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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 2

— Episode 13

"Up From the Ashes"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

Captain’s Journal 

Where do I start? It has been three months since my last entry into this journal, and much has happened. First and most notable, the Blue Horizon herself is dead – a broken heap from a semi-controlled crash on Crescentis following a pirate attack by Sagan’s black ship, the Basilisk.

Sagan alone boarded my vessel in a manner that is still a mystery to us, and inflicted terrible damage to my ship and crew before he died at the end of a fierce onboard battle. Through the valiant efforts of my crew, and the intervention of an ally I will not name even in my journal, the Basilisk was driven away and the Blue Horizon managed to make it down to the planet’s surface.

We landed hard and the engine core had to be jettisoned following a meltdown. The Horizon will never fly again – there was too much structural damage from the orbital attack and also from an impact with a Crescentan island land mass to save it. My lifeless ship currently resides in a junk heap several hours away from our present location here on Pomen, conveyed there by a massive salvage transport. Pockets has paid it several visits and always comes back feeling depressed. The ship may have belonged to me, but he seems to have felt the loss more as if she had been a close friend. I guess that is what happens to engineers who are intimate with a vessel’s inner workings. I have submitted a fully-detailed report of the incident with the SPF that’s been filed on the Joplin central computer.

Interstellar Insurance is sending a claims adjuster here for final settlement of our case, and Mr. Andes is due to meet with me sometime today. During the four-week flight from Kantus, he has been in constant contact with me, the SPF and the Cinos Scrap Yard where the Horizon now resides. From the preliminary report I’ve seen, Interstellar looks to pay off in full at the closure of the case.

The loss of my ship is hard to bear, but it’s insignificant when I think about my crew. Due to injuries incurred from his fight with Sagan, Renny had to have his entire right foot reconstructed with some of the bones regrown, and has spent weeks in physical therapy learning to walk on it again. He has progressed well, and if his flirting with the nurses is any indication, he has finally gotten through his acute depression.

Durant suffered a concussion and several low-degree burns and cuts across his abdomen, but seems to have recovered well. Pockets and his brother were both treated for smoke inhalation, and Patch had a broken left arm to deal with. Samantha, Maximillian and Arktanis all had an assortment of bumps and bruises, but were otherwise okay. I suffered a concussion and two broken ribs. All of us have been through post-traumatic stress counseling, and most of us have had recurring nightmares stemming from it all. Renny says he still sees Sagan’s wild green eyes in his sleep. The pirate has haunted mine as well.

Of Taro, however, there has been no word in all the time we’ve been here. She suffered the worst of Sagan’s physical assault, and frankly, I don’t see how she could have survived the deep abdominal wounds. The last I saw of her, mere moments before our entry into the charged Crescentan atmosphere and the resulting crash landing, she was dying in the frantic arms of Renny. Tanis did all he could to stabilize her, but even he was unsure it would be enough. Our unnamed benefactor told me Taro would be taken to the advanced medical facilities on Pomen, and that is the last word I have had on my friend and second in command. I fear the worst.

The rest of my crew and I are still here on Pomen in the capitol city Adasa. We were brought here from Crescentis by Tanthean Corvettes courtesy of the Aris monarch, and most of us have already been released by the medical facilities. Only Renny continues with his therapy. Since Pomen was his homeworld, Durant headed straight for his brother’s home on the other side of the planet after he’d been certified well enough to leave the facility’s care. The rest of us are being housed within the Tanthean embassy until such time as we can leave. It helps to be friends with the royal family.

Before leaving Crescentis, the SPF allowed us to retrieve some of our personal possessions from the wreckage, in addition to the Horizon’s computer core. From my private safe I retrieved the documents gifted me by the House of Aris at our last visit to Tanthe. It makes me wonder if Aris was precognitive of our fight with Sagan when they had the papers drawn up for us. Upon our contact with the Tanthean embassy here on Pomen, I presented the documents to Ambassador Poledouris. He assured me the documents would be expedited to Aris Grand, but as yet I’ve heard nothing more in the three months we’ve been here.

As it stands, I am captain of no ship, with my business destroyed and my crew mostly incapacitated. Although Sagan was killed in the conflict, his ship remains at large. Presently, our immediate future hangs upon the documents of Tanthe and the end of the investigation by the Spatial Police Force.  

Merlin Sinclair, Captain of the late SS Blue Horizon, Registry PA1261 

*** 

The lupine captain put down his pen and closed his journal. It was the third one he had owned over the past six years and its stiff cover binding was worn from handling. The entry he had just written filled out the last available page in the book, so he decided to add the purchase of a new journal to his list of things to do this day. He already had plans to shop for a new captain’s hat. His old one had been lost in the crash of his ship and he missed wearing it, even if there was no ship to be the captain of.

Idly, he placed the journal inside a small attaché and then stood up from the desk. Autumn morning sunlight streamed in through the open windows of his seventh-floor room, though storm clouds were gathering on the horizon. A gentle cool breeze brushed the window’s blue and white curtains and he could smell moisture on the air.

Merlin moved to a closet and removed the robes he wore. He hung them on a hangar and selected a few garments for the day. The native Pomen robes were comfortable, but he preferred the style and material he was used to wearing.

He slipped into a pair of dark blue trousers, but the lightweight pants were new and the tail opening was tighter than he was comfortable with. He would have to get it altered among his things to do today. He chose a powder-blue short sleeved shirt that fit him loosely and then looked up at the time displayed through the panel of one wall. He was to meet his crewmates in the building’s first-floor restaurant for breakfast in ten minutes.

He picked up a handful of small items from his desk and dropped them into his pants pocket after he slipped into his old black boots. He headed for the door, pausing only to pluck his embassy-issued identification card that doubled as a room key from a small table, but halted when he stepped out into the corridor. Affixed to his door panel was a plain white envelope with his name neatly printed across the front in red ink.

The wolf glanced up and down the brightly lit hallway, but it was deserted save for himself. He plucked it from the door and locked the panel behind him. He waited until he was in the elevator with the doors closed before he tore the paper envelope open with a claw. Inside was a simple white sheet of paper, with a single sentence printed across the middle. Merlin’s ears went flat against his head and he growled lowly at what he saw, feeling a cold wave come over him. He resisted the urge to crumple the missive angrily in his hand, but folded the page and placed it back inside the envelope instead.

The elevator doors opened a moment later and he stormed out of the lift, only to run into a pair of armed coyotes in embassy uniforms. They barred his way and studied the anger in his eyes suspiciously. A quick glance around showed Merlin that armed guards were stationed at nearly every doorway in the lobby.

“Identification,” the coyote on the right demanded.

Merlin handed over his ID without a word. The coyote scanned it with a hand reader and grunted lowly. “Okay, Mr. Sinclair, you may pass.”

“What’s up?” the wolf asked curiously. “Security hasn’t been this tight in all the time I’ve been here.”

“Sorry, sir, that’s not your concern,” the other coyote replied. “Move on.”

“Right.” Merlin continued on his way toward the restaurant and had to show his identification again to enter. Once inside, he moved to a large booth in the far right corner of the room. His crewmates were spaced around the table and a canine waiter was already taking their orders on a slateboard. Samantha stood up and licked him on the cheek as he approached.

“Good morning, Captain,” she said.

“Hello,” the wolf replied, first to her, and then with a nod to everyone else. He took a seat next to Maximillian who looked as if he wanted to go back to bed. He yawned widely and rubbed his eyes.

Renny was the last to place his order and the waiter then turned toward Sinclair. “For you, sir?”

Merlin nodded to the Irish setter without smiling and answered, “Just coffee and beefsteak, please. Medium-rare.”

“Yes, sir.” The waiter executed a short bow and then trotted off with their orders.

Patch lit one of his cigars and puffed on it a moment while he peered across the table. “What’s the matter, Captain?” he asked. “You look shaken.”

Merlin frowned and tossed the envelope onto the table. “This was on my door this morning.”

Tanis snatched up the envelope and pulled out the letter. He looked up in surprise and then handed it over to the raccoon. Patch read it quietly and then passed it around. Renny tossed it back on the table after they had all read it and then everyone looked at Merlin.

“Any idea who wrote it?” the cheetah asked.

“No,” Merlin admitted, “but I have my suspicions.” He picked up the letter and read it again as if he couldn’t believe he had actually received such a thing.

The short message read: Do not attempt to rebuild your business.

“Who do you suspect?” Pockets inquired.

“Possibly a survivor of the Basilisk,” Merlin replied.

“Or it could have been Armando,” Pockets suggested.

“No, as much as he’d like to see us out of the competition, that’s not his style. What unnerves me is that with all the increased security around here,” the captain motioned toward the guards in the lobby, “how someone without proper authority got inside the embassy to affix it to my door.”

“Someone from Tanthe, then?” Renny asked.  “An inside job?”

“It’s possible,” Tanis replied, “but I thought ya were pretty chummy with the Royalty.”

“Any idea what all the hubbub is about, anyway?” Samantha asked. “I thought I was going to be frisked as soon as I came out of the elevator.”

“Nobody frisked me,” Renny said with a smile. “But then again, who wouldn’t want to frisk a woman?”

Samantha sneered at him, conscious that she was the only female left of the small crew. “I was not frisked, Ren-Ren,” she retorted, “but it looked like they were about to.”

Merlin put the letter back inside the envelope and then folded it neatly. He placed it inside his pants pocket and then glanced back toward the guards. “From all the activity, I would guess they have a high-ranking official coming in. This is an embassy.”

The wolf turned to look Pockets straight in the eye and added, “I wouldn’t try to pick the locks on any more supply closets while we’re here, if I were you, Mr. Porter — especially with this kind of security.”

“Yeah,” Tanis chipped in. “We might be guests of the embassy right now, but ya could spend time in a nasty prison somewhere bleak for pilfering.”

“Hey!” Pockets said in indignation, “I asked three times for more fur shampoo! No one would bother to get any for me, so I just helped myself.”

“No more, Pockets,” Merlin replied as he waggled a finger at him. “If you have to, go down to the corner store to get your shampoo.”

“So, what’s on the agenda for today?” Tanis asked as a couple of waiters arrived with their orders. Maximillian perked up at the prospect of food.

Merlin picked up a coffee cup and shrugged his shoulders as if the question was trivial. “Renny’s going back to his therapist, and…”

“Awww, daddy, do I have to?” the cheetah whined.

Pockets snickered as Merlin finally grinned. “Yes, son, you do,” the wolf replied. “I have some shopping to do and I have to meet the adjuster from Interstellar Insurance. You all have another free day to do what you want.”

“This is all so boring,” Max grumbled as he started to eat his breakfast. “We’ve been here so long that we’ve done all the interesting things to do in this city.”

“At least on the long flights between worlds on the Horizon,” Pockets added, “we had interests and things to do. Here, we don’t even have much of our own stuff anymore.”

“Any word on a new ship, Captain?” Patch asked. “My talents will get rusty if I don’t have an engine to use them on.”

Merlin frowned and shook his head as he took a lap of his coffee. “No, I’m afraid not,” he answered. “If there weren’t any new ships in stock at the factory, they’d have to build one, and I believe that takes about four months at the very least.” He took another lap and sighed audibly. “The government of Tanthe has been very good to us since the crash, but who knows how long it will take to go through the bureaucracy to get us a ship. As far as I know, the paperwork may still be sitting on someone’s desk, awaiting yet another official to approve it.”

“But the documents were issued by the Princess,” Samantha said between bites of her meal. “You would think that would be approval enough to go through immediately.”

Merlin sat back in his chair and struggled with a thought as he stared into his cup. “I don’t know how long this is going to take,” he said after a long moment, “so I think you might want to seek employment elsewhere.”

Everyone looked up at him suddenly, some with mouths open. Pockets had a mouthful of food and had a hard time swallowing it.

“Captain?” Patch asked through a cough of cigar smoke.

“Are you laying us off?” Renny asked.

Merlin looked up at them. “No, it’s just a suggestion,” he replied quickly, “but without a source of income, I won’t be able to pay you much longer before my finances are completely dried up. The salvage operation of the ship on Crescentis and its transportation here to Pomen wiped out most of the account. All our medical expenses are being put on a tab for me, but eventually I’ll have that bill to pay as well. The Tanthean government has graciously allowed us to stay here in their embassy and provide us with meals free of charge, but we’ve been on Pomen three months and no one knows how much longer we’ll be here.”

“Captain,” Tanis said, “since our lodging and meals are paid for by our coyote friends, I don’t have much need for a salary. Just a small allowance for personal things would be okay with me, if ya want to cut my pay until we get another ship.”

“The same goes for me,” Renny replied. “With my physical therapy, they’re not going to let me go anywhere for a little while longer anyway.”

Samantha touched Merlin’s arm and said. “You can stop paying me altogether for now.”

Max looked up with a long face. “I’m staying with you, Uncle Merlin. No matter what happens. We’re family.”

Samantha nudged the canine youth with an elbow. “Until you are eighteen years of age, you have no choice but to stay with Merlin, even if the legal age on Dennier is seventeen.”

The conversation grew quiet and everyone looked back to their captain. Merlin swallowed and glanced around at his friends. “You all read that note,” he reminded them. “Someone out there still has a grudge against us. That means that even if we do get another ship, that doesn’t mean we’ll be safe.”

“Captain,” Patch said as he extinguished his cigar in a glass ashtray, “I would love to stay and engineer for you on a new ship, but I’m afraid I have debts of my own I’m obligated to pay. I need work and collectors have found me even here.”

Pockets turned and stared at his brother with wide eyes, but Merlin nodded understandingly. “That’s okay, Patch,” he said with a bit of a smile. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the handful of data crystals he had picked up earlier. Each was labeled with the name of a crew member. He spread them out onto the center of the table and then sat back in his chair. “You’ve all been a good employees, though some of you have tried giving me ulcers, but despite this, I’ve written up a nice reference for each of you for a job search if you choose to do so.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Patch replied. He reached forward and pushed the crystals around until he found the one that bore his name.

“Well, I’m staying with Captain Sinclair!” Pockets said in a huff toward his brother.

“That’s okay, Pockets,” Merlin said quickly. “It was my suggestion and I think Patch is wise to look elsewhere. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to pay you guys even at cut salaries, so personally I think you’re all making a mistake if you hang around. I do appreciate your willingness to stay, but it’s not necessary.”

He turned to look at Samantha with an look of resignation. “This might be a good time for you to return to your father’s company.”

The Border collie gulped. “But—”

“Something’s going on outside in the lobby,” Tanis interrupted. Everyone’s eyes turned toward the glass walls of the restaurant and saw coyotes running here and there in excitement.

Two coyotes in crisp suits approached the guards at the restaurant doors and spoke quietly for a moment. One of the guards pointed though the door directly at the crew of the late Blue Horizon and the pair of suits immediately walked over to them.

“Captain Sinclair?” one of them asked.

The wolf stood up. “Yes, sir?”

“Please come with us. Your presence is required.”

“All of us?”

“Just you, sir.”

Merlin resisted the urge to ask them who wanted to see him, but he suspected they would only give him the run-around. He turned to his crewmates and shrugged. “I’ll see you all later,” he said as he turned to follow his escort.

“Good luck, sir,” Renny offered.

Merlin followed the coyotes across the busy lobby to the elevators. He was taken up to a small, but luxurious office on the top floor of the building, and once inside, one of his escorts told him to wait. He was left alone only a couple moments before the doors opened again.

Two guards filed in and gave him a suspicious look before stationing themselves on either side of the door. Prince Kal Navar Aris then strode in, his head held high, wearing garments perfectly tailored for him. He wore an amulet over his business suit that was similar, but smaller than the one King Adion Aris had worn and he sported several golden rings mounted with precious gems on his short fingers. As soon as his eyes lit upon the wolf, Kal’s expression lightened up with a broad smile.

“Merlin!” the coyote exclaimed and walked over to him. The wolf bowed toward the prince and then returned the smile.

“Prince Kal,” he said, “you’re looking well.”

The coyote clasped arms with him. “Considering all you’ve been through, you’re looking well, yourself. Princess Tinara made me promise to tell you that she sends her love.” Kal motioned toward the guards and the pair quickly departed, shutting the door behind them. The prince led Sinclair toward a pair of exquisite wing-back chairs beside a darkened fireplace and they sat down facing one another.

“I didn’t expect to see you again so soon, sir,” Merlin said quietly, “especially not under these conditions.”

Kal nodded his head and rubbed a finger beneath his chin. “Nor did I,” he replied, “but I thought it would be fitting if it was I who presented you with your new ship. Tinara would have come too, but she’s expecting…”

“My new ship!”

“The documents you presented to Ambassador Poledouris upon your arrival here were checked for their authenticity before we were contacted about them. I got in touch with the shipyards on Dennier and found they had one Okami class freighter of the H-model design barely into construction. We had them make a few special modifications during the building of your new vessel. I volunteered to come in person to return the favor you granted to the royal family.”

Merlin bowed his head and clasped his hands together in his lap. Without looking up, he said, “Because of my personal self-sufficiency, it’s often hard for me to accept expensive gifts from others.” He looked up into the coyote’s eyes. “But due to our current financial status, I’m afraid I was depending upon Aris to help me in this matter. I’m sorry.”

Kal tilted his head to the side and smiled. “Merlin,” he said gently, “if you had not revealed my feelings for Tinara to her family, I would still be the Royal Secretary, and it would be you who would be expected to produce an heir to the throne of Tanthe. I am deeply indebted to you, my friend, and this new ship does not completely erase that debt.”

“Prince Kal,” Merlin said slowly, “I am greatly appreciative of the new ship, but please don’t feel you have to do more for me.”

“More has already been done.”

“More?” the wolf asked meekly.

“You lost your cargo of supplies for the Crescentis fishing colonies that brought you to Tanthe,” Kal replied. “We re-supplied your ship and again those supplies were lost, this time through no fault of your own. After our Corvettes took you away from the crash site, Princess Tinara realized that the fishing colonies still had not received their supplies, so she took it upon herself to send another cargo vessel already on Tanthe to Crescentis. Oddly enough, we still had the supply list from your visit.”

Merlin stared at the coyote in wonder. So many tales of monarch families he had heard over the years had told of tyrants and self-absorbed kings. The Aris family matched none of those descriptions. He didn’t know what, if any, hand that King Adion had in all this, but even if not, the planet would be in good hands under the leadership of Kal and Tinara when the time came for them to rule.

Not knowing what else to say, Merlin made a small bow from his seat and said, “You and the Princess have been generous to me and my crew. You have our eternal thanks and friendship for your help in our hour of need.”

“You’re very welcome,” Kal replied with a smile. “Now, tell me about your crew. How do they fare?”

“They’re recovering,” Merlin said, “but there is another matter I need to discuss with you.”

“Oh?”

The lupine captain pulled the folded white envelope from his pocket and passed it to the prince. Kal opened the letter and read the single sentence with a frown.

“This was on the door of my embassy suite this morning,” the captain explained.

The prince scowled and took on a dark expression that Merlin had not seen before on the cordial coyote. “I will have my people look into this immediately,” he said. He pulled a DataCom from an inner suit pocket and tapped in a passcode. He spoke rapidly for a few moments and then put the unit away.

As if the matter were completed, the Prince looked over at the wolf with bright eyes. “Now, would you like to see your new ship?”

“Yes, sir, I would,” Merlin said with a smile.

“Do you want to invite your crew to join us?

Merlin thought for a moment and then shook his head as he glanced at the time displayed through the wall panel. “We had finished breakfast and they are likely scattered by now. Besides,” he added with a gleam in his eye, “I would like to inspect her myself in private without the bunch of them distracting me. They’ll have plenty of time to see her later.”

“Very well, then. Let’s go.” 

*** 

“—and that’s what he said,” Samantha’s image reported from the com screen.

Durant shook his head sadly at the somber, but not altogether unexpected news. As the accountant for Blue Horizon Freight Transfer, the bear was well aware of Merlin’s financial plight. Still, it was hard to hear.

“We’ve all been together for almost seven years,” he said to the Border collie. “It’ll be hard breaking up.”

“Isn’t there anything we can do?”

“Not with the present situation as it is, I’m afraid.”

“What if I offer to buy Merlin another ship?” Samantha asked, her moist eyes glistening in the high resolution monitor. “I have the money from my investment returns.”

Durant shook his head again. “You know him as well as the rest of us, Sam. How do you think he would react to that?”

The collie thought for a moment and then sighed. “He would be appreciative,” she replied, “but would not consider the ship his own. He’d consider me as the new owner of Blue Horizon Freight Transfer.”

“That’s right,” Durant replied. “In Merlin’s eyes, he would rather dissolve the business than do something like that. He’s been that way for as long as I’ve known him.”

“Me, too. Oh, Durant, how could this have happened? Everything was going so well.”

“Apparently Sagan knew more about our movements than we were aware of. If he knew we were going to be in the vicinity of Crescentis, then he must have been tailing us or monitoring our communications specifically.”

“That doesn’t help.”

“I know, Sam,” the bear said. “None of it makes any sense.”

“So, what are you going to do? Most of us are going to stick around as long as we can, but Patch is already out looking for another job. Good engineers are in high demand, so he shouldn’t have to look more than a few days.”

“What about his brother? They going together?”

“No, Pockets promises to stick with Merlin no matter what it comes down to, but Patch said he has too many debts and needs to be working.”

Durant scratched his ear and looked around him. “I’m fairly well set up here in my brother’s house, Sam, and we’ve always been close. I’ll probably just stay here until I hear of anything final from Merlin. If he decides to dissolve the business altogether, then I’ll look into another job.”

“How’s your brother?”

“James? He has a girlfriend named Beverly who’s sweet and seems to be good for him. He still misses his wife and kids, but it’s been four years since the crash and everyone’s tried to get him to move on. It’s been nice visiting with him again and he’s assured me I can stay here as long as I need to. If the business dissolves, I might settle down here in a place of my own with an accounting firm, much as I did before I joined the crew.”

“Merlin’s trying to get me to return to the family business,” Samantha replied. “There’s a corporate branch here on Pomen, but I really don’t want to do that. With luck, we’ll get a new ship soon, but hopefully it won’t be too much longer.”  

*** 

Prince Kal led Merlin away from the royal limousine toward a large hangar on a private airfield. Two guards wearing body armor trailed them by a few yards, but otherwise they were alone. Merlin glanced up at the cloudy sky and idly wondered when it was going to start raining. The clouds were dark and heavy, and the air was laden with moisture.

One of the guards moved in front of the Prince as they approached the door and tapped in a security code on a pad next to the lock. There was a slight chirp and the panel split apart to reveal a cavernous dark arena. The guard turned on the lights and moved in first, surveying the area before he nodded back to Prince Kal.  The coyote allowed Merlin to pass through the door ahead of him.

The lupine captain stopped after only a couple of steps inside. His breathing was shallow and his eyes tried to take in the sight all at once. The newest model of the Okami class freighter design was nearly twice the size of his old ship. He had seen the larger vessels before, but this ship was his. Rather than the old fat flying-saucer shape, this one appeared to be oval lengthwise and much larger, although leaner. They had come into the hangar facing the ship’s port side. Right away, he could tell that the vessel had a larger engine pod. The color was battleship-grey, but he could have it repainted later.

Probably the oddest aspect of the new freighter that he saw during that first couple of moments was the absence of forward landing gear. The weight of the engine section in the back more than made up for the counterbalance needed to keep the ship upright, and he guessed that fact would hold true even when the cargo bay was fully loaded.  His expert eyes discerned aerodynamic panels for forward landing gear, however, and it made him feel unconsciously relieved to know they were there should they be needed. For now, they were simply tucked away.

Prince Kal looked over at the wolf and saw the captain’s eyes shining. “The data from your old computer core can be safely transferred to the new system,” he said. “It is equipped with a Geo-25 computer system by Voshnesinski Informational Productions.”

“It has a VIP computer system?” Merlin asked in awe as they resumed walking toward the ship.

“The latest.”

When they approached the main airlock hatch, Merlin saw the PA Registry number painted on the hull beside it.

PA1138,” he read aloud.

“I took the liberty of having it registered for you,” Kal said.

“Does the ship have a name?”

The prince shook his head. “No, that is something I wanted leave up to her captain. Will you call her the Blue Horizon II?

Merlin shrugged his shoulders. “I haven’t really thought about it, actually,” he confessed. “I dislike putting a number into a ship’s name, but I think I’ll talk it over with my crew before making that decision.”

“Where did the name Blue Horizon come from originally?”

Merlin smiled at him.  “It’s from the lyrics of a song in an old movie I like,” he replied. “The first time I heard the lyrics, I thought to myself, ‘That sounds like a good name for a ship’. It was probably three years later when I bought my freighter and remembered the words.”

Kal removed an ivory envelope from an inner pocket and handed it to the wolf. “Here are the title papers granting ownership of your new ship, in addition to all the security codes currently encoded into the system. I would strongly suggest you change all the codes yourself once you have the system up and running to minimize security breaches.”

Merlin nodded as he took the envelope. In light of the letter he had gotten that morning, he thought that would be a good idea. He turned the envelope over and saw the Aris royal seal. He smiled up at the prince and broke the seal before him. Inside was a folded sheaf of papers accompanied by a thin data crystal.

He browsed quickly through the printed pages and located the list of codes. He found the one he wanted and then tapped the code into the security pad next to the main hatch. The doors split apart diagonally and the chamber light of the airlock came on.

Prince Kal put a hand on the wolf’s shoulder and smiled at him. “Since you stated the desire to see your new ship in private, I will leave you to explore her on your own. I will send my limousine and driver back here after it has taken me to the embassy, so you may return for your crew when you are ready.”

“Thank you, sir,” Merlin said with a bow and genuine appreciation.

“May I expect you and your crew to dine with me tonight?”

Merlin nodded with a wide smile. “Yes, sir. We would be honored.”

“Good,” the prince replied. “I’ll make the arrangements on my way back to the embassy. Enjoy your new ship, my friend.”

“Thank you, sir, I will.” With that, Prince Kal motioned toward his guards and the three of them retraced their steps back to the limousine.

Merlin Sinclair turned and looked up the side of the grey ship toward the bridge. “Well, girl,” he said in a soft whisper, “let’s get to know one another, shall we?”  

*** 

“Your résumé looks satisfactory, Mr. Porter,” a young and smartly dressed otter said with an appreciative nod. A nameplate on the desk revealed his name to be Nolan Xavier. He looked at the raccoon’s data crystal on his desktop monitor and he nodded again. “Have you ever been on a Paladin-class passenger cruiser before?”

“Only as a customer seven or so years ago,” Patch replied. The pair sat in a Spartan office in a small building near the principal spaceport in the city of Adasa. The headquarters of the Merriam Cruise Lines was on Ganis, but they had a district office set up in the capitol city of each world of the Planetary Alignment.

“We require ten engineers on each of our cruisers, Mr. Porter, and we’re lacking two positions on our newest ship, the SS Argonautia.” The otter slid a slateboard datapak toward Patch and indicated a red figure in a box on the screen by itself. “This would be your salary, to be paid to you at the completion of every voyage.”

Patch did his best to hide his surprise. Merlin had always been generous in the salaries he granted his employees, but it could not match that of a corporate budget. The contract bound him to ten voyages, wherever they might take him, and guaranteed his pay. The other benefits outlined in the document far surpassed anything he had ever made before, but the conditions also limited him in his job. Six-plus years on the Blue Horizon had granted him plenty of freedom to experiment and try out new things on the systems, but on the Argonautia, he would be just one of a team of ten that would be expected to follow the rules and stick to corporate specifications.

He thought about it another moment and then nodded to the otter. “I would be honored if chosen to serve on the Argonautia, Mr. Xavier.”

“Splendid,” the otter replied. “If you’ll sign on the line next to the bottom, we can get your contract finalized

“You mean I’m hired?”

“That’s correct, Mr. Porter, as of this moment.” The raccoon signed the document with a thumbprint and handed the slateboard back to the otter. “You should report to docking port forty-two no later than noon tomorrow and ask for a canine named Marcus Bern. He’s the chief engineer of the Argonautia and will be your immediate supervisor. You will go to him for all things.” Xavier keyed in a code onto a small card scanner and then slipped a plastic card into it. A moment later, he retrieved the card and handed it to Patch. “This is your identification and pay credicard. Show this to Mr. Bern and he’ll know I hired you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Xavier.”

The otter looked at him and cocked his head sideways. “We still need one more experienced engineer to make the crew complete. If you know of any others looking for employment, please send them to me.”

“Yes, sir, I will.” Patch stood up, shook hands with the otter, and then left the office. He intended to go straight to his brother to tell him about his new job and the other opening that would be waiting for him.  

*** 

Merlin stood in the center of the empty cargo hold, all the lights on and looking around him in awe. The area was double the size of the old ship’s hold, and had a higher ceiling that was equipped with two cargo lifting cranes. Freight tie-downs were recessed into the floor and spaced three meters apart in a grid pattern. Along the walls were airtight storage bins that were rigged to keep the contents hot, cold or neutral as needed. Two of the bins contained anti-grav pallet carriers, chains, cables and straps. Another bin was full of plasteel webbing, and yet another harbored twenty pressure suits of various sizes and shapes. The load master’s office was insulated and soundproofed with a pressure door, contained a kitchenette at one end of the room, and a lavatory in a small room compartment next door.

The captain continued his self-guided tour across the bay and into the engine room. According to the spec sheet from the packet Kal had given him, the Liquid Crystal LightDrive engines were larger than those of a G-model and the energy output had been doubled. There was plenty of room to work in and access panels were everywhere to give an engineer ample ways to get in to get to whatever problem might come up. Just about every type of tool needed to work on an LC engine was provided in a closet full of various tool kits, and in the event someone did not have the knowledge to work on the engines, or power was out preventing anyone from accessing the computers, a full set of hardbound books lined a wall in the engine room office for reference. Like the load master’s office, this one also had a small kitchenette. Whoever had redesigned the Okami class freighter had put a lot of good thought into the comfort of those who maintained one.

Satisfied with what he had seen, Merlin walked back across the bay and entered the main lift to take him up to the next level. When he stepped out onto the Crew deck, the light came on automatically, obviously programmed to conserve power when no one was in the circular corridor, but to activate instantly whenever someone was present. The carpet was a mixture of blue and grey and the walls were a simple white.

He decided to take a walk around the corridor once before peeking into any of the cabins. Since the ship was larger and oval in shape rather than the old circle, there were more rooms available. In the old vessel, the inside wall of the Crew deck corridor housed the upper level of the cargo hold, but that was not so in this one.  The Crew deck sat on top of the two-story cargo bay. There were storage rooms and equipment chambers for the ship’s systems in the center of the vessel, where they had been moved from the lower deck of the old model. Much more efficient, he thought to himself.

He made a complete circuit around the passageway and found himself standing beside the main lift again. He had counted fifteen crew cabins, the bridge, the Infirmary and the captain’s ready room, but had seen no sign of the galley. Between each cabin were more access panels for extra storage or equipment. His first impulse was to visit the bridge, but thought he would save that room until the very last. There was no reason to do so, but he fancied the mystique of waiting until the last moment to see his new ship’s command center.

As a rule, Merlin liked to have his personal cabin next to his office, so he chose that particular cabin as a start. The door slid aside when he thumbed a square pad beside the panel, but the lights didn’t come on automatically as they had in the corridor. He reached inside and touched the switch, noting immediately that there were various lighting settings on the controls.

When the cabin was fully illuminated, he nearly gasped at the size of the room. The place was larger than his quarters on board the Blue Horizon, and instead of two rooms, there were three.  The main room was furnished with a corner sectional couch, a coffee table and two plain lamps upon small tables on opposite ends of the couch. A standard desk and terminal occupied a corner nearest the door. There were no decorations on the plain walls, save for a vidscreen mounted in the wall opposite the couch.

Intrigued, Merlin walked through a door at the back of the room and saw a bed much larger than standard on freighters. Had he not known better, the lupine captain might have thought he’d stumbled onto a personal star cruiser. Another terminal vidscreen was mounted in the wall across from the bed beside a set of storage bins recessed into the bulkhead. There were night stands on either side of the bed and plenty of storage room beneath.

Merlin smiled and stretched out on the bare mattress to get a feeling for it.  It was a bit soft for his tastes, but he spied the comfort controls for it on the left night stand.  He could adjust the firmness of the mattress later when he was settled in.

The wolf got up and moved to the walk-in closet. He peered inside and was pleased with the amount of space available. Another room connected through a door at the opposite end of the bedroom and he ventured inside to take a look at the lavatory.  Everything was fairly much the same as it was on his old ship, but this one contained a combination shower and large immersion bathtub. The older G-model vessel had only a shower, and there had been so many times on long voyages that he had often wished for a tub to soak in. He decided the new ship design must have a fairly large water tank and good reclamation unit.

When Merlin approached the door to leave the cabin, he saw a small covered panel near the door that he had not seen when he had gone inside.  He opened it cautiously and saw lifepod ejection controls. In the event of a disaster, each of the fifteen cabins could be ejected from the ship as a lifepod. He assumed each was equipped with its own air supply, emergency rations and guidance system. The door was a standard internal panel, but outside the thick door frame was an airlock pane designed to slide across the opening and seal the compartment for ejection. Impressive, he thought to himself.  A good idea, but I hope we never have to use it.

He looked into two more nearby cabins before he was satisfied that all were identical in size and layout. The three-room Infirmary was well equipped, but was currently devoid of supplies due to legal restrictions and the shelf-life of certain medications. He didn’t linger there, but moved to the nearest lift and took it up to the next level.

As he had suspected, the recreation deck was larger than his last one and the galley occupied the aft end of the room. The floor, walls and the ceiling were covered in a tight, but soft burgundy carpet. The lighting was indirect and gave the room a cozy feeling. A huge vidscreen covered a good portion of the forward wall and he could see recessed speakers placed all over the room. Four couches and four reclining chairs were arranged in a semi-circle facing the vidscreen, but they were not mounted to the floor as the crew quarter furniture was so they could be moved around for different events or hobbies.

Like the cargo hold, there were recessed storage bins in all the walls, though all were empty save for one, which contained a large folded exercise mat. The galley was open to the rest of the deck, but the kitchen itself was contained within half walls and equipped with large appliances. As with the Infirmary, it was empty of supplies. It was apparent everyone would have to help out in a hefty shopping spree before they could even think about taking off.

Merlin was pleased with his new ship. It seemed everything was a vast improvement over the old vessel and he felt more than fortunate that it had been simply given to him as a gift. With a contented smile on his face, the wolf took the lift back down to the second level and headed for the bridge.

He stood in front of a blue door painted with the golden image of an old sailing ship’s wheel, the traditional adornment of the bridge door on all Okami freighters. He held his breath for a moment before activating the control to open it. When it slid aside for him, he stepped inside the darkened command center and turned the lights up full.

The semicircular room was painted in shades of blue and grey, with four stations lined around the forward curved wall: navigation, communications, weapons, and engineering. Each with a set of instrument panels that arced in a generous semicircle around a plush swivel seat wide enough for even Durant’s large back end.

Another station in the middle of the room was located behind and between the communication and weapons stations. The pilot’s station was the center seat for flying, and controlling all take-off and landing maneuvers. It was in this seat where he would spend many flight hours, as well as whoever was on standard watch.

Three large window panels covered the curved forward wall and all had the near invisible circuitry built within to bring up video displays whenever needed. The back wall of the small bridge contained stations for environmental control, the library computer and the sensors. Instrumentation filled most of the walls, as well as up into the low ceiling. The entrance to the bridge was at the left corner of the back wall, and the door to the head was in the right corner. There was also another door in the left wall leading directly to the captain’s office next door.

He let his gaze move back to the weapons console as it dawned on him that a factory-made freighter had a weapons station! He walked over to it and took a look at the labels on the panel. His pulse quickened when he realized that this was not standard equipment, but military-class Tanthean armaments. The ship was armed to the teeth and could defend all points of a three-dimensional compass. So, this is what Prince Kal meant when he had a few special modifications made during the construction of the ship. The console also contained a secondary set of flight controls, should the pilot’s terminal ever be damaged.

Merlin moved back to the center seat and sat down slowly, as if savoring the feeling of being captain once again. He looked over the control console and noted with relief that everything looked to be in the same places as his old ship. He keyed in a few commands and the left viewing screen came to life showing the interior of the cargo hold. Another switch showed him the exterior of the ship, out into the otherwise empty hangar. He shut it off and stood up again, and walked to the environmental station at the back of the room. He switched on a few systems and keyed in a command to tie in with the planet’s weather satellite system. He focused in on the city of Adasa and noted the strong thunderstorms currently raining down on the region just outside this hangar.

With the enjoyment of connecting into the systems on the ship, Merlin moved to the Com station and dialed up the number of Samantha’s room at the embassy. She answered almost immediately and her face showed up clearly on the left vidscreen. This was another surprise to the captain: the old ship’s com system had been audio-only. He told her in quick sentences of the meeting between him and Prince Kal. She became excited at the news and he asked her to get in touch with the others and let them all know. He wanted to meet with them in the restaurant again and then he would arrange to take them out to see the new ship. He also told her of the Prince’s invitation to them all for dinner that evening.

“I still have an hour before I’m to meet with the representative of Interstellar Insurance,” he finished up by telling her, “and I still have a lot I need to do here before I leave.”

Samantha’s face was beaming. “Yes, sir!” she said excitedly. “You’ve just made everybody’s day! I’ll let them know about it right now!”

Merlin closed the connection and then moved over to the engineer’s station. He pulled out the security codes from the envelope the Prince had given it to him and began the sequence to change the factory-set codes to new codes he would create specifically for his business.  

*** 

Once again the crew of the late Blue Horizon were gathered together, but this time on the recreation deck of the new vessel. The large vidscreen displayed Durant’s smiling face as he joined in the meeting via teleconferencing from his brother’s home on the other side of the planet. With the exception of Patch, everyone seemed in high spirits; the raccoon had not said a handful of words since his return to the embassy and hearing the news.

Merlin had given everyone but the absent Durant a tour of the ship and had pointed out all the new and wonderful features he had discovered thus far. On their way to the hangar, Samantha had convinced the driver of the limousine to stop at a local grocery market, where she and Max picked up a number of items for the crew to share in lunch when they got to the new vessel.

Merlin grinned ear to ear as he listened to everyone’s comments on what each had seen as everyone finished their meals. He currently sat in one of the recliners with a coffee cup in his hand and a new nautical hat atop his head. Pockets was seated beside him, and rattling on and on in praise of the ship. He had noted Patch’s silence, but he felt too good to give it much attention.

“The only downside I can see to the new ship,” Pockets said, “is the absence of Moss.”

“Moss was your invention, Pockets,” Renny said as he limped toward a couch. “Did you really think the new ship would come equipped with one?”

“Not really, but I do miss the little flying saucer.”

“So build another one,” Samantha suggested.

“No, anything but that!” Durant’s voice emerged from the speaker system. “I think losing Moss in the crash was the only good thing that came from this whole mess!” Durant’s dislike of the mobile sentry system was well known among the crew.

Pockets sneered up at the bear’s on-screen face. “If Moss hadn’t jettisoned our first batch of cargo on the way to Crescentis,” the raccoon reminded everyone, “we wouldn’t have landed on Tanthe, where the Captain captured the heart of the princess, and which resulted in the gift of this wonderful new ship. Sagan apparently knew we were on our way to Crescentis, so if Moss hadn’t dumped the cargo by mistake, we would have been attacked anyway – though without a new ship to get the business back up and running.”

Renny laughed and took a drink from his glass. “Pockets can justify anything, can’t he?”

“True,” Tanis replied with a big grin, “but we cannot always depend on the Captain meeting women of influence if we get into more trouble.”

Merlin chuckled and shook his head. “I don’t know, Durant,” he said with a smile. “I wasn’t all that fond of Moss either, but it did find two stowaways for us.”

“With the way your brother smelled,” Durant countered, “we could have found him on our own without Moss’ help.”

The captain chuckled. “I can’t argue with that.”

Everyone appeared to have finished eating, so Merlin spoke up in a louder voice. “Okay, there are a few things to go over, so I need your attention. I met with Mr. Andes just before I picked you up at the embassy and we went over everything together. After three long months, Interstellar Insurance has finalized our case with the Spatial Police Force.”

“It’s about time!” Pockets said.

“It was ultimately determined that we were not liable and that we had done everything we could to avoid the result of the incident. I had total coverage on the old ship and they have awarded us a hefty sum for the Blue Horizon as a total loss. Of course, now I get to contact Mr. Andes again before he leaves Pomen to get our new ship insured.”

“What about the reward for Sagan?” Renny asked. “Didn’t the SPF on Crescentis tell you that with the identification of his body that we would be granted the reward?”

Merlin nodded. “Yes, they did, and that money has been held in an account for us all this time, but it would not be actually awarded to us until the closure of the case. The case was closed as of this morning.” The captain looked up at the vidscreen and said, “Make a note of this, Durant,” he said. “From the insurance and reward monies that have been transferred to the account of Blue Horizon Freight Transfer, I am granting every member of this crew a deserving raise. I’ll get with you later for the specific amounts reflecting your positions.”

“Aye, Boss,” the bear acknowledged with a grin. “I’ve noted your statement in the account books so you won’t forget.”

“The payout has also resolved all our medical bills,” Merlin added. He then raised his coffee cup up in honor of his employees and said to their grinning faces, “Thanks for being such a good crew, my friends.” The others raised their glasses in unison and began chatting among themselves.

No one seemed notice that Patch maintained a solemn air despite the good news. Everyone was used to his perpetual sour or neutral facial expressions, but had they looked closer they might have seen that he appeared ill. He had not yet told anyone of his new employment, and everything he had seen during the tour of the new ship only made him stall a bit longer before bringing it up.

“I’ve already chosen my cabin,” Merlin announced. “It’s right next to the captain’s office as it was before. Before you leave today, you can pick out the quarters you want as your own. They’re all identical in size and layout, and we have more rooms available now than we do crew members.”

“They’re larger, too,” Tanis said. “Much larger.”

“I like the addition of a bathtub,” Durant said. “From your description, the tubs should be large enough to accommodate even me.”

A lull came over the group when Max asked, “What about Taro? Are we going to set up a room for her too?”

Everyone looked to Merlin, who shook his head slowly. “Captain Natasha told me she would transport Taro to Pomen ahead of the rest of us and would only tell me that she would be well cared for. Since then, I’ve heard nothing more than that.” He looked around the group with a frown. “Natasha has proven to be an ally, at least in this case, so I can only assume that Taro is still alive and in good hands. I have had no other word on her status.”

Samantha leaned forward, her arms resting upon her knees. “I’ve tried contacting the Lady of Dreams on the same channel I sent out the distress signal that brought her to us,” she said, “but this time I’ve not received a reply.”

“At the time Natasha took Taro with her,” Merlin added, “she said it was a personal matter between her and Taro, and that I was not to inquire further. I can only hope that she will eventually update us on our friend’s condition.” He looked up at the vidscreen again where the bear had been listening quietly. “Durant, I want to earmark some of our new funds for Taro. I have no idea whether her medical expenses will be billed to us or if Natasha plans to handle it herself, but I want to keep a reserve on hand for her just in case.”

“Aye, boss.”

Merlin drained his coffee cup and then changed the subject. He leaned forward and held his empty cup in both hands as his arms rested on his knees. “My friends, Blue Horizon Freight Transfer is back in business. Earlier this morning, I recommended that you should seek employment elsewhere,” he said, letting a smile cross his features, “but I’m glad Prince Kal got to me before any of you had a chance to find anything.”

Patch cleared his throat and spoke in a meek voice that none of them had ever heard from him before, “Uh, Captain… that’s not entirely true.”

The wolf felt a sudden dread at those words. “Meaning?” he asked.

“Once you gave us letters of reference this morning, I went out immediately looking for work.” He looked down at his feet for a brief moment and then back up into the amber eyes of the lupine captain. “After three months, I — I didn’t expect you would be getting a new ship today.  Despite the crash and the SPF investigation, I’ve had creditors breathing down my neck for payment and I needed a new source of income to pay them.”

“Oh, Patch…” Samantha said in a quiet voice. “I would have given you a loan to keep you on your feet.”

“Thanks, Sam,” the raccoon said with sincerity, “but that would have been replacing one loan with another. Merlin’s funds were running out and I needed a steady source of income, so I went looking for a job this morning after our meeting. I didn’t expect to find what I was looking for at the first place I applied, but it practically fell into my lap.”

Pockets looked at his brother in disbelief. “You don’t mean to say that you…”

“I was hired this morning by the Merriam Cruise Lines as an engineer on a new cruise ship. I report tomorrow by noon.”

Merlin sat back in his seat, but Pockets stood up and looked down at his sibling. “After all the time you’ve spent with the Blue Horizon, you are leaving just - like - that?” he shouted.

“Pockets!” Merlin said sharply. “It’s okay. Patch didn’t know that Prince Kal had already arrived with a new ship. It’s my fault.”

“But, now that he knows,” Renny said with a try to diffuse the situation, “all he has to do is tell MCL that he’s no longer available.”

Patch shook his head. “It’s not that simple, Renny. I signed a contract with them. I already have an account and identification as a member of the crew on the Argonautia. Besides…”

“Besides what?” Pockets grumbled.

“Being a large corporation,” Merlin said with a nod of understanding, “they pay more and have better benefits, right?”

“Yes, Captain,” Patch admitted. “That’s correct.”

Pockets groaned and dropped back down in his chair in a huff. His brother looked over at him and said in a quiet voice, “They have another engineer’s position open if you want it.”

Pockets jumped to his feet again in anger. “Are you stupid and an idiot?” he shouted. “Merlin just got a new ship and needs his crew — and that includes you and me! I’m not leaving, even for more money. You should stay, too!”

Patch stood up and faced his brother with his own air of anger. He was quickly getting tired of being treated like a traitor. “I told you that I’m already bound to a contract!” he shouted back in his sibling’s face. “There’s nothing more I can do about it, and neither can you!”

“But we have a contract with Merlin!”

“Which he dissolved this morning when he gave us permission to seek other jobs!” Patch grabbed his brother’s shirt with clenched fists and pulled him closer, nose to nose. “I’m not happy about this whole affair either, but don’t you dare tell me –”

Pockets shoved his brother hard, and the fabric of his own shirt ripped with Patch’s grip. Patch fell into his seat and Pockets backed away a step.

Patch stood up again to pummel his brother, but Samantha swiftly placed herself between the two raccoons. “Stop it!” she said angrily. “Just stop it, both of you!” She glared at Pockets until her friend finally backed down and returned to his seat. When she turned to look at Patch, he was glaring at his brother, but finally sat down.

Merlin cleared his throat and all eyes returned to him after a tense moment. “We’ll miss you, Patch,” he said gently. “It was my fault for not coming back to tell everyone about the new ship right away after I’d spoken with Prince Kal. Finding new jobs often takes a while and I didn’t really think any of you would have the time to find another job in the two hours since I’d talked to you, so I took a personal tour of the ship before getting back to you. I was wrong and I’m sorry.” He stood up and walked over to Patch. He extended a hand toward the raccoon and said, “Good luck on your new ship, Jasper. I hope you’ll keep in contact with us and let us know how you’re doing.”

Patch swallowed when he heard the captain call him by his first name, something he hadn’t done in years. He clasped hands with the wolf and nodded solemnly. “Thank you, Merlin. I will.”

“Durant and I will arrange a nice severance pay for you this evening.”

“I appreciate that, Captain,” Patch said. He bit his lip for a moment and then added, “I assume you have more to discuss with the crew, so I’ll be on my way. I have a few personal items to pick up before reporting in tomorrow.” Without waiting for a response, Patch turned and walked toward the lift, purposely refraining from meeting anyone’s eyes.

“Goodbye, Patch,” Maximillian said in a sad voice as the raccoon reached the lift door. “I enjoyed your music.”

That was all it took for Patch. He hit the control pad inside the lift and the panel closed behind him before anyone saw the moisture in the usually unshakeable raccoon’s eyes.

After the lift door had closed, the room fell completely quiet as everyone immersed themselves within their own thoughts. Merlin walked to the galley to refill his cup. When he felt that the mood had been dark long enough, he returned to his seat and took a lap of coffee.

“Okay,” he said with a weak smile, “moving right along.”

Before he could say anything more, Pockets sat up straight in his chair and said, “Captain, despite the bombshell my brother just dropped on us, I just want you to know you can depend on me to keep your new ship running as smoothly as possible.”

“Thank you, Pockets,” the wolf said with a confident smile, “I know we’ll be in good hands with you as my chief engineer.”

“Unless he builds another Moss,” Durant added, diffusing the tension in the air with a chuckle. Everyone seemed to relax again as they all looked toward their captain.

“Moving right along,” Merlin repeated with bright eyes. “After months of inactivity, it’s time to get back to work. Pockets, I need you and Tanis to retrieve the old computer core from storage and slave it to the Geo-25. Then it will be Samantha’s job to transfer all our old records and data to the new system.” He pulled out a series of printed cards and passed them around the room. Here are the security codes for the new VIP on-board computer systems. Don’t lose them. You’ll need them to set up and access your personal folders, as well as to get on board the ship when it’s all locked up.  New security measures will also require you to log in each time you take control of the bridge for your watches.  Durant, I’ll hang onto yours until you can get back here.”

“I’ll let my brother know I’m leaving and will try to be there sometime tomorrow,” the bear answered.

“No need to rush,” Merlin replied. “We still need to go shopping for basic supplies to restock the ship, and I need to put out a call for applicants for Taro’s job.”

The room fell silent again and the wolf sighed. “No need to be alarmed,” he said with a frown. “I’m hoping to hire someone merely as a temporary replacement. I still need someone to handle her duties.”

“I can take over Communications,” Samantha said. “No need to hire anyone else for that.”

“Okay, that duty is yours,” Merlin said. “However, I still need a Customer Liaison to handle all the aspects of seeking out and securing delivery jobs for us and making all the contacts necessary to get that done. There’s a lot of work involved in that job.”

“I know,” Renny said. “Taro often told me about how she’d done this or took care of that. It’s a fairly involved process, using up a lot of communication cycles.”

“Until I get some kind of word on Taro’s condition, I can’t count on her coming back for a while, if at all. Whomever I hire will be in full knowledge that the job may only be temporary. If we can have Taro back in the position, the job is guaranteed for her.”

“Hire another female,” Samantha said with a grin. “With Sparky and Taro gone, I don’t have anyone else to discuss girl stuff with.”

“Hire someone my age,” Maximillian added.

“He already did,” Tanis quipped. “His name is Pockets!”

“Hey!” the raccoon yelped, “I’m almost thirty-two!”

“Yeah, but ya act like a teenager!” Tanis retorted.

“You make that sound like it’s a bad thing,” Max said with a grin.

“There’s nothing wrong with acting like a teenager, if ya are a teenager!” the tan fox laughed.

“Don’t pick on me or I’ll tell my Momma…” Pockets said with a playful pout.

Merlin shook his head and said in a lighthearted tone, “I don’t care what age the applicants are, so long as they can do the job.”

“Do we need another engineer to help Pockets?” Renny asked.

Merlin looked over at the raccoon. “What do you say, Pockets?” he asked. “Do you want any help in the engine room?”

“No, sir,” Pockets said confidently. “This new baby is mine!

“Okay, I’ll just put out a call for Customer Liaison,” Merlin said. He looked up at the vidscreen and added, “Durant, with Taro’s absence, I’m formally making you my second-in-command. You have more experience than anyone else and are the most qualified.”

“Thank you, boss.”

“Tanis, I need you to make up a list of all the medical supplies and medications we’ll need to have on board. The ship is completely bare of such things, so we’ll have to start from scratch.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Is your medical license up to date? You’ll need it for some of the stuff.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Holden Pharmaceuticals has a division here,” Samantha said. “I can make arrangements for Tanis to get what he needs.”

“Good. Max, I need you to make up the most complete listing of groceries and ingredients that you can think of,” Merlin said. “Get with everyone and find out what kind of dishes they prefer and then study your cookbooks to see what ingredients you’ll need. We want to have plenty of food in the stores to last weeks at a time, and don’t want to starve when we’re between worlds and light years from the nearest restaurant. I’ll want to take a look at the list before you go shopping, just to make sure.”

“Uncle Merlin?” the young canine looked hesitant, and a little embarrassed.

“Yes?”

“As long as you are hiring someone new… uh, can you hire a new cook, too?”

Merlin looked at him in silence for a moment and then nodded his head slightly. “I know you’ve needed some assistance in the galley, Max. I’m sorry I didn’t have someone helping you before.”

“I don’t think he’s asking for help, Captain,” Samantha said quietly.

“I see,” the wolf replied when he saw the look of confirmation in the youth’s eyes. “Well, with our surplus, I suppose we can hire a new cook as well.”

Max swallowed and gave Merlin a grateful smile. “Thank you,” he said. “I… I wasn’t doing very well in the kitchen.”

The captain gave him a look of compassion and said, “You did a good job, Max, and I’m proud of you for it.  Is there something else you would rather be doing?”

Maximillian glanced over at Pockets and shrugged his shoulders. “Can I work with him in the engine room?” he asked.

Merlin looked over at the raccoon. “What about it, Chief Engineer?” he asked. “Could you use a trainee mechanic?”

Pockets crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at the youth as he pretended to really think it over hard. “Well… now that my brother is out of the way, I probably could use a minion to boss around…” The German shepherd grinned widely and put his hands on his knees as he leaned back in his chair.

“Okay, Max,” the captain said. “You do what Pockets tells you and I think you’ll learn a great deal.”

“Thanks, Uncle Merlin,” the canine said. Then he turned toward Pockets and added, “Thank you, too, Pockets.”

The raccoon winked at him and Tanis chuckled. “As long as jobs are shifting around,” he said with a smile, “can I be the new captain?”

Merlin bared his teeth at the tan fox.  “Request denied,” he said with a fierce grin.  Tanis made an exaggerated show of being frightened and everybody laughed.

“Okay, Renny,” Merlin continued, “you will need to continue your physical therapy even after we’re on our way, so I want you to get with your therapist and find out what equipment you’ll need for it. While you are checking on that, look into getting us some new regular exercise equipment as well. We lost our rapiers in the crash and I’d like to continue fencing practice during our voyages once you are up and able.”

“I’ll take care of it,” the cheetah said. “What about ordnance for the weaponry?

“That’s one thing this ship is supplied with. We’re fully loaded.”

“Is the combination of insurance and reward money going to be able to pay for all this?” Tanis asked. “Just getting the ship supplied with the basics is going to cost a small fortune!”

Durant let out a small whistle in surprise. They could hear Durant clicking away on the terminal during the conversation and he answered the question himself. “I’ve just now checked our account balance and we have over ©3,000,000 available to us!”

“Three million credits!” Tanis gasped in awe.

Merlin gave them a lopsided smile. “I was going to tell you later, so you wouldn’t over-spend on your shopping trips, but a number of the Planetary Alignment worlds had sizable sums set aside for the capture of Sagan. The SPF made sure all of those sums were awarded to us.” He spread his arms out in a stretch and added, “There was a larger reward on his head if brought in dead than if alive. Apparently, no one wanted to bother with putting him on trial where he might find some loophole and escape. The government of Hestra was especially pleased to hear of his demise.”

“Let’s just hope the knowledge of the Taquit Fever virus was lost with him,” Samantha said quietly.

“Agreed.” Renny added.

“Now that you know about the money, I want to caution you. This money belongs to the business, so Durant is going to require you to turn in all your receipts when you make purchases for the ship. When he gets here, he’ll configure your accounts with back pay for the past three months, and you can make any personal purchases out of that.”

“Can we use some of the money to buy a couple of power loaders?” Renny asked. “We’ve rented some here and there at the places we’ve landed, but it would be nicer if we just had our own.”

Merlin raised an eyebrow and looked over at Pockets. “Do you think you could find us a couple of used models?” he asked. “We have money in the account, but I’d rather not use it all up right away.”

The raccoon nodded. “Let me know what kind of budget I’ll have and I’ll scout around the local rags to see what I can find.”

“Durant and I will discuss it and give you a figure as soon as we can.”

“Thanks, boss,” Renny said with a smile. “That will make things go a little smoother.”

“Has the new ship been registered with the Planetary Alignment?” Tanis asked.

“Yes, Prince Kal took care of that for us.” Merlin replied, “The registry is PA1138.”

“Did the prince register a name for the ship as well?” Durant asked.

The wolf shook his head. “No, he left that up to us.”

“So, what are you going to call it?” Samantha asked.

Merlin took a drink of coffee and drained his cup again. Max jumped up and ran to the galley to get him a refill, though keeping his ears tuned to the conversation.

“I thought I would let you all discuss it,” Merlin replied. “Suggestions?”

The group fell quiet as they began to think.

“We could call it Sagan’s Demise,” Renny said after a moment.

Tanis snorted. “That would be an open invitation to any pirate who might have been friends with him to come and get us.”

“How about the Rhinoceros?” Pockets suggested.

“That sounds like a name for a huge battleship,” Durant said.

“With the way this baby is armed, isn’t that appropriate?” Pockets asked.

“What about Zephyr?” Renny tried. “We can have one that sounds kinda exotic.”

“There’s already been a ship with that name.” Pockets replied, remembering an article in a trade magazine he’d read during their convalescence.

“How about Free Enterprise?” Renny tried again. He got nothing but groans from everybody, so he sullenly crossed his arms and decided to keep his mouth shut.

“What if we call it the Grey Ghost,” Max said as he returned with the captain’s replenished coffee. “The Blue Horizon was painted blue,” he said. “This one is painted grey.”

Merlin shook his head as he took the cup. “The old ship was painted blue because of the name, not the other way around. I don’t like grey ships and I’m going to have this one repainted next week,” he said. “Grey reminds me too much of the military ships I served on.”

“I agree,” Tanis replied. “Battleship-grey paint is dull.”

“I have the perfect name for the new ship,” Durant said. Everyone looked up at the vidscreen in doubt. “Why not just call it the Blue Horizon II and go with that? After all, the business accounts are all under the name of Blue Horizon Freight Transfer.”

“Not a bad idea,” Pockets said, “if we drop the II from the name.”

“We wouldn’t have to get used to a new name,” Tanis agreed, “just a new registry number. It’s been done before with other ships.”

“I like that idea,” Samantha replied. “What do you think, Captain?”

Merlin nodded and lapped his coffee. “A new ship should have a new name, but I agree it would make things easier since the old ship has been decommissioned.” He looked around.  “Continuing to use Blue Horizon seems to be a popular idea. Any objections?”  No one voiced a negative opinion, so Merlin nodded. “I’ll submit the necessary forms with the PA Registry tomorrow and make it official.”

He yawned and stretched again. “This has been a full day for me already,” he said, “and I could use a chance to recharge.  I’m going back to the embassy to take an hour’s nap before I start in again on more I have to do. Remember that we’ve all been invited to dine with Prince Kal this evening, but for now you’re free to do whatever you want the rest of the day. We’ll begin operations to prep our new Blue Horizon tomorrow morning, so I need everyone to report back here no later than 0900 to get started. That will give us all time to have a good breakfast before we begin.  Lady and gents, we’re back in business.”  

*** 

When Patch got out of the taxi at the docking port the next morning, he was dressed in a pair of slacks, a nice shirt and jacket. It had been years since he had worn such clothing, but his old comfortable casual garments were in a small bag in his left hand. Since the crash of the Blue Horizon, he owned nothing else; not even the smallest of his musical instruments had survived, most of which were likely at the bottom of the Forvea Trench of Crescentis. He paid the driver and the cab drove away, leaving him alone on the dock.

Despite the arguments of the previous day, the entire local crew of the Horizon had given him a farewell breakfast with well-wishes, handshakes and a few small gifts. Pockets was still displeased with him, but that didn’t stop him from giving his brother a fierce hug and shedding a few tears at their last good-bye, with promises from both to keep in contact. Although they had spent time apart before, the twin brothers had been together most of their lives more often than not. Although Samantha had never really been close friends with Patch over the years they had known one another, she had given him a quick lick on the cheek and warm hug in farewell.

Now at the dock of his new vessel, Patch looked up at the massive pleasure cruise ship and sighed. It was the largest non-military craft he had ever seen, and even then it dwarfed most battleships. It was sleek with rounded edges and painted white with red and gold trim.

Crowds of people gathered around the primary gangway amidst calls of farewell and tears of departure, but as a ship’s hand, he would enter a smaller gangplank to board the ship near the stern. He smiled a little at their enthusiasm, but Patch didn’t imagine that the cruises on the Argonautia would be anywhere close to pleasurable for him, other than burying himself in his work.

He cleared his throat and squared his shoulders. It was time to find the chief  engineer and report in.  

*** 

“Okay,” Merlin said to Durant, “I have our prospects narrowed down to these two.” He keyed in a command and displayed the applications for side by side on the center screen of the bridge. Durant looked up at the information and photographs and read quickly through what he saw. There hadn’t been many applicants over the six days since Merlin had put out an ad for Customer Liaison in the major news media centers around the world. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be many individuals with the skills he required on Pomen. He had received one application all the way from Kantus, but the bulldog had been vehemently upset that Merlin would not hold off all other interviews for the four weeks it would take him to travel to Pomen. How he had found out about the interviews in another star system altogether was unknown.

“Cynthya Allport is a twenty-five year old brown mouse from Earth,” Merlin told the bear at his side. “She was born to a communications developer who had immigrated to Earth and was programming computers before she was riding a bike. She finished her degree in computer communications at the Lagerstrom University of Pomen, with a Minor in clinical psychology. If I hire her, Samantha wouldn’t have to take over Communications. This girl seems to have an analytical mind and a genial personality.” He looked over at Durant and gave him a smile with narrowed eyes. “She also flirted with me.”

“Trying to influence your decision?”

“No doubt.”

“What about the other one?”

“Antoinette Delondin is a twenty-seven year old human, born on Earth, but her family was military and like most, she’s lived just about everywhere. Due to this, she can speak a variety of foreign languages from multiple worlds. She’s had a lot of experience dealing with people, as she usually joined local social clubs and interacted with people wherever they went, and she has a business degree. She’s slender, dark-skinned, has large green eyes that were almost hidden by equally large glasses and she wears her black hair short.”

“What was your impression of her?” the bear asked him.

Merlin rested his elbows on the instrument panel and tapped the countertop with a nail. “She seems fairly competent. I get the impression that she would probably do okay, but like the mouse, she doesn’t have the exact experience we really need.”

He rested his chin on the counter and added, “I’m sure this will sound xenophobic, but every time I’ve ever dealt with a human, they always seem to have a phobia of some kind against Furs, probably since they’re the ones who created Furs in the first place to do their interstellar exploration for them; most of them still think of us as nothing more than talking animals. I’ve not found one yet who’s felt comfortable around me, other than a friend of my father’s when I was a pup.”

“You’ve been wary around humans ever since Connie Davies.”

Merlin’s ears went flat against the side of his head; he gave the grizzly a quick scowl at memories of the Blue Horizon’s very first on-board nurse.

“Is that what you feel from Ms. Delondin?”

“I’m not sure, but then again I’ve always had a hard time reading them. Human body language is different from Furs; their ears don’t even move.”

Durant shook his head. “These two are the best of the applicants?” he asked.

“Everyone else I’ve interviewed has even less experience and training,” the captain replied, “or was so repulsive in one way or another than I knew I didn’t want to be cooped up in a ship with for weeks at a time.”

Durant looked over the information and frowned deeply. “Can’t you just appoint Samantha to do the job?”

Merlin chuckled. “Funny you should mention that. I offered her the job, but she told me that she already had enough to do with maintaining the ship’s computers in hardware and software, as well as her duties as Supply Officer. She’s not as familiar with the Geo-25 system as she was the Geo-21, so she has a lot of research and testing to do with the new computer. As Renny pointed out, Customer Liaison is a full-time job, calling weeks and even months ahead to the various worlds to promote our company, arrange delivery and pickup, and payment for our services. There’s a lot of PR work involved.” He shook his head. “Sorry, but I need to hire someone else for that job, unless you want it, yourself.”

Durant looked surprised but then he smiled. “No thanks, boss. I’m your load master and the accountant for your business. I don’t have the time or the desire to take a third hat with Taro’s duties too.”

“I didn’t think so,” Merlin said with a grin. He looked back up at the vidscreen and waved a hand towards it. “We have to have the position filled to secure us a customer just so we can leave Pomen, so that means it’s down to choosing one of these two. We don’t even have Taro’s old slateboard datapak with her list of clientele contacts this time,” he said, referring to an incident when he’d first set up the business almost seven years earlier.  “I’m afraid there just is no one fully qualified in this place and I’m not even sure about either of these. Neither have much experience in this line of work, nor do I really wish to give anyone on-the-job training on how to contact and secure customers.”

“May I make a suggestion?” Durant asked.

“Sure, what is it?”

“Pick whichever one you think might be better in the job,” the bear explained, “and tell her that if she can secure a paying customer from Pomen to anywhere else within three days, she can have the job. If, by the end of that time she hasn’t found a delivery for us, offer the same test to the other applicant.”

“And what if neither of them is successful?”

“You could always contact that guy on Kantus and tell him we’ll wait for his arrival.”

Merlin snorted. “After the tantrum he had over the Com when I refused to hold up the interviews just for him, there’s no way he will ever work for me. He’s got an egotistical entitlement problem and he didn’t sound as if he would be good at following orders.”

He frowned and studied the applicants again. “Okay, Durant, I’ll follow your suggestion. The Horizon has been repainted, we’re finally stocked up on all our supplies, all licenses and legal fees have been paid, we’ve all checked out of the embassy and have been living on board the ship for the past two days. Now we just need somewhere to go.”

“Which one do we test first?”

“We’ll give Ms. Allport first crack at it.”

“Ah, so she did influence you!” Durant said with a laugh.

Merlin shook his head with a grin. “Possibly, but not in the way you’re thinking,” he said. “Just thinking that perhaps her degree in Psychology might help us out on the long voyages.”

“Then why don’t you just hire her outright and forget about the test and the rest?”

“I suppose I could,” Merlin admitted, “but now that I’ve thought about it some more, I like your idea. If she can arrange a delivery for us to make, then she’ll be hired anyway, whether I choose her right now or after the test.”

“Should I contact Ms. Delondin and the other applicants and simply thank them for their interest?”

“No, we’ll hold off on that until I actually hire anyone. We may have to fall back on one of them anyway.”

“Okay, boss,” Durant said as he turned off the vidscreen. “I’ll just save the contract file until we know whose name to put on it.”

Merlin nodded. “I’m going to give Ms. Allport a call and give her the basic information she’ll need when contacting people for our business. She will have three days.”

“Okay, what about our new cook?”

“Only one applicant. Lorelei Easter, or Lori, as she likes to be called, is a twenty-six year old cottontail rabbit,” Merlin sat up and read from his slateboard. “She was born on Mainor, but like Ms. Delondin, her family was military and she grew up all over the place. She’s extremely friendly, claims she can get along with anyone, and also claims to be a good cook with lots of experience. Her references have verified her experience.”

“What was your personal impression of her?” the bear asked him.

Merlin sat back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. “Bubbly, with lots of bubbles; I have a hunch that she’s the type who likes collecting crystals, love beads and messes around with things like auras and acupuncture. Easily distracted, too.”

“An airhead, eh?”

The wolf grinned. “Well, I wouldn’t go so far to hang any labels on her, but what’s important is that she enjoys cooking and has the experience feeding other species whether vegetarian or carnivorous. I’ll contact her shortly and let her know she’s been hired.” Merlin glanced over his notes again and then added with the nod of his head, “All three applicants have flight experience, too.”

“That’s good.” Durant looked at his slateboard and keyed in some numbers. “I’ll set up an account for our Easter bunny right away,” he said with a quick grin at his own joke. “I can get the rest of her financial data when she comes on board.” 

*** 

Merlin met the cottontail rabbit at The Feathery, a sidewalk café close to the Tanthean embassy where he had been a frequent customer during their extended stay. Lorelei was waiting for him at a sidewalk table, her twin suitcases and matching trunk were on the ground beside her chair. She was dressed in a pair of powder blue bell-bottom slacks and a white silk blouse with half the buttons open exposing her fur-covered cleavage. She wore a small golden four-leaf clover good-luck charm on a thin chain around her neck and her eyes were covered by a pair of dark sunglasses. She was sipping at a glass of lemonade when the lupine captain walked up to the table.

“Hello, Miss Easter,” he said with an extended hand.  “Good to see you agai—”

Before he had a chance to finish his greetings, the rabbit jumped up, kissed him quickly on the lips and then gave him a fierce hug with a lilted giggle, all while still holding onto her lemonade. “Thank you so much, sir,” she said merrily. “I am so happy to get the job!  You have no idea how good it was to get your call earlier, and when I got it I just danced around my room, and I...”

Merlin pulled himself out of her clinging embrace and pushed her back to arm’s length with a lopsided smile. “You don’t have to try to influence me,” he teased. “You’ve got the job already.”

“Oops,” she said with an embarrassed expression as she removed her sunglasses. “I didn’t mean it to look that way, sir.”

Merlin shook his head with a smile and then waggled a finger at her. “The Captain’s First Rule: don’t call me Sir, got it?”

“Yes, sir... uh, yes, I got it, Captain.”

“You can call me captain, boss or even just by my first name, which is Merlin,” the wolf explained as he led her back to the sidewalk table. “I served in the military and got awfully tired of everyone being called Sir, so I don’t allow anyone to call me that. I don’t mind when it is used as a form of respect, but don’t use it as a title, okay?”

“Uh huh,” the rabbit replied with a grin. “I understand. Likewise, please call me Lori instead of Lorelei. It’s what I go by mostly.”

“Fair enough. I take it you’re ready to go on board?”

“Yes, I am, Captain,” she said with a wave of her hand toward her suitcases. “I’ve always traveled light and everything I own are in these three and my purse.”

Merlin nodded and motioned at a waiter across the patio. “I know you’re probably ready to get to the ship, but I’m hungry and want to eat something before we leave.”

“Didn’t you tell me the Blue Horizon was fully stocked with food and kitchen equipment?” Lorelei asked him, her blue eyes sparkling. “I could prove my culinary skills by making you lunch on board the ship.”

Merlin chuckled and smiled at her. “Thank you, Lori, but I’m pretty fond of this little café and this may be the last time I get the chance to eat here before we take off. Besides I’m addicted to their coffee. You’ll have plenty of time to prove yourself to the crew once we get under way.”

“Okay,” the rabbit replied with the shrug of her shoulders.

“My standard practice is to gather everyone together in one place to introduce everyone to a new crew member,” the wolf said, “but I have everyone scattered right now doing last minute things for the ship before launch. You’ll probably meet a few of them informally when we get in, but we can get you settled in promptly after I’ve eaten.” The waiter arrived and took his order, and when he had gone back to the kitchen, Merlin continued. “We’ll be getting another new crew member sometime in the next few days,” he told the rabbit. “If we get a customer in that time, we’ll be leaving shortly thereafter.”

“Nice,” Lori replied with a smile.  “I can’t wait to be on our way!”  She looked around for a moment before returning her gaze to her new employer.  “As a coffee drinker, what’s your favorite blend?” she asked.

Merlin grinned. “I like coffee in just about all its forms across the Planetary Alignment, but Kidwell is probably my favorite.  Here’s a tip when you shop for ship’s groceries each time we land - always make sure we have plenty of coffee. We have a number of coffee drinkers on board, but I’m probably the most addicted to the stuff.”  He shook his head and added in a lighthearted tone, “ Don’t ever let me run out of coffee… That’s your first warning.”  

*** 

The lights came on in the vacant cabin of the freighter at the touch of a control. Into the room walked the shapely female rabbit with a big smile, followed by the ship’s chief engineer and the medic. The raccoon struggled with her two large suitcases and the desert fox wrestled with an even larger trunk behind him. The antigrav pallet they had used to bring up her luggage was too wide to fit through the cabin doorway, so for the final distance the heavy containers had to be hand carried.

The newest member of the crew followed them into the room and was amazed at the amount of space in her quarters. Most of her stellar travel in the past included tiny rooms on whatever transport her military family happened to be on, but this one was huge when compared to them. She could hardly believe her luck, and while it was only a common freighter, Lori was pleased to have been hired onto its crew.

Tanis set her trunk near the couch and let out a small yip at the sudden sharp pain to his lower back.  As a cargo-mover and a medic, he knew to bend his knees instead of his back when moving heavy objects, but he had stolen an appreciative glance at the way her powder blue bell-bottom slacks fit her curves, as well as the white silk blouse with half the buttons open, and forgot himself for a moment.

Lori was instantly at his side. “What’s the matter?” she asked in a genuinely worried voice. Her large blue eyes were concerned and he tried to wave her off.

“Just stood up wrong,” he answered with a pained grin.  Pockets snickered. He had seen Tanis’ lustful looks at the newcomer.

“Here, let me help,” the cute rabbit replied.  Before the medic could say anything more, Lori moved behind him and began to massage the muscles of his lower back right above the base of his tail. He leaned against the trunk and closed his eyes with her ministrations, acutely aware of her perfume... instead of his pain.

Pockets blinked twice at the image they presented and wondered if he could fake an injury. He shook his head silently at the thought. It would be his luck that Tanis would be the one to treat him instead of the lovely bunny.  He didn’t even know Lorelei yet and he already felt a little envious of the attention Tanis received from her.

After a few moments, Pockets tired of watching and headed for the doorway. The action was enough to get the rabbit’s attention and she stood up to back away from Tanis a step. “Thank you,” the desert fox said to her. “That feels much better.”

“You’re welcome,” she said sweetly. Lorelei moved toward the raccoon and reached out both hands toward him. Without thinking, he raised his hands up to meet hers and she held them gently.

“Thank you, Pockets,” she said. “You and Tanis are gentlemen for helping me with my belongings.” With that, she leaned over and kissed the engineer on the cheek. She smiled at his reaction and then moved back to the medic. She leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek too, but Tanis narrowed his eyes with a smile and tiptoed up slightly so that her kiss landed on his lips instead.

Lori pulled back with a giggle. She pushed him away with a finger to the tip of his nose and then winked at Pockets. “If you two will excuse me now,” she said with a slight tilt of her head, “I need to start unpacking.”

“Of course,” Tanis replied. He nodded pleasantly and then moved toward the door.  Pockets started to follow, but held back to ask a question.

“Lorelei?” he asked. “Have you ever made baked Jinkles?”

“My little brothers crazy about them, especially sprinkled with Adarian cheese,” she said with a smile. “Of course I have.”

I’ve never had them with cheese,” Pockets said in awe.

“I’ll have to make them for you sometime.”

“You’ll have a friend for life if you do!” replied the engineer enthusiastically.

Lorelei’s eyes crinkled in amusement at this silly little raccoon as she opened a small suitcase. The container was upside down, so when the sides opened, the contents spilled out onto the carpet at the engineer’s feet. Pockets knelt down with her to pick up the items and was puzzled at what he saw.  There were beaded necklaces, incense sticks and a multitude of crystals in various shapes, all threaded through with silver or gold colored strings.

Lorelei picked up one particularly large spherical crystal and held it up so the cabin lights reflected off of its faceted sides.  The rabbit’s eyes widened at the sparkles and Pockets got the distinct impression that she was awed by her own trinkets.  She giggled and picked up another crystal, this one diamond-shaped.

The raccoon stood up slowly and put the things he had picked up onto her bed beside the suitcase. Lorelei no longer seemed to notice him as she stared transfixed at the crystals.  Pockets frowned and left the room. Tanis leaned against the corridor wall with an amused expression on his face.

“Now, that was unexpected, wasn’t it?” he asked.

Pockets looked at him and shook his head. “You saw?”

“Yeah... mesmerized.”

The engineer stuck his hands into two of his many pockets and frowned.  “She’s cute and friendly, but I’m beginning to wonder about her already.”

Tanis nodded his agreement. “It’s only a first impression,” he said in a whisper, “but I think she’s a ditz.”

Pockets looked over at him and twitched his whiskers. “It must be an act,” he replied. “She’s probably an egg-head.”

“Ooh, so pretty…”  Lorelei’s voice cooed from her open cabin door.

“Egg-head? How about a scrambled egg?” Tanis asked with a laugh. 

Pockets leaned in close to one of the fox’s large ears. “I’ve never been around a rabbit before,” he confessed in a whisper. “Is what they say about them true?”

“You mean the rumors of an insatiable cross-species appetite?” Tanis asked with a smirk at his companion.

“Uh, yeah… that’s what I meant.”

The fox chuckled and merely grinned. “I’m guessing you’ll have to find that out on your own.”

“Tanisssss…”

“Pocketsssssss…” Tanis mocked.  “C’mon, let’s get the antigrav pallet back down to Durant.”  

*** 

Samantha had just arrived at the hangar where the Blue Horizon resided. She had been out getting supplies for the new vessel and was about to recruit a few of the guys to help her unload them from her rented truck and take it all inside the ship. The cargo bay door was fully open and she saw Durant as he wandered the large space to inspect the contents of all the storage lockers.

“Hi, Sam,” the grizzly said to her as she neared him. “Have a good time shopping?”

“As always,” she replied cheerfully. “Is anyone else around? I need help unloading the last of the supplies I felt we needed.”

“Pockets is in his engine room drooling over the new tool kits,” Durant answered. “I think Renny and Tanis are upstairs somewhere. Max left with the captain a little bit ago.”

“Thanks, Durant.”

“Did you get the music I requested?”

Samantha smiled up at him. “I got everything you wanted except for the new album by The Jettisons,” she said. “That one hasn’t made it to Pomen yet.”

The bear shrugged his shoulders. “Oh well, maybe I can find it at our next destination. Thanks for getting the others for me.”

Sam put a hand on the load master’s arm. “You’re welcome, Durant.  I picked up more music and movies for the Rec room, linens, janitorial supplies, cargo tie-down supplies, computer software, spare parts for just about every system on board, stationary, books and magazines, and a whole lot more.”  She moved toward the lift as she continued to speak to him over her shoulder. “Its been tough trying to think of everything we might need, starting off with an empty ship to supply. It’s just like when we first started the business.”

“Yeah, I remember that.”

I’m sure we’ll think of more things after we get underway, but I think I got most of it. Every time I think I’m done shopping, I remember more we need.”

Durant watched her walk away with a smile.  Samantha had been instrumental at keeping up the spirits of the crew during their downtime, and while he might argue with her from time to time over the cargo manifests, he was glad to have her as a friend.

Samantha rode the lift up to the second level and stepped out into the corridor. She looked toward the left at a sound and saw a cabin doorway open just where the hallway curved around out of sight. She had not learned who had chosen which room yet, so wasn’t sure who was inside. Soft music issued from the open door, so she moved toward it with a smile.

“Hello?” she said when she reached the room. She put her head inside and it took her a moment to comprehend what she saw.  A black-light lamp was the sole source of illumination in the dark room, which gave all light-shaded objects an eerie phosphorescent glow. A small player on the desk issued the music that Sam recognized as Terran techno disco. Beads and crystals hung from the ceiling in a seemingly random pattern and there was the faint scent of jasmine incense burning somewhere.  She glanced at the bookcase where several printed paperback volumes had not yet been stacked neatly and she felt her face flush beneath her fur when she read some of the risqué titles.

The Border collie tilted her head to the side when a humming came from the lavatory, and a moment later, a white rabbit came out into the room. She wore a pair of cutoff blue jeans that barely covered her behind and a rainbow-colored, tank-top tee shirt. Her white fur glowed dramatically in the black light. She saw Samantha and grinned widely.

“Hullo!” she said merrily.

“Uh, hi,” Sam replied hesitantly. “Who are you?”

“My name’s Lorelei, but you can call me Lori.” The rabbit stopped in front of the canine and leaned forward until her nose almost touched Sam’s. “I’m your new cook!”

The Border collie leaned backward a little to put some personal distance between them. “Hello, Lori,” she said hesitantly. “I’m Samantha.”

Lorelei grabbed the collie in a tight embrace and did a couple of little excited hops. “Hi, Samantha!” she said cheerily. “Captain Sinclair told me there was another woman on board.”  Sam pushed at her gently, not quite sure of how to take the newcomer.

“Uh, Lori, please give me some room,” she said. “I don’t usually get so close to other girls.”

The rabbit released her and stepped back with a finger under her chin.  “Oh, I get it,” she said in a lilting tone with a grin. “Don’t be alarmed, sweetie. I just like to hug my friends. It makes us more like a family, which is what an interstellar crew is supposed to be like, right?”

Samantha managed a small grin of her own. “Uh, supposedly,” she admitted.  “Have you met any of the others?” she asked.

Lori sat down on her bed and drew her legs up beneath her. “Lessee,” she replied in a faraway tone, “Pockets and Tanis helped me bring my things on board, and I also met a cute little doggy with light blue eyes. I think he said his name was Max, but he was kinda shy.”  She looked up at Sam and asked, “Is he old enough to mate?  He looks nice, but he seemed frightened when I flirted with him.”

Sam swallowed back her thoughts and answered tightly, “No, he’s not old enough. Better leave him alone... he’s the captain’s nephew and he’s under age.”

Lorelei shrugged her shoulders. “Oh well, I understand there’s plenty of other males on this crew.”  She narrowed her eyes mischievously at the collie and added, “The captain’s got a nice tail. I wonder how long it will take me to get together with him.”

Samantha sputtered and looked at the bold newcomer in disbelief, her tail standing up behind her.  “You can forget that little idea! You don’t have a chance!” she said angrily.

Lorelei shrugged again. “S’okay,” she said with a smile. She didn’t seem to even register the collie’s tone of voice. “Want me to see if I can arrange for you to occupy his bed?  I know a lot of tricks that would get even someone like you under the sheets with him.”

Samantha coughed into her fist and really, really tried to contain herself.  “Someone like me?  Listen, Lorelei... you are getting on my bad side and we’ve just met. You know nothing about this crew, so don’t come in here with ideas on what you think should or shouldn’t happen!”

Lori looked at her quizzically and held up her hands.  “Okay, okay, Samantha,” she said. “I’m sorry I assumed too much.  You and the captain have similar facial fur markings.  Are you related?”

The collie couldn’t believe her ears.  “No,” she said through clenched teeth, “we are not related. It’s only coincidence that he has a similar facial pattern and I would never get into bed with a relative anyway...”  She suddenly clamped her lips shut. Shed said too much and knew it when she saw Lori’s expression of delight.

“Ahh... now I understand,” the rabbit said slyly.  “Sammy’s sleeping with the boss!”  She put a finger to her lips and winked at the collie. “You can trust me to keep it a secret from the rest of the crew.”

Samantha sighed deeply and put both hands on her forehead. This simple little conversation was giving her a headache. This was not the way she normally greeted new crew members.

“Does your head hurt?” Lori asked in a worried tone.  “I have an herbal tea that will take care of that, to ease the tension.”

The supply officer looked up at the newcomer and shook her head with a scowl. “Thanks, but we have plenty of medicine in the Infirmary. I’ll just...”

“Oh, no, that just won’t do,” Lori interrupted. “Manufactured drugs are unnatural, sit inert in your system, and that’s bad for you. What I have is healthier. I wouldn’t trust anything produced by those evil pharmaceutical companies.”

“Evil...?” Samantha felt her hackles beginning to rise.

“Yeah, companies like Holden Pharmaceuticals or Thayer Drugs are only out to hurt people for profit under the guise of being helpful,” the rabbit said as she rummaged through a box beside the bed.  She stopped and then looked over at Samantha with an amused expression.  “You said your last name was Holden, didn’t you?  Same as that drug company... funny, huh?”  She went back to searching through her box and didn’t see the look of fury on the collie’s face.

Samantha was about to inform the irritating rabbit that Holden Pharmaceuticals was her late father’s company, but a knock on the door behind her caught her off guard. Both females turned and saw a slender cheetah leaning against the doorway, one foot partially held up off the floor. He wore a pair of black jogging shorts and a purple tank-top.

“Sam?” Renny said to her as he glanced at all the strange decorations in the cabin, “Durant said you needed help bringing supplies on board. Pockets and Tanis are already down there with the pallets. I was going to help, but the captain still won’t let me move heavy objects until my foot heals further.”

Samantha nodded to him, appreciative of the interruption. “Thanks, Renny,” she said.  “I need to get down there.”  She moved past the navigator toward the nearest lift without looking back at the rabbit.

Renny looked over at her and smiled.  “Hello,” he said. “Is there something I can help you with?”

Lorelei grinned widely at the cheetah and was drawn to his large, golden eyes.  She moved closer to stand nose to nose with him and leaned up against his chest with her hands clasped behind her back. “You can start by telling me your name, handsome. I’ve signed onto your crew and want to be seeing a lot more of you.”

“Renny Thornton,” he said, acutely aware of the primary points of contact between their bodies. “I’m the ship’s navigator.”

“Hi, navigator,” she said with a sly smile. “I’m Lorelei, or Lori, as my intimate friends call me.  I would like you to call me Lori...”

Renny grinned and put his hands on her shoulders. He pushed her gently away from him and said in a quiet voice, “Perhaps another time, Lorelei... but I’m afraid I can’t right now.”

The rabbit could smell that he was interested, but something was holding him back. “Whats her name?” she asked in a more conversational tone.

Renny nodded with a smile. “Taro Nichols. She was badly hurt in the crash, but we haven’t heard anything about her condition in months.”

Lorelei stepped away and leaned back against the wall. She looked solemn and replied, “Captain Sinclair told me about the crash. I’m sorry for you all.”  She allowed a smile to creep across her face again and added, “but if you feel lonely and need someone to snuggle with, please don’t hesitate to find me. I’m always willing to help out.”

The cheetah bit his bottom lip gently. He had no doubt that she would be willing, but he cared deeply for Taro and until he found out anything about her, one way or another, he wouldn’t seek out anyone else.

“Welcome to the Blue Horizon,” he said to her.  “I’m sure we’ll get more time to talk later, but I need to get back to the duties Merlin assigned to me.”

“Okay, Renny,” Lorelei said with a smile. “I’ll see you later.” 

The cheetah withdrew from the room and headed for the bridge. Lorelei watched him go, admiring his shorts and grinned to herself as she turned back to her unpacking. There were opportunities to be had here, she thought to herself. This new crew would be well worth investigating.   

*** 

The Blue Horizon had a customer by the next morning. Ms. Allport had arranged a paying client delivering electrical and technical parts from the very city there were in, to the under-industrialized world of Fyn for a new communications center. Not only did the mouse win Merlin’s respect with her quick results, but her job as a member of his crew was assured when she also secured a delivery afterward from Fyn to the SPF headquarters on Joplin. The delivery was nothing more exciting than linens and clothing, but it was for a paying customer nonetheless.

An hour after calling Merlin with the information, she showed up at the Blue Horizon’s hangar with three suitcases and two trunks of luggage, and then the wolf let her pick one of the empty cabins. With everyone on board, he then called a meeting of the entire crew to the recreation deck.  

*** 

Cynthya Allport felt a lump in her throat as she watched the various crew members gathering around the main table next to galley at the aft end of the rec deck. The brown mouse was dressed casually in one of the local Pomen robes of white and yellow with a blue belt sash, but after seeing the garments the crew was wearing, she intended to change into a style of clothing that more in keeping with what she saw among them.

She had a habit of brushing her short brown hair off the edges of her large ears, which did nothing more than draw attention to them. Her blue eyes had missed nothing when she had been given a quick tour of the ship, and she was secretly pleased with the selection of males on board the vessel.

She sat to the captain’s left at the end of the long table. A cheetah sat on Merlin’s right, chatting idly with a female Border collie. Across the table from him was a short raccoon who watched her with interested eyes. His clothing had pockets sewn onto practically all available spaces on the front and sides and there seemed to be something in each of them. Seated next to him was a large grizzled bear with cinnamon-colored fur. He was taller and larger than anyone else on board and was talking pleasantly to a young canine seated beside him.

A fennec fox with large ears sat between the collie and a cottontail rabbit and he nodded to her pleasantly with eyes that were so dark as to be nearly black. Everyone’s attention went to Merlin as he cleared his throat and then adjusted his hat.

“Okay, crew, I want to introduce you all to our new Customer Liaison,” he said. “This is Cynthya Allport.”

The mouse smiled nervously and gave a nod of her head. “Hello,” she said. “Please just call me Cindy.”

“I’ll start the introductions with myself, as is customary,” the wolf said. “I’m Merlin Sinclair, the captain, owner and primary pilot of the Blue Horizon. This guy next to me is Renny Thornton. He’s our navigator and main co-pilot. Next to him is Samantha Holden, our supply officer and computer tech.” Sam smiled and waved her fingers at the mouse. “If there’s anything you need, she’s the one to tell.”

Merlin gestured to the raccoon seated next to Samantha. “The guy with all the junk in his pockets next to you, Cindy, is Jerad Porter. He’s our chief engineer and mechanic, and as you can guess, we call him Pockets.”

“Hi, nice to meetcha!” the raccoon exclaimed cheerily in a distinct country accent.

“Across the table from Pockets is Arktanis TeVann,” Merlin said when the chuckles faded.

The tan fox nodded again and gave her a pleasant smile “Just call me Tanis, mate.”

“And next to him is our cook, Lori Easter, another newcomer to the crew who has only been with us since yesterday, herself. We introduced her to everyone in a meeting like this last night.”

“Hi, Cindy,” the rabbit said merrily.

“Seated beside Pockets is our load master and business accountant, Durant, who is also my second-in-command. Next to him is our young trainee mechanic, Max.”

“Hello,” the canine said with a friendly smile.

Merlin glanced at his slateboard and then back to his new employee. “That’s everyone, Cindy. No one around here expects to hear a speech, but if there’s anything you want to say to this group, go right ahead.”

The mouse smiled back at her new crewmates and said, “I’m pleased to be here with you all and hope I can fit in.” She looked embarrassed, but added, “Captain Sinclair told me about Taro and I’m sorry all that happened to her and the rest of you. I know I can’t replace her, but I hope you’ll give me chance to do the job you need me to do.”

“Have you ever done this before?” Renny asked.

“Cindy has already arranged two jobs for us,” Merlin answered quickly, in hopes they would not dig too far into her inexperience. “We’ll be loading up the ship this evening, bound for Rrowrnon on Fyn,” he explained, “and from there we’ll be making a delivery to Joplin. As soon as we get underway, she’ll be working on contacts beyond the SPF headquarters.”

“Good show!” Tanis said with a smile. “I’m impressed already.”

Pockets stood up and then slapped the table with the palm of his hand. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, mimicking the loud voice of an event announcer, “with the quick work of our newest crew mate, the Blue Horizon is officially back in business!” The small group clapped and Cindy blushed at all the attention.

“Welcome aboard,” Renny said to her.

Merlin put a hand on the cheetah’s shoulder and said. “I’ll go over ship’s operations with her before we actually take off.” He looked at Samantha and added, “Arrange a launch window with the Port Authority for this evening. We’ll head across town to the Zeyhr Warehouse at seventeen hundred to load up our cargo and then we’ll be ready to launch toward Fyn at nineteen thirty.”

“Do we have time to make a last-minute run into town?” Renny asked.

“The ship is ready to leave at any time,” the captain replied. “It’s now oh-nine-twenty. Everyone should be on board in time for preflight checks no later than sixteen hundred hours, so that gives you just under seven hours to do whatever you want. If you are not back by then, you’re going to be stuck on Pomen for quite a while longer.”

“Ugh,” Pockets said. “Pomen’s a nice world, but I’m sick and tired of this city. You’re not leaving me behind! I’ll be here several hours before launch.”

“Okay,” Merlin said at last. “You can go now. Meeting is adjourned.”  

*** 

SS Blue Horizon PA1138

Captain’s Journal  

The Blue Horizon is now on its way toward Fyn, following a stay of almost fifteen weeks on Pomen. We left Adasa four hours ago, and although this new vessel is larger and heavier, we had one of the smoothest launches I’ve ever experienced. My crew seems happy with the ship and it’s more than we could have ever hoped for; everything seems to have worked out well.

Although Lori and Cindy are new to this crew, they seem to have come in at a good time when everyone’s in lighthearted spirits. Cindy is inexperienced, I know, but I have a feeling she will learn quickly. She’s already had a good start. Time will tell how she will fit in with the others, but then again everyone goes through a transition time when they first come on board. Lori promises a big introductory meal for everyone later this evening and I’m sure that will do wonders to endear herself to the crew.

Samantha tried yet again to reach Captain Natasha to see if we could get word — any word — on the status of Taro Nichols, but as before, we’ve had no reply. Despite all the good that seems to have come out of this situation, not knowing our friend’s whereabouts or condition is the one raw nerve at the back of everyone’s mind. Even if she were in a coma and in poor shape, at least she’d be alive. We don’t even know if that’s the case.

I was sorry to lose Patch, but due to my own fault with timing he’s no longer a member of my crew. I wish him well and hope he can find pleasure in the work he has on the Argonautia.

As for myself, I’m doing okay. I still have dreams and nightmares about the crash, most of which include the fight with Sagan. I don’t know what happened that caused his sudden insanity and pure hatred of me and my vessel, but the look in his eyes during our close combat still makes me shudder. When I think of this, I cannot help but wonder who left that letter on my door at the embassy last week. Was it from the Basilisk crew, an ally that Sagan had out there somewhere, or someone else as yet unknown to us?

Anyway, I’m glad this is all over. I have a new ship, a financial margin in the business accounts and a good crew. The Blue Horizon might have been knocked down, but through it all, we have finally risen from the ashes.

Merlin Sinclair, Captain

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