Manifest Error by Gary Cuba   

Diogenes rediscovered the wayward bio-stasis chamber while struggling with the ship's balky cargo transfer lorry. The chamber, tucked inside a machinery plenum behind the lorry's docking nest, evoked a distant memory that now flooded through his synthetically evolved chimpanzee brain.

He had been feeling groggy from his automated onboard resuscitation that morning, but the sight of the misplaced unit swept his mental cobwebs clear in an instant. Diogenes slapped his palm against his forehead, then pressed the call button on the closest intercom unit with a hairy thumb. A wave of nauseating chagrin surged inside his belly.

"Bruno, get down here to the cargo bay, quick. We've got a problem."

More than that, he thought. This is an utter catastrophe. And it's all my fault!

Diogenes stared at the capacious cargo bay. In his distressed emotional state, it seemed to expand while he viewed it--or maybe he was shrinking. More than five hundred humans lay there in stasis, the polished surfaces of their suspended animation chambers agleam, neatly arrayed in the many overhead racks. All of them were en route to the burgeoning Terran colony on Epsilon Eridani IV, so very close now--only days away after their long 50-year voyage from Earth.

And all those passengers depended on the Company to safely get there. Which translated in local terms to he and Bruno, the only crewmembers on board, doing the mundane, menial work that they and their kind did across the entire human-controlled sector of the galaxy. The jobs that no humans in their right mind would ever want to do.

Like manning long-haul interstellar freighters, for instance.

At length, Bruno knuckle-walked into the bay and ambled over to Diogenes. He pulled an unlit cigar from his mouth. His massive gorilla body towered over Diogenes' puny chimp form. "What's the problem, lil' buddy?"

Diogenes pointed to the half-hidden bio-stasis chamber. "It's . . . it's not on the manifest."

"Odd place to stow cargo, I gotta say."

"I moved it there temporarily when I worked on repairing the transfer lorry, back when we got ready to embark from Earth L-5. Then I forgot about it. I never added it to the ship's cargo record."

Bruno studied the end of his stogie. "No problemo. These things happen. Just add it now. The date stamp on the entry will be unusual, but it won't matter. So long as we deliver what we took on."

"But that's just it, Bruno," Diogenes said. "I stowed it back there on our last trip, not this one."

Bruno clenched his cigar so hard it snapped in half. "Merciful Lucy, are you ever in deep crapola. That means this passenger is a hundred years late for his appointment!"

"Me? Bruno, you're supposed to be double-checking and signing off on everything I do. Not that you've ever actually done that. It's bad enough that I have to take care of all the jobs on this hulk of a freighter while you sit around and play with your toes. Legally, you're just as complicit in this as I am."

Bruno bared his teeth menacingly and gave out a single deep growl, then calmed down. "Okay, okay. You got a point. Question is, what are we gonna do about it? And why didn't this glitch come up on our last run to Eridani?"

"My guess is that the unit wasn't on the dockside shipper's loading record, either. Must have been yet another screw-up. Maybe they mistakenly recorded the chamber as being loaded onto another ship."

"I suppose I can see that happening. After all, the freight terminal workers are nothing but a bunch of half-evolved meatballs, too--just like you."

"Like you and me, you mean," Diogenes said, correcting him.

Bruno pivoted and strode off a few paces, his hirsute, pointy head lowered in apparent deep thought. Diogenes felt tears brimming in his eyes. How could he have been so stupid, so careless, so . . . so simian? He thought: My underclass status justifies itself once again. As it has so many times before. I try to do right. It just isn't fair!

"Okay, look," Bruno said, spinning around. "Like you said, there's no record of this person being aboard, else we'd have gotten shafted on the last trip. That means there must not have been anybody waiting for him to arrive, nor was there anybody back on Earth seeing him off. So the guy is clearly a non-entity as far as the universe is concerned. Given that, it seems to me the easiest solution is . . ." Bruno waved one of his large opposable thumbs toward the cargo room's external airlock, then moved his hairy hips backward and forward in a crass but clearly understandable gesture.

"I . . . I'm not sure I can do that, Bruno. It'd be murder."

"Think about it more. If we don't take care of this now, think about what your screw-up will cost us."

Easy enough to assess, Diogenes thought. We'll lose our jobs and forfeit all our retirement savings, along with our other Company benefits. Big fines, and probably a spell in jail. Maybe a very long spell, longer than our pitifully short lifespans. No more shore leave, no more fun going apeshit in the spaceport bars and whorehouses over the two weeks out of the four we're reanimated for at the tail end of each 50-year trip.

In short, no more bananas.

Diogenes cleared a clot of phlegm that had suddenly lodged in his throat. He lowered his head. "I guess you're right, Bruno. It does seem like that's the only viable solution . . ." His voice trailed off to inaudibility.

They manhandled the chamber out from behind the lorry and moved it to the entrance of the airlock. Bruno cycled the inner doors open.

"Bruno, wait. Let's at least see who this person is before we send him off to meet his Maker. I think I'd sleep better knowing that."

"In my opinion, that'd be a big mistake."

Diogenes activated the chamber's ID control, and the record of its contents immediately splashed onto the unit's display panel. "Oooooh, no, no, no. It's a little girl! Only eight years old, an orphan. Says here she's being shipped to her relatives' clan on Eridani to be raised."

"I told you not to look."

"Bruno, there's no way we can go through with this. No way. This would be even worse than murder, it's, it's--"

"It's something that needs doing, is what it is," Bruno said. He glared down at Diogenes. "Why are you suddenly so squeamish about humans, anyway? What'd they ever do for us except dump piles of feces on us to shovel?"

Diogenes stretched his small form as tall as it would go and met Bruno's fiery eyes. "I won't do it. It isn't right. And I won't let you do it, either."

The synth-gorilla stared back at Diogenes, an expression of disbelief on his face. "And how are you gonna stop me, lil' monkey-boy?" Bruno lifted his head and began hooting at the ceiling in a fit of unrestrained laughter, his hands holding onto his huge, heaving belly.

Diogenes charged Bruno and rammed into him with every ounce of strength and momentum he could muster. The overweight gorilla lost his balance and toppled into the open airlock. Diogenes quickly closed and locked the inner doors before Bruno could recover. He flipped the airlock intercom switch and announced: "That's how."

Bruno banged against the metal door with his meaty arms, creating deafening booms inside the cargo bay. "Let me out of here, you traitorous little cretin! You're acting like a baboon. You're totally out of control!"

"And if I do let you out? Will you calm down and see things my way?"

"I'll rip your spinal cord out of your scrawny body and stomp on it, is what I'll do! You can't get away with this, Diogenes. It's not going to work."

Diogenes curled his lips away from his teeth in a broad grin. "Then I guess you'd better stay in there until we're ready to dock. I'm going to transmit the manifest error situation on ahead to the Eridani port authorities, and we'll take whatever's coming to us. It's the right thing to do."

*****

Diogenes and Bruno sat together at a tiny table in the Eridani IV spaceport bar. Their shore leave to that point had been quite subdued, compared to their normal portside agenda.

For at least the dozenth time, Bruno said, "Diogenes, I'm really, really sorry for the way I acted up there. You sure you forgive me?"

"Yeah. Don't give it another thought, big buddy."

Diogenes sipped on his drink, thinking about how life could be so utterly mysterious and unpredictable. He'd been prepared to take his lumps over his mistake, and instead found himself the recipient of a sizable "no questions asked" finder's fee that the orphan's relatives had set up in an interest-bearing escrow account a hundred years before. The original funding for it was the "lost cargo" claim settlement that the Company had agreed to, way back then.

Of course, Diogenes had given an equal share of his boon to Bruno. After all, they were a team. And loyal Company employees always stuck together.

Over the course of the intervening century, the family's prosperous descendants had completely forgotten about the girl. But when she finally showed up, they were delighted to welcome her into their clan with loving arms. No charges had been filed against either Diogenes or Bruno, since the Company had long ago cleared the incident from their books--a simple insurance matter. And the tiny human cargo had been safely delivered, after all. She'd thanked Diogenes and Bruno in person, just that morning. The media loved it: An exquisite story of a little lost waif rescued, a tale which might have come straight from the pen of Charles Dickens.

It was indeed an incredible denouement, Diogenes thought. Yet, for all his newfound wealth and temporary fame, there was only one thing he felt good about: For once, he'd managed to do the right thing.



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