BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 1
— Episode 8
Wolf & Tiger"
SS Blue Horizon PA1261
After three long months, the Blue Horizon has finally made it to the faraway world of Sillon. Along the way, we discovered that the supernova detected by the Planetary Alignment was not a star near our sister world, but of one in between. Thankfully, the doomed red giant star designated only as SDC-971 on the charts had no orbiting planets of its own, but the effects of the explosion were strong enough to disrupt all communication between Sillon and the other Alignment worlds.
We have been allowed to land at a country lodge known as the Dragon Loft, which is owned by Samantha’s mentor and adopted father, Tristan. A few of my crew have never been to Sillon before and Renny was surprised to discover the species type of the Silloni, having never seen one before. Master Tristan is a magnificent fellow who has always commanded respect everywhere he has been. In his younger days, Tristan was a Silloni Regent, but in his retirement, he is the owner of the most extravagant vacationing lodge on the planet.
Along for the ride on this voyage was Roland Carlton, a longtime friend of Sparky’s and an occasional hand I have hired onto my crew in the past. They have always been close, and I was approached early in the flight to perform the traditional duty of a Captain and officiate their wedding. The ceremony was simple, but everyone had a good time. Then, as the pregnancy of the feline race is only a few weeks, Sparky gave birth to twin kittens just prior to our arrival on Sillon.
The birth of the kits, and the relief that the Mytha star system and her three inhabited worlds still existed, has created a lighthearted mood among my crew. Samantha has been eagerly awaiting the chance to get back together with Master Tristan, and even meeting her childhood friend Alex Rogers was good for her. All seems well, and a week’s stay at the Dragon Loft before returning home will do wonders for us after the long voyage.
Merlin Sinclair, Captain
“Welcome to the Dragon Loft,” the black unicorn said with a smile.
The large male before them stood nearly seven feet tall from hoof to head and his gleaming white, spiraled horn protruded another foot higher. This would explain the high ceilings of the place. Although his digitigrade feet ended in large hooves, each of his great hands possessed four fingers and a thumb and they were all spread out in welcome.
Samantha’s face barely contained her wide grin as she rushed forward and practically threw herself into Tristan’s arms. The grown woman was a child in those massive arms. When she looked up at him, her blue eyes were brimming with happy tears. “I am so happy to see you, Master!” she said in a choked voice.
The Silloni looked down at her and gave her a warm smile. “I am glad to be seen by you, my little collie.” He gave her a tight hug for a moment and then released her to turn toward the others. “Captain Sinclair,” he said to the wolf in his thick accent, “your journey has been a long one, and from what I understand, an uncertain one. You know now that Sillon has been in no danger of catastrophe and you can do much for us by telling the rest of the Planetary Alignment of our continued existence.”
Merlin took a step toward him and gave him a short bow of courtesy. “Yes, sir, that is our intent. We appreciate your offer to stay at the Dragon Loft to rest up before our return journey. However, before we leave, we will need to record a small news conference with someone in authority to take back to broadcast to the rest of the Planetary Alignment.”
“Ah yes, the masses must always know the news,” Tristan replied. He looked over to Alex and said, “Please have Sir Hirotaka join us, please.”
“Yes, sir,” the male collie answered. He left the room and then Tristan motioned for everyone to take seats in the plush chairs that filled the library. Once everyone was seated, the unicorn continued.
“Alex has set aside our best suites for your stay,” he said to his guests. “This is our slow season and there are not many patrons here presently, so all of the benefits of our resort are at your service without many others to bother you.”
Samantha beamed at him and then she drew the crowd away to the registration desk so they could get their room assignments. Only Renny stayed by the wolf’s side, mesmerized by the huge mythological being dominating the room.
Tristan nodded to Merlin. “It is good to see you again, Captain Sinclair,” he said. “You’ve always taken care of my Samantha, even before she coaxed us both let her travel the stars at your side.”
Merlin smiled at the unicorn. He had always liked Tristan. For someone who had once been Sillon’s Regent, Tristan was easy to talk to, despite his natural regal bearing. “I enjoy having her along,” the wolf replied in a quiet voice so it wouldn’t carry, “but even after six years, I still think as the major shareholder of Holden Pharmaceutical, she should be in a plush office somewhere, helping to guide the direction of her father’s company.”
“When Derek Holden died and left Samantha in my care as her legal guardian, I swore I would let her live the life she wanted within her means,” Tristan replied with a smile and a wink toward the Border collie. “That she chose to spend her time traveling with you, rather than warming an office seat, was her own choice… A choice I would not allow even my own daughter.”
“This is my first time at the Dragon Loft,” Merlin said with an appreciative eye toward the volumes of books in the room. “You’ve done well in your retirement.”
“Thank you, Captain. I do rather enjoy it here.”
Samantha and some of the others wandered back over to them, all chattering away at one another. After three months of uncertainty, cooped up in a flying saucer, they were all excited; even Patch was smiling.
“Mr. Tristan, sir,” Renny asked quietly. “May I ask you a question?”
“Samantha told me her hometown was on Alexandrius,” the cheetah said with a tentative look toward the collie. “How did someone from a faraway world like Sillon become her legal guardian?” Samantha’s smile never wavered and she nodded her permission for the unicorn to answer.
“There really is no mystery about it, my friend,” Tristan replied. “Our families have been close since before she was born. Samantha’s grandsire used to bring his family to Sillon every few years for vacations when Derek was a lad. The friendship of our families grew each time we were together, but there was a time when my infant daughter, Laura had become deathly ill. There was no cure on Sillon for what she had, but Derek Holden, a chemist and pharmaceutical doctor at the time, recognized the symptoms for what the Planetary Alignment knew as Altac Syndrome. Always prepared, even on vacation, he carried a vast array of medicines with him. He did not know if the medicine for Altac Syndrome would work on my species, but at my behest, Laura was given the treatment. Fortunately for us all, her illness decreased and was eventually eradicated from her body. It was at this time that I swore to him that my appreciation knew no bounds, and that I was forever in his debt.”
Tristan saw the sad look that crossed Samantha’s features and he knew what thoughts she must have been having. “Four years later, Derek and Amy Holden died in an accident here on Sillon that left their only child parentless. I had to fight the Alexandrian authorities to get custody of her, but I was Regent at the time and eventually won guardianship over her when they realized I could provide a better life for her than anyone else on Alexandrius. From then until the time she became an adult, I raised her as my own daughter.”
Renny looked over to Samantha and exchanged friendly glances. “Wow…” was all he could say as the rest of the group remained quiet.
The door to the room opened and Alex walked in with a second impressive individual. Renny felt his jaw dropping again and Merlin reached over to push it shut for him. Trailing the collie was someone every bit as tall as Tristan, though much broader in the shoulders. His business suit fit him snugly as if he were about to burst the seams and he held himself with an important air. Renny had never seen any of the Ryuji before and memories of the mythical dragon species from children’s storybooks came unbidden.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Alex announced, “this is Sir Hirotaka Ahra, our Regent’s official representative. Sir Hirotaka, may I introduce to you Merlin Sinclair, captain of the cargo vessel, Blue Horizon.”
Sir Hirotaka strode forward and extended a large blue-grey hand toward the standing wolf, “Thank you for coming, Captain,” the dragon said in a voice so deep as to almost rumble. His leathery eyelids crinkled in amusement as he glanced over the faces of the others when Merlin’s smaller hand disappeared into his own.
“We are honored to meet you, Sir Ahra,” the wolf said with a slight bow.
“Please,” the blue dragon said, “you may call me Hirotaka.”
“Yes, sir,” Merlin acknowledged. He then turned and introduced each of his crew to both Tristan and the official.
Hirotaka dipped his horned head toward Sparky and Roland and studied their infants with a smile. “It is always nice to see children, however small,” he said. “My congratulations to you both.”
“Thank you, sir,” Roland replied with a gulp.
“Excuse me, sir?”
Hirotaka turned to face the cheetah who looked at him curiously. “Yes, Mr. Thornton?”
“Please forgive me for staring, but I’ve never seen anyone of your race before,” Renny said. “Would you mind if I asked a personal question?”
“Renny, don’t!” Taro whispered.
The dragon stood up fully, crossing his arms. “A personal question, is it? Ask your question and I will decide how personal it will be to me,” he said with the neutral expression of a politician.
“Well, sir, I was wondering… do you have wings?”
Hirotaka tilted his head to the left and smiled widely, showing a full set of long, razor-sharp teeth. “There is nothing personal about your question, Mr. Thornton,” he replied. “Without any knowledge of my race, I see no reason why you would know anything about us.” He uncrossed his arms and let them rest at his sides. “In answer to your curiosity, I do not have wings. I am the male of my species. Only the female Ryuji have wings.”
The dragon shook his head and glanced back toward Tristan. “I have heard tales brought back from your part of the galaxy where species such as ours were in your ancient legends. We have no way of knowing if there is any relation to those creatures and ourselves, but there are genetic ties to the Earth just as there are with your own worlds. All we know for certain is that we are us.”
Renny smiled and nodded his head. “For satisfying my curiosity, thank you, sir.”
“May I ask a question of my own?” Merlin said to him. “This one is not as personal.”
The dragon tilted his head again and just waved a hand in acceptance.
“Thank you,” Merlin said. “You are from the nearby planet Ryu, but yet you are the official representative of the Silloni government. How is this possible?”
The dragon looked pleased at the political question. “I am Ryuji by species, but my great-parents were immigrants to Sillon. I am second generation Sillon-born Ryuji, and a native of this world.”
“Where is planet Ryu?” Renny asked. “I’ve never heard of it.”
It was Samantha who answered. “Ryu is one of three planets in the habitable zone of this star system, Renny, though Sillon is the only one actually a part of the Planetary Alignment. As with all of Terra’s former colonies, the other two worlds were seeded by Earth’s furmen explorers, but resentment at being abandoned for so long prevents them from joining the PA.”
Sir Hirotaka clasped his hands behind him. “Now that the introductions have been fulfilled,” he said, “it is time we got down to business.” He motioned toward Tristan and continued, “No doubt my associate here has told you that for the past two months we have been constructing a large relay satellite to be launched and deployed at a determined location just outside the perimeter of the SDC-971 supernova. This will enable Sillon to resume communication with the rest of the Planetary Alignment, as it was before the star discourteously disrupted all avenues of transmission in that area.”
“Yes, sir,” Merlin replied. “We are aware of this.”
“What you are probably not aware of is that while the satellite has been completed, we will have no launch vessel ready to deploy it for another two months. All of the vessels that could handle such an operation are involved in a separate matter of state and cannot be spared.”
“I see…” the wolf said with an idea of where the conversation was heading.
“I have been authorized to hire you and your vessel, Captain, to take on our satellite as your cargo, and to deploy it at a set of specific coordinates on your return trip to the Planetary Alignment.”
Merlin nodded in understanding. His guess had been correct. “Is the deployment something that can be done by my crew, or will it require specialists to fly with us?”
“The young canine with you could launch it by himself, if necessary,” the dragon answered. “Once the satellite is in position, all you need do is initiate the onboard system and its programming will take care of the rest, including automatic alignment with the PA communication net and a test signal in both directions.”
“Then I am sure,” Merlin told him, “that we can arrange a fair deal. My ship is at your service.”
“The Silloni government will be most grateful of your efforts, Captain.”
Silent and unseen, a large cloaked vessel quietly orbited the green world of Sillon. On the bridge of the Hammerdine-class starship, Captain Natasha Khasho stood in front of the holographic representation of the planet, her arms crossed and her expression compassionate.
“Well, Jazz,” she said to her communications officer, “there it is — your homeworld.”
A white Silloni filly got up from her station and approached the display. Her eyes were moist, but her expression was neutral. “Thank you, Captain,” she said softly. “I know our long-range sensors had detected it was not BAE-6410 that went supernova that the news reports theorized, but I had to see that Sillon was unharmed with my own eyes.”
Natasha walked over to her and put a hand on the unicorn’s shoulder. “You’ve never told me why you left Sillon, you know,” she said quietly, “but that’s your story to tell to those you wish. You have served me well and I didn’t mind the Vault out here. The crew could use a little R&R and your world is a nice place to give it to them.”
“You know the Blue Horizon is down there,” Jazz reminded her. “Certain members of our crew are known to them.”
“And what of it?” the tall vixen replied. “I don’t intend to contact them while we’re here and we have an entire world in which to play.”
“Let’s land on the far side of the planet, as far away from them as we can just to be on the safe side.”
Natasha listened to the tone of her officer’s voice and tilted her head a little. “What is it you fear from the Blue Horizon?” she asked bluntly. “If you think there’s a danger, I want to know why.”
Jazz looked up into the vixen’s eyes and stated, “There is no danger to the Lady of Dreams, Captain. I only wish to avoid a chance meeting.” She lowered her eyes and her voice and added, “It has to do with my past… and the reason why I left home.”
Captain Natasha nodded and decided to drop the matter. “Very well, then. Recommend a good place for R&R on your world and we’ll go with your suggestion to steer clear of the Blue Horizon, or whoever it is in their crew you wish to steer clear of.”
Jazz tapped in a set of coordinates into her terminal and the holographic display zeroed in on a location near the equator of the planet. The computer interfaced with the Silloni information net and began to display relative data and images of the region. Natasha nodded in satisfaction and gave the Silloni a smile.
“Looks like a perfect place to relax,” she said.
Behind them, a door hissed open and the sound of soft steps filled the bridge. It was common to hear that, but the Silloni girl turned anyway to greet it.
A little grey mouse boy entered the bridge with coils of cable running down his limbs through bands of metal above his major joints. His left eye was covered in a dark red glass that kept out bright light that might further harm his damaged retina. The endosuit around him had been a wonder of Natasha’s engineering department, allowing young Tim to walk again after a vicious attack by Sagan upon their own ship had crippled him and nearly taken his life. Control and strength in his arms and legs had been weakened with the sharp blow to the head the jaguar had given him, and without the help of the endosuit, he couldn’t produce enough energy to move at more than a caterpillar’s pace. The sensitive pads lining the insides of the metal bands responded to flexed muscles and moved him how he needed to move. He was growing stronger in physical therapy, but would still need several more years to recover even the meek strength of what he’d had even at the age of ten.
Sagan’s unexpected appearance resulted in near-fatal injuries on three of Natasha’s crew, but none had hit home more than that of the young mouse. Despite their best efforts to thwart him, Sagan had escaped with some of her technology still in development, and for all his crimes, the vixen had vowed to skin him alive if she ever caught him. The medical team on the Lady of Dreams was able to save Tim’s life, but some of his motor functions would likely need help for the rest of his life.
“I’m ready, ma’am,” Tim said. Natasha started toward him, but Jazz caught her arm.
“I’ll do it this time, ma’am,” she volunteered with a smile. Tim’s face lit up at the thought, and in a single, smooth movement, the Silloni girl swooped him up into her arms to take him down to the clinic for his physical therapy.
The Blue Horizon gently set down on the metallic landing pad of the Wathradrim warehouse and before the engines were fully powered down, a Silloni team was already on the move toward the freighter to unload its cargo.
The Palace of Mists had presented an official recorded speech by Sillon’s current Regent for Captain Sinclair to return for them. The remaining supplies stored in the hold had to be split up and moved to the sides so they could load up the large relay satellite that the Blue Horizon had just been hired to deploy for them on their return flight. However, Merlin’s crew had been granted a week’s vacation at the Dragon Loft, so once the satellite was secure on board, they would be returning to Tristan’s lodge.
Durant took charge as the satellite was weighed, loaded and strapped to the deck of the hold. As there was nothing else for the rest of the crew to do at this time, they all busied themselves until they could return to the lodge. Tanis hid away in the Infirmary, sterilizing all his equipment. Patch ambled off to the engine room, though his brother remained to exchange jokes with Samantha. Taro and Merlin talked quietly between themselves near the cargo bay door and Renny had wandered a small distance away from the ship to chat idly with a few of the Silloni workers who had brought in their cargo. Sparky and Roland had remained behind at the lodge to care for their infants.
Although Maximillian had been with the Blue Horizon crew for nearly four months, he was still a bit shy around newcomers and stayed in the shadows away from the Silloni. He had spent a lot of his free time on board hovering around Samantha or Merlin, and found good friends in them both. Because of his time as a slave on Quet, he had a lot of experience in the kitchen and he had also become a regular sight in the galley as he watched and helped Sparky prepare meals for the crew. He was still fairly much a slave in his thoughts, even if he had been given his freedom, but it was a lifelong mindset he found hard to set aside.
Samantha found him sitting with crossed legs behind a box and tapped him on the top of his head. The canine youth looked up at her and smiled warmly. “Merlin says we should be finished here in about twenty minutes. Want to go with me to find some snacks?”
“Yeah!” Max replied with interest. He jumped to his feet and followed her out of the cargo bay.
Three days later, Renny walked into the plush dining room of the lodge, wondering what new dish he would be prompted to try this time. In the time since they had been there, he had sampled various meals that he had never tried before. The two main chefs of the place had encountered him on the veranda the first day and stopped to have him settle an argument on a particular dish each had concocted on his own. While his taste-test had pleased the poodle Francois, it had only angered the Manx cat named Pierre. Shortly thereafter, Pierre found him and presented him with a different dish to try, which the cheetah had found delicious.
Haughtily pleased, the Manx had left him to gloat to his colleague of his triumph. Two hours later, Francois cornered Renny again with another new dish to try. If it were not for the cheetah’s metabolism, he might have gained some weight over the next few days, but it seemed as if the two chefs were determined to out-do one another, with Renny’s taste buds as the judge.
Normally, such attention would have been bothersome to him, but with Renny’s appetite, he had begun to look forward to his encounters with the gourmet pair. He had told Sparky of the situation and she had laughed. Pierre and Francois had been chefs together at the Dragon Loft for nearly a decade and they had gotten more competitive as time went on. She had once engaged in a cooking contest with them on a past visit, and had surprisingly won the judges’ preference. Tristan had tried to hire her on the spot, but while deeply flattered, she declined in order to remain with the Blue Horizon.
“Don’t wave your ladle at me, you saucy-mouthed wiper of other peoples’ bottoms!” Francois snapped, hands on hips as he prissily leaned forward to face the Manx cat before him.
“As if you had one whit of intelligence or culinary ability to tell a ladle from a spoon!” Pierre snarled back, tossing the metal utensil at the poodle. “Your spices are too weak and your sweeteners too strong, sissy boy!”
The poodle drew back, his face a mask of shock and offense, “How dare you address me like zat, waving your flapping arms around like a freakish slinger of grease burgers! I was the chef of diplomats and presidents when you were wiping your nose on tablecloths!”
“That’s right, and when your dentures fall out into the soup tonight, how will you cover that?”
“You think yourself a chef! You are a common cook! En garde!”
Suddenly the Manx found himself being chased by a livid poodle with a rolling pin. He backed instinctively, reaching for a weapon. His fingers found purchase on a stem protruding from a thick, hefty local vegetable and he brought it to bear as a club.
The poodle slashed out with the wooden weapon, and his adversary parried with the flat of the hantsu root, spinning him off balance and sending the canine careening into a cupboard. The poodle snarled, taking a handful of spice and throwing it with a flash into Pierre’s face. The Manx howled in shock and a fluster of cinnamon in his face before launching himself onto the poodle. The two chefs slammed to the kitchen floor, struggling on the black and white tiles.
Pierre found the upper hand quickly, and reached for a tray of condiments. With a master’s touch, he garnished Francois’ nose and lips with honey mustard. Francois hated honey mustard.
And so it went. Flashes of metal utensils and hurled vegetables created a domestic combat zone.
Renny moved through the dining room and noticed that other patrons were animated with an excited buzz of conversation. He could not make out exactly what was being said and it was not his normal practice to eavesdrop, but he was suddenly curious as to what was going on. He found what had become his usual table near the kitchen and sat down in his chair to see what would happen next.
Ten minutes passed before he began to wonder if he were going to be waited on. No one had brought him a menu, a drink or even tableware. He folded his hands together on top of the table and continued to wait.
Another ten minutes. Still no waiter. The cheetah was getting impatient, so he got up and moved toward the closest table with customers. He approached one of the dragon-men from Ryu who was seated with a muscular tiger and a slender wolf.
“Excuse me,” he said as he stopped beside the table. “Have you seen any of the wait staff recently?”
The wolf looked up at him with an amused expression. “I don’t think you’ll get served any time soon,” he said. “The chefs had a fight back in the kitchen a bit ago and the waiters went to break it up.”
“And everyone’s still back there watching the argument?”
“No,” the dragon said in a deep voice, “the fight was physical and one of them got hurt.” He smiled a toothy grin and shook his head. “The Master of this place was called in and all the employees were marched out for an interrogation. From the look on the Silloni’s face, I’d say someone’s head is gonna roll.”
Renny looked at him and sighed. “Who served your meals if all the employees were taken away?”
“Some little lynx who was nursing her kittens,” the tiger replied. “Master Tristan asked her to watch things while he took care of his people. The woman’s mate took the kits away when she headed for the kitchen, but she’s not been out recently.”
“That would be my friend, Sparky,” Renny replied. “Thanks, guys. I’ll go see if she needs some help.” As the cheetah walked away, he had the vague impression that he knew those three from somewhere, but all thoughts on the trio vanished when Sparky emerged from the kitchen wearing her old familiar smiling kitty apron.
Her eyes lit up when she saw him. “I’m so glad to see you,” she said. “Would you find Merlin and tell him that I need to talk to him?”
“Sure, Sparky,” Renny replied. “Anything specific I should tell him?” The lynx hesitated as if she were going to say something, but then just shook her head.
“Okay, I’ll see if I can find him,” Renny said.
“Thanks, I appreciate it.”
“Before I go,” the cheetah added, “can I put in my order? I’ve not had any breakfast yet.”
“Patch, there’s nothing wrong with the engines,” Pockets told his brother’s feet, which were protruding from an open access panel. “Merlin said we were going to be here for a couple weeks of vacation instead of just one, so why don’t you just relax?”
“Pockets…” said a muffled voice from the panel, “There is a twitch in our LightDrive accelerator unit that I want to take care of while we’re in down-time. I haven’t got time for a vacation.”
“You can’t do that without me, and I don’t wanna be stuck inside the engine when I have a whole world to play in!”
“Then program Moss to watch the indicators for me and then git…”
“Moss can’t tell you what the numbers are.”
“Can it let me know when they get to a certain range through my slateboard?”
“Uhm, yeah, it can.”
Pockets frowned and stuck his hands inside one of his many shirt pockets. He pulled out a small remote and tapped a tracer code onto its small panel. It would call the mobile sentry sensor to his location. “Okay, I’ll program the dang thing for you.”
“Good. Now, crawl into the other access tunnel tell me what the reading is on the RB gauge while we’re waiting for the little pie plate to arrive.”
Merlin and Renny entered the dining room that was now clear of patrons. It had taken the cheetah a little while to locate the captain and he quietly hoped Sparky might have a warm meal for him. The pair went straight for the kitchen and was surprised to find Sparky and Max working together on a rather involved recipe.
“One quarter cup of ground hantsu root?” the young canine queried.
“Aye, it’s that big meaty-looking vegetable over there, the purple one.”
“It looks damaged.”
“It’ll do, Max. Just cut off the bruised end and grind off what you need from the middle.”
“Sparky?” the captain asked curiously.
The lynx looked up and smiled at her friend. She had a spot of flour on her nose, which she tried to wipe away with a paw, but she only managed to smear the powder into her fur. “Hi, Merlin,” she said, snaring a countertop rag and to wipe her hands on.
She looked over at Max and said in a quiet voice, “Dear, forget the hantsu root for now and get Renny’s breakfast for him out of the number three oven, please. I need a moment alone with the Captain.”
“Okay,” the canine youth answered. He headed to one of the kitchen’s massive ovens and pulled out a tray of warm food. He and the cheetah left the room and then Sparky turned toward the wolf.
“What can I do for the mommy?” Merlin asked with a smile.
Sparky led him to a couple of counter stools and they sat down on them. “Merlin, I…” She hesitated and then began again. “Merlin, I don’t know how to tell you this other than outright, but Tristan has offered me a job here at the Dragon Loft as his chief chef.”
“I’m not surprised he’s trying that again,” the captain replied with a nod. “He tried to lure you away from me on our last visit here. You are a great chef, Sparky.”
“Thanks,” she said, but her smile appeared to the wolf as a bit sad. “The situation is different this time, Captain. Tristan has just fired Pierre and Francois and he needs a chef to attend the needs of his patrons.”
“And you want the job?” Merlin asked with a neutral expression.
“Now that Roland and I have the kittens to rear, it might be a good idea.”
“A starship cabin is not really an ideal place to raise children,” the captain agreed.
“Tristan has offered me a good salary, a place to live, and even has a job for Roland.”
“What of the Blue Horizon?” Merlin asked. “I won’t be able to hire anyone to take your place until we get back to the other Planetary Alignment worlds, and three months is a long time to go without a cook.”
“I understand there are two chefs in the area looking for a job,” the lynx replied with a sparkle of mischief in her eyes. When Merlin did not return her smile, she shrugged her shoulders. “I’ve spent the last months teaching Max a lot of my recipes and have given him notes on everyone’s tastes and preferences. He’s already had a lot of kitchen experience on Quet.” She looked away and added, “I had him prepare a good amount of everyone’s meals on our long voyage out here to Sillon, just in case something like this came up due to our kits.”
“He’s a bit young for that kind of responsibility,” Merlin countered, “but I suppose he can fill in until I can hire someone else.”
Sparky grinned and shook her head. “In the three months it’ll take you to get back to the PA, I doubt you’ll want to hire anyone else. Max has the aptitude to be a good cook. Besides, he will be sixteen years old next month. He’s still young, but old enough for responsibility.”
“Sixteen?” Merlin repeated with wide eyes. He smiled and crossed his arms. “I keep forgetting he’s short for his age. I often think of him as a thirteen or fourteen year old…”
The lynx leaned forward and put a hand on his arm. “You need to treat him older than that, Merlin. He deserves the chance.”
“Yes, you’re right,” he replied. Merlin fell silent for a few moments and then looked at her warmly. “I had a gut feeling I might lose you soon when you asked me to perform your wedding. You’ve been with us since the beginning; the ship will be empty without you.”
Sparky moved over to him, wrapped her arms around his middle and laid her head on his chest. “You’ve always been good to me, Merlin. I’ll miss you, too.”
The captain held her a moment and then gently pushed her away so he could look into her face. “I’ll have Durant draw up a nice severance pay for you, and although Tristan has already expressed his desire to hire you, I’ll work up a nice reference letter, too.”
“Thank you, Merlin,” she said warmly. “You’re the best.”
Samantha sat with her legs crossed on the lush carpeted floor at the feet of her Master, her heart at peace and her mind feeling years younger. She and Tristan had been catching up on events of the past few years and had reached a lull in the conversation. They were in his private study with the windows open to a cool breeze and evening light of Mytha peeking around the edge of the mountain cliff.
“Samantha,” Tristan said in his accented, deep voice, “in all your travels around the worlds, have you seen my Laura?”
“Laura?” the collie asked in surprise, referring to the unicorn’s eldest daughter. “I would not have looked for her to be anywhere but on Sillon.”
Tristan’s expression became sad. “She and her mother had a disagreement two years ago concerning her career future. The evening ended with my daughter in open rebellion and she slipped away in the night. We have not seen her since. Guinevere and I have been worried that she has done something rash.”
Samantha swallowed. She and Laura had been raised together as sisters. “Oh, no… What was the disagreement?”
Tristan hesitated a moment before answering. “She wanted to serve on a starship… just as you have done. She had been canvassing various freighters and military vessels that came to Sillon in hopes of finding an appropriate one to dedicate herself to, but could find no luck. She had all but resigned herself to the idea that she would never find one she liked. Then, suddenly, she wanted to leave. She did not tell us where or why, just that she had to go soon. It was odd and unlike her to do anything impetuous, but she insisted on leaving within two days. Guinevere wanted her here on Sillon to start her own family, not out in the galaxy where pirates or the void of space might endanger her.”
“Surely you have resources to search for her,” Samantha said quietly.
“That I have,” her master replied, “but my influence is not what it used to be and does not go beyond Sillon herself. I even had Hirotaka do a search for her on Ryu, but there has been no sign of her there either. I suspect she’s out in the Planetary Alignment somewhere, likely traveling under an assumed name.”
The canine shook her head slowly. “No, I’m sorry, Master,” she said in a quiet voice. “I haven’t seen her in my travels, but now that I know she’s out there, I will use my own contacts to see if I can locate her; there can’t be many white unicorn fillies out in the public eye “
“Thank you, my little collie. I know you will find her for us.”
Taro felt a gentle rocking of her shoulder and she came awake immediately. She had been resting in a hammock on the veranda of the lodge and had dozed off in the warm sunlight. She opened her orange eyes and looked up into the face of a tiger dressed in denim khakis and desert hiking boots.
“Yes?” Taro responded curiously.
“Are you the captain of that freighter?” the feline asked her, with a muscular arm raised and his fingers pointing out across the manicured field to the landing pad.
Taro shook her head. “No, but I am first officer of the Blue Horizon.”
The tiger knelt down beside the hammock and introduced himself. “My name is Carsen Vetter and I play bass in—”
“Dragon, Wolf & Tiger,” Taro answered for him. “I saw you in the pool a couple of days ago. One of my crewmates has most of your music.”
Vetter smiled and nodded his head. “We’re here on an extended vacation, but it’s time to head back to Kantus to start recording a new album of songs we’ve written while here.”
“So what can I do for you?” Taro asked with an interested smile, wondering if it would be appropriate to ask the tiger to sit with her.
“Word has gotten out that the Planetary Alignment doesn’t think Sillon survived a supernova,” the tiger replied. “Because of this, we believe our return transport was never sent to retrieve us. We have very unforgiving deadlines and need a ride home.”
Taro nodded in understanding and replied, “As you have noticed, the Blue Horizon is a freighter. We don’t normally take on passengers, but perhaps we can work out something with Captain Sinclair.”
“I would appreciate it if you would introduce me to him.”
Ivy “Sparky” Carlton was all smiles. The crew of the Blue Horizon was gathered in a sectioned off area of the dining room for a private party. Merlin had not yet revealed her decision to stay on Sillon to anyone else. She would make the announcement herself, but only after making a long-promised presentation to her shipmates. She stood at the head of the table, wearing her familiar smiling kitty apron. Maximillian stood beside her, wearing a similar white apron of his own adorned with a cartoon canine holding a knife and fork. He seemed just as pleased as she was about their presentation.
“My friends,” the lynx said to those seated before her, “I have a special treat for you tonight. You’ve heard me talk about my favorite meal many times, though I’ve never been able to prepare it for you due to conditions required for its making.”
“Uh, oh…” Pockets said with a grin. “I know what this is…”
Sparky laughed. “Yes, I suppose you all do.” She turned to Max and nodded to him. “Go ahead and bring it out.”
“At once!” the youth said with a large smile. He turned and disappeared through the door into the kitchen.
“Is this that explosive recipe of yours?” Renny asked with a smirk.
Sparky nodded as Max came back into the room pushing a metal cart with a large covered dish on it. “My friends” she said, “we give to you… the Fynian Wonder Meal!”
She took the top off the dish and immediately the air was filled with such an aroma that it set saliva glands to working. Inside the dish was a type of casserole that was the stuff of legends.
Samantha tilted her head up to sniff the air and gaze into the dish. She wondered how this meal would appeal to the carnivorous and vegetarian appetites alike, but she had to admit it smelled wonderful.
“Max and I have spent the afternoon working on this,” the feline cook said as she dipped a large ladle into the mix. “Tristan’s chefs had all the right ingredients, though I doubt either of them has ever made this!”
“You’ve been promising this thing for so long,” Patch said with an amused grumble, “it better be good.”
Sparky caught the smiling glint in his eyes and put her hands on her hips. “If this isn’t to your liking, Patch, I’ll gift you a box of the finest cigars on Sillon.”
“Deal!” Chuckles moved through the crowd as Max began to deliver filled plates to each one present. Of those seated around the table, only Durant had actually eaten the Fynian Wonder Meal before. Merlin glanced over at him and saw the glazed look in the bear’s eyes. He grinned at the sight, knowing it must be good for his load master to look thus.
He picked up a large spoon beside his plate and then picked up a small portion of the food. Tentatively, he put the spoon in his mouth and then closed his eyes. At once, several complimenting flavors tickled his taste buds and he opened his eyes wide. It was unlike anything else he had ever eaten before, but he found the sudden urge to eat more. This was good!
A half hour later, there were looks of contentment on every face in the room. Not even Patch could find fault in the meal, knowing he’d not get those cigars, but he was now contentedly well-fed.
Sparky leaned toward the wolf beside her and gave him a proud smile. “Now, do you agree that this was the best meal you’ve ever had?”
The captain grinned at her and nodded. “Sparky, you have outdone yourself,” he said. “Tristan’s getting a grand chef in you.”
Taro looked up from her quiet conversation with Tanis and said, “What was that?” Merlin looked surprised at his slip and he glanced over at the lynx with a facial apology. She shook her head that it was okay and looked at the fox.
“I was going to tell you in a few minutes,” she said quietly. “I’m staying on Sillon as Master Tristan’s chief chef.”
“Aw, no!” Pockets whined. “This is a joke, right?”
Roland had been sitting quietly at his mate’s right, but he spoke up and answered the question for her. “No,” he said in his raspy voice, “this is no joke. We have kittens to raise now and this is an ideal place for it.”
“You couldn’t have picked a better place,” Samantha said with a smile, though her eyes were quickly growing moist at the thought of losing her friend’s presence.
“Tristan fired his two combative chefs,” Roland added, “and then offered her the position of chief chef, with a job for myself as well.”
Durant set his drink glass down a little too hard, but made no effort to apologize. He had expected something like this ever since the wedding, but it was still a shock to him to be losing the one he had considered his best friend.
Sparky shook her head sadly at the faces staring back at her. “Merlin and I have already discussed this,” she said, “and he’s given us his blessing. I have a family now that needs a stable environment to grow in.”
“We… I’ll… miss you, Sparky,” Pocket said in a quiet voice barely above a whisper.
“I’ll miss you, too, Pockets,” she replied. “I’ll miss all of you. I’ve had seven good years on board the Blue Horizon and I have lots of wonderful memories, but now my place is here… with my family.”
Tanis cleared his throat and then stood up. He effected a fancy bow in her direction and said, “It is been a pleasure knowing ya, ma’am. May all yer dreams and wishes come true for ya and Roland.”
“Thank you, Tanis,” Sparky replied. “That means a lot to us.”
Brand Arkram was huge. A mass of thick muscle and coiled energy that seemed to move like a luxury liner as the red dragon sat behind the extensive set of electronic drums splayed out in a semicircle before him. A graveyard of broken drumsticks sprawled helter-skelter about him on the floor. To his immediate left, a slender grey wolf dressed wholly in black tapped at white keys, his ears buried beneath a pair of thick grey headphones. Music thundered through the studio like a tempest, splashing against the carpeted walls and shaking the whole room with its might. A nearby device spooled out an aggressive bass line that each of the musicians played in time to. No specific notes or design; just a jam session to vent energy.
This was Adam Singlebet’s private sanctuary on Sillon, where the keyboardist kept a small studio for sketching. The trio had retired to the planet on a vacation following their longest tour yet. Singlebet and Arkram had brought their wives with them, but the women had decided to stay on when the boys departed on their own to Kantus for their recording sessions. Vetter, the unmarried member of the trio, had been lecturing on art and musical theory at the local college a hundred miles to the north.
The studio door opened a crack and Vetter entered. The two other performers slowly wound down their playing and Brand shut off the bass disc with a precisely hurled drumstick.
“Good news, compadres. We have a ride home,” the tiger chirped.
“And there was much rejoicing,” Adam replied.
“Yaaaay,” Brand replied, dully and without enthusiasm.
“So what did we get?” Adam asked with interest.
“The Blue Horizon, a common freighter that’s bound right where we want to go,” Vetter replied.
“Blue Horizon?” Brand added, cocking an eyebrow. “Sounds generic enough.”
“Any port in a storm,” Vetter added. “I was kind of surprised that they weren’t booked already, considering the lack of transport on or off this world.”
“I hope they’ve got a good cargo capacity,” Adam replied, indicating the studio and all its equipment. “We’ve got a lot of stuff to carry.”
“Well, it is a cargo ship,” the tiger responded, “but the first officer Nichols told me they’ve been hired to deploy a relay satellite for Sillon out near the supernova that caused all the trouble. The thing is already loaded and takes up half the cargo bay.”
“Are we going to have to sleep in the hold next to it?” Brand asked dryly. “It might get hard to breathe without air in the hold when they launch that thing.”
“Nichols told me they would probably quarter us on their recreational deck, but she suggested we should pack our things for the hold in vacuum-rated containers.”
Merlin looked out across the crowd at the faces of those gathered in the dining area of the Dragon Loft and lapped up some of his drink from a wide-mouth mug. Tristan had arranged a quiet farewell party for the Blue Horizon’s crew and anyone remotely acquainted with them was there. Although the band had not been hired to play during the gathering, Adam Singlebet sat in a corner of the room, playing softly on a small personal keyboard he carried with him everywhere, even though the rest of his equipment was already loaded into the ship’s hold. Being a musician himself, Patch sat nearby watching the master work wonders on a travel-size instrument.
As to be expected, Samantha hovered near Tristan and his wife, Guinevere, a white mare dressed in a gold dress and a matching ribbon laced around her spiraling horn. Alex Rogers stood with them, taking an active part in their conversation. The Border collie had known Samantha since their childhood days on Alexandrius and had long held a crush on her. Unfortunately for him, she had always treated him more like a brother than a close friend, which was a private source of frustration to him. Nonetheless, he enjoyed visiting with her and had spent as much time with her as she would allow during their stay. The Silloni couple’s three younger children were at the punch bowl with Maximillian, watching Tanis perform a few simple magic tricks with various pieces of fruit from the table.
Taro and Pockets were having an animated conversation with Roland about his new duties as head groundskeeper for the lodge, and Durant was nearby with Sparky, seated at a table and talking in quiet voices. The bear was really going to miss his best friend and the two of them reminisced over shared memories. The kittens were in the care of the lodge daycare center, so the feline parents would have time to say their farewells without distraction.
Renny and Carsen Vetter discussed females over their drinks and Brand sat to the side with Sir Hirotaka, conversing quietly in the language of their species.
The lupine captain finished his drink and then walked to those gathered around Tristan. He had spent time with Sparky and Roland and they had said their good-byes, and had then watched each member of his crew visit with them one by one during the party. His watchful eyes had noted the lulls in the conversations and figured it was time to wind everything down.
“Master Tristan,” he said with a slight bow of respect, “thank you for your hospitality during our stay. We’ve enjoyed our vacation here, but it’s time we prepared for our journey to Kantus.”
“Captain Sinclair,” the large black unicorn replied, “you have honored our world with your voyage of service, but most of all, you allowed us the opportunity to see our Samantha again.”
Merlin smiled. “As you know, Samantha was the reason we came, but now we have to be on our way to complete our task. We have your satellite to deploy and once it is in place, I would imagine that Sam will be in constant contact with the Interstellar News Network with a full report on our journey.”
Guinevere stepped forward and clasped hands with the wolf. “Merlin,” she said in a soft voice, “take care of yourselves and come back to see us any time you have the opportunity.”
“We will,” the captain said with a smile toward Samantha, “you can be assured we will.”
“Then fare you well,” the mare said with a nod of her head, “and have a safe journey.”
Merlin glanced over his pre-flight checklist and mused about their voyage. He was ready to get back into space and into the old habits of a voyage. Granted, things were unlikely to be more exciting than the excursions he had experienced on Sillon, like the archaeological jaunt a few days earlier he had taken to a valley of wind-carved rocks that were shaped like some titanic ribcage, but he actually liked routine and he enjoyed time on his vessel. After launch, their first priority would be the one-month journey to specific coordinates to set up the Silloni relay satellite a good distance from the supernova. They had been paid generously for the service and Merlin had given bonuses to his returning crew from the bounty.
Their supplies were fully stocked for the long return voyage and they were less than a half-hour away from launch. Patch was making last-minute adjustments to the LC engines and Pockets was currently on the bridge to monitor the changes on panel readings.
Due to their limited bed space, Samantha had quartered their passengers on the recreation deck as Taro had suggested. There was only a small bathroom on that level that the three of them would have to share, but a band accustomed to being on tour would be used to that. Unfortunately, Brand would find it a tight fit for his large frame.
Sam appropriated some temporary bedding from the lodge for the group to use on the three and a half month voyage to Kantus and everyone had been informed that the rec deck was to be off-limits to all Horizon personnel unless permission was granted by the band. Merlin had never been confined to a ship with a musical band and wondered just how much sleep he was going to get over the next few months.
Due to this rec deck restriction, Patch and Pockets had upgraded the Com systems in each of the regular cabins to allow for StellarNet video feeds for entertainment, something most of them felt had been a long time coming anyway.
It occurred to the wolf that it had been over three months since the Planetary Alignment had last heard from them, and the final transmission Taro had broadcast was news of the wide route the Blue Horizon was to take around SDC-971 to skirt the expanding effects of the supernova. They had been unable to send any other transmissions to INN thereafter and he was sure some of the investors of this voyage were anxious to get word on Sillon’s continued existence. Sam already had plans to make use of the time required to get to the satellite launch coordinates to prepare a speech concerning the Blue Horizon, Sillon and the supernova for broadcasting.
The liftoff from Sillon would be routine, so all non-required personnel were waiting in the launch seats that folded out of the walls in the comfort of their cabins.
Taro had barely given the announcement that movement around the ship after the launch was safe when Maximillian had bounded out of his quarters and headed to the galley. He was excited, although nervous, that he was now completely responsible for feeding the crew of the Blue Horizon from now on. No longer would he be a cabin boy helping out the cook in her kitchen. The kitchen was now his for the next three months, a small fact that thrilled the former slave. It did not occur to him that he would be replacing Sparky, only that he now had a real job and real responsibility as a member of this crew.
He wanted to make a good impression on the captain and his fellow crewmates, so Max immediately started reading through the notes Sparky had left him concerning everyone’s tastes. Everyone had eaten at the Dragon Loft before gathering on board and sealing the hatch, so that would give him some time to prepare for his debut as master of his own kitchen.
Merlin, Tanis, Durant, Taro and Adam Singlebet sat around the galley’s long table and awaited the meal that Max had prepared for them. The other members of the passengers and crew were either on bridge duty, involved in personal projects or asleep according to their own schedules, and would be served later.
No one had any idea what the youth had prepared, but the small group tried hard to mask apprehensive feelings from their faces as Max brought out a large covered dish and set it on the table between their plates. It was plain to see that the young canine was happy to be serving them and Merlin resolved to appreciate the effort no matter what wound up on his plate, even if it were something like the Pinecone Sideways Scruff Beans that Sparky had tried to feed them when supplies had once gotten low.
Beforehand, Taro had informed Adam of the situation with the changing of the ship’s cooks in hopes the musician would not embarrass the boy if anything went wrong. The vixen admitted to him that she was concerned that their evening meal might result in sandwiches and sodas if Max’s efforts were unsuccessful.
Before the dish was uncovered, however, a nice aroma filled the room. Whatever it was smelled good, at least. Max lifted the cover to reveal a browned casserole and he set it aside. He produced a ladle timidly and handed it to the captain.
“If you will do the honors, sir,” he said.
Merlin grinned lopsidedly and waved the ladle at him. “I will, if you promise not to call me Sir.”
“Yes, sir... uh… yes, uncle.” Max grinned and took a step back from the table with a short bow to let the meal begin. All eyes were on the dish when the wolf began to dip out the casserole. One by one, the others handed their plates to the captain and he dolled out a portion to each. Now that the main dish was being served, Max disappeared back into the kitchen to bring out the side dishes he had prepared.
Taro was the first to try a mouthful of the casserole, and after tasting it, she smiled and winked at the youth. “Max,” she said, “this is Sparky’s Tatertot Casserole, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” the young canine admitted. “She suggested that’s what I start out with. It was fairly simple to make and was proven in the past to be liked by the crew.”
“Sounds like it was good advice,” Adam added after sampling the food. “You did a fine job, boy. My compliments.”
Renny yawned and stretched in the bridge’s center seat. He had neglected to bring anything to do or read with him for his watch in the command center and he regretted it. He was bored and wished someone would come to visit him. All the lights on the bridge were turned off so the only illumination in the room came from the instrument panels and the stars beyond the forward windows.
The cheetah got up, moved to the engineering station, and leaned toward the glass. He studied the stars and recognized patterns he had memorized months ago from the star charts of this region. He had to do some mental calculating to account for their position change this far away from the rest of the Planetary Alignment, but he suspected he was fairly accurate in guessing their current location. The Blue Horizon had only departed Sillon a week ago and already he thought he could see a bright, fuzzy spot where SDC-971 used to be, though they were still a fortnight away from it at LightDrive speeds.
The communications panel chirped and Renny started in spite of himself. He had not expected any communication traffic this far out. He moved to the controls, picked up the headset and held it up to one fuzzy ear as he tapped the response button.
“This is the SS Blue Horizon,” he stated. “What can we do for you?” He listened a moment and then grimaced. “Please hold while I get the captain.” The cheetah sighed as he tapped another control.
The panel chirped and Renny opened the connection. “This is Merlin. What is it?” his voice asked.
“Captain, we just got hailed by the Savannah Hunter,” he said distastefully. “Armando wants to speak with you.”
“Armando! How in blazes did you get a signal from Armando Jensen way out here?”
“I didn’t ask. Want me to pipe him down there?”
“No, not here. I don’t want his voice to ruin everyone’s meal. I’ll be on the bridge in a moment.”
“Aye,” Renny acknowledged. He reconnected to the previous signal and then said into the microphone, “Captain Sinclair will be on the bridge in a moment.”
Merlin came in through the door fully five minutes later, obviously having taken his time. “It’s at times like this when I’m glad we don’t have visual communication,” he muttered to the cheetah, a deep frown on his face. Renny returned to the center seat as the captain put the signal on the bridge speakers.
“Armando,” he said tonelessly. “What can I do to you?”
“Sinclair, ol’ pal,” the lion’s gruff voice sounded from the speakers, “I’m actually pleased to hear your voice!”
“Indeed?” Merlin replied with a fixed stare out into space.
“How was your visit to Sillon? Our instruments show it’s still there, despite the disaster everyone else believes took it out.”
“Armando,” Merlin said with an internal sigh, “we broadcasted a message to INN just before we reached SDC-971. The Planetary Alignment already knows that BAE-6410 was not the red giant star that exploded, but that we were continuing on just to make sure.”
“Humph, then you mean my own mission of mercy wasn’t needed?” the lion sounded perturbed. “I never heard the news. Are you sure INN received your message?”
Without answering, Merlin tapped out commands on the main computer console and recalled the last broadcast transmission they received from Holly.
“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. 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.”
“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.”
“I had actually forgotten that you were on your way out here,” Merlin said dryly. “Now that you know Sillon’s still there, you can probably get in a good vacation before you turn around and head back.”
“So what am I supposed to do with all my relief supplies?” Armando asked in an indignant voice. “What did you do with all of yours?”
Merlin kept his eyes focused on the stars outside the forward windows. “Relief supplies? Our cargo was donated to supply us on the trip out and back. We’ll have used it all up by the time we get back to our next port. Fortunately, it wasn’t a wasted trip. The Silloni government has hired us to do a job for them on the way back.”
“What job is that?” the lion asked suspiciously.
“That’s our business,” Sinclair replied, “and is not your concern.” Before his competitor could respond, the wolf recalled the last statement in Holly’s broadcast. “We had the backing of a thousand donations to pay for our trip. Who’s footing the bill for your voyage?”
“Uh, that’s not your concern, either,” Armando answered in a subdued voice.
“Probably pilfered from the stores of the Intergalactic Aid Foundation that were meant for Brandt,” Renny said to his captain, not really caring if the microphone picked up his comment.
“Well, Armando,” Merlin said with a smirk toward his navigator, “since you were doing a noble thing, I will not inquire further into your business with Sillon. Enjoy your vacation.”
“Now, listen, Sinclair. You and I have been competitors, but we were both making a historic voyage to help out a sister planet all thought was lost. There’s no need for sarcastic…”
“A historic voyage, eh?” Merlin cut in. “So that’s your plan, to grab some of the glory of an honorable mission to a planet in need. Armando, Sillon was never in any danger, so once we transmit our report that everything is where it should be, this whole thing will be filed as another routine mission and everyone will forget about the Blue Horizon and the Savannah Hunter’s voyages. We’re not heroes, pal. Just freightliners.”
“Probably right,” Armando said in his earlier subdued tone. “Now I gotta figure out what to do with these supplies. We’ve had our own, but we’re getting low. I suppose we could do what you did and use what we need from them.”
“As you said,” Merlin concluded with a smile, “that’s not our concern. Enjoy your vacation.” With the flourish, the wolf punched the button to disconnect the communication.”
“So, what do we do now?” Renny asked.
Merlin headed for the door. “Back to what we were doing before he called.”
“Could you have Taro bring something for me to eat?” Renny asked as he realized he was going back to boredom. “I’m hungry.”
“I’ll give her your request.”
Two days later, Maximillian sat on the bunk in his room, his knees drawn up under his chin and his arms wrapped around his legs as he listened to a recording of DWT’s music. He had spent a lot of his free time with Carsen Vetter, who had taken it upon himself to teach the youth a little about music. Having never married, Vetter made it his business to help any young person he could find. However, Merlin had forbidden him that morning to visit the rec deck where the band stayed until after the satellite had been deployed sometime the next day. The captain had not given him a reason and Max was a little upset over the issue.
Preparing food for the entire crew had turned out to be a larger job than he had anticipated and he had spent more time in the kitchen than he liked. He did not have much free time anymore and he wanted to spend it with the famous band. Samantha had also postponed his tutoring until after the satellite’s deployment, so what little free time he did have was now spent bored in his room. He could put on a video from several he’d brought from Sillon, but didn’t feel like watching anything alone.
He glanced over at his desk and noted the time. He would have to head back to the kitchen to prepare more food in a bit and he discovered that he was not overly enthused about it. He stood up next to the bed and reached for his apron that lay across the computer chair. He smiled faintly as he glanced at the cartoon figure of a canine holding a fork and a knife in its paws with its tongue hanging out the side of its mouth. Sparky had purchased it on Dennier and had gifted it to him when he had started helping her in the kitchen. He missed the lynx already and wished she were here to cheer him up as she had done on numerous occasions.
Maximillian had spent most of his life as a slave, but the crew of the Blue Horizon had been courteous enough never to mention his past unless he did so first. In fact, it almost seemed they had forgotten it and treated him like another longtime crewmember. However, he still had strong memories of the way Weller Tagon had treated him and while he looked fine on the outside, he still had a difficult time adjusting to life as a free spirit.
The youth heaved a sigh and donned the apron. While he was still tying the back strings, someone knocked on his cabin door.
“C’mon in,” he said in a slightly raised voice.
The door slid aside and he glanced up into the green eyes of Carsen Vetter. “Hey, kiddo,” the tiger said with a smile, “why haven’t you come to visit with me today?”
The lighthearted expression that had spread across the youth’s face when the musician appeared evaporated instantly. “Uncle Merlin told me not to bother you anymore,” Max replied in a quiet voice. “He didn’t say why.”
Carsen stepped into the room and put a hand on the canine’s shoulder. “Well, it isn’t a bother if you join me at my own request, is it?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“In that case, Max, will you join me on the Recreational Deck?”
The young cook looked up at the tiger and cracked a grin. “Yes, I would like that.”
“Do one favor for me?”
“Ditch the apron. You won’t need it for a while.”
“But, it’s almost time for me –”
“Lose the apron, bud.”
Maximillian hesitated only a moment before he pulled the apron up over his head and tossed it on the bed without bothering to untie the strings.
“That’s better,” the tiger replied. “Now come with me, I have something special I want to show you.”
Max followed the musician from his room and skirted around the curved corridor to the lift. “What is it you want to show me?” he asked his friend.
The tiger looked over at him as they entered the lift. He punched the button for the third deck and said, “You’ll know what it is as soon as we get there.”
Max looked at him with a smirk. “You are being awfully—” he struggled to find the right word, “—vague.”
“That’s the point.”
In a rare moment of uncharacteristic boldness, Maximillian twitched his tail and looked the tiger directly in the eyes. He raised a pointed finger and opened his mouth to speak. “Don’t even—” He never got to finish his statement, because when the lift door slid aside, he was assaulted with a barrage of sound and bright lights.
“SURPRISE!” shouted a gathered crowd.
Max froze where he stood, his mouth open, his eyes wide and finger still pointing. Carsen grinned widely and pushed the youth out of the lift and into the room before the doors closed again.
The room was decorated with streamers and balloons that Samantha had picked up on Sillon, recorded music was playing in the background and a table to the side held several brightly wrapped packages and a traditional cake with candles.
Taro handed her drink to Renny and rushed forward to wrap her arms around the canine. “Happy birthday, Max,” she said merrily. She gave him a quick lick on the cheek and then stepped back. Max stared at the crew and passengers of the Blue Horizon as he felt the blood rush to his face. Everyone was there except for Patch, who was probably on bridge duty.
“Birth… birthday?” he asked with emotion.
“That’s right,” Samantha said with her own wide grin. “We’re celebrating your sixteenth birthday!”
“He’s practically an adult!” Pockets said as he moved forward and grabbed the canine’s hand to pump it in a tight handshake.
Merlin crossed his arms and said with a chuckle, “Not quite legal, but he’s getting there.”
“Isn’t seventeen the legal age on Dennier?” Renny asked.
“Yeah, but he’s not there yet.”
“Congratulations, Max!” Durant said as he handed him a glass of punch.
There were several more expressions from others to mark the occasion, but through it all, Maximillian stayed strangely quiet. Tanis noticed this and drew the youth further into the room gently by the arm.
“Come on in, Max,” he said. “Ya have some packages to open to commemorate yer big day!”
Everyone became quiet as Max reached out for a package, but then drew his hand back. He looked around him at the faces of his friends and said, “I… I don’t know what to say. I’ve never had a birthday party before.”
“Never?” Durant asked.
“No… no one cares about a slave’s birthday,” Max said quietly.
Adam leaned on the boy’s shoulder with his elbow and lightly butted his head up against Max’s temple. “Ah, but you’re not a slave anymore, free-Max,” the keyboardist said. “You have plenty of folks who care a great deal about you, so lighten up and enjoy it. This celebration is for you!”
The young cook looked up at him with the hint of a smile as he realized the meaning of Adam’s words. Tanis gently poked him in the ribs and said, “Yer now one of us, Max-o, and everyone’s attention is on ya today, so enjoy yerself.”
Max looked around the gathered crowd and smiled with moist, pale blue eyes. “Thank you,” he said with genuine emotion.
Samantha stood next to the table of goodies and lit a metal match. “Come over here, Max. We have a tradition for you to perform.” Curious, the young canine walked to the table as she lit several candles embedded into the top of a chocolate cake. Written across the cake in blue icing were the words, Happy Birthday Max.
Briefly, he wondered how Sam had made a cake without him knowing about it, as he had been in the kitchen so much since leaving Sillon, but he dismissed the thought as he began to realize just how much his life had changed since the Blue Horizon had landed on Quet. His throat tightened up when the rest of the crowd gathered in around him.
“Okay, Max,” Sam told him as she stepped back, “lean forward and blow out the candles.”
“But, you just lit them.”
The Border collie smiled. “Yes, but when you blow them out, make a silent wish and if you get them all blown out with one breath, word has it your wish will come true.”
“Okay,” Max said, his tail wagging behind him, “I wish for…”
“No!” Taro interrupted, “You’re not supposed to tell anyone what you wish for or it won’t come true.”
Max grinned. “Okay, then… stand back.” His ears flattened against his head as he took a long intake of breath.
“You only have to blow out the candles, kid,” Brand remarked with a deep chuckle, “not blow the cake off the table!”
Max lost his breath and started laughing, everyone else laughing with him. He grinned at the drummer and started to take in another breath, but lost it once more in laughter when the dragon winked at him.
It took him several tries just to take in a lungful of air, but when the canine was finally ready, he was successful in blowing out all the candles in one try. His gathered friends applauded heartily.
Merlin moved to the boy’s side as Samantha began cutting the cake into pieces. “Max,” he said, “congratulations and happy birthday. As everyone else on my crew knows, you get an extra hundred credits added to your account on your birthday.”
“Wow, thanks Uncle Merlin!”
Tanis picked up a package from the table and handed it to the birthday boy. “These gifts are for ya,” he said. “Go ahead and open ‘em up.”
“Music is a form of expression,” Brand Arkram said later to the small crowd once the party had finally wound down, “and in order for it to be effective, you need have something to express. Going into a job like this to make money or gain fame is fakery and the audiences will sense it immediately. If you are going to do something, you have to do it for the love of whatever it is because your happiness is your life’s goal. Others’ approval will not add one micron to your time or joy if you are doing something you don’t like.”
Carsen nodded. “Adam and Brand didn’t get married for social obligation or because they wanted sex. They got married because the women had qualities that would enrich their lives, enhance their pleasure. Our friendship is based on the same principle, that we increase each other’s happiness. I’m not married because I haven’t found that woman yet.”
Adam snickered. “They haven’t made women like what he wants in anything but marble.”
The tiger blithely ignored the keyboardist and waved dismissively, “I got tired of watching music vid shows where the aging rock stars retold how they blew all their cash on women and drugs and booze, and I decided that was not going to be me. Keeping ourselves grounded has been a very big part of how this group works together and keeps on working together. The entertainment industry is not as big as all the hype makes it out to be, really. It’s only a couple of thousand people specifically working on this stuff and others occasionally come in to help out. For instance, read the labels on all the music discs you have and see how many recurring names appear. Producers, songwriters, session musicians… the pool gets smaller the more titles you read. This is a business and we treat it as such.”
Carsen stretched and yawned, but continued his thoughts. “The biggest problem is not the competition, it’s the media. Critics are ninety-five percent failed artists. There are three things they are going to say about you and you had better be ready for them. They are going to say you are gay, you’re on drugs and that you’re in financial dire straits. See it coming and have a rejoinder for it in advance. You don’t have to prove anything to them because their opinion means nothing. Opinions are like armpits; everybody has them and they all usually stink.”
Samantha grinned and asked, “Did you get into the business merely for the business of it?”
Carsen shook his head. “There are different reasons to go into the biz, but music incorporates aspects of so many things necessary in life: mathematics, science, art and physical discipline... the benefits of studying and learning music far outweigh anything else you could teach a child.” He glanced down at Maximillian, who was seated at the collie’s feet and added, “Max started out with a deficit and must now run to catch up with his contemporaries. Compacting several things into a single course of study will give him a foot up he’ll need if he’s going to survive.”
“What about your touring?” Renny asked, changing the direction of the conversation. “Anything memorable?”
The tiger snickered and replied, “Barcelona, on Earth.” As one, Brand and Adam groaned. Carsen shrugged and plodded on. “Our tour manager had set up a pyrotechnics spectacle for the big finish of the show. At each side of the stage they had set up these cannons…”
“Real cannons,” Adam added.
“Yeah, real cannons,” Carson continued, “but they didn’t have cannonball in them, of course, just the charge. During rehearsals, the roadies set them off and blam! They went off all right, so Adam and I were supposed to set these off one right after the other at the end; beautiful show, right?”
“Later on in the show, however…” Brand growled.
The tiger smiled. “I finished up with the last bit of the finale and touched mine off. Suddenly there was this whoom! and this cannon, I swear to you, left the ground and sailed twenty feet up into the air. Sent light fixtures and guitars flying everywhere!”
Adam leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “What the guys had done, by mistake,” he said, “was that they had doubled the amount of charge in the cannons. So when these things took off they went off like Terran Roman candles.”
“Luckily, the audience still thought it was part of the show,” Brand said with a deep chuckle.
Adam smiled. “Of course, I saw all this happen to Carsen and I gritted my teeth...” Taro looked sideways at the tiger, who started giggling. “…because I still had mine to go!” The wolf laughed and sat back in his chair. “So I thought, bear and grin it, and I set this thing off and whoom! Up this thing goes in fire and brimstone. Utter mess of things!”
“And that was only the first night,” Brand said.
“Oh yeah . . .” Carsen added.
The drummer took his turn at the story and said, “The next night we told Marconi, ‘No cannons!’ He said okay, but having a flair for the dramatic, he talked us into a fireworks show instead. We said okay to that. At the end of the show, the next night… out of nowhere sails this rocket, whoosh! between Carsen’s legs! Scared him half to death, and then another thing comes screaming out from behind the gong, grazes the eighteen-inch, bounces off and goes spiraling into the audience.”
Adam shook his head. “It seems that what Marconi had done was to erect a vertical display with all these fireworks side-by-side on it and the thing fell over from the vibration of Brand’s thundering drums just as we were finishing. It sent all the fireworks sailing through the stage and into the audience. It was a miracle that nobody was hurt!”
“We changed tour managers after that,” Adam and Carsen said in unison.
“Setting the stage and the players on fire,” Brand replied, “is not the best way to promote yourself.”
“Although it is fun at parties,” Carsen finished with a mischievous grin.
Ten-year-old Taro Nichols stretched beneath a palm in the warm afternoon, her best friend by her side. The two girls lay bare in their fur in the warmth of the Hestran sun, their languid bodies drying from a taxing swim in the local lake. This was their secret place, where they could lose what few social inhibitions they had and not worry about prying eyes. On an island ringed by sharp rocks that only the best swimmers dared navigate, it was a hideout where the girls could escape for a while. The long summer day had been fulfilling; catching bugs, torturing their little brothers, and beating the snot out of a local ball team before taking a swim in the lake where kids always furry-dipped against their parents’ warnings. She looked at her friend as the other combed fingers through her scalp hair.
“You know,” Taro sing-songed, “when I grow up I’m going to have a house and lots of kids and a big, strong guy with lots of money.” Her friend smiled gently, her vulpine eyes taking in the sparkling water that stretched out before them. “What will you do?” Taro asked.
Her friend stopped, considered it for a moment, and replied matter-of-factly, “I’m going to rule the world.”
Taro was taken aback, and smirked. “Yeah, right!” Her friend returned her amity with a small smile of her own.
It was on that day that each had made a solemn vow that no matter what, she would do all she could to make the other’s dream come true. Taro thought it was a safe bet. For her, the world was one long, glorious summer afternoon with no cares and no responsibilities. Hers was a world that could be taken for granted.
Thirty-eight-year-old Taro Nichols opened her eyes. Her room was dark and the body next to her was warm. She rolled over on her side, curled up next to Renny, and listened to his soft snoring. She mused briefly on her dream and wondered why such thoughts of the past came unbidden after so many years. Taro’s youthful aspirations for the future had changed over time. She was no longer concerned with raising a family, choosing instead to live as she wanted out among the stars, but there were times she did miss a real home life. She considered her childhood friend and wondered where her life was currently headed.
“Keep the thrusters at station-keeping,” said Merlin’s voice from the bridge speakers. There was a metallic resonance behind the signal that gave the scene an eerie feel. “Despite what Sir Hirotaka told us about the ease of deploying his satellite, this thing has a lot of mass behind it and I don’t want even the slightest jolt to fling it out of our reach.”
“Aye, Captain,” Taro replied as she kept her eyes on the readouts. Max had his face pressed up close to the port side window, trying to see any movement below.
Down in the hold, Durant and Patch watched the proceedings from the airtight booth of the load master’s office. The bay door was open completely, the gravity deck plates turned off, and four suited figures hovered near the huge bulk of the spherical relay satellite as they slowly guided it out toward free space.
The thrusters of Merlin and Renny’s pressure suits puffed in tiny jets as they maneuvered the leading edge of their cargo toward the opening. Trailing the satellite were Samantha and Tanis, as they made sure the upper and lower curves of the large orb were clear as it neared the bay door opening. It was quite a chore to keep it moving straight and also to keep delicate pressure suits away from the sharp antenna points.
“Okay, we’re clear on the topside,” Samantha reported as the upper curve of the satellite passed out into space.
“Same thing down under,” Tanis added. “Yer free to move it out into position.”
“Aye,” Merlin replied. He gave a silent wave to Renny, who acknowledged with a wave of his own, and both upped the thrust on their suits, their tail pouches trailing behind them like banners. There was a moment’s hesitation as the mass of the sphere gathered momentum, and then it sped away from the stationary Blue Horizon. Three hundred meters from the ship, Merlin and Renny circumnavigated the orb and reversed their thruster direction to begin slowing the satellite.
“You are in position now, Captain,” Taro reported. “Let me know when you are both clear and I’ll activate the satellite’s automatic maneuvering system.”
“I’m free and clear now,” Renny said.
“So am I,” Merlin replied. “Go ahead and activate it, Taro.”
The huge satellite drifted another twenty meters further before Merlin and Renny saw a series of green fire jetting from positioning thrusters all around its curved surface. The large orb braked to a halt and suddenly a myriad of spiny antennae telescoped out from hidden openings. The satellite then began turning slowly as it searched for the invisible communication net of the Planetary Alignment.
“Signal from Sillon has been locked in,” Taro reported a moment later.
“Okay, we’re coming back in,” Merlin told her. As he and Renny fired their thrusters to return to their vessel, the lupine captain turned his head inside his helmet and looked toward a fiery nebula of red, white, yellow and orange in the distance – the remains of SDC-971, the reason for their long journey to and from Sillon. He frowned and sighed, glad to have the satellite taking up its position. It would allow the distant world to resume communication with the Planetary Alignment it belonged to, and life could then return to normal. Merlin would be glad to be on their way. By the time the Blue Horizon made it back to Kantus, over half a standard year would have passed since they left Dennier on the investigative mission.
“Signal from the Planetary Alignment StellarNet has been located and is locking in,” Taro said with a cheery voice. “ComNet has just locked in as well. The relay satellite is stationary in its position and working according to design. The prerecorded Silloni government message is broadcasting now.”
“Good,” Merlin replied. “Renny and I are nearing the cargo bay now and I see that Tanis and Sam are already inside. Once Durant has the doors closed and sealed, resume our course to Kantus at standard cruising speed. Renny has already entered the adjusted coordinates into the navigational computer.”
“Aye, sir. Preparing to get under way now.”
The intercom always seemed to chirp at inconvenient times, Merlin had always thought to himself. The lupine captain had his feet tucked underneath his bunk to steady himself as he went through his daily set of exercises. With the rec deck occupied by their passengers, he had had to relegate his routine to his quarters.
With a snort at being interrupted, Merlin crawled upon his knees and tapped the response button on his cabin terminal. “Yes, what is it?”
“Sorry to bother ya, Captain,” Tanis’ voice erupted from the speaker, “but ya wanted to know when we could pick up INN’s news broadcast.”
“Ah, okay,” the wolf replied. “Since we’ve been without news for four months, put the broadcast on ship-wide speakers.”
“Hello, listeners, this is News Around the Alignment and I’m Holly Harken of the Interplanetary News Network. First today is an update of the unrest on Nalirra since the ruling government split into two feuding factions over military exercises. General Duular of Kardon announced today that he would not support Sed Amittias’ new law on lowering the draft age in order to increase military strength for a new conflict with sister world Oe’Tanata, and has promised to pull his own troops out of the imperial army unless the new law is rescinded. The dictator Amittias has not responded to Duular’s public announcement and tension is growing among the civilian population.
“And on the heavy-gravity planet of Hestra, the previously unknown affliction that hit a community in the Taq Mountains of the Arellanes Prefecture two days ago is spreading. Medical officials in Taquit, a small remote town with a population of just under three thousand, have reported that at least eighteen people have fallen victim to something that has turned into a horrible nightmare. The cause of these sicknesses has not yet been discovered, but a high-level virus is suspect. The effects have been quite ghastly. The reports show that symptoms begin similar to a common flu, with fever, chills, sore throat and coughing. From there, however, the changes begin. The afflicted have complained that the nerve endings of the skin become super-sensitive, where the gentlest touch is extremely painful.”
Holly’s voice paused for a moment and her hard swallow could actually be heard over the broadcast. “As the condition advances, the patient’s eyes have turned crimson, a sign of internal bleeding that quickly advances to other orifices, such as the eyes, nose, ears, mouth and… others. Most of the patients have reached this stage as the area doctors race to contain this outbreak.”
In the galley, Durant jumped at the sound of breaking dishes in the kitchen. He put down the chopsticks he was using and looked over his shoulder at the vixen, who wore an expression of horror. She gripped the kitchen counter so hard that it was leaving creases in the metal and she looked as if she might be near fainting.
“What is it, Taro?” he asked as he pushed his chair back away from the table. “Do you know someone in that town?”
The fox moved her mouth two or three times before she could speak and finally raised both hands to her face. “That’s my — my hometown, Durant,” she said in a shaky voice. She looked as if she was near fainting. “My family lives there...”
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Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.