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I read this forty plus years ago in the UK. It was a lot of short stories, a chapter to each story, or it could have been a fix-up book. There are only two I remember so I'll describe them both, it's the book that I'm after, NOT the individual story titles (although that would be nice if someone knows)

Story A: The two are off on a voyage to move some freight to a planet, once they're in hyperspace they'll be in it for a few weeks.

The pilot does the jump and then it gets to mealtime, he is horrified to see they have no food in the galley. His partner leads him to a big metal box and explains it's alien tech and can replicate any meal you can think of. They happily eat and then sleep.

The next day there are problems and it won't provide any food, after tests with it producing a yellow pencil but then not a red pencil the pilot realises it only produces one of each class of items. He thinks for a second and says "roast chicken" and one appears. Then he says "Damn, I should have said turkey". At the story end they reach a spaceport near starved. They've eaten things like insect cake and (because the machine couldn't categorise it) duck billed platypus

Story B: The partner arrives with another alien tech device, a ( I can't recall the real name) Whatsit free producer. This has instructions on the side which, when translated, explain how to start it, together with a warning that it takes a "thingummy" key to stop it. He presses the start and a grey dust rushes out of a slot and begins piling up and filling their spaceport office shack.

They analyse it and learn it's used as a cheap construction filler and can be used as the base for synthetic food production on one planet. They are soon getting it trucked away daily and just breaking even but their power bill arrives and it's massive. They learn the machine draws power from around it and is costing them a fortune.

They load it up and fly off to the food production planet, they arrive with their ship's power seriously deleted, they trudge through dust to a customs hut and proudly declare that they've brought a Whatsit free producer, the customs man turns hostile and tells them to get off his planet and to take their damn free producer with them.

They realise the dust on the landing field and the hazy atmosphere is all the same grey dust.

As they leave the customs man tells them that if ever they get a "thingummy" key they can name their price

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  • It looks like I am seeking The People Trap....you gonna post it as an answer please? So I can accept
    – Danny Mc G
    Jun 20 '20 at 13:28
  • 1
    Note that all 7 of the AAA Ace stories were collected in the anthology The Masque of Mañana.
    – DavidW
    Jun 20 '20 at 13:41
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The two short stories you described are from Robert Sheckley's AAA Ace series. The only compilation I can find containing those two stories (in English before 1991) is Sheckley's 1968 collection The People Trap which has been reprinted a few times.


Story A is "The Necessary Thing", first published in Galaxy Science Fiction, June 1955, available at the Internet Archive. "The Necessary Thing" was also the answer to the old questions Story about spaceship and a tool and Story about a stranded astronaut that needed 40-something identical parts to fix his engine.

The next day there are problems and it won't provide any food, after tests with it producing a yellow pencil but then not a red pencil the pilot realises it only produces one of each class of items.

"Apparently the Configurator will turn out anything," Arnold said. "But only once." He experimented again, making the machine produce a number two pencil. It would do it once, but only once.

At the story end they reach a spaceport near starved. They've eaten things like insect cake and (because the machine couldn't categorise it) duck billed platypus.

It was supper-time, and the partners had to hunt for foods the Configurator would produce. A vegetable plate was easy enough, but not too filling. The machine allowed them one loaf of bread, but no cake. Milk products were out, as they had had cheese the other day. Finally, after an hour of trial and error, the Configurator gave them a pound of whale steak, apparently uncertain of its category.

[. . . .]

The problem of another meal came up. Fruit was out because of the apple pie, as were all meats, fish, milk products, and cereals. At last they dined sparsely on frog's legs, baked grasshoppers (from an old Chinese recipe), and fillet of iguana. But now with lizards, insects, and amphibians used up, they knew that their machine-made meals were at an end.


Story B is "The Laxian Key", first published in Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1954, also available at the Internet Archive. "The Laxian Key" was also the answer to the old question Story where an unstoppable machine covers the world with grey matter?.

. . . the customs man turns hostile and tells them to get off his planet and to take their damn free producer with them. [. . .] As they leave the customs man tells them that if ever they get a "thingummy" key they can name their price.

"Get off this planet!" the Official shouted. "Do you really think you can sell Tangreese on Meldge? Look around!"

They looked. The landing field was grey and powdery, and the buildings were the same unpainted grey. Beyond them stretched dull grey fields, to a range of low grey mountains.

"Do you mean," Gregor asked, "that the whole planet–"

"Figure it out for yourself," the official said, looking down the ladder. "The Old Science originated here, and there are always fools who have to tamper with its artifacts. Now get going. But if you ever find a Laxian Key, come back and name your price."

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