BLUE HORIZON 1261
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Jiro peered into a dark access panel with a flashlight, his eyes squinting against the glare. He traced a row of relay switches in a narrow aisle and frowned at the stickers labeling each one. None of the engineering symbols meant much to him, but he felt he should recognize a bad breaker when he saw one.
The cougar scratched his bare chest and then thumbed off the flashlight, shoving it into the back pocket of his trousers. One of the switches appeared offset, so he lightly bit his bottom lip as he reached for it.
Outside the engine room, Merlin and Durant stepped from the cargo master's office and into the Hold. The grizzly held an oversized slateboard in his hands and studied the readouts as they walked across a floor embedded with sensor pads in a standard grid pattern. The electronic device received signals from the sensitive sensors to aid in weight distribution when loading freight into the ship for transport.
The overhead lights of the cargo bay suddenly flickered, and then they heard a feline shriek emanate from the engine room. Without looking at his companion, Merlin took off running for the adjoining compartment.
"Jiro!" he called, dashing through the open pressure door. Durant ducked his head and stepped in behind him. The pair rounded an aisle corner and found the tawny mountain lion dancing a jig, the short fur along his tail standing out at all angles. He cradled a hand to his chest and moisture leaked from his eyes as he filled the air with Mainoran curses.
"Jiro! What happened?" Merlin asked.
The cougar stopped jumping and leaned back against a large coolant tank behind him, his head tilted toward the ceiling. He opened watering eyes and looked over at his companions. "I was trying to find a bad relay for the external venting fans," he explained with a strained voice, "and found a live connection instead!"
"Do you need medical attention?" the grizzly bear standing beside the captain asked.
Jiro forced himself to pull his hand away from his chest to look at it. He saw no blackened, smoking stump of fingers and realized he probably wasn't as hurt as badly as it felt it was. He flexed his fingers and then shook his head. "No, I don't suppose so," he replied with a grimace. Then he looked over at the bear. "Are you a doctor?"
Durant chuckled. "No, sorry. I'm an accountant."
Merlin shook his head at his friend's plight and said, "This is Jiro Brannon, our first officer, navigator and failed electrician. Jiro, this is Durant. He's our business accountant, as well as cargo master."
Jiro rubbed his fingers tenderly and nodded toward the newcomer. "Double-duty, eh?" he said with as much of a smile as he could muster. "Did Merle sit up and beg to get you on board?"
Durant smiled. "As a matter of fact…"
"… I didn't," Merlin finished quickly. "Durant has skills in both areas but neither is likely to interfere with the other. I offered him pay for each job, and he accepted… after a little coaxing."
"You didn't offer me two paychecks for being first officer and navigator!"
"That's right, you slacker!" Merlin quipped. "You get extra pay for being second in command anyway."
Jiro gave the wolf a smirk and dropped his hand to his side, shaking his fingers vigorously. "Now my hand's asleep," he muttered, "or I'd shake hands with you, Mr. Durant."
"Thanks, but just call me Durant. It's what I'm used to."
"First name or surname?"
"Surname," the grizzly replied with a sigh.
Jiro gave him a disarming smile and said, "Welcome aboard, Durant."
"Did you find the relay you were looking for?" Merlin asked, glancing at the panel that Jiro faced.
"Notchet. It may take me some time, since I don't have the skills of those raccoons we ran into at Poppy's."
"Okay, keep looking, but stay away from live connections," said the wolf with a grin. "We don't need a crispy cougar."
"Want to help me look for it?"
"Sorry, but I promised Durant a tour of the ship."
"Now who's the slacker?" Jiro grumbled. "See you later, Durant. Nice meeting you."
* * *
Merlin returned to the compartment next to the bridge that served as his office. Durant was visiting with Jiro in the galley, the bear's tour completed and the cougar having given up on finding the relay for now.
The wolf kicked off his boots, leaned back in his chair and then propped his bare feet up on the corner of his desk. He rubbed his eyes and then nearly jumped out of his fur when the DataCom unit on his belt gave out a loud chirp. He fumbled with the clasp for a moment before finally tapping the control to answer the line.
"This is Merlin Sinclair," he intoned into the DC unit's miniscule microphone pickup.
"Captain Sinclair? This is Dietrich Pence."
"Hello, Dietrich. Is there a problem?"
"No, no problem. I just wanted to inform you that we have completed cleaning the outside of your ship. I'm sending my crew to lunch for now. We'll begin painting in about an hour and a half from now, so if you need to leave you ship, this will be a good time to get out into the open air. You also have two lovely ladies waiting out here to come on board, but you'll need to cycle your hatch for them."
"Thanks, Dietrich. Go on to lunch, and then let me know when you're ready to begin painting so I can reseal the ship."
"Will do. See you in a while."
Merlin closed the connection and then tapped up the frequency of Jiro's DC unit.
"Talk to me," came back the cougar's voice after a moment.
"Dietrich just informed me that his crew has gone to lunch and that the girls are back, waiting to come aboard. Since we can leave the ship for the moment, please meet me at the main hatch. I'm heading down there now."
"Do they need help bringing up supplies?"
"I'm sure they do, but I had a field trip in mind for you and me afterward."
"Field trip? Oh boy! Are we going to tour the girls' dorms at the university?"
Merlin stepped into the lift and then tapped the button for the lower level. "Not quite, Romeo. Just meet us down at the hatch."
"What about Durant?"
"He's welcome to help if he wishes, but he doesn't officially report in for a couple days."
"We'll see you at the front door."
* * *
"Good morning, ladies," Merlin said cheerily. Ivy looked up from her handbag with a wide smile. She was dressed in a white blouse patterned with green leaves and blue flowers, a pale blue skirt that just brushed her knees, and a pair of sandals designed for her feline feet. Beside her, Samantha was similarly dressed in a mint green blouse, darker green skirt and sandals. It appeared that in addition to shopping for the galley, the girls had purchased a few items for themselves as well.
"Good Morning, Captain," Ivy replied with merry eyes. She looked as if her morning had indeed been a good one. Samantha was also smiling, but there was something in her manner that immediately alerted the wolf that she had something on her mind. He didn't have time to mull it over long. Both females looked up at the figures that appeared behind him.
Jiro lightly shoved Merlin aside with a grin, nearly propelling him off the edge of the walk ramp. Durant reached out quickly and grabbed the captain's belt, keeping him upright.
"Thanks," Merlin told the grizzly. Then he cuffed the back of the cougar's head with a scowl.
Jiro trotted down the ramp and then gave a flamboyant bow toward the women. "Welcome, ladies," he said with an exaggerated high society accent. "Welcome bach to the mah-nor!"
Ivy curtseyed with a giggle. "Thahnk yew, kind sur," she replied. Jiro laughed aloud and Durant smiled at the playful exchange. The cougar gestured the grizzly forward and introduced him to the diminutive lynx while Merlin pulled Samantha off to the side.
"What's up?" he asked in a quiet whisper.
Samantha's eyes were smiling as she tried to keep her voice down, but a warning klaxon went off at a nearby launch pad as another ship fired its thrusters to take off from the spaceport. "I received a call from my administrative assistant at the office that I'm needed right away. It seems that Master Tristan requires me to return to Sillon for urgent family business. I need to return to my apartment, change clothes, and then report in to my office to make the arrangements for a year-long absence."
Merlin tried to keep the smirk off his face. "When do you 'leave' for Sillon?" he asked.
"Tomorrow evening," she replied. "A Silloni transport will be lifting off at 8pm. I've already received a large, sealed envelope containing my new identification material that Master Tristan's people here on Alexandrius put together for me, but I told my administrative assistant that it was just my travel papers."
The cruiser headed for the sky, leaving the tarmac much quieter for conversation. They dropped their voices to whispers while Jiro, Ivy and Durant continued with their own introductory discussion.
"No doubt my departure is already being whispered throughout the office," Samantha said with a knowing grin, "but I will still need to make a formal announcement to the staff before I begin my preparations."
Merlin nodded. "What if someone there feels it's their duty to escort you to the Silloni transport? How do you intent to fake your departure?"
"We already have that covered," the Border collie replied. "Once I'm on board, I will cover the white areas of my facial fur with black powder to alter my appearance at a distance, and then change into a used set of worker coveralls and a dirty hat. Then I'll slip out with the launch prep crew Tristan will have in place just for that purpose. Once I'm safely away from the transport, I'll just catch a luggage tug across the spaceport back over here. The transport will be making a legitimate return to Sillon, and my luggage they load will contain nothing more than business documents, so if anyone tracks the ship, they will see it on its long travel back home."
"Sounds like you have it all covered," Merlin said with a nod. "Okay, since you probably won't be back tonight or at all tomorrow, let me introduce you to a new hire before you go." He led her toward the others and then gestured toward the large grizzly bear.
"Sam, this is Durant, our new cargo load master and business accountant," he said. "Durant, this is Sam Chase, our computer tech and supply officer."
The bear stepped forward with a pleasant smile and offered his hand to the canine. Samantha took it with a warm smile of her own. "I am pleased to meet you, Ms. Chase," Durant said.
"Likewise, Mr. Durant," said the Border collie, "but you may call me Sam. We'll be working together, so I hope we can be friends."
"I would like that, Sam. Just call me Durant, please. No need to be formal with me either," responded the bear with a smile at them all. "I am looking forward to getting acquainted with everyone." He glanced over to Samantha's car, where bags and boxes filled up the back compartment. "May I help bring in your supplies?"
"Thank you, Durant. We would appreciate your help," replied the lynx.
"That would be great," Samantha added. "As soon as we get everything on board, I need to go take care of a family situation that has arisen, and I probably won't be back for a couple days."
"Nothing bad, I hope," Jiro said.
Samantha shook her head with a smile meant for everyone present. "Nothing drastic," she answered, "but it's likely to be time consuming."
Merlin gestured toward the supplies in the vehicle. "Let's get everything moved so she can be on her way." Then, to her, "Remind your father that he still owes me twenty credits."
The Border collie looked at him strangely, but he gave her a subtle wink out of view of the others and then she remembered her role to play as Sam Chase with a fabricated family history.
"I'll tell him, but I don't think he'll oblige you," she said with a grin.
* * *
On the outskirts of Alucara, Merlin guided the rented panel van along a gravel road bordered on one side with a row of triangle-leafed danra trees. He pulled in through an open wrought-iron gate in the fence that surrounded Poppy's Quality Used Starships in the middle of an undulating field of prairie grass. He drove in amongst the various pre-owned vessels for sale and then parked up next to a small, weathered Quonset hut.
The wolf exchanged glances with the cougar beside him and then stepped out of the vehicle.
"I wonder which one they're working in today," Jiro mused quietly, peering around them at the ships. Out on the prairie with nothing to act as a wind break, the only sound they heard in the vicinity was the strong breezes.
"I don't feel like poking through each ship," Merlin replied, pocketing his keys, "so we should just go inside and ask Poppy."
"Hello sir! I'm Poppy Tredrozuto, how may I help you two…" said a short ferret in a dark blue pair of shorts, vest and a matching Panama hat. He stepped out of the hut and frowned suddenly when he recognized his visitors. "No!" he squeaked, holding onto his hat in the wind. "All sales are final!"
Merlin matched his frown, suddenly remembering the condition of the ship and its computer system, but he shook his head and waved a hand in the air. "We're not here for a refund," the wolf said quickly before the lot owner could launch into another tirade. "We just want to talk to your mechanics."
"You're not?" asked the ferret suspiciously. "What do you want them for?"
Jiro looked down at him. "Relax, Poppy, it's nothing personal. We just need some technical information on one of the systems that we can't seem to figure out. Since you have two Okami experts, we figured we'd drop in and pick their brains."
"Oh, okay… just so long as you leave their brains inside their heads. Don't hurt them, please."
Merlin chuckled. "Why? Have they done something wrong that we're not supposed to know about?"
Poppy looked up at him and gave him the wide, cheesy smile of an experienced salesman. "Of course not," he said quickly. He leveled a short arm at a pale tan flying saucer that hadn't been there during the wolf and cougar's first visit. "You can find them somewhere inside that one," he said. "If you're looking for a second ship, that one is in prime condition – probably the best one I've ever acquired!"
"No, thanks," Merlin replied. "One's enough. Thank you for your time."
"You're welcome! Be sure to send business my way if you hear of anyone else looking for a ship!"
"We'll do that," Jiro said over his shoulder as he and his companion walked across the lot toward the tan freighter. Then under his breath, he added, "I'll warn anyone I meet about your cleanup efforts…"
It didn't take them long to locate the pair of raccoon mechanics. The vessel's large bay door was open and both were just inside at a control panel with its circuit boards pulled out and arranged haphazardly across an anti-static mesh sheet on the floor of the hold.
"No, this one goes there, Jerad. Look, it's clearly marked ay-one-three-three, zero-six-five."
"Okay, I missed the double digit."
One of the raccoons looked up when Jiro walked up the loading ramp toward them. Merlin had one foot up on the extended ramp, retying a shoe. "Hello," said the mountain lion.
"Hi, guys," said the one with a multitude of pockets sewn onto this dark green coveralls. "You back to buy another ship?"
The other one glanced up over a smoking cigar and then grimaced at the sight of the cougar. "They're probably here to demand their money back," he muttered. "Give it up, boys. Poppy's got the tightest fist on his credits as you'll ever find."
Merlin stepped up the ramp and stopped beside his partner. "Well, we are here to relieve him of something, but it's not money or another ship."
Jerad knelt and put a circuit card down on the sheet, his eyes never leaving the newcomers. "Uhm, what are you after?"
"Actually, it's you we came to talk to," Jiro said with a smile.
"What for?" growled Jasper, picking up pointed tool cautiously. "You can't blame us for whatever you found on the ship you bought."
Merlin looked over at his companion with an amused expression. "Is everyone feeling guilty here today?" he asked the raccoons. "Poppy said almost the same thing when we asked him where to find you guys. Relax, guys. We're just here to make a proposition."
Jerad wiped his hands on a shop rag he produced from a pocket. "Sorry, wrong gender," he said with a snicker.
Merlin shook his head and Jiro looked back at him with a smirk. "Right… Listen, when we were here before, I overheard you two discussing a desire to go back out into space. If you were serious and you're still looking for a ship to crew on, I could use a chief engineer and a mechanic on my freighter."
Jasper raised an eyebrow and then gave a quick glance at his brother. "We were serious," he admitted slowly, "but we really haven't been looking."
"Well," Jiro said with a smile, "we've just finished putting the Elihu Frisbie into good order, only she's been re-registered as the Blue Horizon. It's in ship-shape shape, cleaned and stocked from top to bottom. It's also getting a new paint job as we speak."
"We've replaced the computer core system with the latest mainframe, operating system and software," Merlin added, "but I still need to finish out my crew positions. I can pay standard freighter salary for your skills, plus full insurance and medical benefits."
Jerad's face lit up, but Jasper grabbed his arm with a warning glare. "Give us a moment," he said over his shoulder at the wolf. Then as an afterthought, he pointed toward the circuit boards on the deck and added, "Don't touch anything."
He pulled his brother all the way across the cargo deck to an office on the far side of the hold and then shut the door behind them. Merlin shrugged and then sat down on the loading ramp, swinging one leg. Jiro leaned up against the airlock frame and crossed his arms.
"Do you think they'll join us?" he asked.
Merlin stared out at the other ships on the lot a moment before he replied. "Hard to tell," he muttered. "The one with all the pockets seemed willing - Jerad, I think - but I don't know about the other one, Jasper."
"Would you want both of them on your ship?" Jiro asked quietly. "You've already said you preferred we hire someone we can get along with. Do you think the grumpy one would fit in?"
The lupine captain looked back up at him. "I'm not planning on a crew fur-pile, but if he's willing to keep the ship maintained for us, yeah, I'd consider adding him to the crew. We'll never find a group of folks who are going to get along at all times."
"Yah, that's true."
They heard the far office door open again and watched the brothers approach them across the hold. Neither was smiling. Merlin got to his feet, and the one with the cigar stepped forward, looking up at him. "We appreciate your offer, but we were hoping for something a little more prestigious like a cruiser. Thank you, but no."
The wolf frowned. "I'm sorry to hear that. I need mechanics that are experienced with Okami-class freighters, and you guys fit the need perfectly."
"Yeah, thanks for considering us," said Jerad apologetically with a slump to his shoulders.
Jiro sighed. "If you know of any other qualified mechanics who would like the chance to get out into space, please have them contact us. We can't launch until we have the positions filled, so we're kinda grounded for now."
"Sure, we'll do that," Jerad replied, sticking his hands into two of his many pockets.
Disappointed, Merlin gestured for Jiro to follow him back to the van. As soon as they were back inside the vehicle, the wolf closed his eyes and then rubbed a temple in frustration.
"C'mon, let's get back to the Horizon," he said. "Perhaps Ivy or Durant may know any engineers who might be up for the task." He started the van and then guided the vehicle back out to the gravel road.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.