BLUE HORIZON 1261
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Merlin Sinclair glanced back at the long line of people behind him. The pads of his feet were sore from standing practically in the same spot with only inch-by-inch progression and his lower back ached as well. He tried to stifle a yawn, causing moisture to squeeze out the corners of his eyes. He pulled a light blue handkerchief from the inner pocket of his civilian flight jacket and daubed away the tears of boredom from his cheek fur.
Before he put away the bit of cloth, a dull, nasally voice intoned, "Next."
He looked before him and noted that the person who had been in line at the registration window ahead of him had departed. He smiled wearily and stepped up to the wooden counter, placing a worn brown folder in front of the bored-looking feline who had spoken.
"Hello," Merlin said cordially to her.
"What are you registering?"
"Uhm, pre-owned model-G, Okami-class starship freighter."
"Current registered name and PA number?"
Merlin opened the folder and peered at the top page inside. "SS Elihu Frisbie, PA number 1056. Purchased with transfer of ownership on today's date."
"Poppy's Quality Starships of Alucara, Alexandrius."
"Merlin Marcus Sinclair of Grandstorm, Dennier."
"The Frisbie Baking Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, Earth."
The feline tapped his responses into her terminal and went on to ask more questions in a monotone voice. Merlin answered them dutifully, noting that she never once looked at legal paperwork he had brought to her. After nearly twenty minutes, she finally rifled through the folder for the starship's title, ran it through a slow scanner and then laser-etched a rainbow reflective banner across the top edge of the sheet. She pounded it twice with a dried out rubber stamp that barely left a mark, and then shuffled everything into a new folder along with several other forms. She took a new printout and slid it over to him, along with a pen attached to a thin chain with one end adhered to the countertop.
"Read and sign at the Xs," she intoned. "Four places."
Merlin was inwardly surprised that all the transactions for this were required on printed paper with an ink signature. Most everywhere these days, such things were done on slateboard datapak units signed with a digital thumbprint.
While the grey wolf looked over the document, the feline clerk took the new folder of paperwork toward the back of the room behind her and set it on top of a stack of similar folders teetering dangerously on the desk of a harried-looking coyote. When she returned to the counter, Merlin signed the final paragraph and then slid the document back over to her. She gave it a brief glance and then thumped it three times with another deficient stamp. She fed it through the scanner and then handed it back to him.
"Take this down the hall to the pumpkin-colored door on the right and then you can fill out…" Merlin listened to her instructions and then trudged down the aisle after the last customer, his head spinning at the amount of paperwork setting up his own business of shipping freight and registering a vessel for it.
When he finally emerged from the four-story stone building in the heart of the Alexandrian capitol, the wolf was greeted by a concerned mountain lion.
"Are you okay?" Jiro asked. "You look like you've had a row with someone, but I can't tell whether or not you won the argument."
Merlin sighed and sat down on a roadside bench beneath a scrawny shade tree. "I'm beat," he replied, "but I got it all done just under four hours. I got the business operating license, registered the business with the bureau, paid the fees, transferred the title of the ship and got it registered with its new number."
"I take back what I said earlier," Jiro muttered, propping a foot up on the other end of the bench. "I don't want to be you."
"I thought I was the coolest guy you knew," the wolf said with a weary smirk.
"You still are, but I'll just hang around on the sidelines and siphon off the coolness. As the head of the business, you get to do all the paperwork and wrestle with the headaches that come from it. All I have to do is move freight and plot our astro-navigation flight plans. That's easy!"
Merlin raised an eyebrow at him. "Slacker. Did you run your errands?"
"Yeah, I traded in my ill-fitting trousers for a pair made locally, as well as some boots, a belt and I picked up a few toiletries. I accompanied Poppy's movers when they transferred the ship out to the spaceport for us, and got the landing pad rental all squared away. I rented a panel van for a week, but if we need it longer, all we have to do is put down another fee. I just checked us out of the hotel and our things are in the back of the van."
"I know it'll be cheaper to sleep in the ship, but until we've cleaned it up, I don't know if giving up our hotel beds was a good thing." Merlin said with another yawn.
"No need to spend any more money on lodging when we have our own beds," Jiro countered. "We can each pick out a cabin and clean them up this evening. We can run out tomorrow and pick up linen for the beds, but for tonight we've got our sleeping bags."
Merlin rubbed his eyes. "Yeah, okay. Listen, I hope your van is nearby. I'm too tired from standing all day to walk far and I'm weak with hunger."
"This way, oh weak one!" Jiro quipped with a wide swept hand toward a parking garage across the street from the building. "I cleaned the filters and then fired up the water heater and reclamation unit over an hour ago, so you should have hot water for a shower when we get to the ship."
"Good, I'll need one tonight, but first I want to eat." He put a hand on his stomach and added, "I'm growling and I'm not even angry."
"Easy now, Wolfie. There's a nice little diner near the spaceport we can stop at."
As they awaited an indicator to allow them to cross the busy avenue, Jiro idly scratched his bare chest fur and asked, "Gimmee the details on the registration."
"SS Blue Horizon, PA registry twelve sixty-one. I listed my hometown of Grandstorm, Dennier as home port, though I don't plan on going back there any time soon."
Jiro snickered. "Blue Horizon? What did you do, just pick the name out of the air?"
The wolf smiled. "Actually, it's from the lyrics of a song I heard a few years back on the military music broadcasts during the Dennier-Mainor Conflict. I remember thinking at the time that it would make a good name for a ship. I forgot about it until I was standing in line, feeling my foot pads hardening."
"If you didn't think of it until then, what were you going to name the ship?" The crosswalk lamp changed and they proceeded quickly before traffic started moving again.
"Originally, I thought about registering it as the Noiré Mooncrest."
"The Mother of the PA?"
"Yeah, that's her," Merlin replied. "I've always admired her bravery and the struggles she went through bringing the rediscovered colonies of Earth together by forming the Planetary Alignment." He frowned when Jiro led him up a flight of steps to the next level of the parking garage. He simply didn't feel like climbing steps after standing all day, but he trudged up with a groan. Fortunately for him, his feline companion stopped next to a van parked right at the top of the steps.
"You rented that thing?" he asked with a raised eyebrow when the cougar unlocked the passenger door for him. The panel van's paint color was indeterminate, being a mottled mixture of faded tan, dark grey and rust. The interior seemed intent on matching the exterior and the fabric on the two seats were so thread-bare as to almost be without a covering at all.
Jiro flashed him a lopsided grin. "I couldn't afford the price of one with anti-grav repulsors, so we'll have to settle with a ground model. I leased it from Rent-A-Ruin rather cheap, but don't let appearances fool you." He started the engine and it ran just as smoothly as any vehicle Merlin could remember. "The chassis may rattle and look like it's going to fall apart, but it drives well." The cougar backed out of the parking spot and then added. "I doubt we'll be able to pick up any girls driving this thing, though."
* * *
With food in his stomach and a chance to get off his feet for a while, Merlin was in better spirits when Jiro eased the van to a stop beside a fat flying saucer with faded and worn blue paint at the Alucara Spaceport.
Jiro went to the back of the van and pulled out their sleeping bags and luggage he had retrieved from the hotel. Merlin had two large suitcases, but the cougar had everything he owned stuffed into a military duffel bag. Before gathering up his luggage, the grey wolf looked up at the freighter.
"How did she handle when you transported her from Poppy's lot?" he asked.
"From a passenger's standpoint, it was a short hop," Jiro replied. "The flight didn't last long enough to get a feel for anything from the cabin I was in."
Merlin looked over at him. "I figured you would have been on the bridge, now that you're the ship's navigator, not to mention her first officer."
Jiro frowned. "Poppy's crew wouldn't let me, citing that the ship wasn't ours until it was delivered. Once we landed at the spaceport, they handed over the security passcodes and prompted me to change them all immediately. They already had a transport waiting and they were gone within ten minutes of landing."
Merlin was about to reply when he noticed an electric cart approach them from the nearby terminal building. Jiro followed his gaze and set his duffel back onto the tarmac beside him.
A young black bear waved at them when he stopped the cart beside them. "Good afternoon," he said cordially. With a nod toward Jiro, he said, "I've been waiting for you guys to get back so I can finish my paperwork."
"Mr. Koihan, this is my captain, Merlin Sinclair," Jiro said. "Merlin, this is Kodai Koihan."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Koihan," the wolf replied. "What can we help you with?"
"Mr. Brannon here told me that you were having the Elihu Frisbie re-titled today, so I'll need to see your new registration papers to update your spaceport pad rental."
"Yes, of course." Merlin reached into an inner pocket of his civilian flight jacket and pulled out a folded manila envelope. He passed it over to the bear, who opened its flap and thumbed through the documents within. Koihan picked up a slateboard from the seat beside him and began tapping in data with a claw tip. The lightweight tablets all came equipped with a stylus, but most Furs had gotten adept at using their claws on the scratch-resistant screens instead.
"SS Blue Horizon," he repeated to himself, "PA1261…" He remained focused upon the screen of the slateboard for several minutes before he replaced the papers into the envelope and handed them all back to the wolf. "I think that covers it," the bear said with a nod. "Your partner paid up the rental of the pad for one month. If you need it beyond that period, we have weekly and even daily rates available."
"Thank you, Mr. Koihan," Merlin replied. "Once we get her cleaned up, repainted and staffed with a crew, we'll try to get out of your fur and free up the landing pad for you."
"Good luck with all that," said the bear. "I've never done anything like what you're planning, but I can't imagine it happening quickly. Have fun, Captain. You too, Mr. Brannon." He put the cart in motion and took off across the tarmac, narrowly missing an automated luggage trolley on its way to a commercial transport.
"Did you hear that?" Jiro asked with a smirk. "He was the first one to call you captain."
"It's about time," Merlin replied grinning. "I never made the rank of captain in my squadron."
"Congratulations on the promotion." Jiro dug a small card from the pocket of his trousers and handed it to the wolf. "Here are the new security passcodes. The top one will get you in the airlock." He flipped open the cover to the keypad and tapped in the code. The hatch door halves recessed into the hull and slid aside smoothly. "The second one is your temporary pass to get into the computer system. I've already set up a profile for you, but you'll need to create your own passcode once you're in. I checked to make sure that the previous Frisbie data had been purged, but the databanks were already empty. The system has apps for payroll, personnel, supplies, and a business ledger."
Merlin picked up his suitcases and followed his partner into the vessel. "What about navigation charts?"
"I just took a quick look, but they're still in the system." The cougar realized he'd forgotten his duffel and trotted back down the ramp to get it. He tossed their two sleeping bags up in through the open airlock, and when he reentered the ship and closed the external hatch behind him, he found Merlin brushing white dust from both sleeping bags. An abundant layer of fine powder covered the floor of the empty cargo hold.
"I don't remember all this dust when we looked at the ship on the lot," the wolf muttered.
"It's wheat flour," Jiro explained, "a byproduct of a bakery ship. The short flight from Poppy's lot dislodged it all from the ceiling, shelves and anything else it had gathered on."
Merlin nodded with a frown. "Before we can do anything with this ship," he said, "we have a lot of cleanup work to do."
"Yah, I've not been in them all, but the cabins I've looked in are empty of personal effects, though no one bothered to dust or vacuum them before they vacated the ship. Poppy and his raccoon bookends may have made sure the systems were working on their ships, but none of 'em lifted a finger to clean them up."
They walked across the powdered floor toward the lift. It was located on the far wall near the fore end of the deck, marked with a faded red door panel adorned with a thick white arrow pointing upward. "I'm going to have the ship repainted before we take on our first official customer," Merlin mused. "I don't want potential clients looking at the Horizon and wonder if it can get off the ground."
The lift door opened and Jiro chuckled. "The paint is faded and pitted, but I don't think she looks that bad!"
"Nevertheless, I'll hire some contractors to do it next week. In the meantime, we've got to clean the interior and stock the ship with essentials before we can even think of lifting off."
"What color are you going to go with?"
Merlin smiled at him. "You can't have a ship named Blue Horizon that isn't blue," he answered. "We'll use the current scheme, just with a shiny fresh coat to cover up the blemishes and make it look nicer."
They took the lift up to the crew deck, and when the door opened, Merlin saw a trail of white dust on the carpet leading in both directions around the circular corridor. He hadn't really noticed it during their initial inspection of the vessel on the lot, but now that he owned it, the dust, powder and bits of trash on the floor seemed to stand out more. Although the vessel was only a year old, the blue-grey carpet was worn and the light grey walls were smudged. Fortunately, all the overhead light panels worked, illuminating the passageway in a soft white glow.
Across from the lift was a simple sign affixed to the wall bearing the likeness of an old sailing ship's wheel with an arrow below it indicating the direction toward the bridge. They stepped out of the lift and the panel closed behind them. As with the lift door on the level below, this one was red, but the thick white arrow was double-headed, indicating that there were levels above and below it from this location.
"Have you picked out your cabin?" Merlin asked, turning to follow the bridge arrow sign.
The cougar sniffled, pulled out his handkerchief, blew his nose and then shook his head. "Notchet," he answered.
"In that case, I'm going to take the one next to the captain's office room. It's closest to the bridge."
"All the cabin compartments are the same, aren't they?" Jiro asked.
"I believe so."
"In that case, I'll take the one that requires the least amount of cleaning to make livable."
"Slacker," the wolf said with a grin. "Too bad we don't have a full crew; they could help us clean."
"Speaking of that, have you given any thought to the crew positions?" Jiro asked. "Two can fly this boat, but it will take more than just us to operate a business." They bypassed the Infirmary and came to a blue door. Upon the panel was the same image of a sailing ship's wheel as they had seen in the corridor outside the lift, but this was painted in tones of gold with brown trim, filling up a large section of the door. It was a signature of all Okami freighters, harking back to the days of sea voyages of long ago. Merlin only gave the door a cursory glance as they passed it and the captain's office next door.
"I had plenty of time to think about things like that waiting in line today." He opened the door to the first cabin compartment they came to and took his bags inside the room. He set them down without turning on the lights and then dug into the inner pocket of his flight jacket for his personal slateboard. He tapped open a note on the screen and handed it to the cougar.
"We won't need that many for ship operations," he said with a claw tip pointing toward the list he had made, "but we'll need more bodies to move cargo onto and off of the ship. We'll need a cargo load master, to be sure, and also an engineer, with possibly a mechanic or two. We'll need a cook, definitely, and it wouldn't hurt to have someone with medical experience too. You and I will do the flying for launch and landings, but the autopilot should be sufficient out in the space between star systems. You've got navigating duties to get us where we need to go, and I know you have more computer experience than I do, so you can keep our systems in working order if any glitches crop up. I'll be promoting the business and securing clients to ship their freight."
"What about an accountant?" Jiro asked, studying the list. "Are you going to keep the books, too?"
"I don't see why not," the wolf replied. "It takes anywhere between three-to-six weeks to get from one star system in the Planetary Alignment to another – longer if going from one end to the other, so I'll have plenty of time to keep the accounting books in order."
"You're going to be one busy wolf," the mountain lion remarked. "If we're going to have extra bodies to move cargo, why not assign some of those duties to qualified personnel? You have a business degree; didn't they cover work delegation in your studies?"
Merlin nodded. "Yes, and I agree that's a good thing. However, there's no need to make someone else do the things I can take care of myself."
Jiro frowned and handed the slateboard back to the wolf. "You're the boss, so I suppose you can call as much stress upon yourself as you want."
Merlin shrugged and put the datapak unit back into his pocket. He touched the pad to bring up the lights of the cabin they'd entered and both of them were stunned into silence. They'd looked at so many Okami freighters in recent days that neither of them had given this final ship a full inspection. The room was a disaster. Whoever had last occupied the compartment either lived like the proverbial pig or had been angry at losing his or her job, trashing the cabin as a last act of defiance. Paper was shredded and strewn everywhere, bits of old food was stuck to the carpet, an unidentifiable greasy liquid had been splashed upon the walls, the mattresses skewed and hanging half off the bed, and bits of glass or shattered plastic littered the floors.
"Looks like my stress begins right here," the lupine captain muttered with a growl.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.