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BLUE HORIZON 1261

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 9
Exposure

 

When Merlin opened his eyes the next morning to the sunshine streaming in through the window of his quarters, there was only one thing on his mind. Coffee. The grey wolf had long had trouble waking up in the mornings and coffee was the one sure-fire way to bring his sleep-addled brain out of its lethargic fog. His favorite was Kidwell, a simple breakfast blend, but he enjoyed many different coffees from around the Planetary Alignment and he was always willing to try new ones.

Like many of his kind, Merlin saw no reason to sleep in cloth garments. His fur and the lightweight sheets of his bed were more than enough to keep him warm during the night, and when he sat up to slip on a pair of sandals, he gave no thought to anything but the coffee awaiting him in the galley. The wolf rubbed his eyes sleepily, curled his tongue in a wide yawn and shuffled out the door.

Without even realizing it, Merlin had already been on board the freighter long enough that he made an immediate right turn outside his cabin door and padded around the circular corridor directly to the galley, all with his eyes closed.

As soon as he entered into the room, however, his eyes came open with a smile. "Mmm, that smells wonderful…" he muttered. While the galley was not yet stocked with anything, Merlin had kept a coffee pot, grinder and several bags of coffee beans on the kitchen counter since his first night on board. The brew had already been tended and a fresh pot sat ready for his cup.

"Oh, my…"

The wolf looked over at the far end of the single long table that occupied the galley. The room was well-lit from the morning sun through the long, unpolarized glassteel window. Ivy Sparks sat at the end, a half cup of coffee on the table before her. She was dressed in a simple set of pale green shorts and an oversized shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows, but her matching green eyes were wide as she looked at him in surprise.

"Good morning," Merlin said with a smile. "Did you sleep well?"

She nodded, but appeared distracted.

The wolf raised an eyebrow at her expression. "Mind if I have some of that coffee?"

"Uh, help yourself…" the lynx replied.

As he walked across the room to grab a cup from the cabinet, he felt her eyes upon him, but it wasn't until he stepped behind the solid counter that he realized what had her preoccupied. Aside of his sandals, the captain hadn't dressed before leaving his quarters.

"Oops…" he muttered in sudden realization. Ivy blinked rapidly and then looked up into his face, her mouth partly open in quiet astonishment. "Sorry about that," he told her. "I apologize for my thoughtlessness."

The lynx closed her mouth and swallowed. "Is… this typical of your mornings?" she asked slowly.

Merlin laughed and picked up the coffee pot. He shook his head and filled a cup. "No," he replied with a smile, "this is not typical. I just needed my coffee and was thinking of nothing else when I got out of bed."

"I'm sorry," Ivy said, suddenly staring down at her own cup. "I guess being in a metropolitan city like Alucara for the past year, I've forgotten there are still a lot of people across the Planetary Alignment who have not yet followed example by wearing clothing over their fur."

Merlin sipped his coffee lovingly, and then looked over at her again more seriously. "I am in the habit of wearing clothing, but I slipped up this morning," he said. "Again, I apologize.  Jiro's not so accepting of clothing over his fur, however, but he does wear enough to keep himself covered for modesty. I should follow his example." He took another savoring sip of his brew and then added, "Will you forgive me?"

Ivy looked up at him and allowed herself to give him an impish little smile. "I forgive you," she told him, "but don't let me stop you if this is how you wish to present yourself on your own ship. I'm only the hired help… Besides, the scenery's not bad."

The wolf grinned openly and set his cup down on the counter. "At least you know I'm not shy," he replied. "As I said, however, this is not typical of my behavior. In fact, I'm not likely to forget it again after this."

The lynx chuckled and picked up her own cup. She took a sip and then glanced up at him. "Did I make your coffee okay? It's all I could find in here."

Merlin smiled and lifted his cup. "Smells and tastes great, Miss Sparks. After you and Sam finish your shopping spree today, I'll be glad to have more than just coffee in here. Normally, for breakfast, we would go up to the street to this little diner we know…" Ivy's expression fell and she suddenly looked tired. Merlin set his cup down and sighed. "I'm sorry," he said. "It appears I have a deficiency of consideration this morning."

Ivy nodded and heaved a heavy sigh of her own. "I'll get over it," she muttered. "Despite how tired I was last night after my shower, I couldn't go to sleep right way. I kept thinking of poor Thom. His girlfriend isn't going to take his death very well."

Merlin curled his bushy tail around his nether regions and then moved out from behind the counter to sit down at the table beside her. He put a hand on top of hers and patted it gently. "I'm sorry for your loss," he said quietly. "I'm sorry I mentioned it."

The lynx took a deep breath, but managed a sad smile when she looked up at him. "If we haven't launched by the time they hold Thom's memorial services, I would like to attend. I may have felt stuck working there, but he was a good coworker."

"Sure."  Merlin stared out the window at the sparse overhead clouds and quietly watched the contrails of a starship's atmospheric engines as it departed the spaceport. Both of them sat silently for a long while before Ivy finally composed herself.

"Captain," she said after a moment, "thank you for this opportunity. I don't know when I'll ever have the chance to go back home to Fyn, but I promise I will give you my best work while I am here."

The wolf looked over at her. "After the nickel-tour last night and hearing us talk about the business over our delivered supper, you're still willing to stay with us?"

"Yes, Captain," she replied. "You offered me a better salary and benefits than what I was getting from Yum, and the job comes with a place to stay at no extra charge. How can I top that?"

"You told us last night during supper that you've been trained as a gourmet chef. I still don't understand why you weren't working at a classier place than a diner."

"Believe me when I say that was the first thing I tried when I realized I needed a job," Ivy replied. "However, everyone demanded Alexandrian references. No one would accept my résumé with Fynian experience."  She leaned closer to him, as if afraid someone would overhear. "Alexandrius and Fyn may reside in the same solar system, but there's always been a bit of prejudice here against Fyn as being a poor and undesirable planet. Just because we're not as technologically advanced doesn't mean we're stupid," she said in distain. "We developed the Falstar LightDrive system on our own without Alexandrian help, and interstellar travel is hardly a backwoods science experiment."

Merlin leaned back in his chair. "I wasn't aware that Alexandrius harbored such feelings for Fyn," he said. "After my folks passed away, my siblings and I came here from Dennier to live with our grandparents who had retired here. I was here until after college, but I don't ever remember hearing anything about this."

"I doubt you would," Ivy replied, getting up from her chair to grab the coffee pot. She refilled Merlin's cup and then her own before speaking again. "The Alexandrians think of themselves as the social center of the Planetary Alignment and look down their noses on us poor Fyns."

"Wow," Merlin mused. He sipped at his coffee and his face relaxed into a smile. "Mmm, that's good coffee.  It's the same blend I've made many times, but I think you did something to it differently."

Ivy gave him a sly smile. "That's a family secret," she said.

"What did you do, add one of your whiskers?"

The lynx laughed out loud. "No, I didn't add anything," she confessed. "You just have to know the right temperature to have the heat before you put on the pot to get the best flavor out of the beans."

Merlin took another sip and savored the flavor. "I have your contract on my slateboard back in my office," he said in a mellow voice. "As soon as I can get your thumbprint on it, I can start having my coffee this way every morning!"

"That sounds like a good deal to me," replied the short lynx. She looked at a dainty wristwatch in the fur of her left wrist. "What time does Sam get up?" she asked. "She wanted to take me shopping before the painters arrived to start on the outer hull."

"I dunno," the wolf admitted. "She may be in the shower with Jiro again."

Ivy's green eyes widened. "Oh! I didn't realize the two of them were together," she said. "I rather thought…" her voice trailed off when Merlin looked over at her at the words she was about to speak.

"You thought she was with me," he said dryly.

"Uh, yeah. With both of you being canine types, I just assumed…"

Merlin waved his hand idly. "It's a common assumption, so don't let it bother you.  Actually, Sam and I used to be a casual pair when we were at the university together, but we've not dated for a number of years now.  We're close, but we're just friends and now she's one of my employees."

"Ah, okay.  So what's this about her and Jiro showering together… again, you said?"

The wolf chuckled and just shook his head. "I won't go into the whole story, but on her first morning on board the Horizon, she heard a shower running from an open cabin door and thought it was me. Thinking she and I might still have our old connection, she decided to share the shower, only to discover it was Jiro instead!"  Ivy's eyes crinkled in amusement. "Standing there naked in front of her already in the shower, Jiro thought to tease her by inviting her to join him. To his surprise, she did!"

The lynx put a hand up to her mouth. "And they told you about it?" she asked incredulously. "I think I would have kept it a secret!"

Merlin snickered. "They probably would have, but neither of them thought to shut the door; I found them in there together."

"What did you do?"

Merlin gave her a big smile. "I reached in and turned up the cold water!"

"You didn't!"

"I certainly did. Scared them both."

Ivy leaned forward onto her hands. "Weren't you mad?"

"No, not at all," Merlin replied after a brief hesitation. He set his cup down on the table and shrugged. "Sam and I aren't a couple anymore, but we had a good parting, so if she wants to pair up with Jiro, that's their business. Of course, I had to convince them of this, but if any of my employees want to get together, it's okay by me, so long as it doesn't disrupt the ship's operations."

The lynx sat back and looked at him for a long moment, clearly unconvinced about the stated feelings between the wolf and the Border collie, but as a newcomer, she didn't feel it was her place to voice her opinion. Finally, she relaxed and gave him an impish smile.

"I don't know what to think about the males on this ship, Captain," she said cryptically.

"What are you wondering?" he asked.

She narrowed her eyes and smiled at him. "Jiro exposes himself to Sam on her first day on board, and then you do the same to me on my first morning…"

Merlin stared at her in disbelief, but then he returned her grin. If she was game to banter, so was he. "To be fair, it was Sam who bared herself first to Jiro, so if you want to even the score..."

Ivy's mouth dropped open and her voice squeaked when she asked, "Is that a requirement prior to signing my contract?"

Merlin laughed aloud. "Not unless you just want to, Miss Sparks! Garments are not required on this ship, but it might be rather disruptive without them. No need to panic; I'm simply teasing you."

The lynx shook her head and then the two of them laughed heartily together. Ivy reached out and put a hand over his, smiling widely. "Thank you, Captain," she said with a contented sigh. "It's been about a month since the last time I truly laughed."

"I'm just glad you didn't laugh when I walked in the door…" Merlin replied with a smirk. "That might have crushed my self-esteem."

"Captain—"

"Stop right there," the wolf interrupted with an upraised finger. "I know I'm your new employer, but please don't feel like you have to address me by title all the time." He gave her a smile and put a hand up to his chest. "My first name is Merlin and I usually respond to it more readily than I do with a title I've only had for a couple weeks now."

The lynx held out a hand with a smile. "I am pleased to meet you, Merlin. Likewise, you may call me Ivy, or even Sparks, as you wish."

"There, that's better." The wolf shook her hand then picked up his coffee cup again.  He lifted it up to his lips and drained it completely.  "Mmm, that's good."

"Want another cup?" Ivy asked.

To her surprise, Merlin shook his head. "No, I think that's enough for now," he said, rising from his seat. "I need to check for messages and then get ready for the painters."

"Be sure to put some britches on. You might distract the painters from their work."

Merlin grinned and whipped his tail around so that he covered himself moderately. "Smart aleck," he quipped. "I can see we're going to get along well."

Ivy simply smiled back at him innocently and took a sip from her cup. 

* * * 

Forty-five minutes later, Merlin stepped onto the bridge and brought up the room lights. He was freshly showered and dressed in a pair of casual blue pants, a beige shirt and black jackboots designed for his feet. He was well groomed, and charged with his morning coffee, he was ready to face whatever the day threw at him.

He glanced out the forward windows and the morning light reflected from the near-invisible circuitry within the glassteel panels that would turn them into information vidscreens when activated. Activity was already in full swing at the spaceport around them, but he ignored it to concentrate on the controls before him.

The wolf leaned over the com console to check the daily messages. The Blue Horizon was not equipped with video communications, set up solely for audio and text contacts. There were three voice messages awaiting his attention. The first was from the foreman of the paint crew, advising they would be there to begin their preparations in approximately an hour from the current time. The second message was the response to a shipping query he had sent out to a potential customer, but they declined the services of the Blue Horizon; he didn't have a service record to promote since the ship hadn't long been in operation. Merlin deleted the message with a frown and then called up the next. It was time-stamped as having been received in the past ten minutes, and as he listened to it, the frown disappeared from his features.

As soon as it was over, the wolf sat down at the controls and initiated a call-back on the contact number. The connection was made almost immediately.

"Hello?"

"Hello, may I speak to Leonardo Durant?"

"This is Durant. How may I help you?"

"I'm Merlin Sinclair, captain of the Blue Horizon. I just received your response to a call for crew positions on my ship."

"Captain Sinclair! Yes, thank you for calling back. I would like to set up a time when I could submit my résumé and tender an application as an accountant for your business."

Merlin swallowed nervously. It was the first response to his advertisements he'd received. "I would be happy to meet with you as soon as you are able."

"I am free all day today, but I will need directions to your office."

"My office is located on board my ship, Mr. Durant. We are currently stationed at pad number 39A near the Freight Terminal of the Alucara Spaceport. I am expecting painters for the outer hull today, so I am likely to be here all day. Feel free to drop by at your convenience."

"Thank you. I will see you in about an hour."

"I am a Dennieran grey wolf and will be around here somewhere. If you don't see me, ask anyone you see at the ship and they will find me."

"Until then, sir."

"Good bye."  

* * * 

Not quite an hour later, a large cinnamon-furred bear unfolded himself from a small cab at the freighter terminal and stood up to pay the driver. He was dressed smartly in a charcoal grey suit with a medium green tie, and he had a large manila envelope tucked under one arm. The cab departed a moment later, and the ursine newcomer turned to look at the freighter.

He took a long look at the vessel on the launch pad and noted the activity surrounding it. An even dozen workers was setting up cleaning equipment to knock all the dirt, dust and interstellar debris from the pitting in the ship's outer hull. The captain he was to meet had mentioned plans to have the ship repainted, so this must be their preliminary work. Three of the workers prepared power washers up on floating scaffolding near the top of the vessel, but they hadn't begun their task.

The cargo bay door was sealed tight, and it looked as if the main airlock was too. As he approached the retractable walk ramp, the hatch cycled open and a grey wolf stood just inside, looking out at him uncertainly.

"Mr. Durant?" asked the wolf.

The grizzly thought this person appeared to be nearly fifteen years younger than he was, but he appeared confident and didn't seem intimidated by the bear's greater height. "Yes, sir. I take it you are Captain Sinclair?"

"That's right. I asked the painters to hold off until you got here, but there may be a delay when it's time for you to leave."

The grizzly looked down at the wolf with a pleasant smile. "I have no other engagements today, if that becomes the case."

"Very good," the wolf replied. "Let me tell the foreman they can get started and then we can go inside." Durant nodded quietly and then the captain signaled to a thin canine. The German shepherd padded over to the airlock and the wolf nodded to him. "You can begin at any time, Dietrich," he said. "I'm going to seal up the hatch."

"We'll get started right away, Captain. I will contact you when we have finished."

"Thank you."

The canine walked away and let out a sharp whistle to get the attention of his workers, so Merlin turned back to the bear patiently waiting for him and gestured toward the airlock. "After you," he said politely.

Durant walked up the ramp and ducked his head to enter through the open hatch. Merlin followed him inside, and when they were past the inner airlock panel, the wolf closed it with controls at the side and sealed the chamber lest paint fumes try to seep inside the unpressurized compartment.

The bear looked around the empty bay, looking across the hold and then up into the support beams to a cargo crane above. "Your ship has a sizeable holding capacity," he said quietly as the wolf led him across to the lift.

Merlin nodded. "I doubt we'll ever be filled to that capacity, but it would pay nicely if we did."

"I wouldn't discount it," Durant replied. "I've worked on a few freighters in my time and you would be surprised by how easily a load can take up all your available space."

The lift door opened and Merlin led him inside. "You've served on a freighter before?" he asked curiously.

"Several," the bear admitted, "but only on Pomen cargo air lifters that never left the atmosphere. My first job on one was as a deck hand, and I was load master on the last three. However, when my contract expired, I decided to go back to school to earn a degree, rather than sign up for another run with Captain Renaldo. He was a good captain with a decent head on his shoulders, but I was ready to move back into educational circles. Almost as soon as he released me, I moved here from Pomen for the Alexandrian universities."

The door opened and Merlin led him out into the circular corridor. He turned left and took him to his office. "Is load master the position you are applying for, Mr. Durant?" he asked as he gestured toward a large chair in front of the wolf's desk.

The grizzly sat down, trying not to grimace when the seat felt a little snug on his back side. He was used to such things being inadequate to his size and he sat forward slightly on the edge of the chair, balancing himself with a shoe lodged up against a desk footing. Merlin took his own seat behind the desk and looked at the bear politely, oblivious to the newcomer's precarious position with the chair.

"No sir," replied Durant. "Although I have that experience, my expertise is better suited for accounting. I have my degree and I am a licensed Certified Public Accountant." He set a manila envelope on the desktop and pulled out a brown folder. He slid the folder across the desk to the wolf and added, "Here are my references."

Merlin picked up the information and glanced over it with interest. After a moment of quiet reading, he set the folder back on the desk and looked over at the bear. "I'm impressed by your credentials, Mr. Durant," he said, "but I am curious. Why would an established CPA apply for a job on a space freighter?"

The grizzly gave him a gentle smile, almost looking embarrassed. "To be honest, Captain, I've missed a life of traveling, and when I saw that you were starting up a new business, I felt we could benefit one another. You will need someone with experience to manage your books, and I would get to travel again."

The wolf narrowed his amber eyes at him, the corner of his mouth crooked up in a half smile. "There's more to this than just traveling, isn't there?" he asked.

The bear looked surprised, but nodded without much of a hesitation. "I don't know how you knew, but yes. My clientele has been declining in recent months due to new Alexandrian software designed to simplify financial structuring and management. Due to this decline, it's been difficult maintaining enough income to support the rental of my office and staff salaries, so I've been on the lookout for either a partnership or a fledgling business that might need my experience."

"Hasn't there always been home software out there like you've mentioned?"

"Yes," Durant admitted, "but this latest variety is especially well-designed and has gotten enough good press that it's gained an unusual amount of popularity. Unfortunately for me, this piece of programming can do everything as well as it claims."

Merlin raised an eyebrow and leaned forward to rest his arms upon the desk. "If this software is as good as you say, perhaps I should consider using it myself." The grizzly froze, sitting perfectly still, his breathing shallow, and he felt a cold shiver course its way down his spine. I've said too much, he thought to himself in alarm.

When the wolf was sure he had the bear's full attention, he gave him a subtle wink and sat back in his chair. "However, I can't say I would trust all my finances to a computer routine. Too many things can go wrong. I think I would rather have someone like you handling my books."

Durant felt the blood rush back into his head and he almost felt light-headed from the slight scare the wolf had given him. He knew that the captain was simply toying with him, but the momentary fright had been real.

Merlin picked up the folder once again and looked through the information, purposely allowing the bear time to recompose himself. He'd seen the brief panic in the fellow's eyes and almost regretted his moment of mischief.  Looking over the references, he was impressed with this grizzly's qualifications. Naturally, he would call on the listed references, but he already found himself liking this guy.

He pulled a pen and notepad from a desk drawer and scribbled several lines onto the top sheet. After a moment, he handed this to Durant.

"If you are interested, here is what I can pay for the position you have applied for, including the benefits listed below. It's paid per-voyage."

The bear glanced over the information and nodded. The salary was practically textbook standard for a ship's accountant, and the benefits of a crew membership were also typical to what he had in the past serving on the airline freighters. It was no more or less than he expected and he was prepared to accept. However, before he could voice a reply, the wolf held up a finger for his attention.

"I have an additional offer, if you're willing to listen," Merlin said. Curious, Durant simply gave him a nod to continue. "In reference to what you've told me, I would like to take advantage of your other skills."

"Other… skills?"

"Sure. With your experience as a load master, you could fill that position right away. It would come with its own salary, of course."

The grizzly raised an eyebrow and had to readjust himself on the edge of his seat. "Sir, you are aware that my experience as a load master does not include a star freighter. I've never had to calculate weight distribution for a vessel leaving an atmosphere."

Merlin smiled. "Did any of your air lifters ever make their deliveries at suborbital trajectories?"

"Many times," Durant answered. "It was often the most economical route. But, what does…." The bear suddenly understood. "Ah, I see your point. There should be no real difference in this case."

"Exactly. Load distribution for an air lifter or a star freighter is the same. Once a ship is out into space, the placement of the cargo is not so critical – only while in an atmosphere does it become important."

"Your offer is intriguing, Captain, but I'm not sure how well I would do doubling up with two major positions on the ship."

The wolf nodded. "A typical flight between star systems within the Planetary Alignment is three-to-six weeks, dependent upon where you go. A load master's duties would only be required at the beginning and end of each voyage, freeing you up during the rest of the journey to work on the books."

"Yes, I suppose that's true," admitted the grizzly. "How about a counter-proposal?  You could contract me as your accountant, but let me just try on the load master's hat for one or two jobs. If things work out without conflicting with one another, then we can talk about a contract for the secondary position."

Merlin nodded almost immediately. "If that's what you would like to do, I have no problem with the arrangement. All members of the crew will be helping to move cargo on and off the ship when the time comes, so whether you are moving it as load master or simply as a crew member, the only difference will be that as a load master, you'll be directing where the cargo is to be placed based upon sensor readings from the deck transmitted to a slateboard."

Durant chuckled with a nod. "Yes, I suppose so. Okay, if you consider my application, Captain, I would be willing to assume both positions."

Merlin held out a hand to him over the top of the desk. "Welcome aboard, Mr. Durant. You've just been hired as the Blue Horizon's newest mate."

The grizzly looked at the wolf's proffered hand in quiet surprise. Without even checking to make sure his references were legit, the captain had accepted him on face value alone. He took the wolf's hand with a pleased expression and shook it twice. "Thank you, Captain Sinclair. I accept."

The commander glanced at a desktop clock and said, "I'll work up your contracts this afternoon and have them ready for your thumbprint later today. It will be a while yet before you can leave the ship due to the painting outside, so how about a tour of the ship?"

"I would like that, Captain."

The wolf grinned at him. "You are welcome to call me Merlin," he said. "Since we'll be spending a lot of time together on the ship, it's probably best if we are casual right off. Do you prefer that we call you Leonardo or Leo?"

The bear's eyes darkened for just a moment. "Sir, this may sound silly to you, but I have never cared for my first name. I was named for my father's brother, who later turned out to be an arrogant and cruel … uh, embarrassment to the family. If we are going with preferences, I would prefer everyone call me Durant."

"Okay, Mr. Durant," the wolf replied with a shrug. "We can do this."

It was the grizzly's turn to smile. "No need for mister. Durant by itself will be fine."

Merlin nodded with a lopsided grin. "I can understand that. I have trouble with people calling me Sir as well. There are only three others in the crew right now, but two are gone to buy supplies to stock up the galley. Let's see if we can locate my first officer so I can introduce you to him, and then you can meet the others later." Both of them stood up and then Merlin added, "I'm sorry about the chair, Durant. We'll make sure we get some furniture that you'll be comfortable in."

"Thanks, I appreciate that."  He left the folder of references on the desk and followed the wolf out into the corridor. "If you don't mind me asking, when should I report for work?"

Merlin was about to tell him to check in sometime the next week, but then he remembered Samantha's insight with Ivy. "Well, until I can manage to hire the rest of my crew, the Horizon won't be ready to take on customers; however, it wouldn't hurt to start work on the books with a box full of receipts I've been keeping. We also need to get the business account set up properly so we can process new employees as each one is hired. You can begin work just as soon as you think you'll be ready to tackle the job."

Durant nodded. "I think getting started now would be a good idea, rather than waiting until we're ready to launch. It should only take me a couple days to settle my affairs and then I can jump right in. Will I have an office on the ship, or will I be working from the bridge?"

Merlin looked up at him. "Well, there is a load master's office down alongside the cargo bay. We can go take a look at it now and then you can determine whether or not it can double as an accountant's desk."

Durant held out a hand. "After you, sir."

NEXT CHAPTER

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