Return to the Library

BLUE HORIZON 1261

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 8
Sparks on the Wind

 

Samantha's first day on the job was uneventful. Before they began cleaning, Sam used the Com station on the bridge to place the order for the new computer system, software, updated navigation charts for Planetary Alignment spatial traffic and a technical crew for its installation.

Then with her help, they were all able to finish the cleanup on the crew deck. All the cabins were ready for occupancy, the Infirmary was sterilized and the rest of the compartments were cleaned and straightened. All three worked together scrubbing and disinfecting the galley once again, as none of them could be certain what might have transpired in there by the previous disgruntled crew.

Before they moved on to the other decks, Merlin allowed Samantha to claim the cabin next door to his as her own.  Although she didn't have any of her belongings with her besides the clothing in her overnight bag, she made up the bed with new sheets and blankets that Jiro had picked up.

Merlin periodically checked the Com station on the bridge for calls from potential applicants, but there had been no responses. Later that day, a truck from Yamato Data Systems delivered the Geo-21 computer system, accompanied by a crew of technicians. They worked through the night pulling out the old system, and then another shift of techs installed the new one over the course of the next day. A third day was required to load the operating system and configure the settings, and then a fourth for factory-grade tests to make sure all systems on board the ship were operating as they should.

During that time, the upper recreation deck was cleaned and then the ship's trio worked on the cargo deck and engine rooms, a task that daunted them all.  By the time the system inspector signed off on the work, however, the interior of the Blue Horizon was spotless. Through it all, the heiress had worked hard doing her share of the cleanup, and to the surprise of both males, neither Merlin nor Jiro heard a single complaint out of her.

Samantha had made an appearance in her Holden office twice to keep up the façade, and a courier from the Silloni embassy delivered an Eyes Only package to her office on the fourth day. Tristan's people had been successful creating a new identity for her, and the few who had been involved were sworn to secrecy. The fabricated ruse to have Samantha Holden recalled to Sillon would break in another day or two, and then Sam Chase would be free to begin her yearlong adventure.

It was late afternoon when the inspector drove away, leaving Merlin, Jiro and Samantha sitting on the edge of the cargo ramp of the open bay door. There was a tang of smoke in the air, but the winds were light and the breeze felt good.

Jiro looked up at a Carico class freighter that launched from a nearby landing pad. Its golden-brown rectangular shape reminded him of a large snack cake and his stomach rumbled in response.

"How about some supper?" he suggested.

Samantha perked up. "The Blue Horizon is ready for business," she said. "The ship is clean, there's a new computer system to control it all and the painters will be here tomorrow to give the outside a fresh coat of interstellar paint. Perhaps we should go back to the Wonderland to celebrate."

Merlin stood up and stretched. "That would be nice, as well as appropriate," he said, "but I'm simply too tired to dress up. Would it be okay with you two if we just go back to that little diner up the street outside the spaceport grounds?"

Samantha looked disappointed, but she understood. "Yeah, that's fine," she replied.  Jiro simply nodded and got to his feet.

The wolf walked over to the main hatch, stepped inside and then set the controls to close the great cargo bay door.  As it swung down slowly on large hydraulic arms, he closed up the airlock and secured it with the passcode.

They had to wait until the bay door was closed completely, and then Samantha led them toward her car.

"Let's walk," Merlin said. "It's just a good stretch of the legs, and perhaps by the time we get back, I'll feel more like doing something tonight."

"Yeah, okay. Let's go," Jiro said, rubbing his eyes. Samantha positioned herself between the males while they made their way across the tarmac. She looked over at the cougar and studied him for a moment.

"I've not heard you sniffling or sneezing today," she said to him. "Are you feeling better?"

"Yeah, the meds have helped, but if I skip a dose, I can feel it coming back.  I think it's all the danra trees in the area that are getting to me."  He looked up and gestured toward bits of fluff that floated gently on the air currents. "One of the waitresses at the diner told me last week that this is the time of year the danra release their seeds on the wind."

They walked on, idly chatting as they left the spaceport and sauntered up the sidewalk along the main thoroughfare. Merlin and Samantha tipped their noses to the sky almost in unison at a strong waft of smoke. Before either could say anything, Jiro stopped in his tracks and pointed toward a building a few doors up from them.

"The Yum Diner's on fire!" he exclaimed, taking off at a run.  Merlin and Samantha followed behind, but all three stopped in front of the building a quick moment later. Flames were licking out the top of the two-story structure, and smoke was just starting to push around the seams of the front door.

"Call the fire department!" the cougar yelled. Without waiting for a response, he ran to the front door and flung it open.

"Jiro, wait!" Samantha shouted. Smoked billowed out of the door, and heat followed the inflow of oxygen, but the navigator put his nose and mouth into the crook of an elbow and then darted inside.

Merlin whipped out his DataCom and connected quickly to City Dispatch. He gave a quick rundown of what he was seeing and then hung up when they were finished with him. Almost immediately, he heard klaxons go off at the nearby spaceport.

Samantha wrung her hands together as they stared at the burning building. Merlin wanted to run in too, but he knew that was a foolish thing to do. Jiro had no guarantee that he would be safe. In fact, it was highly unlikely he would come back out unscathed.

People from other shops around the neighborhood were gathering on the opposite side of the street, and all heads turned to look when fire trucks appeared around the corner at the end of the avenue.

Before the firefighters arrived, however, an explosion rocked the street, blowing out the windows and front door of the diner. The concussion knocked Merlin and Samantha to the ground and shattered shop windows all across the avenue. Gawkers scattered, running for cover from raining debris.

The wolf rolled over onto his side, gasping for breath, and then he reached out to check on Samantha. She coughed and brushed bits of blunted safety glass from her fur, but otherwise appeared unhurt, despite other jagged debris nearby that had just missed them.

Firefighters from the trucks rushed in, got them swiftly to their feet and helped usher them farther away from the building while others began rigging their hoses. A pair of canine firefighters approached the ruined front door, arms up to adjust their face shields against the heat as they prepared to go in. More sirens wailed in the distance as additional fire trucks and ambulances raced to the scene. Local police officers began pushing back the gathering crowds to give them room.

Samantha held Merlin tightly as a canine medic checked her over for injuries, and a Golden Retriever cop took details from the wolf on everything he knew, which sadly wasn't much. The Border collie's eyes were rimmed with tears, knowing that Jiro had been inside when the explosion erupted.

"I don't see how he could have survived it," she said with a cracking voice to the cop beside her. "He – he just rushed in. I don't – don't know what made him do it!"

Merlin put an arm around her and looked at the Retriever as the firefighters began shooting water in through the openings of the building. "We've been going to the Yum Diner for a couple weeks and our partner was friendly with all the waitresses in there," he explained.

"Hey!"

Merlin and Samantha looked around frantically, but then the cops and the medic looked up at the voice that called out to them.

"Up here!  We could use some help!"

All eyes went to a window in the second floor of the burning building. In the opening was a soot-dirty cougar with his arms around two feline women, both of who were dressed in pale yellow dresses with smudged and dirty white aprons. All three of them were gasping for fresh air from the outside, but smoke shrouded around them through the window.  Shouts went up from the gawkers and people began pointing at the trio.

An ursine firefighter ran to one of the large trucks and pulled a small platform from a rack on the back. He swiftly unfolded railing bars, slipped them into receptacles around the edge, and then stepped up on the platform. Operating controls on one of the upright bars, gravity repulsors beneath the platform came to life and the black bear guided the floating dais up to the window. Waves of heated air from below made the unit hard to steer, but he managed to get right up to the window sill.

When he reached the trio, he swung open one of the railings and held out a gloved hand to them, "I'm afraid I can only take one of you at a time," he said, "but this is the quickest way to get you down."

Jiro nodded and helped a short lynx beside him up through the window. "Take her first," he said through a fit of coughs. "We'll be here when you get back." He looked at the domestic cat on his other side to make sure she was okay. She clung to his side, afraid to let go.

The firefighter helped the lynx get in beside him and then he secured the railing. "I'll be right back!" the bear assured the remaining pair.  The floating platform dropped quickly and the lynx closed her eyes from the rapid descent.

There was sudden crash behind Jiro and the woman, and both turned abruptly to see a section of the floor behind them collapse onto the lower level amid sparks and burning embers. The fire was drawing closer and the heat was almost unbearable.

"Hurry!" Jiro called down to the ursine firefighter. "The floor's caving in up here!"

The floating platform landed and Samantha jumped to her feet. She rushed to the lynx and helped her off on shaky legs. As soon as she was clear, the bear took the platform back up to the window as quickly as it would go.

"Here, come sit with us on the curb," Sam told the short feline. The lynx clung to her arm coughing and allowed herself to be led while the medic from the ambulance approached with an oxygen canister and a shaped mask for a feline face. He knelt down, turned a small valve and placed the mask up over her nose and mouth. The lynx inhaled, coughed violently, and then sucked in more oxygen.

Merlin stood up, his head finally clear, and looked up over his shoulder toward the floating platform descending again. "I'm going to run up to the corner market and grab some water bottles for them," he said, looking at the medic. "Is that okay?"

"Yeah, go ahead," the canine said distractedly.

Merlin turned and ducked under the yellow police tape, scooted through the crowd, and took off running up the street toward a market that he and Jiro frequented. Other small crowds dotted the sidewalk and street, customers and business clerks peering down the avenue to gawk at the fire, and he had to weave through them. At the market, he reached for the handle of the storefront door. The door was locked.

Merlin pressed his nose up to the glass with a frustrated frown and peered inside.

"Sorry, mate," said a coyote in a white work apron from the nearby crowd. "I've locked it up for now. The fire might spread up the block and we've got to be ready to go."

"I need water bottles!" the wolf explained. "Three people were pulled from the burning building and need water. One of them is my friend."

The coyote youth shook his head, swiveling his gaze to watch another fire truck approach the scene. "Sorry," he repeated.

Merlin grumbled beneath his breath and placed himself between the clerk and the scene down the street. "The fire hasn't spread to any other buildings yet," he growled, locking eyes with the merchant, "but the people down there need the water." The coyote set his jaw firmly and opened his mouth to argue, but then the freighter captain's face softened as he added quietly, "Please."

The clerk sighed and nodded. "Okay," he said, digging into the pocket of his apron. "Let's make this quick."

"Right!"

Once the door was open, Merlin dashed to the wall coolers while the clerk unlocked his register. The freighter captain returned with several bottles of chilled water and set them on the counter. The coyote rang them up and then took Merlin's credicard while the wolf bagged the items himself. They finished the transaction a moment later and then Merlin ran out the door toward the fire.

At the yellow police tape spread around a wide perimeter behind the fire trucks, a red vixen barred him from ducking under the tape.

"Stop!" she commanded. "Stay behind the tape."

"That's where I came from!" Merlin complained. "I just ran up to the market to get these for the survivors." He opened the plastic sack in his arms to show her the bottles.

The red fox fixed him with firm stare. "That story's not getting you past me," she said.

"But, that's—"

"Listen, it's too dangerous further in. Just stay out here and gawk with the rest of the rubberneckers."

"Officer, please let him through!" called out a voice behind the vixen.  She and Merlin turned to see Samantha waving at them. She sat on the street curb between two soot-smeared felines and a couple of rescue workers.

The officer turned back to Merlin and then lifted up the yellow tape. "Okay, go in," she told him, "but be careful and get out as soon as you can get your friends mobile."

"Yes, ma'am. Thank you!" He padded over to Samantha as quickly as he could and then handed a bottle to each of the cats. "Here," he said. "This should help wash the grit from your throat."

"Thank you," rasped the lynx.

The black and white domestic cat on Samantha's other side took the bottle meekly as both rescue workers got to their feet. One of them trotted off toward his emergency vehicle, but the other turned to Merlin and put a hand gently on his shoulder.

"Are you okay?" the German shepherd asked him.

"Uh yeah," Merlin replied, "but I wasn't inside."

"No, but your girlfriend here said both of you were knocked over from the concussion. How's your hearing?  Your eyes?"

Merlin glanced quickly at the girlfriend reference, but Samantha was talking quietly with the domestic cat to keep her calm and was not looking his way. "My eyes feel dry, but that could be from all the smoke in the air," he answered distractedly.

The rescue worker pulled out a pen light and examined the wolf's amber eyes. "What about your ears?" he asked again.

"I dunno," Merlin replied honestly. "I think there's a ringing in my ears, but that could just be the fire trucks or sirens from the ambulance coming up the street and the crowd behind us."

"Your eyes are clear, alert and tracking my light okay," said the rescue worker. "I'm not finding any debris. Any other injuries?"

"Not that I know of."

"I'm going to check you out anyway. Please hold still." Merlin did as directed as the canine gently probed through his thick fur all around his head and neck. After a moment, the German shepherd sat back and said, "All right, I think you'll be okay. That fireman is bringing down your cougar friend now, so let me attend to him."

"Yeah, go ahead."  Merlin looked up in time to see the ursine firefighter lowering the platform to the ground. Jiro was leaning heavily against one of the side rails, coughing hard into the crook of an arm.

Merlin's first impulse was to rush to his friend's aid, but the medic moved first and held him back with a firm hand. Without a word to him, Merlin knelt down in front of the lynx. "Are you going to be okay?" he asked her gently.

The feline looked over at him with tired green eyes and nodded quietly. Soot, dirt and bits of wood splinters were in her fur and her whiskers were drooping. The wolf looked around for something to use as a rag, but found nothing but debris all around, so he pulled the shirt tail from his trousers and quickly ripped a section from the bottom of it.  He doused the cloth with water from another bottle and then gently began cleaning around the woman's eyes and mouth. The lynx closed her eyes and leaned into him as he worked, saying nothing.

Paramedics from the ambulance rushed over them just as the front section of the diner collapsed in on itself. Two firefighters with hoses were nearly buried in the rubble, but both managed to dash away just in time. New flames licked out around the debris and more hoses were opened up into the structure.

One of the paramedics knelt down in front of the waitress with Samantha, but the harried feline buried her face in Sam's shoulder and refused to talk. "I think Jessica's in shock," the lynx said quietly.

The paramedic, a male lion with broad shoulders, turned to her. "I know this has been traumatic, but can you tell us what happened?" he asked.

The lynx swallowed, but nodded. "We were getting ready for the lunch crowd and I'd gone upstairs to get fresh napkins for the dispensers while Jessica was in the large refrigerator refilling the butter pats."

"How many people were in the café?"

"Two others, I think - Thom, our cook, and Mr. Jameson, a regular customer who comes in every morning to read his paper over coffee and a muffin. I don't think anyone else was in the dining area."  She gestured toward the cougar behind them, who was being looked over by the other paramedic and the rescue worker. "Jessica said this guy came running in and found her stumbling out of the fridge."

"Any idea what started the fire?" Samantha asked.

The lynx frowned and hung her head. "No, but I'd guess Thom started a grease fire on accident. He's done it before, but it never got out of hand like this before."

"The fire spread too fast!" Jessica the domestic cat said at last, still clinging to Samantha's arm.

Jiro nodded in confirmation toward the back and white cat. "I tried to get her out, but we got hemmed in by burning chairs and tables. Then she told me her coworker had gone up to the store room on the second floor, so we went looking for her. The fire spread up the wooden stairs faster than I thought it would, but then the explosion took out the staircase altogether!"

"What caused the blast?" Merlin asked.

"Probably the container of cooking fuel Thom keeps in the kitchen," the lynx replied in amidst a coughing fit. "He hated going back and forth to the store room, so he kept some down under the counter." She looked over her shoulder at the building and suddenly shuddered. "We should probably warn the fire fighters that that there's a barrel of it in the back."

The leonine paramedic helped the lynx with an oxygen mask with a worried face. Merlin read him correctly and got up to inform the firemen of the fuel barrel. All three felines were treated for smoke inhalation, but the black and white domestic cat seemed to have suffered the most.

Merlin approached two firefighters wrestling a large device onto the floating platform that had been used to rescue the felines. From what the wolf could see, it contained a softball-sized metal sphere connected by copper tubes on both sides to large metallic caps that were bundled together by a steel frame of steel rods. A white tiger looked up at the approaching wolf with frustration.

"Sir," he said with a growl, "you'll need to get back behind the yellow tape for your own safety."

"I'm with the party rescued from the second floor," Merlin told him. "One of the waitresses said there's a barrel of cooking fuel inside a back store room, larger than the one that exploded. The paramedic thought you should know."

The other firefighter, a broad-shouldered bull, looked up in alarm. He got to his feet and then rushed around the fire trucks to find his commander. "Thank you," said the tiger. "You should get your friends and the paramedics out of the area, just in case the fire gets to the fuel. I've got to get this ready."

"What is it?"

"It's a Serizawa Oxygen Destroyer," replied the tiger as he turned back to the platform, "but we can't use it until everyone is out of the building."

There were shouts from the crowd and Merlin looked up to see two firefighters carrying a limp canine dingo between them. They headed straight for the paramedics, so Merlin left the tiger to his business.

The medic treating the felines unfolded a stretcher onto the ground and helped the firefighters lay the dingo down on it. The man was unconscious and badly burned.

"Mr. Jameson!"  The lynx was horrified, but she turned to the firefighters and grabbed one by the coat tail. "What about Thom?" she asked. "Did you find our cook?"

"No, ma'am," replied the Dalmatian with a frown. "We looked all through the kitchen and dining area, but this fellow is the only one we found. I'm afraid but to tell you that the blast in the kitchen likely caught him or the second floor buried him when it collapsed."

Jessica shrieked and then buried her face in Samantha's arms, sobbing in remorse for the death of their coworker. Suddenly, there was shouting that drew everyone's attention. It was the Fire Chief, ordering everyone back away from the building. He saw the paramedics and their patients, and ran to them.

"We need you folks to clear out as quickly as you can!" the large grizzly exclaimed. "The fire has spread to the back store room and we're afraid the fuel containers there may explode. You won't be safe at this distance if it does!"

"What about the fire?" Jiro wanted to know as he helped Jessica to her feet.

"As soon as everyone is out, we're going to drop a foaming generator into the building; it will destroy all oxygen in the air in there, snuffing out the fire."

One of the firefighters who'd brought out the dingo turned to the grizzly. "Everyone's out, chief. We were the last."

"Okay, get these people out of here." The Fire Chief turned on his heel and ran toward the white tiger.

Jiro led Jessica away, while Merlin and Samantha helped the other waitress step around scattered debris, leaving the paramedics to pick up their gear and secure the dingo canine to the stretcher.

Behind them, the white tiger gave his chief a brisk salute and then activated the floating platform, the oxygen destroyer at his feet. Jiro looked over his shoulder and watched the firefighter rise up into a smoke blackened sky. Burning embers sparked as they ricocheted off the tiger's fire resistant garments, and the man was thankful for the glassteel shield over his face for protection.

Buffeted by the superheated waves of air, the tiger guided his small craft up over the inferno, racing against time to deploy his cargo before the fuel canister below might ignite. He positioned the platform directly over the burning building, hoping he could stay in place long enough to do his task and escape potential barbeque.

Waves of heat tried to push him higher, but the gravity repulsors fought to maintain the altitude programmed into their tiny computer processors. The firefighter knelt beside the device and primed its charge. Then, he lifted the cylinder and stumbled to the railing beneath its weight. He fumbled and dropped the heavy unit over the side, nearly following behind it as the safety rail collapsed beneath him.

The oxygen destroyer disappeared through what was left of the roof while the tiger fought to reach his feet. He struggled with the control panel, nearly passing out from the heat, and then took advantage of the rising waves to assist in pushing the platform upward. Concentrating on the task of surviving, he didn't witness the reaction below.

Before the device fell the full distance into the flame-engulfed building, a series of frothing bubbles quickly erupted from both ends of the cylinder. Fed by a combination of available oxygen and heat, the bubbles coalesced into thick translucent foam that rapidly expanded throughout the flames, following the greatest concentration of fire. The froth continued to swell further and further until it filled the entire burning structure and spilled out onto the surrounding street and alley, hissing loudly. The foamy gel darkened and thickened as it used up all the available heat and oxygen, depleting its resources.

Farther down the avenue, the feline waitress turned in her flight with the cougar and looked back at the building. The former diner now resembled nothing more than a scorched and smoldering blackened marshmallow; had there been anyone left inside, they would have surely suffocated beneath the foam.

Jessica choked back a sob, but then screamed out in horror, wailing at the sight before finally shrieking the name of "Thomas!" The cat broke away from Jiro's arms with a cry and stumbled over a concrete curbing toward the diner, but instead of getting up again, she wrapped her arms around a newsstand box and wept in heart wrenching sobs.

Burdened with the stretcher, the paramedics were unable to stop to help her, but a police officer watching the proceedings from the nearby crowd ran to her side. The waitress clung to him and allowed him to lead her away to safety.

Moments later, the small party set down in a narrow alley that was relatively clean of trash, but with high brick walls that would shield them should the explosion occur despite the thick coating of oxygen-depleting foam.

One of the paramedics began rudimentary treatment of the dingo's burns, while the other turned to Jiro and the lynx. Worried of a repeat reaction with the remaining waitress, the lion held out a gentle hand toward her. "Are you alright, Miss?" he asked quietly.

The lynx looked up at him and took his hand after a moment of inner inspection. "Yes," she said quietly in a scratchy voice. "I should think I will be okay with rest."

Samantha, who had been quiet for some time, leaned forward with a water bottle. "Do you live nearby?" she asked. "We can walk you home."

The short feline took the water gratefully, letting the cool liquid slide smoothly down her parched throat, and then shook her head. "No, I live across town," she answered humbly. "I commute by metro bus. It's a small place, barely large enough for more than a bed, but I think I'll enjoy crawling into that bed tonight."

Jiro coughed into the crook of his arm and wiped his stinging eyes. "Sliding into bed sounds like a good idea," he muttered. "First a hot shower, and then I think I'm going to turn in early tonight." He glanced back toward the mouth of the alley where red and yellow lights from the emergency vehicles continued to alternate upon the brick walls. "I think I've lost my appetite for now. Merle, if you and Sam want to go find another place to eat, go ahead. I'm going back to the ship."

"Why don't we all go back," Merlin suggested. "We can just have something delivered tonight."

"That sounds like a good idea," Samantha agreed. She turned to the lynx and asked, "Would you like to join us for tonight? We have a ship at the spaceport where you can clean up and rest. It's not far."

Merlin and Jiro exchanged looks, and then with an imperceptible nod to one another, the wolf turned to look at the small feline. "You're free to head home, if that's what you want," he said, "but we have plenty of hot water in the tanks and clean sheets on the beds. It's not far."

The lynx looked up with moisture in her eyes. "I – I don't want to be an imposition," she said with hesitation.

"Nonsense," Jiro said. "There are plenty of cabins with door locks, so you'd have all the privacy you need for the night."

"You're also welcome to join us for supper," Samantha said. "Our treat."

The waitress hung her head for a moment and then looked back up with a weary, but grateful expression. "Thank you," she said quietly. "I really don't feel up to changing buses three times to get home tonight."

Merlin looked over at the paramedic who had listened to the exchange quietly. "Will this be okay?" he asked. "We've already given our statements to one of the police officers."

The lion nodded. "I think this little lady will probably be in better hands with you good folks than making her way home alone tonight. As long as the police have your contact information, I don't see why you can't go on now." He glanced over his shoulder toward the alley entrance and said, "I think the danger's passed."

"Thank you," said the lynx.

"My name is Sam Chase," the Border collie said, taking the feline's hands in her own. "What's yours?"

"Ivy Sparks," replied the waitress.

"Well, Ivy whom we found amongst the sparks, this brave cougar who came to your rescue is Jiro Brannon and our captain here is Merlin Sinclair."

Ivy gave them each a look of gratitude, and then she leaned forward to give Jiro a gentle lick on the cheek. "Thank you for coming in after us," she said quietly. "That was very kind of you."

Jiro smiled at her and put a hand upon his bare chest. He gave her a small bow and said, "The pleasure's all mine, Miss Sparks. I'm just sorry your diner is gone. I enjoyed going there. Your wait staff has taken good care of me, so hopefully for tonight, we can do the same for you."

Ivy chuckled and turned back to Samantha with a hand up to her cheek. "He's a smooth one, isn't he?"

"Yeah, that's what he certainly believes," Merlin quipped with a grin.

Samantha swatted the wolf on the arm and shook her head. "Don't mind him, Ivy. He thinks because he's our captain that he has the right to voice his opinion at any time."

"Of course I can," Merlin countered. "Until I can fill in the rest of my crew, these two yahoos are the only ones I have to boss around!"  He stood up and offered a hand to the lynx. "Seriously, though. We're about three blocks from our ship. Are you up to the walk?"

Ivy took his hand, stood up on surprisingly stable legs and then looked up at him. The tops of her ears barely came up to his chest, but she seemed undaunted by his height or her shortness in stature. "I think the walk will probably do me some good," she replied. "It'll help me get more fresh air into my lungs. If you will lead the way, I will do my best to follow."

"The guys can lead," Samantha said. "I'll hang back to make sure you don't falter."

Jiro got to his feet wearily and headed toward the street. "I think we'd better get back while I can still stand," he said. "I think I just hit the proverbial wall."

"C'mon," Merlin said to his friend. "I'll talk to keep you awake along the way."

Ivy took a last look and sighed at the giant marshmallow that oozed where the Yum Diner used to stand. She was not looking forward to the conversation she would have to have with the owner, Nomm Yum. If the Siamese cat hadn't yet heard the news, he'd likely try to contact her or Jessica as soon as he did – not to check on their well-being, but to demand an explanation. Without the diner, she was now without a job and she would have to look for employment as soon as possible. There were hundreds of food establishments in Alucara, so she had to hope that she could find something quick enough.

Samantha said something to her, but she had to shake herself from her thoughts. "Huh?" she asked. "Sorry, but could you repeat that?"

The Border collie gave her a smile. "I was just asking about your dress size. While you're getting cleaned up, I can run out to a clothing shop and get something for you to change into."

Ivy looked down at her waitressing uniform. The pale yellow dress was smudged with soot and grime. The white apron over the dress was so filthy that the cartoon image of a smiling kitty holding a knife and a fork was barely visible. Her left sleeve hung in tatters from her shoulder and the hem appeared scorched. She bit her bottom lip in sullen thought, wondering just how awful and disheveled that she must look.

Feeling humbled by the collie's generosity, she mumbled her sizes, but Samantha's hearing was good enough that she understood without having to ask her to repeat. Finally, the lynx looked up at the taller canine and asked, "Excuse me for asking, because I don't want you to think I'm ungrateful, but why are you being so nice to me?"

Samantha shrugged, but then realized how flippant it must look to the short feline. "You looked like you could use a friend," she said simply. "I have the extra credits and I don't mind helping out someone who could use it."

Moisture rimmed the waitress' green eyes and she hastened to wipe them before her tears mingled with the grit in her cheek fur. She tried to use her apron, but it was too dirty to be of help. Instead, she simply brushed at her face fur to groom it into some semblance of order as they walked.

"Thank you," she said quietly. "I'm grateful for your compassion." Samantha opened her mouth to reply, but Ivy cleared her throat and gestured quickly toward the guys in front of them. "What are they talking about?" she asked.

Properly distracted from further discussion over the lynx's current state, the Border collie turned an ear toward the males and then nodded. "Those two are partners in a new business, but they're having trouble finding a crew for their freighter. I joined the crew about a week ago, but so far, there've been no other applicants."

"Freighter? Is it a large boat?"

"It's a space freighter," Samantha explained. "If we can get the business going, we'll be hauling cargo back and forth across the Planetary Alignment. We just finished getting the ship all in order, but we still need a crew of about eight or nine to run the ship and move the cargo." Ivy fell silent for a moment and Samantha thought she looked tired. "I'm sorry, but it's another couple blocks until we arrive."

The lynx looked up at her. "Huh? No, I was just thinking. Listen, Sam, was it? May I ask your captain something?"

"Of course," said the canine. "Merlin, wait up a moment!"

The grey wolf stopped to look back at the ladies, and Jiro leaned up against a signpost proclaiming that the lane they traveled parallel to would turn into the spaceport main entrance.

"Getting tired?" Merlin asked the lynx. "We're not far from our ship."

"Captain, Sam was just telling me about your business, and I was wondering if you were taking applications for a cook?"

Merlin raised an eyebrow. "Yes, I suppose so," he replied with a nod. "However, did Sam tell you that it's only a freighter?  It would hardly be a glamorous position, one I assumed would be one of the last spots to be filled."

Ivy lifted up the grimy apron and gave him a sad smile. "It's been a while since I've been glamorous, Captain," she told him. "I doubt the pay could be much worse that what I was making at the diner."

"Do you have cooking experience?" Merlin asked. "I don't mean to belittle you, but that wasn't your position at the diner."

The lynx chuckled. "Yes, Captain, I have cooking experience. However, that position wasn't available when I put in my application with Nomm Yum, so waitressing is the best I could get with him."

"I see. Let's get moving," the wolf said with a glance back at his partner. "Jiro looks like he's about to put down roots next to his signpost and I know you've got to be tired on your feet after working your shift."

Merlin tapped the cougar on the shoulder and the feline navigator looked at him wearily. "Is it time to go to school already?" he muttered.

"Almost, son, but you need a bath first."

"Okay."

"How did you wind up working at this diner if you live across town?" Samantha asked as they continued walking toward the main gate of the Alucara Spaceport.

"Well, that's kinda complicated how that came about, but I've only been working there because I've been stuck in Alucara without a way to get back to Fyn."

"You're from Fyn?" Merlin asked over his shoulder.

"Yeah, I've always wanted to travel off my own homeworld to see other parts of the Planetary Alignment and managed to scrape up enough money to come to Alexandrius. I'd been here once before with my folks when I was a kitten, but this was my first time on my own.  Then, three days after I got here, I lost my money and my return ticket."

"Ouch! Were you traveling with anyone, friends who could have loaned you enough to get home?"

Ivy shook her head. "No, I was traveling alone."

"That's never a good idea, even under the best conditions," Merlin said.

"Yes, I learned that lesson. I'm still learning it. I've been here almost a year. I'm fairly sure my apartment back home has been cleaned of my belongings and the place leased to someone else by now." The lynx took a few quick steps to walk beside the wolf. "Captain, may I submit an application for your crew?" she asked. "I'm afraid I'm not big enough to move much cargo, but everyone will need to eat and I'm familiar with various appetites for herbivore, carnivore and omnivore."

Merlin nodded. "My original plan was to stock the galley and just let everyone prepare their own meals according to their individual tastes, but… if we had regular mealtimes to gather around, I admit that it would help bring the crew together when everyone might just keep to themselves otherwise."

"Exactly," Samantha agreed. "You said yourself that a bunch of people would need to get along if trapped inside a ship for weeks at a time. Food has always been a good way to bring people together to get to know one another."

"Okay, you've convinced me," the wolf said with a nod to the lynx. "We could use a shipboard cook.  However… I can't promise you how soon we'll have a delivery to Fyn, so you may wind up doing more traveling than you originally intended."

Ivy chuckled again. "That would be preferable to waiting on tables here for an indeterminate amount of time."

Merlin nodded, but a look of frustration crossed his face. "Besides the three of you, I still need five or six more to round out the crew positions before we can launch, so I'm afraid we're not yet ready for an onboard diner. I was hoping to leave by next week, but I promise to give you a call as soon as we need you."

"Merlin," Samantha said quickly, "Ivy's out of a job. I think she needs something right away."

"True, but—"

"Waiting until launch time wouldn't be very wise, anyway," the Border collie continued. "The galley is clean, but it still needs to be stocked with everything: food, ingredients, pots, pans, plates, cups, utensils, and so on. All this will need to be done before the ship is ready to depart."

"Yes, I suppose that's so."

Samantha gave the lynx a pat on the arm with a smile. "Here's what we'll do," she said. "You can pick out a cabin this evening, and after you've had a good night's rest, you and I will go shopping for the ship's galley the first thing in the morning. What better way for two women to become friends than to go shopping together?"

Ivy smiled back at her and said, "I would like that very much." She turned to thank the wolf, but the expression in his eyes made her pause. He was irritated at Samantha for jumping ahead of him with a potential employee. However, the look vanished quickly when Merlin realized that Sam was correct in this instance and his expression softened.

They rounded a chain-link fence and he raised a hand; her eyes followed where he pointed. Sitting on a landing pad near one of the spaceport buildings was a flying saucer with worn and faded blue paint.

"If this is where you really want to be, there's your new home and place of employment, Ivy Sparks. Welcome to the Blue Horizon."

NEXT CHAPTER

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