Michael nervously wiped the sweat from his paws. The raccoon bent the delicate wires as quickly as he could, trying his best not to damage them. He still had too much work left to do. He’d eaten through the amount of time he estimated for this part of the job already. Every moment he lingered was a moment in which he could get caught by port security. He knew the bull on the team, Richard, no Ryan, something with an R (didn’t even know the guy’s name and already hated him) wouldn’t like him any better if he got them all arrested. The captain, if you’re willing to call any dog that owns a ship captain, seemed more neutral. She kept the crew and ship running smoothly. Michael was pretty sure this heist was her idea.
He winced as a jolt of electricity shot through his paw. The jolt told him he’d just interrupted a ping. If the container missed another one someone would come out into the yard to inspect it. There was no turning back now. He studied the nest of wires he’d buried his paws in. Separating the wires that were part of the passive transponder system from the ones part of active alarm system was tedious. He powered through.
On a normal panel he would have been done by now. How was he supposed to know the container they were hijacking had been damaged? Usually transponder access was behind a metal sheet with four bolts. This container was a mess. Thanks to what appeared to be a collision with a crane, the metal sheet was bolted in place by eight bolts of differing sizes. Inside, rather than replacing the existing system, someone had cobbled together a working panel with parts of at least three different ones. Whoever made it was either lazy or resourceful. Either way it made Michael’s job difficult.
After separating a ribbon cable from the rest of the wires, he plugged his personal terminal into the control panel. All he had to do now was reflash the memory causing the transponder to broadcast the serial number for the container his crew was supposed to pick up. As long as the container didn’t lose power, it would continue to broadcast the new number. If it rebooted, he was out of luck. The real number was burned into the mainboard itself. The operation completed.
He couldn’t risk testing his hack. Telling the container to ping back its number would certainly be noticed by the harbormaster. He didn’t want there to be any suspicion about their pickup. It would work, probably. He secured the panel back in place then slinked back through the container yard to the docking pad where the rest of the crew and their ship sat.
His three crew mates stood idly in the ship’s cargo bay. The most noticeable of the group, at least to Michael, was the bull. He stood a head taller than everyone else, before counting his horns. The other two were Dobermans, the married couple. It was their ship. Michael and the bull were just along for the ride. The raccoon scurried across the docking pad and up the cargo ramp into the ship’s shaded bay. He raised both thumbs.
“What took you so long?” The bull said in a deep, hostile voice.
“I had a little trouble with the panel.” He waved to the side with his paw. “Nothing to worry about we’ll be fine.”
“Unless it reboots.” The bull needlessly reminded the group.
“It won’t reboot. The batteries on those things last for years without needing to be changed. We’ll be fine.”
The bull took a step forward. “We’d better be.”
“Calm down, Jonathan.” The female Doberman, Karin, ordered. “Ringtail,” Michael winced at the slur, “are you sure this is going to work?”
“Like I said,” he said trying to sound confident, but only succeeding in sounding reckless, “everything is fine. Nobody pays any attention to raccoons any ways.”
Jonathan huffed. “That may be true back on Procyon where there are so many of you no one stands out.”
“What he’s trying to say,” answered Walther, the final member of the crew, “is do you have an idea where we are?”
“The Shepherd system capital of the Empire and home of The Admiral himself.” He gave a mock salute.
“Don’t do that.” Walther scolded.
“Sorry.” Michael held his ears flat. “Why does where we are matter?”
Jonathan huffed again. Michael could tell he purposely exaggerated the flaring of his nostrils. If he remembered correctly this was a minor insult when coming from bovines or equines. “It matters because you may be one of a few raccoons on the planet. In the empire only first or second-class citizens can live in this system. Which means all you ever see here are dogs, bovines, and goats. As you well know, Procyon isn’t even in the empire. Seeing a raccoon slinking around is going to raise some hackles.”
“I’m sorry. I’m not up to date on the empire.”
“Well now you know.” Karin said. She looked back into the ship. “In fact when they’re loading our containers, just go pretend to work on something. I don’t want anyone asking you any questions.”
“Do you really think that is—“
“Yes ma’am, captain.”
“Skipper.” Walther and Karin said in unison.
“Right, sorry. I’ll be tuning up the air scrubbers if you need me.”
The raccoon retreated into the ship. The confined spaces and metal grates reminded him of home. The world of Procyon was covered in dense cities and jungles of pipelines and rails. In many places the sun did not make it to the ground though the mess. His cabin on this freighter was more spacious than his space growing up. At least here he didn’t have to share it with his sister. He frowned.
The last conversation he’d had with his sister was an argument. Since he could never bear to say goodbye, he’d settled for yelling. Worse yet, yelling was all they did since their father died. After a lifetime of body-breaking work, all he’d managed to leave them, besides considerable debt, was each other. She begged him not to go. He promised that the job would be more than enough to pay off the debt. He promised it would be enough to get them both off of that dying rock and to somewhere they could both build a life without being strangled by the corporations. He’d been unable to fulfill that promise. If this job paid out, though. He shook his head. He needed to focus. They needed to get off the planet first. Then he could plan his future.
He remained in place as the cargo was loaded. The freighter had a capacity of sixteen standard containers. While he was certain that Karin and Walther cared about all of them, he knew only one really mattered. On his terminal he watched as each container registered with the ship. As each was loaded it automatically transmitted its serial number and manifest to the ship.
After twenty minutes, it was all there. Sixteen containers of hardwood luxury furniture. All of it was destined for the planet of Bos, home to the largest shipyards ever made. It would be installed on luxury yachts or for the more prestigious parts of warships. With the containers loaded, the cargo ramp screeched as it closed.
Michael bolted back down the hallway to the hold. The rest of the crew was still securing the containers for take-off. “Did we get it?”
Walther raised a brow. “Isn’t that your job?”
“Oh, yes.” Michael walked the set of double-stacked containers. It took him a moment to recognize the correct container. “It’s this one.” He pointed.
“Are you sure? We need to be damn sure before we jump.” The bull said, as he always did, dismissively.
Michael peered down the narrow space between the containers. “Let me prove it to you.” He squeezed his way between the rows. The hacked panel was a pawful of feet in. It was the damaged one he’d opened earlier. “Yep this is it.”
“What the hell are you doing?” Demanded Karin as he squeezed his way back out.
“Don’t go between the containers. Do you know how massively stupid that is?” She shouted. “We just put them in here. What if a barge flew overhead and rocked the ship? Do you know what could happen to you?”
“He’d pop like a balloon. No more garbage fox.” Jonathan answered for him. Michael tried his best to ignore the remark, although his tail fluffed in spite of his attempt. “Do you have something to say?”
“Sorry, I was just checking to make sure we got it.” Michael told Karin.
Karin shook her head. “We can open the container to figure that out.”
The raccoon’s expression fell. Foolish and incompetent, he thought. For being the last working day he’d need for years, it sure didn’t feel good.
“Well?” Karin asked.
“Can you unlock it?”
“No,” he shook his head. “I only flashed the transponder. We’ll have to cut through it.”
“Cut?” The bull snorted. “Won’t the heat burn it up? Your job was to get us the cargo. Now you’re saying we have to damage it?”
Michael took a step back. More than anything he wanted to tell Jonathan to go screw himself. For all he cared his job was to get the dockworkers to deliver the container to the ship. Job done.
“We’re not going to cut it open.” Karin answered.
“Then how do we get around the garbage fox’s screw-up?”
“With this.” Walther announced from behind holding a salvage spreader.
“That is some serious equipment.”
“Yes. Do you think you can handle it?” Walther shoved the spreader to the bull. “Unless you’re too busy insulting the person who just made you rich.”
Jonathan took the spreader without saying another word. Michael glanced at Walther who was already walking away with Karin. He followed. “Where are you going, don’t you want to see him open it?”
They looked back. “It’s going to take him a while. We need to run through the preflight list. We’ll verify the contents before punching in the coordinates.” Karin answered. “You stay down here. I’m sure Jonathan’s got it. But if he needs, help its probably best if he doesn’t have to find you.”
The couple disappeared deeper into the ship. The raccoon sat against the wall and watched the bull work. The spreader made rapid-fire popping and banging sounds as it buckled and twisted the metal. More than anything, the challenge appeared to be making the initial hole. After Jonathan got a hole big enough for the jaws of the spreader, he ripped a hole big enough to march through quickly. Michael stood. Jonathan powered down the spreader and dropped it.
The fragrance from the cargo was not what Michael expected. It was bitter, sour. His face contorted, trying to defend against the assault. It certainly didn’t entice him the way people said it would. Jonathan noticed.
“What’s that matter; have you never smelled coffee before?” The bull slapped him on the back, causing him to stumble forward. He caught himself on the now twisted metal container. His nose came to rest against stacks of grey bags with the words WHOLE COFFEE CHERRY stenciled in blocky, black letters. “That is what four imperial tons of unroasted coffee beans looks like.”
Jonathan snorted. “Yeah, they don’t need to be roasted to be—“
“Jonathan, you and Michael get to the bridge. The port master wants us to clear the pad.” Walther yelled from elsewhere in the ship.
Jonathan grunted and clopped toward the bridge. Michael took another look at the container. Why would anyone be willing to pay for this garbage? He resisted the urge to slice open one of the bags and examine the beans. He could ask questions once they were off world.
Breaking gravity in a cargo freighter is a stressful experience. Unlike civilian travel ships, which are designed for comfort, or warships whose reinforced frames keep them from shaking, freighters are little more than sheets of metal welded over a frame. The bridge and staterooms are double hulled. The cargo areas generally aren’t intended to require atmosphere in jump. A lot of smaller freighters mount the containers directly on their hulls, cutting down construction costs considerably. This makes for vessels that, while vacuum worthy, protest greatly when flying in atmosphere.
As they began lifting away from the pad, the ship groaned. The thrusters engaged fully once they’d cleared the no wake zone. The ship wailed as air rushed over the hull. The turbines screamed as the lifters engaged, adding to the noise. Michael dug his claws into the plastic armrests of his seat. This was his second time breaking gravity. The first being merely weeks ago when he left his home world of Procyon. From there he’d only been transiting between orbital space ports or belting ships. His lunch churned in his stomach. Puking was the last thing he needed to do in front of this crew.
After what felt like an hour, the ship’s artificial gravity started. With it the feeling of being forced into his seat passed. Michael never learned how gravitational systems worked. All he knew was that they can output and moderate low levels of gravity. Not enough to simulate a planet, but enough to move about comfortably. He undid his harness and stood.
From the pilot’s seat, Karin keyed in sub-light coordinates. They would have to break free of the planet’s gravity well before jumping or risk a huge host of problems. In the meantime, all they had to do was hope they weren’t randomly boarded. The transponders on the cargo containers would inform any nearby naval vessels what they’re carrying. Karin leaned back in her chair.
“I have a question.” The other three crew members looked at the raccoon. “Why coffee? We could be stealing guns or missiles or something that has a use. Who is buying those dank bags back there?”
Karin and Walther shift to look at Jonathan. The bull crosses his arms. “Horses mostly, some dogs, I’ve heard foxes like the stuff. It’s not easy to get the beans to them first hand though so normally they mix it in things. I’m surprised you don’t know. I hear Procyon is a den of illicit activity.”
Michael swallowed the urge to defend his home world. “You’re saying it’s a drug? I thought it was medicine.”
Karin snorts. “It’s a drug. More specifically the caffeine in it is a drug. Which you can get other ways, but coffee has a taste people will pay premium for.”
“If people will pay so much for it, why not just sell it openly? Why all the security and control?”
Again, the couple looked to the bull. He threw his arms up. “Fine, I’ll just explain it all.” He undid his harness and scratched his stomach. “Bovines, like myself, and the horses and the goats together represent the largest population in the empire. We’re all herbivores. Our entire food chain revolves around crops. Because of this we are very careful about what we put in the soil of our worlds. We’re also mindful of what can endanger our crops.
“The coffee bean is somewhat of an ideal choice when dealing with bugs. Caffeine is a great pesticide. But too much can also be fatal to plants. What we do is we take the whole beans and scatter them in the fields. Our home worlds are too cold for coffee to grow so we have to import it.
“The empire is run by the dogs,” he gestures to Walther and Karin. “They treat caffeine as a restricted drug because of how it affects them.”
“And how is that?”
“An awesome blast of energy followed by several hours of panicked panting.” Walther answers.
“Only if you take too much.” Karin responded.
“Once or twice.” Walther answered. “Karin is a little more recreational. There aren’t really any health detriments, if you don’t overdo it. They can test for it, but they don’t unless you’re working with industrial equipment.”
“Like flying a freighter?”
“I don’t fly high.” Karin rolls her eyes. “Now the week in jump? Sometimes you need a way to keep things exciting.”
“Is that why people buy it? To keep things exciting.”
“No,” Jonathan answers. “We’re going to sell this to horses. To them it is everything you want in a drug, gives them lots of energy and focus at the same time. Their metabolisms are more predictable about it. If you’re a horse and you find a good barista in an underground coffeehouse, tell them your weight and how long you want to buzzed for and they can hit the target within fifteen minutes. It is amazing to watch. Although being in the empire makes it difficult for them to get it since it’s illegal for personal use.”
“What about bovines?”
“We react like horses. We do need to ingest an insane amount though. Which is way you’ll see bovines seeking non-organic solutions.”
“How do you know so much?”
“I have a six-year degree in organic chemistry. I worked for one of the agricultural corporations.”
Jonathan snorted. “And nothing. I’m not telling you my life’s story. You wanted to know about coffee, you know about coffee now.”
“How are we going to sell it all?”
“Through a reseller.” Walther answers. “We’ll get somewhere between thirty and fifty percent of street value. Based mostly on Karin’s ability to negotiate the final price.”
Michael’s tail twitched as he did the math. His pre-arranged cut was twenty percent of the sale price. But if the sale price was only a fraction of street value, not that he knew what that was, this job was looking to pay a lot less than he was hoping. He looked around the cabin, trying to appear confident. “How much is street value?”
Jonathan snorted. “Suddenly worried about your share, garbage fox?”
Michael’s faux confidence vanished. He avoided eye contact with the bull. “I’m just worried I won’t be able to get back home. Although I’m not sure I even know where that is any more.”
Karin stood and walked to the raccoon’s seat. She set a paw on his shoulder. “Don’t worry. Your share is going to be more than ten million, at the low end.”
His mouth fell agape. Ten million was more money than he thought he would see in his life time. It was enough to buy a spaceship or a solid down payment on his own starship. Not that he had ever dreamed that big before. If he could get ten million, he could return to Procyon and live like one of the company executives. He didn’t even need to go back to Procyon with that kind of money, he could live wherever he wanted. Although that would only be if they were talking about Federation Credits. This was the Empire. They used something else. Something with an old name. Ducats, that’s right.
“What is that in credits?”
Walther raised a brow. “About twelve million after you take the hit going through a currency broker.”
Michael’s eyes shot wide. “I can’t even picture that amount of money.”
“It doesn’t go as far as you think it will.” Karin walked to the hatch leading to the corridor. “We got a few more hours of standard flight before jump. Walther, make sure we don’t stray too close to any patrols. I know we already covered them not tracking outgoing ships as much as incoming, but I don’t want surprises.”
“Yes, honey.” He smiled.
She ignored him. “Jonathan, go down to the hold and throw the net over the containers. If they shift when we jump, I don’t want them slamming into the bulkheads.”
“Right away, boss.”
“New guy, get some rack time. When we’re in jump you can start going over how we’re going to permanently rig that container’s transponder.”
He hesitated. He didn’t really want to go to his quarters. His heart was all a flutter thinking of the fortune he’d soon have. Not that there was much else useful for him to do. He didn’t know anything about starship operations. He realized they were all going to stare at him until he said something. “Yeah, sure.”
“Good.” Karin nodded and disappeared through the hatch.
Walther took the helm. Jonathan left without making eye contact. Michael skulked out of the bridge. His bunk wasn’t special. The ship had one stateroom, which was shared by the couple. He was pretty sure they lived there too. When they interviewed him it was in there. From what he remembered, the room was nice. The rest of the accommodations were more utilitarian. There were four other living compartments. Each had a shower/head combination with plasti-glass walls and two bunks. Jonathan had been with the couple long enough to remove the top bunk from his compartment. Michael saw it stuffed into one of the two unused compartments when he first boarded.
When Michael entered his compartment, it was exactly as he’d left it. Bed made, two books on the shelf above his pillow, and a half-drunk six-pack of energy drinks set on the upper bunk. The other two changes of clothes he owned were stowed in the drawers under the bottom bunk. He’d learned as a young pup that the best way to know if someone had gone through your things was to give them all a place and make you always put everything in its place. His sister had said that was how the corporations wanted them to think. That way they could treat the raccoons like things, and they would know their place. Maybe she was right.
He laid on the lower bed. Absent mindedly, he lifted a book from the shelf above him. On many worlds, books had gone out of fashion, replaced by network terminals or smart cards or half a dozen other technologies. On Procyon though, they were the only reliable way to pass knowledge without monthly fees. While quaint, if you held a book you could always access its pages. As a child his father managed to get him into one of the public cooperative schools that wasn’t run by the corporations. It was the best school he attended, until the day the library’s data stopped. The digital library they bought ran on old technology. When the company that sold it decided everyone needed to upgrade that was it. The cooperative school tried to make do afterwards. But like every beacon of hope erected by the citizens of Procyon, it fell into the maw of the corporations.
As he flipped through the book, the memories of home started to fade. His eyelids began getting heavier and heavier as the successive hours of excitement enacted their toll. Maybe he should shut his eyes for a bit. It couldn’t hurt. Karin would surely wake him up before going into jump. He set the book back down and rolled on his side. A week from now he’d be richer than he’d ever dreamed. Now he needed to dream what to do with it.
Michael’s eyes snapped open. The room was dark. He had a feeling in his gut. The feeling he’d gotten since he was young when something was wrong. A moment later a fist pounded on his door. Then there was shouting. He knew it was Jonathan, but he couldn’t understand what he was saying. Living spaces were designed to stay pressurized individually in the event the main ship lost atmosphere. The doors and walls were thick.
Michael rolled out of the bed then flipped the latch on the door. From the other side Jonathan threw the door open. Given the ferocity he’d expected the bull to be angry. Instead he looked terrified. “The battery on your hack job died. An Imperial Corvette is within scanning range of us and closing.”
The raccoon sat upright, his tail fluffed as panic overtook him. He stared at the bull.
“Fix it.” He yelled.
Michael stood, pushed past the bull, and ran for the hold. Jonathan loudly followed. Walther was already waiting for them. He’d snaked a charging cable through the net Jonathan had cast over the containers.
“What are you doing?” Michael asked as he entered.
“Charging the container so it can continue broadcasting.”
“No,” the raccoon darted toward the cable. As he took it from the Doberman the control panel on the container chimed. “This is very bad.”
“What?” Both Jonathan and Walther asked.
“Crew,” Karin’s voice came over the loud speaker, she was practically yelling. “Why are we broadcasting that we have a container of organic coffee pesticide onboard?”
Jonathan picked up a receiver on the wall. Michael didn’t catch what he said. Instead he turned to Walther. “We need to move this net so I can get to the container. If we change it back, maybe they won’t notice.”
Walther nodded and ran to the far wall where he began undoing the cargo net’s anchors. Michael grabbed the tool belt he’d used earlier. Jonathan set the receiver down and helped Walther. As soon as they’d pulled the net back, Michael squeezed between the containers to get to the panel.
“They’ve noticed us.” Karin reported from the bridge. “They’re demanding our manifest. I’m sending the forged one. I’m also pre-igniting the jump drive. If this goes bad, we’re getting out of here fast.”
Michael, now sandwiched between two containers, reached the panel. He pulled a wrench from his belt and put it on the first bolt. In the contained space it was difficult for him to get leverage. He struggled. Slowly the bolt turned and eventually fell out, clanking against the steel floor. He started on the second.
“What is taking so long?” Jonathan asked, peering between the containers.
“I’m having trouble getting enough leverage to get the cover off.”
“They’re not buying it. They want me to cut the engines and yield to inspection.” Karin’s voice boomed.
“Move, let me at it.” Walther ordered.
Michael scrambled from between the containers. Walther slid in with the wrench. As he reached the panel, suddenly the ship lurched. The Doberman yelped as the gap between the containers tightened.
“They’ve fired at us. That was a sand round, the next one is going to be ballistic.”
“Get out of there,” Jonathan yelled.
“I’m stuck.” Walther replied.
The large bull shoved the raccoon out of his way. Jonathan tried to push his way between the containers. “I can’t reach you.”
“Move,” Michael shouted. The bull obliged. Michael’s heart raced as he squeezed into the gap, extending his arm. His paw met Walther’s. Jonathan grabbed him by the shoulders. Together the two pulled on the trapped Doberman.
“They’ve fired again.” Karin reported. “I’m jumping!”
“Pull!” Walther screamed.
The two pulled, the Doberman growled as his body ground against the containers.
“Is she counting down time to jump or impact?”
“Doesn’t matter, if you don’t get me out of here. Pull dammit!”
Jonathan dug his fingers into Michael’s shoulders and yanked on him. Walther slid further, yelling in pain.
Jonathan yanked again. Michael grunted as he pulled with all his might. The ship rumbled. The high-pitched ring of the jump drive filled Michael’s ears. His vision darkened.
“One.” Karin, voice distorted by the bending of space and time, said.
People react almost universally to entering jump space. As an extra dimensional envelop is stretched over the vessel, the brain is unable to process events correctly. Because of this, people very rarely remember the few seconds during the transition into jump space. Michael was no exception.
Dazed, Michael found himself on the cold steel floor of the hold. A crimson puddle spread from where the gap between the two containers had been. He recoiled back. As he put his right paw down to push himself away from the pool forming at his feet, an agonizing wet, painful feeling jolted up his arm. He lifted his arm. Where midway up his forearm was only air, and pain.
The pain raged so intensely the raccoon fell on his back. All he could do was scream. It didn’t help. He tried to use his other paw to stop the bleeding, but that only led to more pain. He tried to push himself away, toward the corridor. The floor, now covered in blood, was too slippery for him to get any traction. All he managed was to make a bloody mess of himself.
A firm hand grabbed his shoulder and dragged him from the blood. Jonathan had retrieved a trauma kit and already had it open. He withdrew an injection vial from the kit and loaded it into what looked like a gun made of needles. He calmly turned the dial on the device and then pressed it into Michael’s thigh.
Euphoria mixed with pain. Not enough to drive it away, but enough make it tolerable. Michael’s eyes shot wide. Jonathan looked down at him with a surprised look. He adjusted the dial on the device once more. He pressed it into the raccoon’s thigh again. This time, darkness.
When Michael awoke, the first thing he did was look at his right paw. Still missing. The reality of its loss started to set in, even if the pain was masked in the haze of drugs he was on. Someone, probably Jonathan, had applied a dismemberment cap to the limb. All ships carried sets of extreme trauma tools designed to keep the patient alive long enough to get them to the next port. Normally this was done by pumping them so full of medications they had to go through a rigorous, painful detox on the other side. Still, it was better than dying.
The last thing Michael remembered was screaming in a pool of blood. The events before that were a blur. He remembered shouting, but not what it was about. His throat burned as though he’d slept with his mouth open for days. He tried to push the clouds from his mind, but wasn’t able too.
He looked around. He was lying on the couch in Karin and Walther’s stateroom. He noted that Walther was absent. Jonathan was sitting in a chair nearby reading something on his tablet. Karin was seated on her bed. It looked like she hadn’t slept in days. Her commanding aura, gone. Her unshakable spirit, shattered. Michael remembered why Walther was missing.
Pushing himself upright with his remaining paw, he looked over his surroundings once more. The room was trashed, not like someone had torn it apart, more like nobody had bothered to clean it while they were living in it. Wrappers for both foods and medical supplies lay tossed around. Clothing had been piled in a few places. He reached out to grab the couch and pull himself up further. When he touched the couch with the stump of a paw he’d already forgotten was missing, a bolt of searing pain shot up his arm. The raccoon lost balance and fell back onto the couch, striking his head on the armrest.
Jonathan looked up. “Looks like he’s awake.”
Karin looked away from what he guessed were photographs. “How are you feeling?”
“Like a cargo container chopped my arm off. Could have been worse.” He quickly realized that was probably the worst possible answer. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Yes, you did.” She said. “It’s okay though. Because you’re right, we could have lost both of you.” She looked at Jonathan when she said, “we almost did.”
“What does that mean?” Michael asked.
“It means,” Jonathan stood. The bull clomped over to the couch and sat on the sofa table. “You almost bled out. Given the amount of synthetic blood in you right now, I’m surprised you’re as coherent as you are. Although, you have been sleeping for five days. Maybe you’ve had enough time to process the fluids we’ve been giving you and some of the effects have worn off.”
“I’ve been sleeping for five days? That means we should be coming out of jump soon, right?”
Karin shared a look Jonathan. He shrugged. She looked back at the raccoon. “We have a little more than thirty hours of travel time.” She and Jonathan shared a look. “Our air is going to run out before that.”
Michael shook his head. “What do you mean our air is going to run out?”
“We had a leak Jonathan and I couldn’t find and the computer didn’t register correctly. The recycler housing is cracked and every time the exchange kicked on, we lost air. We turned off the exchange, but it was too late.”
The clouds in Michael’s mind cleared enough for to realize what it all meant. They would slowly suffocate. Without a pilot to bring the ship out of jump at the right time, the ship would travel until the envelope decayed naturally. The ship would exit in interstellar space. The likelihood of it ever being found was slim. A grim question formed in his mind.
“Why didn’t you let me die then?”
The bull huffed. “We talked about it. Ultimately, we came to realize we’re not murderers. Even though survival was on the line letting you die would have been murder at that point since by the time we figured out the air situation you were already stabilized. Besides, the last thing we need to face at judgement time is the murder of a garbage fox.”
Michael didn’t know whether it was the drugs or his impending death, but he was done being insulted. He shot to his feet, meeting the sitting bull’s eye line. “I am a raccoon. Do not call me a garbage fox again. I get that I come from a trash word that neither the empire nor the federation actually want to occupy. I get that my people are some of, if not the lowest educated and poorest people, in the galaxy. I get that everyone views us as completely expendable. That does not give you the right to call us garbage though. Let’s not forget,” he stared first at bull and then at the Doberman, “we all know what you people did to the foxes. You should speak their name with far more respect.”
The other two avoided his gaze. He stood, chest heaving, shaking with rage. Jonathan looked away. He then slowly stood and returned to the chair. Karin turned back to her photographs. Michael remained standing for another long moment before returning to the couch. Silence permeated the stateroom.
After a long while, Karin stood and wandered to the small galley. She pulled a sack from one of the lower cabinets. Michael recognized it as one of the coffee bags from the container. Jonathan noticed too.
“Tried to set aside your own little stash?” He asked.
“Of course. I always wanted to try roasting some of these. Since,” she paused. “This is as good as a time as any.”
“Won’t that make us use our remaining air faster?” Michael asked.
“Marginally, but we’re so short it won’t matter much.” Jonathan answered.
“Is that really the best for someone in my condition?”
“Probably not, but I just spent the last several days accepting that I’m about to die no matter what. I know you haven’t had as much time as us to process that, so you don’t have to try it if you don’t want to.” Karin responded.
Michael contemplated his options. As much as he would like to hope they would survive, he hadn’t lived a life where hope amounted to much of anything. “I’ve never had coffee. And like you said, this is as good a time as any.”
Karin sliced the bag open. She withdrew a pawful of green cherries. A bitter smell filled the area as she separated the flesh from the beans. After watching for a moment, Jonathan began prepping the beans as well. Without two arms, Michael just watched.
Once a sizable amount of beans had been gathered, Karin spread them across a metal tray. She took the tray into the shower and turned on the blowers and heat lamps. The beans needed to dry before roasting, she explained. The whole process was less sordid than he’d imagined. She let the beans dry for about an hour before she seemed satisfied.
The Doberman took the beans from the shower once she was satisfied they’d dried enough. She poured them into a pan set on one of the small induction plates in the galley. As the beans roasted a new aroma filled the stateroom. It was rich and earthy. Minutes later, the beans began crackling. They grew darker. When they’d reached a deep brown color, Karin removed them from the heat. The trio sat silently, savoring the smell as the beans cooled.
Karin started heating a kettle of water. From a cabinet she grabbed a glass carafe that looked like an hourglass with the top cut off. Into the top part she put a porous cloth. Then she crushed the roasted beans, releasing more of their exotic aroma. She poured the coarse bean powder into the cloth. She then retrieved the now boiling kettle of water.
“This would probably be stronger if I had something better than a spoon to grind these up with.” She said as she poured the water slowly over the beans. A brown liquid filled the bottom chamber of the carafe. “With an entire bag of cherries, we can always make more.”
With the coffee made, Karin removed the cloth with the grounds and set it aside. She poured the brown liquid into three tin cups and handed them to her crew. Michael struggled to take his at first, unable to reach out with two paws. He sniffed the cups contents. It smelled bitter.
“How much of this stuff until my organs shut down?” The raccoon asked.
Jonathan snorted into the cup he’d already brought to his mouth. “Your organs are probably already shutting down due to all the synth-blood we pumped into you.”
“I guess I’ve been trying to ignore that.” He looked into the cup again. “Should I even drink this?”
Karin shrugged. “I’m not a doctor, but it can’t be worse than suffocating.”
Michael shrugged. He took a drink of the hot coffee. He couldn’t put a description to the initial flavor, as it overwhelmed him. Then a measure of bitterness followed. He wrinkled his snout.
Karin and Jonathan chuckled as they watched him. “Don’t worry,” Karin said. “Try sipping it so you don’t overwhelm yourself.”
He sipped. The coffee had a rich earthy taste, one that he would have never found on Procyon. There was also a subtle sweetness that complimented the bitter aftertaste. Michael leaned back into the couch. The three drank their coffee in silence. Jonathan finished his cup first and poured another. Karin did the same. When Michael finished, he set his empty tin cup on the couch’s armrest.
“How long until I feel something?” He asked.
“Give it a few more minutes.” Karin answered.
The raccoon closed his eyes and waited. First, he noticed his heart rate and temperature rise. He felt blood pulsing through the tips of his ears. Moment later, his felt a burst of energy. His eyes shot open. “What is happening?”
“Feels pretty good, right?”
“I feel like I can do anything.” He stood. “Let’s go fix the ship.”
“Can’t be done. We tried everything we could think of,” Jonathan said.
“What about electrolysis on the water reserve?”
“Won’t give us enough oxygen fast enough and we’d have to deal with the super explosive hydrogen safely somehow.”
“You didn’t even hear me out.”
“We already had five days to come up with something.” Karin said. “Just enjoy the high while it lasts.”
Michael flopped back down on the couch in protest. Dust flew from the cushions. He sniffed. It reminded him of the smell the containers coming from the mining worlds had. Back when he worked on the docks, he inspected containers that were damaged. Containers from each world smelled differently. Occasionally, he would get to open a container from a world with clean air and it would wash over him. Briefly, he would forget about where he was as the smells took him to places he’d never see. He jolted upright.
“We’re not going to die.” Michael announced.
“What do you mean?” Jonathan asked after a long silence.
“The containers are air tight. Which means they still have pressurized air. Most of what we’re carrying is preassembled, luxury furniture right? That means there is a lot of extra air in those containers.”
Karin’s ears perked up as she thought about it. “If we can pump the air out of the containers into the reserve tanks that might buy us at least the few more hours we need.”
“They have standard air hose connectors near the transponder panel.”
“How do you know this?” Jonathan asked.
“Because I’m the person you hired to rewire them. Trust me, I know them. In the hold are second generation SturdiCraft containers. Ignoring the one with the coffee in it, they look to be in good order.”
“Okay, Jonathan, get your suit on,” Karin ordered. “Go see if you can hook the containers up to the reserve tanks.”
Jonathan hesitated. Michael could tell the bull had already resigned himself to his fate and didn’t want to get his hopes up. “Yes skipper.” He said with a solemn nod.
The bull took a few minutes to put on a vacuum suit. He left the stateroom and entered the corridor which could serve as an airlock to any of the other compartments in the ship. Karin sealed the room behind him.
Waiting for the bull to pump the air from the containers was agonizing, both in the literal and figurative sense. Now that Michael was high, the drugs he’d been on were wearing off. Now that they might live, he needed to figure out what to do with his arm. Regrowing it would be costly. Prosthetics were almost as expensive and could be problematic.
“I’m pumping the air out of the last one now.” Jonathan said over the radio. “How are we looking?”
Karin had spent the whole time monitoring the life support systems. She rapidly swiped through a few screens on her terminal. She checked them over several times. Michael couldn’t tell what they said from the couch. She nodded once she was satisfied with the data. “At current usage,” she spoke carefully, “we have enough air for the next forty-one hours.”
Jonathan cheered so hard static burst over the intercom. “I’ll be back in there soon. Garbage—Michael, you did well.”
When the ship exited jump space hours later, they sent a distress call and were assisted by a mining trawler stripping a nearby asteroid belt. It tugged the battered freighter and its crew to a mining colony established on an otherwise uninhabited moon. They rushed Michael into surgery and dialysis to address his missing arm and imminent organ failure. He didn’t hear from either Karin or Jonathan for several days.
Without his cut of the sale, which Karin assured him before he was admitted would be completed quickly, he wasn’t able to afford a replacement limb. The hospital sealed his wound and outfitted him with a static prosthetic. Several days passed. Michael became worried they’d abandoned him. When he was released from the hospital, he was terrified.
The hospital complex was in its own structure on the moon. He took a train to the port where they’d left the freighter. When he arrived, the ship was still in its berth. The crew hatch was open. He climbed a aboard. Jonathan was seated at the helm adjusting the chair.
“What the hell?” Michael yelled. “You just left me in a hospital for almost a week? You didn’t stop by or anything. I was worried you’d taken off!”
Jonathan turned his head without standing up. “You could have called us you know.”
“I don’t have your ID.”
“Should have asked.”
Michael shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Did you sell the coffee?”
“Where is my cut?” Michael screamed.
Jonathan turned back to facing forward, let out a great sigh, and stood. He walked over to the raccoon. Even with his typical uninterested demeanor, Michael knew he wouldn’t like what was coming next. “You’re standing in it.”
“What?” Jonathan put a hand on Michaels shoulder. He shrugged it off. “How?”
“When you were in the hospital Karin and I talked. She had to take care of Walther’s body and she realized she wanted out. She didn’t want to set foot on the ship again. We appraised the ship. It was worth a little less than yours and my shares combined. Your medical bills also took a small chunk. I decided to call it even. She left the station a few days ago. All she said was she wanted to live on a planet with thick forests and tall mountains.”
Michael stood frozen in disbelief. “You had no right to negotiate away my share.”
“True, but it felt like it was the right thing to do.”
The raccoon balled his remaining paw into a fist. “Now what?”
“Well, we own a ship, split evenly. If you really want out, we can jump out of the empire and sell it to the foxes. God knows they always need more ships.” The bull walked back to the pilot’s seat and plopped back down into it. “Karin did leave her contact list. Said she had another job lined up we could take. From there more jobs won’t be hard to find. What do you say, partner?”
Michael stepped toward the co-pilot’s chair. He ran his paw along the seatback. He had only one good arm, his hopes of riches dashed because of the over-sized racist sitting in the captain’s chair. Common sense said to catch the next rock hopper off this moon and go anywhere else. On the other paw, partner had a nice ring to it. Michael took a breath.
“One job, then we clone my arm back. After that, we’ll see how it goes.” Michael sat in the chair.