BLUE HORIZON 1261
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Connie felt giddy as she watched the various crewmembers gathering into the small galley. The recreation deck was of ample size to hold everyone, but she suspected the captain had called the staff meeting here so it could lead directly into whatever supper their cook had put together for them all. A long countertop spread across the majority of one end of the room with the kitchen behind it, dishes and utensils decorating its surface. Mouthwatering aromas issued from the kitchen and a lynx busied herself with her preparations while waiting for everyone to answer the captain's summons.
On the wall across from the door to the room was a clear window that faced aft of the ship. Evening sunlight filtered in, but glass polarization kept it from getting too bright. Merlin casually leaned up against the blank wall opposite the window with his arms behind him.
The woman sat at the end of the room's single long table. She had only been introduced to a couple of the crew, so she sat amused as each of the others wandered into the galley and showed surprise at the human's presence.
Although all Furs were descended from humans altered by genetic engineering three centuries earlier, there seem to be many more Furs than humans spread out across the Planetary Alignment; this was ironic since the original purpose of the Furs was to establish starter colonies on habitable worlds prior to the mass exodus of humanity following to ease the population burden of Earth. There were human-predominant cities and communities on each of the PA worlds, but they were in the minority on every planet but Earth and Kantus.
Jiro sat to Connie's right, chatting idly with a female Border collie she hadn't yet met. Across the table from him was a large grizzly bear. He was taller and larger than anyone else on board was and was talking pleasantly to a small raccoon seated next to him. The coon's green coveralls had pockets sewn onto most available spaces on the front and sides, and it appeared there was something in each of them.
Everyone looked up when another raccoon entered the room and plunked himself down at the last empty seat across from the other coon. He pulled a metal cylinder from a chest pocket, extracted a cigar from it, and bit off one end, but the lynx behind the counter threatened him with a dowsing if he lit the thing in her galley.
There were chuckles all around as he frowned and returned the tobacco cylinder to his pocket, but then he nodded to the wolf. All eyes went to Merlin.
"Okay, everyone, I want to introduce you all to our new medical officer," he said. "This is Connie Davies."
The woman smiled nervously and waved her fingers toward the others. "Hi," she said. Others returned her wave and then turned their attention back to the wolf, but the raccoon with all the pockets continued to smile at her.
With an extended finger, Merlin pointed to each individual in turn. "Jiro Brannon, Sam Chase, Durant, Jerad Porter, Jasper Porter, and…" pointing toward the kitchen, "…Ivy Sparks." The lynx waved with a wooden spoon in her hand, but a bit of sauce flung off the utensil and hit the end of Jerad's nose. The raccoon crossed his eyes to look at it, and then licked off the thick drop with a smirk.
"Mmmm, I think that tastes just about right," he said to the cook. "Don't change the recipe."
"Are you tasting the sauce, or your own nose dripping?" Jiro teased. Jerad's eyes went wide and then he laughed aloud heartily. He knew he was going to get along with the cougar just fine.
"Ewww!" Samantha cringed, swatting the navigator's arm. "That's not what I needed to hear right before supper!"
"What's the matter, Sam?" the cinnamon-furred bear quipped. "You don't want a little extra flavor in your soup?"
Connie listened to the exchange for several moments in amusement. This was the kind of group she wanted to be around, not like the stuffy ingrates back at the clinic. She turned to look at the wolf with a grin. "Are they always like this?" she asked.
Merlin twisted his lips into a smirk. "They're shaping up to be," he replied of his growing crew. He rapped his knuckles on the wall behind him to get everyone's attention. Once it was quiet again, he nodded toward the woman and said, "As a registered nurse, Connie will be responsible for our health while on board the ship. We've already stocked the sickbay with the basics of First Aid, medications and vitamin supplements, but she will provide the skill to take care of us. Before we get underway, it would be a good idea if each of you spends some time with her to discuss any allergies, ailments and your medical histories. The better she knows us, the better she can help us."
"The better she knows this group," Jasper retorted dryly, "the quicker she'll be running away." Connie looked over at his grumpy demeanor, but she could see the smile in his eyes.
Merlin gestured toward the gathered crew. "If you want to give a speech, now's the time."
"If you want to run, now's the time!" Jerad snickered.
"She's under contract, so no running," the wolf countered, shaking his head.
Connie smiled and looked out across to the others. "I'm looking forward to getting to know you all," she said. "All I ask is that you give me time to get used to being among you."
"Welcome to the Blue Horizon," Samantha told her.
Jiro nodded and reached over to put a hand on her arm. "Glad to have you with us," he said.
Others around the table voiced similar sentiments, but when it grew quiet again, Ivy announced, "The meal will be ready in about ten minutes."
Conversations started up again, but after a moment, Jerad looked toward Merlin. "Any idea when we'll be launching, Captain?" he asked. As that was a common question most of them had been asking lately, all other discussions ceased as everyone's attention moved back to the wolf. Merlin laid his ears back and looked down at the table with a frown. "That's not a good sign," Jerad whispered.
"No, it's not," the captain confirmed in a low voice. "I had hoped to postpone this topic until after we had eaten." He looked around at his employees, quickly gathering his thoughts. "Now that I have a full crew," he began, "I'm afraid that all of our preliminary work might have all been for nothing."
"What's happened?" Jerad asked first, beating three others to the question.
"Nothing has happened," Jiro said, putting his chin upon crossed arms on the tabletop. "That's the problem."
"Jiro's correct," Merlin replied. "I am running out of funds, and even after weeks of diligent PR work, I have had no luck securing our first customer. Everything from the purchase of the ship, registration fees, ongoing rental of the van and the spaceport pad, the repairs, the cleanup and stocking of the ship, to the salaries of my crew has all tapped my financial resources."
"What seems to be the problem?" Connie asked. "I thought cargo haulers were in constant demand across the Planetary Alignment."
"They are," Jiro muttered, "but no one wants to hire a green captain and crew."
"As a new business, we have no service record to promote," Samantha added. "Clients want someone they can trust to transport their goods light years across the galaxy safely. They don't want to pay someone to take a load of their merchandise with the prospect that the ship could just take off with it and disappear to places unknown. It's a matter of trust, and that only comes from a good service record."
"So what are we going to do?" Durant asked. "I've seen the account, and the numbers are anemic."
Merlin swallowed and heaved a loud, audible sigh. "I had hoped it wouldn't come down to this, but I have to warn you that if I can't secure a paying customer within another week, I may have to let you all go – without us ever leaving port."
"Let us go?" Jasper spat vehemently. "Well, that tears the rag off the bush!"
"Ah, no!" Jerad whined.
"If that happens, you will get paid," Merlin assured him.
"Well…" Jiro muttered, head still down on his arms, "if it comes to that, at least the ship should fetch a better price now that it's in better shape than it was when we bought it. Perhaps a new owner would retain us all as its crew and keep us together for the business."
Jasper stood up and leaned on the table. "I should have known something like this would happen," he grumbled, glaring at the wolf. "You've made promises you can't keep!"
The captain's throat tightened at the thought of being openly challenged, but he had to fight it since the engineer was essentially correct. What did he know of promoting their services? He held a business degree, but it hadn't been of much help finding customers, despite all the recommended marketing and promotional tactics he had used. He had run out of ideas and was starting to get desperate.
"Cancel our contracts," Jasper growled, "so Jerad and I can go groveling back to Poppy with our ears down and tails tucked firmly between our legs. We may have to beg for our jobs back, if he's not filled our positions already."
"No," Merlin said firmly. "Not yet. You still have jobs with me for now, and you will be paid for that time. I've not given up, and neither should you, but I wanted you all to know the situation in the event of a worst-case scenario."
"Surely there's something else you haven't tried," Connie offered with a soulful expression, a bit of panic in her voice at having her personal plans scrubbed. "We've got to figure out some way to get a client so we can launch!"
"I'm sure there is," the wolf conceded. "Jiro, Durant and I will be brainstorming on this tonight, but if any of you come up with something I haven't thought of, I'm willing to listen."
There was a loud bang and everyone looked back to the kitchen. Ivy had dropped a steaming pot of vegetables on the counter a little too hard next to other food-bearing containers. Embarrassed, she turned quickly to hide the moisture in her cheek fur. "Supper's ready and on the counter," she said over her shoulder after wiping her eyes on her apron. "I'll get cups for your drinks."
Thankful for the momentary distraction, crewmates got up one by one to pick up plates and serve themselves cafeteria-style from the bounty that Ivy had prepared for them. Merlin let the others go first, taking an empty seat at the table.
Getting to her feet, Samantha looked at him, but it was impossible for her to misread the thoughts behind his troubled eyes as he gazed back at her. He was already reconsidering her original offer to buy his ship and hire the crew to make deliveries for Holden Pharmaceutical. It would kill his dream to have his own business, but it would keep his personnel employed.
His stomach cramping into a knot, Merlin realized he had lost his appetite.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.