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BLUE HORIZON 1261

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 3
A Familiar Face

 

Merlin pushed his plate away, heaved an audible sigh and stared out the galley window at the thick fog covering the spaceport around them. Jiro looked over at him from across the table and set down the chopsticks he'd been using to eat his breakfast.

"What's on your mind, fuzz?" he asked with a sniffle.

"Fuzzy thoughts," replied the wolf, idly dusting bread crumbs from the collar of his light blue shirt. "I posted ads for the crew positions three days ago and I've not gotten a single response. It's taken us that long just to clean up the bridge, the office, galley, laundry room and our two cabins. I'm sick and tired of cleaning, and I'm frustrated by the lack of help. We've got to have a clean ship and a full crew before I can even start looking for clients."

Jiro snatched up a paper napkin and then sneezed into it. He looked up with watery eyes and wiped his nose. "Let's take a break and go into town," he said. "Since I can't seem to find a local physician who'll see me without a resident address, I need to see what a local drug store might have for my allergies. Then perhaps we can go see a show to get us out of here for a while."

With so much cleaning remaining, Merlin was hesitant to take a day off from it, but agreed that some time away from the monotony might do him some good. "All right," he replied. "Let's get you some drugs and then see what's showing. You want to go see a movie or a live show?"

"That depends upon the live show," Jiro replied with a smirk. "Do you mean live as in a play or live as in table dancers?"

"Okay, a movie it is," Merlin retorted.

"Spoilsport. If we can't find anything to go see, we can always drive over to that university you went to and check out the campus females," the cougar said with a grin.  Merlin shook his head with a chuckle, but then stood up to put away his breakfast dishes.

"You gonna wear a shirt this time?" he asked with a raised eyebrow toward the bare-chested feline.

"Not planning on it, no," answered the cougar. "I've got nothing to hide."

"Oh, sorry. I didn't realize that was the reason why you were wearing trousers."

Merlin had to dodge the biscuit that Jiro hurled at him, snickering as he darted out into the corridor. 

* * * 

"What about this one?"

Jiro peered over at a brightly colored packet of capsules in the wolf's hand. He read over the miniscule print and then shook his head. "No, I need something in a non-drowsy formula," he replied with a frown. "That is, if you want any work out of me."

"Non-drowsy it better be," Merlin said dryly. "You've got to earn your pay!"

The pair of them stood in a narrow aisle in a local drug store, trying to not to brush plastic bottles off the counters behind them with their tails. The place smelled of vitamins, powders and other antiseptic concoctions under overhead lights that were just a little too bright for the small business.

Jiro looked up curiously when the front door opened with a jingle of tiny bells and watched a trio of suits walk in. All three were canines, two male and one female, all dressed to perfection in business attire. He eyed the woman, a Border collie near his age, admiring her form, but neither she nor her companions looked his way.  Despite the suit, Jiro could see her curvaceous figure and was impressed with her endowment. Her tail curved upward toward her back through a split in the back of her jacket, in long fur of black with a white tip that matched the white of her muzzle and the wide stripe between her eyes. She flicked one of her floppy ears as she and her partners walked straight to the manager's office, a small cubicle in the back of the room with a mirrored window set into a wooden door.

"What about this one?" Merlin asked, breaking his focus.  The cougar took a small plastic bottle from his friend's hand and began to look over the label.

"No good, look at the side effects."

The wolf peered closely at the bottle and then his eyes grew wide. "That's worse than what you're trying to treat!" he croaked. He stuck out his tongue and then put the container back on the shelf.

It was another ten minutes before Jiro settled on an over-the-counter dose-pack that claimed it would battle the effects of his symptoms while protecting him from further invasion. Unfortunately, it boasted nothing about actually clearing up his sinuses, so he continued to look for something to go along with it.

Merlin resisted the urge to swish his tail behind him with impatience and began meandering around the store while his companion continued to shop. He saw four canines come out of a small cubicle at the back of the drug store and was startled when he recognized one of them.

Unless he was mistaken, he'd known the Border collie at the university he attended for his Business degree several years earlier. He felt a sudden sense of nostalgia and he wanted to go talk to her, but she and her companions seemed to be busily engaged in conversation with the drugstore manager.

He heard Jiro sneeze from another aisle, so he sauntered over to check in on him. "Aren't you finished yet?" he asked with a smile. "You take almost as much time as my sister does when she goes shopping."

Jiro wiped his nose with a handkerchief and held up three medications. "I'b ready," he said with a sniffle. The wolf followed him to the counter and stood by idly with his hands in his pockets while his companion paid for the items. He glanced over toward the Border collie again and let his gaze linger on her form. His mind wandered back to the girl he knew in college and thought fondly of their time together.

After a moment, he refocused his attention and abruptly realized that the collie was looking straight at him with deep brown eyes. Her expression was one of amusement as he swallowed and tried to hide his embarrassment at being caught looking at her. He nodded toward her in apology and then turned away to stand beside Jiro.

The cougar picked up his purchases and then led Merlin toward the door. The wolf's mind had already returned to the female canine by the time they stepped out onto the sidewalk outside the business.

There was a small jingle behind them as the door opened again. Merlin felt a gentle touch on his arm, accompanied by a familiar voice.

"Merlin?" the Border collie asked with hopeful eyes.  "Merlin Sinclair?"

The wolf smiled and nodded. "Hello, Samantha," he replied. "You're looking well."

"Hello, Merlin," she replied in relief. "I wasn't sure if it was you in my store."

"Your store?" Jiro asked, looking over the wolf's shoulder at her.

Merlin chuckled. "Samantha, I'd like to introduce you to my friend and business partner, Jiro Brannon. Jiro, this is Samantha Holden, heiress to the Holden Pharmaceutical Corporation that owns the drugstore we were just in."

"Nice to meet you," the Border collie said.

"Very charmed to meet you," Jiro replied, moving around his friend to grasp her hand gently and place a small kiss onto the back of it.

"Don't mind him," Merlin laughed. "He only thinks he's smooth."

"I am smooth!"

Samantha raised an eyebrow at the wolf with a smug smile. "He seems smooth to me," she said. "He gave me a kiss, while you're just standing there!"

"Ah, I forget myself in your presence, milady," Merlin replied, straightening up. He put an elbow in the middle of the cougar's chest and pushed him aside, moving closer to the canine.

"It's been a long time," Merlin said quietly. He put his arms around the Border collie and then gave her a long kiss on the lips that made her tail curl in over itself a little more. Jiro whistled as he watched, eliciting a giggle from Samantha.

She stepped back away from the wolf with a silly grin and then cleared her throat. "Nice…" she said.  "I was hoping you remembered me!"

Jiro dug his own elbow into Merlin's ribs. "You two were a couple? Sweet!"

Merlin grinned in embarrassment, but Samantha laughed aloud. "Yes, Mr. Brannon, he and I dated when we attended Alexandrius University together." She looked back over into the wolf's amber eyes and gave him a smile. "What happened to you?" she asked. "I lost touch with you after graduation."

"I wanted to extend my education," Merlin replied at last, "so I moved back to Dennier and signed up for military service to see what they could teach me. I was knee-deep in my new studies when the Dennier-Mainor Conflict broke out."

"Oh my…" Samantha replied. "Listen, I need to get back inside with my audit team, but would you like to join me for dinner tonight so we can catch up on one another's news?"

Merlin made a covert glance toward his business partner. "Uh, sure," he said. 

The Border collie caught the look and laughed aloud. "I'll meet the two of you at the Wonderland at eight o'clock and then we can relax over a good meal. My treat."

"I knew I liked you immediately," Jiro said with a smile.

"The Wonderland, eh? Okay, that sounds good," Merlin answered. "We'll see you then."

Samantha leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on the right side of his muzzle.  "See you tonight," she said.  "Nice to meet you, Jiro," she added.

"You too," the cougar replied.  Both males watched her reenter the store and then the wolf turned to go. As they walked back toward the van, Jiro gave his friend a nudge. "Are you sure I won't be in the way?" he asked. "It might restrict things if I'm there."

Merlin looked at him sideways with a smirk. "Personally, I need you there to restrict things, as you say," he replied. "It's good to see her again, but with our different careers, there's no chance in renewing our relationship as it was."

All joking aside, Jiro looked at his friend. "From that lip-smacking reunion, I'm assuming you had an amicable parting. What's the story with you two?" he asked.

The wolf pulled the key to the van from a pocket and unlocked the vehicle. He crawled behind the controls and waited for his partner to get in. He backed the van out into traffic before he spoke again.

"Remember that I told you my folks died on Dennier when I was young and that my brother, sister and I came to live with our grandparents here on Alexandrius?"

"Yeah, Frank and Marion Frost. You introduced me to them that night we got here from Pomen."

"Samantha and I met standing in line at the university to pay our tuition and get our class schedules. Comparing notes afterward, we discovered similarities in our plans. We both majored in Business Management, sharing some of the same courses, and we were often paired off together on assignments; it was only natural that we started dating. Neither of us were exclusive to one another, each of us occasionally going out with other friends, but she and I were often together simply out of shared interests and studies." Merlin chuckled as he made a turn onto another avenue. "I knew her about three years before I discovered she was the daughter of Derek Holden, the late president and CEO of Holden Pharmaceutical!"

"Late?"

The wolf nodded. "Like me, she lost both parents when she was younger. She was raised by a family friend on Sillon who owned controlling shares in the company, but when she got older, she asked to transfer her schooling to her hometown on Alexandrius where her family was originally from. That's where I met her."

Jiro rolled down his window for fresh air and smiled at the wind blowing through his whiskers. "Must have been nice, having a rich girlfriend!"

Merlin snorted. "She always tried to keep that part of her background quiet, which is why it took so long before even I found out about it. Her adopted parents came to visit during our junior year and they offered to take her and a friend out to eat. We wound up at the most expensive place in town, and I felt quite out of place in my humble little suit. I was prompted to order anything I wanted, but I've never possessed a lot of money, so even then I ordered something relatively inexpensive from the menu." The wolf grinned and looked over at his friend. "I had to ask Samantha in a covert whisper how to use the arsenal of utensils lined up on both sides of my plate!  Master Tristan must have realized I was out of my element and went out of his way to make me feel comfortable around him and his wife, Guinevere."

"You felt uncomfortable because they had a lot of money?"

"Not just that," Merlin answered, "but I found myself dining with the Silloni Regent!  You wouldn't believe the number of royal service guards watching over us."

"Whoa…"  Jiro blinked, quite impressed.  "You dated an heiress and got to dine with royalty! May I touch you, oh prosperous one? Some of your luck might rub off on me!"

"Yes, knave, you may touch the sleeve of my garment."

The cougar bowed humbly and stretched out quivering fingers toward Merlin's short sleeve shirt.  "Ooohhh…." he intoned. Instead of touching the shirt, however, he grabbed a tuft of the wolf's fur between his fingers and twisted it with a cackle.

"Ow!" Merlin yelped.  "Careful, I'm still driving!"

"Does that mean I can torment you out of jealousy when you're not driving?"

"No, it doesn't! You stay on your side of the van!"

Jiro chuckled and Merlin couldn't keep the smile from his face. He enjoyed the banter he shared with the mountain lion, an impossible friend who had once been his enemy across a military conflict.

"How did someone from a distant world like Sillon become her legal guardian?" Jiro asked.

"Samantha's grandfather used to take his family to Sillon every few years for special vacations when Derek Holden was a pup. While there, they met Tristan and Guinevere, becoming instant friends; They met up each time the Holdens were there on vacation over the years and kept in touch the rest of the time. Then during one such visit, Tristan's infant daughter, Laura became deathly ill with an affliction that attacked her nervous system. The affliction was unheard of on Sillon, and therefore there was no cure for what she had, but Derek Holden, a chemist and pharmaceutical doctor at the time, recognized the symptoms for what the rest of the Planetary Alignment knew as Altac Syndrome. It was surmised that she likely contracted it from imported fruit she loved from the world of Fyn. Always prepared, even on vacation, Derek carried a vast array of medicines with him. He didn't know if the medicine for Altac Syndrome would even work on Silloni physiology, but at Tristan's behest, Laura was given the treatment. Fortunately, her illness recessed and she recovered in time."

Merlin rubbed his eyes. "Then, three years later, Derek and Amy Holden were involved in an accident on Sillon that left their young daughter an orphan. Tristan fought the Alexandrian authorities to get custody of her, but since he was the regent at the time, he won guardianship over her. From then until the time she became an adult, he and Guinevere raised her as one of their own daughters."

"It sounds like Samantha lived in the lap of luxury," Jiro commented, shaking his head. "She was born to a rich family that owned the largest pharmaceutical chain in the PA. Then when her folks died, she was adopted by the king of Sillon!"

"Not the king," Merlin corrected, "the regent. Master Tristan was appointed ruler over the planet until the orphaned infant prince was old enough to assume the throne. The royal court raised him, but Tristan had a hand in the guy's upbringing and training to prepare him for his royal duties once he was old enough."

"What happened to the king and queen that left the kid an orphan?"

"There was a gas leak in the Palace of the Mists," Merlin replied with a frown. "Seventeen people died, but their infant son was in a climate-controlled room that was unaffected."

"Was the leak suspicious? You know, caused by someone else wanting the throne?"

"It could have been an assassination, but the results of the investigation were kept under wraps and never made public. I don't think anyone was publicly charged, but that doesn't mean it couldn't have been done behind the scenes."

"Wow. Is this Tristan still the regent?"

"No, he transferred control the throne to the rightful heir a few years ago and is now living a quiet life running a luxurious vacation resort a hundred miles south of the Silloni capitol. However, I understand that the young monarch may be turning the throne over to another regent so he can further his education, with possible military training as well. It's hard to do that while running a planet."

"Why don't they offer the regency back to this Tristan, since he already had all those years in experience?"

"They did, but he respectfully declined. However, he's still highly respected, as if he was of royal blood himself. He was well-liked by the people."

"Ah."

Merlin guided the van into the lot of a large theatre complex and searched for a convenient spot to park their vehicle; although they were to meet Samantha for dinner, they still had several hours to kill. After they locked up the van and began walking toward the building, Jiro continued.

"What happened with you and Samantha after graduation?" Jiro asked.

The wolf put both hands into his pockets. "With a fresh Business Management Masters degree, she assumed duties within her father's company; I headed back to Dennier. We promised each other we'd stay in touch, but real life got in the way and neither of us had much time to write. This is the first I've seen of her since graduation."

"It's obvious she's still taken with you," Jiro mused. "Why do you think there's no chance to pick up where you left off?"

Merlin stopped at the automated ticket kiosk, plugged his credicard into the interface and then looked over at his friend. "What do you want to see?" he asked, suddenly realizing they hadn't decided.

The cougar blinked at the non sequitur and twitched his tail in momentary confusion. He looked up at the titles and realized he knew nothing about any of them that were playing.  He walked over to a wall plastered with colorful posters and studied them. After a moment, he pointed to one and said, "This one."

Like his companion, Merlin hadn't heard anything about what was currently playing, so he shrugged and punched up two tickets to The Cross Time Café. The kiosk spat out two thin strips of printed pasteboard and then Merlin retrieved his credicard from the machine.

The wolf handed both tickets to the feline attendant inside the lobby and then they headed to the concession booth. Moments later, they walked up a curved flight of stairs lined with burgundy drapery to the balcony of the theatre, their arms laden with movie snacks. There was still some time before the film began, so after they were seated, Jiro nudged the wolf with an elbow.

"What makes you think there's no chance to pick up where you and Ms. Holden left off?" he asked, repeating his earlier question.

Merlin took a sip of his soda and shrugged. "It's hard to maintain long-distance relationships," he said quietly. "Just as soon as I can hire a crew, we get the ship in shape and then secure a paying customer, we'll be off out into space and may not be back this way for a while depending upon our delivery schedule." He watched a few more people trickle into the theatre and then added in a quieter voice, "It'll be nice to have dinner with her for old-time's sake, but it would be pointless to try to turn this chance meeting into something more. Besides, she may already have a mate by now."

"I didn't see her wearing a collar or a ring," Jiro supplied.

The wolf chuckled. "Not all cultures display outward symbols of marriage or engagement," he reminded the cougar. "She may not be married, but with someone as nice-looking as she is, I'm sure she has a boyfriend."

"I dunno," replied the feline. "She seemed awfully friendly with you. If she had a significant other, she'd have been a little more hesitant when you took her in your arms."

"Maybe, maybe not," Merlin muttered. "All the same, tonight's dinner is just that: dinner. Anything more would be hoping for too much."

Jiro grinned. "Hoping?" he echoed. "Yeah, you're still hooked on her, no matter what you say."

"Who said I wasn't?" the wolf countered with a grin of his own. "Yes, I still have an interest in her, but what I said is that long-distance relationships don't work. I would rather not rekindle an old flame only to have to put it out abruptly when it comes time to depart on our business adventure."

"Well, we'll see how it goes tonight, fuzz," the mountain lion whispered as the house lights faded to dark and the large screen lit up. "If nothing else, we'll both get a good meal out of it."

NEXT CHAPTER

Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.