High in orbit, two pressure-suited figures drifted through
the huge vacuum cargo cage like ungainly birds in an impossibly
large aviary. As they searched among the containers, the radios
waves crackled with their curses. The orange and green striped
figure pointed to a floating crate. "Check that one, Mik," he
called to the other.
His partner kicked off from the box he had just finished inspecting. When he reached his target, he checked the shipping label. "Nyet. Too small anyway. It should be at least two meters on a side," Mik replied. "How `bout that one, Johnny?" He pointed.
The garishly suited Johnny fired a hand jet and drifted to the large container Mik had indicated. He found the shipping label and compared the numbers to a display on his datapad. "Bingo!" he announced. "This is the shipment. Let's get it into air, and check the cargo." He snapped a lanyard from his suit harness to a ring on the container. Mik joined him and did likewise.
"Da. Old man Schuster will throw a fit if he can't salvage his precious fruit." Inside his helmet, Mik shook his head. "What the devil possessed Carpenter to store perishable cargo in the net?" he asked disgustedly. He looked to Johnny and added, "Ready there? Jet." The two men fired their handjets. The container began to move slowly towards the cargo net gate.
"Drunk again, I imagine," Johnny answered the first question. "Gonna kill himself that way, one of these days. So what's the big deal with lemons, anyway? What's Schuster want with `em?"
"Don't know. Heard is something to do with the celebrations next month."
Behind his faceplate Johnny frowned. "What do lemons have to do with Independence Day celebrations?" he asked. He eyed the approaching gate, then used his jet to give the crate a slight tug. The box drifted through the opening.
"Don't know that, either," Mik answered. "Give another pull on your side," he directed. "Line up on the big lock."
The cargo handlers adjusted the trajectory of the container. Once they had it moving towards the large cargo-handling airlock, they began thrusting to slow the load. The crate eased into the lock and bumped soundlessly into the far wall.
"Oops," Mik said.
Johnny shrugged, and started the lock cycle. The outer door slid shut. An amber light lit, and air began filling the lock. As pressures matched, the men's suits began to collapse on their frames. Hissing air became audible. Finally, the hissing finished and the amber light went out, replaced by a green one. They heard a clank as the latches on the interior door released. Johnny twisted a knob and the door slid open.
Mik and Johnny looked into the warehouse pressure dock. It was a huge room; a cube fully one hundred meters on a side. It was filled with a flimsy looking aluminum framework, in which assorted boxes, crates, bags, and palleted cargoes were anchored.
They pulled off their helmets, and clipped them out of the way on their harnesses. Mik spotted an empty niche nearby. "There." They pulled their load into place and tied it down. Johnny entered the storage location into his datapad.
"Let's open `er up," he said. He broke the seal on the lid, and the two undogged the latches. They pried the lid up and looked inside at the smaller boxes revealed. Johnny reached in and opened one. He peered in. "What in the bloody..." he began.
"What?" Mik asked. "Frozen? We expected that. Don't tell me they depressurized. Schuster'll not be happy if his lemons are ruined." He looked into the box Johnny had opened. "What in the... What are those?"
Johnny reached in and poked at the odd objects. One drifted free. He grabbed it and looked closely. He swore. "Well, it sure ain't a lemon, unless they come fuzzy brown now."
Mik took it from him. "Sheesh! It's a rat," he exclaimed. He turned it about, examining the rodent. "Crate sure did leak; it's freeze dried."
Johnny cursed again. "Open up another box. I gotta know."
Mik pulled the lid from another box, revealing more rodents carefully nested in little sawdust lined plastic niches. He swore, too. "Oh man, Schuster's going to go ballistic. It's all rats." He grabbed at Johnny's datapad, and tapped at the screen. "This is bad, very bad." He mumbled something about maht. "The bill of lading says there are six thousand units in the shipment."
Johnny stared, then rubbed his temples. "Well," he said; "I'm not going to be the one to tell the bossman."
Jay Kuss stood outside the door, slump shouldered even in the low gee. He took a deep breath, straightened up, and rapped on the door. A voice spoke from inside, "Come on in." He pushed the door open and stepped into the office of Benjamin Schuster.
As orbital offices went, it was quite nice. The floor was covered with woodgrain plastic tile. The ceiling was covered with anechoic tiles. Three walls were decorated with a well-executed, if somewhat amateurish, space mural. Without looking, Kuss knew the fourth wall behind him displayed a mural of an Earthside meadow. Ben Schuster was seated behind an actual wooden desk, reading something on his comp display. Kuss new that Schuster had built the desk himself of wood scavenged from shipping crates. It did not look hand built, though. A framed motto hung from a crescent moon behind the executive. It read There is no bad luck; only hidden opportunity.
Schuster looked up and said "Hi, Jay. What've you got for me?"
Kuss grimaced and replied, "You aren't going to like it. We found the shipment Carpenter had lost."
Schuster looked at his aid speculatively. "Well, that part's good. Why won't I like it?"
"Put it this way; the good part is that the container got stashed in vacuum storage. And it depressurized slowly while it was out there."
Schuster was taken aback. "That's good?" he asked. "If I can't salvage those lemons for the party..."
Kuss interrupted. "It's good because if it hadn't, we'd be infested now." He paused for a deep breath. "The crate was full of lemmings."
"Well, it had darned well better have been. I promised fresh lemonade for the Pioneer Days Independence celebration next month." He stopped and looked at Kuss, who was shaking his head. "What?"
"Uh uh, Boss," Kuss replied. "Not lemons. Lemmings."
"Lemmings. Little furry rodents," Kuss elaborated. "Best known for mass suicides." He grinned despite himself. "And six thousand of them just committed seppuku by spacing themselves."
Schuster stared. "You've got to be kidding." He pondered, then asked, "Why in god's names would they ship me lemmings ?"
"Beats me, Ben," Kuss responded. "But they did. A metric ton of them, including packing. I'd guess someone processed the order verbally somewhere along the line. And someone misunderstood."
"Didn't anyone wonder why we'd want a ton of lemmings in space?" Schuster demanded.
Kuss shrugged. "Heck, I didn't understand why you wanted a ton of lemons. Juice concentrate would have been a lot cheaper to ship."
"Lemonade was only the original plan," Schuster explained. "I got to thinking about it. If I brought in whole lemons, I'd also have seeds to sell to the farmers on the Ag Station. Not to mention the leftover biomass for fertilizer." He smiled smugly.
"And the peel could be grated, and packaged for sale as a spice. I figured to make my little PR project turn a profit."
"Still," Kuss said; "Wouldn't it have been cheaper to bring in the finished products?"
"Not really. Packaging costs and mass would get us; whole lemons are their own usable packing." Schuster's eyes widened.
"Cheaper..." He started. Then, "Carpenter actually signed off on the shipment, didn't he?" He swore. "We're stuck with the darned things."
"I'm afraid so," Kuss answered. "Now what?"
Schuster thought. "Start by reordering my lemons. Use a different supplier; I don't ever want us to do business with those idiots again. And put out the word why." He frowned. "And get with Accounting; arrange to have the shipping cost of the lemmings taken out of Carpenter's pay. Work it out with him; the faster, the better; without starving his family."
Kuss pulled his datapad out of a pocket and made entries. "Got it. And the lemmings?" he inquired.
"Oh, lord; I don't know. Where are they now?"
"Back in vacuum. They're already freeze dried, so I figured that was as good a place as any, for now." Kuss reached into his pocket again. "I saved you a souvenir, though. Catch." He tossed a fuzzy ball to Schuster.
"Ack!" Schuster caught the rodent. He looked at it and grinned. "Sorta cute, though." He chuckled. "Maybe I should have it lacquered. Keep it on my desk; like a little statue."
Kuss laughed. "Why not? I'll bet we could even sell a few to the gift shop; they'd sell to tourists as cute little reminders of what vacuum can do."
"Sure, do that. See how many you can unload on them." Recoup some of our loss, I suppose."
"You want me to sell the rest to Ag Station?" Kuss asked. "They can grind them up for fertilizer."
Schuster sighed. "Yeah, might as well... No." He stared into space for a moment. "You've already come up with one use for the darned things. Let's see if we can't find some more." He rubbed his chin. "I sure hate the idea of wasting all that money."
Kuss laughed. "No way. What good is a dead lemming?"
"Heck, I don't know," Schuster answered. "Ask around. Make it a contest. Put it on the company bulletin board. A hundred mark prize for the best answers."
Kuss grinned and said, "Well, if you're serious, is it okay if we expend a few of the furry buggers experimenting?"
Schuster chuckled. "Sure, have fun. If nothing else, we boost morale a bit. And then we can still sell the stuff to the Farm."
Roberto stood at the counter in his kitchen, paring knife in hand. He bent over and began to make the first cut.
"Eeeek! Rats!" Roberto turned to see his girlfriend Teri staring wide-eyed at the remaining five freeze dried lemmings as they stood by the sink. "Eeek!" she shrieked again.
"Teri, relax. Those aren't rats. they're just little lemmings," he explained. "They're harmless. See?" He picked one up and held it out for inspection.
"Eeek... " Teri began. Then, "Wait a minute, Rob. How come they're just standing there?" she asked suspiciously.
"They're dead." Rob answered. "Freeze dried, in fact."
"Really?" She poked at a furry rodent standing on the counter. It toppled over. "Why are there dead lemmings in the kitchen? You aren't making dinner again, are you?"
Rob laughed. "Oh, no!" He pointed at the prone lemming on the cutting board. "This is a project from work. We have a few thousand of these things; we're trying to figure out what to do with them." He grinned. "I've got some ideas, but I need to see how easy it is to skin them."
"Bleah." Teri made a face. "In my kitchen you do this?" she demanded.
"Well, where else?" he asked. "This is where the knives are."
Teri had lifted a lemming and was looking into its dried out eyes. "They're sorta cute, aren't they?" She tapped on the creature. "Did you space these poor little things?"
"Uh, no; not exactly," Rob replied. "It happened by accident. Now we're trying to make the most of it."
Teri looked at Rob's lemming, stretched out on the board like an Aztec sacrificialon the altar. "What are you doing to that thing?"
"I'm going to skin it. I had to soak it in the sink to soften it up enough."
"Skin it? Yuck. Why?"
"I want a little lemming hide to make things from. I figure the leather's gotta be good for something." He shrugged. "Maybe coin purses."
Teri considered the possibility. "That's sick. I like it," she decided. "I want one." She grinned.
Kuss was laughing to himself as he walked up the corridor to Schuster's office. In the low gee, the box he carried was more of a burden by bulk than weight. As he walked on, he smiled at his co-workers and exchanged greetings. "Whatcha got in the box, Jay?" one asked.
Kuss shook his head and answered, "You wouldn't believe me." He reached Schuster's door and knocked. At Schuster's invitation, he opened the door and went in. "Hi, Boss," he said.
"Morning, Jay. Whuzzup?" Schuster inquired. He indicated the box under Kuss's arm.
Kuss smiled. "What we have here are the results of our in-depth engineering and marketing study." He opened the box and removed a ring-bound document. "Voila! '101 Uses For Dead Lemmings'." He grinned hugely and handed the report to Schuster.
Schuster looked at the report cover. Beneath the title Kuss had read was a graphic of a furry rodent with all four paws in the air, and little X's for eyes. He laughed out loud. "Well, I'm glad to see you've been having fun with it." As Kuss stood by grinning, Schuster flipped the binder open and looked at the table of contents. "Good lord; you really did come up with a hundred and one uses." He laughed again.
"Better believe it, Ben," Kuss responded laughing. "And here's the proof." He began taking other items out of the box and setting them on Schuster's desk. First was a flattish, more or less shapeless, lemming.
Schuster eyed it dubiously. "What is that thing?" he inquired.
In reply Kuss lifted it and opened its little mouth. He shook out a few silver coins. "Coin purse. I showed it to Tom Hritz at the First Stop Trading Post. He wants 100 of them." Next came a similar flattened creature.
"Not another coin purse, I assume?" Schuster questioned. "Nope. Balloon." Another laugh snuck out. "You know how some folks keep balloons in their airlocks as visual pressure indicators?"
"Sure," Schuster answered. "I do myself." He nodded at the lemming. "That?"
"Yep," Kuss said. "Half of Marketing already took `em home for themselves. Hritz wants these, too."
Schuster made a face somewhere between a grin and a frown. "I don't know about this bit with lemming leather." He shook his head. "It won't stand up to vacuum. The oils will sublimate right out of the hide."
"Nah. Roberto Martinez thought of that," Kuss explained. "The hides are treated with silicone based lubes; not petroleum or vegetable oils." He smiled. "Just like your pressure helmet gaskets."
"I'll be darned." Schuster poked around some of the other items Kuss had set on the desk. He came across a set of keys. Puzzled, he looked closer. "You have got to kidding," he stated flatly.
"You got it," Kuss smiled. "Lucky Lemming's Feet."
"Not for the lemming, it wasn't," Schuster offered the traditional objection with a grin.
"You think that was unlucky? Check out this poor guy." Kuss held up a lemming impaled on a plastic handle. "Lemming dust brush."
Schuster chuckled. "Well, it's good that you've all had fun. But you must admit that none of this is really practical." He held up the impaled rodent." Dust brushes? What's next; shoe buffers?"
Kuss rooted in the box briefly, then held up an elongated furred hide with loop handles at either end. "Since you mentioned it..." he deadpanned.
A snorting sound escaped from Schuster, and his eyes went wide. "Jay, this is crazy. Fun; but what good is it?" Schuster asked.
Kuss's smile faded just slightly. "Ben, every item in that box has a willing buyer. Hritz at the Trading Post, Meyers at the Mark Market; they're all willing to stock them."
"Too impractical," Schuster objected. "Who'll buy them?"
"Everyone that sees them," Kuss replied. "They're novelties. Luxury items. But they're cheaper than anything made down on Earth. So folks can afford them." He turned serious. "And for all that we've been here for nearly fifteen years, this is a frontier. It's grim sometimes. And for the sake of survival, we've concentrated on pure practicality for a long time." He pointed at the lemming products. "This stuff appeals to people's sense of the absurd. It brightens their lives a little bit. They want it. We have it anyway, so let's sell it."
Schuster propped his elbows on his desk and rested his chin on his palms. He stared at the bizarre array. And he considered. "How much can we get for this stuff?" he asked Kuss.
"You'll love it. After all our 'product testing' we only had enough lemmings left for about two thousand things." Kuss smiled again. "Between Hritz, Meyer, and a trader heading out to the Moon, we can clear enough to cover the purchase and shipping costs of the whole lot of lemmings." He reviewed his datapad. "And the Farm will still buy any uncontaminated manufacturing remnants as compost."
Schuster looked up in disbelief. "We're going to turn a profit of these critters?"
"Yep," Kuss answered. "And our buyers want to know when we can have another batch ready." He grinned broadly. "Shall I place an order for more rodents?"
"You realize the Earthside ecofreaks will go nuts if they find out we're importing lemmings for trinkets?" Schuster asked.
Kuss pursed his lips. "That had occurred to me, Ben," he admitted.
"Okay, then do it." Schuster cracked an evil grin.
Johnny and Mik floated beside the cargo lock door, waiting for the pressurization cycle to finish. The lock lights switched to green and the latches clanged. There was a muted clatter as the men inside the lock released the last latches and the door slid open.
Two suited men, and three large shipping containers waited. One of the pressure suited figures shouted to be heard through his helmet, "Two more to go to vacuum storage! You take these, and we'll finish up outside!" Johnny and Mik nodded agreement, and began shifting the containers into storage niches. The suited men headed to the smaller personnel lock.
As Johnny finished clipping the containers into place, Mik waved a lightpen over the shipping labels. His datapad regurgitated the information in human readable form. Mik read the display and laughed. "Hey, Johnny! Come look."
"What?" Johnny asked. He checked the tension on the last strap, then pulled himself over to Mik. "What's up?" he repeated.
Mik pointed at his `pad display. "Look what this shipment is; lemmings."
"Lemons?" Johnny wondered. "Again?"
"No," Mik corrected. "Not lemons. Lemmings. And it matches the actual order." He grinned and laughed. "Somebody actually ordered lemmings this time."
Johnny snapped his fingers. "Oh, yeah. Yeah, I know about
this. They improvised all those gimmicks from that screwed up
shipment; then the stores actually ordered more lemming toys.
People bought `em. Heck, I
Mik's face flashed enlightenment. "Ah, yes. I hadheard. But I thought was joke." He laughed. "Maybe we should check on them; be sure they are okay," he suggested.
"We can do that," Johnny said agreeably. "But I think they
were shipping dead ones on purpose this time."
"Ugh," Mik replied. "Then let's be sure they don't need any
more refrigeration. Else would stink."
"You betcha. Let's do it." They began breaking seals and
releasing latches. They removed the lid and clipped it out of the
way. A collection of wooden crates was revealed. Straw poked out
"Huh, packed different this time," Johnny observed. He pried
a crate open and stared at the contents. He swore. Mik looked in
and cursed as well.
Mik spoke first. "Schuster is not going to be happy about
this." He gestured at the cargo; crate upon crate packed full of
small round objects with yellow pebbled skins. "What're we going
to do with two metric tons of lemons?" he asked in dismay.
Mik's face flashed enlightenment. "Ah, yes. I hadheard. But I thought was joke." He laughed. "Maybe we should check on them; be sure they are okay," he suggested.
"We can do that," Johnny said agreeably. "But I think they were shipping dead ones on purpose this time."
"Ugh," Mik replied. "Then let's be sure they don't need any more refrigeration. Else would stink."
"You betcha. Let's do it." They began breaking seals and releasing latches. They removed the lid and clipped it out of the way. A collection of wooden crates was revealed. Straw poked out of some.
"Huh, packed different this time," Johnny observed. He pried a crate open and stared at the contents. He swore. Mik looked in and cursed as well.
Mik spoke first. "Schuster is not going to be happy about this." He gestured at the cargo; crate upon crate packed full of small round objects with yellow pebbled skins. "What're we going to do with two metric tons of lemons?" he asked in dismay.
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