Treasure-hunters looked for the cache on Bougainville
and Buka. There was a rumor about it on Malaita, and even Ontong Java
received an expedition. But no treasure was recovered.

Sorensen, researching the problem thoroughly, decided that the _Santa
Teresa_ had sailed completely through the Solomons, almost to the
Louisades. The ship must have escaped destruction until it crashed into
the reef at Vuanu.

His desire to search for the treasure might have remained only a dream
if he hadn't met Dan Drake. Drake was also an amateur treasure-hunter.
More important, he owned a fifty-five-foot Hanna ketch.

Over an evening's drinks the Vuanu expedition was born.

Additional members were recruited. Drake's ketch was put into seagoing
condition, equipment and money saved or gathered. Several other
possible treasure sites in the Southwest Pacific were researched.
Finally, vacation time was synchronized and the expedition got under
way.

They had put in three months' work on Vuanu already. Their morale was
high, in spite of inevitable conflicts between members. This schooner,
bringing in supplies from Sydney and Rabaul, was the last civilized
contact they would have for another six months.

* * * * *

While Sorensen nervously supervised, the crew of the schooner unloaded
the cargo. He didn't want any of the equipment, some of it shipped over
six thousand miles, to be broken now. No replacements were possible;
whatever they didn't have, they would have to do without. He breathed
out in relief when the last crate, containing a metals detector, was
safely hoisted over the side and put on the beach above the high-water
mark.

There was something odd about that box. He examined it and found a
quarter-sized hole in one end. It had not been properly sealed.

Dan Drake, the co-manager of the expedition, joined him. "What's
wrong?" Drake asked.

"Hole in that crate," Sorensen said. "Salt water might have gotten in.
We'll be in tough shape if this detector doesn't work."

Drake nodded. "We better open it and see." He was a short, deeply
tanned, broad-chested man with close-cropped black hair and a straggly
mustache. He wore an old yachting cap jammed down over his eyes, giving
his face a tough bulldog look. He pulled a big screwdriver from his
belt and inserted it into the crack.

"Wait a moment," Sorensen said. "Let's get it up to the camp first.
Easier to carry the crate than something packed in grease."

"Right," Drake said. "Take the other end."

The camp was built in a clearing a hundred yards from the beach, on the
site of an abandoned native village. They had been able to re-thatch
several huts, and there was an old copra shed with a galvanized iron
roof where they stored their supplies. Here they got the benefit of any
breeze from the sea. Beyond the clearing, the gray-green jungle sprang
up like a solid wall.

Sorensen and Drake set the case down. The skipper, who had accompanied
them with the newspapers, looked around at the bleak huts and shook his
head.

"Would you like a drink, Skipper?" Sorensen asked. "Afraid we can't
offer any ice."

"A drink would be fine," the skipper said. He wondered what drove
men to a godforsaken place like this in search of imaginary Spanish
treasure.

Sorensen went into one of the huts and brought out a bottle of Scotch
and a tin cup. Drake had taken out his screwdriver and was vigorously
ripping boards off the crate.

"How does it look?" Sorensen asked.

"It's OK," Drake said, gently lifting out the metals detector. "Heavily
greased. Doesn't seem like there was any damage - "

He jumped back. The skipper had come forward and stamped down heavily
on the sand.

"What's the matter?" Sorensen asked.

"Looked like a scorpion," the skipper said. "Damned thing crawled right
out of your crate there. Might have bit you."

* * * * *

Sorensen shrugged. He had gotten used to the presence of an infinite
number of insects during his three months on Vuanu. Another bug more or
less didn't seem to make much difference.

"Another drink?" he asked.

"Can't do it," the skipper said regretfully. "I'd better get started.
All your party healthy?"

"All healthy so far," Sorensen said. He smiled. "Except for some bad
cases of gold fever."

"You'll never find gold in this place," the skipper said seriously.
"I'll look in on you in about six months. Good luck."

After shaking hands, the skipper went down to the beach and boarded his
ship. As the first pink flush of sunset touched the sky, the schooner
was under way. Sorensen and Drake watched it negotiate the pass. For a
few minutes its masts were visible above the reef. Then they had dipped
below the horizon.

"That's that," Drake said. "Us crazy American treasure-hunters are
alone again."

"You don't think he suspected anything?" Sorensen asked.

"Definitely not. As far as he's concerned, we're just crackpots."

Grinning, they looked back at their camp. Under the copra shed was
nearly fifty thousand dollars worth of gold and silver bullion, dug out
of the jungle and carefully reburied. They had located a part of the
_Santa Teresa_ treasure during their first month on the island. There


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