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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 1

— Episode 4

"Vexed of Kin"
by Steve Carter

 

SS Blue Horizon PA1261

Captain’s Journal 

The Blue Horizon has made it safely away from Brandt after collecting our errant engineer from of all people, Captain Natasha Khasho, who is more infamously known as the Pirate Queen. The only thing that saved Pockets from a well-deserved horsewhipping was that he brought back with him the schematics to an advanced technology heretofore unseen in anything but fantasy journals. The key elements of Particle Vault Drive Technology given him in code cannot be deciphered until the pirate queen proves that some advice Pockets gave to her is proven worthwhile. I don’t know how long that will take, but two other members of the crew saw the Vault in action when Natasha’s ship, Lady of Dreams, departed from our vidscreens. As far as the rest of the universe is concerned, Vault engines are just a hypothesis right now. Basically, instead of traveling across expanses of space with traditional drives or through a spatial warp, Vaulting allows her ship to momentarily slip out of the time/space continuum and move outside conventional dimensions. Basically, they sit still in a place where time does not work (therefore they don’t age and don’t have to occupy a few trillion years worth of their time waiting) while the universe rotates around to meet them.

To put this in perspective as Pockets has described it to me, imagine how much effort it would take to draw a straight line across a piece of paper. Now imagine how much it would take to hold a pen still while that paper is whisked out from under it at about 100 miles per hour. Her ship still uses conventional LightDrive engines while in normal space, but this is how she travels to travel vast distances across the galaxy. In addition, Pockets tells some interesting stories about the things he saw while on her ship, including further technological systems that he could barely describe.

Unfortunately, as Patch has reminded us, even if we had the unlocking code on Natasha’s encryption, our G-model Blue Horizon may not be large enough to contain the prototype of such an engine without a major structural modification. Trading this technology to the right people would reap us untold treasures, but also untold headaches as politicos would no doubt accuse us of terrestrial subversion and attribute the information to whatever major corporation they happened to have in their pockets that week. No, we’ll keep this as an ace up our sleeve for now.

Now that our business for Faltane is finished, we are currently on course to Quet to pick up a load of processed micranite used in LightDrive shielding for delivery to Dennier. Quet’s reputation precedes it as one of the least desirable places in the Planetary Alignment. It is more of a wasteland than a thieves’ den, so it is only slightly higher on my list than Brandt. For the most part, all we have to worry about on Quet is getting dirty, not getting killed. Since both Brandt and Quet are within the Faya Star System, our travel time will not be the usual weeks, but merely a few days.

The orbits of both worlds are currently at their furthest from one another and there’s a massive asteroid belt between them to negotiate or we’d arrive in only a few hours. So far there’ve been no concerns other than Sparky reporting a larger-than-usual gap in her snacks. My first thought was of another stowaway like that girl from Earth, but we’ve had no visitors on board this time.

I would imagine this has more to do with the higher tempo we’ve been operating at through this section of space. I have maintained the two-on staffing around the clock until we get out of this system and there is bound to be a little more munching and book reading in the dead hours.

The new crew compliment is shaping up well. Renny is filling in where Jiro left off without either slacking at his job or trying to overcompensate for the sake of proving himself just as good. Renny is just being himself and the crew has taken to him for his own virtue. Still, occasionally Jiro’s absence can be felt, but I’m happy to be surrounded by the people that I am now and thank the Maker for small favors. Having Tanis back with us also gives us a trained medic in times of emergency.

Since the jaunt from Brandt to Quet is within the same star system, we will not be making an overlong stopover at the Dump. I’ll allow everyone four hours of free time after we’ve unloaded the cargo before picking up the micranite containers for delivery to Dennier, but I doubt there will be enough food or entertainment to keep everyone busy for the duration of our stop. 

Merlin Sinclair, Captain 

*** 

100 100 1…

100 100 1…

100 100 1… 0010010011? 

A light flickered and an antenna fired off a signal to a tiny microprocessor, causing the small disk to rotate slightly on its cushion of air. A change in atmospheric pressure registered on the other side of a smooth panel and its auditoria picked up a slow, regular pulse of sound. It checked its records, searching for signatures. It ran in a microsecond a profile on each of its records, and found this one untitled and listed only under “related.”  

100 100 1… 00100110011110010101000101010…. 

*** 

Back in his cabin, Pockets’ eyes were alerted to a flashing green light. He sauntered lazily over to tap a series of switches on a console and patch his way into Moss’ video capture. What he saw did not impress him at all: the smooth, grey surface of a piece of paneling.

“What is it, Moss?” he asked into the microphone.

“Meow!” was the plaintive reply, and then across the speakers issued a synthesized copy of the odd sound it had acquired. It was a soft, repeating noise like…

Pockets’ eyes went wide and he tapped a switch on the wall, “Captain?”

Another voice answered. “The captain is on a sleep period right now, Pockets. What’s the word?”

“Taro! Moss has found something on board behind a panel in cargo, and it sounds like it’s alive.”

“How so?”

The raccoon tapped a few switches and relayed the sound onto the bridge. It reverberated on the bridge com system; the red fox recognized it and checked her crew roster, but in the last thirty minutes, all members had been accounted for and no one was supposed to be in the cargo hold — not even Durant. There was no reason for the sound of breathing down there, especially behind a wall panel. 

*** 

Durant hovered over Pockets, the butt of a Binfurr rifle at his shoulder as the raccoon released the metal clips to access the panel before them. The section fell off and the bear moved the black muzzle to the edge, easing it away from the wall. Behind the pair, Renny stood with another weapon as Taro observed.

The next moment, Pockets backpedaled away from the panel, gasping for breath as a foul scent wafted out to greet him. Durant’s eyes stung with it as well, his nostrils flared and an awful taste was suddenly on his tongue. In the dark recess slumbered a lone, grey form apparently oblivious of the noise around him. It was surrounded by half-eaten sandwiches, candy wrappers and a rusty canteen. The pair looked at one another, wondering if it was dead.

“What is that?” Renny asked, covering his nose to fight off the odor.

Durant poked at the sleeping form with the muzzle; it stirred, snorted and then went back to sleep. The bear looked back at Taro, not knowing what to do. The fox, however, moved her crewmate aside and stepped in to take charge.

“WAKE UP!” she screamed, punching the curled-up body. He jolted into consciousness and smacked his head against the top of the inner panel.

“Huh? What?” he whined, very annoyed with the interruption.

Lucas,” she sighed. “How offensive to see you here.”

Durant’s countenance dropped and Pockets rolled his eyes. Renny looked around to his friends’ faces and caught the look of familiarity. Taro seized a limb and dragged a smelly wolf out of the panel and into the light of the cargo bay. He winced, caught off guard by the brightness. The cheetah let out a feline hiss as a herd of white specks running over the crumpled form suddenly retreated to the shadows within the intruder’s soiled clothing.

“I was trying to get some sleep,” the wolf complained.

“Clearly,” Taro indicated his hiding spot “and stealing from us as well, it would seem.”

“Hey, I’m just hitching a ride. Can’t a guy get a break now and again?”

“Sure,” Durant snarled, “what would you like broken?”

Lucas blithely ignored the bear and rose to his feet, the white specks scurrying around beneath the trench coat he wore to find more shadows.

There was a family resemblance to their captain, though the fur patterns of his facial mask had hints of auburn highlights. He was thinner, more wiry, and he didn’t look as if he’d had a good grooming in weeks, which could have easily been the case.

“So, where’s my cabin this time?” 

*** 

Merlin Sinclair cocked an eyebrow, sitting still for a long moment, then switched on his cabin com and rubbed his face with his hands. “This better be someone incredibly beautiful or I’m disconnecting you.”

You’re in luck,” an amused voice responded, “I’m gorgeous!

“Wrong gender. What is it, Renny?”

“It appears we have another stowaway on board.”

Suddenly the wolf was fully awake, sitting up on his bunk. “From Brandt? Have you found this person?”

“Yes,” came the calm reply, “but Taro doesn’t think our guest is going to be much of a threat.”

“Does this person have a name?”

“Lucas Sinclair.”

A long moment passed as the name hovered in space between his ears and his mind. It was familiar, but somehow—like forcing a feral cat into a bath—it just didn’t want to go in. Finally the realization that his often-lost brother was now aboard the Blue Horizon reluctantly found a resting spot in his brain and sat there like the memory of a botched enema.

“Lucas?” he rolled, running a hand down his face, hoping it was a bad dream.

Lucas,” Renny replied. “Want to handle it?”

“No,” Merlin growled, dually upset at this turn of events and the fact that it disturbed his well-earned slumber. “Throw him somewhere for the time being and I’ll take care of it shortly.” 

*** 

Renny tapped off the switch with a wounded smile, looked with pleading eyes to Taro. The fox grumbled to herself, staring daggers at the indifferent freeloader as he crossed his arms and waited for her to make a decision about him. “Durant?”

Durant’s eyes filled with dismay, but he accepted her orders. “I’d like you to take our leech and have him disinfected. Get with Tanis and see if he’s carrying any kind of infectious diseases or…” she indicated a new flock of moving bodies as he moved an arm, “any harmful parasites. And please, before this smell gets into the ventilation system and spreads to other parts of the ship.”

“I have some clothes he could wear, if you want to…” Renny trailed off, indicating Lucas’ shoddy garments.

“Aye,” the bear replied, passing his weapon to Renny. The others filed out and the bear half dragged his captive out into the open area of the empty cargo hold. He popped opened a nearby panel, withdrawing a length of hose. “You’ll want to strip down now,” he advised. Lucas, however, just shrugged and looked at the deck. Oh Great Maker, Durant thought. Am I going to have to undress him, too?  

*** 

“Captain!” sing-songed a voice.

The wolf stirred slightly in his bunk, looking up to a silhouette standing in his door. He looked around at the clock. It was close enough. Merlin dragged himself out of bed and rubbed life into his cheeks. “What’s up, Renny?”

“Lucas…”

The name hung—it seemed for days—in the air.

“…has been cleaned up and is somewhat groomed. Sam did the best she could, but I think miracles are beyond her capacity. Tanis had to inoculate him with about six different things and we spent the last half hour trying to flush the smell out of the cargo bay.”

Merlin’s countenance did not change. “So, he’s at least presentable?”

“Somewhat,” Renny found it odd that his captain was not shocked at Lucas’ condition.

“Okay, I’ll be right out to see what can be done about him.” 

*** 

Lucas Sinclair stared idly off into space, clad in a clean black shirt, brown trousers and stocking feet. No shoes were available in his size and his own ankle-boots were still in the process of decontamination. He scratched his skin in places, the flea dip solution still an irritant.

“So,” Merlin growled, “what’s it looking like so far?”

Durant handed his captain a slateboard detailing the cost of cleaning up his errant brother. Combined with the food loss they could already calculate, the disinfecting, de-infestation of the cargo bay, re-sanitizing of the medical and mid-level lavatory, inoculations, and Renny’s clothes (marked as FREE, but Merlin did not feel that was apropos), the bill had already come to over two hundred credits. Merlin handed it back.

“Well, Lucas,” he began.

His brother paid no attention and cleaned his fingernails, flicking the gunk onto the carpet.

“Lucas?” Merlin snapped fingers in his brother’s face.

“What?” the younger brother replied, irked at his brother’s impatience.

What are you doing on my ship?”

He shrugged, “Nothin’ but doin’ my thing as always, why?”

“You are trespassing.”

“So? You don’t own space.”

“I own this ship.”

“I didn’t ask you for a ride on your precious ship, okay?”

“But you are here anyway.”

“I don’t owe you anything.”

“That’s up for debate. What were you doing on Brandt?”

“Why do you care?”

“Humor me.”

“I was taking some time off,” the younger Sinclair grumbled, irritated with the questions.

“Were you gambling?”

“A little.”

“How much.”

“Some.”

“Did you lose?”

“A little.”

“How much?”

“Why do you care?”

“You are being evasive.”

Lucas threw up his hands. “Look, obviously you miss the point. What do you care?”

The elder wolf steadied himself and sighed. These arguments never went anywhere. “Never mind,” Merlin replied, “but as long as you are here you’ll work for your keep.”

“Okay,” came the response, absently, with no real interest.

“All right, maybe I should be more specific: you are going to work for your keep – for a change.”

“I gotcha, no worries.” Lucas looked away, slouched posture saying more than words could. Merlin grumbled to himself, staving off the urge to tell him then just stay out of the way. Such an edict would be taken as a blank check to do nothing but eat and loaf. Lucas, unfortunately, knew semantics well enough to find cracks and escape hatches, and also knew how to play dumb when it suited his goals.

“Durant?”

The bear cocked an eyebrow as if to say I’ve done my share of the dirty duty already. “Boss.”

Merlin caught the motion, and stopped himself. “Is—uh—is the cargo bay cleaned out?”

“Aye.”

“Good,” he turned slowly, searching the faces for one that did not return a similar glare. “Sparky, I believe…”

He could feel, rather than see, the hairs stand up on her neck. Merlin sighed to himself and gestured for Lucas to follow him. The younger sibling stood, jammed hands into the pockets, and slouched his way down the hall.

When the lupine siblings were out of earshot, Renny inquired, “So what’s the story with him?”

A collective groan followed, and Taro responded. “Lucas is Merlin’s little brother. They say there’s one like him in every family. Shiftless and lazy, been in prison and is usually up to his eyeballs in debt.”

“Ah,” the cheetah sighed. “My third cousin, Bill.”

“Unfortunately we’re kind of stuck with him for the time being.” 

*** 

Lucas Sinclair slouched, as was his habit, leaning against a long bar and dipping his fingers into a sauced bowl of grilled meatballs. His tenure as ship’s lackey had survived twenty-four hours and he now made himself available to the cute young lynx, frying up something on the large, metal grill.

“So,” he said, swiping another treat, “how long have you been a cook?”

She glanced up and replied, “Most of my life. Learned it from my mother on Fyn.”

“Yeah, I’ve been in a lot of restaurants. Nice places.”

“That’s nice.” She returned to her work.

“Probably no place you’ve been.”

“I’ve not visited many places on Dennier.”

“Just as well. They wouldn’t have let you in.” He swiped another meatball.

Sparky turned slightly, “Um… excuse me?”

“Well,” he munched, opening his hands apologetically, “I guess you could, maybe, as a sweeper-upper or something. My grandparents are pretty wealthy and the places they go to are swanky.”

“Ah,” she rolled.

“I mean, it’s like nothing you should be ashamed of. Lots of people are poor.”

“What makes you think I’m poor…?” she bristled.

“Because you’re from Fyn.”

Durant entered the cooking area, feeling a palpable wall of contempt emanating from Sparky as she jammed utensils around her area. His eyes naturally went to the unkempt wolf sitting at the small bar beside her, munching cooked meatballs. The bear ambled up beside him, and addressed the lynx.

“Things going well, Sparky?”

She grumbled a reply, trying to be polite in her black mood.

Durant got the signal and turned to Lucas, clapping a hand on his back. “Say, I don’t think I’ve ever seen somebody put away Silurian oysters that way before. How many is that?”

The wolf smiled appreciably, squeezing another so that the juices spilled over his fingers, and tossing it into his mouth. “About twelve.”

Durant’s grin widened at Sparky looked quizzically back at him. “Wow… twelve. Not many people have that kind of tolerance for grilled testicles these days.”

Lucas’ eyes bulged as the meat surged back up from his throat, filling his mouth with regurgitory bile. His head turned slowly to face Durant’s bright grin.

“Hah! You ought to see the way they cut ‘em off. They sever the whole genital section right after mating to keep the juices fresh.” The bear clapped him on the back again, forcing Lucas to instinctively swallow, and then lurch out of the chair to find a place to vomit.

A long moment passed after he had gone. Then, Sparky seized a spoon and waggled it at the bear. “That,” she said with a wicked smile, “was nice.”

Durant only grinned in reply. 

*** 

Merlin entered the bridge, looking down at the ledger on his slateboard that bore figures of his brother’s expenses so far. The entries were short and to the point; nobody really wanted to go into detail, just drop the subject and go on. The ship had been placed on auto-pilot for a moment as Renny stood with Taro over Patch, lying on his back under a console. Merlin circled around the center chair and sat down, placed the slateboard on the armrest and then looked up.

Before his face a small, plush wolf dangled from the ceiling on a cord noose around its neck. Swatches of fabric dressed it similarly to Lucas.

Merlin looked around the bridge; no one faced him. The wolf tugged the toy down from its spot and tucked it into a pocket of his flight jacket. “Renny… how are we flying here?”

“We seem to be losing power in the primary engine core. We’re down to about seventy-four percent of our speed. We’re not making good time.”

“Cause?”

The horizontal raccoon barked a stream of curses and proclamations, and banged something under the panel.

“Patch is checking our instrumentation,” Taro reported. “Maybe it’s at this level. We’re looking here while Pockets checks out the engines.”

Merlin tapped a control. “Pockets, are you there?”

“I’m there.”

“Found anything?”

“I canna tap the ‘lithium crystals cap’n! I doont ‘ave tha pauer!”

“I understand. Now, realistically?”

“We’re looking at about a quarter power loss here, sir. It looks to be a problem with connections to the liquid crystal core.”

“I thought you guys fixed that on Brandt.”

“We did, but there’s something missing now. Apparently a couple of the silver-plated relays have been… liberated.”

The captain shifted his position and the small, plush wolf fell out of his pocket and onto the floor. All eyes on the bridge looked at it for only a moment, and then the other three went back to their duties. Merlin sighed heavily, snatched up the toy and stormed off the bridge. 

*** 

“So…” Lucas needled, “you want a taste of the good stuff?” He rubbed his groin suggestively.

The Border collie finally surrendered to a constant stream of lewd insinuations. Incensed, she tossed a tiny package at him.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“That’s for you. A year’s supply of condoms.”

The wolf took it and fumbled it open to find it empty. He looked at her quizzically, “I don’t get it.”

“That,” she rumbled, “is apparent.”

A hatch opened behind Lucas and a brawny hand stretched out, snatched him by the collar, and dragged him back out the door as he yelped in surprise. 

*** 

A few minutes later, Durant deposited Lucas in front of his brother, dropping him to the engineering floor from slightly higher than was really necessary.

“Empty your pockets.” Merlin ordered his brother.

“Sure,” he complied, turning the white stockings inside out. “You wanna frisk me too?”

“Pockets tells me that there are a couple of silver relays missing from the liquid crystal array. Needless to say, your name is at the top of the list of potential perps.”

Lucas stared back blankly as if nothing had been said. Merlin lunged forward, grabbing his brother by the lapels of his shirt and worrying the younger Sinclair like a bone. “Listen to me you little snit! If you’ve stolen from me on my own ship I’m going to drag your butt back to Brandt and put you in prison myself!”

Lucas looked down at the trembling fists around his shirt, “Hey, aren’t there some maritime laws against assaulting passengers?”

“You’re not a passenger. You’re a stowaway.”

“Just answer the question,” said the low rumble of Durant’s voice.

“No,” Lucas shrugged.

“You did not take them?” the bear asked.

“No.”

“Are you lying?”

“No,” he replied, without taking offense or changing inflection.

“Boss?”

Merlin slowly, stiffly released his brother. Lucas straightened out his shirt and turned to go. However, another huge hand wrapped around his shoulder as the bear pulled him back.

“Oh no,” Durant added. “I don’t believe. Boss, with your permission?”

Merlin could not read the look in his crewmate’s eyes, but nodded anyhow. Lucas found himself tossed over one shoulder and carted down the hall. 

*** 

About ten minutes had gone by when the howling stopped. Tanis sauntered out of the back room of the Infirmary, pulled off a pair of stained rubber gloves and tossed them into the instant incinerator.

“Well, he’s telling the truth. They’re nowhere on or in him.”

Merlin scrubbed his chin with one finger. “Well then, where did they go?”

Tanis leaned against a wall as Durant emerged, a small smile of guilty satisfaction across his lips. “You know,” the bear said, “Lucas is a little stronger than I thought he’d be.”

“He almost threw ya once,” the fennec fox added.

Lucas emerged from the clinic, buttoning his trousers and walking with a peculiar limp. “I hope you’re happy!” he snarled at his brother.

“Well, ya were cracking a wide smile from where I was looking,” Tanis beamed. The younger wolf gathered something resembling his dignity and shuffled out the door.

A panel chirped on another wall. The elder Sinclair crossed the room and tapped a button. “Merlin, here.”

“Captain, I’m going to have to cut the engines,” said Pockets’ voice. “We’ve got a real leakage problem here and if we leave them on it’s going to get out of control.”

Merlin ground his teeth, but surrendered to his engineer’s experience. “All right, see what it is going to take to get us to Quet on inertial.”

“Roger that. I’ll keep you posted as things develop.”

The captain turned back to see Durant standing with crossed arms. “‘It never rains, but it pours,’ I believe someone once said.” 

*** 

The Blue Horizon seemed to ooze through space, the pattern of stars no longer slightly smudged as the LC engines stood still and cold while the ship continued on inertia. The great thing about traveling on inertia in space was that without wind resistance, they could sail for days on the energy they had gathered during their engine-powered flight. The not-so-great thing about it was that it was like going from power to manual steering on a very large vehicle. If they encountered obstacles, turning away from them would be a major chore, but at least the shielding field was still in operation, repelling micrometeoroids from piercing the hull. If they ran into hostiles… well, Merlin didn’t even want to think about it. They were still too close to Brandt for comfort.

The captain sat in the pilot’s chair, for there was no auto-pilot on inertial. He occasionally moved the manual control for thrusters, but rested his chin on one hand and stared out into the black void with a terminally bored expression. Below him, Taro stretched her legs out across a console and busied herself with a paperback copy of How to Control Your Anger. She had been using that book a lot in the last forty-eight hours.

The last thing Merlin Sinclair wanted was a proximity alert to go off on his console, indicating the presence of a rapidly approaching ship.

“What is that?” Merlin said, sitting upright.

Taro turned casually to the green blip on her screen, then scrambled and dropped her book as her fingers whirled across the keyboard. “I don’t know, Captain. Apparently there aren’t supposed to be any other ships in the general area.”

“Go to alert,” the captain barked, focusing on the blip and ordering Renny to bring weapons to bear. If they could not outrun the threat, their new weapons were about to get broken in.

Renny brought the new systems online with one hand while he found a silhouette and charged the computer to identify it. “Weapons hot!”

“Give me a channel,” the captain said, grinding his teeth in anticipation. A soft whir followed as Taro opened the com port. “Approaching vessel, identify yourself.” Merlin tried to sound as stern as possible—to put up a good front.

A voice came back, “Oh, hi-lo there!”

Taro looked at Merlin. Merlin looked at Taro. It sounded like a cartoon.

“Oh, don’t worry about us! We’re just on patrol out here and lookin’ for… say, why’re you guys on inertia?” the voice asked.

“We…” Merlin began, “uh, just some routine maintenance on the engines,” he said, not really wanting to admit their engines were out of commission to a potential enemy.

“Oh, yeah? Can’t that be fixed with a few rolls of splice tape?” the voice yukked, and was joined by several similar voices yukking along with it.

“Ah, no,” the captain allowed himself a curious sneer. This sounded too odd to be much of a danger. “We need silver-plated relays in order to fix things.”

“Oh, we’ve got some of those,” from behind the faceless voice came a sound like many small bells clanging.

Taro looked back at her captain with a distinct what-is-that expression.

Merlin shrugged, a pained look on his face. “Well, if you’d be kind enough to sell us a couple, we would make it worth your while.”

“Sure!” the ditzy voice replied. “Just sit still and we’ll be right dere.”  

*** 

Several of the crew had joined the captain in welcoming their benefactors. Lucas sat in his cabin, nursing a very tender bottom. Merlin had at least put on his presentable jacket when the visitors entered his ship. They turned out to be a gaggle of Dalmatians, dressed oddly in bright yellow slickers and red plastic hats that read EMERGENCY across the front in Terran English. But the oddest thing was that all eight of them moved as a single pack of bodies tightly pressed together. Only when the pack had entered the ship did a single Dalmatian press his way forward and introduce himself as Chief Roy of the Firedog Rescue ship, Up Ducky.

“I see,” Merlin said with a hesitation at the name of their vessel, “please, step inside and make yourself at home.”

The pack moved as a single body, a cacophony of madly bobbing heads with wide-open eyes taking in every detail of the ship. Merlin’s smile faltered as he looked to Renny for support. The cheetah, however, could only stare in silence.

“Well!” said chief Roy, “This here’s chief Bill, chief Rupert, chief Bonzo, chief Bob, chief Bubba and chief Billy Ray, ‘n that’s our firedog, Joey.”

“How,” Taro asked with a raised eyebrow, “can one firedog work for seven chiefs?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Roy said with a bright grin, “he doesn’t do what we say anyhow.”

“Then why do you keep him?”

“Well, what good’s bein’ a chief if ya ain’t got nobody to be chief of?” There followed a gaggle of nodding heads with tongues flapping between grinning lips.

“So, whut’s yer problem?” another, chief Bob, asked.

Pockets stepped forward, “Well, we’re missing a pair of grade-three…”

“Stop!” another Dalmatian, chief Rupert, cried. He stepped out of the pack and knelt down before the raccoon, arranged the fingers of his left hand in an odd fashion across Pockets’ forehead. He held the other hand in the air and declared, “I shalleth mind-toucheth with yore engineer and learneth the problem and how thus we mightst fixeth it!”

Pockets looked to his captain with trepidation. The other seven Dalmatians began to whistle eerie tunes, wriggling their fingers in the semblance of performing a séance.

Suddenly the Dalmatian stood, snapping his fingers. “They need the entire left block of their engine replaced!”

Instantly there was a maddening gang of howls, shouts of delight and laughter. Before anyone could speak again, the throng of Dalmatians disappeared down the hall in a storm of pattering feet, flapping tongues and yukking. 

*** 

“No!” Merlin pleaded to the row of feet sticking out from under his liquid crystal engines, “we really don’t need half our engine taken out and fixed! We only need two silver-plated relays!”

“Wrench,” a hand darted out, and another hand darted out with a wrench to fill it.

Firedog Joey stood to the side, suavely chatting up Sparky in hopes of getting lucky.

Pockets tugged up a panel and looked down on a shiny yellow slicker, “You guys need any help under there?”

“Ratchet,” another hand appeared in Pockets’ face, and a ratchet flipped up from an unseen location between the translucent panels to land in it.

Merlin sighed, “Look, I really appreciate the effort, okay? But can you please just…”

“Salami on rye with mayo,” another hand darted out, on the far right. Incredibly, the hand on the far left produced exactly what was requested, and it was passed down from one to the other until it arrived and was taken under the engine.

Pockets and Patch looked at one another, stunned.

“How can we get them out of there?” Renny queried.

Samantha, who had been standing by watching, knelt down near a pair of wiggling Dalmatian toes, “Maybe we can tickle them out?” She grinned and touched a foot pad.

BANG! Crash!! WHONG <kinkle> KRUNG!!

Suddenly all seven bodies slid out from under the engines, scowled at her and said in unison: “Don’t do that!” Then they disappeared back the way they came.

Samantha stood, turned, and quietly left the engine room.

“Duck!” another voice. No hands moved. A moment later, all seven Dalmatians slid out, stood, and looked at one another. Chief Roy spoke, “Oh-kayeeee… who forgot the duck tape?”

Heads spun, eyes falling one on another until they came to rest on Billy Ray. Billy Ray searched nebulous pockets that rivaled Pockets’ own with various expressions of worry and concern, then his face lighted and he snatched something from his deepest pocket.

A small animatronic mallard, held by the throat, carried a roll of silver tape between its webbed feet. Chief Bubba snatched a length of it and disappeared back under the engines with the other five. The duck looked at Merlin with pleading eyes.

 “Heeelp meeeee!” The duck was suddenly stuffed back into the pocket as its tiny electronic hoarse voice cried, “Caaall the poliiiiice!!” and Billy Ray returned to beneath the engines.

Merlin, Pockets and Patch looked at one another, wondering if they’d actually just seen that. “You know,” Pockets said to a pair of feet, “there really isn’t that much to do down there. We were…”

The body in question suddenly appeared from under the engines with a massive coil of fiber optic wire and diodes. The others withdrew with tubes, conduits, and other engine parts. The throng closed once again and began to yammer almost incoherently, comparing notes and parts.

Patch’s eyes had shrunken to small dots watching the intruders mess with his engines. He turned to his captain and waved his arms wildly. “Do something!”

Merlin lost his temper. “All right, I’m through taking this garbage from you!” he shouted at the firedogs. “Put everything back the way you found it or I’m jetting the lot of you out into space in two seconds!”

The firedogs looked back quizzically, then returned to their yammering, this time withdrawing homemade tools and tinkering with parts, before sliding back under the engines.

Merlin ground his teeth and Patch stormed out of the engine room muttering things in several languages that made his brother’s eyes grow wide. 

*** 

“Hee-owgibbanogh!” roared a voice as the pack of Dalmatians slid as one out from under the LC engines. Chief Roy crossed the small space between himself and Merlin and shoved a pair of translucent tubes in the captain’s face. “Hey! Didja know that the only thing you’re missing is a pair of silver relays?”

Patch fought the urge to deck him – fast, hard and continuously.

“Uh, yes…” Merlin replied.

“Well, that’s easy to replace! Why dincha tell us in the first place!”

Merlin prepared a nasty response, but the Dalmatian was suddenly back under the array of engine tubes, humming to himself as tools whirred and a small shower of sparks followed. Patch gripped a nearby countertop with weak knees and wide eyes. Replacing a few relays did not require anything that would cause sparks!

The next moment, Chief Roy emerged more slowly, with an air of contentment. “There ya go! Should be smooth sailin’ from here on out!”

Not convinced, Patch dove beneath the engines to inspect the work. When he arose from under the complex machinery several long moments later, his face wore a look of sincere astonishment.

“Well?” Merlin asked.

“Not a bad job,” the raccoon replied. “For all the noise they were making, I feared the worst.”

The captain appraised the Firedogs with a crooked smile. They had made a horrible mess, but fixed the problem. He didn’t know what to say.

“Hey,” said a new voice, “What’s going on here?”

The wolf looked back as his errant brother sauntered lazily into the engine area. Strange, Merlin thought, that Lucas would voluntarily enter a place where work was being done. However, the elder wolf—optimistically—chose to think this new event a possible interest in the gung-ho newcomers. An idea appeared and pushed itself forward in his mind with an alarming urgency. He turned back to the chief before him.

“Say… could you guys use an extra helper?” Hands began to shove Lucas forward for the Firedogs’ interest. Other members of the Blue Horizon were anxious to get rid of the troublesome wolf. “He could be a Firedog Lucas to go along with your Firedog Joey,” Merlin suggested hopefully.

Chief Roy approached Lucas with a grin, and then frowned. He furrowed his brow and began to sniff Lucas up and down. Then the others swarmed around him and did the same. The younger wolf felt unusually conspicuous and cast worried eyes at his brother—who looked away at Patch and Pockets as the raccoons checked their instrumentation.

The Dalmatians pulled back as one, and then retreated into a huddle. Their voices blended in a cacophony of disorderly noises, snorts, and jumbled statements.

“Captain,” Pockets called. Merlin crossed the room to the terminal where the mechanic worked a terminal console.

“What’s up, Pockets?”

“Looks as if the engines are fixed. But not only that, they’re running differently than before.”

“Differently?” Merlin’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.

It looks as if they rerouted the flow of crystal energy so that it comes through purer and in less time. They disabled one of the safety redundancies, but,” he indicated a juncture, “made it superfluous anyway by moving this up here.”

“So we’re running better?” the wolf asked with something resembling admiration.

“Cleaner, safer and probably faster.”

“Hike!” cried the huddle of Dalmatians. Merlin crossed the room again as the pack of them stood before him.

“We can’t take him,” Chief Roy stated.

“Why’s that?” Durant asked, disappointed.

Chief Rupert grimaced, “Because, even we know a lost cause when we see one.”

The last sentence hung in the air as the throng of Dalmatians flocked together again, then stormed out of the engine room and down the hall in a storm of pattering feet and flapping tongues. The crew followed the pack as it made a beeline to the connecting tunnel to the Up Ducky, and then the lot of them was through the airlock, detaching from the ship, and on their way, all in less than a minute. In shock, Merlin stood just outside the engine room in the cargo bay surrounded by his crew members.

“Did all that really just happen?” Pockets asked, scratching his head.

“I’m not sure,” replied his brother, “but after this mess, I’m giving the engines a thorough inspection.”

“They didn’t even charge us anything,” Pockets observed.

The captain sighed and shrugged as he tapped a com switch on a nearby wall, “Renny… let’s get back underway.”

“Right-o, Cap’n!” 

*** 

Six hours had passed since the Firedog visitation and everyone’s nerves were on edge from the continual presence of Lucas Sinclair. He had single-handedly managed to insult, confound, frustrate, and infuriate everyone on board without really trying and no one wanted to have anything to do with him. The captain had difficulty trying to keep everyone, himself included, from shoving the ragged wolf out into space.

“I’ve had it with Lucas,” Samantha grumbled to Merlin as she snuggled up close to him while they relaxed against several pillows on his bunk. “He’s been watching my movies on the recreation deck and never puts anything away,” she said. “He leaves food everywhere he happens to be and there’s trash on every deck. I’ve even had to put password lockouts on every terminal on the ship but the bridge to keep him from messing with our software.”

Merlin slipped his arm around her bare shoulders and absently wove his fingers through her fur. “Seven more hours,” he assured her, “then we’ll be rid of him.”

“That’s an eternity!”

“He’s lucky no one’s tried to slit his throat in his sleep,” Merlin snorted lightly.

“Don’t think it hasn’t crossed several minds, but no one can get past the smell to get near enough to do something so pleasant. I don’t think he’s showered since his flea dip when we first found him. Why do you claim him as family?” she asked.

“I don’t. It’s just an unfortunate act of fate that he was born into my family,” the captain murmured. “He was the only survivor of the three born in his litter. He’s always been a smelly fleabag, even as a young pup before our folks died. Neither Mom nor Pop could do anything with him, no matter how many beatings he got.”

“Your dad beat Lucas?” She drew back in shock, unaware of this aspect of her lover’s family.

“No, that was me. He challenged me for dominance often enough, but I trounced him every time. It never seemed to do any good, though. He kept coming back for more, but he never tried the same tactic twice. He spent most of his youth trying to find his way around things—mostly work—so that he didn’t have to really earn them. If he couldn’t get something he wanted in a legitimate way, he’d find some way to weasel it out of someone else or sabotage it so that nobody would want it. That was probably the main thing that I learned to hate about him; he always wanted things to come to him unearned.”

“How did you put up with him growing up?” Samantha asked. “I’m surprised he’s still alive.”

Merlin sighed. “Don’t underestimate him, Sam. Despite his scrawny build and the constant smell, he’s intelligent and cunning. He only appears to be completely lazy. He could have finished school at the top of his class, but he never tried, no matter how much our parents encouraged him. Even after we lost Mom and Pop, my sister Shannon also tried to encourage him to do better, but it was all wasted breath.  At the end of one school year, he was caught hacking into the school computer systems and changing all of his grades when he could have easily earned them on his own. The worst part is that he’s never used those abilities for a successful career.”

“You’re kidding!” Samantha exclaimed. “There’s intelligence underneath that mangy exterior?”

“No joke,” the captain admitted. “He only uses that mind of his for his own gains, whatever they may be. Usually I’ve no problem with someone doing that, but he doesn’t care if he breaks the law or hurts others in doing so – and it’s that last one that really gets to me. I can only wonder if his showing up on board was by plan or if he just happened to be in Langlop’s Outpost at the same time we were.”

“Whatever it is he’s up to now,” Sam replied, “it’s costing us more and more having him as a passenger. I heard Durant telling Sparky about the totals he’s been tallying on Lucas. We’d make a fortune if we had a paying passenger spending those kind of numbers.

Merlin looked over at her with a look of amusement. “Over the years,” he muttered, “I’ve sometimes considered taking on passengers to add a little extra income to the business.”

Samantha shook her head. “That might be more problematic than you think,” she remarked. “Dealing with customers once every few weeks between flights is bad enough. Just imagine someone worse than Lucas locked in here with us for a month at a time.”

“Okay, that just raised my hackles,” the wolf said rubbing a hand over the back of his neck.

“Let that be a lesson to you.”

The couple fell silent as they relaxed in the dimmed light of the cabin. After a long while, Merlin grunted. “Can you set a marker on Lucas’ credit account?  If or when he ever deposits anything into it, the total of his expenses should be automatically diverted to the Blue Horizon account, up to the amount he owes us.”

Samantha turned her head toward him. “I can do that,” she admitted. “What amount should I key in for the marker to divert?”

“Get with Durant tomorrow and have him work up a forecast on what my brother should owe us by the time we get to Quet, based on what he’s charged up so far. One way or another, we will be reimbursed for the inconvenience of his presence.”

Sam was about to reply, but she heard a soft whirring noise in the darkness. “Merlin,” she whispered into his ear, “I heard something over by the bathroom, and I think I see something.” The captain looked in the direction she mentioned and saw a faint green glow hovering in the air.

The wolf moved an arm quietly to the table beside the bed and thumbed the light switch to a higher setting. Framed in the doorway to the head, up near the ceiling, was Moss, floating silently. Its single eye was focused on them, but it made no movement other than the gentle bobbing on the air currents of the room.

Merlin sighed. “It’s only Moss,” he said. “I don’t remember it coming into the room with us, though.”

“No offense to Pockets,” Samantha said, “but that thing unnerves me.”

Merlin smiled and switched the light off completely. “Moss!” he called out.

“Meow!” it answered. It lowered in altitude as it approached the bed, as they could tell by the pale green light of its sensor lens. It stopped a meter from the bed, awaiting further commands or conversation.

“Leave this room and continue on your rounds,” the captain ordered.

“Meooow, meow!” The small saucer rotated on its axis and floated away from them. A moment later, the door swooshed open and the security unit departed lazily. The door closed and the room was covered in a blanket of darkness once again.

“Good riddance,” Samantha said. “I don’t like it watching me.”

“Pockets told me he didn’t program it to record anything but anomalies dealing with the ship.”

“I still don’t like it.”

Merlin laughed and slipped a playful hand around her waist and lightly tickled her ribs. “You mean you don’t like voyeurs watching us?”

She slapped him lightly and nipped at his snout. “What goes on in here is our business only!” 

*** 

The planet Quet sat like a lifeless grey pearl in space. Even on the sunlit side of the small, moonless world, the terrain stretched on like a featureless blank. Pollution-saturated clouds swirled across its surface and even the planet’s tideless, brown oceans reflected little light of the sun from the distance of spatial orbit. Nicknamed The Dump, Quet was the poorest of the Alignment worlds. Decades ago, an environmental disaster destroyed most life on the planet and left the atmosphere mildly toxic, though breathable. Quet’s only current asset to the Alignment was its abundant source of micranite that was used in the containment shielding in LightDrive engines – the Blue Horizon’s cargo pickup for the next delivery to Dennier.

As the freighter made its orbital approach, Merlin sat in the pilot seat. Taro was stationed at the Com terminal and Renny was seated at navigation. No one else desired to see Quet as the ship came in from space, so it was just the three of them on the bridge.

“Adjusting ship’s time to Quetian clocks in the Plains Time Zone,” Taro announced over the intercom. “Local time is oh-nine-twenty-one.” It was standard procedure to set themselves to whatever world and time zone they were about to spend several days on. Whatever planetary time zone the vessel’s clocks were set to would remain as standard ship’s time until their next planetfall. The ship’s systems reflected the change instantaneously with her reset immediately following the announcement. This was, however, only a formality as the ship and crew would not be taking their standard leave here. A hostile climate combined with a dead-poor mining community did not make for much need.

The fox received a signal in her headset and nodded to herself at the information scrolling across her station screen. “This is the SS Blue Horizon,” she stated into her microphone, “Planetary Alignment registry number PA1621. We’re coming in on standard approach vector for landing in the mining vicinity of Lormun.” She listened a second and then answered, “Micranite pickup for the Alvex Corporation.” 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 navigational computer as Taro finalized their approach from the Quetian Air Authority.

“QAA has given us the okay for landing, Captain,” she said over her shoulder.

“Aye,” the wolf replied. “Renny?”

“Transferring navigational trajectory to your panel now,” the cheetah answered.

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

Merlin moved the inverted, L-shaped guidance shifts forward and the ship nosed down toward the grim world. Renny flicked a switch at his station and the forward windows took on an orange hue as the heat shields activated. There was only a slight resistance to the controls as the atmosphere thickened with their descent. The blue saucer-shaped freighter sliced through the thick brown clouds with little turbulence and before Merlin could call for infrared on the video panels, they were below the thin layer and heading downward toward a low range of mountains.

Merlin checked his readouts and adjusted his course across the small continent and dropped their speed.

Taro half turned toward Merlin. “I’ve made contact with a representative from Lormun,” she said. “Someone named Braith will meet us at landing pad three.” Merlin grunted his acknowledgement and dropped their altitude to fifteen hundred feet as they passed over the village and slowed to standard flight speed limits.

“There’s the spaceport,” Taro said with a grimace.  The “spaceport” consisted of a single nondescript building surrounded by five round landing areas. She moved to the engineering station and flipped a switch to start equalizing the ship’s internal air pressure with that of the city, though without actually using the external atmosphere. In most cases, standard procedure would call for replenishment of the ship’s air reserves with whatever planet they delivered to, but on visits to Quet this was a process avoided. Fortunately for them all, the air they had replenished on Brandt was of better quality.

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

Renny felt the ship slow even more and glanced out the windows. They were barely over treetop level and on approach to a small concrete building. On a large sign that was nearly unreadable due to the pollution that clung to it were the rather bland descriptive words: Landing Pad, Lormun. The Blue Horizon stopped forward movement above a dirt landing pad and began dropping slowly.

Merlin lowered the landing gear and set his ship gently onto the ground with the slightest of bumps. He immediately 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, “after Durant has made his cargo assignments, have him ready to give me assistance with Lucas.”

“Aye, sir.”

Renny cracked the knuckles of his hands and grinned with his teeth. “May I help?”

Merlin looked over at him with a frown. “I need you on cargo duty. Durant can handle him.” 

*** 

Lucas Sinclair released the Moss unit he had deactivated a moment and took the few items he had hidden inside its shell, shoving them into the pockets of his coat. He should be able to pawn them off for food or other services at such time as he might need them. He only found one of the silver relays inside Moss, but didn’t have time to look for the other one that had apparently jostled loose somewhere. Someone would come looking for him shortly, so Lucas left the room without a backward glance, not even watching the mobile security sensor unit float off to resume its routine sweep of the ship.

He took the lift down to the cargo area and saw that the loading had started without him. If they were going to make him work with them, he had no intention of doing much. He had taken no more than two steps out of the lift when Durant’s massive paw closed around the back of the wolf’s neck.

“Come with me,” the bear growled at the younger Sinclair. Lucas could do little but walk where Durant aimed him and within a moment, he was flanked by his brother. The trio moved to the open bay door, and when they got to the ramp, Durant put a huge foot on the wolf’s butt and then launched Lucas out of the ship. This was followed by a pause from the other crew members, who gave a congratulatory round of applause. Lucas landed in the dust and rolled twice, but he got up and continued walking in the direction he had been thrust. He didn’t bother to look back, as he was used to the treatment.

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