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— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 23
Bridge Watch



When Merlin walked onto the bridge, he felt a noticeable temperature drop. Although the corridor was tolerable with the trilinax radiator, the ship's command center didn't benefit from the heat. Despite his thicker coat, the wolf shivered and realized just how insulated the bridge was from the rest of the deck. With the doors closed, three large glassteel windows taking up the forward wall and no active heater, the climate of the compartment was near freezing.

The lupine commander buttoned up his flight jacket and looked around. Save for the lights from active instruments, the room was dark. He tapped a wall control to bring the illumination up to half and then stuck his hands into the pockets of his jacket.

It had been three days since he had last visited the bridge. With the vessel on autopilot and no stops en route to Kantus, he'd seen no need to spend any more time than necessary in the compartment with the climate out of balance.

He glanced around, idly checking the readouts on all the consoles, but when he reached the communications station, he tilted his head at a flashing amber dot. He tapped a couple of commands and then listened to the first of five messages that had been recorded in the absence of a live communication officer.

The first was a call from Merlin's sister on Dennier. Shannon Wallace lived just outside the capitol city of Grandstorm with her husband Bill, a financial advisor for a prominent investment concern. Shannon's message had a twofold purpose; the first of which was to congratulate her sibling on the success in starting up his own business. She had a special gift to send him, but needed to know where to ship it so that it would meet up with him at one of his planned delivery destinations.

The second reason was to inquire if he had any news on the whereabouts of their other brother, Lucas. The younger sibling had abandoned his scholarship in Advanced Applied Computer Sciences to go traveling the Planetary Alignment. Contracted into the Dennieran military, Merlin had been unable to go after Lucas to talk some sense into this irresponsible decision, but now that he was free to travel under his own business, Shannon wished to press upon Merlin the need to keep an eye out for their brother.

The second message was a follow-up to the first. Having received no response to her first message, she had called again to check in on him. Merlin frowned, sorry that he had missed out on talking with his sister. Ever since they'd lost their parents to a violent storm many years ago, the eldest Shannon had taken it upon herself to look after her two brothers, even after they were taken in by their grandparents; she and Merlin had always been close.

As the third message began, the captain sat down in the chair at the com station, sliding his tail through the seat's slotted back. At first, he listened with a smile of wonder upon his features as the caller told of a great need for the services of Blue Horizon Freight, which had come recommended through a business associate. A full cargo of specialized industrial mining equipment was needed on the world of Quet, which had suffered a major environmental disaster three years earlier. As there were very few vessels that serviced Quet, Sydney Micranite Inc. had authorized payment for delivery of the equipment from Ganis to be double their regular fee and sent in advance.

Merlin swallowed, daring to believe that such an offer would be dropped into their laps. Was this virtual goldmine a result of Taro's connections? It had to be, as the fledgling business was barely into its maiden voyage. The call ended with a request for discussion of the contract. The wolf checked the timestamp of the message and discovered that it had been received three days ago, practically an hour after his last visit to the bridge.

The fourth message was from the same business representative a day later, referencing the first message and wondering why there had been no response to their generous offer.  Merlin frowned, feeling a shiver course down his spine that hadn't anything to do with the chilly temperature of the compartment. The fifth and final message was time-stamped only two hours ago and was less than cordial. The previous business proposal had been summarily withdrawn since there appeared to be no interest by the captain of the Blue Horizon, without an explanation, apology or even acknowledgement of the offer. It was further advised that the freighting company make no further attempts to bid on deliveries for them, as the Blue Horizon had been written off as a viable method of delivery.

Merlin was stunned. Without even knowing about it, he had lost a double-paying job and had made a professional enemy. As a new company, word-of-mouth on this kind of thing could ruin them before they'd barely gotten their feet wet in the career field. Merlin could blame no one but himself for the loss.

Despite the vehemence of the ending of the message, he knew he would have to do damage control. He sincerely hoped that Taro would be able to assist him in the endeavor. She had many contacts throughout the Planetary Alignment, and if one of them placed a black mark upon a ship that she had recommended, it could tarnish her business associations as well.

With a sigh and a heavy heart, the wolf got up from the seat and headed for the door. He could no longer feel the near-freezing cold of the compartment; the heat of his anger was more than enough to keep him from shivering.

However, the gray wolf hesitated when he opened the door to step out into the warmer corridor. He had lost a well-paying customer due to an unmanned bridge. Did he want to leave it unattended again? He might miss another call.

Merlin furrowed his brow, knowing what he had to do. In preparation for a new thought growing in his mind, the captain didn't shut the door to the bridge, but rather stopped it open to allow the radiator heat to add its warmth to that compartment as well. There was now a need to grant the bridge a workable climate.




"Okay everyone, listen up!" said the lupine commander of the Blue Horizon. Eight pair of eyes looked up at the captain sitting at the head of the galley table. The remnants of the evening meal were scattered on plates and platters, and light conversation had been in full swing. Due to the radiator and the cook stove of the galley, the room was pleasantly warm. The corridor outside the compartment where everyone had been sleeping for the past few nights was cooler and still required extra layers of clothing to be comfortable, though no longer freezing.

Satisfied that he held everyone's attention, Merlin picked up a clipboard from a corner of the table. Portable slateboard tablets were more efficient than paper, but there were still times when a hardcopy was preferred.

"Now that we've finished eating and everyone seems to be content," the wolf said to his audience, "I have a couple of business matters to bring up." He glanced quickly at the others and then continued. "Although the climate conditions on this deck are tolerable, the temperatures up on the recreation deck have dropped to the freezing mark. Sparky, Samantha and Connie bravely removed all liquids from the kitchenette a couple days ago, so there should be no further reason to go up there for now. I know it can get boring just sitting in here or out in the corridor with a book, magazine or slateboard, but unless you want to bundle up and watch a movie on the upper deck through fogged breath, I would recommend staying down here.

"Likewise with the cargo deck, although no one but Durant, Patch and Pockets need go down there anyway. I want to express my appreciation to both of our engineers for descending into the coldest compartment on board to periodically to check on the systems, and also to Sparky for keeping us all fed."  

Ivy held up a tentative hand and Merlin nodded toward her. "Yes?"

"Captain, just a quick report…" she said, brushing a few bread crumbs from the front of the colorful Japanese yukata she wore.  "This is our first voyage in the Horizon together, so we've not yet set any patterns for what I would call a regular routine, but if I can estimate, I would say that we are going through our food stock more quickly than what might be considered normal for a flight across the Planetary Alignment."

"When people are forced to sit inactive for long periods of time, as we have all been doing," Connie said, "extra eating has always been a side effect of boredom."

"Since we're only halfway to Kantus, we might want to start rationing our food supply," Jiro suggested. The usually bare-chested navigator was warm in the winter coat he had been issued from the cargo, but he absently scratched at his fur beneath the garment. "It's bad enough dealing with the cold; I really don't want to worry about constant hunger before we get there either."

Merlin looked over at the feline cook. "How low are we on food?" he asked her.

"I purposely overstocked the pantry in anticipation of midnight munchers," she answered with a smile, "so only that overage has been depleted so far. I think that if we stick to regular meals and cut out the in-between snacking, we shouldn't have to worry about going hungry."

"That's not going to be easy," Durant piped up, looking embarrassed. "With my body constantly telling me that I should be hibernating, I have needed to eat more times a day than normal for me just to maintain my strength. I hate to confess, but I'm Sparky's midnight muncher."

There were a few chuckles around the group, but Jerad held up a small hand and admitted that he'd been pilfering the pantry himself. "As Connie said, it's more of a boredom reflex.  Need something to do to occupy your time? Eat!"

"Due to the necessity of maintaining a normal meal schedule," Merlin told them, "we will all need to curb our snacking instincts. I confess that I've raided the galley in between meals a time or three, myself. We'll just have to deal with our boredom in other ways."

Jasper reached into a pocket and pulled out a deck of cards. "Jerad and I would welcome anyone else willing to join us in poker or any number of other card games," he offered.

"Are you playing for credits, Patch, or nuts and bolts?" Samantha asked with a grin.

Jasper narrowed his eyes and gave her a calculated smile. "Credits will make the game more interesting," he said, "but I figure we'll need a few more paid voyages under our belts before any of us have enough to make it interesting enough. We may have to use coffee beans for now."

"I will take this as a financial cue for the next item of interest I had intended to discuss with you all," Merlin said suddenly. All eyes went to the captain, who seemed to fidget before them, the financial reference waving a flag in their minds. The wolf collected his thoughts for a moment before continuing.

"Earlier this watch," he said, "I went onto the bridge to do a routine check of the systems. Due to the cold, I have not visited that compartment in days, much as we have all tried to avoid our own cold cabins. When I checked the com station, I discovered that we'd received several messages from a prospective client, each spaced a day apart. Let me read you a transcript of each one in turn."

Merlin focused on the pages attached to his clipboard and read them verbatim. The first message generated excitement amongst the crew, but when he got to the second, the frowns began to appear. After he read the final message aloud to them, there were expressions of shock, disbelief and anger spread out between them.

When the captain set the clipboard back onto the table before him, he looked around at the faces of his crew. Samantha, Durant and Taro were still looking at him directly, but the others were downcast, brooding in their own thoughts.

In the sudden quiet of the room, Merlin again cleared his voice and then said, "The fault is mine, folks, and no one else's. I should have been checking my bridge more often than I had.  This is a mistake that I do not foresee being repeated, because I am now going to set a new policy for our business. From now on, while the Blue Horizon is in flight between one world and another, the bridge will be manned at all times."

"Huh?" Jasper asked with a twitch of one ear.

Merlin picked up the clipboard and held it up as a prop. "We have a crew of nine individuals and I have made up a roster for a new bridge watch. If we each take a five-hour shift on the bridge to monitor the systems and be on the alert for any incoming messages, each person will only have to pull that duty around once every two days."

"What are we supposed to do during those five hours?" Jiro asked with a grumble. "Just sit and stare at the dials?" He was Merlin's first officer, but this was the first he'd heard of this plan.

Merlin dropped the clipboard to his lap. "Take something to do," he answered. "Take a book, a magazine, your knitting or whatever hobby items you may have to help you pass the time."

"That sounds awfully boring," Connie muttered.

The captain curled up his lip. "I would have thought you folks would be more creative in finding things to keep yourselves occupied just sitting in here or out in the corridor for the past few days. We're all dealing with boredom right now, and none of us have the luxury of spending any more time than necessary in our own cabins. It's quite possible that we will be fighting this cold all the way to Kantus, which means we're going to be bored no matter if we are sitting around here in the galley, the corridor or on the bridge."

Jerad folded his arms on the tabletop beside his plate and put his chin upon them, though keeping his eyes on the lupine captain.

"Listen to me," Merlin continued. "We just lost a well-paying job due to the bridge being unmanned, and I'm afraid that word-of-mouth of the incident might hurt our chances with other potential clients, whereas taking that job would have done the same for us on the good side. We can't risk losing another job just because no one is available to take the call live."

"What if you just checked the calls more often?" Jasper asked in an irritated tone. "There's no need for someone to be on the bridge at all times."

Merlin stood up and put both hands upon the table, one on either side of the clipboard. He directed a firm gaze upon the raccoon, but his words were meant for them all.

"Due to the length of our flights between worlds, we are going to be on this ship more than we will be off of it during shore leave. Most of this crew will be on personal time during the typical three or four week journeys we will be taking, using the skills they were hired for only periodically. As I am the one paying your per-voyage wages, I figure that a five-hour shift on the bridge once every forty-five hours fits within the criteria of your job descriptions in support of the business that is paying all our wages.

"Although the primary issue at hand is a missed job opportunity, it occurred to me that there are other emergencies that may come up at any time where someone on the bridge could offset any problems before they actually become problems. What if one of those calls had been a warning of pirates by another ship, or a call for help with someone's life in danger? One of the Planetary Alignment's interstellar laws is that no distress signal is to be ignored by a nearby vessel. With no one monitoring the com channels, we could easily fall into violation, especially if our flight pattern was legally filed and it was discovered that someone died in the vicinity due to our inaction."

"Alright, alright," Jasper grumbled. "You've made your point!"

Merlin stood up straight and picked up the clipboard. "I hate to pull rank already, but as captain of the Blue Horizon, this bridge watch is now policy." He plucked a piece of tape he had ready from the edge of the clipboard and then removed another sheet from beneath the message printouts. He turned around and then taped the sheet to the wall behind him in a clear spot of Jiro's half-completed mural. "Here is the roster," he said. "I will be taking shifts along with the rest of you, and I will even take the first one. You can plan out your extremely busy schedules around the shifts I have plotted out for you and then you can decide what to bring with you to help pass the time."

Taro had remained silent throughout the whole discussion, a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach at the ramifications of losing that delivery job to Quet. It had taken her two days to set that up with Sydney Micranite, and she had been wondering why there had been no final response. She was unaware that Merlin had thought along similar lines and knew she had some damage control to perform before word of their inaction spread too far. Her credibility was now on the line.


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