BLUE HORIZON 1261
— by Ted R. Blasingame
"Good grief…" Jiro muttered after Samantha disappeared through the door to the ladies room. "I can't believe she thinks she's serious."
Merlin rubbed his eyes and then put his head in his hands over the table. "Believe me… she's serious," he replied. He looked back over to his friend after a moment. "When she sets her mind to something, she won't stop until she gets it."
"Spoiled rich kid," the cougar said with a snort. "Throws a tantrum when she doesn't get her way."
The wolf stared at him in frustration. "I can see how it would look that way," he replied. "Despite what you think, she's not a pampered pet and is very hands-on in everything she does. I can imagine how restless she must be. Even though she's been around money all her life, she has never liked being waited on. She's too impatient to wait for others to do what she could do herself. As for her money, she uses it to her advantage, but not to extravagance."
Jiro waved a hand around them to encompass the swank restaurant atmosphere. "You don't call this extravagant?"
"A good meal with friends once in a while is not flashy, my friend."
The cougar stared at his companion, letting his jaw drop. "You're actually considering her application to join us, aren't you?" he asked hoarsely.
Merlin leaned forward and dropped his voice where it was barely above a whisper. "Listen, you know as well as I that her company will never allow it – neither will her Master Tristan. Despite that, however, I doubt anyone will be able to talk her out of it; she'll have to make that decision for herself."
A sparkle jumped into Jiro's green eyes. "Ah, you have a plan?"
"The beginnings of one, anyway," Merlin replied in all seriousness. "Let's take her to see the ship. We've made progress on the cleaning, but there's still a lot to do. Let her see how dirty the ship is and how small the cabins are. The ship looks fairly large from the outside, but most of that is taken up by engines and the cargo bay. Let's show her how small the rest of the ship is, with unchanging scenery that she'll be forced to stare at for weeks at a time. As a former military cat, you know what cabin fever can be like."
"When you put it that way, I'm not so sure it sounds good to me anymore…"
Merlin gave him a smirk and the cougar couldn't keep from breaking out into a wide grin. "If she sees the conditions of the place she would be staying in," Jiro agreed with a nod, "she just might give up the idea of joining us."
"That's what I'm hoping for, anyway."
"Time to put on a show," Jiro whispered. "Here's she comes."
Merlin looked up to see the Border collie making her way across the room toward them. She looked down when somebody reached out and touched her arm, and she stopped to speak with someone she apparently knew. She exchanged a few pleasantries and then excused herself to return to her table.
Merlin stood up to hold her chair for her and then returned to his seat. Samantha leaned forward and rested her chin lightly on her hands. "Have you come to a decision?" she asked, masking her expression and body language to appear neutral.
The wolf cleared his throat and replied, "Not yet, but we both agreed that perhaps you should see what you're asking to get into. We can give you a tour of our ship, explain the business to you, and then you can judge for yourself."
"What, no further arguments?" she asked suspiciously.
"Not at this time, no," he answered.
She looked at Jiro. "What about you, Mr. Resistance?" she asked.
The cougar put on his best look of innocence. "As he said, not at this time," he replied.
Samantha studied them both for deceit. She was encouraged that it appeared they were willing to listen for now, at least. However, she was still suspicious. "Okay," she said at last, "but how can I be sure you aren't going to dummy up the ship for me?"
Merlin gave her a gentle smile. "Before we came to dinner, we had no idea you were going to ask to join us, so if you come to look at the Blue Horizon right now, you'll see it as we left off in our preparations – no dummy up."
"Right now," Jiro repeated.
"Why are you two being so nice about this now?" she asked in hesitation. "I got nothing but a wall of opposition from either of you before."
Jiro picked up his glass. "You told us to discuss it while you were in the powder keg," he said before taking a sip.
"Powder room," Samantha corrected.
"Yes, that place," Jiro remarked with a smirk, fully aware of the words he had used. "We discussed it and agreed upon the tour."
"Sam, I still don't think you'd be happy aboard a freighter," Merlin added, "but if you want to see where you're busting to be, you're welcome to the full tour. We'll answer all questions honestly and let you make up your own mind."
Their waiter came by to refill their glasses, but Merlin put a hand over the top of his and simply shook his head. The coyote departed to arrange for the final check.
Samantha looked pleased, a warm glow spreading through her over the triumph. She was a step closer to the freedom she had always yearned for. She was certain they would make out the ship to be as bad as they could play it up to her, but if the final decision was up to her own judgment, she still had a chance.
* * *
An hour and a half later, Merlin led Samantha onto the bridge. Jiro had left them at the main hatch to let Merlin guide the tour while he went out to purchase more cleaning supplies, but he had just returned in time to see them enter the command center. The cougar walked onto the bridge behind them and cleared his throat. They both jumped nervously and Jiro smirked at their startled expressions.
"Hey, kids, did you get the beds dusted off?" he asked slyly.
Samantha narrowed her eyes at him, but didn't bother with a response.
"Excuse me a moment while I slap this guy's ears," Merlin growled. He took the cougar by the elbow and dragged him out into the corridor until the door shut behind him.
Once they were alone, however, Merlin released him and Jiro leaned in close. "How's the great disillusionment coming along?" he asked in a whisper.
"Well, she's been fairly quiet throughout the whole tour," the wolf whispered back. "She's asked only minor questions here and there, but hasn't looked very impressed with what she's seen. I've caught her glancing at me a couple times and it almost appears as if she's looking at me in pity."
"Sounds like our plan is working," agreed the cougar.
"We'd better get back in there before she gets suspicious. Act as if I've jumped down your throat for the bed-dusting comment."
"Sure," replied Jiro with a smirk. "You didn't answer the question, though."
Merlin sighed. "You have an overactive imagination. We haven't touched one another since coming aboard, so get your mind out of the litter box."
Jiro grinned, but then dropped it when the wolf turned his back on him and reached for the door control.
Back inside, Merlin stepped into the room and glared back at the cougar. Jiro looked appropriately penitent. "I apologize, ma'am," he muttered. "I was only teasing, but it was inappropriate."
Samantha nodded and let out a small sigh. "Accepted," she replied.
"So, whaddaya think of our little ship?" Jiro asked, hoping to appear friendly. Merlin looked at her too, awaiting her response, but she hesitated before responding.
"I'm sure that once it's cleaned up, it will be a good vessel," she replied with a nod that almost looked as if she were trying to convince herself of her statement. "However, while you two were out in the hall, I took a brief look at your computer system. I don't think you're going to get far with this running your ship."
The wolf and the cougar both looked at her in surprise. "What do you mean?" asked the navigator. "Everything seems to be in order."
Merlin moved to the Border collie's right side when she turned toward the main computer console. Jiro padded up and looked over her left shoulder.
"This system is antiquated and your navigational charts are outdated," Samantha told them. She tapped a few controls and showed them the primary entry information. "There have been four commercial updates to the operating system since this version was released, and the trade route star charts are just as old."
"That's not possible… this ship is only a year old!" Merlin exclaimed.
Jiro sat down at the navigator's station and called up the charts in question. He studied them for a moment with a frown and then looked back at the wolf. "She's right," he said. "The operating system of the flight computer keeps navigational star charts updated every fifteen days to allow for planetary orbits and stellar shift. This hasn't been updated in four years!"
"The ship is only a year old…" Merlin said again. "The baking company bought it new and used it for a year before selling it off."
"Why did they sell it?" Samantha asked.
"Judging from what was on the scattered papers I found in the captain's office," the wolf replied, "I think they had too many ships for their business and the cost of maintaining the vessels and their crews was too much of an expense for their budget. The crew of this one was rather disgruntled at being laid off – and we've found signs of temper tantrums in some of the cabins."
"Do you think their navigator or computer tech may have wiped the computer mainframe out of spite once they'd landed for the last time?" Jiro asked.
Samantha sat down in the chair before the computer terminal and started looking through the systems. Merlin and Jiro watched her breeze through the menus and command lines quietly, watching in wonder as she delved into the technical structure of the specifications. This went on for some time and both males were beginning to get bored. Jiro stretched and was about to get up to retire to his cabin when Samantha sat back in her seat with a loud sigh.
"What did you find?" Merlin asked.
Without looking at either of them, the Border collie stared back at the console. "We can only assume you're correct about the disgruntled crew wiping the mainframe," she said. "I did find login data of the installer on the current operating system and navigation data for someone named Poppy Tredrozuto. The logs were dated only a month ago."
Jiro and Merlin exchanged looks. "Poppy was the guy who sold the ship to us," the cougar said.
"It's likely that this old operating system and data might have been an old backup that Poppy installed so he could sell the ship," Merlin surmised. "Can we get a current system and install over it?"
Samantha looked over at him. "Yes and no," she answered.
"Uh oh," muttered Jiro.
"I can't tell from here if it was switched out by the crew or if the ship was originally equipped with it, but it appears the central processing unit of your computer core is practically an antique." The canine woman gestured toward the console and looked back at the cougar. "You can purchase a current operating system and navigational update package, but I doubt this computer equipment would be able to process it. That may be why this Poppy guy put an older operating system on it; he might not have been able to put a current version on it himself."
Jiro let out a venomous curse, and then immediately regretted it when he remembered the heiress in their midst. "Sorry," he mumbled.
Samantha dismissed the explicative with a shake of her head when she looked over at Merlin's astonished expression. "I'm sure you realize how much trouble you could find yourself in taking this ship out into space with old navigation charts and a computer system that can't be upgraded, only replaced."
The wolf swallowed and then he looked over at Jiro. "She's right," he admitted hoarsely. "We didn't even realize what we had to work with." He rubbed his temples and tilted his head back over his shoulders. "Replacing a starship computer system is going to be expensive…"
"Yeah, but you said you had the money to get the ship in working order with plenty left over to hire a crew," the cougar reminded him. "How expensive can a new computer be?"
"Jiro…" Merlin began.
"Very," Samantha supplied. "A starship's computer controls everything, from navigation, communication, fuel flow ratios and the gravity deck plates, to the air you breathe, temperature controlled storage for the food you eat and the climate to keep you from freezing out in space… and everything in between. You're not going to find a unit like that at your local electronics super store."
Merlin sighed and gathered his thoughts. "Just stocking the ship with basic supplies, equipment and a crew is costing me a small fortune," he said wearily. "I'm not sure I'll have enough left over to cover a major computer overhaul, too."
"In that case," Jiro added, "we may not be able to get the ship up to orbit and in business."
Merlin stuck his hands into the pockets of his trousers and then looked out the forward windows at the nighttime activity over the spaceport. No one said anything for a long time as the reality of the situation sunk in.
After a while, Samantha cleared her throat. Her male companions looked over at her and she had an odd expression on her face. "What is it?" Merlin asked. "Did you find something else?"
"I have a business proposition for you," she said in all seriousness. "I will buy you a new starship computer system, complete with the latest software packages and expert technical installation — in exchange for a place on your crew."
Merlin and Jiro's jaws dropped in unison.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.