BLUE HORIZON 1261
— by Ted R. Blasingame
The cross-town traffic was heavy the next morning, but Samantha managed to guide her dark green aircar through it without getting caught in a stand-still jam. She wound her silent-energy vehicle around the marked pathways through the spaceport to the landing pad where the Blue Horizon rested, waiting the day when it was ready to launch.
She shook her head with a smile when she spied the rusted panel van that Jiro had rented leaving the vicinity of the ship, wondering how it kept from falling apart. Unlike her vehicle and the majority of the other cars, trucks and vans that operated in Alucara, the rental van didn't levitate several feet above the ground using hardy gravity repulsors, but instead traveled on solid pliable tires. It possessed the same clean energy type engine for its propulsion, but due to its constant contact with the streets as it traveled around town, the vehicle was old, worn and dirty.
Samantha parked her vehicle where the van had rested, the car setting down upon four small pylons that flipped out and locked into place before the repulsors faded and set it down gently. She reached into the back seat, grabbed a small overnight case and then stepped out of her car. She was prepared to help the guys with cleanup today, but to keep up pretenses with those in her father's company, she had left her apartment dressed in a cream-colored blouse, navy blue slacks and trim black dress shoes. The overnight case contained appropriate working clothes.
As she had hoped, the airlock hatch was already open to let in the morning air. Jiro had apparently already departed for his daily supply run. She walked in and made her way along the foot-worn trail through the flour dust on the cargo deck to the lift that would take her to the upper levels. She had never seen the inside of a freighter before Merlin had given her a tour of the Blue Horizon, and although he had told her that the Okami vessel was relatively small, the hold seemed cavernous to her. Perhaps it was only because it was empty and echoed her footsteps.
She took the lift up, and when she stepped out into the corridor, she suddenly realized that she didn't know which cabins Merlin and Jiro had chosen for themselves. She was confident that both of them were now aware of Tristan's blessing on her joining their crew, but she was unsure if she could choose her own cabin or if one would be assigned to her. Of such things on an interstellar freighter, she was ignorant on such protocols.
She decided she should ask, rather than just assume, so she left her overnight bag out of the way next to the lift and began searching for Merlin's quarters. She had told her administrative assistant that she would be away for a few days, so she had packed up a few small items to bring with her to the ship. It would be several days before Tristan's people would have a faux identity arranged for her, so the story of her return to Sillon had not yet been implemented.
For now, she was only taking off a few days for "personal matters" and she intended to start helping with the ship's cleanup right away. Once things were officially set in motion, she would pack up her apartment and put everything in storage before embarking on her one-year voyage to the distant world. If she started packing now, it might raise suspicions. In reality, she would have to decide what to take with her on the Horizon and what to leave behind, since the cabins on the freighter were relatively small.
She walked in through one door, but found only an empty room. It had been cleaned up, but was not yet occupied. A full-size bed resided in the back left corner, directly beneath a small rectangular window of thick glassteel. On the opposite wall from the foot of the bed was a built-in book shelf with a small vidscreen mounted midway up from the floor. On the back wall beside the bed was a small desk with a computer screen and keyboard terminal. There was a roller chair pushed under the desk and the drawers above and below were closed neatly. Beside the desk was a closet just large enough to walk inside, but once the racks and the internal dresser were all full of garments, it would seem small. There was a door immediately to Samantha's right that led to the lavatory. An all-species pedestal toilet was directly inside, sandwiched between a shower stall and a sink counter with cabinets above and below for storage. All in all, the cabin was about the size of a studio apartment without a kitchenette.
She checked two more without finding anyone, but they were also tidy. The Border collie correctly assumed that Merlin and Jiro had made the cabins their first cleaning priorities in case applications for employment were submitted and quarters were needed right away.
The canine opened the door to another cabin and saw an unmade bed with a pile of clothing on the floor beside a cardboard box. Next to the desk was an easel tripod with a stretched canvas that hadn't yet had oil paints applied to it; a sketch pad with several scribbled geometric shapes upon it was propped up against one leg of the tripod. The lavatory door to her right was open and a shower was running.
"Merlin?" she called. There was no answer, but Samantha smiled at a sudden thought. It had been a long while since she and Merlin had been together, and although she got the feeling that he wasn't actively trying to resume their old relationship, she didn't think that he would turn down a shared shower if she kept it casual and innocent. Unlike humankind, most Furs were unconcerned if seen in their natural covering beyond small bits of cloth for simple modesty or adornment.
She quickly undressed, leaving her garments draped over the desk chair. She stepped into the bathroom, pulled open the shower door, and the cougar inside looked up at her in astonishment. Samantha felt an instant lump in her throat as she and the showering navigator gave each other a quick once-over in that brief instant.
Jiro recovered first and waved at her with the bottle of shampoo he held in one hand. "Good morning, Sunshine!" he said with a cheery grin.
Samantha started to back away. "Ah, uhm, I'm s-sorry," she stammered. "I, uh… that is, I m-mean…"
The cougar gave her a calm smile to indicate he wasn't upset, and in a move that surprised even him, he held out an empty hand toward her. "Come on in," he said casually. "The water's nice and warm. It'll help calm your nerves."
Samantha's eyes were wide, but she narrowed them at his invitation. Then she realized that his whole demeanor was simply friendly, and despite his initial glance at her unclothed body, he didn't appear to be lecherous or calculating. Perhaps they had gotten off on the wrong foot. If he was willing to be nice to her after a tense evening the night before, what harm would it serve to be nice in return?
With a shrug, Samantha reached out and took his hand. "Sure, why not?" she said calmly. "Hand me the soap. I'll lather up your back."
Jiro took her hand in quiet surprise and pulled her under the warm spray, closing the door behind her. When he turned toward her in the close space of the stall, she wiped water from her eyes with a smile and took the bottle of thick green liquid from him. "Turn around," she said.
At first, Jiro thought she was embarrassed to be so close to him, but then he remembered the shampoo. "Right," he said, turning around. Samantha poured some of liquid into her hand, and then began to rub it into his tawny back fur. She set the bottle onto a wall shelf and then worked the shampoo up into a lather.
"You didn't seem very surprised to see me," she said as she began kneading the muscles beneath the soap. Jiro closed his eyes under her ministrations and chuckled.
"I was surprised to see you naked and trying to get into the shower with me," he said, "but no, I wasn't surprised that you turned up here on the ship. Over breakfast, Merlin told me about his conversation with your Master Tristan last night." He looked over his shoulder at her and added, "That must have been some sales pitch you gave him, Ms. Chase."
"It wasn't easy," Samantha admitted, smirking at his use of her new identity. She moved to the side to allow the spray to rinse the shampoo off his back. "Anyway, why are you being so nice to me now? You weren't very cordial last night."
Jiro turned around to give her a smooth smile just as she faced the opposite direction, letting the warm water wash over her. "Two reasons," he said. "First, I like the way you worked out plans with your Master. You had an agenda and managed to find a solution that he could live with. If you could pull that off, I figure I could put up with you for a year."
"Uh, thanks, I think; what was the second reason?"
Jiro slid his arms around her waist, pulled her close, and whispered into her ear. "Crawling into the shower with me was a friendly way of mending our fences." Samantha swallowed nervously, keeping her fluffy tail firmly in place behind her, although he hadn't touched her inappropriately.
The cougar didn't seem to realize her pause, but he continued by adding with a chuckle, "With the look on your face when you opened the door, though, I think you assumed you were getting into the shower with Merlin."
"I did," Samantha admitted with a nod, "but you're right. I would rather be friends than be at odds with you."
Still holding her close, Jiro asked, "Why didn't you bolt when you realized you'd made a mistake? I don't figure Merlin would be happy if he knew you were in here with me."
Samantha let out a sigh. "He and I were close at one time," she said quietly, "but last night when you volunteered to go and leave the two of us together, I saw a moment of panic in his eyes. I don't think he wanted to be alone with me." She put a hand on his arm and looked back over her shoulder at him.
"I like you, Jiro, and our shower has been nice, but because of Merlin, I don't think we ought to play. It might harbor resentment, whether or not he wants to get back together with me."
Jiro nodded with a smile, but didn't release her. "Probably a good idea to just be friends for now," he told her, "but you're welcome in my shower any time."
"Thanks, Jiro. You really are a good friend. I can see why Merlin likes you."
The cougar snorted in amusement, turning them both so that the water began to spray his back, rinsing out the suds from his fur. "You have special privileges, Ms. Chase and are the only one invited into my shower!"
Samantha laughed and turned around in his arms to embrace him. "Since we're such special friends now, why don't you just call me Sam? That's what I'm going to tell people to call me for the next year anyway."
"Sure, I— eYiiiieee!" Jiro's eyes went wide and he suddenly lunged forward into her, pinning her to the wall behind her. Samantha felt the water turn cold at the same instant and was glad the bulk of the shower was hitting the cougar instead of herself.
Jiro clenched his teeth and reached behind him to shut off the water. When he felt for the knob, it was not metal he touched, but a hand. He jerked his arm back immediately, almost hitting Samantha in the ribs, and spun around in the small confines of the shower.
Jiro and Samantha both saw a grey and white hand pull back out of sight and then quietly shut the shower door. Neither cougar nor canine dared move for a long moment, both of their hearts beating hard to escape their chest walls.
"Oh sh—" Jiro started to say before Samantha nudged him to remain quiet. The cougar shut off the cold water and then both of them just stood there, water dripping from their fur.
After a couple moments, Jiro swallowed the lump in his throat and eased open the shower door. He peered outside cautiously, fully expecting a fist in his face, but the small bathroom was empty.
"There's only one towel out here," Jiro whispered back at the Border collie. "Let me dry off enough so I can grab another for you from the box out by my bed."
"Okay," Samantha whispered back. She didn't know why they were being quiet, since they'd already been caught in the shower together. It wasn't as if they could hide it now.
The cougar patted down his fur quickly, thankful he was not a long-hair like Samantha. It never took his pelt as long as some Furs to dry, so after only a couple moments, he wrapped the wet towel around his waist and then eased out into the front room. As before, his quarters were empty. The small cabin was not large enough for the wolf to hide from him, so Merlin must have left them alone to get dry and dressed.
He padded to a box at the foot of his bed and picked out a large clean towel for his shower partner.
* * *
Twenty minutes later, Jiro led Samantha from his cabin and headed straight for Merlin's quarters around the curved corridor. They were both nervous and wondering if either of them still had a job on the freighter. They were certain that their lupine friend would never trust them again.
When they reached the door, it was closed. Jiro gave the Border collie a worried look and then knocked lightly on the panel.
"It's open," came Merlin's muffled reply. Through the door, neither could read the tone of the wolf's voice. Jiro thumbed the door control and then walked in first when it opened. He had no trouble with the concept of ladies first, but if Merlin wanted to lash out, the cougar was going to protect Samantha by taking it for her.
Merlin, however, was sitting calmly at the desk, quietly looking over messages awaiting his attention. The cougar and the Border collie stepped inside and let the door close quietly behind them.
After a moment, Merlin switched off his screen and turned in his chair to face them, brushing a bit of lint from the green shirt he wore. "Hey kids," he said in a surprisingly amused tone. "All dry now?"
Neither Jiro nor Samantha knew how to react to this. "Uhm, yeah," the mountain lion muttered. "Listen, Merlin, we—"
The wolf held up a hand. "Relax, both of you," he told them. "Come on in and have a seat on the bed." Samantha followed her companion mutely, afraid to meet Merlin's eyes. They sat down as directed, both looking down at their feet.
"Was your shower really that bad?" Merlin asked. "I thought the two of you were getting along well, but then again, perhaps the cold water interrupted you."
Jiro looked up at his partner. "You… you're not mad?" he inquired hesitantly. The wolf chuckled, which made Samantha look up at him too.
"Why should I be?" Merlin replied. "Relationships are inevitable on crews going out into space. If two of my employees want to get together, I don't mind as long as it doesn't disrupt the business."
Samantha still hadn't yet spoken, but Jiro swallowed his pride and said, "At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I thought your past relationship with Sam—"
The wolf brushed him off with a wave of his hand. "Samantha and I dated casually during college, but that's been a while ago. Just because she managed to convince me and her Master to let her tag along with us for the next year doesn't automatically make her the 'Captain's Lady'. If you two want to partner up, I'm not going to stand in your way."
Samantha swallowed nervously, not at all sure how she should feel about his seeming indifference to their current situation. The two of them had been intimate in the past, but it didn't appear as if that mattered to him now. She was relieved that he wasn't angry at catching her in the shower with his best friend, but she was surprised to realize that she also felt hurt by that same lack of anger.
"Merlin…" she said in a quiet voice, "Jiro and I aren't…. partnering. We were just making up for our differences last night… with just a shower. We didn't do anything."
"Yeah, I know," replied the wolf with a smile.
"Huh? You know? What does that mean?"
"I overheard your entire conversation."
"You did?" Jiro and Samantha exclaimed in unison.
The wolf nodded. "I'd just returned from dropping off a document with Mr. Koihan and saw Samantha go up in the lift when I stepped inside the hold. I called to her, but she was gone before I could get her attention. When I got up here, I heard her call my name, so I went looking for her." He leaned back in the chair and put his hands behind his head, looking at his partner.
"She left the door to your cabin standing open, and when I walked in, I saw her open the shower and saw her surprise. It was all I could do to keep from laughing at the expression on her face. I fully expected her to bolt out of the room, and I was going to tease her for streaking through the ship on her first day on the crew, but then she surprised me by stepping into the shower with you."
"So then you decided to eavesdrop?" the cougar asked hoarsely.
It was Merlin's turn to look embarrassed. "After the way you two clashed last night, I was curious about your quick reconciliation, so I thought I'd listen in for a few minutes. If things started to heat up, I was going to quietly slip away and pretend as if I hadn't walked in on you." He looked up and gave them both a smirk, "Then I heard you bring me into the conversation, so naturally I had to stay."
"Naturally," Jiro repeated with raised eyebrows.
"When I realized your shower was only a shower, I knew I didn't have to worry about you two."
"You were worried?" Samantha ventured to ask.
The wolf nodded, again looking a bit embarrassed. "You and I did have a relationship in the past, and I confess seeing the two of you together made me hesitate," he admitted, "but I wasn't going to stand in your way if you wanted Jiro. Even when we were together, we were never exclusive to one another. Anyway, I don't want to sound cold or anything, but I've been giving our business a lot of my thought lately, and that has to take priority. When we're locked up together in a metal can out in space for weeks at a time, you have to have harmony in your crew. If you don't, someone's likely to get seriously hurt before you reach your destination. That's something I learned in the Dennieran military, stationed on a battle cruiser for a while."
"So, you knew that Jiro and I weren't doing anything," the Border collie said. "Then why the cold water? You could have slipped away without letting us know you were there."
Merlin's whole face lit up in a grin. "I gave in to mischief," he said. "I simply couldn't resist!"
Jiro let out a long, loud sigh and fell back on the bed mattress, his hands over his eyes. "I don't believe this," he groaned. "You nearly gave us both a heart attack, wondering if either of us still had jobs!"
"Of course you still have jobs," Merlin replied, leaning forward toward them. "I'm not going to run this business by myself, and right now you're the only crew I've got. I need slaves to do my bidding!"
"I was just checking to see if we'd received any job applicants, but still there's been no response to my advertisements for the vacant positions. All I've gotten are answers to pricing queries I've made on equipment and supplies."
Samantha ran her fingers through the fur between her ears, looking over at the wolf with a miffed expression. She frowned at him for a moment and then realized that through it all, he hadn't necessarily dismissed feelings for her. Her eyes softened, but either he was acting or was oblivious to the look she gave him.
Merlin stood up and faced them both with his hands in his pockets, his tail swishing lightly behind him. "Listen, you two. I'm not upset that you shared a shower, so relax; our friendships haven't been damaged. Now — until someone actually applies for a job, we still have to continue cleaning up the ship. The cabins are almost done, but we still have two more decks to do." He looked over at Samantha with a gentle smile and then reached for a bag that sat beside the desk. He pulled out a small wrapped package and handed it to her. "I picked this up for you this morning to welcome you to our crew," he said. "Of course, I didn't know that Jiro would welcome you himself so intimately."
The cougar sat up, gave his partner a lopsided smile and then peered over Samantha's shoulder to see what she had been given. The Border collie gave the wolf a mock sneer, grinned widely as she hesitantly pulled a thin blue ribbon off the silvery gift wrapping, and then peeled off the paper. Inside a long thin box was a pair of canvas gloves wrapped in pale blue tissue paper.
Samantha stared at them for a long moment before she looked up at the wolf in puzzlement. Jiro also looked on, certain he was unaware of some cultural tradition that Merlin must be following.
Amusement flicked across the wolf's features yet again. "They're work gloves, Sam," he said. "Welcome to the working class!"
He fully expected a sarcastic retort, but instead, she flung herself into his arms and hugged him close. "Thank you, Merlin," she said with emotion. "I know you meant it as a joke, but you don't know how much it means to me to be a part of your crew!" She pulled back and then licked him gently on the cheek. "Thank you for the opportunity to prove that I am not some spoiled rich girl to be waited on and pampered. You'll see that I can handle my share of the workload."
"You're welcome." Merlin gave her a quick return hug and then sat back down in his chair. "I've already told Jiro of my conversation with Master Tristan last night, so before anyone else joins our crew, the three of us have to agree that none of us know who Samantha Holden is, beyond what may be public knowledge of the financial sector. Sam Chase is a blue-collar computer technician on a common interstellar freighter called the Blue Horizon."
He gestured to Samantha as she sat down next to Jiro and added, "No one on this crew is to know who you are for the next year. Guard your identity securely, and watch yourself at all times so there are no slip-ups. I shouldn't have to remind you that if it ever leaks out, there would be repercussions for all of us. The Holden board of directors would have my head, your head, and with the help of the media, Tristan's head for engineering the deception. There's more to this than simply giving you a working vacation."
Samantha opened her mouth to counter his last statement, but Merlin continued. "Master Tristan charged me with your safety and I gave him my word that I would see to it, so don't be surprised if I get a little restrictive when we're in the company of others. If I were you, I would start working up a background history for your new identity, so you won't give yourself away in casual conversation. As soon as you have new credentials from Tristan, you should go ahead and move into one of the Horizon's vacant cabins to further your story of going back to Sillon for personal family business by getting away from your apartment. You will want to live with us, work with us, eat with us…"
"…shower with us…" the cougar added innocently.
Samantha smacked the puma playfully on the arm, but then nodded back toward the wolf. "I get it, Merlin. I'll be one of you from this point on. If I use any of my money, it will be only to keep up pretenses of Ms. Holden's daily lifestyle."
"Uhm, speaking of Ms. Holden's money," Merlin said, looking embarrassed.
"We still need her money for a new computer system for the Horizon — or none of us will be going anywhere."
Samantha grinned and pulled out a folded sheet of printed paper from a pocket of her slacks. "Despite how tired I was last night, my mind was too active to sleep right away, so I worked up a list of what we'll need and researched sources."
Jiro took the paper from her hands, unfolded it and looked over the list. "I'm impressed!" he said in appreciation. He handed it over to the wolf and added, "Hardware, software and the technical crew to replace it!"
Merlin studied the itemized list and raised his eyebrows. "You're going to order a Geo-21 starship computer structure from Yamato Data Systems? If I'm not mistaken, that's the latest system on the market." He looked up from the paper with a grin. "If you're this productive when your brain is tired, I'm going to have to pay you more than I intended to keep you on!"
Samantha beamed at his praise. "Merlin, you know you don't have to pay me to be a member of your crew. Use your money where it's needed."
"Wrong," the wolf countered. "If you're going to work for me, you're going to be paid. Anyone who looked into our finances would notice that one member of my crew was working for free and that would raise flags of curiosity. I don't want something like that to jeopardize your stay with us, Ms. Chase."
"If she doesn't want a paycheck, you can always give her share to me," Jiro suggested with an innocent smile.
"Nothing doing, mate," Merlin retorted. "You're not earning your pay as it is now."
"Sitting around in the captain's cabin, shirking off your cleaning duties, playing with new crew members in the shower…"
"You're not going to let us live down the shower scene, are you?" Jiro groaned.
The wolf smiled with a wag of his tail through the slotted back of the chair. "Nope!"
Sensing an appropriate lull in the conversation, Samantha stood up and headed for the door. "I brought some work clothes with me, but left them out in the corridor. Let me get changed and then Sam Chase can get started on her new job."
"You're getting started awfully soon," Jiro remarked. "Don't you still have a job at the office until you leave on your cover trip to Sillon?"
The Border collie shook her head. "While I may not have the freedom to do all I'd like to do working for my own family's company, one of the benefits of being a Holden girl is that I can take personal leave anytime I want. I stopped by my admin assistant's desk on the way out and informed her I would be away for two or three days." At the cougar's look of confusion, she added, "You don't think I could sit mundanely in that office, mindlessly signing memos or making humdrum visits to our local store managers knowing that a spaceship awaited me, did you?"
"Ah, okay. What reason did you give her?"
Samantha smiled. "I didn't give her one."
Jiro and Merlin exchanged incredulous glances. The wolf shrugged and got to his feet. "Okay then, go change into your work outfit. We have more of this never-ending cleanup to do on the ship."
Jiro grumbled, but stood up too. "We'd be done a lot quicker if we had a crew to help us."
"Yes, it would," Sam agreed, "but you have me now, so it should go a little faster."
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.