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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 1

— Episode 2

"Unexpected Partners"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

SS Blue Horizon PA1261

Captain’s Journal 

 

All repairs to the galley have been completed and the Blue Horizon is whole once again. Thanks to special favors called in by Samantha to friends in Belleville, the repair bill only amounted to ©27,500, much to the relief of Durant and myself. Sparky and Samantha have spent the last two days shopping for utensils, pots, pans and small appliances we will need, in addition to replacement groceries for the pantry. Everything in the galley is new and state-of-the-art. The only things that were not replaceable were all the special spices and seasonings Sparky had collected from the various PA worlds, though in time that stock will build up again. The two of them purchased nearly all of one store’s stock of what they did have on hand, however, so I’m confident none of our meals will turn out bland in the end.

I’d also contracted to have a new automated fire suppression system installed into the galley while the compartment was undergoing repairs and the spent hand extinguishers have been recharged as well. Sparky promises to be more careful from now on, but one can never be sure. This is something that should have been in place during the ship’s original construction.

Concerning the loss of the Amohalkonicin, Ryu Industries surprised us. It seems the damaged drug shipment was already oxygen-contaminated and was being recalled from Kantus, indicated by the small red tags attached to the containers. We were given a small penalty for not having the pallets properly secured, and Durant volunteered to pay the tiny amount since it was his duty as load master to check over the tie-downs. I have been assured that we will be contracted for further business with Ryu Industries, so it is a relief to know we did not lose a loyal client.

While the Blue Horizon was in the repair garage, I bought new linens for all the cabins and a few additional items for the Rec Room. I don’t handle long periods of leave very well, so after a few days off I returned to the ship and spent my time casually making some little improvements on my own and doing a few small repairs that neither Patch nor Pockets had ever gotten around to fixing. The Atmosphere Filtering System was in need of a big cleansing that took me two days to take care of. There was a lot of loose fur clogging up the multiple filters and some of it was partially disintegrated from various contaminants in the air over time. I will have to speak with Patch to make sure the filters are checked more frequently.

We are still eight hours away from launch, but everyone has already returned from their respective trips during our extended leave. Other than for the repair downtime, I think everyone needed the time away to just get out to do things.

It is great having Tanis back with us, but I think we may have some trouble brewing. During the voyage from Kantus, Renny and Taro spent a good deal of their off-duty time together. I know that Taro has no plans to settle down with any one guy, but I think Renny got a little too used to having her exclusive company. An onlooker would not think that Tanis has been gone for two years with the way he and Taro have resumed their own loose relationship. I can sometimes see jealousy in Renny’s eyes when all three of them are in the same room together, but he hides it well. I only hope it does not affect his performance at work; should that happen, it will be time for counseling.

On the other hand, Tanis does not seem to mind when Taro is with Renny. He knew her well enough in the past to remember she does not hold favorites. Taro enjoys male companionship and play, though she’s picky about who she gives her affections to, and I doubt she will ever get very serious with anyone.

Pockets came back to the ship with several crates of miscellaneous parts and electronics that he purchased at a local auction. He loves to tinker with gadgets during his spare time on long voyages and always seems to have some bit of junk occupying a locker in the hold. He said he had a special project in mind that will benefit the Blue Horizon. Sometimes I am dubious of what he may create, but he is skilled and has rarely made anything that has caused us grief.

Patch returned this afternoon, smiling happily. I don’t believe I have ever seen him in such a mood in the six years I have known him, but I will not be nosy. He has not volunteered any information on what his vacation entailed, but I suspect he found pleasant distraction in a feminine form if the faint floral scent that surrounds him is any indication.

Durant seems refreshed and, if I may venture to think it, he somehow looks... younger. He has not had much of a vacation in years, despite my frequent recommendation for one. He is easy to get along with and does enjoy his off-duty time, but when at work on the company books, he can be distracted by little else. This downtime seems to have done him some good.

Samantha spent most of her off time with Sparky and dragged the poor lynx all over Belleville and Alucara to show her the sights and do lots of shopping. When Sam had a tub marked for data crystals delivered to the ship this afternoon, her explanation was simply “Old movies.” It looks like the Rec Room video panel will get some use on this trip. Her love of old movies over more recent ones is well known among our crew.

We don’t have any cargo for this next voyage, and I even offered to extend everyone’s leave further since we will have more downtime soon. The Blue Horizon’s defenses have been in need of upgrading for a while and the trip to Earth for that purpose has been on the roster for nearly a year. Perhaps the weapons will allow us more protection against raiders until I can upgrade the engines to H-model power class. 

Merlin Sinclair, Captain 

*** 

 “Merlin?” Samantha asked as she stepped off the lift into the Rec Room. Renny and the captain were fencing over the exercise mats at the aft end of the deck, and with the collie’s distraction, the cheetah jumped in with his attack and scored a hit on the red heart painted over the chest of Merlin’s fencing uniform. The wolf looked down at the blunt point of his opponent’s sword and frowned.

“What was it you were telling me about keeping your attention on the fight?” Renny said with a grin as he removed his face screen.

“Touché,” Merlin replied as he removed his own shield. He nodded and then looked over at Sam.

“Sorry I ruined your concentration, Captain,” Samantha said.

“Not at all,” Merlin replied. “You just proved a point I had been trying to get across to our navigator. It just happened to be his point that got across to my anatomy.” He glanced down at the slateboard she held and asked, “So what is it you needed?”

She wet her lips and then began. “The Anason Defense Corporation of San Francisco has refused sale of some of the systems you wanted for the Blue Horizon.”

“Refused?” Merlin asked, puzzled. “Since when do they turn down customers for the sale of their arms?”

Samantha shook her head. “They have not refused to sell us everything you wanted, Captain,” she replied, “Only certain items. We’re fine and welcome to the updated sensors, shields, Geo21 terminals and Binfurr hand weapons, but we are not allowed to purchase the pulse cannons or shock thread emitters.”

“Why not?” Renny asked. “They sell them all the time to those who can afford it.”

Samantha walked to a nearby lounge chair and sat down. “Their license forbids sale of them to certain non-military craft. Apparently, those who set the rules on defense mechanisms apparently don’t think a mere freighter needs combat capabilities.”

“I disagree,” Merlin said in annoyance. “With our recent brushes with Sagan, I fully intend to fortify the Blue Horizon, even if I have to go through unofficial channels.” The wolf looked straight at Samantha and pressed his lips together tightly. When the canine did not respond, he glanced over at Renny and handed him his rapier. “We’ll have to cut our session short today,” he said. “Would you put this away for me? I need to take care of this.”

“No problem, boss,” the cheetah replied. “I’ll make sure it is cleaned and stored properly.”

“Thank you.”

Samantha stood up and followed the captain to the lift. She glanced back at the feline pilot and gave him a worried look before she disappeared from sight.

Renny frowned and looked down at the two swords he held. “I don’t know if this is a good thing,” he muttered to himself. 

*** 

 “Merlin,” Samantha said as she settled down in a chair in the captain’s den. “I know what you are thinking.”

“Do you?” the wolf replied. “Yes, I suppose you do.” Merlin fell silent a moment as he gathered his thoughts. The collie sat patiently awaiting his words, quietly wondering how this was going to go. “Sam,” the captain started, “I know you have a lot of… connections. You’ve managed to acquire things at times when there never seemed a clear way to obtain them.”

“Captain... I –”

“No, I don’t want to know who or where they are,” he added before she could say more. He smiled and waved a hand into the air. “I’m probably better off not knowing your resources. However, I need to ask you this. Can you get the weapon systems I want for the Blue Horizon?”

Samantha twitched her whiskers and then answered, “Possibly. I cannot guarantee how soon I can get it or how much it will –”

“Cost is no object,” Merlin interrupted. Then he smiled. “Well, cost is a concern, but this is an investment to insure the Blue Horizon against falling prey to Sagan or any other raiders out there. I hate to keep bringing this up, but Jiro might still be with us if we’d had adequate protection to keep Sagan from getting on board in the first place.”

“I’ll see what I can do, Captain.”

The wolf nodded. “I would appreciate anything you could turn up for me.” He glanced over at the chronometer. “Who’s on the bridge right now?”

“Tanis took the watch about an hour ago.”

“Okay, I’m going to shower and then settle in with a book.” 

*** 

Pockets smiled and set his soldering iron on a safety rack. He put the remaining band of solder into a container and placed it in a drawer of his workbench. He picked up a voltage meter, placed its leads onto the terminals he had just soldered into place, and then took a reading. The raccoon nodded to himself and put the meter away.

“Truly a stroke of genius,” he murmured to himself. He moved a forefinger to a solitary button recessed into the surface of the saucer-shaped project on his bench and was rewarded with a soft internal hum from the unit. He picked up a molded cover, attached it over the opening of the device, and it snapped easily into place. He turned the disk right side up gently and gave it a loving pat. The saucer was ten inches across with a ring of sensors embedded around the outer circumference of its prismatic blue surface. A domed lens mounted offset on the upper curved surface gleamed with a faint green glow. Three sensor antennae below the eye extended out toward each side resembling a set of whiskers.

Pockets then turned toward the computer terminal on his desk and typed in an encrypted command. The screen that appeared prompted him to enter three separate sets of identity codes and passwords. When he was into the system, he loaded a data crystal into the terminal’s reader and then accessed a program. He waited a few seconds for it to load and then smiled when the desired screen appeared. His fingers worked across the keypad and the saucer floated up off the workbench a few inches.

The raccoon grinned and gave the saucer a hard shove. It slid over the side of the bench, but maintained its altitude as it floated toward the far wall of the room. It stopped three inches from the wall and simply hovered in place. Pockets entered a few new commands and the device began floating about the room, its sensors calibrating and registering everything, its single eye missing nothing. Heeding its commands, the unit altered its altitude to float under the bed, over the bookcase and all around the room. Pockets studied the readouts on his monitor and nodded to himself in satisfaction.

The saucer returned to the workbench and hovered beside the monitor, its single eye studying the raccoon. Pockets smiled at it and then initiated instructions to tie it into the Blue Horizon’s central computer system. As soon as he finished the last keystroke, the raccoon looked up at the unit and said, “Hello, Moss.”

“Meow!” the unit replied back to him enthusiastically. 

*** 

Sparky hummed softly to herself as she chopped up several Tanthean vegetables into a steaming pot on the galley’s massive stove. She loved cooking and enjoyed all the preparations. She wore her smiling kitty apron over a loose red tank top and beige shorts. As she merrily worked away, her feline instincts snapped into play. There was movement at the edge of her vision and she looked over at it quickly. She froze as she watched a blue saucer with whiskers float into the room and then maneuver toward her kitchen. Only her eyes moved as she followed its progress.

The disc paused to study her with its single green eye and then continued on to monitor the contents of the stove. It moved around the room, pausing briefly at every readout and indicator on the equipment and then quietly floated back toward the door. Only when it had gone did Sparky twitch her whiskers. She did not know what the strange visitor was, but she had never seen it before and was not sure she liked it poking into her galley.

She moved to the intercom panel and called up to the bridge. “This is Tanis,” the fennec fox’s accented voice replied a moment later.

“Tanis,” Sparky said in a rush, “do we have a tiny flying saucer on board?”

There was a moment of silence before he answered. “A tiny flying saucer? I don’t think we have any in our stores. Do ya need one?”

“No, silly,” the lynx replied, shaking her head. “I just had one visit my galley. I’ve never seen it before now.”

“What was it doing?”

“It was just looking around, mostly at the equipment gauges. It’s blue, about the size of one of my pie pans, has a single green eye lens and... whiskers.”

“Whiskers? O-kay... I’ll buzz the Captain and see if he knows anything about it.”

“Thank you, Luv.”  

*** 

 “...that’s what she said, Captain.”

“Okay, Tanis, I’ll look into it. Let me know if anyone else reports sighting the thing.”

“Aye.”

Merlin looked wistfully at the novel he had to abandon and then stood up to retrieve his hat from a peg on the wall. There was a knock on the door and he tapped it open. Samantha rushed in and then stared back out into the corridor.

“Yes, Sam, what is it?”

“You are not going to believe this, but... I just saw a little one-eyed flying saucer… and it meowed at me!”

“Meowed?”

“Like a cat. You don’t seem surprised.”

Merlin twitched an ear. “Sparky just had a similar visitation in the galley.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know, but we need to find out.” The intercom beeped again and the wolf clicked the circuit open. “This is Merlin.”

“Captain,” Renny’s voice said, “I have a small floating disc trapped in my quarters. It opened my door on its own and started snooping around.”

“Is it blue with whiskers?”

“Uh, yeah, with one green eye. How did you know?”

“Others have reported sightings of this UFO,” the captain answered. “I’ll be right there. Keep it locked up if you can. It might be a surveillance camera someone planted on board.”

“Captain! I shut my door to keep it inside, but the door just reopened on its own!”

“Grab it if you can! I’m on my way!” Merlin and Samantha hurried out of the room and ran around the curved corridor toward the cheetah’s cabin. The noise of high-speed whirring raced toward them, and both had to flatten against the walls when the saucer flew between them with a frantic, “Meowwww!” Renny shot past them almost as quickly, stooped so low that he was practically down on all fours, and the swift cheetah gained on the disc.

Merlin looked at Sam and motioned to the opposite direction the others had gone. “This way! They’ll be rounding the corridor toward us again. We’ll cut off that thing’s escape!” They took off running and almost knocked over Taro, who had just come out of her quarters to find out the cause of the commotion. They bypassed her without a word and soon heard the chase approaching them again. Merlin whipped off his flight jacket and handed one end to the collie when they stopped. They spread it across the passageway just as the flying saucer came into view. Merlin jumped to the left as the disc tried to dodge around him and snared the thing in his coat, a pocket nearly taking off some of Samantha’s fingers in the process.

“Gotcha!” he exclaimed. He fell to floor with his arms tightly wrapped around his captive. Renny zoomed around the corner and almost didn’t stop in time to keep from running over his captain. He stepped on the captain’s hat, which had flipped off in the commotion, and nearly slipped to the floor.

“Meooowwwrrr!” The bundle emitted an angry squawk, and then Merlin and the thing in the coat floated off the floor a few inches. It started to move down the hallway toward the approaching Taro, but Samantha grabbed the wolf’s tail with her good hand and held on.

“Whoa! You’re not going anywhere!” she said with a grimace.

“What’s going on?” Taro asked.

“Mewr, meow-meowwwwww!”

“Moss! Stop! Quiet down!”

Everyone turned to look at the raccoon that had just joined them.

“Pockets, is this thing yours?” Merlin asked as the device lowered him to the floor and settled down.

“Yes, it’s my newest contribution to the ship,” the short mechanic replied with a wide grin. Merlin released the disc and watched it float over to the raccoon. “Captain, I present the MO.S.S. unit, or just Moss, to keep it simple.”

“Meow!” the thing chirped at the introduction.

“Moss?” Merlin bent over and picked up his scrunched hat. He frowned at the crease in the brim and held it in his hands as he looked back at the raccoon. Samantha rubbed her aching fingers and snorted at the short procyonid.

Moss stands for Mobile Sentry System,” Pockets explained, losing some of his smile beneath their gazes. “Its sole purpose is to roam the ship randomly, its sensors tuned to search for any abnormalities beyond programmed parameters, or for individuals who do not match a crew profile. I have it tied into the Geo21 computer to the sensors and security systems.”

“Why?”

Pockets stuck his hands in two of his many namesakes and replied, “Patch and I have our time full keeping the Blue Horizon functioning and we don’t always have the luxury to go around checking everything to see if anything else is about to go bad. Moss will quietly float about the ship, monitoring systems on all three levels and alert us to any potential problems before they happen.”

“Does it speak?” Taro asked as the saucer floated up to inspect her orange-colored eyes.

“Not really,” Pockets said with a smile. “It communicates directly to the Geo21 computer and can display its messages on any terminal monitor.”

“Then why the meow?” Samantha wanted to know.

“It’s just a personal touch since it looks a little feline, primarily to give it the illusion of individual personal expression. I thought it was better than beeps and whistles.”

Renny gestured toward the hovering unit and asked, “Can it think? Artificial intelligence?”

“No, no more than the Geo21 system can. AIs tend to develop annoying neuroses, so I’ve kept this simple. The outward expression is only a small running program to react in basic form to its surroundings. If, for example, it discovered a power relay overheating and saw you coming down the corridor, it might fly up to you and meow frantically. You may not know what it is trying to tell you, but you’ll know something is up enough to check the nearest monitor where it will give you data and video reference.”

Merlin nodded his head in thought. “How much will it interfere with our daily lives?”

“Not at all,” Pockets answered. “Merely leave it alone to go about its guard duty and you’ll soon get used to it floating about in the background, just like any other system on board.”

“I don’t want it spying on me in my quarters,” Renny stated. “What goes on in there is my business, not for the whole crew to witness over its camera.”

Taro cuddled up to his side and ran a finger across his chest. “You mean you don’t want everyone else to see our adventures together?” She laughed at the expression that appeared on his face.

“Something like that,” he muttered under his breath, but loud enough for all to hear.

Pockets grinned and looked up at the tall cheetah. “Moss is tied into the computer’s security system and can operate any door or panel to gain access to do its sentry duty. However, all you have to do is engage the lock on any door you want to remain shut and it will keep Moss out just as well as anyone, except in the case of a real emergency.”

“Oh, okay then.”

Samantha put a hand on the raccoon’s shoulder and gestured toward the saucer. “Earlier you said that it was also designed to search for individuals who do not match a crew profile. What did you mean by that?”

“Intruders.  Stowaways. Lucas…” he replied with a look at the captain.

Merlin’s ears went flat against his head at his younger brother’s name. Lucas Sinclair was not the type of guy anyone would want to claim as a relative. He was usually unkempt, broke and out to see what con job he could pull on someone. He was a real dud in most people’s opinions and he had been known to stow away on the Blue Horizon for free passage to another port to escape some trouble he had gotten into.

Their elder sister Shannon had raised them both after the trio’s parents had perished in a violent tornadic storm that hit their hometown, but Lucas had always been a troublemaker and an embarrassment to the family. It was unknown just how he managed to find them for another ride amongst the thousands of ships and billions of lives spread across several planetary systems, but he seemed to have a knack for stalking them. It was too bad he’d never joined the Spatial Police Force; they could have used someone with that kind of talent.

“Okay, you’ve sold me on that,” the wolf said. “What about its power consumption?”

“It’s very efficient, Captain. Its power usage is very low, owing to new Tanthean technology, and it will return to engineering to recharge as necessary.” It was clear Pockets was proud of his invention. “If you sat on top of it, I’m sure it could lift you and haul you down the corridor if needed.”

“It has already tried that,” Merlin said with a smirk. “All right, Pockets, we’ll give Moss a tryout. Just try to respect everyone else’s privacy with it.”

“Not a problem, Captain.”

“Can it operate in a vacuum?” Renny asked. “At times with our engines standing down, we could have it inspect the external systems, too.”

“Hmm...” the raccoon mused as he scratched absently at his left ear. “I hadn’t considered that, but I can look into it,” he replied.

“Be sure to send a message about it to everyone’s terminals, Pockets,” Merlin said. “I don’t want more flying saucer reports coming in to me every ten minutes.”

“Aye, Captain.” 

*** 

Merlin tossed his warped hat onto its peg with a frown. He’d had it for years, but now it would have to be replaced. He settled back onto his bed with his book and had just opened it to his bookmark when there was a knock on the door. The demands of being a captain...

“Come on in,” he said with a sigh.

Samantha opened the panel and peeked in at him. “Captain, may we talk to you?”

“We?”

“Durant and I.”

“Come on in,” he repeated.

The grizzly bear followed the supply officer into Merlin’s quarters. He looked puzzled as he leaned up against the bookcase. “I don’t know what this is about either, boss.”

Samantha took the chair at the desk and turned it to face them as she sat down. “I wanted you both in on this conversation since the ship’s finances are involved here.”

Merlin looked at her with interest. “You have information about the armaments I wanted for the Horizon?” he asked. Durant twitched an ear as he crossed his arms. As the ship’s accountant, Merlin had told him about his earlier conversation with the Border collie in the event she was successful and funds were needed to make the purchase.

“I’ve been in contact with Victor Faltane,” Samantha said, confirming their thoughts. He’s a human on Earth with more... uh, resources… than I have to get unorthodox materials.”

“And?” Merlin prompted her to continue when she hesitated.

“He says he’s found an arms dealer with the items you requested,” she replied. “However, the channels are not quite… official… and therefore a little pricey.”

“Forget the shady details of your contacts, Sam,” Durant said softly. “What is it going to cost us?”

Samantha fidgeted and looked over at the wolf. “Considering what we’re after, he can get them at a good price.”

“The price, Sam,” Merlin said suspiciously.

“Purchased and installed, the pulse cannons will be ©8,000 each, and the shock thread emitters are ©4,250 each. You wanted four of each, I believe, to cover all points of the compass. That would make it a grand total of ©49,000.”

Durant gasped and Merlin made choking noises. The wolf put a hand to his chest and felt his rapid heartbeat. “Couldn’t you get us a better deal than that?” he asked hoarsely.

“I’m sorry, Captain,” Samantha replied. “I checked with three others and this is the best deal. If we had been able to go through the Anason Defense Corporation, we could have gotten the entire package installed for ©26,000. My other contacts had prices ranging from ©55,000 to nearly ©90,000.”

Merlin looked over at Durant and repeated with a gulp, “Forty-nine thousand credits...”

“We have the funds in the company account,” the bear said slowly, “but it will severely hamper basic operating expenses and shorten our profit margin substantially, especially after restocking the pantries and repairs made to the galley.”

“I’ve been promising Patch that we’d upgrade the engines soon, but after this, that will have to wait,” Merlin replied. “After the new installations are completed, we’re due to head out to Quet to make a pickup, but on our way there, we’ll be flying empty – which pays nothing. Taro was unable to secure us a delivery of anything going that way since nobody wants to go to that dump.”

He looked over to Samantha for a long moment before he finally let out a heavy sigh. “Okay, put in the order and coordinate the payments through Durant.”

The collie nodded. “I’ll have Mr. Faltane arrange to have them shipped from Brandt. If he orders them now, they should arrive around the time ADC has finished installing the other systems.”

“Brandt!” Merlin exclaimed. “You didn’t tell me they were coming from Brandt!”

“You told me you weren’t interested who my contacts went through,” Samantha reminded him with a frown. “I don’t have contacts there, but Faltane does.”

Merlin was shaken, but he finally nodded for her to carry on. Durant departed behind her without a word, leaving the wolf to his thoughts. Brandt had once been a thriving commercial world, but it had fallen to corruption and economic ruin following the depletion of their primary resource, and it was now home to black market and underworld transactions. There were honest businesses operating out of Brandt, but there didn’t seem to be many. Even the SPF had been decommissioned as having any kind of jurisdiction near that world, so the residents were often tough to deal with. Personally, Merlin had never been to Brandt and had never had a desire to visit the place, but if he could get what he wanted from there, he supposed that it would not hurt to receive something manufactured on Brandt.

The wolf suddenly smiled at the irony of it. He would be getting armaments from a place that often supplied raiders for use against raiders. Suddenly he felt justified for getting them from Brandt. The systems might be rather expensive, but if they would be used to save the Blue Horizon from attack, it would be credits well spent. At least he would not have to go there personally to get what he needed.

Merlin sat back on his bed and picked up his novel, now in a more relaxed mood.  

*** 

Taro smiled and half-closed her eyes as the evening sea winds blew through her fur. She was walking along a secluded beach, her toes firmly dug into the white sand as the surf washed upon them. Her only garment was a beige ribbon tied in a bow at the tip of her tail and a wide-brimmed straw hat with cutouts for her ears. There was no one else around and all was peaceful.

Due to the seemingly endless repairs the Blue Horizon was forced to undergo lately, the crew had gotten several extended vacations. They had been on Earth for two weeks and the vixen’s roaming had brought her to this small island in the Gulf of Mexico. She had spent the first few days in the company of Renny and Tanis, but their constant friendly rivalry for her affections had irritated her after a while. Tanis only teased the cheetah to get a rise out of him, but Renny sometimes took his feelings toward the red fox a little too seriously. She had ditched them in the streets of New Orleans and escaped on a chartered boat to this place. She had flirted with the Cajun boat pilot on the trip out, but he had been interested only in her money.

The vixen moved up the beach toward her blanket and sat down on the multicolored fabric beside her ice chest. She noted immediately that the DC flashed an amber diode, indicating someone had tried to contact her unit. The DataComs carried by the other crewmembers were keyed to one another, so she sighed and picked up the device, strongly hoping it was not Renny or Tanis again. She loved them both dearly, but there were times she wanted to be away from them.

Fortunately for her, the call  had come from her captain. She activated the unit and then tapped the diode. The device would send a callback tracer to whoever had last tried to contact her. “This is Taro,” she sing-songed into the tiny microphone.

“Taro,” Merlin’s voice came back a moment later, “I hope I’m not disturbing you, but I want to give you an update on the ship.”

“Go ahead, Captain,” she said in a lazy voice. She pulled the straw hat off her head with her free hand and placed it on the blanket beside her. With the sun setting, she no longer needed it.

“I just got word from the Anason Defense Corporation that the installation of our updated sensors, shields and new Geo21 terminals has been completed. The inspector’s examination is tomorrow morning and then the work here is done. I received the new hand weapons from Binfurr Arms and have already secured them.”

“Where are you now?”

“I’ve spent the past week with a friend of mine in Oklahoma City. He’s going to fly me back to San Francisco in his private flitter.”

“Any word on the special items Samantha ordered for you?”

There was a moment of hesitation before the captain answered, “I will not go into details over the DC, but her contact gave me directions on where to transport the ship for the further upgrades. He expects the shipment to arrive by tomorrow afternoon, so if the inspection at Anason goes as scheduled in the morning, the Blue Horizon will be delivered to the installation site in time for them to get started. He estimates another four days thereafter for everything to be completed for my thumb print.”

“Has he manipulated the price?” Taro asked suspiciously.

“Actually, no.”

“Surprising. Where is the installation site?”

“It is in Tucson. By the way, Taro, where are you? Renny was afraid you’d been abducted.”

The fox smiled. “I’m resting in the sand on a secluded beach,” she replied. “Tell him he can stop worrying about me. I’m okay and am enjoying the warm sun on my fur.”

“That’s kind of vague, Taro.”

“That’s the idea, Merlin.”

“Okay, I get the picture,” the wolf said with a laugh. “I won’t bother you again until it’s time to gather back to the ship.”

“Thank you, Captain. I appreciate it.”

The fox clicked off the communication device and set it aside. The sun was setting near the horizon and she wanted to watch it in peaceful solitude. 

*** 

Sparky and Durant stopped to rest on one of the park benches located along the boardwalk. Several other sightseeing visitors stared at them as they walked by. Although Furs had originated there three centuries earlier, it was obvious some of the humans on Earth were still not used to seeing many sentient animals on their world, especially someone like Durant in a National Park where native grizzly bears were a protected species.

Durant smiled and nodded courteously to the family and then looked down at the Yellowstone pamphlets he had picked up at a booth near the ancient Old Faithful Inn. “I’m surprised to see this many people in the park at this time of year,” he said with fogged breath, looking around him. Snow was everywhere but the cleared boardwalks and around the hot spring geysers. Those who were visiting the park were bundled up heavily, although this particular season the winter had been rather mild. Durant wore only a pair of loose trousers and a lightweight green shirt, plus a light tan bomber jacket with Blue Horizon crew patches on the shoulder and chest. He did not seem all that affected by the cold, except he had felt drowsy since they had arrived two days ago.

Sparky, however, was shivering in the cold and constantly stayed close to her rather large, cuddly companion. Her teeth chattered as she tried to speak. “D-D-D-Durant... c-can we g-go?” she asked pitifully. “I-I-I’m not well s-suited for this weather w-w-without my winter fur.”

Durant looked down at his diminutive companion and smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry, Sparky,” he said. “I’d forgotten that it is early winter here.”

“How c-can you f-f-forget with s-snow all around us?”

“I’m sorry,” Durant said again.

“L-let’s go, please?”

“Okay, back to the Inn we go.”

“N-not just to the Inn,” Sparky chattered as they stood up and made their way back up the boardwalk. “L-let’s go s-somewhere further south, w-w-where it is w-w-warmer!”

The bear picked her up and held the lynx close in his arms for warmth. “How about Florida? It’s closer to the equator.”

“T-t-that s-s-sounds wonderf-f-ful...” 

*** 

“Jasper Porter?” A short, redheaded man with bowed legs stepped around the counter to look at the cigar-smoking raccoon before him. He was only a foot taller than the Fur, which only enhanced his own shortness, and he was dressed entirely in denim. His arms were thick and he did not seem to have much of a neck, but his green eyes were piercing and missed nothing around him. “I’ve been expecting ye,” he said with a smile that caused the scar under his left eye to disappear within the wrinkles of his face.

Patch nodded and smiled around his cigar. “Do you have it?”

“Aye, that I do, and it is a thing of beauty, if I do say so myself.”

“Good, then let’s have a look at it.”

The human wrung his hands together and motioned toward the back room. “This way, Mr. Porter,” he said. “I do think ye’ll be pleased with it. They’re not easy to get nowadays and it takes a fine professional to operate one.”

Patch flicked the ashes off his cigar into an old ashtray on the counter. “Indeed?” he said, narrowing his eyes at the challenge. “I’ve not handled one before, but with my skills, it shouldn’t take long to get the feel of it.”

“Good, good,” the shopkeeper said as he led his customer to a long, blanket-covered table. “Those who own one o’ these usually has few friends for a while, but when you’ve gotten the hang o’ it, they’ll take a keen int’rest in ye, for sure.”

Patch didn’t wait for the man to draw back the blanket and did the honors himself. He held his breath at the sight of the object and lightly ran his hand over its fine construction. “I came prepared to talk you down in price, Mr. Onion,” he said, “but what I see here makes me believe it is worth every credit of what you’ve quoted me.”

The little man raised his eyebrows at that revelation. “In that case, my little friend, you can have it minus fifty credits. I know a good customer when I sees one!”

Patch smiled at the human in full realization that the item had likely been overpriced by just that amount anyway, but he handed him his credicard. “I’ll be sure to pay you another visit next time I’m on Earth,” he said. He looked back at his new acquisition and was satisfied with the purchase. 

*** 

Arktanis looked up at the Blue Horizon as they stepped into a San Francisco aircraft repair hangar and pointed to the vessel with his left hand. “That’s my ship, Jennifer,” he said. A human female of seventeen summers stood beside him and absently petted the top of the fennec’s head. Her long blonde hair fluttered gently in the Pacific Ocean breeze and she looked down at him with large blue eyes.

“Would you take me on board?” she asked. “I’ve never been on a real space ship.”

Tanis smiled as she knelt down to look him in the eye. “I can take ya in to look around, but they’re still working on it. We cannot get in anyone’s way and should not stay very long.”

“How about just a quick tour?” she asked. “Just for a few minutes?”

“Okay. Follow me.” He started toward the ramp into the cargo bay and the girl followed him with a satisfied smile. She had met the dark-eyed fennec fox at a local park where he was doing magic tricks for a handful of children. She had been fascinated by it all, not because of the sleight of hand performance, but due to his very nature. Earth was the homeworld to roughly half of the humans in the Planetary Alignment – the other half grew up on Kantus, one of Earth’s first interstellar colonies to relieve the burden of overpopulation after the discovery of Faster Than Light travel – and although they were an official part of that league of worlds, anthropomorphs — or Furs as the humans tended to call them — were primarily visitors to their original birthplace.

It was ironic that the Furs had been created so that humanity could move out into the stars, but yet humans stubbornly remained on Earth, letting those Furs populate the other worlds they’d discovered. Even after three hundred years, there were not many Furs living on Earth outside of embassies, most just visitors for business or trade, so the locals tended to notice whenever any were around.

Jennifer’s interest in Tanis was fueled by a long desire to see more than just her own world. Her family had money enough that she had already done a lot of traveling all over the globe, but they were uncomfortable with things out of the ordinary so they would never allow her to leave her homeworld to travel among the stars.

She looked up into the cavernous holding area that was currently devoid of cargo. A few workers were boxing up tools and sweeping debris from the floor as they passed. Tanis waved to one of them and led his personal tourist toward one of the main lifts.

“We won’t linger down here in the cargo and engine areas,” he told her as the red door of the elevator closed behind them. “I’ll take ya up to the residential quarters and show ya the bridge, too.”

“Cool,” she said. It only took a moment to get to the second level and then he led her into a gently curving corridor. He pointed out the different cabins they passed as she translated and read aloud the nameplates written in Standard. “You have a room full of pockets?” she asked.

“No, silly,” he answered with a grin. “Our mechanic is nicknamed Pockets. He’s a raccoon.”

“Durant?”

“Grizzly bear. Our accountant.”

“You have a grizzly? Cool! What about Sparky?”

“A lynx. This next room is her galley.”

“This is the galley?” Jennifer repeated doubtfully. “It looks more like a cafeteria. It looks brand-new, too.”

“A galley is the same thing as a cafeteria and we’ve just had it rebuilt after a fire. This is where we eat and the kitchen back there is where Sparky prepares our meals.” On the wall was painted a large copy of the ship’s emblem, an upward vector surrounded by a tapering, circular outline that was intersected by a downward vector whose tail descended below the circle. It had been designed by Jiro Brannon not long after the Blue Horizon had first gone into business. His original mural had been destroyed in the fire, so a replication of his logo had been put up on the new wall in its place. Tanis pulled her out of the room and continued around the corridor. He took off his flight jacket and carried it in his arms.

“Who is Patch?” she asked as she took up reading the nameplates again.

“A raccoon. He’s -”

“Another raccoon?” Jennifer asked.

“Yeah, he’s our chief engineer. He is Pockets’ twin brother.”

“Hey, this door doesn’t have a name plate. Who has this room?”

“No one. It is a spare for guests who stay with us during a flight, although that doesn’t happen often,” Tanis replied. He opened the door and switched on the light. “It’s got the same floor plan as the other cabins, so once ya’ve seen this one, ya’ve seen the others, only without personal effects.”

Jennifer walked in and plopped down on the bed. “Hmm,” she hummed, “it’s rather comfy in here.”

Tanis smiled and twitched his ears. “It has to be. The voyages between worlds take weeks and sometimes months to travel and everyone needs their own private space. It helps to have a comfortable room if ya have to spend long periods of time in it.”

“It takes weeks and sometimes months?” she repeated. “Why so long?”

“Interstellar distances are quite vast,” Tanis explained. “In the early days of space travel, it took years for the fastest unmanned probes to reach other worlds just within the same solar system, and at those speeds, it would take decades to travel to another star.  Our LightDrive engines are exponentially faster, but it still takes a lot of time to get from one place to another. It would be nice if we had instantaneous travel, but that kind of technology just doesn’t exist.”

The girl nodded as if she understood, but then smiled thoughtfully to herself as she looked around the room. She stood up and looked to the corridor. “Shall we continue?”

As they walked, she saw that the next cabin was labeled with the name of her companion. “What kind of animal are you?” she asked, giving him a closer examination. His tan fur was silky in texture and the fluff of white at the base of his throat stuck out of his shirt like a bunched up scarf. She ran her fingers through the soft fur behind one of his large ears and he smiled up at her.

“A fennec fox,” he replied. “My homeworld is Nalirra, in the Roppa star system.”

Jennifer appeared confused. “Why do you with fur wear clothing?” she asked boldly. “I wouldn’t think with a natural coat of fur that you’d have a need for clothing to protect you.”

Tanis grinned widely at her question. “It’s yer fault, actually.”

“Mine?”

“I meant yer planet,” he replied. Taking on the tone of an instructor, he explained. “Although the creation of Furs started on Earth, the other colony worlds have been operating apart for so long that it’s sometimes difficult to remember where they began, especially since some of them were abandoned or forgotten for decades. After the Planetary Alignment was formed, the youth of our various planets adopted the wearing of clothing either as a fad or rebellion against their elders, as most youth do. The trend never really died, however, and as they grew into the adults of our societies, they continued the practice. If ya travel outside yer own solar system, ya will still see many of the elders wearing only their fur, but for the most part, a lot of us who travel off world wear clothing like you do.”

Jennifer wrinkled up her nose. “Isn’t it hot, wearing clothes over fur?”

“Not with our fabrics. They look similar to yers, but they are much lighter and cooler. Besides, we also wear them loose and they are made to breathe. They’re for show, mostly, without having any real practical use, although the extra layers are great when shipboard heaters don’t always work well enough out in the absolute cold of space.”

“Wow... We were the cause of that?” she asked.

Tanis laughed and motioned for them to continue walking. “Pretty much,” he said. “Not that it is a bad thing, mind ya. The clothes give us the chance to be different from our own species, or similar to others. Take a look at my flight jacket.” He held it up for her to see. It was a light brown all-weather fabric with the ship’s emblem patch on the left breast and right shoulder. “All the crew members have these. As I’ve told ya, we’re a mixture of species: bear, canine, cheetah, red fox, fennec fox, lynx, raccoon and wolf, but with our similar jackets, we can be similar together.”

“Who has the next cabin to yours? This person, Taro?”

“She’s a fox,” he answered.

“What species is she?”

Tanis looked at her strangely. “A fox, I said.”

“Oh, sorry,” Jennifer laughed. “On my world, we call anyone who is good looking a fox.”

Tanis was not sure he understood the reference, but he smiled anyway. “She fits both explanations, then. She’s quite lovely.” His eyes took on a far-away look as he added the last. The human girl laughed and peered at him slyly.

“You have something going with her, don’t you?” she said in a conspiratorial whisper.

“None of yer business, girl,” Tanis whispered back with a wink.

“Can we go to the bridge now?” Jennifer asked. “Reading name plates isn’t all that exciting.”

“This way, then,” Tanis agreed. “The cheetah’s cabin is next to hers and then Sickbay,” he added as they quickly passed the doors. “Here we are,” he said at last when they came to a blue door. It had upon it a large symbol of an old seafaring steering wheel painted in gold.

The door slid aside before the fennec fox could activate the opening control. A grey wolf in a captain’s hat looked up at them from the slateboard in his hands and tilted his head slightly to the side.

“Hello,” he said. “Friend of yours, Tanis, or a client?”

“Friend.” Tanis looked at the girl with a smile and then back to the wolf. “Jennifer Sanderson, this is our fearless leader, Captain Merlin Sinclair.”

Merlin gave her a nod and said, “Welcome aboard, Jennifer.”

“Thanks, Captain. This is a nice ship you’ve got,” she replied.

“You fixed your hat?” Tanis asked, looking at the smooth brim. There was no sign of the crease.

“No, it’s a new one. Please excuse me,” Merlin said as he stepped past them, “but we’ll be moving the ship shortly for further upgrades.” He turned and looked back at them as they stepped through the door. “Tanis, while you’re on the bridge, would you call up everyone on the DCs to tell them that Renny, Patch and I will be moving the Blue Horizon to Tucson. I’ll contact everyone in about four days from with the rendezvous address after the modifications have been completed.”

“Sure, boss. Ya need any other help moving the ship?”

“Not really,” the wolf said. “We’re only flying a relative short distance, but if you want to come along, you are welcome to do so.”

“What time are ya leaving?”

“In about thirty minutes.” Merlin nodded toward the girl and said, “Have your look around, but I’m afraid your tour will have to be cut short. We’ll be sealing the airlocks and pressurizing the ship in fifteen minutes.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Jennifer replied. She tugged the fennec fox’s arm to lead him onto the bridge and the door shut behind them. “Are you leaving with them?” she asked.

Tanis let his left ear droop as he shrugged his shoulders. “I should,” he said. “I’m running low on funds for transportation between here and Tucson, so I’ll just go along with them now and hang around that place until the ship is ready.”

Jennifer put her hand on top of his head and ran her fingers through the silky fur between his ears. “In that case, I think I should head home now,” she said. “You still have to call the others and there’s not much time left.”

“I’m sorry, Jennifer,” Tanis said. “I like ya a lot, but I’m afraid we have to part company now. I’ll see ya to the hatch, and then —”

“No,” the girl said shaking her head of long, blonde hair, “I can find my way out. You go ahead and call your crew.” She leaned over, kissed him quickly on the cheek, and then headed back out into the corridor. “It was nice meeting you, Arktanis TeVann!” she called as she disappeared.

Tanis put his hands on his hips and frowned. “That was awfully abrupt,” he muttered to himself. He moved to the Communications terminal and set to his task. 

*** 

Merlin Sinclair shaded his eyes and squinted as he searched the cloudless desert sky for the transport that was to deliver the armaments he had been unable to obtain through normal channels. The Blue Horizon rested in the sun on the landing pad behind him, and the workers of Lowery’s Starship Garage were already preparing the vessel for moving into the old hangar. Patch was inside the ship securing all final systems, though they had landed close to an hour ago. Renny and Tanis had already taken off to see the town.

A short human stood next to him, studying the display of a handheld slateboard that he shielded from the sun with his own shadow. Victor Faltane appeared to be in his late twenties, a man with pale blue eyes, the hint of a new beard, and blond hair that hung just past his shoulders. He was dressed in blue denim jeans, white high-top sneakers, and a white open collar shirt with long sleeves that were rolled up to his elbows. The innocence of his boyish face belied the experiences he had gone through in his career and was often an asset when the authorities came snooping around. Although he had his fingers in numerous pies around the Planetary Alignment, his business of acquisitions was legal. Like Samantha Holden,, however, he had special contacts to obtain those hard-to-get items when he needed them. He studied the readout on his display and looked over at the wolf.

“They’ve just received clearance to drop from orbit, Captain Sinclair,” he said. “They should be here in about ten minutes.”

“What is the name of the vessel my shipment is coming in on?” Merlin casually asked as he reluctantly removed his gaze from the sky.

“As with you, dear Captain, I don’t usually reveal the names of those I work with,” the young man replied with a smile. “Everyone seems to prefer it that way.”

“I asked only out of curiosity, but what is to keep me from simply reading the name off the side of the ship when it arrives?” Merlin asked dryly.

Faltane raised an eyebrow and nodded. “Nothing. Point taken.” He looked back down at his slateboard and answered, “It’s a Sakura-class freighter called the Savannah Hunter.”

“The Savannah Hunter,” Merlin repeated with sudden annoyance. “Armando Jensen...”

Faltane smiled and nodded again. “Oh, you know him?”

“Only too well,” Merlin growled; he laid his ears back and his tail swished back and forth in agitation.

“Careful, Sinclair,” the man said as he casually pointed a finger at him, “my clients and contacts are of all types and species. Not everyone is exactly on the up-and-up, including yourself, or you would not be dealing with me on this particular delivery.”

“True,” the wolf admitted, “but Armando and I have a long history, little of which is good.”

Faltane lowered his display unit and turned to face his customer fully. “You have about seven minutes before the Savannah Hunter arrives. Do you want to cancel your order?” He was serious and the piercing look in his eyes made Merlin uncomfortable. “There will be a service charge for the delivery, of course, but if you don’t want the merchandise, I should have no trouble reselling these particular items.”

Merlin hesitated only a moment, but shook his head. “No, Mr. Faltane, I’ll keep my end of the bargain. I don’t have to like who you chose to deliver the goods, but at least I will get what I want.”

“A wise decision, I assure you,” the boyish human replied. “Now, if you are in the market for a little business of your own, I would like to hire your services once your upgrades have been completed.”

Merlin looked at him with renewed, but suspicious, interest. “What kind of services?”

“Cargo delivery, of course. It is nothing out of the ordinary of your usual business. Just a simple delivery at your standard price. Everything’s perfectly legal and on the up-and-up.”

The wolf nodded to him. “Okay, Mr. Faltane, I am interested. After spending the credits for these modifications and those I had done in San Francisco, I could use the extra income.”

“I’m glad you feel that way.”

“What is the cargo?” Merlin asked, noticing a reflection of sunlight glinting off an approaching aircraft in the distance.

“Heavy equipment and supplies for an industrial complex,” Faltane replied, studying incoming data on his reader. “However, I don’t think your ship is large enough to carry everything.”

“Can you hire a second ship for the other part of the load?”

“That’s what I had in mind, Captain. Here comes the other ship, now.” Both looked up at the high-pitched whine of atmospheric engines and the frown returned to Merlin’s face. The delta-shaped bulk of the Savannah Hunter grew in size over the next few minutes as it approached the facility’s location. When at last it had arrived, it hovered over a nearby landing pad with flashing green lights around its perimeter.

The vessel was slightly larger than the Blue Horizon but a different design altogether. Its sloping, dark green sides were vaned and antennae sprouted out toward practically every point of a three-dimensional compass. Tractor driven landing gear extended as it neared the pavement and a hot wind blew away from the site. Merlin shielded his eyes from blown dust and coughed twice.

Patch ran over to them as the whine of the newly arrived ship powered down. “Captain, what’s he doing here?” the raccoon said with a scowl.

“Just doing business, Patch. Just like us,” Merlin replied as he tried to clear the grimace from his own face. Armando Jensen, the owner and captain of the Savannah Hunter, was the chief competitor to the Blue Horizon’s business. He was shrewd, cunning, and not above dishonesty to acquire his contracts. He was also the son of a rich corporate executive on Mainor, although he had not been in good standing with his Papa for years. The conflicts between Mainor and Dennier over mineral rights to the asteroid belt between the two worlds had ended eight years earlier, but threads of animosity for each other still existed. That alone gave Merlin uneasy feelings about Armando besides any crooked business practices the other might have instigated.

Patch snorted and looked up at his captain. “If you don’t mind, I’m heading into town to find a tobacco shop for more cigars,” he said.

Faltane glanced down at the raccoon. “The Tobacco Leaf is in the strip mall near the intersection of Main and West Alameda,” he said. “Tell the owner, Mr. Dupre, that I recommended the place to you and he should give you a fair discount.”

“The Tobacco Leaf. Mr. Dupre. Main and West Alameda. Thanks, Mr. Faltane, I’ll look him up,” Patch said as he jotted the information down on a small notepad from his pocket. He looked back to Merlin, who only nodded that it was okay for him to leave. The wolf’s attention was on the green freighter. Patch snorted again and then wandered off in search of transportation.

The main hatch of the Savannah Hunter split apart and opened. A rotund panda emerged and headed directly toward them, his face grim.

“Mister Faltane?” the panda asked as he stopped before them.

“Yes? That’s me,” the man replied.

“My name is JW Chon, first mate of the Savannah Hunter. Please call your local ambulance. Two of our crew got into a brawl just before landing and one of them was seriously injured. She’s in critical condition and needs more medical attention than we can give her on board.”

“Oh, brother...” Faltane replied and rolled his eyes. Merlin’s face was unreadable at the news, but the panda paid him no attention.

“The captain is interrogating the other one right now and will be out as soon as he’s finished with her.” Chon shook his head and growled. “I knew those two would get into it over that guy...”

“I’ll get on the com right away.” Faltane turned and ran to the hangar office, and the panda trotted back toward his own ship, leaving Merlin standing alone in silence. He watched the panda until he disappeared into the green vessel and then turned back toward his own.

The Blue Horizon resembled a giant blue flying saucer. The cargo area was two stories high with the rec deck making up a third level. There were no external appendages, not even a few spindly antennae; the systems were all internally housed and more efficient. In his opinion, Merlin believed the Okami class of freighter was the best design available. Many space captains argued that an aerodynamic design was not needed to fly through the stars, but Sinclair was well aware that the atmospheric flight necessary to get to his customers down on the various planets required sleek surfaces for airflow. Its two-tone blue paint job pleased the wolf, though it could use touch-ups here and there, but there would be time for that later. They had had too much downtime lately and he was itching to get back to business with paying customers.

He mulled over in his mind about what he had just heard and wondered if a similar result would come of Renny’s jealousy of Tanis and Taro. The cheetah did not seem the type to resort to violence, but one could never know when everyone is cooped up in a ship for weeks and even months at a time. He felt fortunate that his crew tended to get along well. With Armando’s personality, he could not visualize the same camaraderie on the Savannah Hunter.

“Sinclair!” a deep voice boomed behind him. “Chon told me that was your moth-eaten ship we landed next to!” Merlin turned around and saw a large maned lion approaching from his competitor’s ship. The individual wore only a vest across his broad, golden shoulders and an ornamental belt around his waist. He carried a slateboard in his left hand, though his other one opened and closed in agitation. His yellow eyes were narrowed in suspicion when he stopped next to the wolf and glared down at him.

“Hello, Armando,” Merlin said with a forced smile. “I hear you have crew troubles.”

“That’s none of your business!”

Merlin tilted his head to the side slightly as he looked up at the towering figure. “True,” he said. “However, I believe you do have business with me.”

“You?” the lion growled. “Why are you here?” He looked up as Faltane returned from the warehouse.

“An ambulance is on the way,” the human said. “The hospital is fairly close, so they should be here shortly.” They could already hear a wailing siren in the distance. Armando returned his attention back to the grey wolf.

“Well?”

“Your cargo is for him,” Faltane replied.

“Him!” the lion bellowed. “Had I known that, I would have never taken the job!”

“Calm down,” Faltane said with a quiet, but menacing voice. It was apparent this angelic-appearing man was used to dealing with hotheads. “You needed the money and you know it.”

Armando’s lips pressed together tightly as he nodded. “Yeah, I needed the money,” he admitted. “I would not be in so much debt if someone had not tipped off the SPF of a deal I had with the hyenas...” He glared again at Merlin, but directed his words at the human. “You said you had another job for me after this one?”

“That’s right,” Faltane answered as he looked off in the direction of the approaching ambulance. “I need both of your ships to deliver a large shipment of industrial equipment to Langlop’s Outpost, an island community on Brandt.”

“Brandt!” Merlin exclaimed. “I’m not going to Brandt!”

Armando grinned widely and slapped the wolf on the back, almost knocking him over. “What’s the matter, puppy? Too many bad guys there for you?  That’s the planet I just came from and we didn’t have a lick of trouble.”

Merlin scowled and looked up at the lion. “Brandt is the source of most of my problems,” he growled. “I don’t intend to fly straight toward Sagan’s home base.”

“I went out of my way to help you,” Faltane said sternly. “There are no other interstellar freighters currently available in our solar system. If you will not help me with my shipment, you will not get your shipment.”

Armando crossed his massive arms and merely smiled down at his competitor. He enjoyed watching the wolf get flustered.

“I’m paying for that!” Merlin exclaimed.

“I have not yet received payment,” the human reminded him. He gestured toward the Blue Horizon with a hand and added, “I’m your only source for these armaments, Sinclair. The price I offered them to you closely matches your standard base price for a full delivery to another star system. In the account books, it would have been near an even trade between us, with you making an extra thousand credits on the side.”

The Mainoran lion left them to deal with the ambulance that had just arrived, but Faltane continued. “Like your friend, Mr. Jensen, I know you need the money,” he said. “You flew empty from Alexandrius to Earth, and will have to fly empty between Earth and your next job. That’s a hundred thousand credits you will be out by leaving here without accepting my business, not to mention whatever it will cost you to try to get the armaments elsewhere.”

The wolf’s ears drooped and he swallowed. Everything Faltane said was true. Samantha may benefit from dealing under the table from time to time, but Merlin made a silent vow to never deal with this man again after this. “Okay,” he said slowly. “Like my friend, it looks like I have no choice in the matter. I need the money and the armaments.”

Faltane smiled and nodded as if the outcome had been assured all along. “I will have my team unload the Savannah Hunter and get your new toys installed right away. You may need them, flying in to Brandt.”

NEXT EPISODE

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