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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 2

— Episode 12

"Life's a Beach"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

When Samantha woke up that morning, she felt fairly chipper for the first time since the crash of the Blue Horizon six weeks earlier. A lot of her mood had to do with the sunlight streaming in through the cracks of the curtains of her room that fell across her bed and warmed her fur. The weather of the past week had been foggy with misting rain and generally gloomy. The spirits of the crew had been understandably low, despite the therapy they had all undergone. Most of them had sustained injuries in the crash on Crescentis, and with the loss of their ship and their livelihood, everyone had been perpetually bored, edgy and depressed.

Samantha was one of the lucky ones of the crew. Strapped to the command chair on the bridge during the crash, she had received little more than bumps and bruises garnered from loose debris that had pelted her. Likewise, Pockets, Max and Tanis had come through the event with minimal injuries, but everyone else had been hospitalized for a while.

The Border collie stretched her arms and allowed herself to smile at the sunlight. She had dreamt of flowered fields, snowcapped mountains and a sunny beach during the night, and seeing the morning sunbeams in a clear blue-green sky warmed her soul as much as the air.

She slipped out of the bed and put on a pair of denim shorts and a long white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, instead of the colorful and lightweight body-covering robes that were the common dress in this part of the world.

She grabbed a grooming brush from the nightstand and began to run it over her fur as she moved to the window. With one hand, she pushed the curtains aside and bathed the entire room in bright sunlight.

Her room was on the seventh floor of the building the Tanthean government had allowed them to stay in during their recuperation on Pomen and her room window faced the nearby Karin Sea. Samantha tilted her head to the right at a sudden thought. She glanced at the nightstand clock and nodded silently to herself. 

*** 

Merlin listened to Samantha’s suggestions and lapped his coffee with a frown. He sat upright in his bed against the headboard, a breakfast tray across his lap and a pot of fresh coffee on the nightstand beside him. The Border collie had come to his room in brighter spirits than he had seen of his crew during the past few weeks, and she had gone straight to his curtains to pull them aside. The wolf had been awake, but had not yet crawled out of bed. His ribs were still tender despite weeks of healing, which made him reluctant to get out and do anything. He thought Sam’s idea was a good one, but doubted anyone would agree.

“We’ve been doing nothing more than moping around since the crash,” the Border collie said. “Everyone’s depressed and nobody even talks to anyone else anymore. We need to get away from our rooms for a day.”

“It’s not likely our doctors will allow an excursion, Sam,” the lupine captain replied. “My ribs are still sore, and Renny and Patch are still wearing casts.”

“Merlin,” the supply officer said, “I’ve already talked to our doctors this morning and they have all agreed that a day outside will help us all, providing we don’t overdo it.”

The wolf grunted and looked at her over the edge of his coffee cup, his expression unconvinced.

“Listen, Merlin,” Samantha continued, “there is a sandy beach only five miles from here. The Karin Sea is a body of fresh water, so we won’t have to worry about saltwater bothering us. We need to get out of these rooms,” she repeated, “even if for a day! For those who want to wear them, I’ve already found a nearby shop with swimwear for different species at discount prices that I’m willing to cover out of my own pocket.”

The captain sighed and then allowed her to see a smile of defeat. “Okay, Sam, you win,” he said. “Go tell the others what you have planned for them, but I have a feeling you’ll get some opposition.”   

*** 

An hour later, Samantha stood before Merlin, her expression downcast and angry. “Max, Tanis and Pockets are the only ones who agreed going to the beach was a good idea,” she said to him. The lupine captain was dressed solely in a pair of blue shorts and he had been trying to exercise on the floor of his room, as much as his sore ribs would allow. He looked up at her and tilted his head.

“Sam,” he said quietly, “you four are the only ones who were not badly injured in the crash. If you want to go, you’re all free to spend the day at the beach together.”

The supply officer shook her head. “That defeats the purpose of the plan, Captain,” she said. “Everybody in our crew has been depressed and sullen.  Everybody, especially the injured, needs to get outdoors for some fresh air and a change of scenery. Amy agrees we need psychological healing, as well as physical.”

“Yes, our counselor would say that,” Merlin replied. He bit his bottom lip in resignation and then sighed. “All right, Sam.  Tell everyone that it is an order from the captain that we will spend today at the beach as part of our psychological healing. It doesn’t matter to me if they want to just sit under an umbrella and sulk all day, but everyone is going.  I’m appointing you coordinator on this, Sam,” he said. “Arrange for transportation, food, drinks, swimwear and beach towels.  If anyone gives you guff over it, send them to me.”

Samantha grinned and gave him a crisp military salute. “Yes, sir!”   

*** 

As expected, Merlin was besieged with complaints from his crew, but the wolf had since talked with their counselor Dr. Howard, who reaffirmed his recommendation for the outing. The captain stuck to his command and in the end, everyone found themselves at the Reynard Beach on the sandy shore of the Kirin Sea.

Samantha was pleased, despite the grumbling. She set out blankets on the white sand and put up a few large umbrellas while Max and Tanis hauled coolers of food and drink from their rented vehicle. Patch had complained the loudest when told Merlin had ordered everyone to the beach, but he was the first one to settle in a lounge chair beneath an umbrella once they were set up. He chose a chair with arms so he could rest his left arm cast on it. He brought with him a slateboard containing engineering trade magazines with the intent to read them thoroughly while there. He also brought along a shirt pocket full of his favorite cigars, which he began to smoke in open spite of the others’ protests.

Almost immediately, Pockets headed for the water and began swimming to exercise tired muscles. Despite his short arms, the raccoon was able to swim well. Tanis joined him a few moments later and soon the two were splashing one another in fun.

Renny spread out on another blanket with his leg cast extended in front of him. He wore a pair of tight black shorts and a pair of dark sunglasses as he lay back in the warm sun. Of all the crew members of the late Blue Horizon, the cheetah was probably the most depressed. He brooded about everything he could think of. Being the athletic-type, Renny was confounded by the crushed foot that had to be rebuilt and his inability to get around very well with it bound up in a synplast cast up to his knee. The fight with Sagan had been traumatic, as he had never been involved in such a fight before, especially with an opponent who was so obviously deranged. He still had dreams about the cold green eyes and the crazed look in them, and he had jumped out of a deep sleep on more than one occasion panting himself dry.

Probably the one thing that kept him down more than any other was the loss of Taro Nichols. She had been taken from the crash site by the Lady of Dreams, supposedly to private physicians here on Pomen, but there had been no word of any kind as to her fate. Was Taro alive, or did she perish from the evisceration she had received from Sagan? When the cheetah had first come on board the Blue Horizon as the new navigator, she was the first to welcome him warmly, and the two of them felt an immediate attraction.  He had been inexperienced with women before Taro, but she had long since given him the experience and confidence he had needed.

It was well known that Taro never played favorites, and that she had no intentions of getting involved in a serious commitment, but that was not so for Renny. He believed he had actually fallen in love with the vixen, and anytime she paired off together with Tanis, he felt jealous, even if he was fully aware that he did not have exclusive rights to her.

He missed her terribly, and the worry of not knowing her fate gnawed at his mind constantly. No matter what anyone said or did for him, he sustained a glum demeanor. Dr. Howard was concerned for him. She knew that cheetahs often formed close bonds; it might take a while for Renny to get used to the idea that Taro might not return.

Maximillian was intrigued by the beach. The only other beach he had ever seen was on Dennier, next to his adopted Aunt Shannon’s house. He and Pockets had goofed off together there, but this time the young canine was more interested in the other beach-goers that he was watching with a silly grin.

Durant stepped up next to the youth and put his arm around Max’s shoulders. “What are you looking at so intently?” the bear asked with a knowing smile.

“The girls...” Max replied in a faraway tone.

Durant pulled a cold drink from the cooler at his feet and replied, “I thought you saw plenty of women at The Wild Star back on Quet.”

Max looked up at him with a frown. “Yeah, Master Tagon made more money from the pleasure rooms than he did from the restaurant, and I saw a lot of women there,” he said, “but I was younger and never saw them like this.” He grinned and nodded toward a nearby volleyball game where the contestants were mostly canine females. None were wearing the standard robes of the populace, but in the beach setting they were all wearing little more than skimpy shorts. It was quite a difference.

“They look a lot nicer to me now, murmured the youth.

“Ever kiss a girl?” the grizzly asked as he settled into a beach chair that barely supported his bulk. He hadn’t said it to tease the young canine, just merely curious.

The first thing that came to Max’s mind was the brief kiss he had given Samantha on the Blue Horizon as it was about to crash. He felt his skin flush beneath his face fur and had to force his tail to remain still, but he shook his head. “No,” he replied. “Not really.”

“Be patient, Max. It’ll happen.”

The sixteen-year-old canine nodded silently, but asked, “Do you think they would mind if I went over there and watched them play?”

Durant took a pull on the straw in his drink and then gestured toward the volleyball game with his soda can. “If you don’t stare too hard at the ladies, it’ll probably be okay. If they see you gawking, they may take offense.”

“I’ll remember that.”

From his place on another nearby blanket, Merlin had listened to the exchange between Durant and Max with a frown, but as the teen wandered off toward the volleyball game, he allowed himself a smile as he considered what the youngster must be feeling. Samantha must have been thinking along similar lines, as she sat down next to him and said, “Our little Max is growing up, isn’t he?”

The wolf glanced up at her and nodded. “Sooner than I expected. I keep thinking of him as a kid.”

“Well, you’re his uncle now,” Samantha replied with a smile. “You’re supposed to think of him that way, even if he’s almost an adult.”

“Oh, no! What happened?”

Merlin and Samantha looked up at the new voice and saw two female cats approach Renny. Like the volleyball players, they were dressed only in the barest of shorts and had plenty of lovely fur to expose, even while their chest fur provided plenty of coverage.  One was a black cat with white on her arms, legs and belly. The other was a golden cougar and both where kneeling next to the Blue Horizon’s navigator.

Renny didn’t feel like entertaining guests, but he had never been one to be rude to anyone. He tried to act disinterested so they might go away, but soon found himself telling them of the fate of their ship instead

“You mean,” said the mountain lioness, “it was the Sagan?  The one who murdered all those poor foxes on Hestra?”

“Yeah,” Renny said with a scowl. “That’s the guy.”

The black and white cat moved closer and sat on the blanket beside the cheetah’s lounge chair. “That’s terrible,” she said.  She put a hand on her bosom and introduced herself. “My name is Tina.”

“And I’m Marelle,” the cougar said, kneeling on the blanket at Renny’s other side. “Tell us more?”

The navigator looked from one to another and sighed inwardly. It didn’t look as if he was going to be left alone, but at least the scenery was nice to look at. They were both near in age to himself. “My name is Renny,” he said. “Anyway, there we were, outgunned by a pirate ship that could out-maneuver us...”   

*** 

“Hey, would ya look at that?” Tanis said as he swam up beside Pockets. He pointed briefly toward the beach and the raccoon followed his gaze. “Renny’s attracted beach kitties!”

Pockets snorted water from his nose and replied, “If that doesn’t cheer him up, then he actually died in the crash!”

Tanis looked over at the mechanic’s grin. “That would definitely cheer me up!” he said with his own smile.

“Me, too...” the raccoon agreed.  “Now if we could just find a way to cheer up my brother.  He’s such a hothead!”

Tanis looked over at his companion and snickered. “I doubt there’s anything we can do to cheer him up, but I know how to cool him down.”  

*** 

For an afternoon where he had really done nothing at all, Max was having fun. He had spent time watching a volleyball game of bouncing girls until they left to have a cookout elsewhere on the beach. He had never learned to swim so he stayed away from the water, though he did enjoy walking along the sand where the waves lapped up over his bare feet.

He watched others swim and frolic in the sea and children build castles in the sand.  There were other games he witnessed that he could not make sense of, but the participants were obviously having fun. He felt alive and enjoyed the scents and sights he experienced. This was nothing like the beach he had visited on Dennier. There, the shore had little sand and an abundance of rocks and shells that hurt his feet. Here, the white sand was soft, though hot in the sun, and he enjoyed digging his toes into the cool moisture beneath the heated surface.

Maximillian had been with the Blue Horizon eight months and he still found it hard to think of himself as a free spirit. Practically everyone on the ship had tried to make him feel like one of the crew, but there were times he still acted and thought like a slave. He knew it was no longer necessary, but fifteen years of slavery was a strong force of habit to break. Still, he enjoyed the knowledge that if he wanted to go walking along the beach on his own, he was free to do so without having to beg to do it.

The canine youth stopped and picked up a flat rock he found in the sand. He remembered something Pockets had shown him on Dennier and positioned the stone in his hand a certain way.  He flung the rock toward the water with the intent to make it skip on the surface, but it only plunked into a wave. It would take more practice and he started looking around for more flat rocks.

In his search, Max no longer watched where he was going and wandered away from the water up the shore. He could hear more laughter nearby, but he didn’t bother to look up until he saw a large shadow bear down on him; he was suddenly bowled over when a striped body ran into him.

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” a deep voice rumbled in his ear. Max lifted his head up from the sand dune he had been mashed into and saw the large Bengal tiger who had knocked him over. The muscular male reached down and helped pull him to his feet by a strong grip on his arms. “Are you okay, son?” he asked.

Max brushed sand out of his face fur and sputtered the grit off his lips. “I think so,” he said with a gasp.

“My apologies,” the tiger said. “I was chasing my daughter’s beach ball and I’m afraid I didn’t see you in time.”

“Dad!” Max looked behind the tiger and saw a diminutive female running up to them. “Is he all right?”

The canine grinned at her and shook more sand out of his large ears. He remembered what Tanis had told him about taking things lightly and replied, “He tried to bury me, but I think I’ll live.”

Both tigers chuckled at his smile and the larger one put his arm around his shoulders. “This is my daughter, Wendy, and I’m Dr. Bengoro. Would you like a soda to rinse the grit out of your teeth, son?”

“Sure,” Max replied. “I’d like that.”  

*** 

Patch felt drowsy and his eyelids were heavy. He had been reading engineering articles for a while and was engrossed in an article concerning one of Earth’s deep-space exploration vessels that had just returned from its maiden voyage. The article had interested him, but sitting still on the warm beach made him lethargic. He lost the will to fight it any longer and set his slateboard aside, intent on a nap.

Had he been more alert, Patch might have detected two figures sneaking up behind him. The chief engineer settled back into his chair and closed his eyes.

Pockets hung back as his companion tip-toed through the hot sand toward his brother. He had argued against the prank on his sibling, but the desert fox was determined to do it anyway. It might be the only chance he ever had at something like this.

Arktanis stopped just behind Patch and lifted a child’s plastic bucket up high, almost to the edge of the umbrella that shaded the raccoon. A solitary drop of water preceded the rest by a couple of seconds, and it was just enough to make Patch open his eyes. He caught a glimpse of Tanis just before his face was dowsed with large sploosh!

Patch coughed, sputtered and fell out of his chair as the desert fox took off across the sand, laughing and giggling. Pockets headed in the opposite direction as so not to be blamed by association. Patch wove a tapestry of obscenity that rivaled the fine arts of the Greco-Roman masters as he glared at the retreating backside of Tanis. He was soaked and the sand that had been tracked on his blanket now stuck to him.  He waved a clenched fist at the fox and added more profanity in his direction alternating in several languages.  

*** 

Maximillian sat with his legs crossed on the blanket of Alan and Tess Bengoro, quietly lapping a peach-flavored soda. Wendy sat beside him and idly chatted about their present vacation. Her father was a surgeon, her mother a botanist and Reynard Beach was a favorite spot of theirs to vacation. They lived further south in a tropical zone, though there weren’t any beaches like this where they were from. Wendy was only a year younger than Max, but she’d had a good education and some of the things she talked about were over the canine’s head of knowledge.

Tess had asked him about himself, but Max was rather loathe to say anything about his youth on Quet, so he just told them his uncle Merlin owned a starship and they were couriers to the different worlds of the Planetary Alignment. He didn’t elaborate and they didn’t press him for more information.

Wendy seemed fascinated with his face. She had never seen a German shepherd with pale blue eyes before and couldn't seem to stop looking at him.

“Max,” Alan asked, “would you like to have a little fun?”

“Uh, sure...”

The male tiger moved away from the blanket a few paces and dropped to his knees.  With only his hands and claws, he began to scoop up sand and pile it to the side of a depression he made. He was methodical about it and seemed to ignore his companions.

After a moment, Tess knelt beside him and helped him dig. Wendy looked over at Max and grinned. “Uh oh...” she said.

What’s they doing?” Max asked her.

 “Digging a hole.”

“What’s it for?” he asked.

“For you.”

“For me?  Why?”

Alan winked at Wendy and kept digging.  The hole was not deep, but was getting longer.  “I’m going to bury you in it.”

Max tried to back up, but lost his footing and merely sat down quickly in the middle of a sand castle.  “You’re not going to bury me while I’m still alive!” the canine exclaimed. “I’m not a bone!”

Alan laughed and looked up at his daughter. “Don’t worry, kiddo.  I’m not going to bury your head, just most of your body.”

What?” Max asked.Why?”

“Just for fun,” he answered.

“How will that be fun?” Max asked.

“Come over here and lay down in the hole.”

Max was suddenly very uncertain about his new friends. He had heard stories of seemingly innocent people killing the unsuspecting and he swallowed a lump in his throat.  He tried to hide his fear and shook his head, wondering if he should run.

“Uh, no thanks,” he said. “You can do it to Wendy instead.”

With a chuckle, Alan reached over to give Wendy a guiding hand and the girl took it without hesitation.  She walked down inside the shallow oblong hole and then stretched out along its length in the cool sand as if she had done this many times. Alan helped to adjust where she lay and Max saw that that her head and feet stuck out on both ends.

“Tess, give me a hand with this,” the doctor said.

Alan scooped up the sand he had piled to the side and began filling in the hole around Wendy. Tess knelt on the opposite side of the hole and did the same. When Alan and Tess finished, there was a mound of sand on the beach with Wendy’s head sticking out of one end and her bare feet protruding from the other.

Max crawled over to her and asked, “Are… are you okay?”

“Of course,” she answered. “We’ve done this loads of times.”  She wriggled her toes and Max found himself smiling. He looked over at the adults and shrugged his shoulders.

“Now what happens?” he asked.

The tigers looked at one another with a grin, but Wendy was the one who answered. “Now I just lay here for a while.  The feel of the sand around me is nice,” she said. “You should try it.”

“Hey, there, Max!”

The canine youth looked up at the familiar raccoon’s voice and he smiled. “Hi, Pockets!”

The mechanic stopped near the small group and asked, “What’s going on?”

Tess offered him a smile. “Your friend is trying to decide whether or not he wants to be buried in the sand like our daughter,” she said. Pockets glanced quickly to the male tiger, who wriggled his fingers in a specific way. The raccoon understood immediately and knelt in the sand beside his young friend.

“Why don’t you try it, Max,” Pockets said with a mischievous smile. “It should be all right.”

“Well,” the canine said with hesitation. “I suppose it’ll be okay so long as you’re here.” Max looked up at Alan and then introduced his friend to them.  “This is Pockets. He’s from my uncle’s ship that I told you about.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Pockets,” the doctor said. “I’m Alan, this is my wife Tess and my daughter Wendy.”

“Hullo.”

“So, you want to try it, too?” Alan asked Max.

Okay. Wendy looks safe enough.”

Alan and Tess began to quickly dig another furrow in the sand beside their daughter. When it was ready, they looked up at Max and nodded to him. He looked over at Pockets, who just grinned back at him.  Without another word, the canine youth took his place in the depression as he had seen Wendy do earlier, and allowed the tigers to cover him over.

The sand was cool against the canine’s sun-warmed fur, and it actually felt good.  After a few moments, he could feel the weight of the sand all around him and it seemed that Wendy’s folks were still piling on the sand.

“How does that feel?” Alan asked him.

Max screwed up his mouth and frowned.  “I can’t move,” he said.

“Does it hurt?” Tess asked.  “Are you uncomfortable?”

“No,” Max admitted after thinking it over.  “It’s kinda nice, really.”

The adult tigers sat down in the sand, each before a pair of teenage toes.  Alan grinned and said, “Now, here’s where that fun begins!”  

*** 

Patch stepped out of the small beach changing room and scowled once again out across the sand toward his crewmates. He had finally dried out his fur, and was thankful none of Tanis’ water had gotten into his cast.  Having already been unwrapped, his last remaining cigars hadn’t survived and he was fairly upset about it.  The raccoon grumbled to himself and decided to see if any of the boardwalk shops along the beach carried a decent blend of cigar. He never got to smoke while on board a ship due to the oxygen-rich atmosphere, but the opportunity to smoke while they were down on Pomen was too much for him to pass up.

He wandered along the boardwalk for a while and the rich flavor of cigar smoke suddenly touched his nostrils. He smiled and brightened up. He’d know that particular aroma anywhere!  He moved quickly into a small shop barely large enough for three customers at a time and went straight to the tiny counter. A meercat wearing a red ball cap turned backwards between his small ears peered down at him from the stool he was perched upon. He was smoking the cigar Patch has smelled from outside.

“What kin I getcha?” he asked.

“Brandtian cigars,” Patch stated with a nod to the meercat’s hand. “Katshoggi blend.”

The meercat grinned at him around his smoke and nodded.  “Enticing, ain’t it?  How many you want?”

“Five.”

The merchant reached behind the counter and then brought up five metal tubes. He set them on the counter and then totaled up the price. Patch blanched at the figure, but didn’t comment as he pulled out his credicard and handed it to the meercat. Things were more expensive around tourist areas, he remembered with a frown.

As he waited, Patch turned to look toward a strange noise behind him.  It was a small child, about two years old, in a lime green pajama suit resembling a popular children’s programming character.  It had, as its single head ornament, a long, straight shaft sticking up out of the head.  Combined with flat, broad earmuffs on the side that seemed out of place in this weather, this child’s head disturbed the engineer in ways he couldn’t put his finger on.

The meercat handed his card back to him and Patch thanked him for the cigars. The raccoon left the small business with his purchase and rubbed his eyes, not from the cigar smoke, but rather from the hideous sight he had just seen.  

*** 

Durant could feel the muscles in his arms complain as he forced himself to swim in powerful strokes. He had suffered a mild concussion and several low-degree burns and cuts across his abdomen in their ordeal, but he had recovered quickly. He had not been swimming in so long and the exercise would be good for him, especially after weeks of lethargy in a medical facility.

He was a little farther out from the shore than he knew he should be so he turned back inland and began again. His eyes had been shut through most of his swimming but he suddenly collided with another body. He dipped under the waves momentarily as he momentarily lost his tempo, and when he emerged a heartbeat later, he looked up into the smiling black eyes of a polar bear.

“Pardon me, ma’am,” Durant said with a nervous smile. “I was concentrating too hard on my swim, I suppose.”

The white bear continued treading water beside him. “I wasn’t expecting anyone this far out,” she replied in a smooth voice, “but I’m happy to meet you.  My name is Carmen.”

The grizzly bear nodded to her and said, “Glad to meet you, Carmen. I’m Durant.”

“Is that your personal name or your family name?” she asked as the two of them began swimming slowly toward the beach.

Durant had always hated his first name and never allowed anyone to call him by it, so he hesitated to give it to her.  “Leonardo is my first name,” he replied at last. “Leo Durant.”

She’d noticed his hesitation and quickly surmised he was used to going by his family name. She didn’t have a problem with this, so she gave him a warm smile. “Well, Mr. Durant, would you like to join me in a swim?” Carmen asked him, despite that they were already treading water side by side.

“I would love to,” he answered.   

*** 

Twenty minutes later, the ursine couple emerged from the water and walked up the beach a short distance to Carmen’s blanket. She had several extra-large towels and she handed one to her new friend.

“This ship you serve on,” she said casually, “the Blue Horizon?  Is it a cruiser?”

“It is... uh, was... an Okami freighter,” Durant answered as he admired her sleek fur. “We crashed it on Crescentis last month following a pirate attack.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the polar bear replied. “My ship’s an Okami freighter, too.”

Durant tilted his head sideways and smiled.  “You’re joking, right?”

“No, really,” she said as she rubbed the towel vigorously across her shoulders. “I’m the ship’s doctor of the Hidalgo Sun. It’s an old D-model, but it still gets us around.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Standard shore leave,” she answered with a smile as she dropped the towel and then slipped into a tan beach robe.  “Captain Rezo always gives us a day or two of leave every time we make a delivery somewhere.  We dropped off a shipment of building materials yesterday. We’ll be leaving in the morning with housewares bound for Ganis.”

“Would you mind a bit of company on your last day here?” Durant asked her. “I’ve spent the last six weeks around stoic doctors and grumbling crewmates. I sure would enjoy a smiling face of a beautiful woman for a change, even if for a little bit.”

Carmen squinted and tilted her head as she tried to read his true intentions and decided he was being honest.  “Are you sure you want to spend your time with another doctor?” she asked with a teasing smirk.

“If she smiles like you, I do,” the grizzly replied with a lopsided grin.

The polar bear laughed. “Okay, you can meet me at a little comfy restaurant at the corner of Reno and Anderson Road at seven o’clock tonight. It’s called The Venetian Rose.

“Yes, I would like that,” Durant replied. “What about now? May I buy you lunch?”

The doctor gave him a little pout and answered, “I’m afraid I don’t have the time right now. I just came down to the beach for a last swim in the sea before starting my preparations for our next voyage. I have a number of errands to take care of before supper tonight, which is when I’ll be free.”

Durant nodded, remembering all the little extras he always did for the Blue Horizon just prior to each launch. “I understand,” he said with a genuine smile. “I’ll meet you promptly at seven o’clock at The Venetian Rose and will be most appreciative of your company.”

Carmen leaned forward, briefly touched noses with him, and then sat back on her knees. “I will look forward to it,” she said.  

*** 

Patch returned to his party’s beach spot and noted with satisfaction that the sunlight had already dried off his chair. Merlin lay on his back in the sun on a nearby blanket, his eyes closed as he enjoyed the warmth. The engineer mused for a moment that it was odd to see his captain wearing only swim trunks; although covered in fur, the wolf always seemed to be clothed from head to toe.  Renny was surrounded by five minimally-clad females of differing species on the far blanket, and they all seemed to be enthralled with the cheetah’s injury and his tales of experiences on the Blue Horizon.

Clad in red bikini, Samantha was out away from them all, slowly going through martial arts routines she had learned years ago on Sillon. She went through the ritual practically every day, whether in her room or out in some open space. The exercise did her good and helped discipline her mind. It had actually been months since she had involved herself in the routine, but since their arrival on Pomen, she had resumed them.

Patch sat back down in his seat and rested his cast upon the chair’s arm. With his other hand, he pulled one of his new cigars from a shirt pocket and took it out of its metal tube with nimble fingers.  He produced a lighter from a nearby tote bag and lit the cigar with a smile after biting off the tip. He puffed on it a few times and then nodded to himself at its flavor.  Contented, he picked up his slateboard and brushed sand from the screen.

He tapped through the articles and had just found one of interest when a snow leopard walked by.  The feline stopped just a step past him and then turned toward him.  She knelt down at the edge of his blanket and then gaped at him. Patch felt the intense stare and looked up with a frown.

“What?” he growled irritably, gripping the slateboard so hard it shook. No sooner had the word left his lips that the leopard broke out into a wide grin.

“Jasper Porter!” she said in a rough voice. “I thought that was you.”

Patch nearly dropped his cigar. “Alice?” he asked. When she nodded, he finally smiled. “Alice Forrestal. If I wasn’t injured, I think I’d jump up and give you a hug!”

The leopard moved forward onto the blanket and licked him on the cheek.  “It’s good to see you again, you ol’ bandit, but what happened to you? You lose a fight?”

The raccoon nodded and took another puff of his cigar. “Actually, yes. Pirates shot us down over Crescentis last month.”

The snow leopard sat cross-legged in front of him and put her hands in her lap. “Well, as one old engineer to another,” she said, “give me the details...”

Patch was genuinely happy to see the older matriarchal feline.  They had become friends serving as mechanics on board the Savage Clark years before he had ever heard of the Blue Horizon. Their battleship had been old and nearly falling apart, but somehow they had kept Captain Wildman’s ship in operation, despite the demands the old fart had placed upon it.  He had not thought of the leopard in years, but he was actually glad to see her again.

“It was the Basilisk,” he began, “Sagan’s ship.”  

*** 

Only a small, distant rock, a full moon was just rising above the far horizon in the blue-green afternoon sky and lazy clouds floated overhead. Wendy and her new friend walked along the beach just at the water’s edge, heading toward a high cliff that marked the end of the sandy shore. She glanced over at the German shepherd with ice blue eyes and then quietly slipped her hand into his.

Max’s eyes widened and he looked down at their hands in surprise before looking up to meet her gaze. She gave him a smile and then shifted her attention back to their walk up the shore. Maximillian swallowed and grinned a little foolishly. This seemed to be a day of firsts for him. Like the delicious, sand-trapped foot tickling he had experienced earlier, holding hands in this manner with a girl was something new to him, and he found that he liked it very much.

As a slave at a pleasure house, he’d been told he been neutered at a young age. He had a lot of head knowledge about the kind of things adult couples did when they were together, but he did not have those kinds of feelings toward Wendy. What he did feel toward her, however, was a fondness like none he had ever had for anyone else. He didn’t really know what he was feeling, but he enjoyed being around her.  They had spent most of the day together, whether it was that burial in the sand, playing volleyball with her family and some of his crewmates, eating lunch, or like now just walking quietly along the beach toward the cliff.

There were several rather large boulders littering the ground at the base of the cliff they had once belonged to. From the amount of tidal erosion, moss and bird lime on them, the boulders had apparently been there for some time.  The young couple was not really thinking about where they were going as they wove around the small maze the boulders provided. When they rounded a particularly large one right near the cliff, Wendy and Max came to an abrupt halt.

Quite oblivious to their presence was a pair of coyotes cuddled close together on the sand next to the cliff. They were kissing and licking muzzles quite passionately and Max could feel his face flush beneath his fur.  Wendy grinned widely and then looked at Max.  She narrowed her eyes mischievously at him and then without a word, she leaned over and kissed him full on the lips.

It took Max by surprise, but he found his arms around her waist of their own accord as he gave in to her charms and leaned into her kiss. They pulled apart a moment later and Max could feel his head whirling. He was speechless, but not altogether numb. Somewhat shyly, he leaned forward and kissed her again.

Wendy pulled back after a moment and grinned widely into his wonderful ice blue eyes. She liked him a lot and was about to kiss him once again, but they heard a sound and both turned back toward the other couple.  The coyotes were starting to get more involved in their passionate activities, and the young couple saw the swim trunks start to come off.

Max grabbed Wendy’s hand quickly and led her back around the boulders and out toward the beach. Neither said anything as they headed back down the shore toward their friends and family, but once they were sure they were out of earshot of the couple, they both giggled.

“Whoa...” Max said as he ran his fingers through the fur between his ears. “It’s a good thing we didn’t show up a few minutes later!”

Wendy laughed. “Heh... I think we would have seen more than kissing and licking!”

At the mention of kissing, Max cleared his throat rather awkwardly. They smiled at one another and resumed walking hand in hand.  Neither said anything more for a long while, each of them dwelling on the lingering feelings of their own kisses.

“Max?” the young tigress asked after a while, “May I ask you a personal question?”

“Hmm?”

“What... uhm, what happened to your finger?”

Maximillian raised his left hand, stared briefly at the healed stump and frowned. He was embarrassed and hesitant to tell her he had chewed it off one day in hunger while locked away without food for a week in a filthy shed. He felt a lump in his throat and wondered how to respond. He would rather tell her about his experiences and responsibilities since becoming a member of the Blue Horizon crew. His mind raced for a way to answer her.

Wendy noticed his hesitation and frowned. “I’m sorry, Max. I know it’s not any of my business.”

The canine felt a sudden dread, as if withholding the story would make her stop holding his hand. He had been punished for lying so many times in his upbringing, but suddenly he didn’t care. He looked up over at her and grinned lopsidedly.

“It’s not that,” he replied, his mind racing. “It’s kinda gross and I don’t think you really want to hear about it.”

“Please?” the tigress asked in a quiet voice. “I’d really like to know.”

Max swallowed and shrugged his shoulders. “You know I told you that I was the cook for the Blue Horizon before we crashed?”

“Yes?”

“I… uh… accidentally cut off my finger… uh, helping to prepare a meal in our kitchen.” Max swallowed again, finding it hard to speak. Lying was harder than he thought and he found he didn’t like the experience. “Pockets rushed me to the Infirmary,” he lied, “and the cook I was helping finished making the meal while I was being looked after.”  He looked up at her and laughed nervously, his tongue feeling unusually thick as he embellished his tall tale. “No one knew that my finger had gotten mixed up in a guest’s dinner plate until too late, and the guy never even noticed the extra bit of meat in his meal...”

Wendy stuck out her tongue and made a face. “How awful!”

Max chuckled and sighed to himself in relief that she bought his embellished tale. He held up his left hand again and showed her the stub up close. “I’ve been a whole lot more careful with the cleaver since then!” he said with a nervous laugh.

Wendy looked back up into his pale blue eyes and smiled. “I’m glad you have a sense of humor about it,” she said. “My father’s a surgeon and I’ve seen how depressed some of his patients get when they lose a limb. He’s been able to help several of them by reattaching a severed hand or tail, or...  Max!” she snapped the fingers of her unoccupied hand and grinned largely. “Why don’t you talk to my father about your finger?”

“Why? What can he do?  My finger’s long gone.”

“He can probably fit you for a prosthetic finger that you can use in its place.”

“What is a... pros... prosth… what you said?”

“An artificial finger that looks and operates like the one you lost. They can make them to match your skin and fur colors where they look natural.”

Max sighed and shook his head.  “I appreciate the thought, but I once heard my uncle and our accountant discuss having that done for me.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“An operation like that is expensive and there aren’t enough funds in our account since the crash. We’re still seeing doctors now and uncle Merlin says he doesn’t even know if our insurance will cover it all.” Max’s ears drooped a bit and he looked down at the waves lapping at their toes. “We came to the beach today just to get outside in the fresh air to cheer up a little.”

“I’m sorry,” Wendy said in a somber tone.

Max looked over at her and then gave her a smile. “Meeting you today has been the best day I’ve had in a long time,” he said. “I’m glad I met you, Wendy.  I really am!”

The Bengal tigress smiled at him and fell into his blue eyes again. She stopped and faced him, holding both of his hands in her own. “I’m glad, Maximillian Sinclair. I’m glad I met you, too.” She leaned forward, pressing her lips against his again and this time Max was not hesitant to return the motion.  He had discovered that he liked kissing quite a bit. 

*** 

As Samantha wound her way through the umbrellas, beach blankets and an assortment of children digging in the sand, she could hear the chatter as she neared her own site. She carried a couple of sodas and sandwiches she had picked up at a nearby boardwalk stand, their own picnic basket having been overturned earlier by a couple of rambunctious teens running along the beach. She smiled mischievously when she saw Renny’s small crowd of female groupies. Patch was nowhere in sight.

“Oh my,” she said as she drew nearer, “you have your own fan club!” She chuckled as she sat down near the cheetah and handed him a sandwich. “I thought you might be hungry.”

“Thanks, I’m famished!” Renny said between bites. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye and nodded off across the sand with a gleam in his eye.  “Look, Sam...  sheep!  Don’t you have the urge to go herd them into a pen?”

The Border collie followed his gaze and then narrowed her eyes at him.  “Oh, really?” she answered dryly.  “I’m sorry about the sandwich, but I think I saw a gazelle up on the boardwalk.  Don’t you cheetahs usually eat gazelle?  Oh, wait...” she snickered, “I’m sorry. You can only catch the kids!  But then again, you can’t even catch a cold right now, eh, gimpy?”

Renny’s jaw fell open, but he squinted in the sunlight at her, more than ready to verbally spar with her as was their custom.  “Don’t you need to be on a leash, mutt?” he groused. “Better yet, you need a muzzle!”

“Says you, Tweety,” snapped the collie. “Chirp, chirp, chirp... Why don’t you learn to roar, sissy cat?”

“Go whiz on a tree, Fido – or better yet, an electric fence!”

A rabbit resting at the cheetah’s feet sat up indignantly with her hands on her hips and glared at Samantha. “You,” she huffed, “are rude!  How dare you talk to poor Ren-Ren that way!”

“Yeah!” the rest of the navigator’s admirers chimed in together.

“Ren-Ren?” Samantha burst into laughter with wide eyes. “Ren-Ren!”

The cheetah felt like sinking into the sand as he realized she would probably remember the bunny’s little nickname and use it on him at some point in the future. Instead, he looked at his groupies and waved a casual hand at the collie. “Don’t mind her. Sammy’s a crewmate of mine,” he told them. “She’s always like this...”

Before he could continue with his jibes, the sun was eclipsed by a huge bull that stopped before his blanket. The large fellow was adorned with a massive amount of gold chains around his neck, a golden ring in his nose and several more on his ears. The muscular fellow grinned at the females gathered on both sides of the cheetah and then flexed his muscles.  Renny snorted loudly at the bull’s display, but the brush-off didn’t have its desired effect.  The bull buried his toes in the sand and then kicked up a lob of it into the injured cheetah’s face.

“Hey!” Renny sputtered. The bull kicked more sand onto the navigator and then flexed his muscles again for the ladies.

“Hey, youse gals,” the bovine muscle head said in a thick voice. “Why don’t youse leave dat losah and come wit me?  He’s not big enuff to satisfy all youse!”

There were collective groans from all the women at once. “Chuck Maps,” Tina muttered in disgust behind her hand to one of her companions.

Renny fumed in silence. Normally, he was an easygoing guy and never started a fight on his own, but he had never hesitated in the past to finish a brawl he got involved in. Unfortunately, with his leg in a cast there was little he could do against the bully.

Samantha stood up and walked toward the flexing bull with a slight spring in her step and a silly grin on her face.  Huh? Renny watched in disbelief. It looked as if his crewmate was actually interested in the brawny idiot.

Chuck grinned and flashed a set of perfect teeth as she got up close to him. “Hiya, lil’ lady,” he said.

“Hhhhi,” breathed the collie to him. “I see you have a lot going for you, big guy,” she cooed.

“Yup, yup!” the bull agreed enthusiastically.

Sam stepped back from him and half turned away, giving him a seductive look. “You are quite a hunk, fella... one big hunk of crap!”  Her last word surprised him, as well as everyone else within earshot.

“Whuh?”

In a swift motion that would have done the cheetah proud, Samantha swung around and planted her foot in the middle of the bull’s stomach.  Unprepared for the small collie’s attack, Chuck was unbalanced and fell backward, holding his middle.

“No one,” Sam told him between clenched teeth, “No one picks on my friend but me, you bozo!” She launched herself forward and drove both fists up under the bull’s jaw, making his head bounce backward.

Before he had a chance to recover and counter her assault, Samantha proceeded to trounce the bully with roundhouse kicks and pummels against the side of his thick head, though mindful to keep away from his sharp-looking horns. She didn’t give him a moment to regroup and retaliate, and every time he tried to raise up an arm in defense, she would grab it and twist it in a motion that almost made it crack even under her slight weight.

Chuck was flabbergasted at the attack. He was used to being on the giving end, but not only that, the collie was actually hurting him.  There was one brief instant where she stumbled back after landing a solid kick to his left knee and he managed to scuttle away from her. He lost his footing in the soft sand and fell over into the umbrella which instantly closed around his head. His horns ripped through the weather-worn fabric as he struggled to free himself.  Samantha took the initiative and proceeded to kick at the flailing legs protruding from the umbrella until the bull started to yell for her to stop.

Nearly out of breath from her actions, Sam stepped back toward her friend and then sat down on the blanket beside his little harem. She retrieved her canine-designed sunglasses from the top of their cooler. She put them on, smoothed her ruffled fur and then casually picked up her drink as if nothing had happened.

Renny leaned over toward her with a smirk and said, “Wow, Sammy!  He’s looking like ground Chuck to me!” A couple of the girls giggled.

“Yup,” Samantha snickered. “He’s been tenderized.”

“He’s so stupid,” Tina said with a frown as the bull continued to try to escape the umbrella. His motions were much slower now, as the aches and pains were sinking in.

“He’s a real nimCOWpoop...” Renny added.

“Definitely a moooooo-ron!” Sam agreed.

“You know, he’s probably grillin’ in the umbrella frame on that hot sand,” the cheetah said with a laugh, “and I like my steak charbroiled!”

Samantha smiled and remembered a jingle she had heard on the radio while on Earth.  “I like mine with let-tuce and to-ma-to...” she sang.

Tina glanced first at Chuck, who had finally escaped the umbrella and was crawling away in disgrace at having been beaten up by a smaller female, and then she looked over at the collie. “Boy, you sure had him fooled,” she said with admiration.

“Oh, it was easy,” Samantha said with a grin. “He was so gullibull...!”  

*** 

Later that night, Samantha lay in her bed as she snuggled up to her body-length pillow, smiling contently to herself. The day had been a success.  They all still had their aches, pains and injuries, they were still without a ship and the finances were dwindling, but at least for a day, they’d all had a chance to smile and forget their troubles.  

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