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by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 18
Portrait of Nine



Fifteen hundred hours. Not a single crew member of the Blue Horizon was late. All they had worked for and worried about now came down to this time. Merlin stood with the rest of his mates, his favorite pair of work gloves clutched idly in his hands while they all listened to Durant's instructions.

The grizzly was dressed in all dark green, apparently his favorite color, but he was oblivious to anything but the oversized slateboard in his hands.  He explained that the first three meters of the deck flooring inside the massive airlock was equipped with sensitive yet sturdy sensors to display the weight of each crate brought on board the vessel. With each container weighed, Durant would direct where it was to be placed within the Hold for proper distribution.

With new knowledge of the weight sensors under that part of the deck, all the females in the crew quickly moved away from the area. Weighing the cargo was one thing, but peeking at a woman's weight was not acceptable!

Just about the time everyone understood what was to be expected of each and every one of them, a large delivery truck rounded the corner of the terminal building and came toward the blue freighter. Praskovia Clothing Exports was painted in large red letters in Standard beneath a stylized logo of crossed needles over a thimble. The driver pulled the vehicle past the marked lines on the tarmac and slowed to a stop near the loading ramp. Durant hurried out to meet the truck while everyone else waited in anticipation.

"Is this the Blue Horizon?" asked the driver of the vehicle, a shaggy canine of indeterminate breed. He brushed long white fur from his eyes to peer out his window at the grizzly.

"Yes sir, it is," answered Durant. "We've been expecting you, but I thought there were supposed to be three trucks."

"Actually, it took four trucks to get everything," the canine replied with a toothy grin. "The others are still back at the guard shack getting inspected per regulations. I'm just the first one through!"

"Very good," Durant said with a nod. If you'll back up to the ramp, we can go over the manifest together while we begin unloading your truck."

"Will do!"

By the time the vehicle was turned around, backed into place and lowered to ground level on thick pylons, the second truck arrived. Durant signed for the delivery and began giving instructions to the crew as the first driver directed the second in backing up his vehicle beside the first.

Although the work was work, everyone maintained a jovial attitude throughout the exercise. Once during an approved rest break, Taro noticed that the personnel of the Giggling Ghost were watching the proceedings from the interior of their own cargo bay; she could practically feel the waves of animosity from them.

By the time that all four trucks were empty and the last of them departed, two and a half hours had passed. Durant continued to direct and help everyone secure plasteel webbing over the mountain of cargo to large rings mounted in the floor. At just a little over three hours, the Blue Horizon was loaded, the cargo was secure and the bay door was sealed.

Inside the Hold, everyone rested against the cargo, exhaustion from the unfamiliar physical toil evident upon them all. After he had given everyone a respite, Merlin cleared his throat to get their attention.

"Well done, everyone. Well done," he told them. "I'm sure we'll all sleep well tonight after we've launched and are on our way." He checked his techwatch, noting the time.  "Since we were unsure how long this would take us, Taro gave us plenty of time and arranged a launch window with room to breathe. It's now nineteen-thirty hours. We still have an hour and a half before our twenty-one hundred departure, but there's something I want to do during that time."

"What now?" grumbled a tired Jasper. He didn't think he had the energy to even light up one of his cigars right now.

Merlin gave him a weary smile of his own. "I want everyone to go get cleaned up and then meet out under the nose of the ship in one hour for a group photo of the crew."

"One hour!" both Connie and Ivy wailed in unison.

"One hour," the wolf repeated.

"That's not enough time to shower, get dressed, and do my hair and makeup for a portrait!" Connie complained.

"Nevertheless, I want everyone outside in one hour. Mr. Koihan has agreed to set up lights and take our picture before we launch. It won't take but a few minutes to do, and then the bridge crew will need to start a pre-launch checklist while the ship is sealed and pressurized."

"We should have done the picture this morning," Samantha stated with a frown, no less distressed by the short amount of time to get ready.

"Agreed," Merlin replied, "but Mr. Koihan wasn't available this morning.  "Listen, folks this portrait isn't going to be published anywhere. It's merely to commemorate our maiden flight together and the only copies of the picture will be in our hands. You don't have to be perfectly groomed and wearing your best garments. We're all tired right after loading the ship, so all you have to do is freshen up a bit for a quick photo."

"Aw, daddy, do I hafta?" Jiro quipped in a sing-song voice.

Merlin sighed loudly and put his hands on his hips. "Yes, and that means everyone! Now, scoot!"

The tired bunch got to their feet, a few grumbling beneath their breath. Despite a stiff shoulder still healing from its earlier assault, Merlin had helped moved as much of the cargo as he had been able to and was just a weary as the rest of them. However, even if no one else wanted a copy of the portrait, he wanted one. As captain of the vessel about to start on its first voyage with this crew, he felt no guilt at forcing his employees into this one event.




Mr. Koihan studied the display of the camera and then looked up over it toward the crowd beneath three lights he had erected near the nose of the freighter. The black bear motioned toward Connie and gestured that the human woman should scoot in closer to the rest of the group.

Merlin and Samantha stood side-by side on the opposite end. The wolf wanted this to be a portrait to commemorate the maiden flight of his business, ship and crew, so he struck a stance with crossed arms, trying to look the part of a serious captain. He wore a brown flight jacket over a light blue shirt and darker blue pants tucked into black jackboots; the Border collie was in a tan jacket adorned with fringe, a white blouse and pants the color of dark chocolate. She whispered something to him in a deliberate attempt to make him smile, but he held his pose despite her effort. Beside them, Jiro stood bare-chested as always, wearing only jeans and a pair of sandals. Standing just behind him with one hand upon his shoulder was the taller vixen. Now refreshed, Taro looked relaxed in a long lavender shirt that complimented the red of her fur and hung to her knees. Her pant legs were rolled up above her shoes, giving her the appearance of someone in the midst of spring cleaning. In the middle and standing behind everyone was Durant, the largest and tallest of the group. He wore a stylistic lapel pin on one end of the collar of his dark green polo shirt, and had on brown pants and black shoes.

Jerad walked in from the side with a cushioned stool and placed it on the ground in front of the grizzly bear. Ivy thanked him with a touch on the back of a hand after he helped her sit upon it. The lynx smoothed the wrinkles out of her pale yellow dress and then straightened her kitchen apron so that the cartoon face of a smiling kitty was draped over her knees. Jerad had considered wearing a bright, flowery shirt over denim shorts, but he would have had to wash the shirt first, so he was in his typical green work coveralls festooned with pockets. Not wanting to just stand there looking wooden, the mechanic held a rather large wrench across his hands as a prop. Between him and Connie, Jasper pulled a cigar from the chest pocket of his own patched coveralls and lit it up to a satisfied smile. 

Noting that everyone was visible through the camera lens, Mr. Koihan held up one hand above his head.  "Okay, folks," he said in a loud voice. "Focus on my fingers and then all together, I want everyone to say 'cheese' with a big smile on your faces!"

Amazingly, everyone complied at once, and in unison, their mingled voices called out, "Cheeeeeese!"


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