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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 1

— Episode 5

"A Little Liberation"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

SS Blue Horizon PA1261

Captain’s Journal 

This will be a short entry. The Blue Horizon is on Quet, otherwise known as the Dump, to pick up a shipment of processed micranite for delivery to the shipyards on Dennier, my homeworld. We have flown empty from Brandt to the mining town of Lormun, a lackluster place that is barely on the maps of even this world. Payment for our services was transferred to the company account without a hitch and I have already had Durant distribute the crew’s pay to their accounts. The hold is filled to near full capacity with the micranite crated in large octagonal boxes, each three meters across. For containers this size, our hold is quite large, so that’s a lot of micranite.

Standard procedure after a space flight is three days of leave, but no one is really anxious to spend time on Quet so I told everyone (but Lucas) to be back in twenty-four hours. Despite his slothfulness, my younger brother has always been able to take care of himself in one way or another, so I have no qualms whatsoever about leaving him in this desolate place. A mining town is a working town and they don’t tolerate loafers, so perhaps someone will actually put him to use — providing he wants to eat, that is.

Unfortunately, Lormun does not offer a lot of distractions for tourists, so it has been difficult getting the crew to leave the ship while we’re here. Slavery is common on Quet in the mining towns and we’re not too savvy on local laws, so very little contact is probably best. My own plans are to go out to see if there’s a worthwhile restaurant in the area and then come back to take a personal inspection of the external hull of the ship while we’re down inside an atmosphere, such as it is. 

Merlin Sinclair, Captain 

*** 

Renny looked down the main street of the mining community and had the strangest sensation that they were in a replica of a town from an old Terran western movie. The ramshackle buildings were made of old wood that the warm atmosphere had dried out and cracked. The street was dirt and the warped boardwalks in front of the buildings were not an improvement. What local trees were visible were not much more than sticks with tiny leaves, proving that the wooden building materials had probably been imported from some far away region or were so old as to have been there since before the planet-wide environmental disaster.

The sky was dark even though it was nearing the middle of the day and torches randomly lined the roadway. They saw only a few people out and about. Most of the population was at work in the mines this time of day. Beside him, Taro made a “tsk” sound and she turned to face the small group with a frown. Against their better judgment, they had left the safety of the ship in search of a change of food.

“Not much to choose from, is there?” Durant asked from behind them.

“I’ve never liked this dump,” Pockets said in a quiet voice, as if he might call something upon them from the dark clouds overhead if he spoke any louder. His eyes rolled upward in a nervous fashion that he had not even felt while walking the streets of Langlop’s Outpost on Brandt. The air was breathable, but only just so; inhaling required a slight effort and the overall odor was unidentifiable.

Tanis and Samantha stepped out from a pair of swinging doors of the nearest building, an archaic print shop for the town’s small printed newspaper. “The clerk said there are a few places to eat on the other end of town,” the fennec fox said as they stopped beside their shipmates.

“According to locals who have to live here,” Sam added as she pointed toward the east end of town, “the place with the best food is called The Wild Star. Supposedly it’s the local entertainment spot as well.”

“Good, let’s go find it,” Renny said. “I’m starving.”

“Renny, you’re always starving,” Samantha said with a smirk.

“I’m starving, too,” Pockets said. “The sooner we eat and get out of here, the better.” Everyone seemed to be in agreement, so the small group began walking in the direction the Border collie had indicated.

“Do you think it’s gonna rain on us?” Pockets asked, still eyeing the dark clouds overhead.

“I doubt it,” Durant replied. “I think those are clouds of pollution, not of rain.”

Samantha screwed up her nose and glanced upward. “Sludge from the sky, yech!”

They walked on in silence until they saw a sputtering neon sign in the window of an establishment set apart from the rest of the buildings. Rather than the common dried-out wood construction, it was made of corrugated metal that had rusted through the white paint in the climate. A large downward pointing red arrow was painted in the middle of double doors that were smeared with dark grey micranite dust from miners’ hands. A small sign to the side of the doors bore the legend: 

The Wild Star

A Dining and Entertainment Establishment.

Food, Liquor, Nightly Live Acts

Vid Rooms & Pleasure Rooms.

Weller Tagon, proprietor. 

Renny pushed through the doors first. A wide room of dark paneling filled with wooden tables and chairs greeted them. A liquor bar lined the mirrored right-hand wall and a small curtained stage occupied the opposite end of the entrance; a hallway to either side of the stage led off behind beaded curtains. The only soul in the place was the bartender, a six-foot tall white rabbit in a red apron. He looked up at them from his chore of cleaning mugs and glasses.

“What can I do for ya folks?” the bartender asked. “I take it you are from that freighter that landed a bit ago.”

Renny stepped up to the bar and ran his tongue across his lips. “That’s right. Is the restaurant open for business, uh, mister—?”

“The name’s Harvey Robeson, folks, and yes the restaurant is open.” The rabbit smiled and set down a large mug he had been drying with a towel. “The miners and slaves will be swarming in for lunch in about a half hour, so you came at a good time.”

“Wonderful!” Renny exclaimed. “I’m starving.”

Durant offered to the rabbit, “Just keep your arms and legs away from his maw.”

“Just take a seat,” Harvey said with a laugh, “and my daughter Jess will be out in a moment with your menus.” As the group moved to a nearby table, the bartender added, “One of your crew came in a little while ago and rented one of the pleasure rooms, if you’re looking for him.”

“One of our crew?” Taro asked suspiciously.

“A wolf in a long tattered trench coat.”

“Sorry, but he’s not one of ours,” Durant said dryly. “He was a one-way passenger who needs a job with your community.”

“Ah. There are plenty of jobs in the mines. Here comes my daughter now.” A white doe in her twenties dressed in a low-cut beige blouse and a short red skirt came into the room from a side entrance with a handful of menus. Renny had to force himself not to stare at the young woman’s ample chest, even when she smiled at him for noticing his gaze, and then realized that she was giving him the elevator-eyes as well. The cheetah had a notion that she helped out with the establishment’s pleasure rooms. 

*** 

A half hour later, Samantha and Pockets stepped out through the doors of the Wild Star. Despite the dreary environment of the planet, the food in the now-busy restaurant had been decent, although a bit on the expensive side. Since the local miners were not known for their wealth, she had a feeling the prices had been elevated just for the visitors. The others were still inside chatting away on various topics. Pockets rubbed his stomach with a smile and let out a low belch.

Samantha looked at him sideways with a smirk, but otherwise didn’t comment as she stepped out into the street. Pockets followed, but after a few steps he gave his fingers a sharp snap. Sam knew the signal and looked back at him. The raccoon pointed only with his gaze down an alley between the buildings to their left and Samantha’s eyes located the outbuilding he had noticed. Without a word between them, the duo casually walked into the alley.

On occasion, the raccoon and collie operated together to ‘appropriate’ items they might need later on, and a locked shed just might provide opportunity. Despite the warmth of the weather, Sam put her hands in the pockets of her favorite fringed jacket as they neared a small metal shed, her tail wagging slightly. Her raccoon partner smiled when he saw the standard padlock through the hasp on the door. From one of his many namesake pockets, he fished out a rolled-up pouch of silver instruments. He opened it partially and selected a small tool designed for such an occasion.

Before had a chance to start his work, however, he looked up at Samantha with a worried expression. “Sam,” he whispered. “I think there’s someone inside.”

The Border collie leaned close to the door with a frown. “Sounds like whimpering,” she whispered back. “A youngster, perhaps.”

“What do we do?” the raccoon engineer asked. “It might be a slave for the mines. You know that’s legal here.”

Sam looked at him silently for a moment. “We can’t just walk away, Pockets,” she whispered. “Maybe someone’s just hurt and trapped inside.”

“If she’s trapped, it was not by accident,” he said, lifting the padlock slightly to make his point.

The collie looked down at her friend and gave him a pair of sad brown eyes. Pockets swallowed and then shrugged his shoulders. “Okay, we’ll check it out,” he said at last. The tool went into the key slot and the padlock popped open within a heartbeat. 

*** 

Durant set his glass on the table and glanced idly across the miners and slaves that filled the room. Most had given the Horizon crew curious glances when they had come in for their midday meal, but otherwise had ignored them. For the past twenty minutes, he had been glancing over at a female bear that had come in with a young cub in tow. They sat in a booth next to the bar, oblivious to the tall ursine’s attention.

Renny and Taro were engaged in an animated conversation on sports activities of the various worlds of the Alignment and Durant had grown tired of listening to them. He picked up his glass and walked toward the booth where the mother bear sat with her cub. When he stopped next to the table, the woman looked up at him, but immediately turned her attention back to spoon-feeding her cub a mushy paste-like substance from a jar.

“Pardon me, ma’am,” Durant said pleasantly, “but I think I might know you, although I’m not quite sure from where or when.”

She stopped, as though his voice had frozen her in that moment. Her hand trembled as she drew the spoon away from the child. “Please go away,” she said, a nervous terror on the edge of her voice.

Durant was surprised by her demeanor, but held up a hand. “I don’t want to bother you…”

“Then go away,” the woman said again, gathering up her belongings with shaky hands. This time, the youngster looked up from its feeding to stare at him. Durant’s eyes narrowed—there was something uniquely familiar about the child’s eyes. He was sure he had seen this pair somewhere before.

Durant thought he would try once more, “I’m sorry, ma’am. I just want to know…”

“Leave me alone!” she snapped, her voice quavering. She snatched up the now-distressed cub and hustled out of the restaurant, leaving Durant standing alone with his mouth open. 

*** 

Samantha took the first step and pulled open the old door of the rusty shed. As dark as it was in the alley, it only took a moment for her canine eyes to adjust to the blackness inside the two meter square building. The diffused noonday sunlight sliced through the darkness like a hot knife, but illuminated only the rusted, grey, mildewed innards of a storage shed. The scent of urine and feces permeated the small area, with a tang of sweat and vomit mixed in for an awful stench.

They heard a soft whine and Sam focused her eyes onto the spot the sound had emanated from. The collie covered her nose as she moved toward the source of the pitiful sound. Pockets stepped in hesitantly behind her, poised and ready for anyone who might try to attack them from within the shed.

The Border collie swallowed at what she saw. A canine youth, possibly in his mid-teens, sat cross-legged on the floor, his back toward them. A pair of ice-blue eyes peered at them over his left shoulder and Sam could see him shaking. He looked like he might be a German shepherd with a mix of Siberian husky.

Fighting the urge to retch, she knelt to place a hand on a trembling shoulder. The skinny frame melted away from her touch, a cry of fear rasping from his throat as he squirmed around to face his attacker. The little thing backed up into a sloppy corner, landing in a wet pile she did not care to identify. In the sliver of light, pale eyes burned with fear and unendurable sadness. The naked youth’s matted fur, torn and sporting bald areas from some unknown affliction, was a patchwork of stains and wounds. His torso was feebly thin, and another whimper issued from his throat as the corrugated breast rose and fell with each breath.

“Calmly, little one,” she said to him in a soft voice, “we’re here to help you.” The youth didn’t reply, but only stared at her. Samantha glanced back at Pockets before trying again.

“Can you tell us what your name is?”

The light blue eyes studied her. Then, after a moment more of silence, he said in a weak, raspy voice, “Max… Maximillian, ma’am.”

Sam reached out and softly touched his cheek to bring him to face her. He did not resist this time and dropped his head submissively, his ears drooping. “Maximillian?” the collie repeated. “That’s a nice name.”

“M’master gave it to me,” the boy said. “Most everyone else… calls me Max.” He looked into her eyes but did not smile.

“How old are you, Max?”

“Fifteen.”

Sam knelt next to him, mindful to keep out of the mess on the floor. “Did your master lock you in here?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“How long have you been in here?”

The boy closed his eyes a moment and then answered, “I dunno. Five days, maybe.”

“Five days! What did you do for that kind of punishment?”

Max lowered his head. “I disobeyed him.”

“No one deserves this!” Pockets exclaimed in a whisper of his own as he moved in to stand next to his shipmate.

The youth looked at the raccoon with his head still down. “Mr. Tagon is my master,” he said. “He says I deserve punishment.”

“Mr. Tagon is wrong,” Sam replied.

“Do you have anything to eat?” Max asked in a pleading voice, “and water?”

“Samantha…” Pockets breathed. “This Tagon is starving the kid!”

It was then that Sam noticed that the boy’s left hand was missing its middle finger. The gnarled stub had become infected and swollen, the wound recent. Desperate with hunger, she surmised he had probably chewed it off himself. She turned to her shipmate with moist eyes. “We have to get him to the Horizon, Pockets!”

“Sam,” the raccoon replied, “he’s a slave. We can’t just take him without permission.”

The collie looked at him evenly and said in a toneless voice, “Why not? We were going to see if there was anything of value in here we could appropriate anyway.”

“But this is different, Sam. He’s alive.”

“He won’t be for long if this Tagon creep keeps him in here,” Samantha argued. “Five days… It looks like he’s forgotten Max altogether.” The boy listened to the exchange quietly in submission. He had gotten his ears boxed on more than one occasion for speaking up for himself, but he was so hungry.

“I don’t eat much,” said the small, plaintive voice. Pockets heard something in the voice, a twinge of hope and a grim morsel of desperation. For a moment, he remembered the small mouse he had seen on the Lady of Dreams and the explanation the tall fox had given him. He had looked on her with admiration then, to rescue a child in need, and suddenly felt a pang of guilt at his own reluctance to have that courage.

Samantha stood up to a crouch and held her hands out to Maximillian. “Pockets,” she said in a firm voice, “I cannot stand by and let him be treated this way. I’m taking him to the ship, at least to get him some food and medical attention. We’ll bring him back afterward, if we can.”

“Really?” Pockets muttered, disbelieving her intentions. “You will take him away and then bring him back to this?”

“I… I will take responsibility when the captain finds out.”

Max stared at her hands in fear. If he were caught outside of the shed with them, Mr. Tagon would probably beat him to near death. He looked down at his numb left hand and wondered if death might actually be a better choice. Here, in the dark, was a spark of decency against a starless night, but it was enough light for him to follow.

Samantha was still glaring at her crewmate when she felt the two rough hands slide into her own. She stood up fully and the boy tried to follow, but nearly collapsed in her arms from weakness. Despite the filth and stench of the youth, Pockets jumped in and helped support the boy’s weight as they walked him outside. As an afterthought, Pockets left Max with Sam a moment to close and lock the shed door. If the outbuilding continued to appear unchanged, the boy’s absence might not be noticed for a while longer. 

*** 

Merlin and Arktanis walked back to the ship following a quick meal at a seedy little place called Seiko’s. The desert fox had gone in to The Wild Star with the others, but had to go back to the ship for his credicard. He and the captain decided to try another place they found on their walk through town. The food had been edible, but there was little flavor to it. The pair were discussing the place’s merits, or lack thereof, when the wolf saw someone near the hatch of the Blue Horizon. He thought one of them was Samantha, but the shadows near the vessel were dark and the figures moved quickly into the interior of the main hatch. He put his fingers to his lips and whistled loudly, but they were already out of sight.

“C’mon, Tanis,” he said.

“Think it might be Lucas again?” the fennec fox asked as they broke into a run.

“The thought had crossed my mind,” Merlin admitted. “I’d sooner sell him into slavery here than put up with him on another voyage.”

The pair approached the hatch and Tanis keyed in the password on a small pad near the main hatch. The door slid aside and their noses were instantly assaulted by a foul stench. “Gads!” exclaimed the fennec, backing up against a wall. “What died in there?”

“Only Lucas would let himself smell so bad!” Merlin croaked.

“Even Lucas couldn’t get that kind of stench on him in the short time we’ve been here, could he?”

They moved through the open airlock door inside and stepped into the hold. Merlin heard the faint hiss of the lift doors ahead of them and he motioned Tanis to follow him around the perimeter of their loaded cargo. The indicator near the lift showed the elevator stopped on the second level, so the captain thumbed the pad to bring it back down.

A couple of moments later, Merlin and Tanis stood in the curved corridor of the crew deck, sniffing the air. The stench led to the right. “Smells like he went in to either Pockets or Sam’s cabin,” Tanis said.

Merlin knocked on Pockets’ door, but there was no reply and the panel was locked. He went to Sam’s door and repeated the action. The Border collie opened the door and faced them dressed in a robe. The running water of her shower could be heard from the bathroom inside.

“Hi, Captain,” she said with a smile. “Hello, Tanis.”

“What on Quet did you fall into?” Merlin asked as he pinched his nose. “Smells like a sewer.”

“Yeah, mate, it’s stinking up the ship!” The fennec fox added with a wrinkled snout.

“Good guess,” the collie said a little nervously. “If you’ll excuse me, I want to wash the smell off of me as much as you do.”

Merlin snorted and shook his head. “Spray some perfume out here and in the hold, too, or Patch and Pockets will have your hide if they have to smell this all the way to Dennier.”

“Aye, Captain,” Sam said with a crooked smile. She shut the door, leaving her shipmates staring at the panel.

“Gah,” Tanis gagged. “I’d go outside for some fresh air if Quet had any!”

Inside her cabin, Samantha moved back to the bathroom, where the engineer was showing their pungent guest how to work the shower. “Go get yourself washed, Pockets,” she told him. “I’ll take care of getting Max cleaned up.”

“Okay,” said the raccoon. “I might have an oversized shirt and some shorts he could wear, too.” 

*** 

“Samantha, are you nuts?” Sparky exclaimed. The lynx sat down at the galley table, put her elbows on the hard surface, and rubbed her temples with her fingers. “That’s kidnapping!”

The collie put a finger to her lips. “Shhh… Keep your voice down,” she said. “And it’s not kidnapping if he goes willingly.”

Sparky frowned deeply at her friend. “Just how many kidnappers were able to grab their victims by coaxing them so they thought they were going along willingly?” The canine only stared at her. “Samantha, since he’s a slave, this is a theft of private property, not to mention against the laws of Quet in aiding a slave to escape.”

Max stood just behind the Border collie, quiet in submission as he had been taught long ago, wishing strongly that someone would feed him; the aroma of food from the kitchen was making him salivate. Samantha reached around her and took his left arm gently. “Look at this, Sparky,” she said as she indicated the missing digit from the boy’s hand. The stub was medicated and bandaged from Tanis’ Infirmary, but the absent finger was hard to miss. Sam raised the blue shirt the boy wore to expose Max’s skinny frame. “Look at his ribs, Sparky. I couldn’t just leave him there like this.”

The lynx remembered the videos from Brandt, showing children in wretched conditions, and how her heart had gone out to them. There were pangs of pity tugging at her heart, but she shook her head with sad eyes. “You are going to land us all in a nasty jail here on the Dump if you’re not extremely careful. But…” she sighed lightly, “I can’t sit by and do nothing, Sam.” She leaned forward and took the boy’s bandaged hand. “Will you let us help you, son?”

Max nodded, but kept his head down with his ears and tail lowered. If these people wanted to be his new masters, it looked like they would treat him better, at the least.

“Now,” Sparky said with new life, “how about some hot food to fill out those skinny bones of yours?”

For the first time since Pockets had picked the lock of the shed, the boy smiled. It was not a big smile, but there was enough there for the adults to know the prospect of food was his fondest wish. 

*** 

Merlin Sinclair sat in the center seat of the Blue Horizon, going over the preflight checklist on his slateboard. They would be launching in just over an hour and he wanted to make sure everything was ready before leaving Quet. Taro sat at the engineering station, running through her own preparations and they spoke in monosyllables to one another while they went through every sequence.

The intercom beeped and the vixen thumbed the switch on her console. “This is Taro.”

“Hi Taro, is the captain up there?” Samantha’s voice asked.

“I’m here, Sam,” Merlin said without looking up from his instruments. “What’s on your mind?”

“If you have a minute, I have something urgent I need to discuss with you, in private.” Merlin and Taro exchanged glances at the word private, and both had the identical thought wondering what she had gotten into this time.

“We’re preparing to launch, Sam. Can it wait until we’re under way?”

“Not really.”

“Okay, meet me in my office,” the captain replied. “We’ll have to make this quick.” He set the slateboard gently on the instrument console and walked out the door to the next room over. The panel had barely shut behind him when it opened again. Samantha walked in, but she was not alone. Accompanying her was a teenage canine in cutoff shorts and what looked to be one of Pockets’ old, stained work shirts. The door shut behind them, but before anything was said, he saw a familiar look in Samantha’s eyes and felt a sudden dread. He steeled himself for what was obviously a calculated appeal to his emotions.

“No, Sam,” Merlin said as he leaned back against his desk. “Absolutely not.”

“But, you haven’t even heard me out,” the collie replied.

“I know you, Sam, and I know me. Let’s not even start.”

Maximillian stepped away from his benefactor’s side and looked up at Merlin, who was a good ten inches taller. “Please listen?” he entreated.

Merlin glanced back over to the Border collie and sighed. “Start talking.”

Samantha explained how she and Pockets had found the boy, though wisely omitted the fact they had gone to the shed to pilfer. After bringing Max to the ship, she had cleaned him up and coaxed Tanis into attending to the youth’s wounded finger stub, and then taken him to Sparky for food. Afterward, she, Sparky, Pockets and Tanis had gathered together with him in the galley and slowly coaxed the boy’s story from him.

Maximillian’s mother had been a pleasure girl at a distant spaceport on the other side of Quet and his father had been a space-jockey who been there only a few hours. The Siberian husky pilot never knew he had fathered offspring with the German shepherd female of his pleasure. Max had been born with three sisters in his litter, but they had been retained by their mother for upbringing in her profession. After he had been weaned, the male pup was sold to a creditor, something not uncommon on Quet, and then he changed hands again. The boy’s owner, an obese rat named Weller Tagon, had named him Maximillian and had been fairly rough in raising him.

“When Pockets and I found him,” Samantha said in conclusion, “Max had been locked away in that filthy shack for five days without food or water for disobedience, and no one’s even checked on him in that amount of time. Who knows how long he would have been there if we had not come along?”

Locked… in a shed?” he asked slowly. Samantha averted her eyes and the captain correctly surmised how the boy had escaped his confinement.

“We could hear him whimpering from outside!”

Merlin scratched the fur on top of his head beneath the captain’s hat and then crossed his arms. “Samantha…” he began. He stopped to collect his thoughts and emotions. “I agree that his upbringing has been deplorable, and I would have never condoned a punishment so severe, but…”

“But?” Sam repeated in a weak voice.

“But, no matter what we think about it, slavery is legal here on Quet… while theft and kidnapping are not.” Merlin shook his head slowly. “If we had a way we could do this legally, I might not deny this request.”

“His owner was going to kill him.”

“That’s not our business. On this world, people have the right to dispose of their property as they see fit. Besides the legalities, what use to us is a slave?”

“I can take care of him. I can pay his way,” Sam said.

“Pay his way? When we’re out in the middle of space, what good is money and influence if there are no dry-docks or supply stations on the way? You know our supplies are limited and sometimes emergencies do come up.”

“I can work!” the youth interjected. “I can clean anything! And – and I will not take up much space. I can sleep in the refuse bin and I’ll get off at the first stop. You’ll never have to see me again.”

Merlin sought words to respond, but the helpless, pitiable tones of the youngster’s voice robbed him of his voice.

“I don’t eat much,” he continued. “You could feed me only every other day.”

“Which is probably more than he was getting here,” Sam punctuated as she wrapped an arm around the gangly boy’s shoulders, “He’s eager to help us.” Max gave the captain a wide, toothy smile, as if to show his sincerity. Merlin sighed and rubbed his temples.

“What if we offered to buy him from Mr. Tagon?” the collie asked.

The wolf wrinkled his nose. “What are you going to tell him, Sam? That you found the boy by picking the man’s lock? Samantha, he’ll likely throw you and Pockets in that shed with the boy with the blessing of the local authorities.” Merlin walked around the desk and sat in his chair. “What’s distressing is that you are guilty of all three crimes and I wouldn’t be able to do a thing for you. I doubt even your lawyer Jackson Wyatt could do much!”

The captain turned his attention to the boy. “I’m sorry, son,” he said honestly. “I have to adhere to the laws of your world. By taking you with us, we would be breaking those laws. Do you understand?”

The small canine’s countenance fell to a dejected heap and he clung to Samantha’s arm with his maimed hand. In a small voice, he replied, “I understand.” Then his voice dropped perceptibly, “Can you just kill me instead?”

Sinclair winced at the words, delivered in a wooden sincerity not to be found in depression or sarcasm – this youngster was serious.

“I can’t do that,” he replied.

Samantha stared back at her captain with a blank expression, but it was clear that she had foisted a choice on him: quick and easy or slow and painful, the result would be the same. Starvation, disease or self-cannibalism, he was doomed if he went back. She felt a momentary twinge of guilt for placing both friend and victim in this position.

“We’re the only ship here and we will be leaving shortly,” the captain answered. “When your master can’t find you anyplace, he might think you are on my ship and I cannot afford any delays or extra financial burdens at this point.”

Max deflated, settling onto the floor in front of the desk, out of Merlin’s sight. “Don’t make me go back, sir. I’ll die if I do.”

“Merlin,” Samantha pleaded, “don’t…”

The wolf looked at the digital clock on his desk. “Sam, if you can find a way to talk Mr. Tagon out of our young friend in half an hour, we can take him with us to our next port – provided you aren’t hauled off to jail or made into a slave yourself for your crimes. Wouldn’t your father’s company really enjoy that kind of publicity?   Otherwise, take him back where he belongs and be back on board in time for launch. We’re leaving promptly at fifteen hundred hours.” He stood up and walked around the desk. “I’m sorry, Max,” he added, “I wish I could help.”

The youth sat where he was, trembling as he stared at the floor.

With the conversation over, Merlin rose stiffly and left the room, back to the bridge. Inside the captain’s office, Max looked up at the collie with heavy, doleful eyes. “I’m going to die,” he stated, coolly and without emotion. 

*** 

“Take-off in three minutes,” Taro announced to Renny and Merlin. “All hands are aboard and Durant confirms that the outer hatches have been sealed.”

“All hands?” Merlin asked. “Including Samantha?”

Taro looked at him strangely. “Of course she’s on board, Captain. Why wouldn’t she be?”

“Get her on the intercom.”

“Aye, sir.” She punched up the connection to the Border collie’s quarters. “Sam, are you there?”

“I’m here, Taro. What’s up?”

“Merlin wants to speak to you.”

There was a noticeable hesitation before she answered in a cold monotone voice. “What does he want?” she asked brazenly. Taro’s eyes widened at such blatant insubordination.

“Sam,” Merlin said as he studied the power build-up gauges, “where is Max?”

“Who, the kid you want to die in filth and disease? He’s where he belongs, just as you ordered.”

The wolf felt the bitterness in her voice as a physical blow and decided not to pursue the subject further. It was time to launch and he needed his attention on the task at hand. Without answering, he motioned to Taro to sever the connection and return to business.

“Who’s Max?” Renny wanted to know.

“Not now,” Merlin said. “Full power to the launch thrusters, please.”

“You’ve got it.”

The blue saucer-shaped freighter lifted off the landing pad and roared straight up just shy of a mile before the nose angled up to slice forward through the dark afternoon clouds. Merlin Sinclair was glad to be away from that wretched place, and as soon as they were well out of orbit and on the navigational trajectory that Renny had computed, he told Taro to get Pockets on the line.

“Pockets, here, Captain.”

“Release Moss on its sensor sweep of the ship,” the wolf told him. “I don’t want to find Lucas on board again.”

“I set Moss on its rounds before we took off, Captain,” Pockets replied. “I had it check for your brother, but it looks like that loser’s still on Quet.”

“Thank you, Pockets.”

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

“Who’s on first watch?” Merlin asked the red fox.

“I am,” Taro replied with a smile. “What’s on second, and I already have my book to read.” She brandished a thick, lusty romance whose cover sported a bosomy feline heroine in lace clutching the neck of a robust, muscular male, their longhair coats of fur mingling amidst a fiery backdrop. Several pages were dog-eared; probably the juicy parts.

The wolf secured the autopilot controls and then unbuckled his seat harness. “It’s all yours, then.”

Renny looked over at the fox and gave her a wink. “I’ll be by later to check you out… uh, check in on you.”

Taro flashed him a wide grin, passed her eyes over the stud on the novel’s cover, then back to Renny in appraisal. “Uh huh…” she said with a chuckle. Merlin rolled his eyes at the exchange and left the bridge with the cheetah at his side. 

*** 

A week had passed since leaving Quet behind and in all that time, Samantha had not spoken to her captain. In the first forty-eight hours, neither Pockets nor Tanis seemed to look upon him very kindly either, and Merlin felt he could not blame them. All had been in favor of taking the boy with them and none were happy with their captain’s executive decision. As far as they were concerned, Merlin had given the innocent Maximillian a death sentence. The only one who had been in contact with Max who did not seem to treat him any differently was Sparky. She appeared to understand his judgment, even if she had been willing to feed the boy from her limited stores. However, as the days passed the ominous hostility of the crew dissipated. Even though Merlin appreciated that, he felt odd, as though their collective distaste for his decision had lifted too early. He began to suspect that something was up, but staved the feeling off as an emotional hangover after all the events of late. 

*** 

Merlin put his mystery novel aside and closed his eyes. He couldn’t concentrate on the story during his free time right now but was not drowsy enough to sleep. He glanced over at his clock. 1600 hours. Sparky was usually in the galley working on someone’s meal at that time, so he thought he would stroll down the corridor and see what she had cooking. He stood up and put on a loose beige pullover sweater. He snared his captain’s hat from its wall hook and left the room.

As he neared the galley door, he could hear restrained laughter coming from inside. He smiled when he heard Durant’s deep laugh and wondered what the joke was about. He opened the panel and stepped inside with a large grin.

The laughter stopped immediately and Merlin’s smile evaporated completely. Sitting at the long table with Durant, Sparky and Samantha was the young canine, Maximillian.

“You…” he rasped, more to the room than to the youth before him.

Merlin’s first feeling was that of shock, and a cold wave swept his body like an ice storm. Then he felt his blood boil and the room grew incredibly hot. He clenched his fists and gritted his teeth as his eyebrows drew tightly together and his tail went up asserting his authority. Max could smell the captain’s dark anger and he dropped quickly behind the table out of sight.

The captain bared his teeth with a low growl as his eyes lit upon Samantha. Her expression was defiant at first, but it swiftly melted into a frightened frown. She had known this moment would come sooner or later and thought she would be prepared for it, but under the wolf’s penetrating stare, her will faltered. The indulgent boss tolerated the eccentricities of his crew more than most would, but it had been a long time since he had last experienced outright disobedience to a command. The feeling that now surged through his veins, pulsing in his temples, filled him with a violent fury, raising his hackles beneath the sweater.

Merlin brought both of his fists hard down on the table; the dinner plates upon it jumped, as did everyone else in the room. “HOLDEN!” he shouted, “IN MY OFFICE, NOW!”

The Border collie swallowed and stood up quietly to leave, but just as she took a step, Max scrambled to his feet and moved toward the wolf.

“Captain,” he said quickly, “it’s not…” The words froze in his throat when the commander’s icy gaze sharply shifted to him. Samantha stepped past him, followed Merlin out into the corridor, and shut the door in the youth’s face.

Durant let out the breath he had been unconsciously holding and Sparky looked as if she was going to be sick. Maximillian glanced fearfully at them and felt like crying.

“Is he gonna kill her?” he asked with moist eyes.

The load master gave the lad a weak smile and said, “Don’t worry, boy. Samantha’s talked her way out of trouble before.”

“She didn’t have any luck with him that day we left Quet,” Max pointed out. “I’ve seen that look on my master’s face before tearing into someone who’d crossed him. Most have learned not to do that again.”

Sparky composed herself and sighed. “We are glad you’re with us, Max,” she said, “but Sam disobeyed a direct order, so now she has to face the captain. She knew it was inevitable.”

Max shook his head. “It’s not fair!” he exclaimed and balled his fists. “She helped me!”

“We know, lad,” Durant said gently. “Merlin will see that once he calms down.”

The youth blinked rapidly a few times and then bolted out the door. Sparky put her arms around herself and looked over to her friend. “I’m shaking all over!” she said quietly. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that look on Merlin’s face.”

The grizzly bear got up and moved to her side to put his arms around her. “I know,” he said. “Me, too.” 

*** 

Maximillian walked slowly around the carpeted corridor, trying to fight back the tears. For the past week, he had been staying in the vacant cabin that Lucas had recently occupied and most of the crew had chipped in to help take care of the boy’s needs. Everyone had done their best to keep news of the boy’s presence from Taro and the captain, though it was a general consensus that Samantha eventually would have to take full credit for her insubordination. Among the crew, everyone seemed to like the kid, even the perpetually grumpy Patch, and the feelings were mutual. Max had never met a greater group of folks in his short life and he wanted to do anything and everything for them.

In a few moments, he found himself circling around and nearing the captain’s office. He could hear the heated voices of the angry captain and the supply officer, though he could not understand the muffled words out in the corridor. He sat down on the soft carpeting across the hall from the door and put his head down on his knees, curling his tail around his rear.

Merlin’s voice quieted down after a bit and then Max could hear nothing else from the room for a long time. When the door finally opened nearly a full hour later, he swallowed hard, fearing the worst. Merlin took a step out into the corridor, but stopped when he saw the youth; the captain’s expression was unreadable.

Samantha stepped around the wolf and saw Max looking up at them. She nodded and gave him a smile that spoke volumes to the boy. Had they won? She held out a hand to him and said, “Max, the captain has a plan that might help us all get what we want.”

Merlin squatted beside him and put a hand on the youth’s shoulder. “Please forgive me,” he said with a concerned expression. “I have to contact your master, but if we play this right, you might just get your freedom.”

New hope appeared in the teen’s eyes. “Just tell me what I need to do,” Max said. 

*** 

“The connection has been made, Captain,” Taro reported. Max stood beside Samantha just behind the center seat of the bridge.

“Weller Tagon,” a raspy voice said from the com speakers.

“Mr. Tagon,” Merlin said in an authoritative voice, for once thankful their communication system was audio-only. “This is Captain Sinclair of the Blue Horizon, a freighter that recently picked up a shipment of micranite from your mining town.”

“It’s three o’clock in the morning, so make it quick.” Tagon said grumpily.

“I’m calling to inform you that we’ve captured a stowaway on board our ship, a boy of fifteen named Maximillian.”

“So that’s where he went,” the voice of Tagon grunted.

“Sir,” Merlin continued, “he has informed us that he is your property.”

“That’s right, I’ve had him all of his miserable little life. He’ll get a hardy strapping when you bring him back to me.”

“Mr. Tagon,” the wolf said, “I’m on a tight schedule to Dennier and beyond with my deliveries. I’m afraid I will not be able to bring him back personally, but if you’ll arrange to pay for a return transport for him with the Dennieran authorities, I’m sure you can have him back in about a month’s time.”

“A month?”

“We’re still two weeks away from Dennier, sir. It will take another three weeks from there for him to get back to you.”

A grumble came across the speakers before the reply. “What’s a trip like that gonna cost me?”

Merlin smiled. “I took the liberty of checking for you and the only ship from Dennier that will be heading out your way is a private charter called the Erasmus. Its destination is to Brandt, but its captain says that she can swing by Quet to drop the boy off to you. The owner of the craft said she’d do it for ©900.”

“Nine hundred credits!”

“Yes sir.”

“The boy’s not even worth that much!”

Merlin turned toward Max and gave him a wink. “Mr. Tagon,” he said, “we also need to discuss payment for the boy’s passage and trespass on board my own vessel.”

“Payment?”

“That’s right. He managed to stow away on board and has been pilfering from our limited food and air supplies for the past week. We don’t normally transport passengers, Mr. Tagon, so our stores were not prepared to take this kind of hit. We’ll now have to ration our food for the next two weeks.”

“Uh, Captain…”

“I’ve had my accountant figure up the boy’s expenses thus far, and prorated for the rest of the voyage. Since Mr. Maximillian is your property and responsibility, your bill comes to ©1200.”

The raspy voice choked. “Twelve hundred credits! Captain, the Dennieran private craft was not that expensive!”

“True,” Merlin replied, “but a vessel expecting a passenger will have prepared for him. If you will have the payment credited to our account on Dennier, I’ll release the boy to the authorities to have him returned to you on the Erasmus as soon as possible. If you’re ready, I can give you our ship’s registry for the payment transfer.”

Tagon’s voice took on a sneer. “I refuse to pay! Max is not worth all that.”

“Then, sir, you will have to talk to our collection agency,” the wolf said in a menacing tone. “A business such as ours has to frequently deal with such threats of nonpayment, so we will not hesitate to employ our lawyer if you refuse, Mr. Tagon.”

“Uhm… how about a deal, Captain? What if I just give the boy to you as payment?”

“You said he wasn’t worth even 900 credits.”

“I, uh, I spoke rashly, Captain. He’s actually quite handy to have around. He can clean and cook, and is a quick learner.”

“Perhaps,” Merlin said dryly, “but I don’t have the air, food or space for another body on my ship. Once we get to Dennier, I will have him put on the private transport and sent back to you. Payment of his expenses to Blue Horizon Freight Transfer will be expected within thirty days or my agency will have collectors breathing down your neck, Mr. Tagon. Jackson Wyatt & Associates will be anxious to deal with you.”

“Captain!” the rat squeaked, “I don’t have the extra money available for your expenses or even that of the other vessel. Lormun is a small mining town and we don’t get that much business! If you won’t take him for yourself, perhaps you can sell him once you’re on Dennier to get your payment.”

There was a momentary pause. “I suppose I could do that, Mr. Tagon,” Merlin said with his eyes closed. “Slaves are not usually tolerated on Dennier, but I understand there’s a black market for such things just about everywhere. Throw in two hundred credits to offset a minimum amount of food for him and we’ll have a deal.”

“Two hundred credits? Okay… I can do that.”

“Upload the credits and the boy’s contract to me and we’ll end this conversation. Our registry code is PA1261.”

Samantha had to put a hand over Maximillian’s mouth to keep him from cheering.

“You are too kind, Captain. I am uploading it as we speak. Let me also extend a special bonus to you. The next time you are in my neck of the woods, I’ll grant your entire crew to free meals for a day and a night, plus the use of my best pleasure rooms.”

Merlin wrinkled his nose at the thought of returning to Quet. “That would be nice, Mr. Tagon.”

Taro pointed to the console in front of her and made the universal “okay” sign to indicate the contract had been received and confirmation of the credits transferred. The captain made a motion with his fingers and the vixen began making the legal entries to the electronic document.

“We have everything now, so we’ll not bother you further tonight,” Merlin said.

“Thank you, Captain.”

Taro severed the connection and Merlin turned toward her. “Finished?” he asked her.

The red fox tapped a button and a file was immediately transferred to his slateboard. Merlin applied his thumbprint signature in a box at the bottom of the document upon his screen.

“Maximillian,” he said as he turned toward Samantha and the boy.

“Sir?” the young canine asked in a quiet voice. “I know you don’t have much food and air for me, but I’ll try not to use up –”

“Max,” Samantha said into his ear, “that was only a ruse for Mr. Tagon’s benefit. We routinely over-stock our supplies in case of emergency situations. We have plenty to share with you.”

Max looked up and searched her eyes for any sign of deceit, but he found none there.  Finally, he turned back to Merlin and grinned widely. “I won’t let you down, sir,” he said with sudden enthusiasm. “I’ll be the best slave you’ve ever had!”

Merlin chuckled and gave Samantha a wink. “Can you read Standard?” he asked the boy.

“Yes sir, I can. Angelina taught me!” The captain handed the slateboard to Max and told him to read the final entry in the last paragraph. Maximillian’s eyes grew wide and he looked up to the wolf in disbelief.

“This says… this says that I’m no longer a slave,” he said quietly.

“That’s correct. By my authority as the new owner of your contract,” Merlin replied, “I’ve set you free. However, since you are still under age according to Dennieran law, I will be your legal guardian until you are old enough to leave on your own.”

“Until… until I’m old enough?” Max repeated. “Does this mean you aren’t going to kick me out once we reach Dennier?”

“No, Max,” Samantha whispered into his ear. “You’ll be staying with us.”

Moisture welled up in the youth’s eyes. The fifteen-year-old fought back the tears because he didn’t want to seem weak, but there was too much relief and joy. He turned and jumped into Samantha’s arms, grinning widely. The collie held him tightly, tears of her own glistening in her cheek fur.

“Captain,” Taro said quietly, “to make the document complete when you register it on Dennier, he’ll have to have a family name.”

“Max?” Samantha said into the boy’s ear. “What surname would you like to have?”

The youth looked up at her first, and then turned to face the captain. “My sir-name?” he asked.

Merlin nodded to him. “You’ll need a family name to be legal with the Dennieran registration. As a freed slave with no family of your own, it’s your choice to use whatever name you want.”

Maximillian wiped his eyes and thought for a moment. He looked at Sam, and then at Taro, before he finally faced the wolf once again.  “May… may I use the name of my guardian?” he asked tentatively. “I would like your name, sir, if that’s allowed.”

Merlin gave him a genuine smile. “Maximillian Sinclair has a nice sound to it,” he replied. “Okay, Taro, enter that name onto the document.”

“Thank you, master,” the youth said with a grin.

“You need not call me master,” Merlin shook a finger at him. “You are no longer a slave.”

“But,” Max replied, “Samantha told me that all those I respect – people of great honor – should be called master.”

Samantha shrugged, “I told him about Master Tristan.”

The older wolf thought for a moment, scratched his chin. “I can live with that, but captain will do.” The captain held out his hand, but instead of the expected handshake, Max gave his savior a fierce hug. After a moment, Merlin held him out at arm’s length and said, “Since you will be sharing my family name, you may call me your uncle Merlin, if you like.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Okay now, if you’ll go with Samantha, she’ll get you set up in our vacant cabin,” Taro said with a smile. “You won’t have to live under her bed anymore.”

Max snickered and admitted, “That’s where I’ve been staying all this time.”

“Sneaky,” Taro said with a chuckle.

“I will have Durant set up an account for you, starting with Mr. Tagon’s two hundred credit donation.”

“Wow!”

Sam stood up and motioned for the door. “You will need an education too.  I’ll get you lined up for some tutoring, as well. There’s a lot about the Planetary Alignment I’m sure you don’t know.”

“What is a planner-terry line mint?” Max asked. 

*** 

Durant stood beneath a hot shower, allowing the water to soak him to the skin below his thick fur. The memories of meandering around the filthy small town needed washing away. Still, his mind kept drifting back to that female bear he had met in the restaurant. Unfortunately, her brusque manner had left him feeling both apprehensive and uneasy, so he had dropped the subject. Perhaps, he thought, she simply had a familiar face, which would explain his interest. Maybe even as well, she might be trying to get away from a boyfriend or husband who had been cruel to her, and his massive, imposing form had been intimidating to her. Or maybe she was just shy. Who knew?

Durant scrubbed his fingers through the fur on his face, remembering her face as the cold rain spilled over him. Steam rose above his neckline, and he brushed the drops out of his eyes.

Cold rain?

The bear pulled his hands away from his face, staring at the palms to reassure himself that he was in a hot shower. The tiles and glass that surrounded him asserted that he was, but he wondered why he thought of cold rain right at that moment.

Something about the water coursing over him – that face… something about rain… Then it hit him, little by little filtering into his mind as it had been a mercifully forgotten memory.

Three years ago, he had been on Earth traveling to see a friend when his air car had broken down on the side of the road just outside of a small rural town in Oklahoma. One of the energizers had broken and nobody was going to aid a large grizzly bear in the middle of nowhere, especially in the dark and buffeted by a rainstorm. He started walking up the road with what little credits he had on him, hoping to find an all-night travel stop to get some help. About ten minutes into his walk, a set of headlights sailed up to him and stopped. He found himself staring into the face of an attractive young female bear.

She invited him into her car and offered to take him to a com. They had chatted about this and that, and he had the distinct impression that she had been examining his character, his intelligence, his perceptivity in the process. Not wanting to be rude, he answered her conversation as cheerfully as he could manage.

Their trip took them to a hotel, and she recommended that after the long day of travel, they simply get a room for the night and deal with his broken vehicle in the morning. Too tired after a day of travel and too enchanted by her appearance, Durant had agreed. That night had been magic. Their bodies explored one another, passionate, fleeting and anonymous – neither even knew the other’s name.

The next morning, he woke to find his lover gone and a note on the pillow beside him.

“Life’s greatest treasures are its little ones, and you have given me the greatest gift anyone could ever want. Please, never try to find me. I will always love you, and the part of yourself you’ve given me.”

In a shower stall of the Blue Horizon, Durant slumped to his knees and wept into his hands. A hot anguish flashed through his frame as he realized why she had seemed familiar – and the reflection of his face in a shallow pool of water told him why he had recognized the child’s eyes.

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