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´╗┐Title: Consignment
Author: Nourse, Alan E.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Consignment" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                           CONSIGNMENT

                        BY ALLAN E. NOURSE

                      ILLUSTRATED BY SUSSMAN

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Science Fiction
Adventures Magazine December 1953. Extensive research did not uncover
any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


[Illustration]


    In the jungle the vicious man-killer is king, but what chance would
    a tiger have in the Times Square traffic.


The three shots ripped through the close night air of the prison,
sharply, unbelievably. Three guards crumpled like puppets in the dead
silence that followed. The thought flashed through Krenner's mind,
incredibly, that possibly no one had heard.

He hurled the rope with all his might up the towering rock wall, waited
a long eternity as the slim strong line swished through the darkness,
and heard the dull "clank" as the hook took hold at the top. Like a cat
he started up, frantically, scrambling, and climbing, the sharp heat of
the rope searing his fingers. Suddenly daylight was around him, the
bright unearthly glare of arc lights, the siren cutting in with its
fierce scream. The shouts of alarm were far below him as he fought up
the line, knot after knot, the carefully prepared knots. Twenty seconds
to climb, he thought, just twenty seconds--

       *       *       *       *       *

Rifle shots rang out below, the shells smashing into the concrete around
him. Krenner almost turned and snarled at the little circle of men in
the glaring light below, but turning meant precious seconds. A dull,
painful blow struck his foot, as his hands grasped the jagged glass at
the top of the wall.

In a moment of triumph he crouched at the top and laughed at the little
men and the blazing guns below; on the other side lay the blackness of
the river. He turned and plunged into the blackness, his foot
throbbing, down swiftly until the cool wetness of the river closed
about him, soothing his pain, bathing his mind in the terrible beauty of
freedom, and what went with freedom. A few dozen powerful strokes would
carry him across and down the river, three miles below the prison
fortress from which he had broken. Across the hill from that, somewhere,
he'd find Sherman and a wide open road to freedom--

       *       *       *       *       *

Free! Twenty-seven years of walls and work, bitterness and hateful,
growing, simmering revenge. Twenty-seven years for a fast-moving world
to leave him behind, far behind. He'd have to be careful about that. He
wouldn't know about things. Twenty-seven years from his life, to kill
his ambition, to take his woman, to disgrace him in the eyes of society.
But the candle had burned through. He was free, with time, free, easy,
patient time, to find Markson, search him out, kill him at last.

Hours passed it seemed, in the cold, moving water. Krenner struggled to
stay alert; loss of control now would be sure death. A few shots had
followed him from the wall behind, hopeless shots, hopeless little
spears of light cutting across the water, searching for him, a tiny dot
in the blackness. Radar could never spot him, for he wore no metal, and
the sound of his movements in the water were covered by the sighing wind
and the splashing of water against the prison walls.

Finally, after ages of pain and coldness, he dragged himself out onto
the muddy shore, close to the calculated spot. He sat on the edge and
panted, his foot swollen and throbbing. He wanted to scream in pain, but
screams would bring farmers and dogs and questions. That would not do,
until he found Sherman, somewhere back in those hills, with a 'copter,
and food, and medication, and quiet, peaceful rest.

He tried to struggle to his feet, but the pain was too much now. He half
walked, half dragged himself into the woods, and started as best he
could the trek across the hills.

       *       *       *       *       *

Jerome Markson absently snapped on the radiovisor on his desk. Sipping
his morning coffee thoughtfully as he leafed through the reports on his
desk, he listened with half an ear until the announcer's voice seeped
through to his consciousness. He tightened suddenly in his seat, and the
coffee cooled before him, forgotten.

"--Eastern Pennsylvania is broadcasting a four-state alarm with special
radiovisor pictures in an effort to pick up the trail of a convict who
escaped the Federal Prison here last night. The escaped man, who shot
and killed two guards making good his escape, dived into the river
adjoining the prison, and is believed to have headed for an outside
rendezvous somewhere in the Blue Mountain region. The prisoner is John
Krenner, age 51, gray hair, blue eyes, five-foot-nine. He is armed and
dangerous, with four unsuccessful escape attempts, and three known
murders on his record. He was serving a life term, without leniency, for
the brutal murder in July, 1967, of Florence Markson, wife of the
now-famous industrialist, Jerome Markson, president of Markson
Foundries. Any person with information of this man's whereabouts should
report--"

Markson stared unbelieving at the face which appeared in the visor.
Krenner, all right. The same cold eyes, the same cruel mouth, the same
sneer. He snapped off the set, his face white and drawn. To face the
bitter, unreasoning hate of this man, his former partner--even a prison
couldn't hold him.

A telephone buzzed, shattering the silence of the huge office.

"Hello, Jerry? This is Floyd Gunn in Pittsburgh. Krenner's escaped!"

"I know. I just heard. Any word?"

"None yet. We got some inside dope from one of the men in the prison
that he has an outside escape route, and that he's been digging up all
the information he could find in the past three months or so about the
Roads. But I wanted to warn you." The policeman's voice sounded distant
and unreal. "He promised to get you, Jerry. I'm ordering you and your
home heavily guarded--"

"Guards won't do any good," said Markson, heavily. "Krenner will get me
if you don't get him first. Do everything you can."

The policeman's voice sounded more cheerful. "At any rate, he's in the
eastern part of the state now. He has four hundred miles to travel
before he can get to you. Unless he has a 'copter, or somehow gets on
the Roads, he can't get to you for a day or so. We're doing everything
we can."

Markson hung up the receiver heavily. Twenty-seven years of peace since
that devil had finally murdered his way out of his life. And now he was
back again. A terrible mistake for a partner, a man with no reason, a
man who could not understand the difference between right and wrong. A
man with ruthless ambition, who turned on his partner when honesty got
in his way, and murdered his partner's wife in rage when his own way of
business was blocked. A man so twisted with rage that he threatened on
the brink of capital punishment to tear Markson's heart out, yet Markson
had saved him from the chair. An appeal, some money, some influence, had
snatched him from death's sure grasp, so he could come back to kill
again. And a man with such diabolical good fortune that he could now
come safely to Markson, and hunt him out, and carry out the fancied
revenge that his twisted mind demanded.

Markson took the visiphone in hand again and dialed a number. The face
of a young girl appeared. "Hi, dad. Did you see the news report?"

"Yes, I saw it. I want you to round up Jerry and Mike and take the
'copter out to the summer place on Nantucket. Wait for me there. I don't
know how soon I can make it, but I don't want you here now. Leave
immediately."

The girl knew better than to argue with her father. "Dad, is there any
chance--?"

"There's lots of chance. That's why I want you away from here."

He flipped off the connection, and sighed apprehensively. Now to wait.
The furnaces had to keep going, the steel had to be turned out, one way
or another. He'd have to stay. And hope. Perhaps the police _would_ get
him--

       *       *       *       *       *

The elderly lady sat on the edge of the kitchen chair, shivering. "We'll
be glad to help you, but you won't hurt us, will you?"

"Shut up," said Krenner. The gray plastic of his pistol gleamed dully in
the poor light of the farm kitchen. "Get that foot dressed, with tight
pressure and plenty of 'mycin. I don't want it to bleed, and I don't
want an infection." The woman hurried her movements, swiftly wrapping
the swollen foot.

The man lifted a sizzling frying pan from the range, flipping a
hamburger onto a plate. He added potatoes and carrots. "Here's the
food," he said sullenly. "And you might put the gun away. We don't have
weapons, and we don't have a 'phone."

"You have legs," snapped Krenner. "Now shut up."

The woman finished the dressing. "Try it," she said. The convict stood
up by the chair, placing his weight on the foot gingerly. Pain leaped
through his leg, but it was a clean pain. He could stand it. He took a
small map from his pocket. "Any streams or gorges overland between here
and Garret Valley?"

The farmer, shook, his head. "No."

"Give me some clothes, then. No, don't leave. The ones you have on."

The farmer slipped out of his clothes silently, and Krenner dropped the
prison grays in the corner.

"You'll keep your mouths shut about this," he stated flatly.

"Oh, yes, you can count on us," exclaimed the woman, eyeing the gun
fearfully. "We won't tell a soul."

"I'll say you won't," said Krenner, his fingers tightening on the gun.
The shots were muted and flat in the stillness of the kitchen.

An hour later Krenner broke through the underbrush, crossed a rutted
road, and pushed on over the ridge. His cruel face was dripping with
perspiration. "It should be the last ridge," he thought. "I've gone a
good, three miles--" The morning sun was bright, filtering down through
the trees, making beautiful wet patterns on the damp ground. The morning
heat was just beginning, but the food and medications had made progress
easy. He pulled himself up onto a rock ledge, over to the edge, and felt
his heart stop cold as he peered down into the valley below.

A dark blue police 'copter nestled on the valley floor next to the sleek
gray one. It must have just arrived, for the dark uniforms of the police
were swarming around the gray machine He saw the pink face and the
sporty clothes of the occupant as he came down the ladder, his hands in
the air.

Too late! They'd caught Sherman!

He lay back shaking.

Impossible! He _had_ to have Sherman. They couldn't possibly have known,
unless somehow they had foreseen, or heard--. His mind seethed with
helpless rage. Without Sherman he was stuck. No way to reach Markson, no
way to settle that score--unless possibly--.

The Roads.

He'd heard about them. Way back in 1967 when he'd gone up, the roads
were underway. A whole system of Rolling Roads was proposed then, and
the first had already been built, between Pittsburgh and the Lakes. A
crude affair, a conveyor belt system, running at a steady seventy-five
miles per hour, carrying only ore and freight.

But in the passing years reports had filtered through the prison walls.
New men, coming "up for a visit" had brought tales, gross exaggerations,
of the Rolling Roads grown huge, a tremendous system building itself
up, crossing hills and valleys in unbroken lines, closed in from weather
and hijackers, fast and smooth and endless. Criss-crossing the nation,
they had said, in never-slowing belts of passengers and freight
livestock. The Great Triangle had been first, from Chicago to St. Louis
to Old New York, and back to Chicago. Now every town, every village had
its small branch, its entrance to the Rolling Roads, and once a man got
on the Roads, they had said, he was safe until he tried to get off.

Clearly the memory of the reports filtered through Krenner's mind. The
great Central Roads run from Old New York to Chicago, through New
Washington and Pittsburgh--

Markson was in Pittsburgh--

Krenner started down through the underbrush, travelling south by the
sun, the urgency of his mission spurring him on against the pain of his
foot, the difficulty of the terrain over which he travelled. He was too
far north. Somewhere to the south he'd find the Roads. And once on the
Roads, he'd find a way to get off--

       *       *       *       *       *

He stopped at the brink of the hill and gasped in amazement.

They ran across the wide valley like silver ribbons. The late afternoon
sunlight reflected gold and pink from the plasti-glass encasement,
concealing the rushing line of travel within the covering. Like twin
serpents, they lay across the hills, about a mile apart, the Road
travelling east, and the Road moving west. They stretched as far as he
could see. And he could see the white sign which said, "Merryvale
Entrance, Westbound, Three miles."

As he tramped, across the field he could hear the hum of the Roads grow
loud in his ears. An automatic, machinelike hum, a rhythm of motion.
Close to the westbound road he moved back eastward along it, toward the
little port which formed the entrance to it. And soon he saw the police
'copter which rested near the entrance, and the uniformed men with their
rifles, alert. Three of them.

Krenner fingered his weapon easily. It was almost dark; they would not
see him easily. He kept a small hill between himself and the police and
moved in within gunshot range. He could see the rocket-like car resting
on its single rail, waiting for a passenger to enter, to touch the
button which would activate the tiny rocket engines and move it forward,
ever and ever more swiftly until it reached the acceleration of the
Roads, and slid over, and became a part of the Road. Moving carefully,
he slipped from rock to rock, closer to the car and the men who guarded
it.

Suddenly the bay of a hound cut through the gloom. Two small brown dogs
with the men, straining at their leashes. He hadn't counted on that.
Swiftly he took cover and lined his sights with the blue uniforms.
Before they knew even his approximate location he had cut them down, and
the dogs also, and raced wildly down the remainder of the hill to the
car.

"Fare may be calculated from the accompanying charts, and will be
collected when your car has taken its place on the Roads," said a little
sign near the cockpit. Krenner studied the dashboard for a moment, then
jammed in the button marked "Forward," and settled back. The monorail
slid forward without a sound, and plunged into a tunnel in the hill. Out
the other side, with ever-increasing acceleration it slid in alongside
the gleaming silver ribbon, faster and faster. With growing apprehension
Krenner watched the speedometer mount, past two hundred, two hundred and
twenty, forty, sixty, eighty--at three hundred miles per hour the
acceleration force eased, and the car suddenly swerved to the left, into
a dark causeway. And then into the brightly lighted plasti-glass tunnel.

He was on the Roads!

Alongside the outside lane the little car sped, moving on an independent
rail, sliding gently past other cars resting on the middle lane. An
opening appeared, and Krenner's car slid over another notch, disengaged
its rail, and settled to a stop on the central lane of the Road. The
speedometer fell to nothing, for the car's motion was no longer
independent, but an integral part of the speeding Road itself. Three
hundred miles per hour on a constant, nonstop flight across the rolling
land.

A loudspeaker suddenly piped up in his car. "Welcome to the Roads," it
said. "Your fare collector will be with you in a short while. After he
has arrived, feel free to leave your car and be at ease on the Road
outside. Eating, resting, and sleeping quarters will be found at regular
intervals. You are warned, however, not to cross either the barriers to
the outside lanes, nor the barriers to the freight-carrying areas front
and rear. Pleasant travelling."

Krenner chuckled grimly, and settled down in his car, his automatic in
his hand. His fare collector would get a surprise. Down the Road a short
distance he saw the man approaching, wearing the green uniform of the
Roads. And then he stiffened. Three blue uniforms were accompanying him.
Opening the car door swiftly, he slipped out onto the soft carpeting of
the Road, and raced swiftly away from the approaching men.

They saw him when he started to run. Ahead he could see a crowd of
passengers around a dining area. A shout went up as he knocked a woman
down in his pell-mell flight, but he was beyond them in an instant. His
foot hindered him, and his pursuers were gaining. Suddenly before him he
saw a barrier--a four foot metal wall. No carpet beyond it, no
furnishings along the sides. A freight area! He hopped over the barrier
and plunged into the blackness of the freight tunnel as he heard the
shouts of his pursuers. "Stop! Come back! Stop or we'll shoot!"

They didn't shoot. In a moment Krenner came to the first freight
carrier, one of the standard metal containers resting on the steel of
the Road. He ran past it, and the next. The third and fourth were open
cars, stacked high with machinery. He ran on for several moments before
he glanced back.

They weren't following him any more. He could see them, far back, where
the light began, a whole crowd of people at the barrier he had crossed.
But no one followed him. Odd that they should stop. He centered his mind
more closely on his surroundings. Freight might conceal him to get him
off the Roads where no passenger station would ever let him through. He
climbed to the top of a nearby freight container and slipped down in.
Chunks of rock were under his feet, and he fell in a heap on the hard
bed. What possible kind of freight--? He slipped a lighter from his
pocket and snapped it on.

Coal! A normal freight load. He climbed back up and looked along the
road. No pursuit. An uneasy chill went through him--this was too easy.
To ride a coal car to safety, without a single man pursuing him--to
where? He examined the billing on the side of the car, and he forgot his
fears in the rush of excitement. The billing read, "Consignment: Coal,
twenty tons, Markson Foundries, via Pittsburgh private cutoff."

His car was carrying him to Markson!

His mind was full of the old, ugly hate, the fearful joy of the
impending revenge. Fortune's boy, he thought to himself. Even Sherman
could not have done so well, to ride the Rolling Roads, not just to
Pittsburgh, not to the mountains, but right to Markson's backyard! He
shivered with anticipation. Pittsburgh was only a few hundred miles
away, and at three hundred miles an hour--Krenner clenched his fists in
cruel pleasure. He hadn't long to wait.

       *       *       *       *       *

An hour passed slowly. Krenner's leg was growing stiff after the
exertion of running. Still no sign of life. He eased his position, and
stiffened when he heard the little relay box above the consignment sheet
give a couple of sharp clicks.

Near the end! He hugged himself in excitement. What a neat trick, to
ride a consignment of coal to the very yards where Markson would be! The
coal yards which he might have owned, the furnaces, the foundry--. There
would be men there to receive the car from the line, well he could
remember the men, day and night, working and sweating in those yards and
mills! There would be men there to brake the car and empty it. He was in
old clothes, farm clothes--he would fit in so well; as soon as the car
slowed he could jump off, and simply join the other men. Or he could
shoot, if he had to. A little agility in getting out of the car, and a
little care in inquiring the way to Markson's office--

The car suddenly shifted to the outer lane. Krenner gripped a handle on
the inside and held tight. He felt the swerving motion, and suddenly the
car moved out of the tunnel into the open night air. He climbed up the
side and peered over the edge. There were five cars in the consignment;
he was on the last. Travelling almost at Road speed along the auxiliary
cutoff. Swiftly they moved along through the night, through the edge of
the Pittsburgh steel yards. Outside he fancied he could hear the rattle
of machinery in the yards, the shouts of the men at their work. Making
steel was a twenty-four hour proposition.

Then they were clear of the first set of yards. The car made another
switch, and Krenner's heart beat faster. A white sign along the side
said, "Private Property. Keep off. Markson Foundries Line." Soon now
they would come to a crunching halt. Men would be there, but his gun was
intact. No matter how many men he met, he had to get to Markson.

The car shuddered a little, but the acceleration continued. They were
rising high in the air now, above the foundries. He looked down, and
could see the mighty furnaces thrusting their slim necks to the sky.

A bolt of fear went through him. How far did the automatic system go?
Automatic loading of coal from the fields, automatic switching onto the
Rolling Roads. Automatic transfer of cars onto a private line which led
the cars to the foundries. Where did the automatic handling stop? Where
did the _men_ come into it? Twenty-seven-year-old concepts slid through
his mind, of how freight was carried, of how machines were tended, of
how steel was made. In a world of rapidly changing technology,
twenty-seven years can bring changes, in every walk of life, in every
form of production--

Even steel--

A voice from within him screamed, "Get off, Krenner, get off! This is a
one way road--" He climbed quickly to the top of the car, to find a
place to jump, and turned back, suddenly sick with fear.

The car was going too fast.

The first car had moved with its load to a high point on the elevated
road. A thundering crash came to Krenner's ears as its bottom opened to
dislodge its contents. Without stopping. Without men. Automatically.
From below he could hear a rushing, roaring sound, and the air was
suddenly warmer than before--

The next car followed the first. And the next. Krenner scrambled to the
top of the car in rising horror as the car ahead moved serenely, jerked
suddenly, and jolted loose its load with a crash of coal against steel.
Twenty tons of coal hurtled down a chute into roaring redness--

Twenty-seven years had changed things. He hadn't heard men, for there
were no men. No men to tend the fires. Glowing, white-hot furnaces,
Markson's furnaces, which were fed on a regular, unerring, merciless
consignment belt, running directly from the Roads. Efficient,
economical, completely automatic.

Krenner's car gave a jolt that threw his head against the side and shook
him down onto the coal load like a bag of potatoes. He clawed
desperately for a grip on the side, clawed and missed. The bottom of the
car opened, and the load fell through with a roar, and the roar drowned
his feeble scream as Krenner fell with the coal.

The last thing he saw below, rushing up, was the glowing, blistering,
white-hot maw of the blast furnace.





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