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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 1

— Episode 7

"Lost, Distant World"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

SS Blue Horizon PA1261

Captain’s Journal 

Most of my crew has assembled at my sister Shannon’s home in the seaside capitol city of Grandstorm during our stay on Dennier. Liftoff is in forty-eight hours. Our normal down time between flight deliveries is three days, but I wanted a full week this time to give Max and myself the opportunity to get together with my family. Unfortunately, Shannon’s husband, Bill has been away to Kantus on business for the financial management company he owns, so we have not been able to see him during this visit. It was his financial advice a number of years ago that helped me make a few wise investments that have paid off well. It is the sole reason I was able to purchase the Blue Horizon in the first place. While my sister has a nice home, it is not large enough to put up my whole crew, so most of us are back on board the Blue Horizon, even if we are stationary on Bill’s private landing pad.

Max, Samantha and I just got back from a camping trip to spend a couple days without distraction to get to know one another. Originally, I had intended the trip just for Max and myself, but after my angry outburst when I first discovered that he was on board against my orders, he was hesitant to go on the trip without Samantha along. Sam was not too keen on camping out, but came along for Max’s benefit. We had a few misfortunes that I may later jot down, but things smoothed out and we eventually had a good time. I think that Sam and I may have finally convinced the boy that my fits of anger like that only come out when my orders have been blatantly disobeyed. As a former slave, he is fully aware of the repercussions of disobedience, but unlike his former Master, I have never struck anyone in my anger. I may hit the furniture, yell loudly and dock someone’s pay, but I have never resorted to the kind of violence he is apparently used to. Fortunately for us all, outright disobedience of my orders is rare, so it may be a long time before he ever sees me react like that again.

In the short time that I have known Max, I have discovered that despite his upbringing, this fifteen-year old is quite intelligent, even if lacking in actual knowledge. Shannon offered to take him into their home and get him into school, but he feels so indebted to me and Samantha that he refuses to be left behind. I know that Shannon’s husband, Bill would have loved to meet Max. He and Shannon have wanted cubs of their own, but destiny has not blessed them with any. Both are good with kids and they would have loved Max as if he were their own.

Since the youth will be staying with us on the Horizon, Samantha has volunteered to tutor the boy and has purchased a large amount of slateboard books for the task. She has made Max promise to work with her on his schooling and they have already begun. The kid is sharp and has already shown a hunger for knowledge that most children his age would rather avoid.

For the sake of keeping everything legal, I contacted the local authorities our first day here and explained (without so much detail) how I came to be in possession of the canine youngster. When they confirmed my report with Mr. Tagon on Quet with copies of the boy’s legal contract, they agreed to appoint me as Max’s legal guardian and had the process completed within two days. Max was beaming at the judge as she made us a virtual family and he was so pleased to take on the name of Sinclair. I am not taking his place as a father, but rather I will be more like an uncle to the lad. Like my sister, I have always gotten along well with children, even though I’ve never had any of my own; I’ve never had a nephew either.

Another event in our favor came from Taro when she informed me that she had already secured our next customer. Even while off duty, Taro is good at her job. A wealthy playboy on Mainor is throwing a wild party next month for some kind of tricentennial anniversary and needs a full shipment of entertainment goods from Flint City, Dennier. He has agreed to add a thirty percent bonus if we can get everything to him in three days. It’s just an hour’s atmospheric flight across Dennier to Flint and then the journey to Mainor is only a mere twenty hours. We are lucky the two planets are presently at their closest orbits in this solar system.

I got a collect call from Renny yesterday telling me that he was on Mainor. He had taken a quick flight there with a gal he had met in a pub, but she had partners who were waiting for him that night. As they were walking back to his inn from a restaurant, a pair of hyenas beat him senseless and robbed him of every credit he had had on him, though not without a fight. He requested an advance on his pay so he could charter a ship back to us on Dennier, but since we are heading that way soon, I wired him enough funds to stay there until we can pick him up personally. It was cheaper that way.

The only one of my crew besides Renny who is still absent is Sparky, and if she keeps up her tradition, she will probably show up mere minutes before we seal the hatch and take off.

Personally, I am ready to get going again. Our customer, none other than the playboy snow leopard himself, Harrison Merrick, is well known for his extravagance and generosity. My memory is a little hazy, but it seems we once attended a beach party of his on Crescentis a number of years ago and he’d spared no expense to make sure everyone had a good time.

If we make this delivery on schedule, we stand to fatten up the profit margin for our business considerably. After all the expenses we have incurred in recent months, it is about time we started showing a profit. 

Merlin Sinclair, Captain 

*** 

 “…and stocks for Delondin Enterprises on Earth continue to climb to unprecedented levels. This is News Around the Alignment with Holly Harken of the Interplanetary News Network. We’ll take a quick break for a word from our sponsors, and then we’ll be back to more news.”

“Anything interesting on vid?” Samantha asked as she walked into the Recreation room. Merlin and Tanis sat on a sofa and Max lay sprawled out on the carpet at their feet, his eyes half closed from boredom with the broadcast.

“Just the interstellar news, Sam,” Merlin told her as she sat between him and the fennec fox. She held a huge bowl of popcorn and set it in her lap for her companions to share. Merlin put his arm over the back of the couch behind her.

Patch wandered over to them from the deck’s kitchenette, a hot cup of coffee in his hands, and Shannon followed him in with a tray of other drinks. The elder female wolf with tan fur handed cups of coffee to the adults and a soda to the canine youth on the floor. Patch took a seat on another couch and Shannon sat quietly beside him and with her own cup.

An attractive human woman looked out at them from the vidscreen, her long black hair spilling over her shoulders in a charming fashion and her outfit was royal blue with accents of gold across the shoulders. She held a stack of printed papers in her hands, but it was clear they were only a prop, for she never once looked at them in giving her report. She was well known across the Planetary Alignment and even had her own fan club. She was the most popular news anchor to hit the vidscreens in a long time.

“Hello, once again, this is News Around the Alignment and I’m Holly Harken of the Interplanetary News Network. Our top story at this time is the supernova of a star just a day ago in the general direction of the Mytha Star System that has taken Alignment astronomers by surprise. With the density of the stars in that sector of the galaxy and the disruption of communication, it’s not yet certain which of the suns has exploded. Because of the speed of light and the distances involved between star systems, it will be anywhere between one to six years before the explosion of the supernova is visible from any of the other worlds of the Alignment without high magnification. It is only because of the disruption of tachyon communications from the distant planets beyond that a supernova was even suspected.” Holly shook her head of hair with a ‘tsk’ sound and added, “There had been no prior suspicion on unstable stars in that area, so scientists are baffled as to the exact solar body that has exploded. Only long-range telescopes have been able to detect anything of the phenomenon. I’ll be sure to bring you more information on this event as it comes to us.”

“Holly,” Samantha said to the screen with a bored yawn. “I’m not interested in the stars…”

“And speaking of stars,” the news anchor continued, “the newest release from the fusion music band known as Dragon, Wolf & Tiger continues to rake in overwhelming sales throughout the Planetary Alignment. Stephanie Dell, spokesperson for DWT, said the group never anticipated such a well-received…”

The newscaster was interrupted by a brown furry hand from off-camera that handed her another sheet. After a quick scan of its contents, the expression on the human’s face became grave as she gave her report. “I’ve just received word from the leading authority in the investigation of yesterday’s supernova that says while the findings are still inconclusive, all indicators point to a Type 2 supernova of red giant star BAE-6410 located only one point five parsecs from the solar primary of the Mytha Star System.”

Samantha dropped her bowl of popcorn, scattering white kernels all over the floor and startling the young canine Max.

Planet Sillon, a member of the Planetary Alignment and a popular vacation spot,” Holly continued, “is currently silent, as well as two other non-Alignment populated worlds of the same star system. Even if Sillon’s parent star was not the one to explode, the devastation of the nearby red giant with eight times its mass would still have catastrophic effects on all life in the Mytha system.

“INN is setting up a communication center on Joplin in conjunction with the Spatial Police Force to field calls of concern for anyone who might have had friends or relatives in the Mytha system. We will display the frequency at the bottom of your screen throughout the rest of this newscast. Nothing more is known at this time, but stay tuned to INN for the latest developments.”

Samantha stared at the vidscreen silently, her hands curled into balls beneath her chin and tears welling up in her eyes. She swallowed hard and then cried out in a wordless shriek that set the others’ teeth on edge. Merlin reached for her, but she threw off his hand and bolted from the couch and out the door. Tanis jumped up to follow, but Patch stopped him with a touch.

“What was that about?” the fennec asked.

“Sam’s adopted family was on Sillon,” the raccoon answered.

“You mean the Master Tristan that she’s always talking about?”

“That’s right. He and his family are Silloni.”

Tanis balled up his fists and started to go after Samantha. Merlin stood up and put a hand on the fennec fox’s shoulder. “I’ll look in on her, Tanis,” he said. “She and I have known one another longer than anyone else on our crew.”

“That doesn’t mean I don’t care,” Tanis said to his captain with a frown.

The wolf turned and stared into his medic’s glassy black eyes with a dark look of his own, his tail animated behind him. “That’s not what I meant, Tanis,” he said after a quick sigh, “but I’ve met her Master Tristan and know what he means to her.”

“True,” Arktanis replied, “but she’s not the only one who’s just lost someone they knew on Sillon. I had a former military buddy who had his own tourist flight business there.”

Merlin sighed again and nodded with a frown. “Please,” he said, “just listen for any more news while I see to her.” Arktanis nodded and returned to his seat with a grumble as Merlin left the Rec Room. 

*** 

In her own cabin, Samantha cried into the pillow on her bed and Merlin sat beside her with a hand resting lightly on her heaving back. Merlin’s sister sat in the plain chair next to the room’s personal com terminal, her hands helplessly in her lap.

“They aren’t sure it was Sillon,” Shannon tried to say reassuringly. “At those interstellar distances, it may not be close enough to harm it.”

“No,” Merlin replied. “It’s only speculation at this point, but the scientists who issued the report said it showed every indication of being BAE-6410, the red giant near Sillon’s star that exploded.”

“What are the chances of someone surviving on the planet?”

Merlin looked over at his sister and shook his head with a frown. He didn’t want to discuss the supernova effects of a star on nearby worlds in front of Samantha. Shannon had never been away from Dennier, but she understood and fell quiet. Both wolves looked up at a sound at the door. It was Maximillian.

The boy moved in quietly and then knelt beside the bed next to Samantha, opposite of Merlin. Without a word, he leaned over her and draped an arm across her back with his head up against her own. Sam raised her head slightly and looked over at him, the fur under her eyes matted with her tears.

“I’m here for you, Sam,” the youth whispered to her, “just like you were there for me.”

Samantha touched foreheads with him and a hint of a smile. “Thank you, Max,” she said as she leaned into him. “You’re a good kid.”

Merlin reached over and combed his fingers lightly through her scalp hair, unable to think of anything comforting to say. Samantha grew as quiet as the rest of the room as she finally relaxed a little. Her mind was racing and after a few long minutes, she lifted her head and looked at her captain and longtime friend.

“Our next assignment is a short trip, isn’t it?” she asked him.

Merlin nodded and replied, “It will only take a day to make the pickup and delivery to Mainor.”

“And after that?” she asked.

“Nothing yet, but Taro’s still working to secure another customer for us from Mainor.”

She reached out and put a hand on his leg closest to her. “Merlin…” she said slowly, “Can we go to Sillon?” The wolf’s eyes widened, but she continued quickly, “We have to find out if Sillon is still there, Merlin! Master Tristan…”

The captain frowned and shook his head. “Sam,” he said, “you know what a trip to Sillon is like. From our current position, it would take three months just to get there at top speed – that’s a round trip of half a year.”

“I know, but…”

“You know that for every voyage we make between distant worlds, we have to stock up supplies each time to last us the journey. We don’t make trips to Sillon very often because of the expense, and if…” Merlin hesitated, “if Sillon is not there when we arrive, Sam, we will not be able to restock for the return flight.”

“But, Merlin,” Sam pleaded as she sat up on the bed beside him, “If Sillon is still there, they may be in need of help!”

“Which is a job for an operation much bigger and better equipped than we are, with hundreds of relief ships and thousands of medical and rescue professionals.”

She was silent for a long moment. The wolf closed his eyes and bowed his head for a moment. After a small sigh, he said to her, “Sam, if you can secure a paying customer from either Dennier or Mainor to fully stock us for a flight to Sillon, we’ll make the trip. However, we just can’t afford to fly out there for a reconnaissance mission. I wouldn’t be surprised if the SPF has a ship on its way out there right now for that purpose.”

The Border collie looked at him with an expression the captain could not read. Samantha wiped the tears from her eyes and stood up. She held out a hand to Max and said, “Come on, kid. We have work to do.” The youth took her hand and followed her out of the room. He glanced back to Merlin with a sad look and then disappeared out the door with her.

Shannon cleared her throat and her younger brother looked up at her. “She’s determined to check on her master,” she said to him. “You’ve known Samantha half of your life, Merlin, and you know what she’s like. Whether or not you want to, I think you will be making that trip to Sillon.”

Sinclair pressed his forehead into his hands, ran his fingers through his fur in an expression of surrender. “With things the way they are right now, the only chance we’d have of supplying ourselves to that section of space is by taking illicit cargo. That’s not even an option.”

His sister sat quietly, her eyes a gentle expression of empathy. “Do you know anyone currently who could get word faster? Perhaps a friend nearer to the system who could check it out?”

Merlin’s brow wrinkled at the thought. Armando would ignore him simply out of spite. It was possible that Faltane might be able to assist, but the shrewd capitalist did not seem like one to go on a mercy mission if it did not involve some gain for himself. Captain Natasha? With her Particle Vault engines, he knew she could get to Sillon in practically no time at all. The thought occurred to him earlier, but he knew very little about the way she operated and was still not sure he could trust her.

“I’m afraid not,” he admitted at last. “Dennier is the closest planet in the PA to the Mytha system and no one would be out that direction unless already on their way to or from Sillon. There are several stars between here and there, but none of them developed planets of their own, so there’s really nothing out there.” 

*** 

Samantha had parked herself in front of Shannon’s home communication center while Merlin, Durant, Tanis and Patch made preparations to fly across Dennier to Flint City to load up the cargo for their delivery to Mainor.

The Border collie was near to exhaustion from her diligent search for a backer of a voyage to Sillon. She had been at the console throughout the night, working with Taro’s contacts on the various worlds of the Planetary Alignment. She massaged her brow with her eyes closed when Taro walked into the room with her old slateboard tucked beneath an arm. “How goes the search?” the vixen asked her.

Samantha looked up and shook her head. “No one believes that life on Sillon exists anymore,” she said wearily, “and that means no one will invest in a trip to a dead world.”

Taro sat next to the desk in a plush antique chair and put the slateboard in her lap with her hands clasped together. “I know,” she said with a sigh. “INN has just reported that the Supernova Crisis Center on Joplin has been doing nothing more than collecting names of those last reported to be on Sillon. The SPF has declined to send any rescue ships out to the Mytha system, deeming it unnecessary.”

“Unnecessary!” Sam replied loudly.

Taro shook her head in her own amazement. “It looks like Sillon has been written off by the rest of the Planetary Alignment, since that planet was primarily a vacation spot and otherwise contributed little to the rest of the worlds.”

Samantha bristled and looked over at the fox angrily. “Sillon is a totally self-sufficient world,” she replied stiffly. “They joined the Alignment over eighty years ago out of friendliness, and while they don’t export much of their resources, they have never refused anything to anyone when asked!”

Taro held up a hand in defense. “Whoa, hold on, Sam! I didn’t say I agreed with the INN report; I was only telling you what Holly said.”

Samantha snorted and took a deep breath. “Holly is full of hooey!”

The pair fell silent, the conversation suddenly at a standstill. After a few quiet moments, Sam’s expression softened as she looked over at her friend. Taro examined her slateboard as if it was actually interesting, but Sam could see she was lost in thought.

Sam looked away for a moment and gazed out the large curtained windows of the room. It faced the south toward a white sandy beach next to the Arvallian Sea and she could see Pockets and Max down near the water, scooping out sand from a hole they’d made. She didn’t know what it might be they were digging for, but it appeared they were enjoying themselves out in the afternoon sun.

Taro broke the silence with a question. “Why don’t you contact the Supernova Center on Joplin?” she suggested. “I’m sure they can put you in touch with others who had friends or relatives on Sillon.”

“Why?”

Taro gave her friend a look of wonder. “I’m surprised you didn’t think of it yourself,” she said. “I would imagine you could find others among them willing to chip in to a central account to fund a flight out to Sillon to learn the news.”

Samantha blinked twice before it dawned on her what her friend had just said. “It’s strange that you would mention that.  I had just been considering using my own fortune to finance the trip, but your way makes better sense.” She thought a moment more and then said, “Maybe I can get the Supernova Center to set up a hotline so people could contact me to offer donations.” She smiled for the first time in several days. “Thanks, Taro. You’ve just given me some hope!” she added as she turned toward the communication desk once again.

“I hope there’s enough time for donations to come in,” Samantha whispered to herself as she started to key in the com-frequency of Joplin. “We’re leaving for Flint City tomorrow and then we’ll be on our way to Mainor.” 

*** 

“After we make Mr. Merrick’s delivery to Risen on Mainor,” the Border collie said to Taro and Pockets as they walked toward the ship, “we have a short hop across the province to Peacher, where stock supplies for the flight to Sillon are being gathered for us.” She tapped the screen of her slateboard with a claw tip as they neared the ship’s main hatch and added, “Everything’s already paid for by the Supernova Rescue Fund, plus our standard delivery fee to Sillon.”

Taro gave the supply officer a warm smile. “That’s great! I’m surprised you didn’t have any volunteers to go along.”

Samantha grimaced. “Actually, I’ve turned down twenty-seven volunteer offers in the past two hours, including Holly Harken, herself.”

Pockets spit out the gum he was chewing and looked up at her in alarm. “You turned down Holly Harken? Why’d you go and do that for?”

“I know you’re a member of her fan club, Pockets, but it would take her three weeks to get here from Earth,” Sam replied. “There isn’t time for that; we’re leaving in an hour.”

Their conversation ended as the main airlock opened. Merlin and Durant stood just inside, pleasant expressions on their faces.

“Hello,” the captain said with a smile. “Ready to go?”

Durant took a bite out of a carob candy bar and added with a mouthful, “Everybody’s here but Sparky.”

“She’s always the last one to show up,” the Border collie reminded them.

Merlin shook his head. “An hour before liftoff and she’s not here.” Durant and Taro moved off into the ship, their attention shifting to the coming launch. Left alone, the wolf took Samantha’s slateboard and flipped through the screens as they crossed the hold. “I trust you and Holly will be in constant contact as we head out to Sillon?”

Samantha nodded and answered, “As much as the distance will allow in communications, but Pockets told me that he’s added some tachyon boosters to the com system that might help. Max and I went shopping this morning and bought a number of things to help the crew pass the time during the long journey.”

“Oh? What did you get?”

“I got a ton of movies of different kinds to match each individual’s taste, some schooling materiel for Max, music and books for Patch, mystery novels for you and… you get the picture. Hopefully we won’t have any fights on board from boredom like the last time we headed out to Sillon.”

The captain smiled. “Yeah, but we don’t have any obnoxious passengers going along for ride like we did then, either.”

“True.”

“Captain! Captain Sinclair!”

Merlin and Samantha turned as one and both broke into grins as they recognized the tawny yellow fur of a male bobcat as he peeked in through the hatch opening.

“Roland!” Samantha called back.

Merlin left the collie at the lift door and trotted back across the empty hold toward the newcomer. He stepped outside and greeted Roland, Sparky and his sister, Shannon.

“Well, this is a surprise!” he said as he clasped hands with the short, but stout bobcat. “What in the cosmos are you doing on Dennier?”

Sparky put her hands on her hips and mocked an expression of anger. “I told you about him months ago, Captain,” she said with the hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth. “You agreed to take him on whatever delivery we had next from Dennier.”

Merlin winked at her and grinned at the bobcat. “I remember now,” he replied. “You’re welcome to accompany us, of course, but you may not want to go along on this particular journey.”

Roland canted his head to the side and stared at him with intense green eyes. “Why not?” he asked. “Too dangerous?”

The wolf snorted and shook his head. “No, possibly too boring. You’ve heard about the supernova out toward Sillon, I assume?” Both felines nodded. “Sam is heading up an expedition funded entirely by donations from around the Planetary Alignment. We’re going to fly fully loaded with extra supplies out to Sillon, if for no other reason as to find out if the planet’s populations still exist. We’ve upgraded the radiation shielding against any lingering effects of the supernova to its stellar neighborhood, so we should be safe in the area at the least. I tried to talk her out of it, but… you know how stubborn she can be.”

“This could be a long, long trip out to nowhere and wind up having to make a turnaround and fly right back here,” Roland commented. “That would be six months of wasted time.”

“Whether or not we find a planet or any survivors,” Merlin said as he led the group inside the ship, “most of the cargo we’re taking consists of food for ourselves to supply us for the trip there and back. It’s fully paid for, so wasted time or not, it will be standard profit.”

“Always thinking of the business, eh, Captain?” Sparky said with a wink.

“That’s right.” The wolf glanced back at Roland. “You’re welcome to go with us at standard pay, but what of your employment here on Dennier? Weren’t you working for Okami Corp?”

“That’s right, I was,” Roland answered. “Our contract with the starship construction company ran out this month and I’ve been looking for a job for the past two weeks. Boring or not, I’d appreciate the opportunity to go along on the journey to Sillon.”

“Even if only to spend time with his honey, right?” Shannon spoke up from the rear of the small group. Sparky snickered and Roland looked embarrassed.

“Something like that…” he replied.

Merlin led them toward the lift and said, “Okay, Roland, consider yourself hired. I suppose it’s a good thing you and Sparky are so close, since you’ll have to share her quarters. We’re totally booked.”

“Oh?” the bobcat asked. “You have a full crew?”

“I told you about our cabin boy, Maximillian, remember?” Sparky told him. “He’s using what was our only empty compartment.”

“Yeah, I remember now. There have been a few changes in your crew since I last hired on with you,” Roland said. “I’ll miss playing cards with Jiro. He was a shrewd gambler.”

“Speaking of gamblers, Arktanis is back with us. You should remember him,” Merlin said.

“The loser with the huge ears?” Roland said with a smirk. “I’ll have to see how many credits I can liberate from him. If I remember right, Patch is a card player as well. The three of us will have to get together later for a game.”

Merlin grinned. “Renny Thornton is the cheetah who filled Jiro’s position, and Max is a canine kid I’ve just adopted as a nephew.”

Sparky looked over at him with a strange smile. “You adopted Max?” she asked. She looked back at Shannon. “I thought you and Bill were going to take him.”

Merlin’s sister shrugged her shoulders. “Max wouldn’t leave his liberators from slavery, so he’s staying on the Blue Horizon with my brother.”

“Did the authorities give you any trouble on adopting him without having a mate?” Roland asked.

“Not after they found out that Max was a slave that was given to me as payment after a delivery to Quet,” the captain answered. “While that’s legal on Quet, the Dennieran authorities don’t think so highly of it. Legally, I could have kept Max as a slave, but the officials were impressed enough that I had freed him of the contract that they didn’t hesitate when I requested guardianship.”

“He’s quite an intelligent kid, too,” Sparky said. “As a slave, he learned a lot of skills that have become handy on board the ship and he even has an aptitude toward cooking.”

Roland looked over at her. “I assume you’re adding to his culinary skills?”

“Yes, he’s already learning my techniques and recipes.”

“That’s convenient,” the bobcat whispered into her ear. She smirked at him, but said nothing more as they neared the door to the engine room. 

*** 

“Okay, Max, hold still,” Tanis told the boy as he placed a mean-looking device up to his right shoulder. The lights in the Infirmary were bright and everything was sterile and polished in the room. Max sat on a tan roller-stool, his shirt off from the physical the fennec fox had just given him, and his eyes showed a bit of fear. Roland stood to the side of the room, watching quietly. Tanis stopped what he was doing and smiled down at the canine.

“Don’t worry, Max,” he said in a soothing voice. “Everyone has to have inoculations.”

“Why? What’s a ‘noculation?”

“The Blue Horizon makes deliveries to a number of different worlds in the Planetary Alignment and each planet has its own kind of viruses and diseases. This one shot will protect ya from the worst and the most common of them from each of the places we’ll visit.”

“Oh.”

Roland stepped over to them and put a hand on the fox’s shoulder. “I’ve had it before, Max, but as it’s been a long time since I’ve been offworld, I have to have another one myself. Don’t worry, boy. It stings for less than a second.”

Maximillian looked back at Tanis and said, “Give it to him first.”

The medic looked at the bobcat and smiled. “Okay, Roland, ya heard the boy. Roll up yer sleeve.”

Roland winked at Max and did as complied. Tanis lifted the ugly device up to the bared arm and placed the nozzle through the rough fur to rest directly on the skin beneath. There was a very slight snik and Roland’s eyes went wide, trying to pop out of his head.

The bobcat screamed and clutched his shoulder as if it were on fire. He sank hard to his knees and began writhing on the ground in apparent agony. Max watched in horror at the spectacle, but Tanis started laughing.

Max looked up at the medic in shock. “That’s m-mean! He’s hurting and you’re laughing?”

Tanis chuckled, but Roland sat up on the floor and pointed to the youth with a mischievous grin. “You should have seen your face!” the bobcat said.

Maximillian realized he was the butt of a joke, and scrunched his face up in a scowl. “That wasn’t funny!”

Snik

“Yes, it was,” Tanis replied with a smile as he pulled the device away from Max’s skinny arm.

“Hey, what did you just do?” Max asked with wide eyes.

“Inoculated ya while ya were distracted,” the medic said as he put the device away. “See, yer not in any pangs of agony, are ya?”

Max ran a finger over the spot of the injection and couldn’t even tell where it had gone in. There had been no stinging prick or any other indication of what had been done, but he was still miffed at being made fun of.

“That wasn’t nice,” he grumbled.

Roland got up on his knees and looked at the youth with a calm expression. “I hate to tell you this, Max, but you need to lighten up. You’re now part of a crew that has to get along together to survive the long distances of space between deliveries, and sometimes that means joking around together. Don’t get upset at us for pulling this little stunt on you. Just learn to laugh about it and live with the camaraderie it will help you to form with others.”

“Back on Quet, people played mean pranks on me all the time,” Max replied somberly. “They always did it to get me upset.”

Tanis put a hand on the canine’s shoulder. “Not here, Max. We can’t afford to do things like that on a ship where ya can’t get away from an enemy. Roland and I have been friendly rivals for years, but we don’t hate one another.”

“That’s right,” the bobcat added. “We rib one another constantly, but it is all in good-natured fun. It keeps us from getting too serious.”

“Like Patch?”

Tanis and Roland exchanged amused glances. The medic laughed and nodded, “Yeah, that crusty raccoon is just a little too serious, but he’s one I wouldn’t play pranks on.”

“Why not?” Max asked.

“Ya can get along with him just fine without resorting to that. His temper has a short fuse and he doesn’t deal well with pranks where he’s the target of the joke.”

“I’m confused,” Maximillian said. “Didn’t you just tell me that everyone needs to lighten up in order to get along?”

“I said that you need to lighten up,” Roland answered. “If you don’t, you will eventually turn out to be like Patch, continually grumpy and keeping to yourself all the time.”

“But Pockets is his brother, and he’s nothing like him.” Max observed.

“True enough, but Pockets chooses to laugh and joke around instead of being serious all the time.”

“Do ya want to be like Pockets or like Patch?” Tanis asked.

Max looked up with a grin, understanding in his eyes. “I’d rather be like Pockets.” 

*** 

 “Hello, once again, this is News Around the Alignment and I’m Holly Harken of the Interplanetary News Network. Recapping our running story on the supernova out by the Mytha primary, there has been a tremendous response of families, friends and even business corporations to an open call put out by Samantha Holden, the heiress of Holden Pharmaceuticals, asking for donations to finance the loading of a private vessel with extra supplies for the three-month journey to the Mytha Star System. Sillon and her sister worlds have been unanimously declared lost by the PA Legislature, but there are those who cling to the belief that there are somehow survivors left to be rescued.

“Authorities at the Supernova Center on Joplin doubt that a single cargo vessel could provide much, if any, relief to a world whose star has exploded, but probably the greatest single benefit of this journey would be to bring back confirmation to the thousands who have lost someone on Sillon, of whether those who were there still live or not. The Blue Horizon, a freighter under the command of Captain Merlin Sinclair, is already on its long journey toward the lost, distant world of Sillon, having left Peacher, Mainor earlier this month. Ms. Holden is aboard the relief vessel and has asked me to convey her thanks to all who have donated generously to the flight in such an extremely short period of time. The journey and supplies have been paid for by many grateful donations and she promises to send back regular reports to me along the way so we may keep all informed of the situation.

“On a related note, this station learned only an hour ago that popular fusion rock band, DWT, otherwise known as Dragon, Wolf & Tiger, had only just arrived on Sillon for an extended vacation following last year’s exhaustive PA Worlds Tour. Stephanie Dell, spokesperson for DWT has fronted a large donation toward the Blue Horizon’s voyage to learn the fate of the band.

“Many authorities have expressed public disapproval of the voyage, deeming it unnecessary and wasteful of the donations that were sent in to send the ship full of extra supplies to a planet that no longer exists. On the opposing side, of course, are the thousands who eagerly await the Horizon’s findings, though the vessel will not reach her destination for another two and half months. Stellar scientists are especially interested in what the Blue Horizon will find in the vicinity of a newly exploded star, and have sent along special instrumentation to record the phenomenon.

“And now to our top story at this time. The Spatial Police Force has issued an all-points bulletin for the capture of a vessel known as the Basilisk. The captain of the ship is said to be a cunning black jaguar known only as Sagan, who has a bloodthirsty history. The kidnapping of several prominent genetic engineers from around the Planetary Alignment six months ago has been positively linked to Sagan through an unnamed informer to the SPF, who has been given high tech protection until the arrest of the pirate can be initiated. More details on Sagan will be broadcast as soon as our research has proceeded further. Stay tuned…” 

*** 

“Hah!” Renny said gleefully as he thrust in with his sword toward Merlin’s unprotected heart. The wolf’s lips were pressed tightly in a grin as he parried the thrust in a lightning fast move that made Renny doubt his eyes. He managed to hold onto the rapier from his captain’s blow, though he almost lost it in the process. He darted back and had to counter a thrust toward his own chest with a fierce motion.

“You’ve learned quickly,” Merlin spoke between short bursts of breath, “but you’re still a rookie!”

The cheetah coiled his leg muscles as he parried and then bounded over his captain’s head in a somersault that almost connected him with the ceiling. He landed softly and whirled around to block another blow toward his abdomen.

“Okay, that was impressive!” Merlin said with a grin.

“The energetic music Moss is playing helps the mood,” Renny smirked as he held up a hand to signal for a rest. Merlin nodded and stepped back away from his navigator to raise his sword to his nose in salute. As if on cue, Moss lowered the volume of the music it played, but continued hovering in the middle of the room, watching the combatants idly.

“Thanks to Samantha,” the wolf said as he moved to a nearby chair, “we have plenty of music of all moods for this voyage.”

The door opened suddenly and Sparky exited the lift with Roland at her side. Both were dressed in Terran Asian clothing – she in a full silk kimono and the bobcat in a shorter hapi coat, both in bare feet. Renny waved silently as the couple moved across the large room toward them.

“Hi, Renny,” Roland said. “Hello, Captain.”

Merlin nodded as he lapped from a cup of cool water. “What’s on your minds?” he asked and set the cup on the table beside him. Moss’ programming recognized conversational tones and silenced its music appropriately.

Renny waved a hand across the device’s sensor field and said, “You can go now, Moss. Thanks for your help.”

Meow!”  With a low hum, the flying saucer moved toward the lift to start a sensor sweep of the lower decks. Roland watched it go and then turned his attention back to the wolf. Renny walked over and sat in a plush chair near the captain.

Sparky smiled at Merlin and said, “We just wanted to look over the Rec Room to see how we were going to decorate it.”

The captain tilted his head to the left a bit as he pondered the feline chef. “Decorations for what?” he asked suspiciously.

Sparky giggled and turned to put her arms around the bobcat. Roland quirked up his lips as he realized she had just assigned him the task of the announcement.

“Merlin,” he said hesitantly, “Ivy and I would like you to exercise your authority as the ship’s captain to join us in marriage.”

Renny’s jaw dropped open, but Merlin seemed unsurprised when he stood up to face them. “I wondered when you two would make that decision,” he said with a smile. “I rather expected it two years ago.”

“Each of us had to build up a better income first,” Sparky admitted. “I’ve been saving up for this for a while and nearly lost it all when I caught the galley on fire. We intend to start a family right away.”

The captain gave the lynx a warm hug and then shook Roland’s hand. “I would be honored to exercise my authority,” he said. “Feel free to decorate as you wish and let me know when you want the ceremony.”

Renny got past his astonishment enough to stand up and shake hands with the shorter Roland. “I admit that I’m flabbergasted,” he said with a lopsided smile, “but congratulations to you both.”

“Thanks, Renny,” Sparky replied and briefly licked his cheek. “That means a lot to me.” She turned back to Merlin and said, “We’d like to have it in a few days at some time when we can put the ship on full automatic. Samantha and Taro have volunteered to help me get things ready, though we want to keep things simple. We’ve already talked to Tanis about our physicals.”

“Where is Tanis right now?” Merlin asked after taking another lap of water.

“On bridge duty,” Roland answered with a smirk. “I was just up there giving him grief.”

Merlin shook his head. Tanis and Roland had been friendly rivals for years and every time they got together, neither could resist the impulse to needle the other at any opportunity. Their bantering together was more intense than the rivalry that had recently developed between Renny and Samantha.

“Okay,” the captain said, “make whatever arrangements you want and then let me know what you come up with.”

“Thanks, Captain,” Roland replied sincerely. He turned to Renny and slapped him lightly on the shoulder. “Sorry to take away your occasional partner, mate,” he said boldly, “but she’s mine now.”

Renny grinned. “That’s okay. I still have Taro.”

“Funny,” the bobcat said. “That’s just what Tanis said.” 

*** 

“And this is the gravity stabilizer,” Durant said as he tapped the bridge console beside a series of buttons. “It’s what allows us to walk around the ship without floating off the deck plates while we’re out in space.”

“What about shields?” the canine teen asked. “Don’t ships have shields to help against attack?”

The grizzly smiled. “Yes, we have shields, but they operate at all times when we’re in space, not just if someone comes after us.”

“Why all the time?”

Durant rested a hand on the back of his chair and rubbed his chin with the other. “The void of space is actually far from empty, Max. There are all kinds of stuff floating about, some as small as grains of sand. The shield generator covers the exterior of the ship with an energy field that repels all that debris. Even a tiny rock could puncture a hole clean through the Horizon at light speeds without some kind of shield against it. In the event we’re fired upon by another ship, the defense systems automatically strengthen the shield signal to counter it.”

“Oh,” Max said with pursed lips. “What’s this do?” he asked, pointing to a control set off to the side.

“That deploys solar sails in the event we lose power and need to use the energy from a nearby star to generate power to keep us alive.”

“I’ve heard spacers visiting The Wild Star say those were obsolete.”

Durant nodded and smiled. “Aye, they are, but you can never have too many redundant backups, even if it is old technology. It was one of Samantha’s acquisitions back on Dennier.”

Max looked at him strangely. “Acquisition? Why did you say it like that?” he asked.

The bear chose his words carefully before he answered. “Sammy has a habit of filching hard-to-get things for the ship. That’s what she and Pockets were doing when they found you.”

“Isn’t she rich?” the youth asked. “Why does she need to steal when she can just buy what you need?”

“I’ve never figured that out, myself,” Durant said with a sigh. “I guess some things you can’t get even if you have the money for it.”

Max looked up at him looking thoughtful. “I guess I was the hard-to-get thing she and Pockets took that time, huh?”

Durant stared back at him with a doleful expression, unsure how to respond to that.

Maximillian looked over the console at the environmental station of the small bridge and changed the subject. “Will I get to fly the Blue Horizon someday?” he asked as he looked up at the bear towering above him.

The grizzly motioned his companion toward the center seat of the bridge. He was pleased to see the former slave coming out of his shell. “If you stay with us for very long, I’m sure you will. It’s Merlin’s requirement that all members of his crew be able to fly the Horizon, and that includes everything from taking off and landing. Once you learn the system, you’ll have to spend your own shift up here along with the rest of us. We have about six months before we get back to the Planetary Alignment, so this voyage would be a good time to teach you some of the systems along the way.”

“Really?”

“Sure, sit down here and I’ll start you out with the basics.”  

*** 

The recreation deck was festooned with hand-made flowers and garland that the women had fashioned from miscellaneous color papers and wires from Pockets’ stash of spare parts. Placement of the decorations was tastefully done without being overbearing and the simplicity of it all was appealing. Samantha had found a few candles from the Blue Horizon’s emergency supplies and had them arranged sparsely around the room. All of the lights were turned off, save for the soft ambience of candlelight.

Merlin had done a little research on wedding ceremonies typical on Fyn and the regions that Roland and Sparky were from and took notes on their simple traditions.  As Tanis had told his friend on Earth, full body clothing was a human creation and a practice that had slowly spread out to the other worlds it dealt with. Previous to that time, the only garments worn by anthro races were worn either for simple modesty or to be merely ornamental. 

It was not until the Earth reestablished ties with its long-lost colonies and formed the Planetary Alignment with them that clothing worn for individual expression really came into the picture.  The felines of Fyn had not relied upon garments of cloth, but had been satisfied with their own fur covering.  Even though many on Fyn had joined in the Terran practice of wearing clothing, most of their older traditions and ceremonies were still performed without them.

As there were no humans currently on board the Blue Horizon, all members of the crew would observe the Fynian tradition in their natural furs, with thin strips of cloth in strategic places for modesty.  Samantha had fashioned sashes for everyone to cover over their genitals, though the bride and groom would wear nothing at all.  The males would wear sashes of amber to match Roland’s eyes and  the females would wear green for Sparky’s eye color.

As requested, everyone was present and the ship had been placed on full automatic, something that was rarely done. Should an emergency arise, the computer terminal on the third deck could alert them with an audible signal.

Arranged in a semi-circle at the aft end of the room, the Blue Horizon crew waited quietly. Samantha stood on one end with Taro next to her, then Renny, Tanis, Durant, Max and Pockets, with Patch on the other end.  Merlin stood in front of the group facing them and waited for the arrival of the bride and groom. Moss floated behind the entire group and played soft music from its tiny speakers that Sparky had chosen.

At a specific point in the music, the lift doors opened and Roland walked out into the room. The panel closed behind him and then he walked slowly around the entire perimeter of the room until he had rounded the group and stopped in front of the wolf.

A moment later, the lift opened again and Sparky walked in holding a small bouquet of flowers gathered from her cabin decor. She followed Roland’s previous path around the room and then stopped beside him in front of Merlin.  The couple grinned at one another quickly and then turned their attention to the officiator of their union.

Merlin stood before them, his hands clasped together behind his back with a single object rolled up in one of them. He gave the couple a genuine smile and nodded quietly to each.

 “There are many duties a starship captain must perform,” he began, “but there are none as pleasant as uniting two people together in marriage under this authority. To be noted in the ship’s log on this date, Roland Daniel Carlton and Ivy Elaine Sparks have come before me to be wed together as lifemates.”

He looked around at each of those gathered around and then shifted his gaze back to the couple before him. “Fynian wedding traditions of the Kirin Prefecture are among the simplest of ceremonies, but the effects are of a lasting bond of those united.  Roland… Ivy… please face one another and cross your right wrists together.”

Roland turned toward his bride and raised his right wrist. Sparky raised her own wrist to match his and they crossed them together gently. Merlin stepped up to them and raised a wide length of red silk. Without a word or announcement, the wolf softly wound the material around their crossed wrists. When he ran out of silk, he put his arms around the shoulders of them both and rested his forehead briefly on top of their bound hands.  Then he straightened up and took a step back.

Roland looked into his bride’s moist eyes and then said to her, “Forever and Always.”

Sparky smiled and replied, “Always and Forever.”

They leaned together, nuzzled briefly over the top of their wrists, and then licked one another’s muzzles. When they moved back into place, Merlin said to them, “Raise your hands.”  The couple lifted their bound wrists and then the captain said, “The red cloth represents the blood united between you in union, binding the two of you together for life. It is now my great privilege to introduce you as Roland and Ivy Carlton. May the stars forever light your united path.”

Cheers and applause erupted from the Blue Horizon crew. 

*** 

SS Blue Horizon PA1261

Captain’s Journal 

We are five weeks into our flight toward Sillon. The voyage to a supposedly dead world has proceeded without incident. The engines are purring like a kitten and my engineers are pleased with the power output. Durant has checked and rechecked the inventory of our cargo several times out of boredom, but I suspect he will not find any discrepancies this time. This cargo provides our own food and supplies for the long voyage out and back, so there’s no reason for Samantha to filch anything from it.

Tanis and Roland have taken up wrestling on the rec deck whenever Renny and I are not in fencing practice, and I would say the two have become closer friends. Samantha and Taro have been taking turns at the communication terminal trying to raise Sillon without success. Sam has also held frequent conversations with Holly Harken in an exchange of information. The human has been broadcasting daily reports on our progress, and with a lack of exciting news, has played up to romance angle of Roland and Sparky’s shipboard marriage.

In the two weeks since the wedding, the rest of the crew seems to have accepted Roland into the family, whereas he had always just been a friend when he hired on with us for short trips in the past. Perhaps it is out of necessity that Roland and Tanis are getting along, since Sparky informed me earlier today that she is going to have kittens. As the pregnancy for felines is only a few weeks, it is likely the kits will be born before we have reached our destination. To be expected, it is just about all the females on my crew talk about now. In addition to that, we have all been wondering what to call the new mother-to-be. We have always called her “Sparky” as a derivative of her family name, but now that she is no longer Ivy Sparks, do we call her by her first name, or do we continue to address her by the nickname. I shall have to ask her preference sometime soon.

I have yet to sit down with the newlywed couple to discuss their future on the Blue Horizon. I was pleased to exercise my authority and marry these two together, but a cargo ship with limited room is not the ideal place to raise a family. I would hate to lose Sparky; she has been a member of my crew since I first put the ship in business, but she has concerns that are more important now. I am thankful that Max is on board. Raised primarily as a kitchen slave, the boy has been helping Sparky these past few weeks in the galley. If Roland and Sparky decide to settle down somewhere after we get back, we may have to depend on Max for our meals.

Taro has been monitoring the scanning systems for the area of space in front of us. As we close the distance, the supernova should become visible to us soon, but the instrumentation sent along with us has been scanning in the gamma and x-ray spectrums, as well as all radio and tachyon frequencies. The sooner we can find out what we are heading toward, the more prepared we can be upon approaching the system. A supernova is not something a ship actually wants to get too close to. 

Merlin Sinclair, Captain 

*** 

“Captain,” Taro said to the wolf as she walked into his office. She wore a pair of loose cutoff shorts and a halter-top that displayed a generous amount of cleavage. Although he had seen more of her during the bare-fur wedding ceremony and reception, the slim bit of clothing only served to enhance her feminine form. Merlin had to force his eyes to the slateboard she held out to him.

“I need you to take a look at this,” she said in amusement when his eyes darted back to her chest.

He gladly took the slateboard and then studied the display. He bit his bottom lip after a moment, and then slowly shook his head. “Have you told Sam?”

“Not yet,” the vixen answered. “I thought you might want that job.”

The wolf looked up at her and nodded. “It should do a lot to improve her mood.” He glanced at the report once more and then asked, “Are you sure this is correct? I don’t want to give her any hope, only to have the truth jump out and bite her in the tail.”

Taro leaned over the desk, purposely acting oblivious to his trouble with concentration, but he managed to hold his eyes even with her own. “Since when do I leave something like this up to conjecture?” she asked with a smile. “I’ve triple checked the readouts and the result is the same.”

The captain pretended to study the slateboard in his hands before he handed it back to her without letting his eyes stray again. With a mischievous smile, Taro stood up and moved back toward the door.

“I’ll let her know right away,” he told his second-in-command. He finally looked up at her before she disappeared and added, “Thanks, Taro. I’m sure she’ll be pleased with your research.”

The red fox merely smiled, winked at him, and then headed back to the bridge. Merlin swallowed and shook his head with a grin. It had been a long time since Taro had flirted with him like that. She normally kept her relationship with him purely professional, but lately there were times she seemed just a little more playful. He attributed it to the wedding ceremony and the impending birth of kittens. Taro might be a no-nonsense fox when it came to her job, but she had shown herself to be quite feminine and susceptible to the joy of helping prepare for a wedding. She was quite the romantic in such matters.

Merlin leaned over his terminal and was about to call Samantha to his office, but changed his mind. Something like this should be delivered in person. He stood up, snagged his hat from a wall peg and put it on his head between his ears as he headed out into the corridor. He went to her cabin, but received no response when he knocked and called to her. It was possible she was sleeping, but his sensitive ears heard nothing through the door panel. He next checked the galley, but it was empty as well. Sparky and Max had the place shining spotless, but no one was inside.

He moved to the lift and took it up to the rec deck. He could hear ominous music just before the door slid aside and he then walked into the darkened room. As he suspected, Samantha was sitting on the floor amidst a pile of fluffy pillows, watching an old movie. Max was nearby, his eyes riveted to the room’s large screen. Roland and Pockets were in matching lounge chairs, quietly munching popcorn, and Tanis was draped across a couch.

“Samantha?” Merlin said over the sound and music coming from the room’s speakers. The Border collie glanced over at him when he knelt down beside her, but she returned her attention to the film.

“Shh!” Tanis and Roland shushed him in unison.

“Sam,” Merlin tried again in a whisper. “I have some important news for you.”

She looked back over at him with a frown. “What is it?” she whispered back.

He put his nose right up into her closest ear. “Taro has detected the supernova on the long-range sensors.”

“And?”

Merlin put a hand on her arm. “It’s several light years closer than it should be.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means, Samantha, that the supernova cannot be the one out by Sillon’s sun. It’s got to be another star!”

The sudden realization of what the wolf was telling her sunk in beyond the scenes of the movie still playing. She grabbed his arm and looked deeply into his eyes. “Can you contact Sillon?”

“No, not yet,” the wolf replied in a low voice as so not to disrupt the others watching their film. “The supernova has disrupted all com frequencies several light years radiating out in every direction. I suspect Sillon is okay, but this supernova is blocking any communication with them.”

Samantha jumped into his arms and hugged him tightly. “Merlin, that’s the best news I’ve had in a long time!” She surprised him by licking his muzzle and then she pulled back a bit to look at him again. “I don’t want to get my hopes up, but I won’t be satisfied until we can actually talk to someone on Sillon.”

“Taro says that Renny is already calculating a change of course to skirt around the supernova, but that change won’t go into effect for another week at the most and it will lengthen our journey,” Merlin replied. “We’re still a long way off from the supernova itself.”

“That’s okay,” Samantha said with a weary smile. “Now that there is a greater chance that Master Tristan is unharmed, I can relax a bit.” 

*** 

 “Hello, once again, this is News Around the Alignment and I’m Holly Harken of the Interplanetary News Network. Recapping our running story on the Mytha disaster, I have just received word in a weakening transmission from the Blue Horizon that their onboard long-range sensors have detected first traces of the supernova itself. While the ship is continually speeding toward the phenomenon, the crew has been taking readings and double-checking their sensors.

“I am pleased to inform my listeners that it appears that the star which has exploded was not… I repeat, not… the red giant near the Mytha Primary. Space navigational charts have now identified the former star as SDC-971, a closer red giant luminary without any known planets.”  Holly ran the fingers of her left hand unconsciously through her dark hair and smiled at the viewers. “This is good news to all, but Ms. Holden wants me to stress that there has been no communication with Sillon as yet. The supernova effect has disrupted all communication with the Mytha star system and nothing more may be known until the Blue Horizon herself has gone around SDC-971. Unfortunately, because of the increasing distance between the vessel and the rest of the Planetary Alignment worlds, the limited equipment on board the Horizon will no longer be able to breach the spatial interference to provide us with the regular status reports we’ve had since the ship launched out into deep space two months ago. When Captain Sinclair’s ship has finally skirted SDC-971, it is likely we will have no more information on the flight until their return journey two months hence.”

“The closer location of the type-2p supernova has set the scientific communities on the PA worlds into immediate action, and although interstellar distances will keep the effects of the blast from reaching most of the Planetary Alignment for several years, there could be very real results felt upon the worlds closest to it, primarily Dennier, Mainor, Brandt, Quet at first, and then later Kantus, Tanthe, Joplin, Crescentis, Ganis and Pomen. What those results will be has yet to be determined, but the combined brain trusts across the PA will be working diligently to develop what measures can be implemented before that time arrives.”

Holly sat up straighter with a serious expression as she gazed out toward her viewers. “INN will broadcast -any- information we receive on the flight of the Blue Horizon whenever we get it. For the sake of me and my station, I would ask that you do not call in to request updates on the flight. When we have something to report, I will make sure it is broadcast promptly and exclusively by this station. You can depend on Holly.

“In related news, we have received word that another freighter has launched out toward the Mytha Star System, hoping to help any survivors the catastrophe. We have only had limited contact with the Savannah Hunter as it heads out in the Blue Horizon’s wake, although it is currently unknown who has supplied and financed Captain Jensen’s flight to the lost, distant world.” 

*** 

“Captain?”

Merlin looked up from the budget reports on his slateboard and faced the intercom speaker on his personal terminal. “Yes, Patch, what is it?”

“Sensors are showing that we’ve finally cleared the effects of the supernova. SDC-971 is now behind us.”

I’m impressed; taking a wider trajectory than usual only delayed us by a week,” Merlin remarked. “Start scanning for the Mytha Star System and see if you can get a fix on the Silloni beacon.”

“Aye, right away.”

Merlin set his slateboard aside. He thumbed a switch on his desk terminal. “Taro?”

“Yes, Captain?” The fox’s voice sounded drowsy.

“Sorry to wake you, but I need you on the bridge at the Com station.”

“What’s up?” Her voice sounded instantly awake.

“Patch says we’re now past the supernova’s disruptive influence. I need you to see if you can raise Sillon’s communication net.”

“Has Patch verified that Sillon is really there?”

“I have him checking on that now. If you are able to raise anyone, I’m sure Samantha will want you to contact Master Tristan.”

“Okay, captain, I’m on my way to the bridge.”

Merlin flipped off the intercom, but it chirped again almost immediately. “Yes, Patch?”

Mytha Primary has been confirmed, captain. It’s right where it’s supposed to be and signals appear normal.” 

*** 

There were times when Samantha fervently wished the Blue Horizon had been equipped with a visual communications unit, and this was such a time. When the voice of her mentor sounded across the speakers of the bridge, she nearly burst into tears. Merlin, Patch and Taro sat in various other seats around the small room as the Border collie occupied the com station.

Blue Horizon, this is Tristan of the Dragon Loft. What may I do for you?” the thickly accented voice asked across the tachyon signal.

“Master Tristan,” Samantha said with a lump in her throat, “this is Samantha.”

“Samantha? This is quite the pleasant surprise! It has been nearly five years since I have seen my adopted daughter. How are you, pup?”

Samantha glanced over at Merlin and grinned widely. “I am fine, Master,” she said. “The Blue Horizon has made this journey on behalf of the Planetary Alignment to check in on the well-being of Sillon.”

“Indeed? Because of our lack of communication, no doubt,” Tristan’s voice replied, “although I would not have thought it important enough to the Alignment to send a vessel on such a distant journey merely to check up on us. The Regent has already ordered a relay satellite constructed to place some distance from the supernova to route all communications around the disturbance to the Alignment. It should be ready to launch in a couple of weeks.”

“Master Tristan,” Samantha said quietly, “from all indication in the perspective of the Planetary Alignment, it looked as if it was the red giant BAE-6410 near you that had exploded. I am sorry to say that there were only a few who actually believed that Sillon still existed.”

“No, we are quite fine here. It is a star labeled SDC-971 that went supernova.”

“Yes, we know that now,” Sam replied. “But no one in the Planetary Alignment knew this until the Blue Horizon actually made it this far. There are many people concerned that their friends or loved ones perished on Sillon.”

There was a quiet moment before the accented voice spoke again. “I would likely wager that my little Border collie is largely responsible for this voyage.”

“Yes, Master,” Samantha meekly admitted, “I had to know if you and the family were all right. The necessary supplies for the trip were donated and paid for by volunteers throughout the other Alignment worlds.”

“Hmm… There is no emergency, but for the sake of those who believed we were still alive, I am sure our government will be pleased to know we’re well thought of. May I speak with your captain?”

Merlin moved to Samantha’s side and leaned over the console. “Sir, this is Merlin Sinclair, captain of the Blue Horizon.”

“Captain Sinclair,” Tristan said, “it is good to know the life of my little collie is still in your capable hand paws.”

“Yes, sir, I have done everything I can over the years to keep her safe.”

“For that you have my continued thanks. What is your present distance from Sillon?”

“We still have approximately three weeks before our estimated time of arrival, sir.”

“Samantha will know the coordinates of my lodge that I call the Dragon Loft. I will arrange permission with the Regent to allow you to land on Sillon near my resort when you arrive.”

“Thank you, sir. After three months of star travel, we’ll be most gracious to see the green skies and blue hills of Sillon.”

“How many are presently in your crew, Captain?”

“There are currently eleven on board, but we are likely to have several more by the time we arrive. One of my crew will be delivering kittens soon.”

Tristan’s voice sounded pleased when he replied. “Kittens? Who is their mother, your wonderful chef, Miss Ivy? I remember trying to steal her away from you on your last visit.”

“Yes, sir, that’s her. She is the proud mother-to-be. Ivy Sparks was united to her longtime sweetheart, Roland Carlton, early on in our flight.”

“Please give her and her mate my congratulations, Captain, and please accept my hospitality to have your crew lodge at my resort during your stay on Sillon.”

“Yes, sir,” Merlin said at last. “I will convey your message and graciously accept your invitation.”

When the connection was broken, Patch broke out into a rare grin. “Now that’s a charitable fellow,” the raccoon said. “I’ve heard that the Dragon Loft is the finest resort on the face of Sillon, and we’ve been invited to stay for free!”           

*** 

The Blue Horizon was three days away from Sillon when Sparky went into labor. An onlooker would have thought the ship was under attack by the way everyone was reacting. Durant was on the bridge watch when Tanis made the call, which he then broadcast to the rest of the ship.

Sparky was denned in a darkened corner of the quarters she shared with Roland with Taro and Samantha assisting their medic. Tanis had to shoo all others away from the small cabin to give the mother privacy.

With nothing else to do, Merlin went to the Recreation Room so he could wait out for the news. Patch, Pockets and Renny were already on the third deck ahead of him. The vidscreen was currently off, allowing a view of the smudged stars forward of the ship.

Patch had his ever-present cigar tightly clenched between his teeth as he paced quietly near the forward screen, strongly wishing he could light it up. If it were not for the oxygen-rich shipboard atmosphere, he would have been puffing on the cigar nervously. He and Sparky may not have been close friends, but they had always gotten along well and he genuinely liked her.

Pockets ran to Merlin when he came through the door, but the wolf only shook his head gently. There was nothing to report. Renny had done his own share of pacing, but he had abandoned that to unfold the exercise mat. He dropped to the floor and began rigorous push-ups to work out his anxiety.

Merlin moved to one of the lounge chairs and dropped in it with an audible exhale of air as Pockets ambled over to the kitchenette to fix himself a snack. It could be a long wait.  

*** 

Durant lay on his bunk and quietly stared at the ceiling. Most everyone on board had nothing to do except wait for news of the birth and time seemed to slow unmercifully. It had been four hours since Sparky had gone into labor and nothing could distract them as they waited.  The large cinnamon grizzly heaved a sigh and put his hands back behind his head. The lights in the room were dimmed by fifty percent and soft music played from a small unit on a nearby shelf.

His thoughts drifted around Sparky and the true friend she had been to him over the years, possibly his best friend of all. They had often spent quiet times discussing private matters, and each had understood one another’s hopes and fears.

He remembered confiding in her after they had left Quet; his memories of the nameless female bear with her young cub had surfaced like an eruption. She had consoled him and allowed him to cry with the realization that he was the infant’s father.

They had often taken their downtime vacations together and shared many interests, and while they had never been lovers, Durant knew that he could depend on her for anything. Now that she was married and was having a litter of kits, he felt strangely lost and alone.

His introspective thoughts were interrupted suddenly with a chirp and an excited voice from the intercom.

“Durant!”

The bear sat up and reached over to his personal terminal. “Yes, Taro, what is it?”

“Two kittens! One male and the other female!” 

*** 

Sparky could not have looked happier. The birthing had gone extremely well and she had two darling kittens to show off to her mate. Roland beamed with an inner light and no one bothered to mention that his chest was puffed out more in his pride. Names had already been chosen and Taro had noted the official recording of the date, time and given names on her slateboard.

The male kitten had the coloring of his mother, though his fur was still wet and matted to his tiny body. They gave to him the name of Roland’s grandfather, Joey. The female kit was tawny yellow with a white under belly, and they called her Kayla after Sparky’s sister. Neither infants’ eyes were open, and they mewed softly for mother’s milk. Sparky gave them what they needed and felt Roland’s arms upon her shoulders. She looked up into his amber eyes and saw the love and warmth she had always known in him.

Her anxious shipmates would have to wait a while to see her kittens, but Tanis made sure she and her family had their privacy to rest and spend a little more time together. 

*** 

Sillon was a world without liquid oceans that had the most varied, beautiful landscapes and creatures in all the known systems. The lush planet loomed in front of the forward windows of the Blue Horizon as Merlin brought her into a standard orbital approach. While they had been in contact with the planet’s communication net for the past three weeks, Samantha had not dared hope for too much until she finally saw the place. Taro was on a communication link with the air traffic controllers as Renny awaited landing coordinates to calculate their navigation down to the surface.

Samantha stood next to the wolf with a hand on his shoulder, her gaze on the world below them. “This has been a long trip, Merlin,” she said to him, noting not just the extreme distance, but also the duration of time on their nerves. The captain nodded silently as Taro began reading off coordinates to the cheetah.

“Take your seat, Samantha,” Merlin said without looking up.

“The Palace of the Mists has given us the okay for landing, Captain,” Taro reported.

“Good,” the wolf replied. “Renny?”

“Have just calculated navigational trajectory,” the cheetah answered in monotone. “Transferring to your panel now.”

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

Merlin moved the guidance shifts forward and the ship nosed down toward the world they had long journeyed. Renny flicked a switch at his station and the forward windows took on an orange hue as the heat shields activated. There was a resistance to the controls as the atmosphere thickened with their descent, and the blue saucer-shaped freighter dropped moments later through a thin wisp of clouds that evaporated with its passing.

“Resetting ship’s clocks to Silloni Rollocan Time Zone,” Taro announced over the intercom. “Local time is ten thirteen.”

Renny turned to the fox to ask a question, but saw she was again speaking lowly into her headset. He moved his attention instead to one vidscreen showing the landscape below. They were still a long ways up, but he could see cultivated azure fields beneath them and an impossibly high mountain range to the south.

“Look there,” Samantha said. The cheetah followed her gaze to the distance and saw a large city ahead. “That’s Wathradrim,” she explained. “Master Tristan’s lodge is about a hundred miles south.”

“Are we going there or to Tristan’s place?” Renny asked.

“Tristan said Silloni government officials would meet us at his lodge,” Taro replied without looking up from her terminal.

“What is your master’s family name?”

Sam looked over at him with a smile. “You’ve never met any of the Silloni before, have you?”  Renny shook his head. “The Silloni do not use surnames,” she answered.

“Oh.”

“There are two primary species which make up the Silloni population,” Taro added. “I think you’ll be surprised.”

“What are they?” the cheetah asked with interest.

“I’m not telling. You’ll see for yourself.”

As the metropolitan city of Wathradrim passed quickly beneath them, Renny stared down in wonder at the architecture. The structures appeared to be made of fluid metal that had been molded into place rather than constructed. He did not get a detailed look since the Blue Horizon sped up to get out of the way of a huge transport that bore down on them. The teardrop shaped silver ship never contacted them, but continued on its flight path as if the blue saucer had not been there.

When the city was far behind them, Merlin dropped the freighter to standard aircraft cruising altitude and stepped up their speed ever so slightly. He flew directly above a highway that stretched on toward the mountains they approached, ground vehicles moving slowly in relation to the flying saucer, over gently rolling blue hills.

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

“Aye, sir.” Without looking down at the station, the collie’s fingers found the proper controls out of habit and activated them. “There it is!” She said gleefully as her eyes lit up.  A small community built around the base of a massive overhanging rock cliff came into view as the Blue Horizon arced around the huge mountain. A large shimmering lake completely circular in shape, created long ago by an ancient meteorite was nestled up against the cliff. Sitting on the edge of the lake was a large, extravagant-looking structure built in soft curves and iridescent colors. The architecture was different from that of the city, though clearly of the same technology. The blue saucer slowed as it drew closer to the mountain.

“That’s the Dragon Loft!” Samantha said excitedly as she pointed. Merlin grinned at her enthusiasm, bringing the starship about and headed for a solitary landing pad located out in a lush open field a half mile from the lodge.

Taro engaged a few 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. Welcome to Sillon, ladies and gents.”

A moment later, the Blue Horizon stopped forward movement above a stone landing pad ringed with flashing lights and began dropping slowly. Merlin lowered the caterpillar landing gear and set his ship gently onto the pad 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.

When the wolf got out of his harness and stood up, Samantha jumped into his arms and licked his cheek with enthusiasm. “We made it, Merlin,” she said with an infectious smile. “We made it!” Before anyone else had a chance to react, Sam ran out the door into the corridor beyond.

“I think she just might be happy to be here,” Renny said with a laugh. 

*** 

Cooped up inside a starship for the past three months, there was no one who wanted to stay aboard the Blue Horizon after she had landed. Even Sparky and Roland were outside the main hatch with their kittens. A transport was currently en route toward them. Renny stretched his arms and legs and had to suppress the urge to get out onto the blue grassy field around them and just flat out run. While the adults stayed on the landing pad, Maximillian showed no such restraint and was out wandering around barefoot in the manicured grass, sniffing constantly at the fresh scents that met his nose and gazing up into the clear sky. Having grown up on Quet, the young canine was not used to clean air and a green sky. No one was without a grin or smile; even Patch looked happy.  The Blue Horizon had made the long journey without trouble and since most of them had not really expected to find a world to land upon when they reached this area of space, everyone was pleased as they could to be on this beautiful planet.

Renny nudged Samantha, who shifted anxiously from foot to foot and asked her, “Is Mister Tristan a collie like you?” Practically everyone turned to stare at the cheetah with amused expressions.  “What?” he asked suspiciously at their gazes.

Samantha chuckled and shook her head. “No,” she replied, “he’s Silloni.”

“Is that the Sillon version of the canine species?” he asked innocently.

“You don’t even know what the Silloni are?” Pockets asked with a laugh that was shared by the others.

“Never seen one, I suppose,” Renny answered, feeling very much the butt of an extended joke.

Samantha leaned on his shoulder and stared into his large eyes. “Then,” she said mischievously, “you shall wait until you meet Master Tristan and see for yourself what he is.”

“That’s what Taro told me on the bridge,” the cheetah replied lowly. “I don’t think I like that sound of this.”

A fat silver tube that was tapered to soft points on both ends approached the landing pad, moving silently a meter above the surface of the grass. It seemed to be molded as a solid structure without seams and, as far as Renny could tell, it had neither doors nor windows to see out of, nor did it make a sound. The tube slowed, stopped beside the group, and an opening suddenly appeared in the side closest to them. Renny had blinked and the aperture was just there. He saw nothing actually open.

Before anyone could move toward it, a male Border collie stepped out into the morning sunlight. He was dressed in casual attire, though he held his posture as if he were in a business meeting. He smiled at the gathering and took a step toward them.

“Alex!” Samantha said excitedly. She moved through the small crowd and jumped into the newcomer’s arms. She licked him quickly on the cheek and then turned him back toward her shipmates, their arms around one another’s waists.  “Everybody, this is Alex Rogers, a very dear friend of mine.”

Alex tilted his head in a short bow and said, “Welcome to Sillon.” He glanced again at Samantha and grinned widely. “It is good to see you again, Sammy.”

Maximillian rejoined his friends on the landing pad and looked at the newcomer who was obviously friendly to Samantha. He did not say anything, but frowned at the person as if he didn’t trust him. Sam introduced everyone to the male collie one at a time, and at the end, Merlin stepped forward to clasp hands with him.

“It’s good to see you again, Alex,” the wolf said with a smile.  “It has been a long trip.”

“Well, you can relax now,” Alex replied. “Master Tristan has given me instructions to take you to the Dragon Loft and set you up in the best suites we have available. You are free to stay as long as you desire, courtesy of Master Tristan and the Silloni government.”

“I like this kind of hospitality,” Durant said from the back of the group as the male collie ushered everyone into the transport.

“Right now, Master Tristan would like to meet with you,” Alex said. “You may return to your ship later to retrieve anything you may want to have with you in the lodge.”

The inside of the craft appeared to be crushed velvet of dark burgundy, and despite the apparent solidness of the transport’s metal sides, they could see through it to the outside. Transparent metal had long been a dream of the Planetary Alignment, and it seemed as if Sillon had finally tackled the final obstacles of the process to include the material inside.

Alex played the panel at the forward end of the craft as if it were a musical instrument. There was only the faintest hum as the door resealed and they slipped quietly away from their freighter. Renny sat in a seat nearest where the door had been and reached out hesitantly to touch the wall. It felt warm, but completely solid, and he studied it critically until he heard someone gasp.

The cheetah looked forward and felt his eyes widen. The design of the lodge was like nothing else he had ever seen in his limited tour around the Planetary Alignment; he was in quiet, respectful awe. The transport stopped near an outcropping of the structure that looked to serve as a covered walkway and once again, the door of the craft just appeared. Alex led everyone out quietly and the group was met by a handful of porters made up of various familiar species.

The male collie hooked arms with Samantha and said to the others, “If you will follow me, Master Tristan will meet with you in the library.”

Max moved quickly to Samantha’s other side and walked along beside her as the small crowd followed Alex’s lead.  They passed in through the front doors of the lodge, which were already open and the metallic technology gave away to a different interior world of rich wood and immensely high ceilings. They passed the registration desk and everywhere they looked the place was made of the finest timber polished to shine.  They saw crystalline chandeliers hanging from high rafters and soft music could be heard from somewhere down a long carpeted hallway.

The Blue Horizon crew approached a set of large double doors looked to be made of rare virrin wood. Alex opened them easily and led everyone inside a large, high-ceiling room filled with bound printed volumes from all over the Planetary Alignment and beyond. The collie shut the doors behind the entourage and then moved to a standard computer terminal set on a desk in one corner.

“Master,” he said after tapping a pad, “your honored guests are here.”

A familiar accented voice replied, “I will be right there, Alex.”

Only a few heartbeats had passed before a side door to the library opened up and an impressive figure stepped through. Renny had never seen a Silloni before and the moment that Master Tristan walked through the door would forever be imprinted upon his memory. To the cheetah, it was as if he watched the entrance in extreme slow motion.

First through the door was a huge black hoof. The bipedal, digitigrade leg it was attached to was thickly muscular, though hidden beneath a pair of bloused dress slacks tailored for the physique. Renny felt his eyes slowly move ever upward to the thick chest and wide shoulders covered with a business jacket and then into a dark equine face. The cheetah’s gaze lingered a moment on the deep brown eyes, but then continued on upward to stare with an open mouth at the foot-long spiraled horn that jutted up from the dark head.

“Welcome to the Dragon Loft,” the black unicorn said with a smile.

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