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— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 19
Thrust into the Path



"Alexandrius Defense Authority Control has cleared us for launch in three minutes marked," Taro announced. "Durant has also confirmed that the ramps are retracted, the hatches are sealed and the ship is pressurizing."  Since the Blue Horizon didn't have a dedicated communications officer, Merlin had asked her to cover the launch since she already had a rapport with the ADA control tower.

"Right," Merlin murmured. The original plan had been for him to pilot the ship with Jiro as his navigator, but due to the limited movement of his stiff shoulder, the two of them had switched places; the captain was seated at the engineering station, exchanging monosyllabic checklist points with the cougar who sat in the pilot seat at the center of the small room. The ship was ready for launch, but they wanted to make sure that nothing was forgotten at this very important stage.

Taro switched on the ship-wide intercom and spoke into a headset microphone she wore. "Attention all hands," she broadcast. "We are go for launch in two minutes, forty seconds. If you are not strapped into a harness, this is the time to get into one. All compartments are equipped with them. If you look to the left of your desk in the cabins, you will see a panel in the wall that pulls out into a small seat. It is equipped with a harness for launches, landings and emergencies. I suggest you strap yourself in now."

The vixen switched off the connection, but instead of stowing the headset into a clip on the side of the console, she left it wrapped around the back of her head to monitor incoming signals. She checked her own harness, and satisfied that it was secure, she glanced over at the two males. Both of them were in theirs as well and the latches looked solid.

"Okay, mate, that's the whole checklist," Jiro said finally. Merlin simply nodded his acknowledgement and double-checked the readings of the engineering station beside him. There was a subtle vibration in the deck plates with the ship's engine reserves building up to full power. There was a full minute until launch, so Jiro mentally matched the seconds as he watched the chronometer on his console. Just before the numbers quietly dropped to zero, Taro gave an acknowledgement to something from her headset.

"ADA has cleared us for launch," she reported.

A green light glowed brightly on his panel and the cougar moved his hands smoothly over the controls. He grasped a pair of inverted, L-shaped guidance shifts firmly and then depressed a thumb switch on the right-hand grip.

"Full power to the launch thrusters," he reported.  There was the briefest hesitation, and then the blue saucer-shaped freighter jumped off the landing pad it had occupied for weeks, rising straight up. The sudden increase in gravity pushed them all into their padded seats and Taro's battered slateboard fell to the floor with a clatter.

"Zee plus thirty-five hundred meters," Merlin directed, changing a setting on the navigator's console to his left.

The Blue Horizon rose vertically, going higher and higher, the spaceport shrinking quickly as wispy clouds passed harmlessly by the forward windows. Then when the ship reached an altitude of two miles, the cougar angled the nose up and engaged the main atmospheric engines to slice through the night sky. The inertia dampers compensated automatically for the ship's increasing velocity and the ride was smooth, though they could hear the roar of heated atmosphere against the hull shields.

Jiro glanced over at the Com station and smiled at Taro. When he looked forward at Merlin, the wolf's eyes were glued to a small crescent moon in the dark sky above them. Jiro looked back down at his console and watched an indicator marking their elevation; within moments, the freighter was fast approaching orbital altitude.

A small green dot lit up on the engineering console beside Merlin, and the captain's eyes moved to it automatically. "The ship's artificial gravity deck plates just went active," he reported.

"Thirty seconds to orbital insertion," Jiro responded. "We'll do one-point-five revolutions until breakaway to begin our heading to the Anya Star System." He hesitated a moment and then looked up from his readouts with a frown. "I just realized that our planned route will take us through the Van Conner nebula. Pirates are known to hang out there; do you think we should calculate a route around it?" he asked. "No need to tempt fate on our first journey out."

"Good idea," Merlin replied. "I'll calculate a new trajectory."

"We're now at orbital altitude," Jiro said, altering his controls to level off.

"ADA Control, this is the SS Blue Horizon," Taro reported in monotone into her small boom microphone. "Orbital altitude successfully attained."

"Acknowledged, Blue Horizon," came a reply in her headset. "You are scheduled to be tracked for one and one-half orbits, and then you are cleared for trajectory to Kantus. Your prograde orbital vicinity is currently shared with three vessels, two outgoing freighters, the SS Guarana and the SS Sandburr, and one inbound science cruiser, the SS Steven Squyres. Stay on your present course, good luck and Godspeed."

"Thank you, ADA Control. Blue Horizon, out."  Taro readjusted her tail in the slotted opening in the back of her chair and then sat back.  "Well, guys," she said, "we're on our way!"

The feline pilot looked over at her with a grin. "Finally!" he breathed at last.

"New course transferred to your console," Merlin announced, lifting his good arm into a stretch. He may not have the navigating skills of his partner, but he had flown enough single-operator ships during his time in the Dennieran military to know what he was doing for such a simple task.

"Thank —" The words caught in Jiro's throat when the deck plates gave a shutter and the stars ahead shifted suddenly to starboard. Disoriented for a moment, the cougar scrambled to check his settings. Everything appeared to be in order, but they were suddenly off course — and going there fast.

"Merlin!" he exclaimed.

"I'm on it!" replied the wolf, looking down at the engineering panel.

Jiro struggled with the controls to correct their heading while the lupine captain worked out the problem. Unfortunately, the ship continued to demand that they go toward the port.

"A starboard thruster is firing, throwing us off course!" Merlin called at last.

"I did not initialize the maneuvering thrusters!" Jiro replied in alarm.

"Get Jasper on the line!" Merlin directed Taro. "Quickly!"

The vixen put the signal on the overhead speakers. "Engine room," said a voice with a distinct country accent. At the same time, Taro received an incoming call over her headset, so she covered one ear against the intercom while she listened to her headset.

"Jasper!" the captain said quickly. "We have an errant thruster firing on the starboard side. It's throwing us off course!"

"Captain!" Taro said over the conversation. "ADA Control is demanding to know why we've altered course! We're heading right for the Steven Squyres!"

Merlin looked out through the forward windows and swallowed hard.  They were bearing down on the running lights of an extremely large vessel.




Down in the engine room, Jasper scrambled to free himself from his launch harness; the voices over the intercom continued as the bridge crew tried to correct their course. The clasp was sticky and in need of lubricant, but finally released under the raccoon's small fingers. Just as he jumped off the seat, the thrusters fired again in several short bursts and the deck shifted beneath him. The engineer stumbled over his feet, and in losing his balance, he fell hard into the door of a tool locker. He let out a squeak of pain and slid to the floor.

"Jasper!" his twin exclaimed from another seat.

Dazed, the chief engineer shook his head to show he was okay, but clutched his left hand to his chest. In quiet determination, he got to his feet and stumbled against another thruster burn toward a nearby control panel. Long experienced with the layout of those controls, he reached out for a set of toggles and flipped three of them without reading their labels.




On the bridge, the guidance shifts ceased struggling beneath Jiro's hands and he suddenly had control again. However, due to the combined speeds of the two vessels hurling toward one another, he had little time to alter course to prevent collision.

"I've shut off power to the bad thruster!" Jasper's voice announced.

In orbit over the dark side of the planet, the Steven Squyres was visible only as a large number of running lights through the forward window, but all three on the bridge could see eerie dark details of the ship's structure as the Blue Horizon careened in closer. Jiro fought the controls and brought the leading edge of the freighter up just enough that the flying saucer fairly skimmed away from the upper surface of the science vessel. Neither ship connected, but there couldn't have been more than a few meters between their hulls when they passed in the night.

Taro suddenly pulled the headset from her ears and held it out at arm's length as the captain of the Steven Squyres filled the transmission waves with curses fluent in several languages throughout the Planetary Alignment.

Merlin blinked several times at the verbal onslaught that even he could hear. With carful deliberations, Jiro eased the freighter back to its original flight plan. When the tirade ended, Taro gave a brief explanation and apology to the captain of the Squyres, and then switched quickly back to the controller at the Alexandrius Defense Authority to do damage control with them as well.

"Can you do without me for a bit?" Merlin asked the cougar. "I'll go down to the Engine room to check on things there."

"Are the new coordinates set in the astrogation flight computer?"

"Already transferred to your panel."

"We'll be fine up here, so long as we don't get thrust into the path of another incoming ship!"

"I should be back before we've finished our orbit." 

"Have a nice trip," Jiro replied. Merlin gave him a nod and then the wolf was out the door.

Taro let out a sigh and leaned back into her seat once more, laying a palm flat against her sternum. "Merlin will have to write this down somewhere," she told the feline. "The first launch of his first command began with heart-thumping action…"


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