Robert Sheckley

Milk Run

"We can't pass It up," Arnold was saying. "Millions in profits, small initial investment, immediate return. Are you listening?"

Richard Gregor nodded wearily. It was a very dull day in the offices of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service, exactly like every other day. Gregor was playing solitaire. Arnold, his partner, was at his desk, his feet propped on a pile of unpaid bills.

Shadows moved past their glass door, thrown by people going to Mars Steel, Neo-Roman Novelties, Alpha Dura Products, or any other offices on the same floor.

But nothing broke the dusty silence in AAA Ace.

"What are we waiting for?" Arnold demanded loudly. "Do we do it or don't we?"

"It's not our line," Gregor said. "We're planetary decontaminationists. Remember?"

"But no one wants a planet decontaminated," Arnold stated.

That, unfortunately, was true. After successfully cleansing Ghost V of imaginary monsters, AAA Ace had had a short rush of business. But then expansion into space had halted. People were busy consolidating their gains, building towns, plowing fields, constructing roads.

The movement would begin again. The human race would expand as long as there was anything to expand into. But, for the moment, business was terrible.

"Consider the possibilities," Arnold said. "Here are all these people on their bright, shiny new worlds. They need farm and food animals shipped from home —" he paused dramatically "by us."

"We're not equipped to handle livestock," Gregor pointed out.

"We have a ship. What else do we need?"

"Everything. Mostly knowledge and experience. Transporting live animals through space is extremely delicate work. It's a job for experts. What would you do if a cow came down with hoof-and-mouth-disease between here and Omega IV?"

Arnold said confidently, "We will ship only hardy, mutated species. We will have them medically examined. And I will personally sterilize the ship before they come on board."

"All right, dreamer," Gregor said. "Prepare yourself for the blow. The Trigale Combine does all animal shipping in this sector of space. They don't look kindly upon competitors — therefore, they have no competitors. How do you plan to buck them?"

"We'll undersell them."

"And starve."

"We're starving now," Arnold said.

"Starving is better than being 'accidentally' holed by a Trigale tug at the port of embarkation. Or finding that someone has loaded our water tanks with kerosene. Or that our oxygen tanks were never filled at all."

"What an imagination you have!" Arnold said nervously.

"Those figments of my imagination have already happened. Trigale wants to be alone in the field and it is. By accident, you might say, if you like gory gags."

Just then, the door opened. Arnold swung his feet off the desk and Gregor swept his cards into a drawer.

Their visitor was an outworlder, to judge by his stocky frame, small head, and pale green skin. He marched directly up to Arnold.

"They'll be at the Trigale Central Warehouse in three days," he said.

"So soon, Mr. Vens?" Arnold asked.

"Oh, yes. Had to transport the Smags pretty carefully, but the Queels have been on hand for several days."

"Fine. This is my partner," Arnold said, turning to Gregor, who was blinking rapidly.

"Happy." Vens shook Gregor's hand firmly. "Admire you men. Free enterprise, competition — believe in it. You've got the route?"

"All taped," Arnold said. "My partner is prepared to blast off at any moment."

"I'll go directly to Vermoine II and meet you there. Good show."

He turned and left.

Gregor said slowly, "Arnold, what have you done?"

"I've been making us rich, that's what I've done," Arnold retorted.

"Shipping livestock?"

"Yes."

"In Trigale territory?"

"Yes."

"Let me see the contract."

Arnold produced it. It stated that the AAA Ace Planetary Decontamination (and Transportation) Service promised to deliver five Smags, five Firgels, and ten Queels to the Vermoine solar system. Pickup was to be made at the Trigale Central Warehouse, delivery to Main Warehouse, Vermoine II. AAA Ace also had the option of building its own warehouse.

Said animals were to arrive intact, alive, healthy, happy, productive, etcetera. There were heavy forfeiture clauses in event of loss of animals, their arrival unalive, unhealthy, unproductive, etcetera.

The document read like a temporary armistice between unfriendly nations.

"You actually signed this death warrant?" Gregor asked incredulously.

"Sure. All you have to do is pick up the beasts, pop over to Vermoine and drop them."

"I? And what will you be doing?"

"I'll be right here, backing you all the way," Arnold said.

"Back me aboard ship."

"No, no — impossible. I get deathly sick at the very sight of a Queel."

"And that's how I feel about this deal. Let's stick your neck out for a change."

"But I'm the research department," Arnold objected, perspiring freely. "We set it up that way. Remember?"

Gregor remembered, sighed and shrugged his shoulders helplessly.

They began at once to put their ship in order. The hold was divided into three compartments, each to carry a separate species. All were oxygen breathers and all could sustain life at about seventy degrees Fahrenheit, so that was no problem. The correct foods were put on board.

In three days, when they were as ready as they would ever be, Arnold decided to accompany Gregor as far as the Trigale Central Warehouse.

It was an uneventful trip to Trigale, but Gregor landed on the approach platform with considerable trepidation. There were too many stories about the Combine for him to feel entirely at home in their stronghold. He had taken what precautions he could. The ship had been completely fueled and provisioned at Luna Station and no Trigale man would be allowed on board.

However, if the personnel of the station were worried about the battered old spaceship, they hid it nicely. The ship was dragged to the loading platform by a pair of tractors and squeezed in between two sleek Trigale express freighters.

Leaving Arnold in charge of loading, Gregor went inside to sign the manifests. A suave Trigale official produced the papers and looked on with interest as Gregor read them over.

"Loading Smags, eh?" the official inquired politely.

"That's right," Gregor said, wondering what a Smag looked like.

"Queels and Firgels, too," the official mused. "Shipping them all together. You've got a lot of courage, Mr. Gregor."

"I have? Why?"

"You know the old saying — 'When you travel with Smags, don't forget your magnifying glass.'"

"I hadn't heard that one."

The official grinned amiably and shook Gregor's hand. "After this trip, you'll be able to make up your own sayings. The very best of luck, Mr. Gregor. Unofficially, of course."

Gregor smiled feebly and returned to the loading platform. The Smags, Firgels, and Queels were on board, each in their own compartment. Arnold had turned on the air, checked the temperature and given them all a day's ration.

"Well, you're off," Arnold said cheerfully.

"I'm off, all right," Gregor admitted with no cheer whatever. He climbed aboard, ignoring a faint snicker from the watching crowd.

The ship was tractored to a blastoff strip and soon Gregor was in space, bound for a tiny warehouse circling in orbit around Vermoine II.

There was always plenty to do on the first day in space. Gregor checked his instruments, then went over the main drive and the tanks, pipes and wiring, to make sure nothing had broken loose in the blastoff. Then he decided to inspect his cargo. It was about time he found out what they looked like.

The Queels, in the forward starboard compartment, looked like immense snowballs. Gregor knew that they were prized for their wool, which commanded a top price everywhere.

Apparently they hadn't gotten used to free-fall, for their food was untouched. He left them banking clumsily off walls and ceiling and bleating plaintively for solid ground.

The Firgels were no problem at all. They were big, leathery lizards, whose purpose on a farm Gregor couldn't guess. At present, they were dormant and would remain so throughout the trip.

Aft, the five Smags barked merrily when they saw him. They were friendly, herbivorous mammals and they seemed to enjoy free-fall very much.

Satisfied, Gregor floated back to the control room. It was a good beginning. Trigale hadn't bothered him and his animals were doing all right in space.

This trip might be just a milk run, he decided.

After testing his radio and control switches, Gregor set the alarm and turned in.

He awoke, eight hours later, un-refreshed and with a splitting headache. His coffee tasted like slag and he could barely focus on the instrument panel.

The effects of canned air, he decided, and radioed Arnold that all was well. But halfway through the conversation, he found he could hardly keep his eyes open.

"Signing off," he said, yawning deeply. "Stuffy in here. Going to take a nap."

"Stuffy?" Arnold asked, his voice very distant over the radio. "It shouldn't be. The air circulators—"

Gregor found that the controls were swaying drunkenly and beginning to go out of focus. He leaned against the panel and closed his eyes.

"Gregor!"

"Hmm?"

"Gregor!

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