BLUE HORIZON 1261
— by Ted R. Blasingame
The captain of the Blue Horizon tapped lightly on the cabin door of his navigator and best friend. When there was no response, he opened the door and peered inside. The lights were off in the small living compartment, but in the illumination from the outside corridor, Merlin could tell that Jiro was breathing deeply in medication-induced rest. The tawny cougar would be out for several hours at least, so the wolf stepped in lightly and set a handwritten note upon the nightstand beside the bed.
His task completed, the lupine commander headed for the lift, and then took it down to the cargo deck. It had been several hours since they had landed and the wolf was hungry. He remembered seeing a small diner near the spaceport on their way back from a local pharmacy to get Jiro's meds.
Merlin was barely off the spaceport grounds on an avenue sidewalk when someone called to him from the doorway of a nearby storefront.
Merlin stopped and turned to look, but didn't approach the speaker, a short canine of indeterminate ancestry in a long coat that looked too warm for the early evening climate.
"You just land?" the dog asked with a smile. One eye seemed wider than the other did, and Merlin could see a few nicks out of the fellow's ears. Rather than answer, he simply nodded, keeping his body language completely neutral.
"I thought so," said the canine. "You look like a newcomer to Toreboda. Where'ya headed?"
Merlin cleared his throat and kept his face expressionless. "Personal business," he replied. He heard a faint noise behind him and he turned just in time to see a black bear swing a sand-filled sock at him. The wolf twisted to the side, having suspected the canine was a diversion, but the makeshift blackjack caught him on the left shoulder, just below his neck. The blow was powerful, and although it had missed his head, it hurt and drove him to the sidewalk.
The bear lunged forward, grabbed Merlin's flight jacket by the collar, pulled him up onto his knees, and in a swift motion, jerked the garment down over his shoulders, pinning his arms to his sides. The wolf struggled, but his strength was no match for his ursine assailant.
Satisfied that the dazed out-of-towner was secure, the canine strode forward and began searching the wolf's pockets. "Your personal business was probably going to cost you money," he cackled, "so we'll do you a favor and take your credits before you have a chance to get taken by anyone else!"
Merlin raised his head swiftly, striking the dog's jaw and causing the guy to bite his tongue hard. He tried to butt the bear's head as well, but the person behind him simply ducked out of the way and tightened his hold upon the jacket.
The canine groaned around his wounded tongue and looked up at the wolf in fury. He reared back to punch his victim for daring to fight back, but his arm was suddenly wrenched out of its socket. The bear looked up in alarm as his partner bellowed in agony, but with his grip on the wolf's jacket, he was unable to dodge the black-furred fist and reddish-orange arm in time to escape injury.
The arm belonged to a slender tod fox, who lightly tapped the bear's forehead with the flat of his palm; the ursine head rocked back and he suddenly lost all interest in holding onto the wolf. The bear fell clumsily onto his back and lay there stunned.
Without his assailant holding him, Merlin nearly pitched backward on top of him, but the fox caught him. "Easy now, mate," the guy told him. "Are you okay?"
He rubbed his shoulder and winced at the pain. It was the same shoulder that Taro had hit three weeks earlier, and although that injury had healed, the new one was no less painful. "Thanks, I will be," was all he could think to say, looking back at his savior.
The red fox was slender, almost skinny, and he was dressed simply in a pair of kaki slacks and a matching vest that was open. The tod gave him a concerned smile. "Best get an ice pack on that."
"Ya broke mah friggin' arm!" the canine wailed, writhing on the sidewalk beside them.
"No, it's only dislocated," the fox calmly told him. "I passed an express-med office back up the street. If you hurry, you can get there before they close up for the evening."
The dog hissed, cradling his arm as he got up to his feet. He spat blood on the ground and then took off running. The bear began to stir, so the fox helped the captain to his feet.
"Let's get you away from here," he said quietly. Merlin walked with him in the direction toward the spaceport, one hand up on his opposite shoulder. "My office is back this way."
"Thank you for your assistance," the wolf said gratefully. "My name is Merlin Sinclair. I'm the captain of the Blue Horizon."
"Pleased to meet you, Captain. I'm Taro Brookhaven."
Merlin blinked. "Your name is Taro?" he asked. "That's the name of a vixen who works for me."
It was the tod's turn to blink. He looked over at the wolf with a strange smile. "Taro is a boy's name, Captain. At least it is on Hestra, where I'm from. Is it a nickname you've given her?"
"No…" Merlin replied slowly. "As far as I know, that's her first name. She's a Hestran fox too, but I really don't know that much about her family history." He smiled and added, "I should have known you had the dense muscles of a Hestran. You took out that big guy with barely a tap."
Brookhaven frowned. "Not many of us leave Hestra to get out into the Planetary Alignment, and now I find out that another of us to leave home is a girl with my name. Where's she from originally?"
"Sorry, I don't know the answer to that," Merlin responded with a grimace.
"Do you need any medical attention for that shoulder?"
"I can probably get by with what we've got on board my ship," he answered. "It was only a glancing blow, but it's going to be stiff and sore tomorrow."
"Ah, okay. Do you mind if I ask where were you headed when your friends stopped you on the street?"
Merlin started to shrug, but the action hurt. "My crew has gone on shore leave, but my first officer is ill and I just got back with him from the doctor. He's sleeping now on prescribed meds, so I thought I'd run out for a bite to eat and do a little shopping."
"Are you looking for anything in particular, or were you just hunting for a trinket shop?" Brookhaven asked.
"Nothing in particular. I just wanted to get away from the ship for a bit. We've been in space for three weeks."
The fox steered him away from the spaceport terminal where they were headed, pointing him toward a small green building beside a nearby parking lot full of ground vehicles of all shapes, sizes and colors. People trickled to and from the building, most of them laden with colorful purchase sacks and boxes.
"The place doesn't look very big on the outside,' Brookhaven told him, "but there are two more levels below ground with several shops. There's a food court just inside the door, and then there are plenty of things to browse over in the stores."
"I take it you've been there before," Merlin said.
"I work at one of those shops," the fox told him with a grin. "Reynard's Travel Shoppe, For the Traveler on the Go." He laughed and then added, "Of course, all travelers are on the go, but that's the tagline ol' Reynard uses. We're on the second level down."
"Listen, Taro. Is there anything I can do for you in return for helping me today?" Merlin asked.
"Nothing at all, mate," the fox replied. "Nothing at all. I only live a few blocks from here and was on my way in to work the evening shift. I'm just glad I could be of assistance. I've seen those two hanging around before, but I've never seen them bother anyone before tonight."
"They recognized me as a new pup in town," the wolf said. "That's all some people need as an excuse." They approached the door to the green building and Merlin cast a glance behind him, back out across the tarmac. He couldn't see his ship from there, but it did give him an idea.
"Have you ever considered taking a job that would get you back out into space?" he asked. "I could use someone else with your strength on my crew. I own a freighter."
Brookhaven laughed aloud. "Thanks, mate, but I've already gone that route. I hired onto a freighter that was based out of Vashon, the Hestran moon, and served on it for three years." He held open the door for the wolf and added, "It was good work, but I'm glad to have my feet back on the ground for now. I appreciate the offer, but as I said before, you owe me nothing."
Inside the building was a typical indoor shopping mall. No matter where he seemed to go, the malls always appeared the same to him. People of all types were moving to and fro, and there was a constant buzz of conversation all around them. The aromas from the food court made Merlin's stomach rumble in response.
The captain gestured the fox over to the side, out of pedestrian traffic. He smiled up at him and said, 'How about a date with my Taro?" he asked. "I could probably set you up with her."
Brookhaven looked at him. "Nothing against your friend, but if she has a boy's name, she probably looks like one," he said with a frown.
Merlin grinned at him and pulled out his ID pouch from a back pocket. He slipped out a copy of the crew portrait from their maiden launch and then handed it to the fox. Brookhaven studied the photo for a moment and then sudden interest spread across his features.
"This is your Taro?" he asked, tapping the picture over the only red fox in the portrait.
Someone leaned over his shoulder and said, "Yes, that's me."
Merlin looked up in surprise, and Brookhaven spun around so fast that his tail thumped against the shopping bags held by the vixen.
"Hello," the female fox said in amusement. "I'm Taro, handsome. Who are you?"
Merlin grinned widely, his tail swishing behind him. "Taro Nichols, meet Taro Brookhaven." Someone moved out from behind the vixen and the wolf chuckled. "The Border collie behind her is Sam Chase, and the lynx is Ivy Sparks, all from my crew."
Brookhaven blinked rapidly and then gave them all a lopsided smirk. "Ladies," he said courteously, recognizing some of the shopping bags they carried. "I see you've been supporting the local economy."
"Did he say your name was Taro?" Samantha asked with a wide smile.
"Yes," Brookhaven replied, standing up straighter. "Your captain was just telling me that his vixen had a male's name." His eyes roved over the vixen's curvaceous form, making no effort to hide his interest. "She sure doesn't look male to me."
Taro Nichols batted her long eyelashes at him. "I assure you that I am all female," she told him in a throaty voice. "Care to make a personal inspection?"
"Taro!" Ivy gasped at the vixen's boldness.
Brookhaven raised an eyebrow and gave her a cool, calculating look. "How about tonight after I finish my shift?" he asked. "We can have a late supper and then we can take our time exploring the differences between two Taros."
The vixen's lips parted and she put a hand up to her collarbone. Sparky grabbed Samantha's arm and the Border collie choked back a gasp. Merlin smirked at the women, but then the vixen stepped up closer to the fox tod.
"It's a date," she said, planting a very light peck on Brookhaven's cheek. "Where should we meet?"
He gestured toward a nearby pedestal clock that towered over the crowd. "I close up shop in four hours and will meet you by that clock at that time." He picked up the vixen's hand and raised it up to his lips, bowing toward her. He gave her knuckles a small kiss and then he straightened up. "I must get to work now," he said, turning toward Sam and Ivy. "Ladies, it was a pleasure to meet you." Then he looked at Merlin. "I am sorry you had a spot of trouble tonight, but I am glad we met. Take care of your shoulder, Captain."
He gave the vixen another long once-over examination, and then left after gifting her with a wink. Taro Nichols watched him stride away, mesmerized by the swish of his tail.
"Taro's got a date!" Samantha whispered excitedly. "Taro plus Taro — Taro times two!"
Ivy, however, looked over at the wolf in concern. "What spot of trouble? What's wrong with your shoulder?" she asked.
Taro forced herself to remove her attention from Brookhaven's departing backside. "Spot of trouble?" she repeated.
Merlin sighed, nodded and told them what had happened.
* * *
"What did Other Taro mean?" Ivy asked, walking out into the night air behind her shipmates, "that you had a boy's name?"
All but the vixen had eaten something from the food court, and they had done some shopping afterward. Even Merlin carried a bag of items he had purchased at Reynard's Travel Shoppe. The starry sky above was clear and it was a nice night, despite the noisy aerial traffic over the spaceport. Merlin led them across the tarmac toward the landing pad where the Blue Horizon sat parked.
"Taro is typically a male's name on Hestra," the vixen answered with a smile. "My father's a miner in a small quarry, and he'd wanted all boys to help provide for the family. I was his firstborn, and he and ma already had a name picked out for me. We were a poor family and they couldn't afford even a simple ultrasound when ma was pregnant with me. When they were surprised that I turned out to be a female, my pa grumbled and told the attending midwife that my name was to be recorded as Taro Nichols anyway."
The red fox shrugged her shoulders and put her hands into her pockets. "I was a late bloomer," she said with a smile, "so until my curves filled out, most of the kids I grew up with in Taquit just thought I was given a boy's nickname since I was so boy-like. By the time everyone started noticing that I really was female, everyone was too used to the name to call me anything else."
"Was your father hard on you?" Ivy asked tentatively.
Taro shook her head. "Not at all," she replied. "Despite that he wanted boys and had stuck me with the name he had wanted for his firstborn son, I was daddy's little girl and he tried to spoil me rotten."
"I don't think he succeeded," Samantha said with a smile.
"Well, when you barely earn enough money to support a family, there's not much you can do to spoil a child materialistically. Papa wasn't happy when I left Hestra, and mama said that he cried after I'd gone, but he has since told me that he's proud that I have tried to do something better with my life than work in the quarries." Taro looked up when they passed a row of buildings and she could see the Blue Horizon ahead. "I opened up a savings account when I finally started working regularly, and I still put a portion of my earnings in there for my family, with an automatic transfer going to them monthly."
"I hope you don't harbor anything against your pop for giving you a boy's name," Merlin asked, peering into his shopping bag.
"What is a name?" Taro asked him in a lighter tone. "It's just something for you to respond to when they call you for supper! No, I never felt bad about my name, even when I was a kid. It just didn't matter."
"That's good," the wolf replied, distracted by his purchases.
Samantha smirked at him and said, "Go ahead and put it on, Merlin," she teased him.
"You may as well," Ivy quipped. "You keep staring at it with loving eyes!"
Merlin grinned back at the ladies and pulled out a black and white nautical cap with an embroidered patch depicting a white life preserver overlaid with a golden anchor. He bit the string tag apart and then dropped the price tag back into the sack. He held up the hat by the stiff brim and stared at if for a moment as they walked.
"Oh, for Pete's sake," Taro chuckled, not at all bothered with the change of topic. "Put it on!"
The wolf laughed aloud and then placed the hat upon his head, situating it between his triangular ears. "There," he said at last. "How do I look?"
Samantha hid her laugh behind a hand, her eyes crinkling in amusement. "Charming," she giggled.
Ivy snickered and shook her head. "I think it looks silly," she said, "but as captain, you can wear whatever you want."
Merlin stopped and stared at them both. "You think I look silly?" he asked. The disappointment in his voice was hard to mistake, and Sparky suddenly regretted that she had said anything.
Taro stepped up close and adjusted the hat on his head for him. "You look like a wolf of authority," she said with a straight face. "A sea captain always wears a hat, and a captain sailing the stars should be no different. I think it looks good on you."
Merlin gave her a look at gratitude. "Thank you, Taro. I'm glad it appeals to somebody besides me."
Samantha laughed aloud and put her arm around the wolf's shoulders. "Don't take it personal, dear," the canine replied. "We're just not used to seeing you wear something that only a human would wear."
"Only a human—" Merlin pulled the hat from his head with a scowl. He reared back to fling it across the tarmac, but Taro plucked it from his hand and put it back on his head.
"Stop that!" she scolded. "Other Taro gave you a good discount on that hat, so you are not going to just throw it away!" She patted his clenched jaw lightly and added, "I'll staple it to your head if you don't wear it now."
The vixen couldn't know that the reason for his sudden dark mood was caused by their human shipmate. The wolf hadn't told anyone else that she had abandoned them, but now was not the time to bring it up. Merlin bit back a sarcastic response and crossed his arms. He gave Samantha a brief glare before he let her giggles calm his nerves. Ivy's eyes were crinkled in amusement, despite her brief moment of fear at his sudden mood change.
After a moment, the wolf smiled and shrugged his shoulders. "I don't care if you think it's silly," he told them. "I'm going to wear it!"
"Without staples?" Taro asked with a grin.
"Definitely without the staples."
"I can understand the hat," Ivy said when they continued walking back toward the Blue Horizon, "but what's the book for? It's blank, isn't it?"
Merlin reached into the sack and pulled out the second purchase he had made. It was a large book with a soft leather cover that was dyed navy blue. He fanned the pages, but there was not a word on them.
"When I served on board the SS Shishaldin in the Dennieran spatial forces," he told them, "my captain used to keep a journal of all his adventures so he would never forget the people and places in his life. Now that I have a ship of my own, I thought I might do the same."
"That's a good idea," Sparky agreed. "Our captain should keep a diary."
"Journal," Merlin corrected.
"Dear Diary," Samantha said with a musical lilt, "Today she batted her eyelashes at me. I felt a warmth all the way down to my—"
"That'll be enough of that!" Merlin told her with a smirk. All three females laughed at their commander's embarrassment, and in a simultaneous motion, Taro and Samantha hooked arms with the wolf, and then Ivy hooked arms with Samantha. The four of them walked arm in arm all the way back to the ship, the conversation light and casual.
Once they were back on board and up on the crew deck, Taro excused herself to get ready for her date, and Merlin left to go check on Jiro. Sam and Ivy went back to their respective cabins and the wolf tapped lightly on his first officer's door.
"C'mon in," he heard through the panel. Merlin let himself inside and found the cougar sitting up in bed on two pillows against the wall.
"You look like you're feeling a little better," the wolf told him.
"…and you look silly," Jiro replied with a raised eyebrow. "Did you lose a bet with Jasper?"
Merlin looked up at the brim of hat with a frown. He reached up to take it off, but then decided to leave it where it was. "No, I bought it for myself," he answered in a miffed tone. "You are going to respect this hat."
"Uh huh," Jiro replied with a smile. He was always on the lookout for anything to needle his best friend about, and the wolf had provided this one on his own.
Quickly changing the subject, Merlin sat down at the desk and set his shopping bag with the journal on the floor at his feet. "How are you feeling?" he asked.
Jiro heaved a heavy sigh. "I feel like I've been run over by a bus, but I've been told I will live."
"Did you sleep?"
"Yeah, in fact I was asleep until about forty-five minutes ago," the cougar replied. Then he gave his companion a look of exasperation. "Did you know that you had the bridge's com board routed through the intercom system?" he asked, scooting down under a tan blanket to make himself comfortable. "A call came in for you while you were out at the haberdashery and the alert signal woke me up. I had to get up to the bridge and answer the call before I could get the blasted noise shut off."
"Sorry about that," Merlin said with a frown. "I thought I'd set it to forward calls to my DC."
"Nope, that didn't happen," Jiro replied. "I was groggy and I think I slurred my words a little, but by the time I got back to my quarters, I was wide awake. I was just about to settle back down again."
"I hope it wasn't a local telemarketer," the wolf replied, scratching the fur beneath his new hat. "They're supposed to be banned from starship frequencies."
"No, it wasn't a sales call." Jiro yawned, stretched, and then closed his eyes. "It was that physician's assistant who examined me this afternoon," he told him. "Tomi called to say she was going to accept the position you offered her."
Merlin looked at the cougar incredulously. "You're serious, she accepted?"
"Serious," answered the feline navigator. "She said would come by later this evening to look over your contract with her, and if all looked satisfactory to her, then she would go settle her affairs and report in before we launch again."
The lupine captain took off the hat and set it on the small desk beside him. He sat back in his chair and closed his eyes, rubbing his hands across his face. "I don't often pray to the Great Maker," he said quietly, "but I did this afternoon before I left the ship. It looks like I got an answer."
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.