Confusion Cargo can be found in




ISFDB.org Magazine Entry



CONFUSION CARGO

By KENNETH PUTNAM

The hellship hung motionless In the cold black void. Men tip-
toed along her echoing corridors, gun hands trembling. What
menace gripped the engines? Who was this Dr. Sims?

CAPTAIN ANDREAS STEGGO had commanded a light negship in the late war before peace and retirement had given him the master's position aboard the Sagittarian Line's Reward. He was big, slightly brutal and accustomed to absolute obedience from his crews.

On the other hand, the crew hastily signed on by the Aldebaranian office were all ex-cargo jockeys of the twenty-five planet system thrown out of work by the sudden cessation of hostilities. They were rough, fast-thinking and terrifically independent.

Excepting myself, there were no passengers. The voyage was to be especially long —two months; the cargo was particularly nasty—ten tons of stinking viscodium.

Anyone with half an ounce of brain would have known there would be trouble. Unfortunately the requirements for an official of the Sagittarian Line include a university degree and galactic license; nothing about half an ounce of brain.

First we discovered the viscodium, instead of being sealed in dellite drums, was stored in a large tank with an overflow lid. That made for economy in shipping space, but also for certain discomfort in such useful functions as breathing. I'd lie awake at sleep period thinking of what would happen if the lid fell off and the green slime came churning through the loose hatches.

Then one of the loading pipes developed a leak under the strain of acceleration. The Reward was an old ship and she had been hastily serviced for this, her first trip in five years. Brock, the ship's welder, burst the pipe while repairing it and we tossed him, stiff within the congealed mass of viscodium, through an air-lock. No second welder either; so when the plumbing...

After the burial service, a delegation from the crew visited Captain Steggo and accused him of negligence in not having the loading pipes inspected for residual viscodium immediately after the take-off. They demanded their protest be logged. Steggo had all five of them clapped in restrainons. He then announced that full-dress discipline would be observed until we arrived; all ship's officers were to go armed at all times. I heard angry men in cheap hwat suits muttering after that about punishment half-meals and longer watches for a Smaller active crew.

Mr. Skandelli, the chief engineer, visited me and offered a sawed-off shmobber. I looked at the foot-long weapon and declined. "Never touch the stuff."

"More than this may be touched before we warp in," he said grimly. "When Aldebaranian riff-raff gets snappish, I start using the armory. And passengers are classed with officers."

"That's no compliment on the Reward." He looked at me, holstered the shmobber and left.

AN HOUR LATER, I was presented with the captain's compliments and asked to attend him on the bridge. The whole business was beginning to annoy me more than slightly, but under the peculiar circumstances of my status I didn't feel like arousing any unnecessary antagonism. I went, determined not to be enlisted on either side—if it had come to choosing sides.

Steggo overflowed a huge armchair. A faint stubble covered his chin which, considering the cheapness of a depilosac, was unnecessarily filthy.

"Mr. Skandelli tells me you have no desire to be classed with the officers. However," he waved a huge paw to forestall my objections, "that's beside the point. You are Dr. R. Sims, late of Naval Research?"

"Yes. Robert Sims, physical chemist grade 2, Aldebaranian Project CBX-19329." I tried to keep my voice from quavering. This man wanted to bollix my papers.

He smiled and studied my questionnaire. "I am interested, Dr. Sims, in why a person of your standing chooses to travel on an uncomfortable cargo ship when the fastest negships and government cruisers are at his disposal."

"I am going home to visit my family whom I haven't seen in more than three years." I hoped my voice sounded confident. "Naval employees are not allowed aboard negships for matters of personal convenience. It would be six months before obtainable priorities would get me a cabin on a reconverted liner. Since my leave starts immediately, the Reward looked damn good."

Papers rustled as he held them up to the light. "The seal is genuine enough. Ordinarily, the matter would not have come to my attention. But remember, we are still traveling under the mercantile sections of the articles of war. After your amazing outburst to Mr. Skandelli—who approached you at my instigation, by the way—I thought you merited looking into."

"I told Mr. Skandelli what any passenger in his right mind would have. Having paid for my passage, my protection is in your hands and not in mine." I touched the door button. "May I go?"

"One moment." He turned his massive head slowly. "Mr. Ballew, bring in the prisoners."

Ballew was the astrogator. He was a thin fair-haired fellow who had been hunched over his charts during the interview. He grimaced and left, returning in a few seconds with five men.

The first of them was the tallest man I'd ever seen, not excluding the captain. The yoke of the restrainon about his neck barely seemed able to cover his body with its lines of force. His head was free to permit breathing, and the machine had been adjusted above his knees, enabling him to shuffle along in an odd, broken-legged fashion. The other four were likewise yoked.

Steggo introduced them to me.

"Ragin, whom I have logged as the leader of an abortive mutiny. T...

This is only a preview of this story. The site administrator is evaluating methods to bring it to you.