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Dear Sam:

I agree about keeping in touch. Old pals should stick together, especially when they're both in the space transports.

Your letter, with quotes from your diary during Starlight's trip with the troublemaker, reached me after apparently being forwarded over half the known universe. I promptly slipped the message spool into the viewer, but I can tell you that I slipped it in with trembling fingers, owing to what I've been living through myself. I have to admit that what you went through was pretty awful. But I'll tell you, Sam, what I'm going through is worse yet.

Just as you're first officer on Starlight, I'm first on Whizzeroo. You will see from that name that our company isn't quite as dignified as the one you're working for, but never mind that. It could be worse. One of our sister ships is TSM Clunker. The way these names come about is, the Old Man looks at the records of this or that ship, and all of a sudden he gets red in the face, bangs on the desk, and yells, "Look at this lousy record sheet! They call this the Star of Space, hah? Why, they haven't met a schedule in the last ten trips! Star of Space, my foot! From now on they're Muddlehead!"

And that's that. Next trip to the loading center, out comes a crew to paint out Star of Space and paint in Muddlehead.

The Old Man judges strictly by results. If you have a streak of bad luck, or even if the whole crew comes down with the green sandpox, through no fault of their own, that's still no excuse. All it wins you from the Old Man is:

"Don't give me your alibis! Did you keep the schedule or didn't you keep the schedule?"

The answer better be, "Well, yes, chief, sure we kept the schedule!"

"O.K. That's all I'm interested in."

You see what I mean. It makes it kind of rough if, through no fault of your own, the gravitor gives out before its triple-clad warranty period is up, or a jump-point slides out of congruity and hangs the ship up in the middle of nowhere for a month. It doesn't matter if you don't have any more control over the trouble than you have over the speed of light. The only thing that counts is, "Did you keep the schedule?" 

I think you get the picture, Sam. This just isn't an outfit where they study the crew's brain waves after every trip, or send along psychologists, nurses, and free candy bars to keep us happy.

Now as for this trouble I'm in. I think I ought to tell you that the way the Old Man operates is kind of old-fashioned, from some points of view. Now, don't think I'm saying that it's ridiculous. A forty-five automatic is pretty old-fashioned, but when the big lead slugs start coming out, I'll tell you, there's nothing ridiculous about it. That's what you've got to bear in mind when I tell you about this.

One way the Old Man is kind of old-fashioned is the way he operates when somebody double-crosses him. There was a third officer a while back that false-boosted a cargo of first-grade Stiger hides, jumped ship at the next loading center, and collected a neat eighty-thousand profit for the hides and the cargo-section. This bird invested thirty thousand in laying such a long crooked trail that it would cost a mint to track him down and catch him.

Now, the modern, up-to-date space freight executive will not let emotion cloud his reasoning, but will feed this problem to his computer, and will come up with the best answer from a strictly profit-and-loss standpoint.

And what did the Old Man do? Well, they tell me the first thing he did was to rise up behind his desk, spin his chair over his head, and slam it into the wall thirty feet across the room.

"I'll get that crook if it kills me." 

Now, as to exactly what happened next, I don't know. I wasn't there. But the bird that stole the hides turned up ten months later orbiting a planet in a space yacht, stone dead with an iron bar wrapped around his neck.

Now, it's a very old-fashioned thing—it's "positively infantile behavior"—to go out and nail the bird that's robbed you, especially when he's laid such a crooked trail that it compounds the loss to locate him and give it to him right between the eyes.

It's old-fashioned. But I'll tell you, Sam, it really discourages the next crook that gets a bright idea.

Double-crossing the boss is rough business in this outfit. Honest but stupid mistakes can be almost as bad. There was, for instance, a cargo-control man on one of our ships—it's named the Moron's Delight now—who made three blunders in a row, on the same trip.

First, he missed cold-mold spots on a cargo of hardshell beans. The mold ate into the beans, generated heat and moisture, the beans sprouted, and the cargo-section arrived at the pick-up station split wide open with green slop drifting out.

Next, he O.K.'d a pressure-plate-type elevator-section filled with a cargo of grain that had cutbug eggs in it. The eggs hatched into maggots, which, eating steadily, grew into armored slugs, and then looked around for some rock to drill into for the next step in their life-cycles. The nearest thing was the wall of the elevator-section, which, as a result, arrived at the pick-up station holed like a sieve, with the grain drifting in a giant cloud around it.

You might think this was enough disaster for anybody, but this cargo-control man was exceptional.

The next cargo was a complete self-contained automatic factory, built for an ore-rich planet with conditions too tough for human comfort. You know how these self-contained factories work. Roughly, one part has diggers, crushers, grinders, and conveyers; another section has separators and furnaces, and the chemical-treatment centers where objectionable impurities are got out, and alloying elements put in; further on there's Special Processing, followed by Manufacturing, where the finished product is made. Another section houses the hydreactor, dynamos, and energy-balance equipment, while yet another has the automatic control center. Outside, there are arrangements to move slowly from place to place, as the factory eats up the ore supply.

There's one more device, that receives the signal by which the factory is controlled from a distance. If you want it to make one thing, you send one signal. If you want it to make something else, you send another signal. The exact nature of these signals is a deep, dark secret, with the control apparatus put together in sections, one contractor knowing one part of the plan, one another, and so on.

But there's a funny thing about these self-contained factories. On recent orders for checking cargo, the cargo-control man is instructed as follows:




The "NOT" in this warning is put in red and underlined three times.

Now, in the first place, no one can buy any chemical coating that will stop scale organisms, despite the terrific demand. Anyone with such a process could make a mint. Therefore, why keep it secret?

And in the second place, why be so desperate to keep the cargo-control man from using his electronic probes? How could they hurt a chemical coating?

You see what I mean. There's a screwy aspect to the warning. But there must be some reason for it.

Now, what do you suppose this cargo-control man did when he saw the warning?


He read it over three or four times, growled, "They're nuts," and went ahead and used probes anyway. I had this direct from the first officer of the Moron's Delight while we were in an entertainment palace on a frontier planet called Snakehell.

The Moron's Delight, by the way, makes the run from Snakehell out. Personally, this was the first time I ever knew there was anything out beyond that place. But apparently the Old Man found some excuse to open up an outbound run.

Now, as you know, these automatic factories come in different sizes. The biggest come in pieces, with teams of specialists to cluck over them all the way out.

But the particular factory entrusted to Moron's Delight —which was named Recordbreaker before this happened—was the small model. This is about a hundred feet long by eighty wide in the middle, and has roughly the look, from overhead, of an Earth-type horseshoe crab.

To protect it from damage, the factory has to be put in a cargo section, and the contract specifies a particular kind, specially shaped and padded, and made of thick high-quality alloy steel.

Any spaceman can see that this super-duper cargo-section uses a lot more steel, and everything else, than it needs. But, of course, it was the automatic-factory company's engineers who made up the specifications, and what they know about designing cargo sections could be written on the head of a pin. Still, there's no getting out of using the things, since they're specified in the contract.

Now, to get back to the cargo-control man on Moron's Delight. Having checked the way the factory was bedded into its gigantic flexwood rests, and having examined all the springs, pneumatic pads, layers of plastic webwork and everything else on his checklist, he duly came to the warning NOT to use his electronic probes, and used them anyway. He didn't find anything wrong, put his O.K. on the necessary papers, and the cargo section was boosted to the cut-loose point. Then the ship started back.

When the deluxe cargo section reached a certain position, it would make a subspace jump. The detectors showed that it did that, so of course it seemed that there was nothing to worry about.

The only trouble was, the cargo section went on through subspace and never came out on the other end.

It's not hard to guess what went wrong.

When this cargo-control man ignored the warning and used his probes on the factory, he was begging for trouble.

Obviously, the wizards who made the factory wouldn't be so illogical without some reason. Since they didn't want the electronic probes used near the factory, it must be that the probes would somehow interfere with it. Since the reason they gave wouldn't hold water, there must have been some other reason.

Now, just what part of this self-contained factory could the signals from the probe affect? Certainly they wouldn't hurt the digging or initial-processing equipment. But what if, after going through all the elaborate precautions for secrecy, it just happened to turn out that the signals from the probes could activate the supersecret remote-control unit—by pure accident?

Sure, they'd make changes. But until then, how to safely ship the almost-finished factories for rush orders they had on hand?

That must have been the reason for the gibberish about the new chemical coating. A cargo-control man with any kind of nose for trouble would read that warning, and you couldn't pay him to put a probe in there.

But, as you remember, this particular cargo-control man did it anyway.

Naturally, life being as it is, he activated the remote-control unit. That started up the factory.

Now, the factory was designed to mine iron ore, and, using its own special process, turn it into iron and steel goods. Well, the whole hundred-foot length of the factory was packed in an alloy steel container. The diggers, crushers, and grinders were designed to handle any ordinary ore, but you can see that an ore of the hardness of this alloy-steel container would pose something of a problem for the factory.

Also, the factory was designed to move under its own power to the nearest ore. But in this case the ore—the alloy steel cargo section—could be detected in all directions, completely surrounding the factory.

Apparently it took time for the factory's computers to work these problems out. So everything seemed peaceful and quiet when factory and cargo section disappeared into subspace.

But not too long after that, the factory apparently worked out the difficulties, slid out some newly-fabricated, specially-tipped drills and magnets, and settled down to business.

When time came for the cargo section to go back into normal space, there wasn't enough left to do the job. It had been eaten up by the factory.

When the alarm on this missing automatic factory came in, naturally nobody had any idea what had happened. But it looked like someone had worked out a way to highjack a cargo part way through subspace.

Right away, the Space Force got worried about the possibilities, and put out an All-Sectors alert.

No doubt you heard about that alert, at the time. But you remember, they called it off, and they never did explain what happened.

Naturally. They were too embarrassed.

They did find the factory, surrounded by a vast number of little metal objects of two kinds. One was a short hollow cylinder closed at one end and slightly flared at the other, about the size of a large inkwell, and with a tiny bouquet-of-roses design on one side. The other objects were little, slightly-arched disks, with a small handle on top of each one. There were literally millions of these things, each one made out of very thin cast-iron.

The Space Force, operating under an All-Sectors alert, was keyed up to the limit to begin with, and at first didn't know what to expect from all these objects. After they got over that, there was the problem of getting the factory into another cargo section, when all the factory was interested in was eating up the cargo section and turning out more millions and millions of these little disks and cylinders. One thing led to another, and since it all took place in subspace, everyone was pretty frazzled by the time they got the factory out again, along with some millions of its products.

Meanwhile, anyone with the leisure to stop and think was trying to figure out the function of these small cast-iron cylinders. The disks fit neatly right on top of them, but what was their purpose?

You can imagine their frame of mind when it dawned on them that this miracle of modern science had succeeded in converting an expensive alloy-steel cargo section into a host of worthless undersize cast-iron chamber pots. Worse yet, they couldn't turn the factory off, because the supersecret control-signal generator had been shipped out by a different route, using a competing carrier. And when the special factory representative did arrive, it developed that the factory, in solving the conflicting orders put into it by the accidental signals from the probes, and then in carrying out the mismatched orders by reducing high-quality steel to cast iron, had acquired a "hardnose psychosis," and become "perverse and uncooperative."

In short, the expert couldn't shut it off. Instead, the factory got hold of his control-signal generator and made fifteen or twenty little chamber pots out of it, and he was afraid to go back in there for fear it would try the same thing on him.

You can see, Sam, it was a wild life while it lasted.

Now, the upshot of this, so far as everybody working for the company was concerned, was the renaming of the ex-Recordbreaker, its dispatch out beyond Snakehell, the sudden disappearance of the cargo-control man, and a ten per cent cut of all pay clean across the board, including the Old Man's salary, so the company could pay off that cargo section the automatic factory ate up. There was also a big uproar about the psychotic condition the factory had got into, and threats of lawsuit, but the Old Man got it across to the manufacturer just what lousy publicity could come out of this. So everything is now settled except paying for the cargo section.

What I'm trying to get across, Sam, is just how fast you can get flattened if anything goes wrong, and also I want you to get a good clear picture of the trouble-potential of this cargo-control man who disappeared after Recordbreaker was renamed Moron's Delight. If there was ever anyone who served as a regular magnet for bad luck, he seems to be the one. Of course, he came to us with a wonderful recommendation from Interstellar Rapid Transport, but they're a competitor, if you get what I'm driving at.

Now, Sam, as for my own little difficulties. As I told you, that mess you ran into with the troublemaker was pretty rough, but it looks like a vacation compared to what I've got on my hands.

I think I've told you enough so you'll understand when I say the Old Man has a special way of reacting when anything gets him in a corner. If you think he refers to a computer for the optimum way to maximize profits and minimize losses, I haven't got the picture across. What he does is to cut rates, and speed up schedules, and grab every piece of business he can lay his hands on, practically no-questions-asked.

Ordinarily, we're a little careful about what we contract to deliver. As you know, there's always some zoo eager for a prime specimen of two-hundred-foot live kangbar, or some research institute that's just dying to crack the secret of those radioactive cysts that turned up after the big explosion on Cyrene IV. The job the Old Man contracted for wasn't quite as open-and-shut as these two. On the surface, it looked like a borderline case. You'd never touch it if you didn't need the money. But to look at it you'd think you might get out of it in one piece. Unfortunately, when this contract came through, our ship—Whizzeroo—happened to be between jobs and in a good spot to take it on.

The first I knew of this, "Hook" Fuller, second officer of Whizzeroo, walked in and shoved a sheet of message paper under my nose. I looked at it and read:




The Old Man's name was right there at the end of it.

"Fifty live banjo-birds," I said. "What's a banjo-bird?"

Hook may not be grammatical, but he knows his job, and he's tough enough to last in this business.

"Damn if I know," he said, scowling. "But it don't sound so good to me. I been trying to talk the captain into shorting out the gravitors and begging out of it, but the captain's afraid the Old Man might find out."

Pete Snyder, the third officer, spoke up hopefully.

"Maybe we could break off the end of the locking hook. It's already worn down pretty bad. Then they'd have to send us back for a refit and Spittoon would get the job."

"That's no good," said Hook, "because this Human Resources outfit is sending their own special cargo section, and it don't hook on. You tow it with cables and spacer bars."

For the next half hour, Hook, Pete, and I sweated over the problem of getting out of this assignment. But we just couldn't find any way out, and in due time we ended up off a pioneer planet that the atlas called "Rastor III" and that the pioneers called "Poverty." The special cargo section was already there, and we seemed to be stuck with the job.

As a last resort, Hook, the captain, and I put it to Barton, our cargo-control man.

"Listen," said the captain, "I'm not eager for this job. There's half-a-dozen subspace jumps between here and cut-loose, and one of these jumps winds us on some new route out beyond Snakehell. We're taking these jumps with a spar-and-cable outfit, we've got to play nursemaid to fifty good-sized birds for the whole trip, and it isn't enough that we certify them now at the start, but they've got to be certified all over again before every jump. We can't just walk down the corridor to take care of them, either, because the cargo section doesn't hook in close. It's just cabled up. Worse yet, the spars are so long the corridor extension won't reach. There's no way to get from the ship to the cargo section without suiting up. Frankly, Barton, this job stinks. Can't you find something wrong with the cargo section?"

"Sir," said Barton, "I've turned myself inside out hunting for something wrong with that cargo section. That's the best set-up cargo section I've seen in some years."

"How about scale?"

"No scale in it, and this trip it wouldn't be critical anyway."

"Why not?"

"It's the birds we want to get back. Scale won't hurt the birds. Besides, there's no scale there."

"What about all that freak equipment to keep the birds unconscious? Any flaw in that?"

"Not that I can find. All that stuff is warranted anyway."

"That won't keep it from failing."

"No, but it means we can collect if it does fail. Besides, I can't find anything wrong with it. There's only one thing I can think of."

"What's that?"

"If the cargo section's jump equipment is out of phase with ours, we could refuse to use it."

"No soap. We already checked that."

"Then we're stuck with the job."

Hook and I argued with him, the captain threw his weight behind us, but Barton wouldn't budge.

The next thing we knew, we were ferrying up banjo-birds and loading them into the cargo section, where each bird was supposed to get strapped into his own individual couch, and have an anesthetic tube clapped over his nostrils. This is easy to say, but when you consider that each of these birds stands about three-feet eight-inches high, weighs around sixty pounds, has a set of short powerful wings armed with hooks, has spurs ten inches long on the back of each leg—not to mention the claws—you will see that we had quite a lot of fun getting these things to lie down and breathe the anesthetic. And I haven't even mentioned the best part of this bird yet. That is the bill. You would expects birds built on these lines to have short curved heavy beaks. But not these things. They have a straight slender bill around two feet long, and as sharp on the end as a needle. Since the male birds use the bill like a rapier, it's quite an experience to handle one of them. I almost forgot to mention the male birds' yellow down—if that's what to call it—which is made of innumerable tiny barbs which dig in, break off, work into your skin, and fester.

Thanks to the colonists, who had each bird tied up in a leather bag with its feet strapped together, head sticking out, and a strap on its beak, we were able to load the things into the tender and get them up and into the cargo section. Unfortunately, there was no way to get them strapped onto their individual couches without taking them out of the leather bags. Once we did that, their wings were free. Then the fun started.

I know, you can say, "Why didn't you anesthetize them first?" Well, the anesthetic was intended to keep them under, in a kind of light doze, for the better part of the trip. It was mild, slow-acting stuff, and didn't work unless you could keep the birds' nostrils up tight against the hose for about five minutes. But you had to strap them in to keep their heads still, and to do that, you first had to get them out of the bags. That freed their wings.

Now, the first thing a bird did when his wings were free was to use them to rip the strap off his beak. Now he could stab in a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree arc with that beak.

When he stabs something with it, he puts all his force directly behind the point. The bill will then go through a regulation spacesuit, through a man's thigh inside the spacesuit, and stick out the other side, as we discovered from experience.

The only restraint on the bird was the knotted thong holding his legs together. He wasn't strong enough to break the thong, and his bill wasn't made for ripping and tearing. All the same, he was able to hop around after a fashion, and under the light artificial gravity this was bad enough.

Well, you can guess what happened. One thing led to another, and several of the men, jumping back to get out of the way, lost their grip on the leather bags and let more birds loose.

Pretty fast we found out that the birds fight with the bills, not with just us, but each other. The males start up a kind of fencing match, strutting and thrusting, and the females give a chirr noise, and sneak kicks at any other females in reach.

Of course, we had this contract, so we had to keep the birds from killing each other. But we had a little handicap we'd never dreamed of.

What seems to set the males off is the yellow down or feathers of the other males. The females, we discovered, have a duller, sand-colored down. Unfortunately, our spacesuits, for visibility, are bright yellow. We had put on our spacesuits to make it safer handling these birds. It didn't work.

As I can think of no words to do justice to the scene in that cargo section, Sam, I'll just have to say that the birds had everything their own way for the first half hour or so.

Then one of us stopped running, jumping, and parrying beak-thrusts long enough to realize that that habit of stabbing at anything yellow could come in handy.

The end of the next hour found us looking down on a good dozen of these birds with their bills stuck fast in a yellow-painted two-by-four that we found amongst the dunnage. They were pretty subdued birds, I'll tell you. But now it occurred to us that the birds still weren't where we had to put them. And first we had to somehow get their beaks out of the two-by-four.

This turned out to be a long, delicate process of tapping the two-by-four with hammers, and once we had it done, we couldn't get anywhere till we painted the spacesuits the exact sand color of the females' down. This put the male birds in a pleasant enough humor so we could strap them down. But handling the female birds, we had to either paint the suits yellow again, or else get kicked senseless at the first opportunity. The female birds don't seem to use their beaks to fight with but they have big clublike spurs, and they don't hesitate to use them.

By the time we got everything done, we were a sorry-looking crew, covered with stab-wounds, bruises, sweat, brown and yellow paint, and raised red splotches where the down hooks had sunk in.

Our medic was afraid the stab wounds might get infected, and since his method of insuring against that was to thrust a swab in to the full depth of the stab, you can see that our misery wasn't over when the birds got through.

I have felt almost that bad at the end of some trips, Sam, but never before at the beginning.

"Well," said the captain, flat on his back in a pool of sweat, with the medic just putting his equipment back in his carrying case, "that takes care of 'A.' I'll tell you boys, if 'B,C,D,' and 'E' in this job are like 'A' was, I'll turn in my commission and retire."

We took that, of course, for just so much blowing off steam, but he had a point all right.

Hook gingerly felt a purplish bruise at the calf of his leg. "I think we're over the hump. After all, we've got 'em tied down now."

"I hate live cargo," growled the captain, as if he didn't hear. "I particularly hate working for a zoo, a museum, or a research center."

"Why so?" I asked, and he pointed to a copy of the contract lying atop his locker.

"Hand that thing down and I'll show you. I didn't want to show you till we got past this point."

He opened up the contract, searched through it, and read aloud:

"The aforesaid authorized carrier does hereby warrant and agree, in addition, to release from confinement and individually feed and exercise, once each standard Terran forty-eight-hour period, each and every one of the aforesaid units of live cargo, as defined above. The feed and exercise period will be not less than forty standard Terran minutes, and not more than eighty standard Terran minutes."

Hook clapped his hand to his head, and I sagged against the bulkhead.

"There's fifty of them," said the captain. "If we exercise each of them every forty-eight hours, and do it for forty minutes apiece, that means we're going to be working at it all the time, since it's going to take time to wake them up, and it's going to take time to strap them in afterwards."

"Why," said Hook, looking dizzy, "can't we just forget that part of the contract?"

"Because," growled the captain, "then the birds will die, the contract will fall through, and the Old Man will flatten us."

Well, there was nothing to do but go ahead with it, but before this trip was half up I, for one, found myself wondering which was worse, the Old Man, or the birds.

For one thing, there were just too many of them. It took about a one-hour minimum from start to finish to unstrap, wake-up, feed, exercise, and re-anesthetize, each one of the birds. If there had been fifteen or twenty of them, maybe one or two men could have handled the job, but there were fifty. Then, this one-hour period assumes that nothing went wrong. That was the exception. Nine times out of ten the bird took a crack at a sleeping bird, or it rammed its beak into the man taking care of it, or it bounded up and slugged either him or some bird lying on its back, with both feet.

It wasn't long before we were all either laid up, or else just getting over it. If the birds had gotten weaker or more tractable as time went on, maybe we could have stood it. Instead, contrary to what anyone would think, they just got more cranky and hard to manage. They were wearing us out a lot faster than we were wearing them out.

And, because of the stringent penalties in the contract, we mustn't let any one of the precious beasts be seriously injured.

The reason for the whole trip, according to the captain's information, was that the colonists on the planet, who naturally tried every kind of food they could lay their hands on, had found that the liver of this bird, eaten cooked or raw, created a tremendous sense of well-being, backed up by every outward evidence of health. After about a week, this faded out, leaving whoever had eaten it very sleepy. Aside from the need for twelve to fourteen hours sleep for the next two or three nights, no harmful side-effects resulted, and the treatment could be repeated, again with no visible harm from it. The Human Resources Research Center naturally wanted to find out about this. The obvious way to go about it would have been to cut out and freeze the livers of the birds, and ship them for analysis. But the scientists at the Research Center on Ultima had apparently discovered it was easier to get a great big grant for a great big project than to get a little modest grant for a little modest project, so they were going at it in a big way.

That was great for them, but it was ruining us.

Along in the fifth leg, when we were ready to make our next-to-last subspace jump, and Barton, the cargo-control man, had just finished his check, a male bird that was being exercised went past Barton, and spotted the yellow underside of the flap of the open pocket that Barton kept his notebook in. The bird whipped his needle-sharp bill around and rammed it through the flap.

The bill passed through the upper part of Barton's abdomen on the left side, angled slightly upward and came out the back on the right side. Barton collapsed.

The crewman exercising the bird wanted to wring its neck, but no, of course, he couldn't do that, or he'd bring a huge penalty down on our heads.

The medic said there was nothing he could do except ease Barton's pain. The only way to save him was to get him to a hospital. We called a nearby colony planet, and learned that it was an idyllic place to live, but it had no hospital. A Space Force dreadnaught answered our emergency call, and said they had facilities to handle the case. An intent Medical Corps colonel made an examination, and said Barton would recover, but would need plenty of rest and special treatment. The last we saw of Barton was his smiling face above the sheet on a stretcher as he was carried out through the air lock.

Naturally, we were thankful for Barton's sake. But this left us with no cargo-control man.

And under the terms of the contract, a duly-accredited cargo-control man had to check the cargo and certify it before each and every subspace jump, or a massive penalty would be levied, wiping out the profit of the trip.

This seemed bad enough, but this was just the start. Next the captain announced that he had completed his thirty years' service three days ago, and, taking advantage of the retiring captain's privilege, he directed me to set him down, with a list of stores, on that idyllic colony planet we'd turned to for help. We tried every argument we could think of to get him to change his mind, but he said, "No, boys, I'm retiring as captain of the Whizzeroo. Damned if I intend to stay on, and then retire as captain of the Flying Junkheap, Pack of Boobs, or Cretinous Jackass."

Well, we could see his point all right, and after arguing till we were blue in the face, we finally had no choice but to let him go.

This, of course, made me acting captain, Hook acting first-officer, and so on. But this was the kind of ship—like one on a collision course with a sun—where a raise in rank didn't bring quite the zestful feeling that it ought to.

Since Barton had checked the cargo and certified it, we could now make exactly one more jump. We had to make two to fulfill the contract.

Hook said earnestly, "I wish I had thirty years' service behind me."

I nodded glumly, "I know what you mean."

"What do we do now?"

"The only thing I can think of is to send a priority emergency message asking the Old Man for help."

Hook snorted. "What can he do? Beside blame us for the whole mess?"

"Cargo-control men retire just like anyone else. But their certificates are still good. If the Old Man can pull enough strings, he may be able to get the Colonization Council, or maybe the Colonists' Protective Association, to run through their recorded files on nearby planets, for a retired cargo-control man."

With no real hope, we settled down to wait for a reply, and kept busy feeding and exercising the birds. The birds kept getting shorter-tempered and nastier and since we had gotten fairly skillful at warding off kicks and stabs from them, they now developed the habit of hitting us with the undersides of their wings. This doesn't sound bad, but the wings are about the only part of these birds that had actual feathers. And along the outer edge of the underside of the wings are several rows of quills that didn't develop into feathers, but end in barbed points. These aren't the hooks I mentioned earlier; these are in addition to the hooks.

By this time, we were all wearing some kind of armor under our spacesuits, and were worrying for fear the birds might break their bills on the armor and thus become 'imperfect specimens' which would incur another of the contract's penalties. Added to all our other worries, this business with the wings almost brought us to the breaking point.

Now, however, to our astonishment, we got the following message from the Old Man:




We read this over several times, then headed for the planet. The subspace jump was smooth, and we had no trouble of any kind. The Space Force center on the planet co-operated with us, located Jones, Jones was eager to get off the planet, and agreed to end his retirement at once and ship with us at standard wages.

We were dizzy with our good luck, but somewhere a warning bell was going off. It couldn't be this easy.

When this cargo-control man came on board, with hangdog expression and unwilling to look us in the eyes, we had our first nasty suspicion. The fellow had a kind of sloppy quickness, as if he drifted into trouble through lack of method, then tried to get out by snap decisions. He'd answer without thinking, and several times shot out lightning replies without waiting for the whole question. I guess this was supposed to show brilliance, but since he didn't guess the right questions, the effect sort of fell flat.

When we'd got him out of the control room, Hook looked through his record folder and swore.

"This is the same bird that did it to Moron's Delight. After that, the Old Man gave him highest recommendations, and he transferred to Comet Spacelanes."

Pete Snyder straightened up.

"I wondered what hit them! Remember that double wreck and explosion?"

"Yeah," said Hook.

"Then what?" I said nervously.

"Well, they juggled him around from ship to ship, and then they gave him highest recommendations and he hired out to Outbeyond Nonscheduled Freight. He lasted one trip with them and it says here he voluntarily chose to retire when the ship reached Casadilla II."

"'Voluntarily chose to retire'?"

"That's what it says here."

I'd never heard that one before. I said, "Funny the Old Man didn't do that to him."

"The Old Man had it in for Comet. This fellow damned near wrecked Comet."

"And now," I said, "we've got him."

"Yeah. We've got him."

Like I said at the beginning of this letter, Sam, that mess you had with the troublemaker was rough, but this mess is worse yet.

As I see it, I've got exactly four choices:

1) Watch this cargo-control man day and night, and go the rest of the trip on schedule. But when you've got somebody like this aboard, things go wrong that you never dreamed of.

2) Dump him back on Casadilla II before he has time to wreck anything, and go ahead with no cargo-control man. This will cost us a huge penalty, and the Old Man will tear us to shreds.

3) Break my own contract, forfeit pay for this trip, and settle on Casadilla II. What this involves is pretty clear from the name the colonists have given the planet.

4) Turn pirate.

I don't know what you would do, Sam, but after careful thought I've decided to put this fellow under heavy guard, lock him up till we're ready to make the next jump, bring him out just long enough to let him make his inspection and put his signature on the certificate, and then lock him up again. It doesn't seem like he ought to be able to do too much damage, that way.

After this last jump, we cut the cargo section loose and another line will pick it up and take it the rest of the way to Ultima. We'll be coming back this way, so when we get back here, we'll let our friend "voluntarily choose to retire" all over again, and then we'll head back for a refit. We need a refit.

Now, Sam, here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to leave this letter here, with instructions to hold it unless something happens to Whizzeroo, or unless we just disappear and don't show up for a long time. If that happens, they're to forward it to you.

But if we get back all right, I'll go right on from here and let you know just what happened. So you'll know from whether there's any more to this letter whether we got through in one piece, or another one of those fantastic accidents hit us.

I don't think this cargo-control man ought to be able to hurt us too much, if we watch him day and night.

But you never know.

Like I say Sam, this here is a real mess.


As ever,




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