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BLUE HORIZON 1261

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 15
Who's Giggling Now?

 

Jiro adjusted his thick tail through the slotted opening in the back of his cloth folding chair and muttered whispered obscenities concerning the chair's designer. He and his captain sat in the shadow of the Blue Horizon on its starboard side out of the morning sun, the noises of the spaceport all around them to mask their conversation. Merlin held a slateboard unit in his lap, the tablet's screen glowing faintly as the wolf pored over the information before him.

"I don't think you're going to find any more clues in that thing," the cougar told him. "I think you should accept Sam's offer so we can get on with our business plans."

Merlin looked over at him as if his partner was mad. "Jiro," he said with a furrowed brow, "for the last time, I am not going to sell the business to Samantha! Despite what I told everyone last night, there's got to be another way."

The wolf's bare-chested friend waved his hands in the air, his fingers splayed out. "Stop before you get your tail in a knot; that's not what I meant!" He pulled the slateboard from the captain's hands to get his full attention.

"What are you blathering about, then?"

Jiro heaved an audible sigh. "I meant Sam's other offer after last night's staff meeting," he explained. "She volunteered to front you the money to hire a promotional agency to help us find customers."

"Oh, that," Merlin muttered. "I appreciate her willingness to donate her credits behind the scenes, but I've got to do this without her bailing me out with her fortune." He grabbed the slateboard and gave his partner a sideways glance. "If we don't stand up on our own, we won't stand on our own."

"Merle, what is it with you and your resistance to money?" the navigator asked in exasperation. "I thought earning money is why you wanted to go into business."

The wolf turned to look at his friend, eye to eye. "I'm not against earning an income.  I'm just resistant to taking Sam's money to get myself out of trouble!"

"So why accept it as a gift?" Jiro asked. "Consider it a loan that you will pay back once clients start paying us to move their goods."

"A loan, eh?"

"Exactly! It's common for new companies to take out startup loans to get their businesses going. The difference is that I doubt Sam will charge you an interest rate."

Merlin relaxed back into his seat and rested the slateboard on his knees. "Yeah, I suppose I can accept it as a loan," he finally replied. "That's a better idea than anything I've been able to come up with.  I'll need to write up our policies and requirements, and then take them to a local promotional agency as soon as possible, maybe this afternoon. I don't care what kind of shipment we take, as long as we're up and flying before I completely run out of funds."

Jiro smiled, ruffling the fur between Merlin's ears with his fingers. "Finally! He sees reason!"

Merlin was about to retort when a klaxon sounded loudly. An approaching cargo carrier stopped to hover over the empty landing pad on the Horizon's starboard side. He and Jiro watched as an Okami freighter painted in deep purple settled to the ground amidst a cloud of dust.

Jiro covered his eyes with a hand and his partner began coughing into the crook of his elbow, silently wishing the klaxon alarm had given them more time to prepare for the sudden windy dust storm.  Once the other vessel had powered down and they could hear again, Merlin wiped his eyes and then brushed the dust from his face fur.

The wolf glanced back over at the new arrival and suddenly chuckled. "We should hope that Jerad doesn't look out his cabin window and see the name of the ship that just landed."

Jiro could easily see the large, white block letters on the cargo bay door of the adjacent freighter. "Giggling Ghost?" he read aloud. "Why, did he used to serve on that ship?"

"No, it's not that," Merlin explained. "I was chatting a little with Jasper before we turned in for the night, and he told me that his brother was superstitious. He'll probably do something to ward off against the spirits of that ship when he sees its name." Jiro looked at him with a strange look, and Merlin grinned. "What's the matter?" he asked. "Are you surprised that Jerad is superstitious?"

"No, it's not that," the navigator admitted. "I'm surprised you had a chat with Jasper.  That grouch never smiles, and I wouldn't be surprised if he always keeps to himself. He doesn't seem the type to just sit and chat with someone, y'know?"

"Oh, don't let his exterior fool you," Merlin replied. "It's true that he rarely starts a discussion, but he'll talk to anyone who includes him in conversation. Jerad also confirmed that Jasper's not a total recluse. He just seems that way until he gets to know the people around him better."

"Ah, okay. I'll give him a chance to—" Jiro trailed off when the sound of raised voices diverted his attention. Merlin followed his gaze and saw a white, long-haired cat with a splash of brown over one ear shouting in the face of a taller red vixen just outside the opening cargo door of the purple freighter. The fox was dressed in pair of form-fitting slacks that displayed her curvaceous figure, accented by a tan blouse that equally complimented her appearance. In contrast, the cat was adorned in a simple set of white hospital scrubs that almost blended in with her fur. The quarrel was heated and their voices were loud enough that the wolf and cougar couldn't help but hear their argument.

The fox waved a hand toward a small crowd of females gathered just inside the cargo door. "Listen, Vanessa, I am sick and tired of the attitudes of this crew, and you're not helping!"

"Not helping!" exclaimed the cat. "You're the one who's always complaining!"

"I wouldn't have to complain if everyone didn't try to foist their cargo duties on me!"

"So what? You're stronger than they are. You can handle it!"

"That's not the point!" retorted the vixen, her hands balled up into fists at her sides. "I always pull my share of the load – literally! However, I am not going to keep doing their share too! Especially for your little favorite, Annabelle!"

The feline crossed her arms. "Annabelle has special needs," she started.

"Yeah, and her needs are to be lazy!" shouted the vixen. "She's been sweet-talking you for far too long while laughing behind your back about it, but if you want someone to do her job for her, assign it to somebody else! I'm not doing it anymore!"

"You're under contract to do what I say!"

"She is also under contract to work for you, but you would rather she sit around and draw pay for doing nothing! I'll do my share, but not hers, and not anyone else's. You can write that into my contract!"

The white cat stomped her foot and raised a fist at the vixen. "I'll alter your contract, alright!" she screamed at the top of her squeaky voice. "You're fired!"

The fox took a step back, surprise on her face. "Vanessa…"

"I'm through with you!" spat the feline. "You're fired! Get out and don't let me see you near the Ghost again!" Vanessa spun around and took two steps before she stopped and whirled around again. "We're better off without you!"

Merlin and Jiro watched with rapt attention as the vixen took a step toward the captain of the purple freighter, but instead of thrashing her as they expected, the fox adopted a sudden calm.

"You think you'll be better off without me?" She spoke in a quieter voice, but it was still loud enough to carry between the two ships. "You seem to have forgotten who was responsible for securing all the jobs that provided you with nice profits so you can buy all your pretty things," she said evenly. "How do you think you are going to keep a clientele without my talents?"

Vanessa leveled an arm with an extended finger toward her and hissed, "You may have found them for us, but they are my customers who will remember our good service. You have nothing to bargain with, Nichols. Get out of here before I call security to remove you from the spaceport!"

The red fox glared at the white cat for a long moment before the other women in the cargo bay started shouting out for her to scram, punctuated by rude gestures and name-calling. The calm evaporated quickly and then the vixen stormed away from the freighter, her arms crossed over her chest and her teeth clenched in seething anger.

Merlin suddenly jumped to his feet, spurred by a sudden decision. Jiro reached out and grabbed him by the wrist when the captain handed him his slateboard. "Merle, what are you doing?" he asked cautiously.

"Opening the door to opportunity," the wolf replied with a glint in his eyes. "Let me go."

"Merlin, don't!" whispered the cougar. "You don't want to approach a mad female - trust me!"

The captain looked back at him with a crooked smile and pried the fingers from his wrist. Without another word, Merlin walked purposely to intercept the fox and raised his hand in greeting when he got near her.

"Excuse me," he began. "May I—"

The angry vixen was so preoccupied with her thoughts that she hadn't seen him approach and his words startled her. Surprised and caught off guard, her eyes flashed and she struck out to warn away the unwelcome intruder, growling low. Merlin saw the fist too late and tried to duck, but her powerful blow caught him across the shoulder, spinning him around once before he tumbled face-first to the tarmac.

Almost instantly, the woman realized what she had done, and the anger evaporated when she dropped to her knees beside the fallen wolf. "Ohmigosh!  Ohmigosh!" she chattered, reaching out a hand to turn him over.

A small trickle of blood seeped from one nostril of his snout, and his eyes were clenched tight in pain. He groaned and clutched his left shoulder with his right hand.

"Oh! I am so sorry!" the vixen repeated. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to— I'm sorry!"

Jiro trotted over to them and then knelt beside the wolf. "I tried to warn him not to bother you," he muttered, setting the slateboard on the ground beside him.

The captain forced his eyes open and looked up at his feline partner. "Go ahead and say it," he managed to say through clenched teeth.

Not one to waste an opportunity to needle his friend, Jiro glanced first to the woman, and then back down to the wolf. "I told you so…"

"Thanks too much…" Merlin wiped the blood and a bit of tarmac gravel from his nose with a hand. "Ow," he muttered, holding his hand up so he could see the blood.

"I am so sorry," the vixen said again, fear clouding her eyes as the cougar helped Merlin sit upright. "I'm sorry – you startled me, but I shouldn't have—"

For the first time since the assault, Merlin looked over at her. He grimaced and clutched his injured shoulder again, but tried to give her an apologetic smile of his own. "The fault is mine," he told her. "I shouldn't have gotten too close when I knew you were upset."

"Just as I warned you," added Jiro.

Merlin gave him a look that said, 'enough already' and then shook his head to make sure all the marbles were still inside his head.  "Yes, just as you warned me," he admitted.

The vixen looked at him with despair in her green eyes. "I'm sorry for hurting you," she emphasized with emotion. "You weren't involved in my troubles, and I shouldn't have taken it out on you." Merlin opened his mouth to speak, but she interrupted him. "You didn't do anything wrong," she said. "I'm so sorry."

Jiro prodded the wolf's shoulder. Merlin hissed in pain, but the cougar beside him shook his head. "I don't think anything's broken," he said to his partner, "but I should get you in to Connie so she can x-ray that shoulder."

"Good idea," Merlin replied. The woman helped Jiro get the wolf up on unsteady legs, and when the navigator began to lead him away, she followed beside him to make sure he remained on his feet.

Merlin looked over at her. "I'll be okay," he assured her. "I don't blame you."

"Thank you," she responded quietly.

They walked in silence for a moment before Merlin asked, "What will you do now?"

She met his eyes briefly, and then looked off into the distance. "I'm not sure," she admitted, realizing that the whole spaceport had probably heard her argument with the cat. "I've never been fired before."

"Perhaps we can help one another," the wolf said quietly while they walked around the perimeter of the ship to its port side.

She looked at him with a lopsided smirk. "You know someone who could sabotage her ship for me?" she asked in jest.

Jiro laughed, but Merlin answered with a tired smile, "Better than that." He continued to hold his injured shoulder with a grimace, but he looked over at the vixen and said, "I'm Merlin Sinclair, captain of the Blue Horizon, and this is Jiro Brannon, my ornery navigator and first officer."

The red fox shook her head with a smile. "I haven't heard anyone use the word ornery to describe someone in a long time," she said. "I'm Taro Nichols, formerly of the Giggling Ghost. I would say that I am pleased to meet you both, but not under these conditions."

Jiro grinned widely. "Ornery fits me as well as anything else he could have called me," he quipped.

The wolf tried to smile. "Well, the pain may be worth it, if you'll allow me to talk with you for a moment."

Suddenly suspicious, the fox put a hand up to the tan fabric of her blouse and rested her fingers uncertainly over her collarbone. "You're not going to sue me, are you?" she asked warily.

Merlin raised an eyebrow. "No, nothing so dire, I assure you."

Jiro looked over at her in quiet amusement. "I believe there was a reason he approached you in the first place."

"Oh!" the woman said in surprise. She hadn't remembered that.

"Perhaps you should talk to her about that after you've been to the Infirmary," the cougar suggested.

"Walk with us?" Merlin invited.

"Sure," said the taller vixen. She accompanied them up into the cargo bay and looked around. It was the same model of Okami freighter as the one she had just departed, but the state of its interior puzzled her. Cargo haulers didn't usually stand down at a spaceport with an empty hold for long.

"Where's your cargo?" she asked curiously.

"Ah, that's what I wanted to talk to you about," Merlin replied.

"I don't understand."

The wolf told her about purchasing the ship, hiring a crew and getting the vessel prepared for customers, detailing their cleanup efforts, stocking the ship with supplies and a crew, and the growing frustration from his inability to secure clientele.

She listened politely, nodding here and there, but when he finished, Taro looked back out into the empty cargo bay. "You haven't found anything?" she asked. "There are always ways to coax businesses to hire new freighters, especially since those just starting out are usually willing to charge less than an established carrier."

When the trio filed into the lift, Merlin muttered, "I guess we've been looking in the wrong places."

Taro looked over at the wolf with a calculating expression until the lift door opened a moment later. She followed the two males out into the corridor, automatically turning with them toward the Infirmary out of habit. "It sounds like you've had quite an ordeal," she said, "but why are you telling me all this?"

"Well," the wolf replied, "I was wondering if you might help us with our problem." He gave her a smile and said, "After all, I just heard from somewhere that you had a rather good talent for securing shipping jobs, and were someone with a lot of contacts throughout the Planetary Alignment."

She looked at him in sudden understanding. "You're offering me a job?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am," the captain replied with a nod when they stopped beside a white door marked with a caduceus, a short herald's staff entwined by two serpents that formed a double helix surmounted by wings. "I believe your talents could get us off the ground."

Jiro opened the door to the Infirmary and peered inside the darkened room. "Go on in," he said, handing the slateboard back to Merlin. "I'll see if I can find Connie."

The wolf turned on the light and then found a padded roller stool where he could sit down. He pulled his tail up into his lap, rolling the stool back so that he could lean against the wall, and then set the slateboard on the floor at his feet.

Taro watched him for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "You're willing to hire me, just like that?" she asked. "No interview?"

Merlin grinned. "Your references, spoken in the heat of an argument, sounded good enough for me. Besides, your former captain was good enough to confirm your claim about getting their customers for them."

The vixen suddenly laughed, feeling relieved that she could laugh after the day she had experienced. "As I am currently unemployed, I would be happy to discuss employment with you."

"Thank you," replied the wolf, absently massaging his shoulder. He settled in on the stool, quickly outlining crew duties and benefits, and when he proposed the per-voyage salary amount, Taro was nodding in agreement. The figure was decent, especially for a fledgling cargo carrier, and it would provide her with an income without her having to begin a search in the local job market. With the Giggling Ghost resting on a nearby landing pad as inspiration, she asked a few business-related questions before she agreed to his terms.

"If you will trust me," she said, finally relaxing against a counter, "I believe I can get in touch with one of my Alucara contacts to see what I can do about securing a shipment for this crew."

"I will choose to trust you," Merlin replied with an expression of relief. He looked around the room, wondering where his nurse might be, and then picked up his slateboard from the floor. He tapped in a few commands on the slateboard and then handed it to her. "If you want to read this over and sign it, you can join my crew right away."

The fox took the proffered unit and began to read over the standard document. After going over the first paragraph, she looked over at him and nodded toward his shoulder. "Before I sign, I think you should know that I am Hestran. If you feel that's going to be a problem, you might want to tell me now."

Hestra was a large, heavy-gravity world in the Centaurus system, the only inhabited planet of its kind within the Planetary Alignment, and sister to Alexandrius and Fyn. It was a mountainous world with only one ocean two thousand miles across that meandered like a giant river near its equator, and all of its indigenous species were stronger and hardier than any others were due to the heavier environment.

Merlin rubbed his shoulder and replied, "If you can keep your strength, as well as your temper, under control, I see no problem with your heritage."

Taro looked embarrassed. "Normally, I am in control of both," she told him. "Today's temper tantrum was brought to you by our sponsor, the Giggling Ghost. Thanks to months of needling, petty bickering and the mood swings of an all-female crew, it came to a head today. Please tell me that you and Mr. Brannon are not the only males on board."

"Mr. Brannon and I are not the only males on board," Merlin assured her. "If you join us, that would make nine in the crew and you would be one of four females."

Taro smiled at him. "That's good to know. I don't have a problem working with other women, but I've always gotten along better with the guys I've known."  She fell quiet as she looked over the contract. It was standard, but she had known some in the past who would sneak in small conditions of their own design, knowing that most people wouldn't read everything. When she was satisfied that all was as it should be, she applied her thumbprint signature to the appropriate box, accepting the contract.

She handed the unit back to her new captain and smiled. "Thank you, sir. I really appreciate this."

"After all the frustration I've had trying to find a customer, let me be the one to thank you!" Merlin replied.  "If my nurse ever shows up, we'll get this x-ray taken, and then I can give you a tour of the ship. I'm afraid there are only two empty cabins left, but you're welcome to claim whichever one that appeals to you."

"Where is your medical officer?"

The wolf shrugged. "She may not even be here today. I just hired Connie yesterday, and she may have gone into town to square away her affairs so she can move her things on board."

Taro looked around the room and then moved to a latched cabinet. She peeked inside the compartment and then nodded. "This Infirmary is just like the one on the Ghost," she said, "and it looks like you're stocked with the proper equipment and supplies for the x-ray machine, at the least. I can operate it, if you want me to do it in the absence of your Connie."

"You can?" Merlin asked, gently wagging the tip of his tail in his lap. "Yes, please. I had a medical technician from a local hospital recommend the standard stock we needed for a starship's sick bay, so I hope we got everything we needed. I'll probably need a lupine anti-inflammatory med, since I'm sure to have some heavy-duty swelling under my fur."

Taro frowned at the reminder of the injury she had caused him. "I will take care of you," she promised.

Twenty minutes later, the vixen displayed several x-ray images of the captain's shoulder on the Infirmary's wall screen. "I think we're fortunate," she announced after a close examination of the different angles. "I don't see fractures on any of the bones, but there's evidence that heavy muscle bruising has begun. I might have guessed it was dislocated, but that's not the case here." 

She looked through several cabinets until she found what she was looking for. She pulled out a white packet with a green cross upon its cover. She smacked the pack between her hands and then began rubbing it around to mix its internal chemicals. She wrapped the cold compress in a towel and then set it aside on the counter. Working automatically without thought, she knelt before him and began to unbutton Merlin's pale blue shirt. When she got to his navel, she stopped when she realized what she was doing.

"What's the matter?" the wolf asked.

"I'm sorry, captain," she apologized with her ears back. "I didn't mean to be so familiar…"

Merlin chuckled. "You mean unbuttoning my shirt for me so you could provide medical attention? My arm is already getting stiff, so I doubt I could get out of my shirt without help from someone. Please, continue what you were doing."

Taro gave him a little smile. She was no stranger to physical contact with a willing male, but never with a virtual stranger who also happened to be her new employer. Keeping her touch light and clinical, she finished with the buttons and helped him out of the shirt. She met his eyes briefly before she reached out and began probing the fur of his shoulder with her fingertips.

When he flinched from her touch, she stopped and picked up the compress.  She put it up to the injured area and then affixed it with a roll of expandable bandage wrapped under his arm and over his shoulder. When she was sure it would stay in place without pinching too much fur, she helped him back into the shirt and then buttoned it up for him.

It was while she was searching for the species-specific medication to administer to the wolf that the door opened.

Jiro peered in at them. "There you are," the cougar said.

"Where did you think we were?" Merlin asked with a raised eyebrow. "This is where you left us to go find Connie."

"Oh yeah, about that," Jiro replied. "I got outside and saw her getting into a cab, but I was too late to catch her. Sam and Jerad were leaving to do some running around of their own, and told me that Connie was going to go wrap up her personal business with the clinic."

"Even though I told everyone last night that their contracts might be cut short?"

"Jerad said that Connie told them she didn't care about that. I think she was tired of working for the clinic anyway."

Merlin pursed his lips. "Well then, I suppose I am fortunate that Taro knew how to take my x-rays."

"Yeah, how did that turn out?" asked the mountain lion.

"Just bruising, no fractures," answered the vixen.

"Well, that's good. Have you asked her yet?"

Merlin nodded. "Yes, and she has accepted a position on the crew as our customer liaison, business coordinator, or whatever else you want to call someone who will line up our clients for us. She signed her contract before patching me up, so she's now another slave to do my bidding."

Taro looked over at him sharply, pulling a paper cup from a wall dispenser, but he gave her an innocent smile at the small joke. She got the impression that this might be a common occurrence with him and she simply twitched her whiskers in amusement.

"That's cool," Jiro remarked. "Is she a nurse, too?"

Taro shook her head, handing the wolf a green capsule and the paper cup she had filled with water from the Infirmary sink. "No medical degrees," she told him, "but I've seen the equipment used enough that I knew how to operate it."

"If you couldn't find Connie, why did it take you so long to come back?" Merlin asked after swallowing his medicine.

Jiro smiled and then stepped aside, letting the other two see what was out in the corridor behind him. Stacked up on a small, floating flatbed dolly was a number of jumbled items.

"What's that?" Merlin asked. 

Taro's face lit up and she rushed past Jiro out into the corridor. "It's my things from the Ghost!" she exclaimed. She knelt beside the dolly and began sorting through the objects mixed in with wadded fabric.

"After Sam and Jerad left, I happened to look over at the other ship and saw your old crewmates tossing your stuff out onto the tarmac.  I grabbed a flatbed from our hold and went to retrieve the stuff they abandoned."

"Did they give you any trouble for getting it?" Taro asked.

"Not really," Jiro answered with a smirk. "I guess they figured I was a spaceport janitor and they were only happy for me to cart away your things to the trash before you came back for them."

The vixen stood up with amusement, but then she moved in close to him and gave the navigator a small kiss on his cheek. "Thank you," she said in genuine appreciation. "Some of my trinkets are broken, and it looks like they stepped on and ripped up all my clothes, but just about everything I owned on the Ghost is here."  She looked over at the wolf and shrugged. "I'll have to do a little shopping before we launch for our first client."

"Since we don't have that customer yet," Merlin replied, "you should have time go shopping for what you need. I can give you an advance on your pay, if you need it."

"I thought you were low on funds," Jiro mused.

"I am, but I am also confident that we'll be launching soon with a shipment for a paying customer." Merlin gave a look of assurance toward the vixen.

"Thank you for your confidence," Taro replied, smiling, "but I have enough in my account to get what I need. However, you might want to use your funds to start stocking up a for a month's supply of food, and charge up the oxygen mix tanks for several weeks of air."

Jiro looked unconvinced. "With all the trouble we've had for weeks trying to find someone to hire a business fresh from the cabbage patch, how can you be so sure we'll be launching soon?"

Taro's easy smile widened to a full grin. From her things on the dolly, she picked up a battered slateboard computer. She turned it on, and despite its condition, it operated just fine. "This contains all my customer contacts, Mr. Brannon; shipping options, contract details, points of contact on every world of the Planetary Alignment, background information on each of their preferences, and how to get in touch with each of those I know personally, as well as who should be more than willing to continue working with me."

Then, with a small giggle, she waved toward the general direction where the other vessel resided outside on the nearby landing pad. "With this in my hands, the Giggling Ghost doesn't have a single list of their clients or their contacts, so that effectively shuts them out of the game. Gentleman, I don't think we will have any trouble finding work."

NEXT CHAPTER

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