BLUE HORIZON 1261
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Late the next night, one of the spaceport's automated luggage carts slowed to a stop near the unloading zone of the Blue Horizon's closed bay door. A shadow detached itself from the back of the cart and then padded quietly to the ship's airlock. The cart pulled away after a pre-programmed wait and then headed toward its next destination.
Samantha flipped open a flush panel, tapped in her passcode, and then the main outer hatch pulled into the hull to split apart, its twin panels disappearing in opposite directions. The inner compression door was open, but she hesitated before going through. She peered around the corner slowly and then studied the empty cargo deck, but there was no one in sight. She didn't want to have to explain her clothing and makeup to anyone on the crew, but the cavernous compartment was quiet. She ran as lightly as she could toward the lift door after she had closed the hatch behind her.
She repeated her cautious look around the corner of the lift door when it opened on the crew deck, but as before, no one was in sight. She could hear voices coming from the galley at the aft curve of the circular corridor. She walked quickly to the door to her cabin and then let herself in.
Once inside with the lights on, the Border collie stepped into the restroom and peered at herself in the mirror. Black powdered dye had transformed her monochrome face and throat to solid black. She pulled a hood back from her head and then removed the grease-stained, gray work coveralls she had been wearing over her undergarments. She undressed completely and turned on the faucet to the shower. While she waited for the water to heat up, she studied herself in the mirror. The white fur of her belly and chest stopped abruptly at shoulder level. She hoped the dye powder would wash out easily enough. Once she was clean, she would join the others in the galley and mingle with the growing crew.
Just before she turned back to the shower, Samantha gave her reflection a triumphant smile. Everything had gone according to plan without a hitch. The Holden branch manager and two subordinates had accompanied her to the spaceport to see her off. In addition to several business crates labeled for Master Tristen, a clerk had taken her four large suitcases on board. Sam bid farewells to her escort, and then the airlock of the cruiser closed with her inside. Ten minutes later, the flight preparation crew departed the craft through an aft airlock away from the small crowd, and then the vessel launched for the distant world of Sillon a few minutes later.
Back at the terminal, Samantha had watched her escort head back to their limousine, and then she thanked the flight preparation crew for their help with their instructions. They were completely trustworthy, but were unaware of her real plans for staying behind after the ship departed.
The Border collie stepped into the warm spray of the shower and proceeded to clean off her disguise. Samantha Holden had left the planet. For the next year, there would be only Sam Chase on board the Blue Horizon.
When Durant returned to the freighter the next morning, he immediately went looking for the lupine captain. After a search throughout the freighter, he realized that during his tour, Merlin had never taken him up to the recreational deck, the uppermost level of the vessel. He walked back to the lift door and thumbed a button set in the wall at waist level. The panel slide aside and he moved inside. He tapped a button labeled "3" and the lift door closed. The cubicle hummed as it moved upward.
The door opened again seconds later and he stepped out onto the ship's top deck. A large curved window faced ship's forward that was equipped with near-invisible circuitry that allowed it to double as a window or a vidscreen for broadcasts, movies or other recorded programs. There was an instrument terminal below it as secondary monitors for important systems of the ship. The floor and ceiling were blue, and light brown siding was molded to fit the circular walls of the room. There were comfortable chairs and couches dispersed at random around the large chamber, with a tiny kitchenette occupying an area at the aft section of the room.
It seemed like the recreation deck would be a nice spot to get away from regular ship's operations, but despite the small amount of furniture, it was largely empty. Several storage lockers occupied the aft wall where extra equipment or recreational items could be stowed. A sealed emergency escape hatch was in the ceiling in the back near the kitchenette, and eight glow panels fit flush along the ceiling in a standard grid. These were currently off; the morning sunlight provided ample illumination through the vidscreen window.
Seated on opposite ends of a couch were Merlin and Samantha, each with their shoes off and resting casually while looking out the window at the spaceport traffic. They were talking quietly, and neither appeared to be aware that anyone had come up on the lift.
"Good morning," he said quietly, not wanting to startle them. Merlin's hand rose to wave back at him without turning around, but the Border collie looked up over her shoulder at him and smiled.
"Good morning," she replied. "Did you get your business squared away?
Durant picked up a chair with a wide seat and moved it so that he could sit down adjacent the others. "Yes, it was easier than I expected. The two on my staff had already secured other jobs and were just waiting for me to release them, and it only took us a day to box up everything and clean out the rental office. The few clients I had left have been transferred to associates I recommended in the city, and I have all my records on my personal slateboard."
"Glad to have you back with us," Merlin commented drowsily after taking a sip of coffee from a cup he held with both hands. "You can get started on the books at your convenience. I have everything in my office."
"Sure, I can get started right away. Where is everyone else?"
"I gave them the day off," replied the wolf. "I haven't been successful securing our first client but the ship is stocked and ready, so there's nothing for anyone to do until we have a delivery to make. As soon as I can wake up, I'll be diving headfirst into aggressive PR footwork to see if I can't get someone to hire us, even if it's just a site to site delivery here on Alexandrius."
"What seems to be the problem?" Durant asked.
"No one wants to trust a new freighter with no service history to deliver their goods," Samantha answered.
"I've got to find us some work fast," Merlin added. "Prepping this ship, stocking it with just the necessities, and putting it into order has all cost me more than I realized. My account is dwindling, and if we don't generate some kind of income, I'll be out of credits before we can lift off."
"Merlin," Samantha said hesitantly, "you know that I could—"
The captain glanced quickly at the grizzly and shook his head quickly. "Not now, Sam. Not here."
Realizing that she'd been about to repeat her offer to buy the business from him to make deliveries for her company in front of Durant, Samantha crossed her arms and closed her mouth. The accountant looked from one to the other quietly, wondering what was up between them.
"Well," he said to break the sudden awkward silence, "I'll get started on the books, if you'll let me have everything. I'll need access to your business account, too. Perhaps I can work up a budget and find a way to stretch your credits."
"Right," Merlin replied, stifling a yawn. He slipped on his boots, stood up, and then led the grizzly toward the lift door, leaving Samantha with her thoughts.
After they had gone, the Border collie pulled up Durant's chair, tossed one of the couch pillows onto it, and then stretched out her legs to prop her feet upon it. Although Merlin had said that the ship was stocked, she knew that it would take more than just basic supplies to get them through weeks of travel time. With his dwindling personal account, Samantha suspected he wouldn't be able to fill out the ship's supplies for long, so she began to form a plan.
To the general public, Samantha Holden was on her way to the faraway world of Sillon, but Tristan had ensured that Sam would have access to her personal fortune through a secondary account. Using her own funds without Merlin's knowledge, she would purchase the rest of what was needed to fill out and pad the ship's stores. She wanted more than just food and toiletries; there was more to life than just the necessities.
"What do I like to do?" Ivy asked with a finger up to her chin. She sat across from Samantha in the booth of an ice cream shop a few blocks from where Yum's Diner used to be, the establishment lightly crowded with a lunchtime rush.
Jerad sat beside the lynx, carving his mound of vanilla ice cream with a fork into the likeness of a mountain he had seen in a movie. "This means something…" he intoned quietly.
"It means you're playing with your food," Samantha chided with a chuckle. Jerad glanced up at her with an easy smile, but then Ivy looked back at the Border collie.
"I really don't have any hobbies," Ivy said. "I enjoy reading, relaxing in a bath and watching StellarNet, but I am usually so busy with work that I rarely have time for anything else. When I get home from a day of work, all I try to do is relax."
Samantha shook her head. "Once we finally launch, Merlin said a typical voyage from one star system to another within the Planetary Alignment is around three or four weeks on average, but longer in some instances. You won't be serving customers all day long as you would in a restaurant, so you're going to find that you have more free time than you'll know what to do with," she said. She looked over at the raccoon. "What about you, Jerad? What do you like to do?"
The short mechanic shrugged. "I read technical manuals, build useful tools of my own, tinker with spare parts and hone my sneaky-sneak skills," he replied.
Ivy looked sideways at him. "Sneaky-sneak skills?"
Jerad reached into a leg pocket and pulled out a rolled up vinyl pouch. He untied its worn cloth strap and unrolled it on the table beside his ice cream bowl. Inside was a set of twelve shiny instruments of various delicate order."
"What are those for?" Samantha asked curiously.
The mechanic lowered his voice. "They're for picking locks and throwing tumblers," he explained. "Sometimes they come in really handy."
"For what?" Ivy asked suspiciously.
"I told you that Jasper and I used to work as mechanics in a used ship yard. Sometimes the ships that Poppy bought had locked cabinets and panels that the previous owner neglected to hand over the physical keys to."
"That sounds reasonable," said the lynx. "What's so sneaky about that?"
"Nothing," Jerad admitted, "but there are other times when I need parts that we can't get without certain permits that Poppy refused to apply for, so we sometimes had to acquire them ourselves."
Samantha shook her head with a frown. "He means that he steals them, Ivy, probably from local shops or warehouses."
The lynx snorted scornfully. "That's not very nice, mister," she said, turning back to the remnants of her banana sundae before it melted further. "I don't approve."
Jerad merely shrugged his shoulders as he put away his gleaming tools. "It's moot now anyway. We don't work for Poppy anymore and the captain will be paying for any of the systems we might need to keep the ship operational."
Neither Ivy nor Samantha made any further comments on the raccoon's practices, but the Border collie jotted a few notes onto the screen of a slateboard and then looked up at Jerad.
"What about your brother?" she asked. "What does he like to do?"
Jerad took a bite of his ice cream and thought for a moment before he spoke. "Aside of his cigars, his biggest passion is playing music."
"Music?" Ivy repeated in surprise. "No offense intended, but your brother doesn't look like the musical type."
The raccoon smiled at her. "No, I doubt anyone would think that," he said, "but he spends a lot of his spare time either listening to music, or trying to recreate what he's heard on his instruments. He's actually really good… but don't tell him I said that!"
Samantha smiled. "What does he play?" she asked.
"Just about any wind instrument and some others, though he doesn't actually own many. He's got a flute, clarinet, umpberlat, recorder, ocarina and a sonoragem, mostly because they're all small and can be easily transported."
"Wow," Ivy said, clearly impressed. "What kind of music does he play?"
"Classical, jazz and other instrumental types, though we both like Ganisan arias too."
The lynx smiled. "I wouldn't have thought the little guy would have the lung capacity for wind instruments."
"Don't be fooled," replied Jerad with a twinkle in his eyes, lifting a spoonful of ice cream to his lips. "He can blow hot air with the best of them!" Samantha scribbled more notes in her slateboard and then set it on the table. "Wot's tha fer?" the raccoon asked around a mouthful of ice cream.
"If we're going to be holed up together on the ship for weeks at a time, I'd like to know what everyone likes to do," she answered.
"Are you the morale officer too?" the raccoon asked.
Smiling, Samantha shook her head. "Not really, but that's not a bad idea."
"Okay, Sammie," Jerad said with a smirk, "it's your turn. What kind of things do you like to do?"
The Border collie took a drink of her strawberry milkshake and then said, "I like to watch movies… particularly old classics. Earth and Kantus seem to be the leading movie-producing worlds, and I've discovered that I really enjoy the escape, immersing myself in the tales they make. I also read a lot of fiction. Of course, when I visit another planet, country or city, I love shopping!"
"What girl doesn't?" agreed Ivy with a smile.
"I also maintain online correspondence to keep up with new and updated computer technologies across the PA," Samantha added. "I love learning new things. It keeps my mind sharp."
There was a tiny series of beeps and Ivy looked down at the delicate techwatch in the fur of her wrist. She touched a stud on its side and then stood up. "I need to start getting ready for Thom's funeral," she said quietly.
"Do you need a ride from the ship?" Jerad asked. "I can take you in my truck."
The lynx smiled at him as she gathered up the bowl and spoon onto her order tray. "Yes, I would appreciate that," she said.
"Okay, I'll go get cleaned up too," said the raccoon, "and keep you company during the services."
"Thank you," Ivy said with emotion. "It will take me about an hour to get ready."
"Let me get a lid for my shake," Samantha said, "and then we can all head back to the Horizon in my car."
Jiro looked up from his desk at the open door to his quarters. Samantha stood there with a slateboard tablet in her hands, smiling in at him. "May I bother you for a moment?" she asked.
"Sure, come on in.” He gestured toward his bed, indicating that she could sit there. "What's on your mind?"
The Border collie took a seat, but gestured back toward the entrance. "Do you always keep your door open," she asked in a teasing tone, "or were you hoping someone would stop in for a shower?"
The navigator laughed aloud. "The room is small, so an open door sometimes helps with the illusion my quarters are larger," he said. "Although, I should probably close it when I go into the shower so no one else will think it's an open invitation – especially now that we have more folks on board." Samantha grinned, feeling at ease around the cougar. "So, what can I do for you and your slateboard?" Jiro asked.
The Border collie held up the device. "I've been going around to each of the crew to find out what they like to do in their spare time," she told him. "We'll have several weeks of travel time between stops, so I thought I would stock up on some things before we finally head out."
Jiro frowned. "I heard Merlin say that his account was getting thin," he said. "Can we afford hobby material?"
Samantha shook her head. "Probably not, but this is something I'm doing on my own, with my own funds."
The cougar leaned forward. "I understand what you're doing, but I don't think Merlin would approve," he said. "Spending that kind of money could attract attention from the rest of the crew. You're supposed to be playing the part of a blue-collar worker, remember?"
"Yes, I remember, but who's to say I didn't have extra credits saved back that I decided to use on my own? We're all still strangers here, but I would like to think I could help out enough to keep everyone from getting too bored on the journey. If someone gets cabin fever from inactivity, they're likely to get irritable and hard to live with, and there's no place to get away from the rest of us on a ship this small."
"Yeah, okay," conceded the navigator. "I won't say anything to Merlin about it, but if you go overboard getting things for the crew, he's bound to notice."
Samantha nodded, satisfied that he accepted her reasoning. "Now," she said with a smile, "what is it that you like to do in your free time?"
Jiro turned back to his desk and picked up a paper sketch pad he had been working on when she had arrived. "I'm an artist," he said, handing her the pad. "I like to draw, paint and sculpt, but I don't have a kiln onboard to fire any sculptures I might create, so I'll be limited to what I can do with a pen, brush or tablet."
The canine looked at the geometric shapes adorning the top few sheets of Bristol. "What is this?" she asked.
Jiro shrugged. "I've been trying to come up with a logo for the Blue Horizon," he said. "I want some kind of emblem that can be associated with the business for customers to become familiar seeing."
"That's a good idea. These are interesting. Have you shown these to Merlin?"
"Not yet," the cougar replied. "I want to choose one and refine it before I present it to him. Trouble is, I like them all and can't seem to make up my mind."
Samantha studied the designs for a moment and then she held one up to him. "I like this one the best," she told him. "You have these two emblems intersecting one another, and if you put each of them in a different color, the contrast can complement each other." She smiled and added, "I think it would look good on our stationary, if we had any."
Jiro didn't return the smile, but instead studied the one she had chosen with a critical eye. "You know, I think you're right," he said after a moment. "I just might go with that one."
Pleased, the canine woman set the sketch pad in her lap and began to flip through the other pages. He had created drawings of the ship's exterior, some of the internal compartments, and even light sketches of the various crew members. When she came to one in particular, she paused and stared at the drawing in surprise. It was a pencil sketch of herself in profile, and done in surprising detail. He had captured the emotion in her eyes with a slight parting of her lips, and Samantha wondered what she might have been looking at when he had frozen this moment in time.
She finally tore her eyes from the image and glanced over at him with a look of amazement. He sat there quietly smiling back at her, pleased that she seemed touched by the drawing.
"Wow…" she breathed at last, putting a hand up over her heart. "You do have a talent!"
"Thank you," he said politely. "You may have that one, if you wish."
Samantha shook her head. "I don't think I should," she replied, humbled.
She smiled. "If I kept a picture of myself, it would seem rather vain, don't you think?" she asked.
Jiro blinked. "Uh, yeah, I suppose so."
"Give it to Merlin," she suggested, "or keep it for yourself, but I appreciate the honor." She looked past his shoulder and saw a covered easel next to his desk. "What's under that?" she asked suddenly.
The cougar looked over his shoulder, snagged a corner of the draped cloth, and flipped it up gently. The cloth fell to the side, revealing an unfinished oil painting. In the foreground was a depiction of the Blue Horizon in flight, but only a small section of space and a smattering of stars surrounding it had been completed. The rest of the canvas was unpainted.
Once again, Samantha stared in awe, and then she smiled. "You've really gotten into this whole Blue Horizon project, haven't you?" she teased.
"I suppose I have," the cougar replied with a chuckle. "I've never been part of the foundation of a business before, and despite all the cleanup work, it's been fun. Of course, we'll have to see what happens when we actually get a client." He gestured toward the painting with a nod. "I haven't told Merlin yet, but once we finally get under way and we're on board for the next weeks of travel time, I want to see if he will let me paint this as a mural on that large blank wall in the galley."
"I think that would touch up that room nicely," Sam replied with a smile. "You should do it."
"Thanks," Jiro said, standing up to recover the painting. When he turned around again, he saw the Border collie taking a few notes. "What else can I help you with?"
She looked up at him. "Any other hobbies?"
"I tend to read a lot of adventure novels," he told her, naming off several well-known authors, as well as a few that Samantha had never heard of. "I've only read a smattering of each of their books, so you're likely to find a bunch that I haven't read yet."
Samantha finished her notes and then stood up. "Thanks!" she said. "This is exactly what I needed." She looked around the room and added, "Is there anything else you could use for your cabin that we've not picked up already?"
Jiro shrugged and then looked over at his bed. "Yeah," he said after a moment of thought. "I could use two more pillows. My shoulders are wider than the thickness of the pillow I have, and I sometimes get a strain in my neck."
The canine studied his bare shoulders with a critical eye. "One pillow in addition to the one you have should be sufficient for your neck," she said. "If you try to sleep on three pillows, I'm sure you'd get a crick in your neck from too much thickness."
The cougar grinned. "The third pillow is to wrap my arms around when I sleep," he admitted. "I sleep on my side and it gives me something to hold onto when I'm in bed alone."
Samantha raised an eyebrow at him. "How about a large stuffed teddy bear?" she quipped.
"Just a pillow, thank you," he returned with a smirk.
Samantha laughed and made another mark in her notes. "Okay, two extra pillows it is. Anything else?"
"Nope, that should do it."
"Okay, I still have Merlin and Durant to talk to, and then I can go shopping."
"Are you taking Ivy with you again?" Jiro asked.
"No, she's getting ready for her friend's funeral," Samantha replied. "Since I'll be using my Holden funds, I think it'll be best if I go alone anyway."
"Probably a good idea. Have fun shopping."
"Okay, see you later, Jiro." With that, the canine turned and walked out of the cabin's open door. She turned the corner and walked right into the short lynx, knocking her into the wall. "Oh my goodness!" Samantha exclaimed. "I'm so sorry!"
Ivy swallowed and brushed a hand over her face as Sam picked up the feline's fallen purse from the floor. "It… it's okay," she said. "I heard you talking and was going to ask you something, but I didn't expect you to dart out of the room like that!"
Sam handed the purse to the lynx. "I'm really sorry about that," the said again. "I should remember to look both ways before merging into traffic, I suppose."
Ivy smoothed out her light tan blouse and pleated skirt. "I'll be okay," Ivy replied with a nervous smile.
"Now," the Border collie said, "what was your question? Did you have something else to add to my shopping list?"
The lynx lowered her voice and gestured down the hall. "May I talk to you a minute, in private," she asked.
"Okay," the canine said hesitantly. She trailed after Ivy a little ways down the corridor, away from the open door of Jiro's quarters.
The short cook leaned against the wall, her hands behind her back. "I… uhm…"
Sam watched her curiously, but gave her time to say what she needed to say. Ivy seemed to study the Border collie's face for a moment before she spoke. When she did, she was still hesitant.
"I… overheard you and Jiro talking," she mumbled. "His door was open."
Samantha shrugged. "That's okay," she said. "We were only talking about my plan to pick up hobby materials for the crew, the same thing I discussed with you and Jerad. That wasn't anything private."
"Are you sure?" Ivy asked quietly.
Sam went over her conversation with Jiro in her mind. She didn't recall saying anything to him that could be considered private. She had a good memory for remembering the details of conversations and nothing stood out to her. Then her eyes grew wide.
"Ivy," she said quietly. "Please tell me what you think you heard."
The feline cook fidgeted under the other woman's questioning gaze, but then she met her eyes and answered. "I was watching an Alucara news broadcast a little while ago," she said, "and I saw a local interest story about the daughter of the Holden Pharmaceutical bigwig who was leaving Alexandrius for Sillon for a year-long leave of absence. I thought the woman in the photo they showed looked familiar, but I couldn't place where I had seen her until a moment ago – when I heard you say something to Jiro about using your Holden funds for the purchases."
Samantha continued to stare at the lynx for another moment before she could find her voice. "That… that's just a coincidence," she finally managed to say. "I… uh, sold my home computer system to Holdant's Electronics last week, and was going to use that money."
Ivy raised an eyebrow at her and then shook her head. "Sam, I'm not that clueless," she said. "I don't know why Samantha Holden would pretend to fly away to another world, when she's posing as Sam Chase on a common freighter."
Samantha closed her eyes for a moment, leaning heavily against the wall. She let out a heavy sigh and then looked over at her companion. "Okay, how much?" she asked, crossing her arms.
Ivy tilted her head, puzzled. "I don't understand."
"How much will I need to pay you to keep quiet?" Samantha answered bitterly, knowing her reply was admittance to the feline's statements.
A nearby door opened and Jerad stepped out into the corridor, wearing a faded suit of charcoal gray. He smiled at the women and walked quickly over to them. "Hi, are you ready? If we're going to make it in time through traffic, we'll need to leave in a couple minutes." The feline cook glanced quickly between him and the Border collie, but before she could answer, the raccoon noticed Samantha's combative posture. "Uh, what's going on?" he asked in a quieter voice.
Ivy put a gentle hand on Jerad's arm. "Just some girl talk," she told him. "Could you wait for me at your truck, please? I'll be down in just a moment."
The mechanic looked back to Sam, and she gave him a slight nod. "Okay," he said, fighting the urge to bite his bottom lip. "I'll see you outside." Subdued, he walked quietly around the curved corridor toward the lift.
"I need to go pay respects to my friend," Ivy whispered to her remaining companion. "We'll talk later."
The lynx shook her head and then whispered very quietly, "In response to your question, the answer is nothing." She pretended to lock her lips with an imaginary key, and then she left the canine woman alone in the corridor with a cacophony of thoughts.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.