BLUE HORIZON 1261
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Samantha Holden was seated first, the ornate chair held for her by the restaurant staff, and then Merlin took his seat to her right with the cougar seated across from her. Both males felt out of place in ordinary suits in the midst of the elegance of the Wonderland. A live instrumental ensemble played soft classical repertoire on the opposite end of the large room and the acoustics of the wall furnishings and decorations were arranged so that conversations could be had without the raising of voices over the music.
Jiro tugged at the collar of his dress shirt, mentally muttering curses against humanity for making him wear such a thing over his fur. Likewise, Merlin had a difficult time swallowing. He'd quickly developed a hatred of ties and didn't think it was something he would ever get used to wearing. However, the Wonderland didn't allow male patrons without them, another Terran influence, so the muted amber tie he wore around his neck beneath the collar of his shirt was a necessary evil. He scarcely gave the rest of his immaculate suit a second thought. The tie was the current bane of his existence.
In contrast, Samantha looked comfortable in her elegant, scarlet silk dress. It was simple in design, but showed off her cleavage with a gently sloping neckline without being too obvious, and the rest of the garment fit her curvaceous figure attractively. She looked first at Merlin and then at Jiro in turn, a warm expression upon her features as the wait staff bustled about them.
"I appreciate the two of you meeting me for dinner tonight," she said with a smile. "I would have had to dine alone this evening."
"What about your boyfriend?" Jiro asked abruptly. "Is he away on business?"
Samantha's eyes narrowed and she laughed. "I am unattached, Mr. Brannon," she replied. "Either the males in my life are otherwise occupied with their projects," she added with a direct look at the wolf beside her, "or they are too afraid to ask me out."
"That's a shame," Merlin replied, staring into flames of their candle centerpiece and absently toying with one of the forks next to his plate. "They're oblivious to what they're missing."
Samantha laughed again. She reached out and put a hand on his arm, but a canine waiter arrived to take their drink orders. The Border collie requested a light wine cooler, but Merlin preferred to keep his mind clear and simply ordered an iced tea with mint. Jiro matched Samantha's order and then the waiter was away while another attendant arrived with a large bowl of mixed breads and an assortment of spreads.
When they had once again been left with a moment to themselves, Samantha lightly cleared her throat. "Earlier today you mentioned that you had moved back to Dennier and signed up for military service to further your education," she recollected, "but that was interrupted by the Dennier-Mainor Conflict."
"That's where he met me," Jiro supplied brightly.
"You were in the Dennieran military?" Samantha asked.
Merlin chuckled and looked over at her. "No, Jiro was on the other side. He and I were shooting at one another."
Samantha didn't hide her look of surprise. "Okay, this is a story I want to hear," she said, leaning over the table.
"I was two years into my service when Dennier and Mainor started squabbling over mineral rights in the asteroid belt between their two orbits. I'd already had my pilot training and was flying routine missions for a year, so when both sides started putting armed patrols in amongst the asteroids, I was assigned to the 36th Spatial Flight Squadron stationed on board the SS Shishaldin, a Dennieran battleship."
"Likewise," Jiro added, "I was a flight navigator in the 45th Asteroid Border Patrol, stationed on the SS Veniaminof Mainoran battleship."
The waiter returned with their drinks and then they took time to put in their meal orders. Samantha assured them they could order anything they wished, but both males took care to be reasonable in their selections. When the waiter left, Merlin took a sip of his tea and leaned back in his seat. He listened to the quiet orchestral music for a moment and then continued.
"Although I thought a disagreement over something as trivial as a bunch of space rocks was silly, I followed my orders. I was a good pilot and managed to keep out of trouble, but when the diplomatic talks failed and actual hostilities began to break out between our worlds, the shooting started. Like a lot of us in the military, I had no actual animosity toward our so-called enemy, a bunch of faceless felines from Mainor, so when I did find myself in the midst of a spatial dogfight, I used my skills not to kill, but rather to disable their ships so they couldn't continue to fight against me."
Samantha nodded, but asked, "I agree with your tactics, but didn't that go against your orders?"
Merlin smiled and shook his head. "Not exactly," he answered. "My orders were to engage the enemy if they crossed a virtual line in my area of patrol, but I was never specifically ordered to kill them. Although there were shots fired and there were some deaths on both sides, what we were in was not actually classified as a war, but merely a conflict. Neither side really wanted war, so things were touch and go for a while and most encounters were standoffs. The actual strikes were tentative and usually only focused on military targets if possible."
"I was in a similar situation," Jiro said as he absently pulled on the collar of his shirt with a finger. "My orders were to drive back any Dennieran ships that went into the disputed space, but we were at our own whims on what we did when engaged with an enemy." He frowned and took a drink. "There were a couple of guys in my patrol team who wanted to squash as many lupine pilots as they could, counting it as some kind of badge of honor, but most of us simply wanted to go back to boring patrols and practice maneuvers, even if this was the kind of thing we were supposed to be practicing for."
Merlin studied the flame of the candle for a moment. "Then one day I was ordered to penetrate farther into the disputed area with my wingman and try to drive out interlopers who might be hiding out among the rocks. We flushed out a couple of Mainoran patrol ships and we found ourselves engaged with the enemy." He hooked a thumb toward the cougar and said, "This is the guy I went up against, while our respective partners played tag through the asteroids."
"Yeah," agreed Jiro. "We were pretty evenly matched and neither of us made much headway against the other. I'm not sure who thought of it first, but after a long game of cat & mouse, both of us thought to disable the other's ship so we could go help out our respective wingman."
"He shot me first," Merlin admitted as he buttered a roll, "taking out my attitude control thrusters, but as I was spinning and trying to avoid smashing into rocks, I managed to get off a series of shots on him."
"He damaged my spatial gyroscope, punctured a primary coolant tank, and who knows what else," Jiro explained. "I lost the ability to point my ship where I wanted to go and crashed against an asteroid with enough mass to have its own gravity field and a small amount of atmospheric pressure. I broke my right foot and two ribs in the crash."
"About the time he was crashing," Merlin picked up after swallowing a bite of his roll, "I thought I had my axis spin under control, but one of the damaged thrusters misfired, driving me right into a nearby valley of the same asteroid. I broke my left arm in two places as well as dislocating my right knee and right shoulder. None of our injuries were life-threatening, but they put us both out of commission."
"A neutral Pomen medical ship was in the vicinity during the conflict and we were both pulled from our wrecked planes while we each still had functioning life support," said Jiro. "However, the hospital ship was limited on space so they put us in the same room together. Imagine that! We were enemies that had just shot one another down!"
Merlin laughed at the memory. "Our nurse was a rather large grizzly bear, and she warned us that our injuries were nothing compared to what she would do to us if she caught us fighting!"
"Although this guy shot me down, I was in too much pain to really care anything about getting up out of my bed to box his ears," Jiro added. "All I wanted was my meds and a chance to rest. We were both laid up for weeks."
"We didn't warm up to one another all that quickly," Merlin said with a grin, "but out of sheer boredom and no one else to talk to, we discovered common interests and eventually became friends."
Samantha rested her chin on her hands, rapt with the tale and visualized all they told her. Merlin was amused by her interest and continued while they awaited their dinner. "A week before we were released from the hospital, a cease-fire was agreed upon by both sides and the hostilities between Dennier and Mainor ended with a workable resolution on the asteroid mineral rights."
"That was good," Samantha said quietly. "You didn't have to go right back into the fight."
"True, but that also meant we were out of jobs," Jiro said.
"What do you mean? I thought military service was like being under a contract."
"Yes, but only as long as they want you," Merlin replied, buttering another roll. "With the hostilities resolved, each of our respective governments released their wounded from service as a reduction-in-force effort. When our doctors decided we were healed, we were both released as civilians. They gave us a severance pay and a smattering of benefits, but we were suddenly jobless without a direction on what we were supposed to do."
"Merle was going to go back to Dennier, but my family had moved away to Pomen, so there was nobody for me back on Mainor. I suggested we pool our money and buy tickets somewhere else." Jiro looked up in interest when their waiter approached the table, but the canine bypassed them for another dining party. "Although the conflicts had stopped, there was still tension between the two worlds. I was tired of the pointless bickering I saw on the news and was worried another conflict might flare up out of spite, so I recommended we vacate the star system altogether to let things cool down for a while."
"I suggested we go to Alexandrius," said Merlin. "It was the only other world I was familiar with, so I figured Alucara would be a good place to find jobs. My brother-in-law had helped me make a few investments while I was still in college, so when we got here I decided to look into them to see if I might have some money available to me to live on. When I checked, I discovered that brother William had steered me right. I had a rather large return that had grown with interest over the years. Without a clue about what else we might do, Jiro and I began to formulate a plan so that he and I could go into business for ourselves. I figured my business management degree and military training could be useful."
Jiro licked his lips when several attendants headed their way laden with food, but once again, their table was bypassed for another. Irritated, the cougar crossed his arms and slunk down in his seat.
"That sounds intriguing," Samantha said at last. "What kind of business are you thinking about?"
For the first time since he had initially made his career decision, Merlin suddenly felt embarrassed at his choice in front of the heiress. "Uhm, I bought a secondhand freighter to operate as its captain and pilot, with Jiro as my first officer and navigator," he said in a quieter voice. "Once I hire a crew, plans are to fly all over the Planetary Alignment. I've always wanted to see the other colony worlds of Earth and the income will finance our flights."
Rather than tease him about his plans, Samantha actually looked interested. "Tell me more," she said.
That surprised the wolf. "Well," he drawled as he gathered his thoughts, "I've only been to four of the fifteen PA worlds, Alexandrius, Dennier, Mainor and Pomen. Each planet has its own governments, cultures, traditions and multiple societies, depending upon which part of each planet you land on. I want to see what else is out there. I'm tired of the squabbling between my homeworld and his," he said, indicating the mountain lion beside him, "and I want to see other places. It would be like that vacation you and I took one summer to the continents on the other side of Alexandrius."
Merlin grinned at the sparkle of memory in her eyes. "There are other places to visit, other people to meet, and many sights to see. I don't want to be tied down to a desk job in the same place somewhere. I want to travel and a freighting business is a way to do this. Typically, it takes three or more weeks to travel from one star system to another, depending upon where you go, and I'd give my crew three or four days of leave at each destination before we headed for our next assignment. That gives everyone a few days to go out seeing and doing things after being cooped up inside a ship for nearly a month. Everyone would be free to spend their shore leave as they wished, and that would give me the chance to explore on my own."
"That sounds like a wonderful plan," the Border collie said. "I've been to a few other worlds that you haven't and I have always enjoyed traveling. I actually envy your opportunity to do something like this."
Jiro laughed. "Do you envy the chance to travel, or do you harbor a secret desire to load and unload cargo?"
Samantha snickered. "I can't say I've ever considered cargo moving," she admitted with crinkled eyes, "but if that was the price to get out and see the Planetary Alignment, it just might be worth it."
The cougar poked his friend in the ribs with a grin. "I like your girlfriend, Merle — she has a warped sense of humor!"
Merlin and Samantha exchanged an amused glance at the cougar's reference to their past relationship. The wolf was about to snap off a retort when the wait staff arrived with trays bearing their dinners.
Jiro sat up straight and forced himself not to drool at the food as Samantha was served first and then the two males. The aroma was wonderful and everything looked as if it was prepared to perfection.
The head waiter asked if there were anything else they needed, but no one could think of anything that was missing. They thanked the wait staff and then began their meal in silence.
Sometime later, dinner and dessert were finished and the dishes had been cleared away by the efficient staff. The three of them sat at the table sipping the remains of their refilled drinks, the conversation long on trivial topics. The discussion fell quiet for a bit, as each of them turned inward to their own thoughts, their bellies full and soft live music in the air around them.
Merlin had enjoyed the evening, but was already beginning to gather thoughts of wrapping up to head back to the Horizon. Samantha was just as delightful as she'd ever been, and thanks to Jiro's own charming presence, the connection with her remained on a casual, friendly level. Their old relationship had never been perfect, their personalities sometimes clashing, but overall he had enjoyed his previous time together with the Border collie. When he looked up from his introspection, he saw that Samantha was also wrapped up in memories. He looked over at Jiro, who glanced back at him with an amused expression.
"What's up?" he asked the cougar. Samantha looked up at his words.
Jiro chuckled. "I've been watching the two of you get lost in your thoughts," he replied. "I've enjoyed the dinner and conversation, but I think it may be time to make myself scarce to let the two of you have some alone time together."
Samantha swallowed unexpectedly and put a hand out to place it on top of the puma's. "Uh, no," she said hesitantly. "Actually, my thoughts have been elsewhere."
"Elsewhere?" asked Merlin, glad for the change in direction from Jiro's unexpected suggestion.
The Border collie looked down at the napkin in her hand and smiled demurely. "Although we had good times in the past," she said, "I was thinking more along the lines of the future traveling you will be doing with your business."
"Yeah, I'm sorry about that," Merlin said quietly. "I know you have an office job that will probably keep you from traveling very much. I shouldn't have played up my excitement to see other places so much when you're the one stuck behind a desk. I know you have a better career ahead of you than I do, but it was still insensitive of me… I apologize."
Samantha laughed aloud and then took a quick sip of her wine cooler. "You are forgiven," she said with a smile, "but I was trying to talk myself into making a request of you."
"Do you want me to pick up a souvenir from somewhere specific, or did you have something else in mind?" the wolf asked. "You know I'll do my best to fulfill one of your requests."
The canine reached across to take both of his hands into hers. Jiro peered over the candle at them both, wondering what was up. "Take me with you," Samantha said at last. "I want to sign up as a member of your crew."
Merlin looked at her in surprise, but Jiro grinned and laughed aloud. The cougar startled a couple at the next table, so he clamped a hand over his mouth and then leaned forward over the table.
"Heh… that was a good one, Samantha," he snickered. He reached around and manually closed Merlin's jaw with a finger. "From the look on his face, I think you actually had Merlin going!"
Instead of agreeing with him, a look disappointment of crept into Samantha's eyes. "Jiro…" she said in all seriousness, "I wasn't joking."
Jiro merely grinned back at her. "Uh huh, I believe that the heiress to a multi-billion credit corporation with branches spread across the Planetary Alignment wants to give up all that to become a delivery girl!"
The mountain lion's levity was infectious and a smile spread across Merlin's face. "Knowing you as I do," he said in a lighthearted tone, "I almost thought you were serious."
Samantha lowered her gaze. "You don't believe me?"
"Why would we?" Jiro asked, his smile starting to droop. "It's ridiculous."
"I'm not joking," she said again, looking the wolf. "I am serious. Let me join your crew."
"That's just silly," Merlin said with a straight face.
"Do you want me to sit up and beg?" Samantha asked in a small voice. "I'll do it, if that's what you want. I'll get down on the carpet right now, here in front of everyone."
Jiro snickered, but Merlin saw no humor in her deep brown eyes. A sudden chill went up his spine when he realized she was serious. Samantha looked down at her hands, put her napkin up on the table next to her drink, and then put her hands on the edge of the table to get up from her chair. Merlin reached out and put a hand on top of hers to stop her.
"Why?" he asked in a quiet voice. Jiro's levity faltered and he looked back and forth between the wolf and the canine. "Why are you serious?" Merlin asked again.
The Border collie let out a small sigh of relief and picked up her napkin. "I need a job," she said simply, looking down at her hands.
Before she could continue, Jiro raised his eyebrows. "How does the heiress of the Holden empire lose her job?" he asked incredulously. "Did you insult the whole Board of Directors?"
"No, it's not like that," Samantha replied. "I need a job where I do something. It's my father's company, but I'm not allowed to make business decisions. The Board does that. All I do is sign my name on the memorandums and actions that they have already made decisions on. When I'm not doing that, everyone seems to believe the Holden daughter should put in an appearance at all their stuffy parties and official functions. Nobody cares about me, myself— only who I am related to." She took a sip from her drink and then added, "I have no real power; I'm nothing more than a figurehead."
"I thought you had controlling shares in your father's company," Merlin said quietly.
"I do, but ever since I became an orphaned pup, Master Tristan has been in charge of my family's shares. Even when I became of age, he convinced me that he should continue to handle our business affairs, so when I obtained my degree and joined the workforce of Holden Pharmaceutical, I was given an office, a secretary and a slateboard to sign documents. Aside of the rare audit outing like the one where we met today, that's all I have done since. If I want to do anything else, all anyone will tell me is to sit back and reap the rewards of being the heiress to the company."
"I'll bet you draw a nice paycheck, though," Jiro said. It was a statement made without levity or malice, but the Border collie looked up at him as if the words stung.
"Yes, Mr. Brannon, I do," she said tersely. "I'm proud of my father's business accomplishments, but I would like to do something to earn my pay. Not only do I have a Master's Degree in Business Structure and Administration, I also have a degree in Computer Technology that spans the technologies of several PA worlds! I begged them to let me work in our IT department, but they wouldn't hear of it — 'The daughter of Derek Holden, working in a computer lab? Outrageous!'"
Merlin glanced back at his partner. "She doesn't look it, but Samantha is one of the biggest computer geeks you'll ever meet," he informed the cougar with a partial smile.
"Okay, so she's rich, beautiful and smart!" the feline quipped. "Let's say for a moment that I actually believe you're serious about slumming with us on the Blue Horizon. If your Board of Directors won't let you transfer to a different department within your own family company, what makes you think they'll allow you to leave the company to chase after some other job?"
"That's not their decision to make," Samantha retorted.
"I think they would argue that it is," Jiro countered. "If word got out that the Holden darling ran away to join the circus, I'm sure that would affect public opinion, not to mention the financial market in the company."
"I don't care!" the canine said a little loudly. Several patrons at the other tables turned to look at her in annoyance, so she picked up her drink and sat back in her chair with a frown. Soft music from the small ensemble continued to play as if there had been no outburst.
"Sam," Merlin said gently. She looked over at him, moving only her eyes. It had been ages since she'd been addressed by a shortened version of her name; Merlin was the only one who had ever used it with her outside her adopted siblings.
"I would love to have you join us," the wolf said. Jiro looked suddenly perplexed and Samantha's expression softened, but that only lasted until he continued. "However, a freighter is not the ideal lifestyle for an heiress worth billions of credits throughout the Planetary Alignment. Even if your company allowed you to go off to do your own thing, a cargo hauler is not a glamorous place. Everyone on board will be required to work for their living, no matter what position they hold in the crew; I'm the captain and even I'll be moving boxes and crates when we load and unload the ship."
Samantha bristled and her eyes grew dark, especially when Jiro added, "A freighter's not the place for someone used to money and having people wait on her."
"I don't want you to wait on me! I'm more than willing to earn my keep!" she said hotly. "I'll wear dungarees, boots and gloves, move boxes and get dirty, sweep your floors and cook your meals – anything! It's not like I hadn't done all that in college! If you're concerned about the money, don't pay me – just give me a job to do!"
"You can afford anything you desire, go anywhere you want and do anything you wish," Jiro said with a shake of his head. "Life on a freighter would be limited, potentially boring with the weeks of inactivity between stops, and it might even ruin your place in daddy's company."
Samantha drained her glass and set it down hard on the table top. "Are you even listening to me?" she growled. She locked eyes with Merlin and gripped the ornate cloth napkin in her lap. "Listen… I want you to forget you know anything about me. Give me an application and consider it a legitimate submission for employment. Let me worry about Holden Pharmaceutical." With that, she slid her chair back and stood up. "I'm going to the powder room," she said evenly, dropping the napkin onto the table. "Talk it over between yourselves. I'll be back in a few moments."
Without waiting for a reply, she turned and walked stiffly across the room. Merlin and Jiro watched her go, neither of them daring to break the silence of her departure.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.