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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 1

— Episode 1

"Drug Running"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

SS Blue Horizon PA1261

Captain’s Journal

 

Happy Anniversary. According to my calendar, it has been six years to the day since my business partner and I began this endeavor. My crew and I have had many ups and downs over the years, with slow days and times of adventure, joy and heartache, and although there are things I sometimes wish I could do over to change the outcome, time moves on and we are the result of our experiences. Happy Anniversary…

I took on a new crewmember today during a supply delivery to New Gate on Kantus. Renny Thornton is one of the most athletic-looking guys I have ever met and I would be hard pressed to guess his speed in a full-out run. Since the death of my navigator copilot during a pirate raid on my vessel a few weeks ago, I have been shorthanded. All members of my crew must be able to navigate and fly the Blue Horizon, but no one is as skilled as Jiro Brannon was. I miss his friendship and counsel terribly.

Mr. Thornton responded to my local advertisement for a navigator the same day it hit the markets of New Gate, and brought with him some impressive credentials. As my ship was being stocked with cargo for delivery for our next customer, I talked with Renny at Sheward’s Rest, a local café I like here. He has a gentle personality, but it is easy to see the power of his coiled muscles at his disposal should the need for aggression arise. I was quite taken with his photographic memory of star charts and territorial boundaries that I decided I need look no further to fill the vacancy, so I have contracted him to my crew. He has gone back into New Gate to retrieve his belongings before our departure time.

True to my first officer’s skill as liaison to our customer, Taro has managed to secure a full cargo of pharmaceuticals for delivery to the capitol city of Alucara on Alexandrius for Ryu Industries. However, if I know my supply officer correctly, Samantha has likely already started fixing the books to retain a morsel of our cargo for later trade. I don’t condone the under-table dealings she is known to our crew for, especially knowing her family background, but she always seems to work magic when we need something that cannot be obtained through regular channels. I do reprimand her on the rare occasions she is caught, but tend to ignore her activities for the most part. It gives me a greater peace of mind if I don’t know all her plans.

Like Jiro, Samantha has been with me from the beginning, although she had to leave us for a while following her first year as a charter member of the crew. The details of that situation and departure will remain unwritten in this log with consideration to her family ties, but I am thankful that she was later able to return to us. Despite some of her questionable activities, she’s been a great asset to my business, as well as one of my closest friends.

Durant is happy now that he has cargo in the hold to put in order and catalog for the flight. His attentiveness to numbers and detail often puts the load master at odds with Samantha’s meddling, but the two always seem to find ways to deal with it. Durant is a likable fellow when he is not bored or messed with.

Sparky has not yet returned from leave. As usual, she’s always the last to get back and she never seems to be around for mandatory cargo detail. Her usual excuses center on her need to replenish the food stores, but the dishes she concocts for our varied tastes have often diffused anyone’s objections to her absence while we are moving cargo.

Patch is complaining again about the condition of the parts in the engine room. Samantha has already supplied him with the best items she can get her hands on, so he should be happy, but nothing ever pleases that guy, I suppose. Except for complaining. I think he actually enjoys it. She even bought him a new box of fine cigars imported from Earth to help ease his mood, but sometimes even that does not placate him.

On the other hand, Pockets is thrilled with a new set of energy transducers that has found its way into our engine room. I have yet to see a purchase document cross my desk, so I suspect the little filch got them from the manufacturer’s warehouse last night; I would bet that Samantha had a hand in that deal. He is currently down somewhere in the bowels of the engine, happily installing them with his moody brother. I have never seen siblings so consistently opposite in personality as the Porter brothers.

There has been no word on the whereabouts of the Savannah Hunter. Armando Jensen seems to have been keeping low these days since I blew the whistle on a potentially dangerous transaction with the black market of Nalirra he had in progress. It had the potential to eliminate clearances for all commercial transports through the area; that is a major route and more cargo carriers besides us use that way to move their goods. Armando and I have never had much love for one another, but I am sure this has done wonders for his opinion of me. I don’t think he knows it was me, but with his resources, I cannot be too sure. After we have delivered our pharmaceuticals to Alexandrius, we will be swinging over to Earth to have the Blue Horizon fitted up with a stronger defense system. Pirates are getting to be more of a concern these days. Even Armando’s Sakura-class freighter has had to outrun raiding ships. For the sake of his business and crew, it was a good thing he had the engines of the Savannah Hunter upgraded last year. 

Merlin Sinclair, Captain

 *** 

Although he might bear a name derived from human kind, Merlin bore only a scant resemblance to that race. When he stood upright, it was on bipedal legs with plantigrade feet. He had two arms ending in hand-like paws with short fingers and opposable thumbs, and he possessed sentient intelligence, but beyond this design, Merlin’s engineered race was primarily lupine in origin. The wolf’s fur was predominantly grey with a subtle blend of brown and black, but his muzzle, throat, belly and the underside of his arms were white. His bushy grey tail ended in a white tip and his eyes were framed by a mask of grey with a nebulous band of white between them.

He was three hundred years removed from genetic manipulations by Terran scientists, when humankind from Earth first spread out among the stars and needed hardy settlers to tame the habitable planets they discovered. The DNA of the first to become Furs was tweaked to give humans a number of attributes originally associated with native Terran animals as a step-up enhancement to make them hardier when settling the new and alien landscapes of other habitable worlds. They succeeded for the most part, but some of the distance colonies failed and others were forgotten until later generations rediscovered their altered brothers and sisters.

At this day and age, however, there seemed to be few adventures for the varied and united populations to experience beyond the mundane, especially since many of the colonies had adopted familiar cultures, traditions and architectures of what they had known on Mother Earth. Despite that each had progressed on their own paths since leaving the home planet, there were still so many similarities across the united worlds that things remained familiar from place to place. Merlin Sinclair, however, had long since discovered that while life on board an interstellar freighter shipping freight across the galaxy should be mundane, it was rarely so.

The wolf capped his pen and set his journal on the office desk in front of him. Its cover was made of dyed Terran cowhide and was worn from excessive handling. Keeping a journal of his travels was a common tradition long held by ships’ captains of all the worlds he had ever visited, whether they commanded ships that sailed the seas or the void between the stars, but instead of recording everything onto a personal slateboard datapak tablet, he preferred using pen and ink on a physical book. He was proud to uphold the custom, whether or not he planned to show his entries to anyone. He had long intended to transcribe them into electron form for safer keeping, but despite the free time he usually had during the voyages between worlds, he had never taken the time to do it. For the time being, Merlin continued to put ink to paper just as it had been done in the days of the earliest explorers.

He set the journal aside and readjusted his tail through the slotted opening in the back of his chair. He was dressed in a pale blue shirt with short sleeves and a pair of dark grey trousers with a single gold stripe down the outside seams of the legs. All the fabric was lightweight and airy, serving to be more decorative than functional over his natural fur. He often preferred to go barefoot, but while on board a ship out in space where the environment always seemed cold no matter the heating system, he donned black jackboots designed to fit his feet. The boots were currently on the floor beneath his desk so he could curl his toes in the soft carpeting. Beside him on the tiny desktop of his quarters was his one true vice: a steaming cup of coffee. He picked it up just as his first officer walked in through the open door of the office he called his den.

“Yes?” he asked; there was a distinctive thrum within the timbre of his low-pitched voice. He lapped up a bit of his coffee and fixed his golden eyes on the red fox’s slateboard.

Taro Nichols absently smoothed down the wrinkles of her lavender blouse before she glanced through the information on the handheld data device in her hands. After a brief moment, she looked down at the seated wolf. “Durant says our cargo is secure and the bay doors are sealed,” she said in smooth tones. “Samantha has replenished our air supply and the ship will be pressurized for the voyage as soon as everyone is on board and all systems are ready.”

Merlin nodded and took another lap from his cup. “What else?”

“Pockets said the new transducers are online and have tested out satisfactorily. However, Patch doesn’t trust them; he said he would keep an eye on them during takeoff. He mumbled something about the part not matching up right during installation and having to modify it.”

She looked back to her notes again and then glanced quickly into the corridor behind her. “I probably should have mentioned this first, but there’s a cheetah at the main hatch asking to see you,” she added when she looked back at him. “You know I don’t like to let strangers on board as we’re preparing to leave, but he claims he’s a new employee.”

“Renny Thornton,” Merlin said as he set his cup down so he could put on his boots. “I hired him this afternoon to fill Jiro’s vacancy.” He stood up, snared a blue and white naval captain’s hat from a wall peg, and placed it on his head between his ears. It was a human-made item that he fancied, being captain of his own ship.

“But, Jiro...” Taro caught herself before saying more.

“I know, Taro, I know, Jiro hasn’t been gone long. He was my best friend, but I need a good navigator. I can’t just wait until we reach Alexandrius in three weeks to fill the position.” Merlin gently put an arm up across her shoulders and then led her out of the room. “Mr. Thornton has the qualifications for the job and he’s also a nice guy.” He smiled and added, “Would you show him to his cabin to stow his belongings? He can settle in after we’ve taken off.”

“Sure, Captain. Where should I quarter him?”

“Put him in Jiro’s room.”

Taro stopped and swallowed as she looked down at her sandaled feet. She flicked a piece of imaginary dust from her tan pants and then glanced up again. She resumed walking and held the slateboard to her chest. “I see. Okay, I’ll bring him up.”

“Are you okay with this?” Merlin asked.

Taro gave him a weak smile and nodded her head. “I still have a hard time believing Jiro’s gone, that’s all. I’ll be all right.”

The wolf nodded and gave her a gentle hug. “How soon can we be off?” he asked.

Taro looked quickly at her slateboard before answering to give herself a brief moment to recompose her emotions. “I can file a departure window with Port Control as soon as Sparky returns.”

The lupine captain looked thoughtful and adjusted his hat as he moved toward the control room. “Assemble everyone in the galley when she gets back. I want to introduce everyone to our new navigator before we leave.”

“Aye, sir.”

Merlin stopped at a blue door painted with the image of a golden ship’s wheel and watched the vixen walk away. Jiro had been liked by the crew, even the eternally grumpy Patch, but Taro had taken his death the hardest. It was no secret that the two of them had been lovers, but the captain always made it a practice not to pay attention if crewmembers wanted to get together as long as it did not interfere with ship’s operations. No one had seen Jiro die, but Taro had been the first to find him just before the pirate raiders had finally been driven from the ship.

Merlin shook his head sadly and turned away. They all had to let Jiro go, and that included himself. He had known Jiro the longest, and the two of them had started the business together. It was hard to believe he was gone and there were moments when he would turn to say something to his friend, only to remember he would never be there again.

He walked into the bridge control center and switched on the lights of the small semicircular room. Three stations lined the forward curved wall: navigation, communications and engineering. Each bore a set of instrument panels that arced in a generous semicircle around a plush swivel seat. Another station resided in the center of the room for the pilot, located directly behind the Com terminal. The captain did not necessarily have his own seat, except that Merlin was the primary pilot. Whoever flew the ship at the time occupied that spot.

Three large window panels covered the curved forward wall and all had near-invisible circuitry built within to bring up video displays whenever needed. The back wall of the small bridge contained stations for environmental control, the library computer and the sensors, and the remaining walls were lined with more instrumentation. The entrance to the bridge was at the starboard aft corner of the room, and the door to the Head was in the port-side aft corner. During a routine flight, there were rarely more than three people on the bridge and never less than one at all times.

Merlin stepped over to the center seat and leaned over the panel without sitting down. He keyed in a few commands and the left viewing screen came to life to show the interior of the cargo hold. He smiled when he saw Durant scribbling information onto a slateboard with a claw tip as he stood beside a tethered pallet of plastic crates. If all went well, this shipment should finance much-needed upgrades to some of the systems on aboard.   

*** 

Taro led a lean cheetah dressed in black slacks and a tan shirt with a large duffel over one shoulder through the narrow passageways of the ship. She paused near a door that bore a plate with her name inscribed onto it, but went on to the next. Her companion glanced at the name on the door they stopped at and asked, “Jiro Brannon?”

Taro pushed the door open and turned on the light for him. “He was... a friend,” she said with a sigh. “I will have a new name plate made up for you; this is your room now, Mr. Thornton. Jiro is no longer with us.”

“Please call me Renny,” he requested. “I respond to it more readily.” He smiled and tilted his head slightly to the side.  The cabin was tiny, consisting of nothing more than room for a bed in front of a built-in bookcase, a desk and chair, closet and a personal lavatory.

The fox returned his smile with an effort and shook the cobwebs from her thoughts with a twitch of an ear. She gave him a second, more detailed look and decided that he was fairly handsome. “I’m Taro Nichols,” she said. “Everyone pretty much goes on a first name basis here, so you can call me Taro.” She led him into the room past a pair of potted trees with wide leaves, and her earlier show of melancholy was gone when she added, “Except for Leo Durant. Never, ever call him by his first name. To him, you address him as Durant.

“I’ll remember that. Was he the raccoon with the cigar?” Renny asked as he ran a hand through the fur on top of his head.

Taro chuckled. “No, that was Patch. He’s grumpy all of the time, but you will get used to him. Durant is a grizzly bear, our load master and ship’s accountant.”

Renny set his duffel on the bed and leaned against the small desk beside it. “May I ask you something about the captain?”

“What is it?” the fox answered suspiciously.

“When I met with him this afternoon, he seemed like an easy guy to talk to, but that was during a job interview. What’s he like to work for?”

Taro gave him a smile, feeling more at ease. “You have nothing to worry about, Renny. Merlin is one of the most easygoing bosses you will ever meet. He’s pretty informal about ship’s operations, but this is a business so the end result of every delivery is making money. When he has to make an important decision, he will make it. He has an open-door policy and you can discuss anything with him, but his word is final. He is our boss and he expects his commands to be obeyed, so don’t ever challenge his authority; he considers himself to be the alpha wolf of his crew.” She turned toward the door and stepped out into the hall. “He spent five years in the Dennier military and knows what strict discipline is, but wants his own ship to be as comfortable and informal as it can be and still function.”

The ship’s intercom chirped and Taro walked a few steps down the corridor to a panel set into the wall. She tapped a button and said, “This is Taro.”

“Taro?” said a small, squeaky voice. “Samantha said you wanted to talk to me.”

The fox looked over at the cheetah as he stopped next to her. “I just needed to know when you returned, Sparky,” she answered into the panel. “Merlin’s calling a meeting of all personnel in the galley before we launch.”

“When?”

“Now that you are back, as soon as everyone can assemble.”

“Can you spare fifteen minutes for me to put away the food stores I brought back with me?” the lynx asked.

“Okay. It’ll take that long for everyone to assemble anyway.” Taro clicked the same button again to break the connection and then tapped another one next to it for ship-wide broadcast. “Attention, all hands,” she announced. “Gather for a crew meeting in the galley in twenty minutes. Find a stopping point in whatever you’re doing. Merlin wants to see us all together before we launch.”

The fox shut off the system and then turned to her companion. “You can settle into your quarters later, Renny. The boss wants to show you off to everyone.”  

*** 

Merlin looked up from a box of books at the announcement and frowned. He had not thought Sparky would have returned so quickly and had started to unpack an armload of new mystery novels. The long distances between the various star systems in the Planetary Alignment often provided for boring periods that he frequently spent immersed in stories of suspense. He had picked up several new books in a series by his favorite author in New Gate just after his meeting with Renny. Like his journal, he preferred the physical feel of a printed book over the more common electron books he could have loaded onto his slateboard.

He set the books he held back into the box and turned toward the closet. He wriggled out of his blue shirt and tossed it into a recessed wall hamper. From the closet, he withdrew a beige pullover sweater and shrugged into it. Its loose-weave fabric fit loosely as he liked it, and he straightened the kinks out of the sleeves. He smoothed down the fur on his head and then plucked his captain’s hat from a wall peg as he scooped up a slateboard before heading out of the room toward the galley.  

*** 

Renny felt a lump in his throat as he watched the various crewmembers gathering into the small galley. It was the only place large enough to assemble all eight of the ship’s personnel where seats were provided. The recreation deck was of ample size, but it would take too much time to clean up the long unused area just for a meeting. The hold was currently loaded with cargo and the bridge was hardly large enough to accommodate everyone. A long countertop spread across the majority of one side of the room with the kitchen behind it.

On the wall opposite the door to the room was a clear window that faced aft of the ship. The current view overlooked the dockyard of a huge warehouse and beyond to the edge of the New Gate community. The glass polarization was presently shut down to allow the noon sun to pleasantly warm the room and provide light for several pots of ivy hanging from the ceiling. The wall opposite the kitchen displayed a large painted mural that depicted the Blue Horizon in flight against the backdrop of an indeterminate blue and green planet. A signature in the bottom right corner identified the artist as Jiro Brannon.

The cheetah sat to the left of Merlin at the end of the room’s single long table. Taro sat on the captain’s right, chatting idly with a female Border collie he had not yet met. Across the table from him was a short female lynx. She wore an apron with the cartoon face of a smiling kitty saying “yum”. He deduced this was Sparky, the one who had spoken to Taro over the intercom concerning the food supplies. She slowly enjoyed a cup of mint tea and studied him with interested green eyes.

Seated next to the lynx had to be the one Taro called Durant. The grizzled bear was larger and taller than anyone else on board and was talking pleasantly to a diminutive raccoon seated next to him. The coon’s green coveralls had pockets sewn onto practically all available spaces on the front and sides, and it appeared there was something in each of them.

Everyone looked up when another raccoon entered the room and plunked himself down at the last empty chair beside the collie. He chewed on an unlit cigar and looked rather inconvenienced. He wiped his hands on his patched and greasy coveralls and then nodded to the wolf. All eyes went to Merlin when he cleared his throat and then unconsciously adjusted his hat.

“Okay, crew, you know we’ve been short-handed for a while, so I want to introduce you all to our new navigator and copilot,” he said. “This is Renny Thornton.”

Renny smiled nervously and gave a nod of his head. “Hello,” he said.

Merlin looked at the newcomer and put a hand on his own chest. “Just to make it official, I’ll start the introductions with myself. I am Merlin Sinclair, the owner and captain of the Blue Horizon. This vixen next to me is Taro Nichols. She is my second-in-command, communications officer, and our liaison between customers. Next to her is Samantha Holden, our supply officer and computer whiz.” Sam smiled widely and waved her fingers at the cheetah. “If there’s anything you need, she can get it for you.”

The lynx reached across the table and touched Renny lightly on the arm. “Whether it is legal or not...” she chuckled.

“Hush!” Merlin scolded. “Renny, meet Ivy Sparks.”

“Sparky,” corrected the lynx.

“She’s our Environmental specialist and ship’s chef. If she has the ingredients, she can prepare practically any dish for you.”

“Practically?” Sparky looked up at the captain with twitching whiskers.

Taro laughed and said, “Well, there was that fire you caused last year trying to fix that wonder meal you’d kept bragging to everyone you could make!” Chuckles echoed around the room and Sparky shrugged her shoulders.

“Okay, practically any dish...” Sparky conceded with a smile.

Merlin gestured to the raccoon seated next to Samantha. “The guy with the cigar is Jasper Porter. He’s our chief engineer and mechanic, and as you can tell from the repairs to the work clothes no one can convince him to throw away, we call him Patch.” Chuckles started up again and the raccoon merely snorted with a nod toward the cheetah. At first glance, Patch looked put out, but Renny noticed the hint of a smile behind the cigar.

“Across the table from Patch is his brother, Jerad Porter,” Merlin said next.

“I’m Pockets!” the raccoon exclaimed cheerily in a distinct country accent. This started another round of chuckles, which included the coon’s own giggles.

“He thinks he’s a mechanical wizard and is rather enthusiastic about life in general,” Merlin added with a grin. “Then we have our imposing load master and business accountant, Durant.”

“Imposing?” Durant repeated in a gentle voice. “C’mon, boss, I’m not even as grumpy as Patch.” The raccoon looked sideways at the bear, but otherwise didn’t comment.

Merlin grinned and said, “Stand up, Durant.”

The grizzly got to his feet and Renny noted that the bear’s small ears were shy an inch from brushing the ceiling. Sparky touched the cheetah’s arm again and pointed to Durant with her other hand. “Now that’s imposing to short critters like me and Pockets!” she laughed in a small, squeaky voice.

“Patch, too,” Pockets added.

Durant sat down and patted the lynx on the head with a grin. She leaned against the cuddly bear and purred loudly for him.

Merlin glanced at the display on his slateboard and then back to his new navigator. “That’s everyone, Renny. No one around here is given to big speeches, but if there’s anything you want to say to this mob, go right ahead.”

The cheetah smiled back at the group and then told them, “I’m pleased to be here, I’m glad to have the job, and hope I can fit in.” He looked embarrassed at the attention, but added, “I tend to get along with people well and don’t mind helping out if you need me for something.”

Taro reached around Merlin and took Renny’s hand. She glanced at him coyly and twitched an ear. “I have something you can help me out with, kitty...” she said softly.

Samantha whacked her on the shoulder. “Taro! Give the guy a chance to get used to us first!” Laughter spread around the room again and Merlin knew the meeting was over. He reached out and pulled the fox’s hand away from the cheetah.

“Sorry, you two, but Renny’s about to be initiated into his position,” he said with a canine grin.

“Initiated?” the cheetah asked as his tail twitched in trepidation. He swallowed when sudden visions of running through a line of the crewmembers armed with wooden paddles jumped into his head.

The wolf stood up and replied, “I’m the primary pilot for the Blue Horizon and usually handle our launches when we leave port, but I’m going to give that job to you today. I know from your résumé that you  have experience piloting an Okami-class cargo carrier.”

“That’s right,” Renny replied, “and it’s one of the reasons why I applied for this job. I flew the SS Argentina for the Leaway Moving Company of Tanthe for a little over a year.”

“When did you work for them?” Durant asked.

“Six years ago. It was my first real job after flight school.”

Patch removed the cigar from his teeth and said in the same country accent of his brother, “If the ship you flew then was new, you were flying the same model as the Blue Horizon. It should still be familiar to you, even after five and a half years.”

“Actually, it was older than this one. The Argentina was one of the first Okami ships off the assembly line,” Renny replied.

“That old, eh?” Patch mused. “There have been a number of design changes since the original Okamis. The Blue Horizon is a G-model. I’m surprised a twenty-year old A-model was still flying.”

“Well,” Renny said with a nod, “once we set her old bones down on a landing pad, there were times when we wondered if the Argentina would be able to take off again. I think they scrapped her not long after I left the company.”

Merlin put a hand on the cheetah’s shoulder and said. “I’ll go over ship’s operations with you before we actually take off.” He looked at Taro and added, “See if you can arrange to move launch our window with the Kantus Port Authority to fourteen hundred. That will give us two hours to get the ship prepped to start our next delivery run and so Renny can refamiliarize himself with the controls.”

“Where does this shipment go?” Renny asked.

“To Alexandrius,” Samantha answered, “My home world.”

“We’re carrying pharmaceuticals for delivery to Alucara, the capitol city,” Durant added.

“For my competitor, I might add,” Samantha said with a casual wave of her hand.

“Competitor?” the cheetah asked.

The canine gave him a smile. “I own the controlling interest in Holden Pharmaceuticals,” she replied in answer. “It was my father’s company.” Renny was about to ask her why someone with money enough for that was working on a freighter, but decided he would save the question for a time when he knew her a little better.

“Have you ever been to Alexandrius?” Durant asked.

“No,” Renny admitted, “but I have the star charts memorized for the usual routes.”

“Memorized?” Pockets asked.

Renny smiled and Merlin replied, “Our new navigator has an eidetic memory. He remembers everything he reads.”

“Wow...” Pockets drawled.

Merlin waved his arms at his crew and said, “Okay, shoo, all of you! We have to get ready. The flight to Alexandrius will take three weeks and you’ll have plenty of time to visit with Renny after we’re underway.”

The crew began to disperse, but before anyone made it out the door, Sparky announced, “I’ll have supper ready around seventeen hundred.”

Pockets made his way toward her and asked, “Are you making anything special tonight or are you taking requests?”

Sparky smiled at him and tickled his ear with a finger. “I have a couple of dishes in mind, but I haven’t settled on anything specific just yet,” she answered. “Once we’ve had our new navigator around a few days, then I’ll whip up something special for him. What’s your request?”

The raccoon grinned widely and wrung his tiny hands together. “Baked Jinkles?” he asked hopefully.

The lynx laughed and nodded her head. “I should have known. Okay, you got it. Jinkles it is.”

“Jinkles?” Renny asked, “Isn’t that a Ganisan breakfast food?”

“Not if they’re seasoned and baked just right,” the chef replied.

“You’re the greatest, Sparky!” Pockets scampered out of the galley and headed to his workstation in the engine room with his brother.

The lynx glanced up at Merlin and handed him two strips of flimsy yellow plastic. “Here are printouts of the invoices on the groceries, Captain,” she said. “The grocer’s electron system was faulty so he printed them out instead of transmitting them to my slateboard. I forgot to give them to Durant.”

“I’ll take care of them,” the wolf replied.

Sparky glanced over at the cheetah as Merlin began an explanation of personnel duties and studied his lean form and great height. He was every bit as tall as Taro, who towered over everyone else but Durant. Renny noticed her gaze and smiled down at her. Merlin paused in his instructions and curiously watched the two felines. Sparky crooked a finger at the cheetah and Renny leaned over to place his ear near her mouth.

Sparky whispered something to him and then licked his cheek very gently. With a giggle, she turned and headed into her kitchen and it was then he saw a small red bow tied to the lynx’s stubby tail.  Renny straightened up and turned to the wolf. “Are all the females on this crew usually this friendly to newcomers?” he asked.

“Not usually,” Merlin said dryly as he turned to lead them away. “I think you’re a hit. Now, let’s get up to the bridge where there aren’t any distractions, and we’ll go over the pre-flight checklist.” 

*** 

Half a block away from the docked Blue Horizon, a jaguar with midnight black fur sat in a booth at a crowded outdoor café on the edge of the spaceport. He wore the brown armband of a courier and his golden eyes fixed upon the saucer-shaped cargo carrier. A diminutive lemur sat across from him, waiting expectantly for instructions from his companion. The jaguar shifted his gaze back to the red eyes of his informer and nodded. He dug a few credits from a shirt pocket and laid them on the table. The lemur scooped up the gold coins and then disappeared though the crowd.

The feline twitched his whiskers and picked up his lunch check. He glanced back at the Blue Horizon once more before he stood up and then walked casually to the cashier.  

*** 

 “Port Control has cleared us for launch, Captain,” Taro announced.

“Okay, Renny. She’s all yours,” Merlin said to the cheetah over his shoulder. He sat at the navigator’s station while the other was in the pilot’s center seat.

Renny’s pulse quickened as he energized the engines of the fully laden cargo carrier. He was in the spotlight of attention of the bridge crew and knew everyone else on board was conscious of his actions. He was in control of the second-most critical phase of flying any ship, taking off; the first was landing. He had no doubt he could fly this vessel; he’d flown one before, but he also prided himself on his ability to fly just about any make and model ship in the Planetary Alignment due to common standardizations. What made him nervous was the knowledge of being scrutinized as the newest member of an established crew.

The cheetah emptied his mind of such thoughts and immersed himself in his job. The Blue Horizon had been cleared for launch. He checked his readouts and smiled to himself. Energy buildup was at one hundred percent and all thrusters fired equally. A green light glowed brightly and the cheetah moved his hands smoothly over the controls. He held a pair of inverted, L-shaped guidance shifts firmly and then depressed a thumb switch on the right-hand grip.

The Blue Horizon rose quickly from the landing platform and left New Gate far behind in a matter of seconds. Merlin was impressed. The inertia compensators worked so well and the launch had been so smooth, that had he not seen the city disappear from view in the vidscreens or saw the readouts of his instruments, the wolf would not have known they had even left the dock pad.   

He glanced over at the Com station and winked at Taro. She smiled and gave him a thumbs-up sign. The red fox put a hand to the earpiece of her headset and spoke softly into the microphone. It was a query from an incoming pleasure cruiser that passed a kilometer to their starboard. She turned to the cheetah, who looked at her wonderingly.

“Turn on our running lights, Renny,” she advised.

“Oops,” he muttered. He clicked a switch near the guidance shifts.

“Not too bad for your first time out with the Blue Horizon,” Merlin said. “We’ll be coming up fast on the Kantus moon. Five hundred kilometers past that worthless hunk of rock, engage the LightDrive engines and push them up to half speed. Maintain that until we’re out of the star system.”

“How long will that take?” the cheetah asked.

“Roughly six hours from our present position out to free interstellar space. Can you handle that?”

Renny smiled. “Not a problem,” he replied.

Taro touched a pad on the engineering console next to her and then spoke into her headset mike on ship-wide broadcast. “The ship’s artificial gravity has automatically enabled and is reading normal. Once we are beyond planetary traffic, the LightDrive engines will be engaged for cruising speed, but inertia dampers are active and mobility is now safe. You may now shed your harnesses and move about.”

Merlin unbuckled his seat harness and stood up. He leaned against the edge of his panel and crossed his arms. “Good job, Renny,” he said approvingly. “That was a smooth launch.”

The intercom chirped. The wolf reached for the panel behind him and clicked the open circuit. “Merlin, here,” he said.

“Captain,” Patch’s drawl sounded from the overhead speaker, “Reporting in, the new energy transducers fluctuated a bit during launch, but they’re well within limits. I suspect they’re from an Okami H-model.”

“Where did Pockets get a brand new transducer?” the wolf asked.

“I asked him the same thing, but all he does is smile at me.”

“Typically suspicious. Okay, Patch, keep an eye on the readings and let me know if anything gets out of tolerance.”

“Aye, Captain.”

He closed the connection and turned to the fox. “Keep watch up here for me, Taro,” he said. “I’m heading down to have a little chat with Pockets.”  

*** 

Renny yawned widely and arched his back in the seat, swishing his tail through the slotted opening. Five hours at the controls of the ship with no excitement would have been boring had it not been for Taro’s company. He had learned a great deal about her background and found her phenomenal strength fascinating. Taro was from Hestra, a rather large rocky planet with a high gravity and a predominantly mountainous terrain. In system normal gravity, she surpassed most species in strength and agility, including their larger crewmate Durant. 

They shared an interest in athletic activities and the cheetah looked forward to spending some off-duty time with her. He checked his instruments and yawned again. Taro had left to get them something to drink and he was presently alone on the bridge. He knew that once they had left the star system, their speed could be pushed up full and then the autopilot could be engaged for routine flight. Until then, however, someone had to be right at the controls constantly.

Renny studied the panel before him and saw a touch pad he had missed earlier. He smiled and tapped it slightly. The cabin lights dimmed as he adjusted the control further so that most of the illumination of the room now came primarily from the instrument panels. All three window panels were clear at the moment and the darkened bridge made the starlight beyond seem brilliant. He preferred it that way. Now if he only had some music to play.

The door to the bridge slid aside and Taro walked in with two drink cylinders and a large bag of pretzels. She handed a soda to the cheetah and returned to her seat. “Nice lighting,” she commented with a smile. “Are you trying to set a mood?”

Renny looked up suddenly at her and felt his face flush beneath his fur. “Not at all,” he managed to reply. “I just like looking at the stars from a darkened room when on the bridge.”

“Ah... Anything happen while I was gone?”

“No, all’s quiet.” The words were barely out of his mouth when the Com panel beeped. Taro picked up her headset and tapped a button.

“This is the SS Blue Horizon,” she stated. “What can we do for you?” She listened a moment and then nodded to herself. “Please hold while I get the captain.” Taro sighed as she tapped another control and then waited for Merlin to connect in the intercom.

The panel chirped and Taro opened the connection. “This is Merlin.”

“Captain, we have a communications link from the SPF. They want to talk to you.”

“SPF? Okay, I’ll take it here in my den.”

The fox made the necessary routing adjustments on her panel and then turned back to the cheetah.

“What does the Spatial Police Force want with the captain?” Renny asked.

“I’m not sure,” Taro replied, “but I would guess it probably has something to do with Samantha.”

“Why? Does she have a record of getting into trouble with the police?”

Taro smiled and shook her head. “Sam has connections on all worlds of the Planetary Alignment to get the supplies we need. Sometimes she’ll go through underground routes to obtain hard-to-get items.” The vixen lapped some of her diet soda and added, “She’s never actually gotten caught, but that doesn’t mean she won’t at some time.”

“Does that have anything to do with her ownership of Holden Pharmaceuticals?”

Taro chuckled. “No, that firm is legit, I assure you.” She stood up and moved to stand beside him at the controls. “Holden is the largest pharmaceutical company in the PA. Samantha has enough money to buy a fleet of ships like this one.”

“Then why…?”

“She inherited the business and other family assets when her folks died in a car wreck years ago, but she does not really enjoy life in an administrative office. She tried the management scene for a while and jumped at the chance to get out of that environment, though she still connects in for required shareholder meetings.” Taro leaned closer to him and traced a finger through his head fur, giving him a shiver. “She and Merlin have been close friends for nearly fifteen years, and she enjoys traveling with him. That’s why she’s here.”

“Does that mean that she and he…”

“Uh huh…” Taro whispered as she moved an arm across his shoulders. “Relationships are inevitable on long voyages like the ones we’re always on.”

Renny looked up into her eyes and swallowed quietly. Sparky had said something similar to him in the galley before they had taken off.  

*** 

 “I’m Merlin Sinclair, captain of the Blue Horizon. What can I do for you, officer?”

A high-pitched male voice answered from the wolf’s com terminal. The Blue Horizon was not equipped with video communication so the conversation was audio-only.

“Captain Sinclair,” the voice replied, “I’m SPF Sergeant Randal Stokes. I am conducting an investigation of a theft at your last port of call at New Gate on Kantus.”

“How can we help you?”

“Three energy transducers for an Okami-class cargo carrier were taken from the Eaglebright Electronics warehouse last night.”

The wolf frowned and shook his head. The conversation he’d had with Pockets and Samantha just after liftoff had confirmed his suspicions that their newly acquired transducers were stolen from the manufacturer. He had not expected the SPF to zero in on them quite so quickly, however.

“Are we supposed to have them, Sergeant?” Merlin asked in a neutral voice. “I have a shipment consisting solely of pharmaceuticals to deliver. We’re scheduled to deliver no equipment parts on this load, and my ship is in good working order.”

“True, but uh, you do have an Okami vessel,” the officer replied hesitantly.

What model do the missing transducers go to?” the wolf asked.

“Uh, my reports say they were for an H-model ship.”

“Sir, if you check our records, you will note that the Blue Horizon is a G-model. We would not be able to use them,” Merlin explained, hoping the sergeant was not aware of technical specifications on a cargo ship. “As far as I know, the components are not backward compatible.”

“Ah, I don’t know about such things, Captain,” the officer admitted. “I don’t think they are... However –”

Merlin sensed the other’s growing confusion, so he pushed his tactics a bit. “How many Okami vessels were docked around New Gate?”

“Uhm, thirty-four. They’re fairly common ships.”

“How many of those are H-models?

“Uhm, I’m not sure.”

“And how many have you contacted, including me?”

“Hmm? Just seven so far.”

“You may wish to narrow your search to the ships that are capable of using them.”

“Yes, you may be right.”

“Then I wish you good luck investigating the others, Sergeant. Good day.”

“Uh, okay. Thanks. Bye.”

Merlin closed the connection and leaned back in his chair with a sigh. Pockets was clearly guilty in this matter, but the wolf had resorted to misdirection in order to keep him on his crew. He respected the SPF, but this was hardly the first time he’d had to cover for his delinquent engineer for one reason or another.

Each of the fifteen worlds of the Planetary Alignment had their own police organizations, but outside of their local jurisdictions, the Spatial Police Force had the authority to take care of any matter called upon in the space between systems. The SPF headquarters resided on the tiny, otherwise lifeless planet of Joplin in the astrometrical center of the combined worlds of the Planetary Alignment. Its sun dim and dying, the planet was virtually an airless rock of undesired minerals, but it was considered neutral territory by the individual world governments that funded it with a joint account.

The wolf turned back to the purchase orders that Durant had supplied to his slateboard for their cargo. Alexandrius was the richest of the PA worlds and it was a good thing whenever they received orders for delivery there. The businesses there often paid generously and their hospitality was famous. Merlin had a standing policy to allow all crewmembers three days of leave during every planetfall between deliveries and he had never heard a complaint for the rule whenever on Alexandrius.

The wolf heard a muffled boom and felt the floor vibrate with it. He looked up in alarm, wondering if they had collided with a small meteoroid, when a tone sounded from his desk panel. Almost at the same time, his intercom chirped. He touched the control and said, “Merlin, here. What is it?”

“Captain!” said Taro’s excited voice. “The fire alarms have gone off in the galley again!”

“On my way!”  He grabbed his captain’s hat, bounded out the door, and sprinted down the curving passageway to the back of the ship where the galley resided. When he arrived, Sparky was out in the smoke-filled hallway with Samantha. The lynx was coughing violently and pointing to the galley doorway.

“Pockets is in there,” Samantha told the wolf. “He’s trying to fight the fire!”

“Get Sparky to Sickbay!” Merlin commanded.

“Aye!”

He pulled his hat down over his muzzle and stepped into the galley. Through the smoke, he saw the diminutive raccoon standing on top of the table with an extinguisher that was just giving out on him. Everything behind the counter was ablaze and the flames were growing out toward the oxygen coming from the hallway. The wolf grabbed Pockets by the collar, yanked him off the table, and bolted out the door. He dropped the mechanic onto the carpet and hit the controls to shut the door. Pockets yelped when he hit the floor and rolled to his feet. Several tools fell out of his pockets with dull thuds. The captain opened a panel beside the door and punched a large red button set into the recess. When he heard a hissing behind the doorway, Merlin turned to face the raccoon.

“Are you all right?” he asked through watery eyes. 

Pockets coughed a couple of times and then nodded. “I don’t think I did much good in there,” he said in a raspy voice.

“Perhaps not, but it was a good effort.” Merlin rubbed his burning eyes and gasped, “What did she burn in there, a crate of onions?”

“I dunno. I didn’t get a chance to talk to her before I pushed her out into the hall and grabbed an extinguisher.” Both turned at the sound of running feet.

“What happened?” Durant asked as he stopped beside them.

“Guess...” Pockets quipped as he retrieved his fallen tools.

“One of her experimental dishes?”

“Probably,” Merlin answered. “Pockets tried to be the hero and put out a bonfire with a water pistol. I snatched him out before he hurt himself.”

“Huh?” Durant looked puzzled. Pockets frowned and snorted.

Merlin chuckled at the raccoon’s expression. “The extinguisher he was using was not big enough for the size of fire,” he explained. “After I dragged him out, I sealed the room and vented the air into space.” As if to punctuate his words, the panel beside the door beeped. He pushed a white button beneath the red one and then closed the panel. Every room module on the Blue Horizon was equipped with such a system for fire emergencies that grew out of hand. The rule was to fight the fire as possible, but if that was not enough, get everyone out of the compartment and then activate it.

Merlin walked to a nearby intercom terminal and called the bridge. “Taro, here,” she answered.

“Go to the Engineering station and take a reading on the galley,” he replied.

There was a few seconds of silence before she reported, “Air pressure was just reading absolute vacuum, but is now rising toward ship normal. Temperature is twenty-two degrees and also rising. You should be able to go back in there in about a minute.”

“Thank you.” The wolf clicked off the connection and turned to Pockets. “Go on to Sickbay and check in on Sparky,” he said. “Have Samantha look you over, too.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Merlin turned to Durant at another beep from the wall panel and sighed. “All right, let’s go inside and have a look.”  

*** 

Pockets shuffled around the curved corridor toward the forward end of the ship. Sickbay was near the bridge, next to Renny’s cabin. He moved in through the open door and found Samantha giving the frazzled lynx a dose of pure oxygen. Sparky gripped the oxy-mask tightly and gulped air with her ears flat against her head.

“Easy now,” the Border collie told her.

The feline took a few more deep inhalations and then lay back onto the medical gurney. She coughed a couple more times and looked over at Pockets.

“What happened?” the raccoon asked.

Sparky smiled feebly and said in a raspy voice. “Fynian Wonder Meal.”

“Ah, so that was it,” Pockets replied.

“Why?” Sam asked.

“I wanted to surprise Renny with it.”

“I think you surprised everyone else,” Taro said dryly. Everyone turned to look at the red fox that had just stepped inside the door. “When are you going to learn that you cannot make that dish on board a starship?”

“It worked while I was on leave,” Sparky said.

“Did the compartmental settings of the Blue Horizon in flight match that of your test kitchen on the planet?”

“Uhm, I don’t know...”

“I thought you were our Environmental Specialist,” the fox taunted. “Our pressurized mix of air is not probably the best setting for that dish.”

The lynx covered her eyes with her hands and sighed. “It had not occurred to me.”

“Sparky,” Taro said softly. “You’ve caught the galley on fire twice now trying to make this thing. Before you do it again, I would suggest some extra research into it.”

“Agreed,” the feline answered.

“Now, are you all right?”

Samantha answered for her. “She took in a lot of smoke and she has a sprained ankle from when Pockets yanked her out of the room and banged her leg on the table.”

“Oops,” the raccoon said lowly. “Sorry, Sparky.”

The lynx motioned for him to come to her as she sat up. She tugged on his arm to pull him close and then licked him gently on the cheek. “Thank you, Pockets. You came to my rescue,” she said with a smile. “I might not have survived at all if you hadn’t grabbed me when you did.”  

*** 

Merlin wiped a sooty hand across his forehead and frowned through the lingering haze at the bear. “She really did a number on the kitchen, my friend,” he said. “I’m afraid I can’t just ignore it like I did last time. Our insurance will take care of most of it, but the rest will have to come out of her pay.”

“I’ll get Patch up here to help me assess the damage and give you a credit figure,” Durant replied gloomily.

“Yeah, well, wait until after we’ve salvaged what food we can,” Merlin said. “We may have to return to Kantus or divert to another port to resupply if too much is lost.”

“Okay, boss, we’ll get right on it.”

The grizzly bear left to get the engineer and Merlin looked at the ruined kitchen. Whatever she had done, Sparky had managed to spread the fire across every countertop and piece of equipment in the place. The flames had been extinguished just as they got to the cooler units, but he was uncertain if they still functioned. The temperature gauges on the door panels had melted. He did not want to open the units until they had alternate coolers in place to put the food into or he would have already looked into them. As the smoke haze was slowly drawn out of the shipboard air, he noticed the damage to the mural on the galley wall with a frown. Something in the chemical extinguisher spray the raccoon had used dissolved most of the paint Jiro had used to create the picture six years earlier. He groaned and shook his head; the cougar had spent three weeks on the mural during the maiden flight for their first customer.

Merlin walked around the table to the blistered countertop. He skirted around its side and stepped into the kitchen. Sparky and Pockets had used four extinguishers on the fire; the empty canisters littered the floor along with an assortment of pots, pans and cooking utensils. The walls were charred blackest near the massive stove and the oven was a total loss, as if something had exploded from within. Despite the earlier decompression and the ventilating fans, a small curl of smoke issued from behind the stove. Merlin leaned over and peered down at a blackened loaf of bread that had resumed smoldering. He found a damp towel in the sink and draped it over the loaf. The wolf straightened up and sighed audibly.

“What a mess,” Patch mumbled as he stepped gingerly into the room.

Samantha peeked in behind him and saw the ruined mural. “Ah, no,” she whined.

Patch looked over at the wall that had escaped his notice and shook his head. He pulled his eyes away from it and moved to the kitchen.

“Where is Durant?” Merlin asked.

The raccoon knelt down to pick up a broken spice bottle and replied, “He went down to his office to get his slateboard for the damage assessment forms and pricing guide.”

“Is Sparky okay?”

Samantha frowned at the damage and replied, “She has smoke inhalation, a sprained ankle and singed fur in places – mostly on her hands. Taro thinks she will be okay with some rest. She’s with her now in Sparky’s quarters.”

Merlin walked back to the long table and motioned the collie to follow him. “Wait here for Durant,” he said to Patch. “Sam and I are going to get the recreational cooler units from the upper deck. Don’t open the refrigerators until we get back with them.”

“Right.”

Samantha followed the wolf around the corridor to the lift. When Merlin stopped in front of the bright blue door, he thumbed a button set into the wall at waist level. The panel slid aside and the pair moved inside. He tapped a button labeled “3” and the lift door closed. The cubicle hummed lowly as it moved upward.

The door opened again seconds later and they stepped out onto the ship’s recreational deck. There were video panels along one wall, a pool table in the middle of the room, with card tables and library tables to the side. A large curved window faced ship’s forward that was equipped with the same near-invisible circuitry as the bridge panels that allowed it to double as a vidscreen for movies or other recorded programs. There was an instrument terminal below it to monitor, though not control, every major system of the ship. Lush blue carpet covered the floor and ceiling, and the walls had light brown wood paneling. There were comfortable chairs and couches dispersed at random around the large room, with a tiny kitchenette occupying a back corner. 

The recreation deck was a nice spot to get away from regular ship’s operations, but the room rarely saw much use. Everyone seemed to prefer either the galley or their individual cabins for their off-duty activities. In recent months, it had become a catch-all storeroom and things were lying about randomly. Several storage lockers occupied the aft wall for extra equipment such as weights, exercise mats and the articles for fencing. Jiro had been Merlin’s only fencing partner on board so the items had not been touched since his death.

The captain switched on the lights, but only four of the eight glow panels functioned. He moved toward the kitchenette, but before he could grab one of the small refrigerating cooler units, Samantha touched him on the shoulder.

“Merlin?” she asked, “May I talk to you a minute?”

The wolf looked over at her. “Make it quick, Sam. This may be all that saves our food supply.”

The collie nodded. “Let me pay for Sparky’s damages,” she said.

Merlin twitched an ear. “I appreciate your offer,” he said, “and no doubt she would, too, but she’s done this before. If she does not have to pay for her share of the damage herself, then she may be likely to do it again.”

“Please, Merlin?” she asked. “Sparky has been saving up for something important to her. This will wipe out a good portion of her savings and I have plenty to spare.”

Merlin sighed and put a hand on her shoulder. “If you want to help her out, why not help her with her savings instead? Let her pay for her mistake first, and then offer your generosity to her financial goal afterward. It will amount to the same thing, but she will have learned her lesson.”

Samantha nodded. “Okay, I suppose that will work.”

“Good,” the wolf said. “Now, let’s get these down to the galley.”  

*** 

The hours in the control room had seemed longer than the actual time Renny had spent in the center seat. Most of the ships he had served on had an automatic pilot to take over the mundane routine flight after launches and landings; many felt there was no real need for a continued presence on the bridge once the autopilot took over.

However, the cheetah’s new boss did not feel as if that were enough. Taro had explained to him that Captain Sinclair felt the necessity to have someone on the bridge at all times, in the event an unexpected emergency cropped up. Autopilots worked well, so long as a stray asteroid or another ship did not suddenly appear in their flight path. It was rare that such crises happened, but Merlin did not want to take that chance, and therefore required that all members of his crew take a watch on the bridge on a rotating basis. The autopilot could be engaged, but the room would be manned at all times. As the new guy on board, Renny had been assigned the first watch, though because of the launch from Kantus and the explosion in the galley he had remained an extra hour beyond the usual shift.

Merlin had relieved him on the bridge moments earlier and had told him to get some rest. Afterward, he was to help Pockets and Samantha clean up the long-unused recreation deck. With the damage to the galley not repairable with what they had on board, they would have to use the small kitchenette in the Rec Room for their meals.

Renny yawned widely as he approached the cabin that had been assigned to him and opened the door. He had not had time since coming on board to do more than stow his duffel inside the room, but the indirect lighting was already on. He leaned in past the potted trees and looked inside cautiously. Taro sat on the carpeted floor in front of an open closet door, a plastic box beside her. The red fox looked up at him with moist orange eyes, but she gave him a smile.

“Hi,” he said to her.

Taro wiped her eyes with the back of a hand and replied, “Hello.”

Renny squatted down beside her. “May I ask what you are doing in my cabin?” he inquired.

The vixen gestured toward the container in front of her. “No one’s been in here to box up Jiro’s personal effects since he died,” she explained. “I thought I should take care of it so you could set up the room how you wanted it now that it was yours.” She held up a small ceramic figurine of a non-sentient cougar and shrugged her shoulders. “I thought I would be finished before you got off your shift, but the memories slowed me down.”

Renny frowned and scratched one of his small ears. “Were the two of you close?” he asked quietly. Taro did not respond, but the look on her face was answer enough. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he replied softly.

“Me, too,” she whispered. She cleared her throat and put the figurine inside the box.

Renny fidgeted for a moment and then stood up. “I’m going to lie down for a while and get some rest,” he said, “but you are welcome to continue what you’re doing if you are quiet.”

Taro looked up at him and managed a small smile. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m almost finished anyway.”

The navigator nodded and walked to the bed. His duffel had been untouched and he moved it to the floor at the foot of his bunk. He quietly stripped the top blanket from the bed and set it aside. He sat down on the sheet-covered mattress and removed his boots and shirt. A moment later, he fluffed his pillow and then stretched out on the bed, his face to the wall.

Taro looked up from her box and glanced over at the cheetah. She let her mind wander a bit as she let her eyes stare unfocused at the spots in the fur on his back, until she realized her gaze had drifted toward the dark tip of his long, slender tail.

She smiled at a fond memory and turned back to her task. She quickly pulled the last of the small items from the bottom of the closet and sealed them up in the box. She would keep them in her room until the next time their next voyage took them to Pomen, where she would then have them forwarded to Jiro’s family.

When she got to her feet, she glanced over toward the bed and saw the cheetah watching her silently with large yellow eyes. He had turned over quietly and faced her. She gave him a genuine smile to let him know that she was okay and he smiled back at her.

Taro set her box on the desktop near the bed and then knelt in front of the navigator. She leaned forward and licked him on the tip of his nose, an action that took him by surprise.

“I’ve only known you a few hours,” she said, “but I am already fond of you.”

“Oh?” he asked as he raised his head to look at her evenly. “Why is that?”

“I learned a lot about you just visiting those few hours on the bridge,” she replied. “That, and your understanding about me and Jiro.”

Renny frowned. “I know what it is like to lose someone close,” he said. “Although in my case it was a younger sister named Sophie.”

The red vixen nodded, but continued to smile. “I think I will always miss Jiro, but I need to build some new memories now,” she said. “Want to help me?”

Renny sat up and patted the mattress beside him. “That sounds like a worthwhile endeavor.”

Taro gave him a smile, but narrowed her eyes as she got up and occupied the spot beside him. Without another word, she passed her hand over his chest, slowly running her fingers through his yellow and black fur. Renny wrapped an arm around her and then pulled her close.  

*** 

The bridge was quiet as the Blue Horizon flew through space at her normal cruising speed. The LightDrive engines had been pushed up to full and the autopilot had been engaged an hour earlier. The captain often spent many quiet hours alone on the bridge, usually with his nose buried in a mystery novel or going over manifests, invoices or purchase orders on his slateboard. He was currently looking over the financial data Durant had sent to him earlier and was frowning at the damage figures to the galley.

The stove and oven were not repairable and many of Sparky’s smaller appliances had been destroyed. Most of the spices and special seasonings she had acquired throughout the Planetary Alignment were gone and so were most of her dry goods. Fortunately, the large refrigeration coolers still functioned normally, even if the gauges and indicators on the outside of the unit were damaged by the intense heat of the fire. They would still have plenty of food to last them the three weeks to Alexandrius, but it would be somewhat bland without the lynx’s spices and other fine additions. The snack stores in the Rec Room lockers would help supplement their meals and the kitchenette there would have to substitute the galley for food preparation. 

The wolf glanced at the bottom line of Durant’s figures and felt a cold chill. Repair and replacement of equipment and foodstuffs to get the galley back up to operation was going to cost no less than ©56,000. Fifty-six thousand credits was nearly the full payment they would get for the delivery of their current cargo to Alexandrius! Durant had already contacted their insurance agent on Dennier, who had informed him that an assessor would meet them in Alucara to inspect the damage. Rough figures showed that the Interstellar Insurance Agency would cover eighty percent of the costs in this case, which would mean Sparky’s bill would come to ©11,200.

When Merlin showed Sparky the damage figures, she had nearly fainted over the amount, but she agreed that it was her fault and that she should pay for it. She promised not to attempt the Fynian Wonder Meal on board again, nor any other dish that required arbor whisk juice as an ingredient. The high temperature needed to cook with it did not react well with the shipboard atmosphere mixture. Sparky had ©15,000 saved back into her account so she would at least be able to cover her portion of the damages, but that left her with only ©3,800. As a consolation, Merlin authorized her to go on a full shopping spree to restock the ship once the repairs were completed. In her favor, several of the ruined appliances had been in need of updating anyway, but it was still an unbudgeted expense.

The wolf set the slateboard aside and stretched with a yawn. He got up and walked around the bridge examining readouts, and when he was satisfied that everything was running normally, he picked up a book he’d brought back with him and opened it to his bookmark.

He usually read mystery novels, but this time he had purchased a space-adventure story written on Earth over one hundred thirty years before that world had spread out into the galaxy. He enjoyed the archaic technology in the fictional story and was ready to continue reading. Before he had made it through a single paragraph, however, the Com panel beeped with an incoming call.

He set his book aside and moved to Taro’s terminal. He put her headset across his ears and said, “This is the SS Blue Horizon. What can we do for you?”

“Captain Sinclair? Is this Merlin?” said an accented voice from the headset speakers.

“Aye, this is Captain Sinclair.”

“Merlin! It’s me, Arktanis!”

“Tanis!” the wolf exclaimed. “Where in creation are you, old boy?”

“I’m in Corral City on Alexandrius. I just found out ya were heading to Alucara and wanted to know if I could meet with ya there.”

Merlin grinned ear to ear and said, “Of course you can! We will be at the Ryu Industries’ dockyard at the Chaparral Metro Spaceport on the sixth, barring any delays. What brings you to Alexandrius? The last we’d heard you were still playing soldier on Nalirra.”

“Ah, that’s what I wanted to meet with ya about, Captain,” the voice replied. “My service time has ended and I have a request to make of ya.”  

*** 

It had taken close to four hours, but Renny, Pockets and Samantha had cleaned the Rec Room and it finally looked cozy. The cheetah did not understand why the crew had not used it for so long, but he didn’t ask. Since he was now on the payroll and the Blue Horizon was to be his home, the navigator felt he would get a lot of use of the place even if no one else did. He had always been physical by nature and he was pleased with the amount of exercise equipment available to him.

Pockets had his nose buried in an open instrument panel beneath the large vidscreen. He had said something about it having broken down some months earlier, but as the room was seldom used, neither he nor Patch had bothered to fix it until now. Samantha had been most adamant about repairs to that particular unit. She had explained to Renny that she was fond of old movies and the large screen was better suited for watching the shows than the small one in her cabin.

Renny walked across the room toward the Border collie and sat down on a barstool by the kitchenette. She had just finished moving the last of their food items from the wrecked galley and was overlooking her handiwork. She set a wipe cloth on the counter and glanced over at the cheetah after brushing stray dust from her black and white fur.

“My first day on board has been rather eventful,” Renny told her with a grin. “Is it always like this?”

Samantha shook her head with a smile. “Not really,” she replied. “Usually the voyage from one planet to another is real quiet. If you have any hobbies, you will have plenty of time to work on them. If you don’t have any hobbies, now would be a good time to pick up something.

Renny crossed his legs and sat perched on top of the stool with his hands on his ankles. His tail swished lazily as it hung toward the floor. “It looks like I’ll be spending a lot of time in this room,” he said.

“You like old movies?” Samantha asked.

“For the exercise equipment,” the cheetah answered. He looked around the room and shrugged. “How can the captain afford to pay a crew to sit around all the time?” he asked after a moment. “Wouldn’t it be cheaper to have him just pay local people at the ports you dock into to unload the cargo for him? It seems like he’d have a perpetually bored crew.”

Sam nodded and leaned forward on the counter, her elbows supporting her weight. “Granted we don’t really have enough duties to keep us occupied constantly during a lengthy voyage, but we have other skills as well,” she said. “I keep the ship and crew supplied with needed items and I maintain the hardware and software of the computer system. Durant keeps the books in line and makes sure the cargo is secure throughout the trip. Taro is always in contact with businesses all over the Planetary Alignment, lining up new jobs for us in advance.” She gestured toward the raccoon across the room.

“Pockets and his brother Patch keep the ship running and take care of all the mechanical and electronic problems that pop up. Sparky keeps us all fed, but she also monitors the systems to keep our onboard atmosphere balanced and breathable. You are the navigator and keep us on course to each of our jobs, and we all play cargo mover when we land. That is, everyone but Sparky; she usually finds a way out of helping us.” She looked at him and shrugged her shoulders. “If you think about it, you are probably the one on board with the fewest duties.”

“You think I’m not important to the crew?” Renny asked with a frown.

Samantha laughed. “Quite the contrary, kitty. You probably have one of the most important roles among us, making sure we get from one place to the next without flying off blindly into space.”

“Kitty, eh?” the feline said with a lopsided grin. “I’ve been on board less than twenty-four hours and already you’re calling me names.”

The Border collie snickered. “Yeah, I have nicknames for everyone, and so long as you are going to be one of us, you may as well get used to it.”

“Yeah,” Renny said with a far-away gaze. “Several on board have already tried to make me feel right at home.”

Samantha gave him a mischievous smile. “That would have to be Taro and Sparky, I’d wager.”

Renny looked at her in fascination for a moment and then shook his head with a smile. “Half-right,” he admitted.

“Taro?”

“Yup.”

Samantha nodded. “Don’t get too comfortable,” she told him. “Sparky will be next.”

Renny leaned forward. “When’s your turn, beautiful?”

Sam’s eyes went wide and she laughed. “Keep dreaming, kitten,” she said. “I don’t get intimate as quickly as those two do.”

“Oh, sorry,” Renny said, his head down in embarrassment.

Samantha reached down and cupped his chin to pull it up. “Don’t be,” she said. “I’m flattered you think me attractive, but at the moment there’s only one person on board who gets my full affections.”

“Captain Sinclair. Yeah, I know.”

“I will assume Taro told you that,” she said dryly.

“Right again,” he said.

“She talks too much sometimes,” Samantha stated with narrowed eyes, “though she makes a good friend once you get to know her.”

“What about Sparky?”

“Everybody loves Sparky. She’s a wonderful person all around.”

Renny recalled the group meeting the day before and remembered something that had been on his mind. “May I ask you a personal question?”

“That depends on what it is, but go ahead and ask.”

“Taro told me about your father’s business, and that despite your position in such a prestigious company, you would rather fly around the PA in a freighter with your friend, Captain Sinclair.”

“That’s right.”

“Do you get paid working for the Blue Horizon, too?” He looked up at her hesitantly, feeling very nosey into her affairs.

Samantha chuckled. “Yes, I do, but only on Merlin’s insistence,” she answered. “Because of Holden Pharmaceuticals, I don’t need his money, but he refused to let me work without pay. So, I take everything he pays me and I put it in a private slush fund for the crew… all without his knowledge, of course.” She leaned close and put a finger to her lips. “Don’t breathe a word of this to him,” she whispered. “I use the money from time to time to help out members of the crew when they get into binds and I find out about them.”

“Why wouldn’t the captain like it?” Renny asked.

“He’s very conscious of my money, even though we’ve known one another half our lives, and he feels awkward when I use my own credits to do something for his business.”

“Ah, I see.”

“Oh, and Renny,” she added, “You don’t have to keep calling him Captain Sinclair. You are permitted to call him by his first name, Merlin.”

“Yeah, that’s what Taro told me. It just seems a little strange to be on a first-name basis with the boss. It’s never been allowed anywhere else I’ve worked.”

“Let there be light!”

Renny and Samantha looked up at Pockets’ exclamation and saw the large vidscreen come to life in the middle of an Interstellar News Network broadcast.

“Nice, crisp picture!” the raccoon said jubilantly.

“Yeah, Pockets, but there’s no sound,” Samantha replied.

The short mechanic reached into one of his voluminous pockets and pulled out a slender remote. He thumbed the button and suddenly the room was bombarded with multi-dimensional surround sound… at a deafening volume. Pockets had to scramble to turn down the sound and then looked back at his crewmates with an embarrassed grin.

“Heh…” he said, “it has not been on in a couple months.” Pockets took a quick look around the room and then smiled at his companions. “The recreation deck is almost ready for business,” he said. “Looks like all that’s left is to clean the carpet and make sure all the circuits function on the vidscreen.”

“I’ll get the vacuum,” Renny volunteered.  

*** 

Renny finished cleaning the carpet of the Rec Room and smiled when Pockets walked over to him. “I have not seen this deck look so good in a long time,” the raccoon said cheerily. “We have not really used it in a while, but with all the lights working and everything straightened up, we just might start recreating in here again.”

The cheetah looked around him as he stowed the vacuum in a storage locker. “The Argentina did not have a third deck for recreation. I like this.”

“Renny, look at this,” Samantha said. He and Pockets walked to the forward window and saw what Sam had indicated. The Blue Horizon was coming up near an area of space filled with gaseous hazes of blues and greens. Their current course would take them just beyond the edge of it on their right.

“Where are we?” Renny asked.

“It’s the Van Conner Nebula,” Pockets replied. “There are large traces of chorterium gas in there that diffuses sensors, but it’s otherwise harmless.” There was a flicker of light near the bottom of the screen, but its origin was out of sight. 

Whoom!

The ship rocked to one side and the resounding boom reverberated through the deck plates. “What was that?” Renny exclaimed as he scrambled to stay on his feet.

“Did someone let Sparky into the kitchen again?” the raccoon quipped.

Samantha hit him hard on the shoulder. “Pockets! That wasn’t nice.”

“Sorry…” The raccoon rubbed his shoulder where she had whacked him. “That was an explosion,” he said. “All too familiar, if I guess right.”

“He’s back,” Samantha replied, tightlipped. “It has to be Sagan.”

“I’m going to the bridge,” Renny said as he bolted for the lift. Samantha grabbed Pockets’ arm before he could follow and glanced out into the nebula.

The Border collie sat down in a seat in front of the panel and began tapping out commands on the Rec Room terminal. “I’ve got to be quick!”

The raccoon ran to the fencing closet and pulled out one of Merlin’s rapiers. “I don’t really know how to use this,” he said with a frown, “but I won’t be unarmed this time!”

“Pockets,” Samantha warned, “Jiro didn’t know how to use one very well either.”

“I know, but one of them nearly broke my neck last time. Never again!”

“All hands, we’ve got an emergency!” Durant announced over the ship-wide intercom. “It’s the Basilisk!”  

*** 

Whoom!

Renny stumbled through the bridge door and rolled onto the carpet as the ship reeled beneath him, giving the inertial compensators a job to do. The grizzly bear’s bulk tightly filled the pilot seat as he tried to maneuver the Blue Horizon away from the attacking vessel.

“Are they pirates, Mr. Durant?” Renny asked as he moved to the bear’s side.

“It’s the same ship that attacked us two weeks ago.”

“I don’t see it.”

Durant pointed to the lower right of the right-hand window panel. “Look there. It’s black.” Renny saw a wedge-shaped shadow emerging from the nebula. The vessel was painted flat black and had no active running lights, which made it difficult to see against the darkness of space.

“That’s the Basilisk?” he asked. “The pirates who killed your friend?”

“That’s them,” Durant growled. “I would recognize that Manta-class ship anywhere! We weren’t able to outrun them before and they got over half our electronics cargo before they pulled out.” He frowned as another ribbon of brilliant energy passed just beyond the Blue Horizon’s nose. “I don’t know how we’ll be able to get away this time, either.”

“Go into the nebula,” the cheetah suggested.

“What? Our sensors won’t work in there.”

Renny watched the marauding ship draw closer. “Neither will theirs. Go into the nebula!” he repeated. “Fly into it at full speed!”

“Now, wait—”

“Do what he says,” said a new voice.

The bear didn’t bother to look back at Merlin, but kept his hands tight on the guidance shifts. “Boss, I don’t think that’s a good—”

“Durant,” Merlin said quickly, “give Renny the controls.”

The bear turned to look at his captain beside the center seat with a deep frown. “Aye, boss,” he said as he vacated the station. Renny jumped into the wide seat and strapped himself in. His hands flew over the controls as he prepared to gun the engines with full emergency power.

“Bridge!” Samantha’s voice exclaimed over the intercom. “I’m transmitting a signal to the Basilisk. Wait ten seconds and then make a run for it! Mark.”

Merlin stabbed a control stud on the console in front of his navigator and broadcast to the whole ship, “Everybody buckle in, now!”

The cheetah nervously watched the timer on his station panel. When the eternally long ten seconds had passed, they saw the other vessel slip sideways and fire a shot wildly off their starboard.

“Now, Renny!” Merlin commanded.

The cheetah released the pent-up power and the Blue Horizon jumped into the nebula. He fired the forward thrusters to drop their speed to a near stop a short distance inside and then reoriented the ship’s direction with sudden, opposite thrusts of the guidance shifts. Once done, he reengaged full power and then asked breathlessly, “Are they following?”

Durant shook his head with a frown and wiped his sweaty palms on his green shirt. “We have no sensors, Renny, as I told you. We won’t know until we’ve cleared the nebula.”

A white-hot finger of silent fire arced just meters in front of the forward windows and lit up the bridge. Renny jerked the controls to quickly change direction and avoid the incoming fire once again, but the inertia compensators were on a low setting for normal cruising, so anything not tied down bounced around with the sudden jolt. Merlin and Durant scrambled into seats and buckled their harnesses after tripping over one another.

Twice again, Renny randomly changed direction of their axis in evasive action, trying to make the ship a difficult target to hit. Then he straightened her out to fly lengthwise along the nebula’s middle, blue and green gases slipping quickly across the Horizon’s spatial shields. There were no more hits from the attackers and no word from them either. They emerged at full throttle into clear space a few moments later and Renny maintained that speed to put distance between them and the pirates.

“The sensors are back online,” Durant said as he scanned from the engineering station. “No one is following.”

Merlin released the breath he had held and nodded to the cheetah. “Good work, Renny. Good work. Maintain our present speed for another ten minutes. If we still have no pursuers, drop back down to normal cruising and then readjust our course to resume our original heading.” The door opened behind them and Samantha stepped in, looking shaken but rather pleased with herself.

“What did you broadcast to the Basilisk?” Merlin asked her.

The black and white collie laughed and leaned against the back of Renny’s seat. “I gave them a computer virus,” she explained. “I got the idea from a movie. If it worked as well as written, their mainframe should have dumped all navigational charts, records and the central regulation program into oblivion.”

Renny looked at her with a frown. “All ships have backups for that,” he said.

“Yes, but it will take them hours to reinstall them. My virus also reset their sensor calibrations to random values.”

“You had time to write a program for all that?” Durant asked.

Samantha’s expression darkened. “I wrote it after Sagan’s last visit, a present just for him. I had to research the type of operating system his model of ship uses and then it took me a week and a half of coding to get it right.”

“I don’t imagine he’s too happy with us right now,” the bear said with a grin.

The feline navigator looked at Sam with a smile and then to Merlin. “I’m impressed!” he said.

“So am I,” Durant added. “That was some good maneuvering back there, albeit rather shaky. Where’d you learn to do that?”

Renny shrugged his shoulders. “Nothing but instinct. I was just trying to save our tails.”

“Captain?” the voice of Patch issued from the intercom.

The wolf touched the control and answered, “Merlin here. We lost them.”

“That’s good to know,” the raccoon said, “but I have some bad news for Durant, if you know where he’s at.”

The bear moved to the Com station and added his own voice to the conversation. “I’m here, Patch. What happened?”

“Several of the cargo pallets broke loose during all those jerks and jolts you took the ship through back there. There are several crates of drugs scattered all over the floor down here and some of it looks pretty well ruined.”

Durant groaned with a helpless glance at the captain. “I’ll be right down,” he said to the engineer.

Merlin took back the conversation as the load master left the bridge. “Patch, how are the engines down there after that mess?”

“The engines? They’re fine, Captain. Those low-level flares the raiders fired at us didn’t damage any of the ship’s systems, but I would recommend some hull bonding on the blast sites once we’ve landed in Alucara.”

“Why would Sagan use low-level weapons on us?

“If he already knew we were carrying drugs, he may not have wanted the cargo damaged while trying to take us. I heard Durant tell Pockets that some of what we’re carrying is rather pricey.”

“That’s a good point,” Merlin admitted. “That’s probably one more thing that saved us, other than Sam’s swift thinking with the computer and Renny’s quick reflexes on the flying.”

“Anything you need me to do?” Patch asked.

“Nothing unless there’s any internal damage you think needs looking into.”

“I think we’ll be okay. All my instruments are reading normal. I’m going back to my music.”

“Okay, Patch.”

As soon as the intercom connection was closed, Renny looked at Samantha and asked, “Who is Sagan?”

Sam moved forward and sat down at the engineer’s station. “He’s the jaguar who runs that ship we just escaped from. He is rather notorious and not a nice guy. It has been said that he has no honor and would inflict torture on his loved ones to get whatever he wanted. He’s psychotic and there’s quite a reward for his head in a basket – preferably severed.”

“No one knows where he comes from,” Merlin added. “All that is known is that his name is Sagan, his ship is called the Basilisk and his entire crew consists of jaguars like himself. He showed up three years ago and started raiding ships of all kinds, including one SPF cruiser. At first, he never hurt anyone, but then he and his crew became sadistic and started killing someone with each attack. He’s even been known to take on other pirates.”

Renny started to ease their speed back down to normal cruising and asked, “Nice guy. Is Sagan his first name or last?”

“No one knows,” Samantha replied. “This is the second time he’s attacked us.”

Merlin crossed his arms and scowled. “The guy you replaced on our crew was one of his victims. I keep wishing it had been me who Sagan had gone after with a sword, rather than Jiro.”

“Why?” Renny asked with a raised eyebrow. “You have a death wish?”

The wolf shook his head. “No. I was teaching the fencing arts to Jiro, but he was still just a student. I might have beat Sagan or at the least, driven him away before anyone was killed.”

“Merlin holds a Grand Champion fencing title on Dennier,” Samantha added proudly.

“True, but that was years ago,” the captain replied.

“Years ago, but you still like to practice regularly,” the collie retorted with a smile.

The room fell quiet as the cheetah locked the controls back down on autopilot. No one said anything else for a few moments until Renny looked up at the wolf. “Captain?” he asked. “I’ve always had an interest in swords, but have never learned to use one. Would you be willing to teach me?”

Merlin looked at him, his face unreadable. His tail twitched back and forth as he mulled over the request, and then he gave the cheetah a nod. “Okay,” he said. “Now that the Rec Room is operational again, you can join me there every day for an hour at oh-nine hundred hours.”

Renny smiled and nodded. “I’ll be there, sir.”

Merlin snorted and shook his head. “You can call me captain, boss or Merlin, like anyone else does,” he said with a laugh, “but please don’t call me sir. I’m not in the military anymore. “

“Right-o, Captain.”

The intercom beeped and the wolf opened the connection. “Merlin, here.”

“You’d better get down here, boss,” Durant said. “You are not gonna like this.”

“What happened?”

“The drug containers that Patch found broken loose contained Amohalkonicin. It is a chemical element that has to be in a total vacuum environment when it is mixed with other pharmaceutical ingredients. It’s rendered inert when exposed to oxygen in its base form. All but one container of it has been exposed to our shipboard air.”

Merlin groaned and closed his eyes. “Give me a credit amount. How much are we going to lose on the delivery because of this?”

“Boss, Amohalkonicin was the most expensive drug in the whole lot.”

“Give me the amount, Durant.”

“Seven damaged containers at ©3,500 per container comes to... uhm... 24,500 credits.”

Merlin swallowed hard and asked in a strained voice, “Is that before or after insurance figures?”

“Before.” Durant hesitated and then added, “I’m not sure what this means, Captain, but all of the Amohalkonicin containers have a small red tag attached to them with a U-shaped arrow on them.”

“Okay, I’ll be right down,” he said. “I’ll have to ask about it when I get in contact with Interstellar Insurance.” He closed the connection and then rubbed his eyes slowly. He looked at Samantha and asked, “Who’s next on the roster for bridge watch? Durant still had another hour to go for his shift, but I need him to help me with this fiasco.”

The collie punched up the roster on the computer terminal and replied, “Pockets.”

Merlin looked at Renny and asked, “Would you be willing to cover for the next hour until Pockets comes on duty?”

“Sure thing, Captain.”

Samantha waved her fingers at the wolf and added, “Go on, Merlin. I’ll maintain scanning for any pursuit by the Basilisk and keep Renny company for a while.”

“Thanks, you two,” the captain said as he left the bridge, wondering what else could go wrong on this voyage, but not daring Fate to ask aloud.  

*** 

It had been two days since the encounter with the Basilisk and Renny was still restless over the incident. The cheetah had never experienced anything like a pirate attack before and got nervous every time he thought about it. His life had not actually been uneventful since he had left the Thornton homestead on the Kantus savannah as a youngster, but he had never had his life on the line before. He had not expected that working on a mere freighter. Okami-class ships were probably the most common cargo vessels throughout the Planetary Alignment and were considered little more than ordinary space trucks. An “ordinary” ship should not have excitement, he had always thought, but Renny discovered from the others that while life on the Blue Horizon was usually slow-paced and mundane, there were moments when the ship seemed to attract peculiar times.

He was about to shut out the light of his room and try to get some sleep when he heard a faint tapping on the door. With an exhausted sigh, he touched the lock release on his room remote and then said, “Come in.”

The panel slid to the side and the ship’s cook stood there with a soft smile. She was dressed in an airy white sarong with small purple flowers and tiny green vines, and her feet were bare in the carpeting. She stepped inside and shut the door behind her.

“Hello,” she said in a quiet voice.

“Hi, Sparky,” Renny replied as he stood up and motioned toward the desk chair. “Please have a seat,” he said. The tawny lynx sat down and looked up at him quietly. Her face fur was lopsided where it had been singed in the galley fire, but she had fluffed it in her grooming to fill out the imbalance.

“Uh, what can I do for you?” he asked and sat down on the edge of the bed.

Sparky shrugged her shoulders and tilted her head to the side. “I’ve not had much time to visit with you since you came on board,” she said. “I thought I would see if you were open to some company.”

Renny gave her a smile and nodded. “I like company,” he replied. “I get too fidgety if I have long periods of time with nothing to do or no one to talk to.”

“I brought along some entertainment, if you don’t mind,” Sparky said to him.

Renny was puzzled, for he had not seen the lynx bring anything into the room with her, but gave her a nod. “Sure,” he said.

With slow, graceful movement, Sparky stood up and began to remove her sarong. Renny swallowed as she gave him a seductive glance and then dropped the cotton garment to the floor.  

*** 

 “So, how have you been doing?” Merlin asked his new navigator across the kitchenette countertop. Most of the crew had gathered for dinner and conversation. The only one not present was Samantha, who was currently on bridge watch. 

Renny took a quick look around at the other faces gathered around the food and lapped up some of his windroot soda, a Kantan soft drink he favored. “Well,” he answered, “everyone’s been nice to the fresh blood among them.” He smiled as he felt Taro’s hand thread around his waist. “Over the past two weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to sit and visit with everyone at least once.” He glanced at Taro and Sparky and added, “Some more than others.”

Pockets chuckled and poked him in the ribs. Renny jumped with wide eyes and his knees hit the bottom of the counter. “Don’t do that!” the cheetah exclaimed defensively. The mechanic laughed aloud and looked up at his captain.

“We’ve found out all kinds of things about him,” the raccoon said with a grin.

Renny grinned lopsidedly and hopped off his bar stool. “Yeah, I’m ticklish!” he said as he backed away a pace. “Don’t get any more ideas.”

“He also has a preference for wide open spaces,” Patch said around his unlit cigar. “He doesn’t like the cramped access tunnels through the ship’s double hull.”

“Yes, I’m also a little claustrophobic,” Renny admitted. “I think that’s why Patch conjured up the need for my help yesterday tracking down an errant cable signal among the liquid gel radiation shielding packs.”

Patch didn’t smile very often, as he seemed to prefer maintaining a grumpy exterior, but he granted the cheetah a thin smirk, which only implicated him to the navigator’s accusation.

Merlin chuckled and gestured to those gathered around. “One thing you should have known first off was not to reveal any weaknesses to this bunch that they might exploit.”

“Who, us?” Sparky asked innocently. “We’d never do anything like that!”

Renny looked down at her and smirked. “Uh huh… Don’t get too comfortable around me,” he said to all of them. “I can play that game, too.”

Merlin thumped him on the back gently. “I think you’ll fit in just fine.”  

*** 

The intercom chirped in Merlin’s room. He cracked open a bleary eyeball and glanced over at the digital display on his desk. It was oh-two-thirty in the morning ship-time. He fumbled for his terminal remote and found it just as the signal chirped at him again. He thumbed the intercom reply button and asked in an annoyed voice, “What is it?

“Sorry to wake you, Captain,” Patch’s voice said, “but you wanted to know when we entered the Centaurus star system.”

“How long until we approach Alexandrius?”

“There are no other planets in their orbits on this side of the Centaurus sun, so we can maintain our speed a while longer.”

“Patch...” Merlin groaned.

“Oh-eight hundred hours, approximately.”

“I’ll be there to take over pilot operations at oh-seven hundred. Full bridge crew is to be there no later than seven-thirty for approach operations.”

“Understood, Captain.”

“Thank you. Good night.” Before Patch had a chance to add anything else, the wolf switched off the intercom, rolled back over, and buried his face in his pillow. The wolf had been having trouble sleeping lately and he had just managed to drift off when Patch’s message had come through. He tried to go back to sleep, but Merlin found his thoughts swirling again. He tried to will himself back to sleep, but after twenty minutes, he sat up with a grumble under his breath and fluffed his pillow against the wall to lean upon. He switched on the small glow panel on the wall above his bed and wondered if he should get one of his novels to read. He quickly dismissed that idea. He had too much going on in his head.

Following the recent incident with Sagan, all had grown quiet and routine. Everyone seemed to find common interests in one way or another with their new navigator, though it was interesting to see the odd relationship develop between Renny and Samantha. While Taro and Sparky seemed to have intimate designs upon him, Samantha’s standing was different. It had started out as a surprise to the cheetah, but he quickly fell into the game of vocal bantering with her. They traded good-natured insults, calling one another names, and while it sometimes seemed as if they were serious, it was all a harmless game.

The past three weeks had been fairly uneventful, but the wolf had a feeling that was about to change. First, they had to make their delivery in Alucara and he was not looking forward to the meeting with Ryu Industries’ agent about the loss of the Amohalkonicin, an expensive base chemical used in tissue regeneration medicines. Even though the fault lay in the pirate attack, the Blue Horizon was liable for securing the cargo pallets. The loss was his and Merlin was not sure that Ryu would use their services again following this accident. That was too bad, since he had made a number of deliveries for them over the years. Next, he would have to meet with Mr. Duncan from Interstellar Insurance to discuss the fire damage and then arrange a local shipyard crew for the repairs. The only bright spot to his day would be a reunion with an old friend; he looked forward to seeing him again.

There was a knock on the door and Merlin frowned. “Come on in,” he called out. “I’m already awake.”

The panel slid aside and Sparky stood framed in the doorway in a light blue sarong with a tray of food. Her fur had grown out nicely where it had been burned and she was well groomed. She smiled at him and stepped inside. The lynx touched the button to close the door before turning back toward the bed and then moved to the captain’s side to place the tray across his lap.

“What is this?” Merlin asked with a friendly smile, his nose quivering at the aromas that accompanied her. The tray held all his favorite breakfast foods and a nice, steaming cup of coffee. He picked up the cup and lapped from it first, savoring the flavor and the bouquet.

Sparky twitched her whiskers and shrugged her shoulders. “Today’s going to be a full day for you, so I thought I would help you get a good start.”

“At three in the morning?” he asked as he picked up a slice of toast with an egg fried into the middle of it.

She laughed. “You can never get to sleep the night before a landing, Captain. Everyone on board knows that.”

Merlin mocked a deep frown and whined, “I’ve become predictable...” Both chuckled and Sparky sat on the edge of his bed. She watched him eat, and after a few moments, the wolf arched an eyebrow at her. “Was there something you needed to discuss?”

“Not really,” she admitted, “but I wondered if you wouldn’t mind some snuggle time when you are finished eating.”

“Feeling lonely?” Merlin asked softly.

Sparky nodded her head. “Yeah, I feel like I could use a friend.”

Merlin set his cup down and lightly brushed the fur of her left cheek. “You’re always welcome in my room, kitten,” he said with a compassionate smile, “but after ranting at you about the fire, I would assume you’d want someone else.”

Sparky closed her eyes at his touch and then looked back at him. “Well, it was my fault the ship’s galley was all but destroyed,” she replied as he resumed eating. “I’m supposed to pay for it, even if it wipes out my savings. Besides, you have always been good to me, Merlin. I could not hope for a better employer, especially one who calls me a friend without it affecting his judgment when I make mistakes.”

“This is not the first time someone’s had to pull your fur from a fire, you know.”

Sparky looked embarrassed. “True, but that first time wasn’t my fault.”

Merlin finished the last of his toast, eggs and beefsteak and then picked up his beloved coffee cup. He set the tray on the lamp table next to the bed and looked up at the lynx. “As your employer, I have to keep you in line,” he said, “but as your friend, you are welcome in my arms whenever you need them.”

“What about the others?  Do they come to you for hugs, too?”

Merlin gave her a lopsided smile. “Not many,” he replied.

“I know Samantha does,” Sparky mused. “What about Taro? She’s had her own share of trouble.”

Merlin took another lap of his coffee and then set the cup aside. He lifted the covers for her and then answered as she gathered her sarong around her to crawl in beside him. “In all the years we’ve known one another, Taro and I have never slept together, Sparky. She flirts enough with me, but I think she’s afraid of compromising the friendship we have since I’m her boss.”

“Renny’s been sharing a lot of time with her since he came on board,” Sparky commented as she snuggled up against him. “He has with me, too.”

“See?” the wolf said unsurprised at her confession. “Everyone seems to be happy.”

“Almost everyone, Merlin.”

The wolf looked down at the feline. “Something the matter?”

She was hesitant to answer, but swallowed and rubbed her head up underneath his chin. “I have plenty of company here, but I miss Roland. He and I have exchanged a lot of messages lately.”

“Well, it has been nearly two years since he last hired on with us as temporary help. Do you know where he is? Perhaps he can meet us at one of our delivery points and travel with us again.”

Sparky looked up at him with a smile. “I was hoping you’d let him join us again.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Merlin asked. “He’s a good worker, always pulls his own weight when he’s with us, and he gets on well with everyone. I like him.”

“He is on Dennier,” the lynx replied. “He’s working for a starship drydock in Lupopolis. He said they are building the prototype of a Prime-class transport vessel in a partnership with someone on Earth.”

Merlin pulled a slateboard from underneath the meal tray on the nightstand and called up the delivery roster. “After we leave Alexandrius, we’re heading to Earth for system upgrades. More downtime... Once that’s done, we have to fly empty to Quet, where we’re to pick up a delivery of processed micranite to take to Dennier.” He set the slateboard aside and did some mental calculations. “We’ll next be on Dennier in about three months.”

“Three months...” Sparky repeated as she thought about it. “That should be just about right,” she said.

“Right for what?”

The lynx looked up at him and then smiled mischievously. “That’s a secret,” she laughed. “Thank you, Merlin. You’re the best!”

“Only when it comes to taking care of my friends,” he said as he switched off the light.

She wrapped her arms around his middle and they both slid down to a reclining position. The wolf held her close and then shut his eyes. 

*** 

The world of Alexandrius loomed blue and bright in the forward windows, both of its small moons full on opposite sides of the world, all on a backdrop of glittering stars. Clouds swirled like ribbons across its surface and the planet’s oceans glittered even from the distance of spatial orbit.

Merlin sat in the pilot seat, Taro was stationed at the Com terminal and Renny occupied  navigation. Though not required for the landing procedures, Samantha was in the engineering station seat to see her homeworld as they came upon it. Their destination was the capitol city of Alexandrius and it was located on a high plateau near the center of the planet’s largest continent, which was visible through the ship’s main windows. Five mountain ranges radiated out away from the central plateau as if they were great spokes of a continent-sized wheel drawing the eye directly to the city at its hub even from orbit.

“Adjusting ship’s time to Alucara standard clocks,” Taro announced over the intercom. “Local time is fourteen thirty-seven.” It was standard procedure to set themselves to the clocks of whatever world and zone they were about to spend much time in. Because of the repair work, their stay would be longer on this landing. What the vessel’s clocks were set to would remain as standard ship’s time until their next planetfall. The ship’s systems would reflect the change instantaneously with her reset.

The red fox received a signal in her headset and nodded to herself at the information scrolling across her station screen. “This is the Blue Horizon,” she stated into her microphone, “Planetary Alignment registry number PA1261. We are coming in on standard approach vector for landing at the Chaparral Metro Spaceport in Alucara.” She listened a second and then answered, “Ryu Industries.” She received the transmitted coordinates on her screen and as she listened, her fingers glided across her panel to transfer the data to Renny’s terminal. The cheetah set about programming the information into the main computer as Taro finalized their approach from the Alexandrius Defense Authority.

“ADA has given us authorization for landing, Captain,” she said over her shoulder.

“Good,” the wolf replied. “Renny?”

“Transferring navigational trajectory to your panel now.”

“All hands, all hands,” Taro announced on ship-wide speakers, “landing sequence has begun. Strap yourselves in.” 

Merlin moved the guidance shifts forward and the ship nosed down toward the blue world. Renny flicked a switch at his station and the forward windows took on an orange hue as the heat shields activated. There was a resistance to the controls for several long moments as the atmosphere thickened with their descent, and then the windows cleared. Renny’s eyes grew wide when he noticed a bank of immense cloud formations directly in front of them.

“What kind of clouds are those?” he asked.

“Cumulonimbus clouds,” Samantha responded. “You’ve never seen thunderheads before?”

“We never had anything like cumolo… uh, thunderheads in the region where I grew up,” he replied. “Our weather was fairly calm.”

Merlin adjusted the inverted L-shaped shifts, skirted around the mountainous clouds, and through the valleys between them. “The air turbulence will get worse when we pass through them,” he said. “We’ll probably get stroked by lightning a few times, too.”

“Lightning!” Renny felt the hair on the back of his neck rising, though not from static electricity.

“We’ll be okay,” Taro reassured him. “Our heat shields will dissipate them before they hit anything vital.”

“That’s good to know,” the navigator replied unconvincingly.

“Here we go!” Merlin exclaimed with a grin. Although dangerous, this was his favorite type of flying. Nothing was quite like the feeling of speed when zooming through an atmosphere. The Blue Horizon entered a dark cloud and the windows went black.

“Taro, give me infrared on the video panels,” Merlin ordered casually as he dimmed the cabin lights. The first officer complied without answering and then looked over at Renny as the greenish screens showed the boiling clouds, rain and hail chunks swirling before them. The cheetah’s claws dug into the armrests of his seat and his ears were laid flat against his head. A small bolt of lightning snaked out above them, but the ship’s speed quickly left it far behind.

Merlin checked his readouts, adjusted his course through the thunderheads and then dropped their speed. A heartbeat later, the Blue Horizon emerged beneath the clouds into a hard rainstorm. Another bolt of lightning reached up from the distant ground and touched the cloud beside them with a boom that shook the vessel. They were heading westward in the opposite direction of the mass of clouds, so within moments they were out into full sunlight over the central plateau.

The video panel flashed blinding green a moment before Taro switched off the infrared signal and replaced it with polarization. Renny let out the breath he had held and looked back at the smiling wolf.

“What a rush!” Merlin said excitedly.

“If you say so...” Renny mumbled. He turned to the fox to ask a question, but saw her speaking lowly into her headset microphone. He moved his attention instead to the windows and looked toward the ground. They were still a long ways up, but he could see farmlands below them and a vast lake to the south.

“Look there, Renny,” Samantha said. The cheetah followed her gaze to the distance and saw a large city on the horizon.

“Is that Alucara?” he asked.

“That’s it,” she replied, “the capitol city.”

As the wolf dropped the ship’s altitude further, he also decreased its speed so as not to create an annoying sonic boom to the non-sentient farm animals below them. The city grew larger in the windows and Renny was somewhat disappointed that it resembled most other large cities, even if the central core of skyscrapers seemed impossibly tall.

Taro half turned toward Merlin. “I’ve made contact with a representative from Ryu Industries. His name is Ashton Vandercliff,” she said. “He’ll meet us at landing pad 39A.” The vixen did not look happy as she added, “He said he got your report on the loss of the Amohalkonicin and says he has some new information that he needs to discuss with you as soon as we’ve landed.”

“Lovely,” Merlin replied with a sour expression. He dropped their altitude to twelve hundred feet as they passed over the city and slowed to within flight speed limits.

“There’s the spaceport,” Taro said.

Samantha released her harness and stood up for a better view of the city, her tail wagging happily behind her. Everything sparkled from the recent rain.

“Sam,” Merlin said, “Start equalizing our internal air pressure with that of the city and then begin atmosphere transfer.”

“Aye, Captain,” she answered as she resumed her seat.  “Commencing with smog-transfer.”  Renny wrinkled his nose at her words, really hoping the outside air would first pass through filters. She saw his expression and winked at him with a smile.

Taro engaged a few switches and then spoke over the ship-wide intercom, “Artificial gravity has now been disabled. In another ten minutes, we will be on the ground with full engine shutdown. All personnel report to Durant in fifteen minutes for cargo moving detail. That includes you, Sparky.”

Renny studied the vixen in wonder. In private, she was playful, mischievous and even silly, but in dealing with the ship’s operations, she was very businesslike and took her role as second-in-command seriously. He wondered how much of her lighter side anyone else got to see. He felt the ship slow even more and glanced out the windows. They were moving beneath the spaceport traffic and on approach to a wide, three-story red building. In large white letters written in Universal Standard across the top of the structure were the words, Ryu Industries - Alexandrius Division. The Blue Horizon stopped forward movement above a concrete landing pad and began dropping slowly.

Merlin lowered the caterpillar landing gear and set his ship gently onto the pad with the slightest of bumps. He then began shutting down systems on his panel and Renny did likewise. Within moments, only the necessary systems on board were still operational.

The wolf got out of his harness and stretched as he stood up. “Taro,” he said, “I have a rather busy day ahead of me, meeting with everyone from Mr. Vandercliff to Duncan from Interstellar Insurance. I will not be around for cargo detail, so make sure Durant gives everyone their pay voucher before they all scatter across the city.”

“What is our downtime?” Samantha asked. “The usual three days until our next customer?”

Merlin shook his head. “No, I’ve arranged for a repair team to rebuild our galley, which must be done before we lift off again. Depending upon how quickly Duncan makes his assessment, we’ll probably have nearly two weeks before we can leave.”

“I’ll make sure everyone’s taken care of,” Taro said as she and Renny headed for the door.

“Merlin,” Sam said after they had gone, “I can get you a good deal on the repair work if you have it done in Belleville. It is not very far from here.”

“Your family’s home town?” the wolf asked. “Okay, make the arrangements and get back to me after Mr. Duncan has finished with us. Once we have completed our business in Alucara, I can transfer the ship there. Have everyone take a DC with them so I can let them know where to meet when we’re ready to depart.”

“You can depend on me,” the collie said. She gave him a quick lick on the cheek and then headed off the bridge. Merlin needed to gather a few other items before he went down to meet with Vandercliff, so he shut down the bridge lights and headed for his den. 

*** 

When Taro and Renny stepped off the lift in the cargo hold, they knew something was up. The pair could not see to the open bay door, but they could hear a commotion from that direction. They skirted past pallets and crates around the perimeter of the vast room, and eventually found a small crowd gathered at the cargo ramp. Visible amidst all the bodies of the crew personnel were a pair of sails resembling large tan ears. Taro saw them and squealed in delight, startling her companion. She rushed forward and pushed her way through the others.

“Tanis!” she exclaimed gleefully. She wrapped her arms tight around a short fennec fox and licked his cheeks enthusiastically. When she lifted him up off the ground, Renny saw the newcomer for the first time.

Tanis was short, but his large ears were spread out above him. His fur was light tan with a fluff of white at his throat. He was dressed in loose black trousers and a blue short-sleeve shirt. The one thing that most caught the cheetah’s attention was the fennec’s glassy black eyes. It was hard for him to distinguish the pupils from their irises, and the eyeballs themselves were reflective.

He did not know who this Tanis was, but Renny suddenly did not like him. Taro was just a little too familiar with this male and no one else seemed to care. Renny let out a sharp whistle and all the talking ceased. He put on a friendly smile and asked, “Would someone please introduce me to this guy everyone else seems to know?”

Taro laughed and set her friend down. “This is Arktanis TeVann,” she explained.

“Call me Tanis, mate,” the newcomer said with a strong accent in his voice and an extended hand.

The cheetah took his hand and nodded. “Renny Thornton,” he replied.

Sparky moved to the desert fox’s other side and added, “He used to work with us on the Blue Horizon a few years back, until the Nalirra military drafted him away from us.”

Tanis put his arms around Taro and Sparky and hugged them close. “My service time has expired and I’m a free spirit again.”

“So,” Pockets asked, “how long are you gonna be around, Tanis? It’s good to see you again.”

“How long? For as long as ya’ll have me,” the fennec answered with a smile. “Merlin’s hired me back on.”

“It’s true,” Durant spoke up. “The boss had me reactivate Tanis’ old account a couple of days ago.”

“Hired you to do what?” Renny asked suspiciously.

“Medic and pilot,” Tanis replied, “along with the usual cargo moving.”

“Speaking of which,” Patch said as he lit up a cigar, something he never did in the oxygen-rich atmosphere during a flight, “Someone from Ryu Industries just arrived. We’d better start moving the merchandise.”

“Good idea,” Durant said.

“Did our pay get transferred to our accounts?” Pockets asked. “I’ll need fresh credits for the parts to a project.”

Durant nodded as he pulled on a pair of work gloves. “I transmitted the funds to your accounts last night. Just don’t forget to take your credicards.”

 “The captain said he wants everyone take a DataCom with them,” Samantha said as she arrived. “That way he can let you know how long we’ll be down this time.”

“Ya’ll be down longer than the standard three days?” Tanis asked.

“Yeah,” Sparky answered. “I blew up the galley on our way here, and we’ve had to use the kitchenette in the Rec Room ever since. Merlin has to get it rebuilt before we take off again.”

“Ya did not try to make that wonder meal, did ya?” Tanis asked with a look of surprise.

“Guilty,” the lynx admitted. “I’ve been forbidden to ever make it again anywhere near the ship.”

“Where is Merlin?” Patch asked as he unlocked an anti-grav pallet mover from a storage locker.

“He has to meet with Mr. Vandercliff and Mr. Duncan. He will not be able to help us with cargo duty this time,” Samantha answered.

“Did someone just mention my name?” The group turned to see a thin black human in a grey business suit smiling at them.

“Are you Duncan?” Pockets asked.

“No,” the man replied. “I am Ashton Vandercliff. Is Mr. Sinclair present?”

“Right here,” the wolf said from the interior of the hold. He stepped out into the sunlight and everyone saw that he had changed into a standard business suit with an amber tie to match his eyes. He set a briefcase on the ground next to him as he extended a hand to the human. “I’ve been up in my den preparing everything for our meeting.” They shook hands and gave each other a professional smile.

Tanis grinned and gave a wave to the captain, but knew with Merlin that business always came first. The wolf acknowledged him with a nod and then gave the human his full attention. “If you’ll show me to your office, Mr. Vandercliff, we’ll take care of business while my crew unloads your cargo,” Merlin said.

“Of course, this way.”

As the pair moved away toward the building, Tanis picked up his duffel bag and set it aside out of the way. He rubbed his hands together and said, “Since I’m a member of this crew again, I suppose I have to work now, don’t I?”

Renny slapped the short guy on the back and handed him a pair of work gloves. “That’s right,” he said with cautious smile. “You can help me. Let’s get started.”

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