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BLUE HORIZON 1261

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 17
Second Thoughts

 

When the green and white cab stopped at the marked boundary painted on the tarmac, Connie looked out the window with a frown. The cargo door of Blue Horizon had been wide open when she left. It was now closed. Even the main hatch forward of the cargo door was shut.

Had Merlin already cancelled everyone's contracts? she thought to herself.  In the short time she had been part of the crew, there always seemed to be someone lounging in the open air on the cargo deck, and she had counted on calling one of them out to help her bring her things inside the ship. None of the personal vehicles were parked nearby either; Sam's car and Jiro's rental van were both missing.

The taxi driver, a young jackal wearing only a pair of lightweight shorts and a vest that matched the color scheme of his cab, got out of the vehicle to pull her things out of the back for her. He set out two steamer trunks, four boxes and three large bags. Then, from a pocket of his vest, he pulled out a credicard scanner and handed it to the human woman.

"Twenty five credits, ma'am," he said politely.  Connie plugged her credicard into the unit, keyed in the amount plus a tip, and then tapped in her passcode. A tiny green diode lit up, signifying the monetary transfer had been accepted. "Thank you," he said, pocketing the device after a quick glance at the tip. "Have a good day!"

Without having said a word, the nurse stood beside her belongings as the vehicle sped away to its next destination.  She stared at the blue saucer for a long moment before another sound drew her attention.  A small electric cart approached her, a young black bear behind the controls.

"Hello," he said good-naturedly. "Are you looking for someone?"

Connie gave him a pleasant smile of her own. "Yes, I'm a new member of the Blue Horizon's crew and was hoping one of my crewmates was around to help me take my belongings inside," she replied. "It looks like the ship is locked up tight, though, and my captain hasn't given me the security codes yet."

"I'm afraid I can't help you get inside," the bear said, "but if it will help, I can take you and your things over to the hatch where you can wait in the shadows out of the sun."

The human woman gave him a sincere smile. "Yes, I would appreciate that. I am Connie Davies, the Horizon's nurse."

The bear stepped out of the cart and gave her a slight bow. "I'm Kodai Koihan," he said. "I manage the landing pads for this section of the spaceport. I was just coming over to see if Captain Sinclair was planning to renew next week. Do you know?"

Connie decided to play ignorant, not informing him of the captain's concerns of having to sell off the ship and cancel the contracts of the crew. "I'm sorry, I don't know the answer to that," she told him.

Koihan shrugged, giving a smile. "Well, at least I can help a nurse get her things to her new home," the bear said, turning to pick up one of her trunks. 

A few moments later, he pulled up next to the main hatch. While the woman got out and stretched, the young ursine manager offloaded her belongings. When they were in the shadow of the vessel, he picked up a clipboard from beneath the seat and scribbled a note onto a scrap of paper.

He handed this to the nurse and asked, "When you see your captain again, would you give this to him for me?"

"Yes, of course. Thank you for your help, Mr. Koihan," she said.

"My pleasure, ma'am," he replied. "Have a great day!"

Connie watched him roll away across the tarmac and then she turned toward the hatch.  The ramp was still extended, although the airlock panels were closed and flush with the hull. She had seen Jiro tap in the security codes in a small control panel beside the door, so she walked up the ramp and pressed on the place where she thought it might be.  She heard a small click and a recessed panel beside the airlock flipped open. At the top of the pad was a key marked Open that was written in Standard. Tentatively, she tapped it, but there was no response. Another button beneath the keypad was labeled Call. She pressed it and a tiny amber diode lit up beside it.

"Yes?" said a voice after a brief hesitation.

"Uh, hello?" the woman responded. "It's me, Connie Davies. Could someone open the door for me so I can bring my things inside?"

"Welcome back, Connie," replied the speaker. "I'll be right there."

"Thank you!" the human said in relief.

When the airlock cycled open a few minutes later, the bare-chested cougar looked out at her with a pleasant smile. "There you are," he said.

She grinned up at him. "Hello, Jiro. Could I bother you to help me bring my things inside the ship? Everything I own is out here."

The navigator looked over at the pile of luggage, boxes and bags at the curved edge of the vessel beside the ramp. "Sure," he said. "I'll get a dolly."

The antigrav cargo dolly was too wide to fit through the airlock, so he raised the large bay door just enough so that he could go through without having to bend over. The human helped him put her things on the flatbed and then followed him up the ramp when he pushed it up to the deck.

"You know," Jiro said once they were inside, "I'm not sure your cabin is big enough to hold all this." He said it in a teasing manner, but Connie knew he was serious as well.

"That's what I was afraid of," she replied. "Until I have a chance to go through it all, may I store some of it in one of the cargo hold's wall lockers?" When the cougar nodded his approval, she added, "Even if the Blue Horizon never gets off the ground, I promise that I won't let the items stay in storage for long. I will try to go through it in the next day or two, and toss out the things that I don't need or don't have sentimental value. I just didn't have time when cleaning out my apartment."

Jiro looked over at her while he reclosed the bay door. In light of Taro's help, he felt that was an odd statement to make, but then he realized that the nurse was unaware they had hired the vixen to help them pull in customers. Rather than spoil the surprise, he decided not to say anything and play along with her assessment. He put on a deep frown and let out a heavy sigh.

"If that's the case, you'd better go through it quickly," he told her.

She looked up at him in alarm. "I thought he said we had another week before he made that decision!"

Jiro quirked up the corner of his mouth in a teasing smirk. "It might take you that long, with all this stuff!" he said with a sweep of his hand over the cart.

Connie narrowed her eyes at the cougar and fixed him with a momentary glare before she broke character and laughed aloud. "Yes — yes, you're right!" she admitted. "I'd better not let it sit long, or the captain may sell it with the ship!"

Satisfied that she could joke about something as distasteful as losing one's job, he grinned back at her. He pushed the dolly to a large wall storage unit and gestured toward its door. "Will this do?" he asked.

She opened the latch and peered inside. The one he had chosen was almost half the size of her cabin. "I might be able to get all my things in there!" she said with a smirk. "Just for that, I'll let you put them in there! All I need to go up to my room is the blue trunk and those two bags." 

* * * 

Rather than have everyone meet together in the galley again as a reminder of the last gathering, Merlin decided to hold this staff meeting on the Recreation deck at the top of the vessel. The wolf didn't think it was necessary, but Ivy had prepared a few snacks for the assembly and arranged them nicely at the small kitchenette counter on the aft 'end' of the round deck.

The evening sun was not visible through the forward window, but clouds in the distance were such a deep red as to almost hide the running lights of the spaceships landing and launching from the busy spaceport. Merlin stared out the window with hands in his pants pockets as he awaited everyone to show up at the appointed time.

He heard someone walk up behind him and he smiled when he recognized the clunk of tools shifting in oversized pockets. "Hello, Jerad," he said without looking at the raccoon beside him.

"Hi, Captain," replied the mechanic. "I see we have our extra body up here."

Merlin turned to look at Porter and then acknowledged the statement with a nod toward the vixen; she had orange, red and white fur with black from her fingertips to her elbows and from her knees down to her toes. She was dressed in a casual white blouse with the top two buttons free, but the shirttail was tucked neatly into a pair of pressed grey slacks that hugged her curvaceous form. Dainty sandals were upon her feet and the legs of her slacks ended just below her kneecaps. She sat with her hands resting upon her knees in one of the oversized recliners, chatting quietly with Samantha, who was seated beside Durant at one end of the couch. The wolf did a quick head-count, and realized that everyone was present and accounted for.

He looked down at the raccoon. "You've met?" he asked finally.

"Yeah, we ran into her this afternoon," answered the mechanic with a silly grin, remembering the scuffle with Jiro over her underthings.

"Ah, good. I will introduce her to everyone else in a moment."

"She's nice. I like her." When the captain only nodded without further discussion, Jerad excused himself, sauntered over to the snacks and picked up a small plate.

Merlin turned back to the window to stare outside, and after a while, the din of the crowd died down, as everyone grew attentive for the purpose of the gathering. Most of them assumed he had called another meeting so soon after the last one to announce that he had come to his final decision, but those who had met with the vixen already knew of her purpose.

When he turned around, he kept his hands in his pockets as all eyes went to him. He gestured toward the fox with just an inclination of his chin.  "Would you join me up here at the front, please?" he asked her.

 His newest employee got to her feet and took up a position at his right side. He took a hand from his pocket and placed it gently upon her nearest shoulder. "Everyone, I want to introduce you to Taro Nichols." There were a few smiles from those in the know, but everyone else simply watched without interruption. "As a new member of our crew, she brings with her some very important news."

Connie had a sudden intake of breath, her expectations suddenly changing. She tried to suppress her smile, but wasn't very successful at it. No one noticed, though. All eyes were upon the wolf and the fox.

"Taro, please," Merlin prompted.

The green-eyed vixen looked around the room, feeling embarrassed to be thrust into the spotlight in front of virtual strangers. She swallowed and clasped her hands together in front of her.

"Hello, everyone," she said in a voice that was more stable than she felt inside. "As Captain Sinclair said, I am a new crewmate. I was hired this morning and my primary purpose will be to act as a liaison between us and our clients for shipping jobs."

"All right!" Jerad exclaimed, but his sibling quickly put a damper on his enthusiasm.

"I'm glad to hear the captain's brought in some outside help," the raccoon in patched coveralls said, "but do you think you'll have any better luck than he has? He's already told us that if we don't have a customer within a week, we will all be out on the streets."

Repeating what she had earlier told Merlin and Jiro, Taro looked at him and said with a confident smile, "Three trucks from Praskovia Clothing Exports are scheduled to arrive at four o'clock tomorrow afternoon to deliver seventy-eight crates of Alexandrian garments for loading into our cargo bay." The raccoon's eyes grew wide, but she continued before he could say anything. "We are going to deliver them to the Handgjorda Kläder Warehouse in Toreboda on Kantus in three weeks, and I have already made arrangements for a launch window with the Alexandrius Defense Authority."

Excited comments and conversations started up immediately, but Merlin rapped his knuckles on the control terminal behind him. "Listen up, you yahoos!" he said over the noise. "She's not finished yet!"

When all eyes were upon her again, Taro continued with a smile. "After we get to Kantus and offload our cargo, the captain has agreed to grant everyone three days of shore leave to let us see the local sights and get some fresh air, but then we will load up food goods and general supplies for delivery to the fishing colonies of Crescentis."

"You've already got another customer?" Durant asked with a surprised expression.

"That's right," Taro answered. "I can give you details if you want them, but I also have two more clients awaiting scheduling for freight transfer in sequence."

"That's four!" Connie exclaimed.

Jerad jumped to his feet and ran up to her. "I don't really know you yet, but I like you already!" he said, shaking her hand vigorously. Following his lead, Connie got to her feet and approached the red fox, with Durant close behind.

Jasper stood up along with everyone else, but it was the captain he approached while the others greeted the vixen. "Well, Captain, I take back what I said earlier," he stated with sincerity. "You kept up your end of the deal and found a way to make the business work. Congratulations."

Merlin nodded. "Thanks, Jasper. I never had any desire to cancel your contracts without finding some way to get us going first. I want this job as much as you do."

The raccoon nodded in acknowledgement. "I don't doubt it, now," he replied. "You can depend upon me and Jerad to keep the ship running. However, now that we're a part of your crew and you have work for us, I have something I can tell you."

"What's that?"

Jasper looked around to make sure no one was close enough to hear. He motioned for the wolf to lean down so he could whisper in his ear, so Merlin pulled up a chair and moved in closer.

"Poppy had us remove the computer core from the Elihu Frisbie and install it in the Wiley Post, since it was the ship in better shape and would be easier to sell," he admitted.

The captain nodded. "I'm not surprised, but we thought perhaps it was the former crew of this ship that did it out of spite for getting laid off."

Jasper shook his head. "The former crew of this ship did trash its cabins, but a potential customer wanted the Wiley Post, if only we replaced the computer system. A nasty virus destroyed the Post's original system, causing the circuits to feed back upon themselves and burn out eighty percent of them. We were just finishing the installation when you and Jiro came by the first time, so we were naturally wary of your intentions."

"Why put an antiquated unit into the Frisbie?" Merlin asked quietly. "It worked well enough to move the ship off the lot, but it wouldn't have handled a fully working vessel."

Jasper nodded his chin. "Poppy made us take the computer core out of the old Prairie Dog freighter on the back of the lot we'd been sleeping in," he explained. "It wasn't designed for an Okami freighter, but would work well enough to sell the Frisbie to get it off the lot."

Merlin sat back. "I might need to pay Poppy another visit before we leave," he said, cracking his knuckles for effect.

The raccoon gave him a crooked smile. "Forget it," he told him. "Read the fine print of the sales contract for a clause that he made sure was in there. You bought the vessel as-is, and with your signature, you agreed that the condition of every system and appearance met your approval prior to signing." At Merlin's dark scowl, Jasper put a hand on the wolf's arm. "Just be glad you had the systems replaced yourself," he said. "Sam told us that you used your investments to purchase a factory new system and had it professionally installed. While Jerad and I are experienced with Okami freighters, replacing an entire computer system down to its core was something we've never done before. The guy who wanted the Wiley Post better hope that we knew what we were doing, but he's the one who demanded the exchange."

Merlin sat back and digested this information. He still had a lot to learn about running his own business, and if Samantha hadn't recognized how bad the condition of the computer structure was, they might have launched out into space and found themselves in extreme danger. For a system that controlled everything on a space-faring vessel, anything from an incorrect oxygen mix, faulty alignment of the astrogation sensors, to invalidated reentry shields could have spelled disaster.

He began to see that he had been ill-prepared for a business out in the hostile void, and was suddenly very thankful for the skills and strengths of every person he had hired for his crew. Working together as a team, this just might work.

The wolf finally nodded toward the raccoon. "Thank you for being honest with me, Jasper," he said with sincerity. The engineer gave him a rare smile, but before he could answer, he looked up. Merlin felt a pair of hands on his shoulders and he glanced up behind him into the brown eyes of Samantha.

"Is our staff meeting over?" she asked, gently kneading his shoulders.

"No, not yet," the wolf replied, getting to his feet. He gave a brief nod toward the raccoon, and then walked back to the front of the room, where the rest of the crew seemed to have congregated to thank and chat with the new employee.

Merlin clapped his hands together twice loudly to get their attention. "Okay, folks, we're not done yet, so please take your seats."  Taro looked over at him with a question, but he read it correctly and shook his head. He was finished with her introduction, so he gestured for her to sit as well.

Once everyone had returned to their chairs, recliners or the couches, the wolf wrung his hands together with a pleasant smile. "We are all thankful that Taro has joined us," he said, "and that makes our crew complete. The Blue Horizon is in great shape, thanks to everyone's help, and we are fully stocked with food, oxygen, supplies, tools and personal effects. We will be loading up our first cargo tomorrow afternoon and then we will be on our way.  If you have any last-minute preparation or shopping to do, I would suggest you take care of it in the morning, as it will be another three weeks before we make our destination on Kantus."

"I hope we have plenty of toilet paper!" Jerad said with a snicker.

Merlin grinned, thankful that this meeting was far more cheerful than the last. "I hope so too," he agreed. "After we are finished here, you will be free to scatter to do what you need to do tonight or in the morning to take care of any last needs.  During all loading and off-loading of cargo, Durant will be the lead in operations, so we need you all here no later than an hour before the delivery trucks arrive so he can instruct everyone on how things will go.

"Loading the cargo for flight requires that the weight be distributed evenly in the hold, so it can't be simply stacked at random. The sensors in the floor of that deck will aid in that distribution, but Durant will be the one to direct where it all goes. Now, most of the spaceports we will visit will have rental equipment such as forklifts and power loaders, but we have a high-capacity crane built into the top of the cargo bay, as well as our own dollies and flatbeds in the storage lockers, in addition to straps, chains and other tie-downs. We seem to have a wide variety of body shapes and sizes, so there will be some who can handle certain containers better than others, but I want everyone to work together to make sure we get everything loaded safely. If something is too heavy, get someone else to help you with it, and then if it exceeds your combined strengths, use the available equipment."

He leaned back against the console behind him and absently toyed with one of the buttons of his light blue shirt. "Over the past few days, I have had a chance to meet and talk with most of you. We will all be in close proximity to one another for weeks at a time, so I need to stress the importance of trying to get along with one another as well as possible. Get to know one another. If someone irritates you or makes you mad, I suggest you try to resolve it between yourselves before you come running to me. If it comes to my attention and the strife disrupts our operations, I will step in and resolve it for you – and I make no guarantees that my resolution will be in the best personal interest of either party involved.

"As some of you know, I spent some time in the Dennieran military and our first officer is also a military veteran of the Mainoran forces. Nevertheless, the Blue Horizon is not a military vessel, so I'm not going to impose a lot of strict rules upon you all.  However, I am your captain, so if I tell you to do something, I expect it to be done without argument." He put his hands into his pockets and gave them a light smile to take the edge off his last statement.

"It appears we have a good group here, so I don't anticipate having to pull rank very often. I plan for this to be a relaxed atmosphere, so while we're en route between stops, you're welcome to pursue any interests by yourself or with others that you wish to do, so long as it does not interrupt the business or endanger anyone. What we have here is a business, and the end result will always be to bring in credits. If anyone does something that will jeopardize that purpose, we will have a problem, both personally and professionally, and it will be dealt with accordingly.

"I plan to maintain an open-door policy for anyone who needs to speak with me, for any purpose or topic, open or confidential. As second in command, Jiro will be at your disposal for the same policy. If you don't want to go to the captain with your problems, he's here to help you as well. Neither of us are magicians or professional counselors, but we will make a personal effort to work with you to resolve any problems before they get out of hand."

The wolf stood up straight and then arched his back in a stretch that was accompanied by a few chuckles from the crew. "Your one-year contracts state that you are to be paid per voyage upon arrival of said voyages," he said with a smile, "but I have arranged for Durant to transfer a starter fee into each of your company accounts so that you may pick up last-minute needs before we go. You are now free until 1500 hours tomorrow, but you will need to see Durant before you scatter. He has credicards to issue to each of you that you will use to access your accounts. Each time you are paid, he will hand out pay vouchers before you head out on each shore leave so you will have a record of the transactions. Okay, that's all I have. Any questions for now?"  There were no takers, so he gave them a casual wave of his hand. "You're free to go. See you tomorrow at 1500." 

* * * 

The newest crew member of the Blue Horizon was arranging her new garments in the closet of her cabin when the intercom chirped from a panel on the desk. She moved to the terminal and tapped the Answer control.

"This is Taro," she said.

"Hi, it's Merlin. Do you have a moment to come to the bridge?"

"I will be right there."

Morning sunlight streamed in through the vidscreen windows of the Blue Horizon's command center, with spaceport activity in full operation without. Merlin was dressed in navy blue pants, black jackboots, a thin beige shirt and a brown flight jacket. He stood beside the communications console and looked up at her when she entered.

"Good morning," he said.

"G'morning, Merlin. What's up?"

"After my morning coffee, I always come up to the bridge to check for messages. There was one waiting that was addressed to me, but it concerns you. It's from your former captain."

The vixen raised an eyebrow and then brushed a few stray hairs from her tan blouse. "What did she have to say?" she asked cautiously. In response, the lupine captain tapped a button on the console.

"To the captain of the Blue Horizon," said Vanessa's casual voice from an overhead speaker. "I am Captain Mariposa of the SS Giggling Ghost, the purple freighter currently parked next to yours. As the commander of a space freighter, I'm sure you are aware that personalities sometimes clash and tempers flare. Such was the case yesterday in a disagreement with one of my crewmates. I admit that I can sometimes be hot-headed, and I wish to offer an apology to Taro Nichols for my actions yesterday, as well as extend them to you for being caught in the middle of our argument.  Please let Taro know that I have had second thoughts concerning her departure, and that if she will agree to come back to the Ghost, she will be reinstated with a substantial raise that will effectively pay her twice what she was getting before.  I have a new contract written up and I eagerly await her return.  I appreciate your time, Captain, and thank you in advance for relaying my message to her."

The recording ended and then Merlin looked over at her in concern. "Taro," he said in a quiet voice. "You are currently contracted to me now, but if you wish to return to your old crew at a salary greater than what I can pay, I will nullify the contract for you in appreciation for setting us up with our first four clients. I think once we're on our way and established in the business, I can—"

Merlin's words were interrupted by sudden laughter. Taro laughed aloud and shook her head with a wide grin. "She's finally discovered that there are no records of our past clients within the databanks of the Ghost's computer," she said in apparent glee. She reached out and put a hand on the wolf's arm. "Merlin, I'm not going anywhere but where the Blue Horizon takes me," she assured him. "Vanessa is not that forgiving to take me back simply because she had second thoughts.  She only wants my clientele list of contacts, and I am sure that she would make up some excuse to fire me again just as soon as we reached our first destination. The doubled-pay would only last for one voyage, and I'm sure she thinks it would be worth that just to get the list back."

A smile began to spread across the wolf's features, but then a spark of doubt returned it to a frown. "Did you purposely keep that information from your captain?" he asked.

Taro's smile never faltered. "Not purposely, no," she answered. "With as many outages we experienced on a regular basis, I decided it was better to have it all on my old slateboard, which was infinitely more reliable. That slateboard and I have been together for quite a while, but it was still on board the Ghost when she fired me. It was someone from that crew who tossed it out on the tarmac with the rest of my things, and as far as I'm concerned, they gave the slateboard back to me to do with as I wished."

"You aren't going to accept her offer?" the captain asked tentatively.

"No. I am not. You gave me a better offer, and I willingly signed my contract."  She moved closer to the wolf and slipped her arms around his neck, putting her nose up next to his. "I don't normally get chummy with those in authority over me," she said in a whisper, "but if you need further convincing, I'm sure I can think of other ways to thank you for hiring me."

Merlin swallowed, but otherwise remained perfectly still, acutely aware of the points of contact between their bodies. She simply smiled into his amber eyes for a long moment, allowing him the time to reply. The vixen was no stranger to the effect her curves had on the opposite sex, and she had often used that to her advantage, but she would never force herself on anyone.

It felt like an eternity before the wolf's brain could formulate a response, and when he did speak aloud, his throat was dry.  "Taro… uhm, I think I'm con… convinced of your appreciation. You… uhm, you're welcome."

Taro chuckled at his discomfort, but granted him mercy. She gave his cheek a brief nuzzle and then pulled away from him. "Thank you," she said, moving to the pilot's station and sitting down. "I will return Vanessa's call in a moment, but it's best if I'm alone when I speak with her."  It was Merlin's turn to raise an eyebrow at her, so she answered his unspoken question. 

"Vanessa Mariposa has a short fuse and an awful temper. She holds long grudges, and I am certain she will swear to get even, so it's probably best you know that if we run into her again, she will be vindictive for taking me and her customers away from her.  She won't be a friendly competitor."

Merlin mused on this a moment and then gave the fox a nod. "If it comes to that," he said, "then I'm glad I have someone in my crew who knows her strengths and weaknesses. I am quickly learning that the business I dreamed of having is going to temper me in ways I never thought of. I would prefer not to have an enemy before we even launch with our first job, but if it comes to competition, I'll give it to her."

NEXT CHAPTER

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