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— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 11
Shared Heartburn



Durant pointed up toward the forward leading edge of the newly painted Blue Horizon. "They missed a spot there," he said. Ivy looked up to the ship's nose, wondering if a vessel completely circular could have a nose on it. She spied a patch of faded blue paint beneath the bridge windows while the taller grizzly beside her gave the rest of the paint work a critical eye.

The contractors had just departed, leaving Durant with the invoice, and although the outer surface was already dry, the lynx was hesitant to touch its shiny surface. The vessel had been painted two shades of blue; it was dark navy over all, with a lighter blue in a wide band around the outer perimeter, framing the windows of the crew deck and the ship's running lights. The words “Blue Horizon PA1261” were stenciled over the main hatch in white blocked letters written in Standard.

"Won't the new paint get scorched when we enter an atmosphere from space?" Ivy wondered aloud.

Durant smiled down at her. "It would if we didn't have shields to combat the heat of reentry," he explained. "In addition to propulsion, the LightDrive engines power a high-intensity invisible bubble of energy around the ship whenever it's in flight. This deflects random debris while we're out in space so something, say the size of a marble doesn't punch through the ship like it was made of soft butter while we're traveling at extreme velocities. It also deflects and dissipates the heat buildup of hitting a planet's atmosphere."

Ivy crossed her arms and then put a hand up beneath her chin. "If that's the case, how did the hull get pitted if it was so protected?"

The grizzly nodded. "The shield is usually not active once the ship is down inside an atmosphere, so things in the air are still a hazard. Although the LightDrive is shut off during a planetary descent, the shield system is still powered until the danger of reentry has passed. The LightDrive isn't active inside an atmosphere, so when the ship is using its standard atmospheric engines, it's still susceptible to stuff in the air. Even freighters like this make deliveries from place to place while still on the same planet. I think Jiro said this one belonged to a bakery, so I'm sure it did a lot of traveling inside an atmosphere. Sandstorms, dust storms, thunderstorms and a tornado or two can affect a ship’s hull."

The lynx looked up at him. "I feel like I'm in school again," she said with a frown. "I'm sure it's a lot more technical than you say, so I appreciate you simplifying it for me."

Durant shook his head. "Don't take it personal, please. I've served on a number of Pomen air freighters where it was necessary to explain things plainly to the transient crews, so it's just my habit."

Ivy put a hand on the bear's arm and smiled up at him. "Don't worry about it. My appreciation was genuine. I can whip up some really complex dishes in the galley," she said, "but when it comes to science and space, I freely admit that I'm sorely uneducated."

"Excuse us, but is this the ship belonging to Captain Sinclair?"

Startled, Ivy almost jumped into the grizzly's arms. She and Durant looked behind them at a pair of raccoons, each dressed in dark green work coveralls, one pair worn and patched, and the other with pockets sewn onto just about every possible place. Both raccoons seemed amused at the grip the lynx had on the bear's arm.

"Sorry," said the one with all the pockets. "I didn't mean to startle you." He said it with an infectious grin, and Ivy couldn't keep herself from smiling in return.

"Apology accepted," she said, "and yes, this is Captain Sinclair's ship."

Durant gave each of the coons a nod. "What can we help you with?" he asked.

"We would like to speak to your captain," said the one with the patched coveralls. He pulled a previously burned cigar from a shirt pocket with one hand, a lighter from another pocket with the other, and then lit up the end beneath his cupped fingers. "He's not expecting us," he added.

"Uh, sure," Durant said. He led them all to the port side of the vessel to the main airlock and then walked up the ramp to the nearest intercom control. He didn't know which compartment the wolf might be on board, so he tapped the ship-wide intercom and said, "Merlin, please come to the main hatch. There's someone here to see you."

There was a small metallic chirp from the panel, and then "I'll be right down."

While they waited, the coon with the pockets held out a small hand. "I'm Jerad Porter and this is Jasper, my brother," he said. "Are you part of the Horizon's crew?"

"Yes, I'm Ivy," replied the lynx, shaking the raccoon's proffered hand, "and this is Durant."

Jasper stepped forward and offered his hand as well. After the greetings were done, he stepped up into the hold of the ship and then sauntered across the empty deck toward the engine room. Durant looked perplexed.

"Uh, Mr. Jasper, I don't think you should go in there without the Captain's permission," the grizzly called after him.

Jerad grinned and waved a hand casually in the air. "Oh, it's no problem," he said merrily. "We're the ones who worked on this ship before Captain Sinclair bought it from Poppy."

Durant's expression turned dark. "Are you the ones responsible for trashing the place?" he asked. "I heard about all the cleanup they had to do when they got the ship from you."

"No, no!" Jerad quickly assured him. "That was done before Poppy even got it! We only made sure the engines and primary systems were operational so he could sell it!"

"Hello, Mr. Porter," Merlin said as he walked up. "What can I do for you guys?"

"Captain," Ivy interrupted, "this guy's brother just went off into the engine room."

Merlin raised an eyebrow and glanced back inside the empty cargo hold. "What's going on?" he asked the remaining raccoon. "Did he leave a tool in the engine room? We've already done extensive cleaning in there."

"No, sir, he's just looking around," Jerad replied. "Captain, we've decided to take you up on your offer."

"What offer?" Durant asked curiously.

Jerad grinned widely and then flashed a casual military salute toward the wolf. "The Porter brothers are reporting for duty, Captain!"

Merlin crossed his arms. "That's odd," he replied with a frown. "I thought the Blue Horizon didn’t fit your personal timetable."

Jerad's salute wilted and then he stuck both hands into his pockets with a shrug, uncomfortable under the wolf's suddenly intense gaze. "I would have signed up on the spot if it hadn't been for Jasper," he replied in a quiet voice. "He wanted the job just as much as I did, but he didn't want us to appear too desperate to accept right away. He wanted us to wait a bit before we agreed, to make it seem as if we had reconsidered."

"What if I have already filled those two positions?" Merlin asked without emotion.

Jerad's face fell. "Ouch."

Durant looked surprised at this news, but before he could say anything, Ivy looked at Jerad and asked, "Ouch?"

The raccoon swallowed and he studied his scuffed boots, unwilling to meet anyone's eyes. "We just quit our jobs with Poppy," he muttered. "He wasn't very happy with us for bailing on him while in the midst of repairs and practically threw us out the gate before we could get our things into the pickup truck."

"Ahoy, Captain!" Jasper called from across the cargo hold. He headed toward them, his cigar trailing a thread of blue smoke behind him. Merlin said nothing until the raccoon reached them.

"I assume my brother told you why we're here," the coon said to the wolf.

"He did, but you're too late," Durant said, crossing his thick arms to mimic Merlin’s stance.

Jasper looked alarmed. "What's that mean?"

"The captain has already hired someone for the positions," Jerad supplied.

"Who?" Jasper demanded in a strained voice. "We quit our jobs for this!"

Merlin merely looked at him. "Your brother admitted that you purposely mislead us when we came to visit you this afternoon."

"Yeah," the raccoon answered slowly, looking sick. "I didn't think you'd find someone else so fast. It's only been four hours."

"Did I deserve that?" asked the captain with a cold look. "I came to you in good faith in search of your skills, but you felt it necessary to slap away my hands as a bargaining tool."

Jasper pulled the cigar from his mouth and stared at it with a sigh. He mashed out the embers on the bottom of his boot and then brushed away the end before putting what was left into his shirt pocket. "No, I suppose not," he agreed quietly. "I'm sorry, Captain." He looked over at his brother with a frown.  "Come on Jerad. Time to start looking for a job. Maybe Mercy's Garage is hiring. She's good, but I've heard she's been away on personal business a lot lately and that little guy who works with her has been swamped."

"Good luck," Ivy offered in a small voice, feeling bad for the raccoons.

"Thanks," the brothers replied in unison. Merlin, Durant and Ivy watched them shuffle quietly back to a green pickup truck that was parked next to the Jiro's rented van.

Just as Jasper reached for the driver side door, Merlin called out to him. "Report to work by 0800 tomorrow. I'll have your contracts ready to sign first thing in the morning."

Durant and Ivy looked at the wolf in sudden surprise, and Jasper stared back at him with a puzzled expression, but Jerad's face spread into a wide grin. "A-ha!" he said with a laugh.

Not sure he had heard correctly, Jasper walked slowly back over to the captain. "I thought you said you'd already hired someone," he said.

"Likewise, I thought you said you didn't want the job," Merlin replied coolly. Then he held out a hand to the raccoon. "I can also play that game, Mr. Porter. I never said that I had hired anyone. I only implied to your brother that I might have already filled the positions.  So, shall we call it even?”

Jasper swallowed the lump in his throat and then he gave the wolf a smirk. He took Merlin's hand and nodded. "I suppose I deserved that bit of heartburn, Captain," he admitted with renewed strength in his voice. "I'd say that squares us, if you're still willing to take us."

Merlin nodded as Jerad took up a position at his brother's side. "I'm glad to have you join us," he said, "but think twice before you decide to pull something like that on me again. I can handle a joke, and I've been known to play a few pranks of my own, but I'm fully serious when it comes to my business."

"I will remember that, Captain," Jasper replied, relief evident from his features to his posture.

"Thank you, sir," Jerad said enthusiastically. "You won't be sorry you hired us!"

"Well then," Merlin said, now at ease, "since you guys are already familiar inside and out with an Okami freighter, there's no need to give you a tour. You can stake a couple of unclaimed cabins for yourselves once you report in the morning, and then we can see about getting your things on board."

"Begging your pardon, sir," Jerad replied, "but everything we own is in the truck. Part of the bargain working for Poppy is that he let us bunk on board any spare place in one of the ships on the lot, so long as we kept the cabin clean for potential customers to see when they came through."

Merlin narrowed his eyes. "Are you the ones responsible for the mess on the Elihu Frisbie?"

Jerad repeated the performance he had given Durant earlier. "No, no!" he quickly assured the wolf. "That was done before Poppy even saw it! We only made sure the engines and primary systems were operational well enough for him to sell it! Because we saw the insides of an Okami every day of the week, we were bunking in the Prairie Dog freighter on the back of the lot for a change in scenery. Hardly anyone ever looks at that one, so we figured it would be the easiest place to set our bedrolls each night."

"Okay," Merlin replied, "go ahead and move in. I'll get Jiro to help you move your tools on board while I work up your contracts."

"I'll give 'em a hand," Durant volunteered.

"I thought you had to go wrap up things at your office before you started working here," Ivy reminded him. "I appreciated your help taking the galley supplies up, but don't you need to go soon?"

The grizzly smiled. "I don't mind," he said. "It helps build initial friendships. I'll just call for a cab after we're done."

"Thanks, Durant!" Jerad exclaimed merrily. "If you want, I can drive you home in the truck when you're ready."

"Thank you, I would appreciate that."

Merlin looked over at the pickup truck and noted the amount of toolboxes and personal effects that filled the back. "Why don't you drive on up into the cargo bay," he suggested. "That will make unloading your things a little easier."

"Great! Jasper, hand over da keys!"


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