BLUE HORIZON 1261
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Merlin Sinclair gulped in great gasps of air, his legs pumping as hard as they could as the gray wolf ran swiftly along a gravel road just outside the metropolitan city of Alucara. The cougar that chased him was gaining and he could hear the cat's panting breath just on his heels. Merlin's legs felt as if they were on fire, their movement hampered slightly by the thin cloth trousers covering over his thick pelt of fur.
The cougar made a swipe at him and the wolf actually felt the air move just behind his brush of a tail. Merlin managed to increase the length of his stride, but in doing so lost some of his momentum. The cougar closed the gap between them; the wolf looked out of the corner of his eyes, instantly noting the feline's flared nostrils and bared teeth near his throat.
Sinclair gulped in another lungful of air, but then the cougar extended a muscular arm, edging past him with a triumphant growl. The wolf grinned at last as his left hand came in hard contact with the rough bark of a large danra tree in sync with the cougar's right hand. Both runners slid to a stop just beyond the tree and looked over at one another with bright eyes.
"Almost…" (gasp) "…beat you…" (pant) "…again…" gulped the cougar as he tried to consume large quantities of air.
"Almost …" (pant) "… is not…" (gasp) "…good enough…" wheezed the wolf in reply.
The bare-chested mountain lion leaned against the thick tree and then crouched down to sit up against it. Merlin bent over with his hands resting on his knees for a moment more before sitting down beside his companion. Both worked to regain their breath as they panted in the shade of the tree.
The wolf looked over at the feline with a wide grin several long moments later. "You're getting faster, my friend," he said. "Maybe when I'm old and decrepit, you may actually outrun me!"
"In that case, old one, I should beat you tomorrow!" Almost as soon as he finished speaking, the cougar began coughing. Merlin laughed and gestured toward him with a hand.
"I may be older than you are, but I'm a sight healthier than you, too."
The feline pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of his trousers and blew his nose into it. He cleared his throat and then spat into the weeds beside him. "Bleh… wretched allergies," he muttered. "Okay, you win, oh fuzzy one. Let me rest a bit before we take off again."
"Take your time," the wolf replied. "My breath still needs to catch up with me."
Twenty minutes later, Merlin Sinclair stepped out of the shadow of the tree and shielded his eyes from the Alexandrian summer sun. He really needed a hat, he often thought to himself. That was something his kind was not apt to wear, but it was an invention of the humans that really appealed to him. He'd known only one human in his life, a childhood friend of his father's who loved to regale fanciful tales of adventure to he and his siblings when they were younger, but since all Furs were descendent from humans through genetic tinkering, the men and women of Terra directly affected numerous avenues of life on the other inhabited worlds of the Planetary Alignment.
Although he might bear a name derived from human kind, Merlin bore only a scant resemblance to that race. When he stood upright, it was on bipedal legs. He had two arms ending in hands with opposable thumbs, and he possessed sentience intelligence, but beyond this design, Merlin's race was lupine in origin. His fur was predominantly gray with a subtle blend of brown and black, but his muzzle, throat, belly and the underside of his arms were white. His bushy gray tail ended in a white tip, but his eyes were golden amber and framed by a mask of gray.
He was three hundred years removed from genetic manipulations by Terran scientists, when humankind from that world first spread out among the stars and needed hardy settlers to tame the habitable planets they discovered. Some of the distant colonies failed and others were forgotten until later generations rediscovered the majority of their altered brothers and sisters that were now referred to as Furs. The Planetary Alignment came about from that regathering and united the populations of fifteen worlds from eight star systems.
Under the shield of his hand, Merlin looked over at his companion, a tawny brown cougar with small ears, broad head and a thick tail that swished behind him in agitation.
"What's the matter, Jiro?" Merlin asked in a low-pitched voice. "Are you tired of looking already?"
"It's not that," the mountain lion replied through clenched teeth. "It's these wretched shorts I'm wearing. The tail flap is too tight and I feel confined with the fabric over the top of my fur! I can't say I care for this fad of wearing more clothing than is necessary for modesty. It just doesn't feel natural!"
Merlin nodded in understanding. "I know what you mean, but I think your shorts must be made with human fabric. My trousers were made locally and they allow my fur to breathe without feeling too confining. You'll get used to them over time."
"Humans!" Jiro Brannon scoffed. "I admit they've thought up a lot of good things, but I don't think coaxing Furs to wear clothing over our natural coats was one of them."
Merlin chuckled. "The humans didn't make us wear these things. Our own people started adopting the practice of wearing cloth years ago for the sake of modesty and individuality. It's only full-body garments that have caught up with us here."
"Maybe so," grumbled Jiro, "but the humans started it. Somehow, I don't think it's going to catch on."
"Oh really? Why are you wearing shorts and shoes, then? Who made you wear them?"
"I think you did," Jiro admitted with a sigh. "You know me. I have to do everything you do."
The gray wolf twitched an ear and looked at his friend with amusement. "Yeah, you've been mimicking me ever since we shared that hospital room together during the war. I just think you want to be me!"
Jiro grinned and twitched an ear of his own. "What can I say? You're the coolest guy I know, even if we were fighter pilots from opposite sides of the conflict. Remind me again why we're such good friends."
"We shot each other down," Merlin laughed. "I still think it's ironic we wound up in the same hospital room together."
"Yah, but we… uh..." Jiro twitched his whiskers and crossed his eyes. Before his companion could ask, the cougar drew in several short bursts of air through his nostrils and then he sneezed explosively, making a little hop on the tips of his toes. His thick tail swished through the air behind him, keeping him balanced on his feet.
"Whad's zo phunny?" Jiro asked, digging into a pocket for his handkerchief.
"Your sneezes always amuse me," the wolf replied with a grin.
"Go ahead, laugh ad my plight! I really godda get sumthin for dese allergies."
"Yes, you should. Now, are you ready to see what this place has to offer?"
Jiro blew his nose, returned the folded handkerchief to his pocket, and then hiked up on the fabric flap over the base of his tail with a grimace. "Yeah, I suppose so," he responded in a clearer voice, "but just as soon as we're finished here, I'm taking these shorts back and trading them in for a pair that fits right. They were binding on my tail during our race."
"When we go back to the hotel, I could get my rapier and carve you a better tail flap," the wolf suggested with a grin.
Jiro didn't miss a beat, quelling another sneeze. "Not on your life, fuzz. I know you were a champion fencer before you left Dennier, but you keep that blade of yours away from my butt! I'll trust my sparse clothing with a tailor, thankyouverymuch!"
The wolf laughed, but suddenly felt the urge to adjust his tail through the flap of his own dark blue trousers. A dried leaf stuck to the golden vertical stripe on the outer seam of his right leg, so he brushed it away and then straightened up. Summer had just begun in this area on the world of Alexandrius, although the breezes still carried a hint of the springtime rains.
The row of danra trees that bordered one side of the gravel road they walked along on the outskirts of Alucara afforded shade from the summer sun with wide triangular leaves, but that comfort came to an end at the entrance of a used starship lot. Vessels of varying sizes designed to travel the void between the stars and worlds of the Planetary Alignment were parked in a circle around a small Quonset hut. Freighters, vacation yachts, staff cruisers and private craft sat dusty out in a large field just on the outside of town. Some of the vessels looked as if they'd been there for a long time, judging from the length of the field grasses surrounding the landing gear, but others appeared to have been recent acquisitions.
The two friends stopped just inside the open gate and gazed around at the available vehicles in the middle of an open, undulating field. Jiro scratched an ear and swished the end of his thick tail back and forth.
"One Prairie Dog, one Sakura and three Okami freighters," he said after looking at the lot. "Which one do you want to look at first?"
Merlin peered at the nearest one, a wedge-shaped vessel with ribbed vanes running lengthwise from bow to stern, and a pale red paint job that had faded under some sun. Its landing claws were relatively free of local weed growth, a good sign it hadn't been resident at the sales lot for long. "We may as well start with that one," the wolf replied.
Jiro followed him quietly, casting a critical eye at the Sakura-class freighter as they approached. Without a current commission, the security passcodes for each sale-lot vessel would be clear and left unlocked for potential buyers such as themselves. Even powered down, tiny Siilv batteries would keep the primary hatches in enough juice to operate the panels in any case.
Merlin opened a recessed panel beside the airlock and punched a key marked Open that was written in Standard, the common language throughout the Planetary Alignment engineered to work well enough with the various tongues, lips, throats and voices of the combined Human and Furman races.
Despite batteries that should have powered the hatch, nothing happened… at least not visually. They heard an internal mechanism make a series of clattering noises before it fell silent. Merlin tried again, to the same result.
"I don't think that's a good sign," Jiro muttered. "Next?"
"Next," the wolf agreed. A fat flying saucer with mottled green paint sat in the field just to the port side of the Sakura. "Let's try that one."
"Do you really want to look at another Okami?" Jiro asked. "We've looked at four of them already. I think they're probably the most common freighter design out there."
"There's nothing wrong with common," Merlin replied with a twitch of an ear. "That just means that spare parts are more readily available if something breaks down."
"Yes, but one that's not so common is more likely to be better built and not need as much maintenance," the cougar countered.
"That could be, but if you haven't noticed, the only ships we've seen so far have been of common class designs. We've seen no Icarus-class freighters among those we've looked at and if we did, we're not going to find any of those in a price range I can afford. My investments gave me enough of a return so that we can buy and operate a freighter for our own business, but I'm afraid I can't afford the top vessel out there."
"Yes, but will the door open?" Jiro retorted with a smirk.
Merlin pulled open the keypad cover and gave the primary button of the Okami a tentative tap. The main outer hatch pulled into the hull by several inches and then split apart, its twin panels disappearing in opposite directions.
"Well, at least that worked," Jiro remarked. The inner airlock panels were already open, so they stepped inside the dark opening. The overhead cargo bay lights were already on, so their eyes didn't have to adjust much to the interior. The hold was spacious with a grid of cargo tie-down rings and sensors embedded in the floor. There was an overhead hook and pulley system hanging from a bidirectional arrangement of rolling girders. Numerous storage lockers lined the far wall and it looked like there were also a series of equipment panels on the forward bulkheads. At the aft end of the cargo bay was a thick wall with a solitary door near the back corner. The atmospheric and spatial engine systems would be on the other side. The cargo bay door itself was closed and sealed; it looked as if it would swing upward and retract on huge pneudraulic arms.
"Hello?" Merlin's voice echoed across the empty hold. "Anyone in here?" There was no reply.
"Let's check the engine room," Jiro suggested. Their footsteps tapped noisily across the empty floor as they looked around and made their way to the door at the portside aft corner of the room. Before they got halfway across the hold, the cougar sniffed the air. "I smell cigar smoke," he muttered.
"I thought your sinuses were messed up?"
"I'm sneezing and have a bit of drainage, but my smeller is still working." Jiro sniffed the air again. "Hard to miss that aroma in any case."
When they approached the engine room door, they found it open; they could hear two voices in quiet conversation within, both speaking with a distinct country accent.
"Hand me the number three snake drill. This fastener doesn't want to go into the stringer."
"Grab it yourself, I've got my head and arm crammed inside this other access. It's right beside your tail."
"Ah, there it is!" There was a high-pitched whirring sound, and then a slight clunk. "That should do it."
"Great," the other voice muttered with an added curse. "I think my elbow is stuck…"
"Let me back outta here and I'll help you out."
"I'm usually fairly flexible, but I can't get my weight up off the arm."
"It was always easier to work in zero-gee," the other agreed. "I'll be glad when we can get back out there."
"I'd give this wretched arm for an absence of gravity right now. Ow."
Merlin stepped tentatively in through the pressure door and peered around a bulkhead. He saw a dusty engine control room where nearly every access panel was open, with tools and parts scattered all over the floor and available consoles. The overhead light panels were on, but only at partial power. He saw no one and motioned for the cougar behind him. The two of them gingerly stepped around the debris on the floor, looking for the owners of the voices. Jiro sniffed the air again and then motioned toward an aisle between two huge horizontal cylinders. The cigar smoke was stronger in that direction.
"There!" said one of the disembodied voices.
"Mff… I'm going to have a bruise under my fur," grumbled the other.
Merlin eased his nose around the corner into the aisle and saw two masked raccoons, one kneeling on the floor next to another one sitting back on his tail, gingerly massaging an elbow. More tools and parts were scattered about them, and translucent grease was smeared in places on both of their dark green coveralls.
"Hey, guys," Merlin said tentatively.
Both raccoons jumped. The seated one with a multitude of worn patches sewn onto his coveralls bumped the back of his head smartly on a stanchion behind him; the other scrambled quickly to his feet.
"Hi!" replied the one standing. He said it with a nervous smile, but eased a hand into one of numerous pockets haphazardly sewn onto his coveralls and pulled out a large open-end wrench.
Merlin raised both hands chest high and waved them in the air gently. "Sorry to startle you. We're just here to look over the ships on the lot and heard your voices."
The seated coon picked up a smoldering cigar from a glass tray nearby. He took a puff from it and blew out a white smoke-ring that expanded as it moved away from him. His brow was furrowed as he studied the strangers. "If you're here to steal the copper from this ship, you'd better run for the hatch," he stated gruffly, indicating an old revolver lying on the floor next to the ash tray among the tools. "We'll give you a head start."
"Why would we want your copper?" Jiro asked in surprise. "We're shopping for a whole ship."
"Prove it," the cigar smoker said.
Merlin shook his head and looked down at him. "How can I prove we're out shopping?" he asked with a frown. "Look, we could hear your voices and smell your cigar smoke out in the hold. If we came here to steal copper tubing or wiring, would I have bothered to say 'hey' to you guys, or do you think we'd have left before you noticed us and tried one of the other ships on the lot?"
"He's right," the standing raccoon said with a lopsided grin. He slid the wrench back into his pocket and then pulled out a grease rag from another one to wipe his hands on. "That's Jasper and I'm Jerad. What can we help you with?"
Merlin gestured to the parts and tools around them. "As we mentioned, we're here to look over the ships on your lot, but from the look of things, I don't suppose this one's in any condition to consider right now."
"Not for about a week," Jerad replied with a grin. "We finished the maintenance on the Wiley Post a few days ago, if you want to look at it. The Elihu Frisbie is in good shape, too. Both are used Okami freighters in decent condition. Jasper and I maintain all the Okamis that come onto the lot, but you'll have to talk to Poppy about the other ships."
"With your intimate knowledge, would you recommend an Okami freighter?" Jiro asked, absently scratching his bare chest fur.
"Absolutely," Jerad replied. "It's efficient, aerodynamic and has a decent hauling capacity. They're relatively easy to work on," he added with a side glance at his sibling, "and they're so common that parts can be found on every world in the Planetary Alignment." The raccoon smiled up at the cougar. "The Okami Corporation invested a lot of credits over the past twenty years to distribute them everywhere and price them so potential buyers like you would consider them over others."
Merlin looked over at Jasper. "What about you?" he asked. "Do you share this guy's opinion of the ships you service?"
The seated raccoon took another long puff from his cigar. He maintained eye contact with the wolf until he turned aside to exhale thick smoke in a steady stream. When he looked back over at him, Jasper gestured toward his brother with the cigar.
"What he said."
"Nothing to add?"
Jasper shook his head. "I'm not a salesman," he muttered. "If you want a sales pitch, go see Poppy and he'll extol the virtues of every ship on the lot. I'm surprised he didn't latch onto you as soon as you were on the grounds."
"He must have been looking the other way," Jiro quipped. "We didn't see anyone out there."
"The burrito he had for lunch is probably talking to him again," Jasper muttered.
"Is it really necessary for a starship to be aerodynamic?" Jiro asked. "There's no atmospheric drag out in space and a lot of starships don't bother with a smooth design."
Merlin looked over at him sideways with a chuckle. "It's important when you want to drop into an atmosphere on a regular basis," he answered before one of the raccoons could reply.
"I dunno if you guys looked closely at the outer hull of this ship," Jerad supplied, "but an Okami has no external appendages. All of its antenna, sensors and other systems are all internally housed so they don't burn off with reentry friction. The ships you see with spindly antennae sprouting all over their surfaces either have to retract them prior to atmospheric descent or stay in orbit and land with a smaller drop ship they'd have to keep on board." He spread his arms wide and gave them a big grin. "Just tell anyone from Earth that you're captain of a flying saucer and they'll think you're cooler than cool!"
Jiro canted his head slightly. "Why would they think that?" he asked.
Jerad grinned and shook his head. "The Terrans have been obsessed with flying saucers for ages and they're still fascinated with oofos."
"Oofos?" Merlin repeated.
"U-F-O, an unidentified flying object."
"I don't understand," admitted Jiro. "All starships have identification transmitters on them."
"Don't worry about it," grumbled Jasper, setting his cigar down in the ash tray. "It's a human thing. Listen, we need to get back to work. I don't feel like staying over tonight."
Merlin held up a hand. "Sorry about that. Since this one's not ready, we're going to go take a look at the other ships on the lot."
"Go ahead," Jerad said cheerily. "If you have any more questions, you should be able to find Poppy on the grounds somewhere. He's a ferret and can never seem to sit still, so he's constantly wandering around."
"Thanks, guys," Jiro said as he and his partner began stepping around the tools and parts on the floor back toward the door.
Once they were across the hold and back out through the airlock into the sunlight, the cougar looked over at the gray wolf. "What do you want to look at next?" he asked, stifling a sneeze.
"How about that one over there?"
"Another Okami, eh?" Jiro responded with a smile. "Those little guys gave you a good pitch, didn't they?"
Merlin shrugged and returned the smile. "I was already leaning toward an oofo anyway." The ship they walked toward had a rather large dent in its azure paint job on the leading edge just below the bridge windows, but otherwise it looked unblemished. The name written in curved text over the airlock identified it as the SS Wiley Post.
"Who or what was Wiley Post?" Jiro wondered aloud.
"I believe he was an aviator of some note," answered a new voice.
Merlin and Jiro spun around and found themselves facing a diminutive ferret in a bright yellow pair of shorts, vest and a matching Panama hat. "At least, that's what I've heard," he said with a silly grin, obviously pleased with himself for approaching without their notice. "I'm Poppy Tredrozuto. What else can I tell you about this beautiful bird?"
"What did it hit?" Jiro mused aloud as he glanced back at the dent.
"It was a military communication satellite," Poppy replied. "The Alexandrian Defense Authority wasn't too pleased about it, either. They pulled the captain's operating license and he wound up selling his ship to me when he couldn't keep his business running without it."
"Wow, that's tough. What about her crew?" Jiro asked.
"Took 'em a month, but I think they all finally found new jobs."
"What about that blue one over there?" Merlin asked with a gesture to another Okami parked on the far side of the lot.
"That was a delivery freighter for a baking company. It was only in service a year and is in good condition, as is the Wiley Post, here. My mechanics have refurbished both of them into prime working order. I see you're interested in G-model Okami freighters, and I'm willing to make a deal on both of them." He looked back and forth to both of them and added, "There are two of you and I have two ships – you can start or expand your business in just a single day, each of you captain of your own freighter!"
Merlin held up both hands. "No thanks, we're going into business as partners on one ship!" he said quickly. "We've already looked at several lots to get an idea what I might consider, but I've not yet made a decision."
"Window shopping, are you?" the ferret said with bright eyes. "You need look no further! I have what you need on this very lot! Here, let me give you the grand tour of the Wiley Post."
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.