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The Leech by Phillips Barbee


[Illustration: 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 drifting across the vast emptiness of space. Without consciousness, it had spent the countless centuries in the void between the stars. It was unaware when it finally reached a sun. Life-giving radiation flared around the hard, 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, played with it, and let it fall.

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

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

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

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

“Of course I heard you,” Micheals said in a muffled voice, his eyes still 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' resting week was a ten-year-old custom, and his only eccentricity. All winter Micheals taught anthropology, worked on half a dozen committees, dabbled in 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 invariable rule to do absolutely nothing for a week. He hired Frank Conners to cook for that week and generally make himself useful, while Professor Micheals slept.

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

But the resting week was sacred.

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

Micheals opened both eyes and sat up. Conners held out the spade. The rounded end was sheared cleanly off. Micheals swung himself off the couch 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, three feet 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 could tell, 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 and prodded the object experimentally. It was completely unyielding. He held the spade to the surface for a moment, then withdrew it. Another inch was gone.

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

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

Conners shook his head.

Micheals picked up a clod of dirt and tossed it on the object. The dirt dissolved quickly, leaving no trace on the gray-black surface. A large stone 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 it hit, he almost dropped the spade. He had been gripping the handle rigidly, braced for a recoil. But the spade struck that unyielding surface and stayed. There was no perceptible give, but absolutely no recoil.

“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 few more times, experimentally. The two men looked at each other. On the road, 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 before it 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 each individual drop added to its store. The water was sucked in by the all-absorbing surface.

The sunlight above it was absorbed, and converted into mass for its body. Beneath it, the soil was consumed, dirt, stones and branches broken down by the leech's complex cells and changed into energy. Energy was converted back into mass, and the leech grew.

Slowly, the first flickers of consciousness began to return. Its first realization 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 following day it was almost eighteen feet in diameter, shaped to fit the contour of the ditch, and covering most of the road. That day the sheriff drove up 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 looking unsuccessfully for an acid that would dissolve the leech.

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

Micheals watched with interest as the sheriff tried to shove a crowbar under it. He smiled to himself when it was removed with half a foot of its length gone.

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

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

“Hit that spot with the sledge, Jerry.”

Jerry picked up the sledgehammer, motioned the sheriff back, and swung it 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 answer was easy—no substance. No known substance.

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

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

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

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

“That's right,” Micheals said, smiling faintly.

“Driver,” the general said over his shoulder. “Ride over it.”

Micheals started to protest, but stopped himself. The military mind would have to find out in its own way.

The driver put his jeep in gear and shot forward, jumping the leech's four-inch edge. The jeep got to the center of the leech and stopped.

“I didn't tell you to stop!” the general bellowed.

“I didn't, sir!” the driver protested.

The jeep had been yanked to a stop and had stalled. The driver started it again, shifted to four-wheel drive, and tried to ram forward. The jeep was fixed immovably, as though set in concrete.

“Pardon me,” Micheals said. “If you look, you can see that the tires are melting down.”

The general stared, his hand creeping automatically toward his pistol belt. Then he shouted, “Jump, driver! Don't touch that gray stuff.”

White-faced, the driver climbed to the hood of his jeep, looked around him, and jumped clear.

There was complete silence as everyone watched the jeep. First its tires melted down, and then the rims. The body, resting on the gray surface, melted, too.

The aerial was the last to go.

The general began to swear softly under his breath. He turned to the driver. “Go back and have some men bring up hand grenades and dynamite.”

The driver ran back to the convoy.

“I don't know what you've got here,” the general said. “But it's not going to stop a U.S. Army convoy.”

Micheals wasn't so sure.

       * * * * *

The leech was nearly awake now, and its body was calling for more and more food. It dissolved the soil under it at a furious rate, filling it in with its own body, flowing outward.

A large object landed on it, and that became food also. Then suddenly—

A burst of energy against its surface, and then another, and another. It consumed them gratefully, converting them into mass. Little metal pellets struck it, and their kinetic energy was absorbed, their mass converted. More explosions took place, helping to fill the starving cells.

It began to sense things—controlled combustion around it, vibrations of wind, mass movements.

There was another, greater explosion, a taste of real food! Greedily it ate, growing faster. It waited anxiously for more explosions, while its cells screamed for food.

But no more came. It continued to feed on the soil and on the Sun's energy. Night came, noticeable for its lesser energy possibilities, and then more days and nights. Vibrating objects continued to move around it.

It ate and grew and flowed.

       * * * * *

Micheals stood on a little hill, watching the dissolution of his house. The leech was several hundred yards across now, lapping at his front porch.

Good-by, home, Micheals thought, remembering the ten summers he had spent there.

The porch collapsed into the body of the leech. Bit by bit, the house crumpled.

The leech looked like a field of lava now, a blasted spot on the green Earth.

“Pardon me, sir,” a soldier said, coming up behind him. “General O'Donnell would like to see you.”

“Right,” Micheals said, and took his last look at the house.

He followed the soldier through the barbed wire that had been set up in a half-mile circle around the leech. A company of soldiers was on guard around it, keeping back the reporters and the hundreds of curious people who had flocked to the scene. Micheals wondered why he was still allowed inside. Probably, he decided, because most of this was taking place on his land.

The soldier brought him to a tent. Micheals stooped and went in. General O'Donnell, still in suntans, was seated at a small desk. He motioned Micheals to a chair.

“I've been put in charge of getting rid of this leech,” he said to Micheals.

Micheals nodded, not commenting on the advisability of giving a soldier a scientist's job.

“You're a professor, aren't you?”

“Yes. Anthropology.”

“Good. Smoke?” The general lighted Micheals' cigarette. “I'd like you to stay around here in an advisory capacity. You were one of the first to see this leech. I'd appreciate your observations on—” he smiled—“the enemy.”

“I'd be glad to,” Micheals said. “However, I think this is more in the line of a physicist or a biochemist.”

“I don't want this place cluttered with scientists,” General O'Donnell said, frowning at the tip of his cigarette. “Don't get me wrong. I have the greatest appreciation for science. I am, if I do say so, a scientific soldier. I'm always interested in the latest weapons. You can't fight any kind of a war any more without science.”

       * * * * *

O'Donnell's sunburned face grew firm. “But I can't have a team of longhairs poking around this thing for the next month, holding me up. My job is to destroy it, by any means in my power, and at once. I am going to do just that.”

“I don't think you'll find it that easy,” Micheals said.

“That's what I want you for,” O'Donnell said. “Tell me why and I'll figure out a way of doing it.”

“Well, as far as I can figure out, the leech is an organic mass-energy converter, and a frighteningly efficient one. I would guess that it has a double cycle. First, it converts mass into energy, then back into mass for its body. Second, energy is converted directly into the body mass. How this takes place, I do not know. The leech is not protoplasmic. It may not even be cellular—”

“So we need something big against it,” O'Donnell interrupted. “Well, that's all right. I've got some big stuff here.”

“I don't think you understand me,” Micheals said. “Perhaps I'm not phrasing this very well. The leech eats energy. It can consume the strength of any energy weapon you use against it.”

“What happens,” O'Donnell asked, “if it keeps on eating?”

“I have no idea what its growth-limits are,” Micheals said. “Its growth may be limited only by its food source.”

“You mean it could continue to grow probably forever?”

“It could possibly grow as long as it had something to feed on.”

“This is really a challenge,” O'Donnell said. “That leech can't be totally impervious to force.”

“It seems to be. I suggest you get some physicists in here. Some biologists also. Have them figure out a way of nullifying it.”

The general put out his cigarette. “Professor, I cannot wait while scientists wrangle. There is an axiom of mine which I am going to tell you.” He paused impressively. “Nothing is impervious to force. Muster enough force and anything will give. Anything.

“Professor,” the general continued, in a friendlier tone, “you shouldn't sell short the science you represent. We have, massed under North Hill, the greatest accumulation of energy and radioactive weapons ever assembled in one spot. Do you think your leech can stand the full force of them?”

“I suppose it's possible to overload the thing,” Micheals said doubtfully. He realized now why the general wanted him around. He supplied the trappings of science, without the authority to override O'Donnell.

“Come with me,” General O'Donnell said cheerfully, getting up and holding back a flap of the tent. “We're going to crack that leech in half.”

       * * * * *

After a long wait, rich food started to come again, piped into one side of it. First there was only a little, and then more and more. Radiations, vibrations, explosions, solids, liquids—an amazing variety of edibles. It accepted them all. But the food was coming too slowly for the starving cells, for new cells were constantly adding their demands to the rest.

The ever-hungry body screamed for more food, faster!

Now that it had reached a fairly efficient size, it was fully awake. It puzzled over the energy-impressions around it, locating the source of the new food massed in one spot.

Effortlessly it pushed itself into the air, flew a little way and dropped on the food. Its super-efficient cells eagerly gulped the rich radioactive substances. But it did not ignore the lesser potentials of metal and clumps of carbohydrates.

       * * * * *

“The damned fools,” General O'Donnell said. “Why did they have to panic? You'd think they'd never been trained.” He paced the ground outside his tent, now in a new location three miles back.

The leech had grown to two miles in diameter. Three farming communities had been evacuated.

Micheals, standing beside the general, was still stupefied by the memory. The leech had accepted the massed power of the weapons for a while, and then its entire bulk had lifted in the air. The Sun had been blotted out as it flew leisurely over North Hill, and dropped. There should have been time for evacuation, but the frightened soldiers had been blind with fear.

Sixty-seven men were lost in Operation Leech, and General O'Donnell asked permission to use atomic bombs. Washington sent a group of scientists to investigate the situation.

“Haven't those experts decided yet?” O'Donnell asked, halting angrily in front of the tent. “They've been talking long enough.”

“It's a hard decision,” Micheals said. Since he wasn't an official member of the investigating team, he had given his information and left. “The physicists consider it a biological matter, and the biologists seem to think the chemists should have the answer. No one's an expert on this, because it's never happened before. We just don't have the data.”

“It's a military problem,” O'Donnell said harshly. “I'm not interested in what the thing is—I want to know what can destroy it. They'd better give me permission to use the bomb.”

Micheals had made his own calculations on that. It was impossible to say for sure, but taking a flying guess at the leech's mass-energy absorption rate, figuring in its size and apparent capacity for growth, an atomic bomb might overload it—if used soon enough.

He estimated three days as the limit of usefulness. The leech was growing at a geometric rate. It could cover the United States in a few months.

“For a week I've been asking permission to use the bomb,” O'Donnell grumbled. “And I'll get it, but not until after those jackasses end their damned talking.” He stopped pacing and turned to Micheals. “I am going to destroy the leech. I am going to smash it, if that's the last thing I do. It's more than a matter of security now. It's personal pride.”

That attitude might make great generals, Micheals thought, but it wasn't the way to consider this problem. It was anthropomorphic of O'Donnell to see the leech as an enemy. Even the identification, “leech,” was a humanizing factor. O'Donnell was dealing with it as he would any physical obstacle, as though the leech were the simple equivalent of a large army.

But the leech was not human, not even of this planet, perhaps. It should be dealt with in its own terms.

“Here come the bright boys now,” O'Donnell said.

       * * * * *

From a nearby tent a group of weary men emerged, led by Allenson, a government biologist.

“Well,” the general asked, “have you figured out what it is?”

“Just a minute, I'll hack off a sample,” Allenson said, glaring through red-rimmed eyes.

“Have you figured out some scientific way of killing it?”

“Oh, that wasn't too difficult,” Moriarty, an atomic physicist, said wryly. “Wrap it in a perfect vacuum. That'll do the trick. Or blow it off the Earth with anti-gravity.”

“But failing that,” Allenson said, “we suggest you use your atomic bombs, and use them fast.”

“Is that the opinion of your entire group?” O'Donnell asked, his eyes glittering.

“Yes.”

The general hurried away. Micheals joined the scientists.

“He should have called us in at the very first,” Allenson complained. “There's no time to consider anything but force now.”

“Have you come to any conclusions about the nature of the leech?” Micheals asked.

“Only general ones,” Moriarty said, “and they're about the same as yours. The leech is probably extraterrestrial in origin. It seems to have been in a spore-stage until it landed on Earth.” He paused to light a pipe. “Incidentally, we should be damned glad it didn't drop in an ocean. We'd have had the Earth eaten out from under us before we knew what we were looking for.”

They walked in silence for a few minutes.

“As you mentioned, it's a perfect converter—it can transform mass into energy, and any energy into mass.” Moriarty grinned. “Naturally that's impossible and I have figures to prove it.”

“I'm going to get a drink,” Allenson said. “Anyone coming?”

“Best idea of the week,” Micheals said. “I wonder how long it'll take O'Donnell to get permission to use the bomb.”

“If I know politics,” Moriarty said, “too long.”

       * * * * *

The findings of the government scientists were checked by other government scientists. That took a few days. Then Washington wanted to know if there wasn't some alternative to exploding an atomic bomb in the middle of New York State. It took a little time to convince them of the necessity. After that, people had to be evacuated, which took more time.

Then orders were made out, and five atomic bombs were checked out of a cache. A patrol rocket was assigned, given orders, and put under General O'Donnell's command. This took a day more.

Finally, the stubby scout rocket was winging its way over New York. From the air, the grayish-black spot was easy to find. Like a festered wound, it stretched between Lake Placid and Elizabethtown, covering Keene and Keene Valley, and lapping at the edges of Jay.

The first bomb was released.

       * * * * *

It had been a long wait after the first rich food. The greater radiation of day was followed by the lesser energy of night many times, as the leech ate away the earth beneath it, absorbed the air around it, and grew. Then one day—

An amazing burst of energy!

Everything was food for the leech, but there was always the possibility of choking. The energy poured over it, drenched it, battered it, and the leech grew frantically, trying to contain the titanic dose. Still small, it quickly reached its overload limit. The strained cells, filled to satiation, were given more and more food. The strangling body built new cells at lightning speed. And—

It held. The energy was controlled, stimulating further growth. More cells took over the load, sucking in the food.

The next doses were wonderfully palatable, easily handled. The leech overflowed its bounds, growing, eating, and growing.

That was a taste of real food! The leech was as near ecstasy as it had ever been. It waited hopefully for more, but no more came.

It went back to feeding on the Earth. The energy, used to produce more cells, was soon dissipated. Soon it was hungry again.

It would always be hungry.

       * * * * *

O'Donnell retreated with his demoralized men. They camped ten miles from the leech's southern edge, in the evacuated town of Schroon Lake. The leech was over sixty miles in diameter now and still growing fast. It lay sprawled over the Adirondack Mountains, completely blanketing everything from Saranac Lake to Port Henry, with one edge of it over Westport, in Lake Champlain.

Everyone within two hundred miles of the leech was evacuated.

General O'Donnell was given permission to use hydrogen bombs, contingent on the approval of his scientists.

“What have the bright boys decided?” O'Donnell wanted to know.

He and Micheals were in the living room of an evacuated Schroon Lake house. O'Donnell had made it his new command post.

“Why are they hedging?” O'Donnell demanded impatiently. “The leech has to be blown up quick. What are they fooling around for?”

“They're afraid of a chain reaction,” Micheals told him. “A concentration of hydrogen bombs might set one up in the Earth's crust or in the atmosphere. It might do any of half a dozen things.”

“Perhaps they'd like me to order a bayonet attack,” O'Donnell said contemptuously.

Micheals sighed and sat down in an armchair. He was convinced that the whole method was wrong. The government scientists were being rushed into a single line of inquiry. The pressure on them was so great that they didn't have a chance to consider any other approach but force—and the leech thrived on that.

Micheals was certain that there were times when fighting fire with fire was not applicable.

Fire. Loki, god of fire. And of trickery. No, there was no answer there. But Micheals' mind was in mythology now, retreating from the unbearable present.

Allenson came in, followed by six other men.

“Well,” Allenson said, “there's a damned good chance of splitting the Earth wide open if you use the number of bombs our figures show you need.”

“You have to take chances in war,” O'Donnell replied bluntly. “Shall I go ahead?”

Micheals saw, suddenly, that O'Donnell didn't care if he did crack the Earth. The red-faced general only knew that he was going to set off the greatest explosion ever produced by the hand of Man.

“Not so fast,” Allenson said. “I'll let the others speak for themselves.”

The general contained himself with difficulty. “Remember,” he said, “according to your own figures, the leech is growing at the rate of twenty feet an hour.”

“And speeding up,” Allenson added. “But this isn't a decision to be made in haste.”

Micheals found his mind wandering again, to the lightning bolts of Zeus. That was what they needed. Or the strength of Hercules.

Or—

He sat up suddenly. “Gentlemen, I believe I can offer you a possible alternative, although it's a very dim one.”

They stared at him.

“Have you ever heard of Antaeus?” he asked.

       * * * * *

The more the leech ate, the faster it grew and the hungrier it became. Although its birth was forgotten, it did remember a long way back. It had eaten a planet in that ancient past. Grown tremendous, ravenous, it had made the journey to a nearby star and eaten that, replenishing the cells converted into energy for the trip. But then there was no more food, and the next star was an enormous distance away.

It set out on the journey, but long before it reached the food, its energy ran out. Mass, converted back to energy to make the trip, was used up. It shrank.

Finally, all the energy was gone. It was a spore, drifting aimlessly, lifelessly, in space.

That was the first time. Or was it? It thought it could remember back to a distant, misty time when the Universe was evenly covered with stars. It had eaten through them, cutting away whole sections, growing, swelling. And the stars had swung off in terror, forming galaxies and constellations.

Or was that a dream?

Methodically, it fed on the Earth, wondering where the rich food was. And then it was back again, but this time above the leech.

It waited, but the tantalizing food remained out of reach. It was able to sense how rich and pure the food was.

Why didn't it fall?

For a long time the leech waited, but the food stayed out of reach. At last, it lifted and followed.

The food retreated, up, up from the surface of the planet. The leech went after as quickly as its bulk would allow.

The rich food fled out, into space, and the leech followed. Beyond, it could sense an even richer source.

The hot, wonderful food of a sun!

       * * * * *

O'Donnell served champagne for the scientists in the control room. Official dinners would follow, but this was the victory celebration.

“A toast,” the general said, standing. The men raised their glasses. The only man not drinking was a lieutenant, sitting in front of the control board that guided the drone spaceship.

“To Micheals, for thinking of—what was it again, Micheals?”

“Antaeus.” Micheals had been drinking champagne steadily, but he didn't feel elated. Antaeus, born of Ge, the Earth, and Poseidon, the Sea. The invincible wrestler. Each time Hercules threw him to the ground, he arose refreshed.

Until Hercules held him in the air.

Moriarty was muttering to himself, figuring with slide rule, pencil and paper. Allenson was drinking, but he didn't look too happy about it.

“Come on, you birds of evil omen,” O'Donnell said, pouring more champagne. “Figure it out later. Right now, drink.” He turned to the operator. “How's it going?”

Micheals' analogy had been applied to a spaceship. The ship, operated by remote control, was filled with pure radioactives. It hovered over the leech until, rising to the bait, it had followed. Antaeus had left his mother, the Earth, and was losing his strength in the air. The operator was allowing the spaceship to run fast enough to keep out of the leech's grasp, but close enough to keep it coming.

The spaceship and the leech were on a collision course with the Sun.

“Fine, sir,” the operator said. “It's inside the orbit of Mercury now.”

“Men,” the general said, “I swore to destroy that thing. This isn't exactly the way I wanted to do it. I figured on a more personal way. But the important thing is the destruction. You will all witness it. Destruction is at times a sacred mission. This is such a time. Men, I feel wonderful.”

“Turn the spaceship!” It was Moriarty who had spoken. His face was white. “Turn the damned thing!”

He shoved his figures at them.

They were easy to read. The growth-rate of the leech. The energy-consumption rate, estimated. Its speed in space, a constant. The energy it would receive from the Sun as it approached, an exponential curve. Its energy-absorption rate, figured in terms of growth, expressed as a hyped-up discontinuous progression.

The result—

“It'll consume the Sun,” Moriarty said, very quietly.

The control room turned into a bedlam. Six of them tried to explain it to O'Donnell at the same time. Then Moriarty tried, and finally Allenson.

“Its rate of growth is so great and its speed so slow—and it will get so much energy—that the leech will be able to consume the Sun by the time it gets there. Or, at least, to live off it until it can consume it.”

O'Donnell didn't bother to understand. He turned to the operator.

“Turn it,” he said.

They all hovered over the radar screen, waiting.

       * * * * *

The food turned out of the leech's path and streaked away. Ahead was a tremendous source, but still a long way off. The leech hesitated.

Its cells, recklessly expending energy, shouted for a decision. The food slowed, tantalizingly near.

The closer source or the greater?

The leech's body wanted food now.

It started after it, away from the Sun.

The Sun would come next.

       * * * * *

“Pull it out at right angles to the plane of the Solar System,” Allenson said.

The operator touched the controls. On the radar screen, they saw a blob pursuing a dot. It had turned.

Relief washed over them. It had been close!

“In what portion of the sky would the leech be?” O'Donnell asked, his face expressionless.

“Come outside; I believe I can show you,” an astronomer said. They walked to the door. “Somewhere in that section,” the astronomer said, pointing.

“Fine. All right, Soldier,” O'Donnell told the operator. “Carry out your orders.”

The scientists gasped in unison. The operator manipulated the controls and the blob began to overtake the dot. Micheals started across the room.

“Stop,” the general said, and his strong, commanding voice stopped Micheals. “I know what I'm doing. I had that ship especially built.”

The blob overtook the dot on the radar screen.

“I told you this was a personal matter,” O'Donnell said. “I swore to destroy that leech. We can never have any security while it lives.” He smiled. “Shall we look at the sky?”

The general strolled to the door, followed by the scientists.

“Push the button, Soldier!”

The operator did. For a moment, nothing happened. Then the sky lit up!

A bright star hung in space. Its brilliance filled the night, grew, and started to fade.

“What did you do?” Micheals gasped.

“That rocket was built around a hydrogen bomb,” O'Donnell said, his strong face triumphant. “I set it off at the contact moment.” He called to the operator again. “Is there anything showing on the radar?”

“Not a speck, sir.”

“Men,” the general said, “I have met the enemy and he is mine. Let's have some more champagne.”

But Micheals found that he was suddenly ill.

       * * * * *

It had been shrinking from the expenditure of energy, when the great explosion came. No thought of containing it. The leech's cells held for the barest fraction of a second, and then spontaneously overloaded.

The leech was smashed, broken up, destroyed. It was split into a thousand particles, and the particles were split a million times more.

The particles were thrown out on the wave front of the explosion, and they split further, spontaneously.

Into spores.

The spores closed into dry, hard, seemingly lifeless specks of dust, billions of them, scattered, drifting. Unconscious, they floated in the emptiness of space.

Billions of them, waiting to be fed.

                     —PHILLIPS BARBEE

    This etext was produced from Galaxy Science Fiction December 1952.
    Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.

 
 
 

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