BLUE HORIZON 1261
— by Ted R. Blasingame
The Blue Horizon dropped lightly onto the Toreboda landing pad assigned to them, and then Merlin gave out a sigh of relief. He and Taro began shutting down systems on the bridge, but before the vixen could announce the all-clear to move around, the intercom chirped.
"This is the bridge," Taro responded with the signal routed to the overhead speakers so she could resume systems shut-down.
"Is the captain still up there?"
"Yes, Durant, I'm here," Merlin replied. "What can I do for you?"
"Just wondering what your protocol is for our first landing, concerning our cargo."
"Go ahead and open the bay door, start unlocking the cargo tie-downs, and put away the webbing," Merlin answered. "Taro has already contacted the customer's representative, so she should be coming out to the ship before long to take possession of the shipment. They will provide the transports, but we'll be the ones to offload the ship into them. I'll get on the intercom in a moment and rally the crew to gather on the cargo deck. Once they've assembled, they're under your command until the cargo has been completely offloaded."
"May I ask a stupid question?"
"No questions are stupid. What do you want to know?"
"Will you be helping us move the cargo?"
Merlin frowned. "Normally, the answer would be yes, but now that we're down, I'm going to put you in charge of the crew so that I can get Jiro to a local hospital. We've kept him stabilized the past couple of days, but he's not gotten any better."
"What about the per-voyage pay?"
"Did you transfer funds from the company account to each crew member's account as I instructed?"
"Then all you need to do is pass out the pay vouchers to everyone before they leave the ship. Make sure the cargo gets moved first, though."
"Sure, I'll take care of it."
"Thanks, Durant. I appreciate it. Go ahead and get started, and then make sure the bay door and the airlock are both pass-locked when you leave, yourself."
"Aye, sir. Signing off now."
Merlin and Taro finished securing the system, and then Merlin moved back to the Com station. "All hands, all hands," he broadcast, "Report immediately to the Hold to off-load the cargo. Durant will oversee the operation, so follow his direction. After the customer has taken possession of the shipment, Durant will hand out your pay vouchers and then you will be free to do as you will. We have landed on Kantus in Toreboda and shore leave is three days. Be back in plenty of time to load up our next shipment. Take a DataCom with you in case I need to contact you or you need to contact one another. With our rearranged schedule, we will be shipping food supplies to the fishing colonies on Crescentis, and then we will fly empty to Ganis to transport industrial equipment to Quet. We had a few hiccups on our first trip together, so hopefully things will go smoother the next voyage out. Merlin, out."
The wolf shut off the ship-wide link and then leaned back against the console. "Thanks for helping out with the landing," he said to Taro. "With Jiro out of commission, I'm glad you've had flight experience."
The vixen approached him with a smile. "It's always a good thing to have a backup plan," she said. "Vanessa had a rule that all personnel needed flight experience, whether or not it was their main job. That way, even if an epidemic spread through the crew, someone would be able to land for us."
Merlin blinked. "That's not a bad idea," he admitted. "I'm not sure when we'd have the time to teach everyone, though."
"You could always do it during one of our three-day layovers. Give one full instruction each time we land, and then let them go on shore leave once they've learned well enough."
The wolf gave her a smirk. "Yeah, providing the Horizon itself can stand up to trainees launching and landing it over and over!"
"There are always sacrifices to be made!" Taro laughed.
* * *
When the lift door opened, Connie Davies stuck her nose out into the cargo bay to see if anyone had arrived yet. Just as soon as the all-clear had been given, she had rushed out to be the first one down the lift. She held the door-open button down so that no one from above could call the lift back up just yet. She listened closely and thought she could hear Durant unlocking tie-down cables, but there were no voices in conversation. It was probably just the cargo master awaiting the crew to help unload, so it appeared she was in luck. The compartment was lit up from the sun outside, so the bay door must be open.
The red-haired woman clutched a small travel bag to her and then soft stepped around the perimeter of the hold toward the main hatch. She made it without being seen, but before she snuck away from the vessel, she took a last look back into the ship. She'd never thought that her dream to get out into space would have been so disastrous, but now that she was sure to be fired from her job, she thought she would save everyone the trouble by leaving on her own.
She wiped a tear from her cheek and then slipped out into the afternoon Kantus sun.
* * *
The door to the Infirmary opened and Merlin stepped inside. He had a small travel bag with a few of Jiro's personal effects slung over one arm and he set it on the countertop. He looked into the physician's office, but didn't see her.
"Connie?" he called. He heard Jiro grunt at him from the back room, so he walked back there to take a look. He had excused the nurse from cargo duty to help him take the cougar to a local hospital, but apparently she hadn't yet arrived.
The captain busied himself with unfolding a collapsible medical wheelchair, wondering to himself why he hadn't equipped his ship with one that operated on anti-grav discs instead. He finished up the chair by inserting the IV rod behind the seat, and then rolled it next to Jiro's bed.
He leaned over his friend and put a hand on the feline navigator's forehead. The cougar was still warm to the touch, but didn't seem to be as hot as before. Perhaps whatever had hit him had run its course and he was on his way to recovery, but he still needed to see a doctor. A real doctor, Merlin mused silently.
Jiro stirred and opened his eyes. He blinked from the brightness of the room's overhead light panels and swallowed. "Are we there yet, daddy?" he rasped.
"Almost," Merlin replied. "We've landed and now I'm going to get you to a hospital. Connie still hasn't arrived to help me get you into this wheelchair, though."
"Help me sit up," Jiro whispered.
Merlin thumbed a control box on the side of the bed, and one end raised the cougar up into a sitting position. Once he was upright, Jiro motioned the wolf to move away so he could swing his legs around. The captain complied and Jiro managed to get himself into position sitting on the edge of the bed.
"Give me a hand. I think I can get down into the chair."
It took several long minutes to get Jiro down into the wheelchair and the IV bag transferred to the pole on the chair, but they both managed it without a mishap.
"Do you want your boots and a shirt?" Merlin asked. All the cougar wore currently was a pair of jogging shorts.
Jiro studied his toes for a moment and then wiggled them. He decided they didn't feel as if they were going to drop off, so he situated his feet firmly on the stirrups.
"You can bring the boots with us, but I doubt I'll need them until I can walk back."
"What about a shirt?"
Despite how weak he felt, Jiro managed to give the wolf a smirk. "I don't wear one when I'm feeling good. Why would I wear one now?" he said.
Merlin wheeled the cougar out into the front room of the Infirmary, but Connie still hadn't put in an appearance. Annoyed, he reached for the travel bag he'd put on the counter, and it was then he saw the note.
"I'm sorry, Captain. I can't stick around to hurt anyone else." It was unsigned, but he recognized the human's cursive handwriting.
Resisting the urge to fill the air with profanity, Merlin grumbled beneath his breath and angrily shoved the note into a pocket before picking up the travel bag.
"What was that?" Jiro asked, taking the bag from the wolf to set it on his lap.
"Connie has broken her contract," Merlin growled. "She's jumped ship and gone."
"Why would she do that?" Jiro asked, genuinely surprised.
The lupine captain realized that his friend knew nothing of what had transpired due to the nurse's treatment of her patient. He opened the door, wheeled his navigator out into the corridor and headed for the lift. "I'll explain on the way," he replied in irritation.
* * *
Durant signed the manifest and handed the clipboard down to a short female raccoon that stood beside the door of the fat, bulbous truck she had just backed up to the Blue Horizon's loading ramp. Two other trucks from the Handgjorda Kläder Warehouse were moving into position to back up beside her vehicle, so the two of them moved out of the way.
"Any trouble along the way?" the raccoon asked him.
The grizzly shrugged as they walked up into the blue freighter. "One of our crew got really sick and we had a few system glitches, but nothing we couldn't handle."
"That the guy who got sick?" she asked, pointing to a wolf pushing a cougar in a wheelchair across the tarmac.
"Yeah, that's him with our captain," Durant replied. "Listen, here comes the first of our crew with your crates. I'll let you direct him how you want it loaded in your truck, and I'll go help my crewmates."
"Okay, see ya around."
The first crate arrived on a floating pallet, pushed by the Horizon's mechanic. When the truck driver saw Pockets behind the crate, a wide grin crossed her face.
"Well, hello there, Cutie!" she said to him.
Pockets looked up, surprised to see the other raccoon. She was dressed in common worker pants and shirt, with the buttons open halfway to her navel. Her hands rested on soft hips, one of them clutching the manifest clipboard.
"Hi!" he responded with a silly grin of his own. "How can I help you?"
The girl studied him a moment and then leaned forward onto the crate he'd brought out. "You can start by giving me your name and contact number, Sailor."
"Why, are you asking me out?" he replied, feigning shyness.
She batted her eyelashes at him. "Why, of course!" she said with a laugh. "I'm off duty just as soon as I deliver this cargo, and was wondering how I was going to spend my weekend."
Pockets grinned at her. "What a coincidence," he said. "I was in the same predicament!"
"I'm Rochelle. Now, are you going to tell me your name, or do I have to tickle it out of you?"
Pockets opened his mouth, but then shut it again quickly. "Hmm," he said with a mischievous glint in his eyes, "I was going to tell you, but that might be more fun!"
"Jerad! Quit flirting and move your crate!" Samantha called from behind him.
Rochelle laughed aloud and stepped back. "Ah well, Jerad," she said flippantly, "it looks like I won't have to tickle torture you after all!"
Pockets cast a glare over his shoulder at the Border collie. "Thanks a lot, Sam!" he called. Rochelle giggled and then helped him push his pallet up the ramp into her truck.
* * *
Taro pulled on her work gloves and was about to start moving cargo when something pulled on the back of her mind. She knew that Merlin had taken Jiro off to a local hospital, but someone else seemed to be missing. She hopped up on top of one of the crates and then counted noses. Durant, Samantha, Ivy, Jasper and Jerad were present with her in the Hold, but she didn't see Connie anywhere.
Durant had been left in the charge, but the cargo master was busy at the moment, so Taro took it upon herself to get their final crew member out there to help. She called for her on the intercom, but after several minutes of silence, there was no reply.
Taro hated to leave the cargo deck when there was work to be done, but the nurse was contracted to help move crates along with everyone else. She took the lift up to the next deck and strode directly for the human's cabin. When there was no response to her knocking, she let herself into the unlocked compartment. Connie's things were all in place about the room, and the closet door was open, but of the nurse, there was no sign. She checked the Infirmary next, and then went up to the recreation deck.
While she took the lift back down to the Hold, Taro mused that Merlin must have taken Connie with him and Jiro to the hospital. It seemed logical, but seemed odd that the captain hadn't told anyone about her joining them. Perhaps he'd told Durant, she thought, since the grizzly had been left in charge.
Once down on the Cargo deck, Taro slipped her work gloves back on and proceeded to help the others unload the shipment.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.