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BLUE HORIZON 1261

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 16
Worth It All

 

Captain Vanessa Mariposa stepped outside the airlock of her freighter and lifted a flush panel beside the structural frame. She thumbed a control and watched as the recessed airlock panels slid together and then slid out to fit flush with the rest of the vessel's hull.  The Giggling Ghost's cargo had been offloaded into waiting delivery trucks and she had dismissed her crew for a day of shore leave.

For herself, she planned to visit a local grooming salon for her long white fur and then go shopping for a new outfit. The favorite pale yellow blouse and black slacks she wore were threadbare, a state she never let her other garments reach, but it was now time to replace them.

She heard the sound of a vehicle setting down nearby, and wondered if it was the taxi she had called. Sure enough, it was a cab that rested near the boundary painted on the tarmac, but as she stepped toward it, a red vixen got up out of the vehicle, pulling several sacks and packages with her.

Taro set down some of her packages and paid the driver, but when she picked up her purchases, she looked up and saw her former employer storming toward her and the cab. The white feline approached her with a scowl, her fangs bared and claws extended for a confrontation. With a sigh, the fox set her packages down at her feet and turned to face the captain.

"How dare you come back!" hissed the cat.

Taro merely raised an eyebrow at her. "I didn't come back," she responded calmly. "I just went shopping to replace the things that you and yours so graciously destroyed for me. Did you come out to reimburse me for them?"

Vanessa sputtered. "I don't know what you're talking about," she spat, "but I forbade you from approaching the Ghost! I've already changed the security codes, so you're not getting back on board!"

The taller fox shook her head and then picked up her packages again as the cab driver waited with impatient looks toward his next fare, the white cat with one brown ear.

"What makes you think I have any interest in setting foot on board the Ghost ever again?" she asked, walking away with her purchases toward the spaceport landing pads.

Vanessa snorted and then turned to the cab driver. "Wait for me," she told him with clenched teeth.

"Yeah, okay, but I'm startin' the meter on you," the canine driver replied indifferently.

"Stop right there!" Vanessa shrieked at the vixen. She ran to a spot in front of Taro, but the fox simply walked around her to continue on her way. After several steps, Vanessa realized she wasn't heading for the Giggling Ghost, but toward the blue freighter on the next pad. "Where do you think you're going?" the cat asked, walking with quick steps on Taro's right.

The vixen didn't bother to answer Vanessa's repeated demands for an explanation, and took her packages right up to the Blue Horizon's extended cargo ramp. Standing just inside in casual conversation was a cougar, a lynx and a Border collie; all three looked down at them as Taro walked up toward them with Vanessa in tow.

"Welcome back," Jiro said with a grin. He walked down to meet her and held his hands out to help her with some of her packages. Taro gave him a friendly smile and handed off three sacks that had been draped over her left wrist.

"Thank you," she replied. Vanessa followed them up inside the cargo bay with a scowl, but in real puzzlement.

"What is going on?" the cat demanded.

The mountain lion recognized Vanessa and narrowed his eyes at her. He stepped between her and the vixen, still holding the package sacks. "Captain, I am First Officer Brannon, and Ms. Nichols is a member of my crew," he said with an even voice, looking down into her green eyes with his own. "You were not given permission to board this vessel, therefore you are trespassing. I suggest you leave right now."

"She works for you?" Vanessa asked the bare-chested puma, her eyes wide and unbelieving.

"She does."

The cat looked over at the smug look on Taro's face. "I just fired you!" she exclaimed, clenching her fists. "How can you have another job already?"

The Border collie had yet to meet the red fox, but Samantha stepped up next to her new crewmate and hooked one arm with her. "She must be incredibly lucky," the canine said with a vindictive grin, "and now she will share her luck with us!"

Ivy took up a position on Taro's other side, but said nothing, choosing only to smile at the other cat. Jiro had just informed them of the situation that brought the vixen to the Horizon's crew, so she merely raised one of her eyebrows at Vanessa, practically daring her to press the matter.

Captain Mariposa looked from one person to the next until her eyes came back to Taro. She grumbled something beneath her breath, but Jiro took a step toward her with a dark look, his thick tail swishing in agitation behind him. "I won't give you further warning against trespassing upon our vessel.  Ms. Nichols is a part of this crew, so if I hear of any further harassment toward her by you or your crew, Captain, I will take it further than just a warning."

Vanessa took a step back away from his implied threat, and then stormed back down the ramp to the tarmac muttering obscenities. Then she remembered the running meter in the cab and took off at a jog toward the waiting vehicle.

Taro looked first from the lynx on her left, then to the canine on her right, pleased that they had stepped up beside her without having even been introduced yet. "Thank you," she said with genuine appreciation after the cab drove away with the frustrated white cat. "No one would have backed me up on my previous crew."

"You are one of us now," the lynx replied with a warm smile. "That's good enough for me."

The Border collie tightened her hold on the vixen's arm with a grin. "We want you to feel right at home on board the Blue Horizon," she said. "Besides, I really enjoyed the look on her face!"

Jiro frowned. "That one might be more trouble before we have a chance to get out of here," he said. "This way, ladies." They followed him toward a control panel situated between the main airlock and the cargo bay opening. When he was sure that everyone was safely inside and out of the way, he activated the controls to raise the ramp and close the massive door. "Until we've launched with our first shipment," he explained, "we should probably keep the doors closed so that no vengeful ghosts sneak on board to cause havoc."

"That's a good idea," Taro replied. "It's eerie how you know her so well after just one meeting."

Jiro turned back to the red fox, smiling at the three females standing side by side. "Aside from our captain, you are currently the most important member of our crew," he said to the vixen. "We will stand by and protect our valuable assets!"

Taro gave him a puzzled look. "Most important?" she asked. "What do you mean?"

The cougar gestured over his shoulder toward the empty cargo bay with a glance. "With your contacts and public relations expertise, you'll be able to do what none of us have been able to do for several weeks — find freight for us to haul for someone."

"That makes you pretty important," said the smiling lynx.

"Agreed," said the canine. "How soon do you think you can start making inquiries?"

Taro shrugged. "I made some local calls while I was out shopping," she replied, "so I should hear something before the day is out."

"See?" Jiro said to the others. "I told you she was important to us!"

"Welcome to the crew," the Border collie said, shaking the vixen's linked arm as if it were a handshake. "I'm Sam Chase and this is Ivy Sparks."

Taro looked from one to another, already feeling comfortable around these strangers. "I'm Taro Nichols, and I am very pleased to make your acquaintances, Sam and Ivy."

"Come on," Samantha said, tugging on the fox's elbow. "Let's get you set up in a cabin, and then we can visit in a more relaxed setting."

Taro and Ivy walked with her across the empty deck, leaving Jiro standing beside the closing bay door. When it shut with thunderous boom, the vixen turned to look back at him. The cougar locked down the controls and then cycled the main airlock to close as well.

"Please remember to bring my underwear up to my cabin when you're done," Taro called back to him with a smile.

Jiro looked up at her, and then took a quick peek into one of the sacks he still held in one hand. It was full of vulpine panties made from light and airy fabric, designed to be worn over fur, but allow it to breathe. The fabric patterns were delicate with floral designs.  The cougar studied them for a moment and then looked up feeling embarrassed, his ears flat against his head.

"You… you handed me your panties?" he asked.

All three women grinned widely at his discomfort. "Just make sure I get them all back," Taro teased. "I know how many I bought!"

Jiro closed the sack abruptly and held it down at his side. "You think I want to wear one of these?" he squeaked.

"She thinks you might try to keep one as a souvenir!" Sam called back with a giggle. Ivy hid her laugh behind a hand, but Taro looked triumphant at the increasingly flustered cougar.

The airlock beeped in confirmation that it had locked its outer seal, so Jiro strode toward the females despite their laughter. When he neared them, he held out the sacks. "Here," he said after clearing his throat.

"Ah no," Taro replied, shaking her head. "You offered to carry them, so you can bring them up for me."

Jiro's eyes narrowed at the vixen's teasing tone, and then he sighed with a crooked smile.  "Okay, I'll carry your delicates for you."

"Thahnk you, dahlink," Taro replied in an exaggerated accent. Ivy and Samantha laughed aloud at the cougar's expense and then the four of them headed for the lift to the upper deck.

Before they all stepped inside, they heard the airlock across the bay begin to cycle again. Jiro frowned and then said to the ladies, "Go on up. I'll be there shortly." Without waiting for acknowledgement, the cougar started back toward the main hatch, preparing himself for another confrontation with the white cat if that was her trying to get in.  The lift door closed and then the carriage took the women away.

Jiro had already traversed the empty chamber by the time the airlock opened. A pair of raccoons stared in at him, and Jerad's face brightened in a wide smile. "Hiya, Boss Two," he said with a waggle of his fingers.

The cougar returned his smile feeling relieved. "Hey, guys. Enjoy your movie?"

Jasper shut the hatch behind them and cycled it. "Bah, it was a waste of credits," he replied. "Too many special effects, not enough story."

Jerad shrugged his shoulders. "Yeah, it could have been better," he agreed, "but I actually liked it. Huge mecha battles and lots of spaceship broadsides! Jasper goes more for interpersonal relationships."

"Oh, really?" Jiro responded with a grin.

"Yeah, really. Whatcha got there?" Jasper asked, referring to three shopping bags clutched in the cougar's right hand.

The navigator's eyes widened and he immediately put them behind his back. "Uh, nothing at all," he said unconvincingly. Jerad's curiosity came online in full strength, so he tried to dart around the feline to grab at the sacks.

"Whatcha got?" he asked, repeating his brother's query. "Lemmee see!"

Jiro clasped the sacks to his chest and tried to keep them out of the clutches of the shorter raccoon. "No, get away!" he gasped.

Jerad circled around him, keeping the cougar turning this way and that, and then when his attention was diverted, Jasper reached in and snagged one of the bags with a wry smile. The sack tore beneath his claws and pastel colored fabric spilled out onto the deck.

"Ah, what's this?" Jasper said in a louder-than-necessary voice. Jiro looked down in horror as both raccoons scooped up dainty panties in their small hands.

"Ack!  Stop!" he exclaimed. "Give those back!"

Jerad darted away several steps and then gave the garments closer inspection. "You won't wear a shirt, but you'll wear these?" he cackled in delight at the discovery.

"They aren't mine!" Jiro yowled in frustration. He made a grab for the panties in Jasper's hands, but the raccoon spun around, holding them out of reach.

"No?" Jasper asked in a rare display of glee. "Are we supposed to ignore the evidence you provide?"

"No!" Jiro exclaimed. "They belong to Taro. I was taking them up to her cabin for her!"

"Taro?" Jerad and Jasper repeated in unison, both of them smiling at the navigator's weak excuse.

"Yes, her name's Taro Nichols," the cougar explained impatiently. "Merlin hired her from another ship this morning, but her former crew destroyed all her clothes out of spite. She just got back from a shopping trip to replace her stuff."

Jasper raised an eyebrow with a grin. "So you say," he quipped. "I suppose you helped her try on these things, too?"

"I didn't go shopping with her!" Jiro shot back, exasperated. "I was only helping her take her things up to her cabin. This is what she gave me to take up!"

"Uh huh…" Jerad teased with a sly smile. "I'm sure a female would let a guy handle her underpants so soon after just meeting… unless she was loose." The last was said in a mock whisper. He looked over at his grinning brother. "I'll wager she's a bunny rabbit," he added.

"I'm not loose and I'm not a rabbit," admitted a new voice, "but those are my panties you're fondling." Both raccoons spun around in unison, coming face to face with a tall vixen standing with her feet planted firmly apart and her arms crossed. The look on her face was unreadable.

Jasper's eyes practically bulged from their sockets and he reflexively dropped the powder blue panties with yellow flowers he had been holding.  The blood drained from Jerad's face and he nearly fainted from surprise. He swallowed with difficulty and then gave her a forced smile.

"S-sorry," he managed to say, quickly handing three pair of panties sideways to the cougar.  Jiro took them and scowled, kneeling down to pick up the other scattered bits of fabric. The original sack was torn, so he stuffed them into one of the remaining two bags.

"I tried to tell them…" he muttered, handing the sacks to the vixen.

"Yes, I heard the whole conversation," Taro replied dryly. "I came back down to tell you something, away from the other girls, and watched these two bandits raid you of my underwear."

Jasper collected himself and gave the woman a stiff bow. "I'm sorry, Miss," he said in genuine embarrassment. "We didn't realize he was telling us the truth."

"Yeah, please accept our apologies," Jerad added, effecting a bow of his own. "I'm sorry, too."

The vixen pulled out a pair of panties from the bag and examined it. There was a boot print across the rear end, just below the dip in the waistband that allowed for the base of a tail. "It's a good thing I was going to wash them before wearing them," she stated.  "Okay, I'll forgive you this, if you will do one thing."

"Name it," Jasper said quickly, straightening up from his bow.

"Give your apologies to Mr. Brannon, too. He was the one you wronged more than I."

The raccoons immediately turned in military unison and bowed toward the navigator. "We're sorry," Jerad said first.

"We apologize for doubting you," Jasper added. "Really sorry…"

While the eyes of both mechanics were on the floor, Taro looked over at Jiro and gave him a wide grin, as if she were barely controlling her laughter. The cougar smirked back at her and then gave her a wink.

"All right, guys," he said, putting a mock scowl back on his face. "You're forgiven."

"Good," Taro said, putting a look of acceptance upon her features. "Now, let's start on better footing. I am Taro Nichols, the new customer liaison for the Blue Horizon."

The raccoons looked up at her in relief. "I'm Jasper Porter," said the one wearing patched coveralls. "I'm the Horizon's chief engineer, and this is my brother, Jerad Porter, ship's mechanic."

Taro switched the bags to her left hand and then held out her right. "Happy to meet you two," she responded with an amused smile.

Jerad shook her hand, still looking sheepish. "I hope so," he said. Jasper shook her hand without another word, his tongue feeling rather thick at the moment.

With the introductions out of the way, Taro suddenly chuckled. "I think that's the first time I've ever had three guys fighting over my underpants," she said in amusement. "It does make an interesting story for my first day on the job."

"At least you weren't in them when the fighting was going on," Jiro teased. Both raccoons looked at him as if he had lost his mind, but the vixen only laughed aloud.

"That would have made for a more interesting tale!" she replied. 

"You… you aren't mad at us? Jerad asked tentatively.

The fox chuckled. "No, you can relax," she answered. "You apologized properly, so you're off the hook."

More than ready for a change of topic, Jasper looked up at her. "Was what he said about you finding a job for us correct?" he asked.

"That's right," Taro answered. "I have contacts with numerous businesses across the Planetary Alignment that I believe will hire the Blue Horizon as a carrier for their goods."

Jasper smiled openly. This was the first good news he'd heard since Merlin had dropped the bomb on them the previous night. The first thing he had wanted to do this morning was approach Poppy about getting their old jobs back, but the slick weasel had only laughed in their faces for leaving him in a lurch. Fortunately for the ferret, there were many mechanics in Alucara looking for work, so he had hired replacements to maintain his ships without having much down-time. The new guys were cheaper yet, so Poppy was in no mood to rehire the Porters. Afterward, Jerad had suggested going to see a movie to take their minds off the whole situation.

Jasper reached out and took her hand in his once more. "I am really glad that you could join us!" he said in genuine appreciation.

"Thanks," said the vixen. "Now, if you gentlemen will excuse us, I need a word alone with our first officer."

"Of course," Jerad said, the familiar grin back on his face. "C'mon, Jasper. I need to go wash my hands of movie popcorn butter."

Taro watched the raccoons until they had disappeared into the lift she had brought down to the cargo deck. Once they had gone, a sudden thought occurred to her and she peered into the shopping bag with a frown. "There's movie popcorn butter on my panties," she muttered.

"It's a good thing you're going to wash them anyway," Jiro remarked with a grin.

The vixen looked over at him sideways and then sighed. "Between Vanessa's girls and those two, I guess I'm fortunate to be wearing anything right now; I could be standing here bare in just my fur!"

"Oh yeah, I'm saving those mental images," the cougar said with a smirk.

Taro blinked and then shook her head with a smile. "Okay, I can see this is going to be an interesting crew to serve with," she said.

Jiro snickered, and then shrugged his shoulders. "So," he said, looking up at the overhead deck lights, noting that two of them were not working. "What was it you wanted to talk to me about that you couldn't discuss in front of anyone else? Does it have anything to do with your panties?"

The vixen swatted him lightly. "No, smarty, it's work-related."

Jiro sobered up instantly. "Trouble finding work for us?" he asked quietly.

Taro shook her head. "No trouble," she replied. "I got a response on my personal DataCom from one of the inquiries I'd made while out shopping. I didn't want to say anything in front of the others, but I wanted either you or Merlin to know that we have our first client."

The cougar's eyes lit up. "Really?" he asked, hardly daring to hope she was being serious.

"Yes, really!"

"Come on!" he said, suddenly taking her by the wrist. "Let's find Merlin right away. He's been moping about the business for days and this will be just the shot in the arm he's needed!"

They had to wait for the lift to return, but as soon as it was available, Jiro practically dragged the vixen inside. She watched him curiously as he waited impatiently for the panel to open again. Things must have really been tight if this guy was so excited about a simple delivery job.

They had to look in three compartments, but they found Merlin coming out of the galley, brushing crumbs from the front of his dark green shirt.

"Hey, welcome back," the wolf said to Taro when they stopped in front of him.

"Thanks," she answered. Before she could say another word, the cougar grabbed Merlin by the arm.

"Boy, does she ever have something to tell you!" he said with bright eyes.

"Ow! Watch the shoulder, Jiro!"

"Oop, sorry about that."

The captain sighed and then looked up at the vixen, rubbing his shoulder absently. "You have something to tell me?"

Taro gathered her shopping bags together in one hand and gestured casually in the air with the other. "We'll need to assemble the crew on the cargo deck by 1600 hours tomorrow evening," she told him.

"Why? Are we having some kind of ceremony?" he asked, glancing briefly at his wrist watch.

"Three trucks from Praskovia Clothing Exports are scheduled to arrive at four o'clock to deliver seventy-eight crates of Alexandrian garments for loading into the Blue Horizon," she answered. The wolf's eyes grew wide, but she continued before he could say anything. "We're to deliver them to the Handgjorda Kläder Warehouse in Toreboda on Kantus in three weeks, so we'll need to lift off within an hour after we get everything on board and secure. I'll get with the Alexandrius Defense Authority this evening to arrange a launch window."

"Tell me you're serious," Merlin said with a gulp.

Taro smiled. "I'm serious. ©45,000 will be routed into the company account upon receipt of the delivery in Toreboda."

"Forty-five thousand credits!" Jiro exclaimed, tightening his grip on Merlin's arm.

The vixen raised an eyebrow. "Fifty thousand is a fair standard fee to deliver goods from one star system to another," she informed him, "but I offered a five thousand credit discount since we're a fledgling business. I don't know how much down-time you plan to have between jobs, but while we'll be on Kantus, I've already lined up another job, shipping food goods to the fishing colonies on Crescentis. Same initial fee of forty-five thousand to get their business. I hope that's okay, Captain."

Merlin reached out and grabbed one of Taro's wrists in his good hand, causing her to drop the shopping bags to the carpet at her feet. His eyes searched hers for any sign of deception, and when he couldn't find any, he almost jumped forward to kiss her. Instead, he shook her arm with a wide grin.

"You did it!" he exclaimed with glee.  "You really did it!"

The fox smiled back at him. "Isn't this what you hired me for?" she asked in a casual tone.

"Taro, you have just saved my business!"

"I'm glad to hear it," the vixen replied. "This is just the start, Captain. Once we are on our way to Kantus tomorrow, I will forward inquires to my contacts on Crescentis to see what I can line up for us from there. Once we've established ourselves as reliable, we can up the fee to industry standard."

Jiro brushed past the wolf and took a surprised Taro in his arms. If Merlin wasn't going to thank the vixen properly, at least he would. Taro's eyes went wide when he leaned in close, kissed her full on the mouth, and held her firmly up against him for a long moment.

When he pulled back, she grinned at him and then put a couple of fingers up to her lips. "Mm, okay… What was that for?" she asked in a quiet voice.

The cougar shook his head with a smile. "Why, to thank you, of course!"

"Uhm, you're welcome," Taro replied easily.

"You saved more than just the ship," Merlin told her soberly. "I don't think you realize how close I came to deleting everyone's contracts prior to meeting you this morning and letting them all go."

Taro studied him and saw the seriousness in his eyes. "I didn't realize you were so desperate for business," she whispered.

"Yeah, it was that bad," Jiro assured her. "We tried everything we could to draw in a customer, but no one wanted to hire a new ship and crew. We simply didn't have any credentials to promote."

Taro slipped an arm around Jiro's waist, and then threaded her other around Merlin's shoulders, mindful of his injury. "Well, guys, I think it would be safe to say that I'm glad my captain fired me!"

Merlin laughed. "Yeah, me too. I really hope you like it on board the Horizon," he told her. "We have a mixed crew, but it looks like we have a good bunch."

"I already feel at home," Taro said in genuine appreciation. "Thank you for coming after me."

The wolf gingerly rubbed the end of his sore nose and then grinned over at her. "You almost took my head off," he told her, "but it was worth it. Welcome aboard."

NEXT CHAPTER

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