BLUE HORIZON 1261
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Ivy Sparks walked up the ramp into the open cargo bay door, followed by three young males in their teens, a tiger, a wolf and a red fox. Each wore a green shop apron over their clothes, and their arms were laden with shopping bags.
"You can put them all just inside here," the lynx told them nicely. "My crewmates will help me take them up to the galley."
"Yes, ma'am," said the young tiger. He set his burden on the deck where directed and then trotted back outside to get more while his companions did the same. It took the males several trips out to the delivery truck to bring in all the supplies that she had purchased. While they were working, Durant saw them from the cargo master's office and made his way across the empty Hold. Ivy saw him and gave him a smile.
"Hi, Sparky. What's all this?" the grizzly asked, scratching one of his small ears.
"Food and supplies," she replied. "Merlin asked me to restock the galley before we left Kantus, and since we'll have a quick turnaround on Crescentis, I bought extra for the additional flight to Ganis."
"That sure looks like a lot of groceries," Durant remarked as the young males brought up the last of the items.
"I had to buy a month's worth," Ivy explained. "That makes for a lot of groceries, and I was able to get some of it in bulk."
"Oh, since you're the bookkeeper, should I give you the purchase receipts," she asked suddenly, digging into her pocketbook, "or do they go to the captain?"
"I'll take them," Durant replied. He folded the flimsy sheets carefully and put them in the pocket of his trousers. "This way, we won't have to worry about Merlin remembering to give them to me later."
The lynx turned to face the delivery guys waiting patiently beside the groceries. She handed each of them several bills of local currency and thanked them one by one. All three gave her a short bow and then returned to their delivery truck.
"Would you call some of the others to help me take all this upstairs?" Ivy asked as the truck drove away.
Durant frowned. "Sparky, I don't think all this will go into your galley. We have cold storage lockers over there against the starboard wall, if you want to store some of it there until it is needed. I think that's what they're for anyway."
The lynx looked at him thoughtfully. "Yes, that's a good idea, Durant," she said. "When we left Alexandrius, my galley fridge and pantries were full, and I have more now than I did then."
"I'll get a flatbed and then we can take all this over near the lockers. You can cull out what stays down here, and then I'll call for others to help us take the remainder up to the galley."
Durant and Ivy spent the next few minutes loading up the floating pallet so they could get it all over to the lockers before any of the perishables had a chance to spoil. The grizzly called for help on the ship-wide intercom and then helped his companion separate the goods. By the time that Merlin, Samantha, Patch, Pockets and Taro arrived to help, half of the groceries were stored in one of the cold storage lockers.
Twenty minutes later, Ivy walked into her cabin and sat down upon the edge of her bed, the new groceries and supplies all put away. She slipped off her sandals and pushed them aside, letting her toes curl up in the carpet. When she stood up again, she walked to her closet to change clothes, but when she opened the door, she stopped and stared.
Hanging on a hook on the back of the door was a cloth hanger that held the Japanese yukata she had developed a fondness for during their battle with the cold. The material was thin, but she had worn it on top of other layers, choosing it as her outer garment. It was pale yellow with lavender highlights, and a white sash adorned with blue and white flowers was draped around the hanger stem.
She swallowed in surprise and suddenly a cold chill went up her spine. After the lecture Durant had given to make her surrender the garment she had wanted to keep, had the cargo master actually stolen it for her? She didn't think that the grizzly's personality was capable of such an act, but there was the yukata.
Ivy stretched out a hesitant hand and felt of the material to make sure she wasn't imagining things. Satisfied that it was real enough, she traced a finger along the sash. When she moved the material aside, she saw the edge of an envelope clipped to the sash with a plastic tab.
She pulled out a small sealed envelope, but it was unmarked. Curious, she tore open the flap and then pulled out a single sheet of plain white paper. Durant's neat penmanship was easy to read, and the simple message put a lump in her throat.
Since you liked this yukata so much, I tracked down a store in town that sold them and found the same pattern as the one you borrowed from our cargo. I bought this for you as a peace offering, in hopes that we can still remain friends after the incident.
Your friend, Durant.
PS, This style looks good on you.
Ivy choked back a sob and then wiped her eyes. Despite her tears, she couldn't stop smiling. Silly, considerate Durant, she thought to herself. You have just gained a friend for life!
* * *
With the exception of Jiro Brannon, the entire crew of the Blue Horizon was lined up across the cargo bay opening at the top of the loading ramp. Trucks from Cassini Distributing were due to arrive with crates of food supplies at any moment, and the anxious crew was ready to move freight into the blue vessel.
The Horizon was parked in a section of the spaceport reserved for cargo carriers, and the late morning traffic around them was constant. Ships launched and landed, delivery vehicles roved to and fro, and every time a truck drove along the painted avenues of the tarmac in their direction, ears perked and tails were up in anticipation. After a while of this, the crew began to fidget and ignore most of the traffic around them.
When a small, dark green air truck approached the designated parking spot near the blue freighter, several looked up in interest. The vehicle wasn't large enough for the cargo they were expecting, so the looks in its direction were merely curious. Merlin walked down the ramp toward the truck when two occupants opened the doors and stepped out into the sun, two black-furred domestic felines.
"Good morning, Ms. Arden," Merlin said with a pleased expression. "I'm glad to see you."
The physician's assistant turned to him with a smile, holding a small pocketbook in her hands. She was dressed in a casual pair of slacks and lightweight pink blouse. "Hello, Captain," she replied. 'I hope I'm not too late."
"You're right on time," the wolf told her.
The other occupant walked around the truck toward them and stopped beside her. "This is my brother, Rink Arden," Tomi explained. "Rink, this is Captain Sinclair."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Arden," Merlin told him with an extended hand. The male cat took his hand and gave him a nod without smiling.
"Captain," he said with a raspy voice, "I want you to know that I do not approve of my sister quitting her job to join you out on your space deliveries. However, since I was unable to talk her out of it, I would ask that you please take care of her while she's employed with you."
"I promise to do just that," Merlin assured him. "I don't take any member of my crew for granted. Each one is special with needs and specialties, and I intend to guard each and every one of them, your sister included."
Rink nodded and then turned to his sibling. "Please be very, very careful out there, Sis," he told her, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder. "I've read about pirate raids on freighters and how dangerous they can be when confronted."
Tomi gave him a calm smile. "I think the media embellishes those reports for sensationalism, but I promise you that if we are approached by pirates, I will keep my head down."
"Pirate raids are not really as common as the news would have you believe," Merlin interjected. "She'll be fine."
Rink put both hands on her shoulders and then looked eye to eye with her. "One last time," he said. "Are you sure you want to do this? Dr. Wilder has always treated you well, and I'm sure he would hire you back this afternoon."
Tomi shook her head. "My pay on the Blue Horizon will be more than what I was getting at the clinic, and I think I need a change in scenery. Don't worry, Rink. I'm set on my decision. This is what I want to do."
For the first time since they arrived, Rink allowed a smile to creep across his features. "Once you've set your mind to something, I know I can never change it." He looked over at the wolf and said, "You will need to watch this one, Captain. She's stubborn as all get-out, so be aware of that when you get into an argument with her."
Merlin nodded. "I have already explained my command policies with her, and she has been informed that I have my own stubborn streak when it's needed. However, we've already agreed to work things out together as they arrive, so I think we'll get along just fine."
"In that case, Captain, I will turn her over to you." He faced his sister once more. "Let's get your things on board."
Merlin helped Rink unload two travel trunks and three suitcases, while the rest of the Horizon's crew watched from the cargo bay in puzzlement. The wolf had said nothing to them about taking on a passenger. They watched curiously as Merlin and Rink put the woman's belongings just inside the primary hatch, and then brother and sister embraced in tight farewell hug. Tomi gave Rink a quick lick on the cheek, exchanged a few final words with him, and then the male cat trotted back down to his truck.
Tomi waved as the vehicle drove away, and then she turned toward the wolf, spreading her arms wide. "Well, Captain," she said with a nervous smile, "I'm all yours."
Merlin gave her a look of assurance and then gestured toward the others. "Let's go meet your shipmates."
The wolf's employees gathered around when he waved them to him. "Everyone, I want you to meet Tomilyn Arden, the newest addition to our group. She's our shipboard medic, and she will also serve as another copilot for the Horizon."
Everyone looked surprised. "A new medic?" Jasper asked with a frown. "What happened to Connie?"
Merlin sighed. He'd known this question was forthcoming, and it had put a bad taste in his mouth. "Ms. Davies has left us," he told them with a brief look of annoyance. "When Jiro got sick and her efforts to treat him only made things worse, she confessed that she had no experience with anything but human physiology. I reprimanded her for lying to me during her job interview, but she tried her best to make up for it by attending to our friend. Despite this, her further treatments made Jiro worse and we almost lost him." He shut his eyes for a moment to gather his thoughts, and then removed Connie's final note from the pocket of his trousers. He read it aloud to them and looks of surprise stared back at him.
"I was prepared to keep her on, with the condition that she sign up for an online study course on anthro physiologies, but Connie chose to break a legal contract before I could discuss it with her. She didn't even stop to get her pay voucher. She's probably gone into hiding, but if I ever find her again, she could be facing a lawsuit for breach of contract." He scowled briefly and then shook his head, looking around at the others. "If any of you needs out of your legal contract with me, for whatever reason, please come and discuss it with me before you do anything this rash." He held up Connie's note for emphasis. "I promise to listen to all grievances and will do what I can to work it out before anyone else jumps ship."
Quickly shifting the tone of the topic, Merlin looked over at the black cat with a smile. "Tomi is the one who took care of Jiro at the clinic I took him to, and he's currently up in his cabin resting, already feeling better due to her help. Tomi's clinic serves all species and she has actual experience caring for the varied populace of the Planetary Alignment." Then he grinned widely and added, "I also did a background check on her. She's clean!"
"She smells good, too," Jerad said to several chuckles.
The tall vixen near the back of the group stepped forward with a smile. "Welcome aboard, Tomilyn," she said, extending a hand. "We're glad you could join us. I'm Taro Nichols."
The dark feline took the fox's hand, beaming. "Thank you, Taro. Please call me Tomi."
Others surged forward to talk with the newcomer, but Durant suddenly looked out onto the tarmac. "Introductions may have to wait," he said over the din. "The delivery trucks have arrived."
Tomi looked over at her new captain. "Do I need to check on Mr. Brannon first?" she asked.
Merlin shook his head. "He was asleep when I looked in on him about twenty minutes ago. Best to let him rest."
Tomi nodded and then dusted her hands together. "In that case, does anyone have an extra pair of work gloves I can borrow? It looks like it's time to get busy!"
Samantha laughed and put an arm around the cat's shoulders. "Come with me," she said. "We'll get you right to work!"
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.