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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 2

— Episode 16

"Hidalgo Sun"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

Captain’s Journal 

We’ve been adrift in space for over a week, unable to propel ourselves by any means we’ve tried. We have plenty of power for all life support functions and there are no real dangers facing us, but we are stuck light-years between systems… too far from any stars for solar sails to be of any use. We are moving toward our destination, though merely on the inertia left after our engines broke down.

My engineer has exhausted all alternatives for creating a power source to get our Liquid Crystal engines functional enough to get us to the nearest star system. The closest inhabited world is Mars, and while it is nothing more than an outpost for Earth, it is equipped with a repair depot that frequently works on Okami-class freighters.  Although it’s the “closest” world, we aren’t even near the Oort Cloud surrounding that particular solar system, so without a source of propulsion, it would take decades to drift into the gravitational influence of Sol on our current inertia.

While I admit that I sometimes turn a deaf ear to my engineer on the problems of this old ship, I have to readily concede that I should have listened to experience this time. I was warned months ago about the condition of the Liquid Crystal power transfer unit, but our recent turn of bad luck with finances kept me from buying the parts to keep it running correctly. Because of this bad judgment, my ship is crippled and we have no way to repair the damage with anything we have on board.

I wouldn’t think that things could get much worse until my communications officer informed me that our attempt to boost the signal last month by channeling the Com lines through the LC engines has resulted in burned-out helix circuitry in the system. Nerves are on edge and tempers have flared, including my own. This is no way to run a business, but I freely admit that the ship’s captain is fully to blame this time.

We have rigged a low-level distress signal to repeat once every quarter hour, but only a passing vessel near this shipping lane would be able to pick it up. We have to hope that someone comes our way soon. 

Rezo Kegawa, Captain

SS Hidalgo Sun, PA3347 

*** 

Mark Littlefeather looked at his reflection in the mirror of his tiny cabin and frowned at his scruffy appearance. He had neglected himself over the past few days, as had most of the crew since they had become stranded between systems. He ran a hand through his short black hair; it felt oily and he was suddenly aware of his body odor. The permanently-tanned human sighed and realized he didn’t want to exist that way, even if they might never make it to another civilized world.

The ship’s load master leaned forward to get a closer look at his reflected brown eyes. They were bloodshot and bags were starting to form beneath them. He set his angular jaw and nodded to his unshaven reflection. He pulled off his dirty tee shirt and denim jeans and stepped into the shower. Perhaps after he had cleaned up, he would find Toni to see if she would have dinner with him. Antoinette was the only other human on board, and while she had never shown a romantic interest in him during the three months since she had joined the crew, she did appear to enjoy his presence whenever they talked.

She had dark skin and black hair like himself, but didn’t share his Amerindian heritage, though she seemed fascinated with his family traditions. Her large green eyes always seemed to sparkle behind the large lenses of her glasses whenever he spoke of his spiritual guide, or when she asked about the various items on display in his cabin. Those glasses were a source of curiosity to many, as modern medicines or outpatient procedures could cure most optometric issues. She’d never explained why she wore the things, but she really did seem to need them to see clearly.

As Littlefeather showered, he wondered why someone with such an aptitude for numbers and information like Toni would want to sign up on an old D-model Okami freighter. He doubted it would have been anyone’s first choice for a job in accounting. It had been harder to find replacement parts for defective shipboard systems and business had not been that good lately. The chief engineer was good at her job, but there was just so much that Alice could do with what they had. This time the snow leopard had not been able to keep the power transfer unit running long enough to get them to Earth. Inertia would continue to move the ship in that general direction at near-light speed velocity, but the time involved would be prohibitive to their survival.

He only hoped that someone would fly close enough to pick up their weak distress signal or all their careers would soon come to a close. They had supplies on board to last them another month... two, if they rationed well.   

*** 

Captain Rezo Kegawa ambled around the curved corridor of his small freighter, his hands behind his back and his eyes downcast toward the metal deck plates that were partially covered with a few mismatched throw rugs his crew had acquired over the years. The short red panda was agitated and pacing had always been his way of dealing with concern. He wore a loose set of black exercise shorts under an oversized beige robe that trailed behind him in the hallway, but his feet were bare on the cold flooring.

He was already late getting his cargo of Kantan lingerie to Misty’s Toybox on Earth and he would likely lose a good deal of his pay on this trip due to their mechanical failures. Alice Forrestal was a miracle worker when it came to ship maintenance, but there were no miracles to be had this time around. The ship was old and dilapidated, and on a normal voyage Rezo usually made just enough on his business to pay his crew, with only a tiny profit going to himself. He had often considered finding another line of work, but he was addicted to space travel, even if it had to be done inside a rattletrap like the Hidalgo Sun.

The door up the corridor opened and a small, wiry lemur stepped out of the bridge. She wore a red sleeveless shirt that matched her eyes and bell-bottom black trousers. She peered at the electronic slateboard in her hands and she scowled at the device, her thin monochrome tail swishing in agitation. She hit the side of it twice before she sighed and looked up at her captain.

“Anything?” Rezo asked her.

“No, sir,” the communications officer answered with a frown. “We’re still broadcasting the distress signal, but with Com out of commission with the engines, we’ll have no indication if anyone has heard it and is trying to contact us.” The lemur sniffled from a sinus infection and shook her head. “Alice and Pax are trying to route a bypass on the system back to its original configuration, but they haven’t had any luck so far. Some of the original parts have already been used elsewhere.”

“Where were they used?”

“In the Life Support system.”

“I see,” the captain replied. “Who’s on the bridge?”

“Jonesy.”

The red panda nodded and resumed his amble down the corridor. “Thank you, Riki,” he said. “Keep your digits crossed someone will hear the signal.”

“All the time, sir.” 

*** 

Leo Durant sat in his office as he quietly peered over the cargo manifest. The computer file matched what he accounted for in the hold, but it didn’t match his memory for data. The grizzly had read through the manifest before the ship launched from Kantus and he was sure there were now items that were missing, even if the electronic files didn’t reflect it. He growled lowly to himself and rested his chin in his left hand on the desk as he scrolled through the information. The Blue Horizon carried a load of starship parts bound for the Mars colony, and while their new ship was in first-class condition, the load master wouldn’t put it past Pockets to filch a few items from their cargo for spares and then have Samantha fix the books behind his back.

Durant would find the discrepancy, he was sure. He would have to itemize everything of the original manifest from memory and then compare it with what was currently on board to find the problem. This was nothing new, as both the Border collie and raccoon had gotten into his cargo before, and he knew many of their tricks.

Staring at the computer screen made the bear’s eyes ache and he sat back in his chair to rub them with the back of his hands. He yawned widely and then moved his neck back and forth with a crack. Durant was tired and he knew that he would never remember the original manifest with a foggy brain, so he resolved to take a break and go up to his quarters to take a short nap.

He stood up and moved away from the desk toward the door, but when he opened the panel, he heard a sound that filled him with sudden dread.

“Meow.”

“No, no, no...” the bear muttered under his breath. A familiar shape hovered in the air a few feet in front of him, exactly at eye level. Two shimmering green lenses stared back at him, one positioned slightly above the other, and the metal whisker antennae below them twitched and repositioned themselves slightly as the small metallic blue flying saucer scanned the accountant.

The bane of Durant’s existence was back, but the silent whirring of its internal mechanisms was quieter than the sounds of its predecessor. The bear groaned and fervently hoped that Pockets had programmed this version of the mobile sentry system to be less troublesome than the original. If not, he would jettison it personally, without preamble or confession to the deed. Durant moved out into the darkened cargo bay past the new unit and headed for the lift. He was in no mood to deal with Moss, especially in his present state of mind.  

*** 

On the recreation deck, several members of the Blue Horizon crew watched a movie on the large vidscreen. Pockets sat on one end of a couch and Cindy stretched out along the rest with her head in his lap. On the other couch was Tanis and Lorelei, huddled together over a huge bowl of popcorn. Maximillian was stretched out on the carpet at their feet, and Samantha was draped over a recliner off to the side. Merlin stood before the coffee maker in the kitchen at the back of the room to refill his cup as the movie progressed behind him.

The intercom beeped on a console near the galley and Merlin moved to thumb the control. “This is the captain,” he said as he leaned close to the condenser microphone. The action from the film rose in volume, so he had to strain to hear the voice from the tiny speaker.

“Merlin, this is Renny.”

“Yes?”

“Did you know there are one thousand, one hundred, thirty-eight spots on the ceiling in here?”

Merlin smiled and picked up the coffee pot. “Sorry, ol’ boy. You’re on bridge watch and can’t leave for another two hours.”

“I know, but I’m bored,” the cheetah groaned. “One of these days you need to have to have Pockets install a video feed up here so I can watch a movie or INN while I’m up here.”

“Maybe,” the wolf replied, “but on watch, you’re supposed to be monitoring the controls and readouts, not watching a movie.”

“What’s the difference between watching a movie and reading a book like you do?”

“The difference is your focus, Renny. I’ve seen you watching a show and I know how absorbed you get when you’re trying to take it all in, to the exclusion of all else.”

“I just don’t want to miss any details,” complained the navigator.

“Sorry, but no video feeds other than Com on the bridge.”

“You’re no fun. Everything’s automated on the bridge and the VIP computer will alert us to any noticeable changes in readings; Sam explained the Geo-25 system in detail to me, Captain.” Renny tried to sound really convincing, “There’s no real need to have the bridge manned around the clock anymore.”

Merlin shook his head with a smile at the navigator’s efforts and replied, “Automation is a good thing, but I still want a physical body on the bridge at all times. I know you wanted to see this movie, Renny, but it was your turn for bridge duty. You can watch it later.”

“Gee, thanks, boss,” the cheetah said dryly. “I knew I could depend on your compassion.”

“You should know by now to take something with you to do while on bridge duty. It’s your own fault for going in there empty-handed, as you tend to do half the time you have the watch.”

“Great... if I don’t fall asleep before my watch ends, I’ll get to see the movie after everyone else knows the ending. It would be just like Lori to be a blabbermouth and tell me what happened before I get to see it.”

“True,” the captain admitted. “She does seem to be enjoying it, too. I don’t want to miss it either, so I’m going back to my chair now.”

“Oh, all right,” the cheetah replied in a dejected tone. “I’ll be sure to call you if anything ever livens up in here.”  

*** 

Tanis picked up his empty soda cup in one hand and retrieved the popcorn bowl in the other. He followed Lorelei across the Rec Room to the galley and smiled at the sight of her little puffy cottontail protruding through the rear flap of her lounge pants. Everyone else had already left to do other things and Renny had arrived with full intent to watch the movie they had just finished.

The navigator had his arms loaded down with snacks of his own and smiled at them as he headed toward a recliner. Lorelei put her glass on the counter and took the bowl from Tanis. She looked at the orphan kernels left behind and wrinkled her nose.

“I wish all the kernels would pop,” she said with a frown.

Tanis chuckled. “Ya would think the evolution of popcorn would have advanced enough over the centuries that someone would have come up with a way to make all the kernels pop.”

“Yeah!” the white rabbit agreed.

“Nalirran scientists came close a few years back, but it had an unpleasant side effect and didn’t sell well.”

Lori emptied the remnants of the popcorn into a small container and then set the bowl in the galley sink. She wiped her hands on a towel and then set it aside.

She looked up at Tanis and smiled at him with large blue eyes. “Can you tell me about your homeworld?” she asked him in a lilting voice. “My family traveled a lot while my Papa was in the military, but we never made it to Nalirra. I always heard it wasn’t a friendly place to visit.”

The desert fox shrugged his shoulders. “It still isn’t,” he admitted. “I grew up in probably the only stranger-friendly country on the planet, but even then I have no desire to ever go back there.”

“Tell me about your hometown, please?” Lori asked.

“Sure.”

“How about telling her about it elsewhere?” Renny called from across the room. “I want to watch the movie, not listen to your hometown stories!”

The medic snorted, but smiled at Lorelei. “Yer cabin or mine?” he asked her with narrowed eyes.

The rabbit laughed and took him by the arm. “Yours,” she said. “I know you don’t care for all my crystals and incense. Besides, your mattress is more comfortable than mine.”

“All the cabins have the same beds, Lori.”

“Not true. Yours is more comfortable.”

Renny turned the volume of the movie’s opening fanfare up so high that they couldn’t talk further, so they took the hint and headed for the lift. Only when the doors closed behind them did Renny lower it back down to an acceptable level.

Tanis and Lorelei stepped out of the lift onto the crew deck and headed for the medic’s quarters. They went inside and Lori went straight through the front room to the bedroom. She climbed up on the headboard end, pulled his pillow up into her lap, and then wrapped her arms around it. She smiled at him over the top of it and waited for him to get situated.

Tanis realized they weren’t going to play so he settled into his desk chair and propped his feet up on the bed after kicking off his soft-sided boots. “So, what would ya like to know about the trouble-makers of the Planetary Alignment?” he asked.

“I dunno,” Lorelei replied. “Just tell me anything about Nalirra. What’s the planet like?”

The desert fox scratched the bottom of his chin and looked upward in thought. “Hmmm, okay. Nalirra is divided up into four continents, with a separate country dominating each one. About forty years ago, a young hyena named Sed Amittias initiated the conquest of the other countries. He was the ruler of the southern country Braf, and after the end of a three-year war, Amittias took over the planet as its sole dictator. There have been periodic attempts by others to oust him, but he’s been quite safe in his citadel at Sardis.”

“Which country are you from?”

“Kardon,” he answered. “It’s the smallest of the four countries, but we’ve always had the best technologies - probably because we’ve had more freedom for research. The other three have tried to take them from us for ages, but we’ve also had a better military because of our science.”

He smiled at her and added, “Nalirra was colonized nearly three centuries ago, but the technology for space flight was lost within a hundred years after Earth abandoned us. Kardon was the first country to go off-planet again a hundred and thirty years ago, but none of the other countries had a successful launch for another twenty years after that. By that time, we had already started to investigate the other planets in our system, but when Amittias took over, he shared our captured technology with the other countries.”

Lorelei stretched out on the bed and propped her chin up with the pillow. “If you had the better military, how did he take over?”

Tanis crossed his arms and frowned. “He infiltrated the ruling bodies with his own people, or those he could sway to his side,” he replied. “That’s the simplest way to put it. During the battles that took place away from the country capitols, Amittias’ operatives undermined the other rulers and eventually had them all assassinated in their sleep. Those who were left in charge were already on his payroll.”

“He doesn’t sound very nice.”

“No,” the medic agreed, “but that happened forty years ago. Despite his dictatorial rule each country still has their own customs and ways of doing things. The four areas may still bicker with one another, but there are actually some very nice areas on the planet like Alosia. That’s on the edge of the Alos desert, but it’s my hometown and there’s a lot to see and do around there. Not,” he added, “that I intend to recommend a visit to outsiders.”

“You don’t think I’d like it?” Lori asked.

“I think ya would,” Tanis answered, “but ya’d be harassed by the locals for no reason other than ya were not from there.”

Lorelei’s ears drooped a little. “If everyone there’s so rude, how did you turn out nice?” she asked.

Arktanis smiled and sat up. He leaned closer to the bed with his elbows on his knees and replied, “I left Nalirra and spent a good deal of time in other places. I seriously doubt ya would have liked me when I first jumped off-world. I was a different person then.”

“Well,” the rabbit said with a smile, “I like you now, Tanis. You’re nice and snuggly.”

The desert fox grinned widely and moved onto the bed to sit beside her. “I like ya, too,” he cooed into her ears.  

*** 

“Yes, sir,” Cynthya Allport said into her headset microphone. “We should arrive at the Mars Colony in about eight days, and then we’ll be on Earth for three days to load up cargo bound for Argeia.” She paused to scribble some information on the screen of her slateboard with a claw tip and nodded to herself. “Uh huh. It will take us three weeks to reach Argeia, three days down and then three and half weeks of travel before we can get to you. That will be okay?” She smiled to herself. “Yes, sir. We’re always glad to do business with you, too. Yes, sir, I now have you on our flight calendar. Yes, sir, that is still our standard delivery price. Okay, we will see you in a little over six weeks. Thank you... you, too.” The mouse switched off the connection and then quickly transferred her notes into the ship’s computer.

Cindy was three hours into her watch and had made good use of the time to further their business orders. She sat back in the Com station chair and stretched. She stared out the forward windows into space for a moment and let herself relax.

After a few heartbeats, she got up and moved around the small bridge, glancing at each station’s readouts. She considered sitting down in the pilot seat, but changed her mind and slid back into the chair at the Com station. As she did, she noticed a small flashing light that alternated between red and amber. She frowned and unconsciously brushed her hair up over her right ear with a finger. The mouse thumbed the intercom switch and waited.

“This is Merlin,” the wolf’s voice said a moment later.

“Captain, it’s Cindy. I have a red and orange flashing light on the Com panel, but it’s not labeled. I don’t know what it means.”

“Uh oh — okay, I’ll be right there.”

“Uh oh? What do you mean by uh oh?” she asked, but Merlin had already dropped the connection. He had been in his office next door, so he arrived almost immediately. He wore a pair of blue trousers and a white tee shirt, in addition to his favorite captain’s hat. He went straight to her side and looked down at the panel.

“What did you mean by uh oh?” she asked him.

“We’re picking up a distress beacon.”

“Distress?” Cindy repeated. She frowned and watched as the wolf tapped out a command on the terminal keyboard; the circuitry within the right-hand forward window brought up a star chart of their current sector of space. A small green dot blinked to indicate the location of the Blue Horizon on the chart. Scattered blue and red dots in Doppler shift represented other ships tracked in pre-scheduled flight plans. The Blue Horizon was on a seldom-used shipping lane, its heading intersected by a small red dot a short distance in front of them. A readout of scanned information scrolled across the bottom of the screen and Merlin read it silently.

“The distress signal is weak,” he said at last. “It’s not likely we would have picked it up had we been on the usual route to Earth. It appears to be traveling only on inertia.”

“So what do we do?” Cindy asked. She had never taken part in a rescue operation before.

“Try to hail them,” the captain replied. Cindy nodded, picked up the headset and placed it around her large ears with the boom microphone near her lips.

“This is the SS Blue Horizon,” she transmitted on the same frequency as the beacon. “Your signal has been received. Please respond.”

Cindy listened and fine-tuned the controls before her, but retained her frown. She repeated her message three times with a thirty second pause between each of them. “I’m not getting a response,” she told her captain. “I think it’s an automated signal.”

Merlin moved to the navigational console and sat down. “Where’s Renny?” he asked over his shoulder.

“I think he’s still watching the movie on the rec deck,” the mouse replied.

Merlin frowned and shook his head. “Okay, I’ll take his place at navigation. Cindy, you take the pilot seat and adjust our course to the figures I give you when I get them calculated.”

“Okay,” she replied hesitantly. It had been a long time since she had actually piloted an Okami freighter manually, but the ability to fly one was a requirement for everyone on the crew – even the young Max had been required to learn to operate the ship’s central seat; he wasn’t proficient yet, but was still learning. Cindy took her place at the pilot station and took hold of the guidance shifts as she watched Merlin’s fingers click across the navigational panel. He bit his lip in concentration and then thumbed a green button.

“The coordinates are on your screen now,” he said. “Release the autopilot and alter course.”

“Yes sir.”

Merlin didn’t think twice about her ability to pilot the ship and turned his attention to a navigational scanner. The course change was simple and it only took them off their scheduled flight on a small tangent, so the process turned out to be fairly easy for the mouse. She adjusted three settings and moved the guidance shifts accordingly.

“We’re on the new heading, Captain,” she reported.

“Good.” The wolf keyed in a few more commands on the navigation console and then nodded silently to himself. “We’re on a heading straight for the signal. At our present speed we should arrive in about fifty minutes.” He stood up and walked back to the pilot seat to stand beside her. He pointed to a gauge on her panel and said, “When we’re five minutes away from the target, decrease our speed to half sub-light, and then by another quarter two minutes past that. When we hit that five minute mark, call me on the intercom. I’m going to be down in the cargo bay with Durant to get the emergency hatch tunnel ready to extend.”

“Okay, sir,” she said in a nervous voice.

Merlin looked up into her eyes and asked in a soft voice, “Want me to get someone else up here to handle this with you?”

She shook her head. She didn’t want him to think she could not do her job. “Uh, no. I can take care of it.”

“Okay,” he said with a smile. “Call me if anything changes, including your mind.”

She chuckled and relaxed a little. “Aye, sir, I will.”

Merlin turned and left the bridge without another word, leaving the mouse alone with her assignment.  

*** 

Antoinette Delondin poured hot tea from a thermal container into her cup and then set it aside. The human female took a tentative sip of the drink and then nodded to her companion in satisfaction. “Just the way I like it, Mark,” she said with a smile. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Toni,” he replied. The other human crew member of the Hidalgo Sun took the thermal container and then poured a cup for himself. Toni had spent a lot of time on the bridge since the engines had gone offline. There were windows in all of the cabins, but they were tiny and the accountant loved the view of the stars from the large command center windows. Mark Littlefeather knew of her fondness for raspberry tea and hoped he could earn some points with her by taking some to her. She smiled at him warmly and held the cup in her hands, but then her gaze drifted back toward the windows.

Mark took a drink of the hot liquid and studied the slender woman. She was in her late twenties, had darkly tanned skin like himself, and short black hair that hovered over her collar without touching it. He loved her large green eyes and knew he could get lost in them if she would ever give him the chance to get closer. Today she wore black slacks and a green, short-sleeved blouse made of silk that matched her eyes and shimmered in the bridge lights. He wore a pair of denim jeans and a simple white tee shirt that was a size too small.

Toni took off her large-rimmed glasses and set them on the console beside her. She took another sip of her tea and then set it on the counter beside her lenses so she could rub her eyes gently. When she looked back over at her quiet companion, she put her glasses back on and picked up her cup.

“Do you ever get lonely, Mark?” she asked in a quiet voice. The load master was caught off guard and opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. He cleared his throat and she put a hand up to her lips. “Oh, sorry,” she said quickly. “You’ve shown me your family pictures before and I wondered if you missed them.”

“Ah,” the large man replied with a nod. “Yes, I do miss them, but I try not to dwell on the memories too much. It’s been ten years since the crash.”

“Why did you never remarry?” she asked. Mark studied her expressions, but was unable to read her intentions.

“It’s the same story you’ll get from most people who’ve lost someone like that,” he said after a moment. “I didn’t want to get too attached to anyone else, only to lose them again.”

“Is that why you’re serving on a ship crewed by...” she chose her next word carefully, “...Furs?”

Mark sat back in his chair and took another sip of his drink. “Partly,” he admitted. “I’ve been with the Hidalgo Sun long enough that I’ve grown fond of the others, but I won’t sleep with any of them.” He smiled a bit and added, “Well, a couple of them have curled up with me in the bed, but only in sleep. My people have always held animals in high regard, whether they were sentient or not, but... not that.” Toni started to reply, but Mark added quickly, “What about you?”

“Do I sleep with any of them?” she asked. “No, I...”

“I meant, do you ever get lonely for your family?”

“Yeah,” she admitted, “a lot. My dad still serves in the military on Earth and both of my brothers are away on other planets learning what they can learn. Mother is mother... ever the faithful housewife to dad, and she’s still so much in love with him.”

“Have you ever had a family of your own?” Mark asked tentatively.

Toni didn’t hesitate, but she did shift her gaze back to the stars beyond the windows. “No,” she answered. “I never had the time.”

Mark pressed his luck a little further and asked, “Any potential prospects?”

“No,” she said again. She didn’t look at him, but continued. “I was always too skinny and I don’t have much of a chest, so no one ever showed much of an interest in me.” With her attention on the stars, she didn’t see her companion’s cheeks redden.

“What about now?” he asked as he tried to will his heart to slow down. “Do you ever get lonely for close company?”

“Mark! There’s something out there!” She stood up and leaned closer to the windows, their conversation instantly forgotten.

The load master sighed and stood up beside her. “What is it?”

“I think it’s another ship,” she said. “The color is dark, so it’s hard to see. I think it’s blue.” She tapped the communications controls, but got no response. “Com is still out,” she moaned.

“I see it,” Mark said. “It’s another freighter and it’s slowing down to match our inertia. It must be one of the new ones. It’s larger than ours, nearly twice our size.” He glanced over at her with a smile. “They might be trying to line up their hatch with ours!”

They looked at one another briefly and both grinned widely. Rescued! Toni hugged him suddenly and then kissed him full on the lips. She lingered for a moment before she drew back and then looked up into his astonished eyes with a shy grin.

She blushed and then headed for the corridor. “I’ll go tell the captain,” she said. “You’d better get down to the main hatch.”

“Right!” he said. The human male licked his lips and then remembered to turn on the ship’s external running lights before he left the bridge.  

*** 

Mark Littlefeather bypassed the slow lift and opened the panel next to it for the emergency ladder. He grabbed the sides and descended two rungs at a time. He jumped out onto the floor from the last two meters up and stumbled when he hit the ground. He almost fell into one of the octagonal plastic crates that held their cargo, but managed to right himself in time. He bounded around the outer aisle of the hold and approached the main airlock. He shielded his eyes from the cargo bay lights and peered out the small window of thick glass set into the hull beside the hatch.

The blue Okami freighter had matched his ship’s inertial speed and the two vessels were now no more than a few meters apart. Running lights between them illuminated the other ship’s registry number, but Mark couldn’t see its name because of a flexible tunnel that extended from the stranger’s main hatch. It was a standard ship-to-ship passageway that all starships were equipped with for just such situations. He could see a figure in a pressure suit just outside the appendage, guiding it along with maneuvering jets. He immediately noted the tail sleeve trailing the individual.

The human activated the controls to begin depressurization of the airlock and he looked over his shoulder in anticipation. He expected Captain Rezo to show up at any moment, but apparently no one else knew about the rescue ship since none of the others had yet appeared. It was a shame the malfunctioning Com system included the intercom. A sound at the hatch brought his face back to the glass. He couldn’t see the suited figure anymore, but he could hear the seal couplings connecting the end of the tunnel to the hull. A long moment later, a distinct metal-on-metal knock on the airlock outer hatch sounded. He glanced at a gauge near the glass and was satisfied with the readout. He thumbed a large red button beneath the gauge and the outer door locks released with a hard thunk.

He moved over to a small window in the inside door and watched the newcomer enter the small compartment and give him a thumbs-up sign. Mark knew what to do and began the airlock pressurization. The process would take longer this time, since he would have to pressurize the flexible passageway between the two ships in addition to the airlock. He heard footsteps behind him and looked back to see Alice approach him with a yawn.

“What’s up, Littlefeather?” she asked him. “I heard banging.”

Mark grinned at the snow leopard and gestured toward the hatch. “We’ve got visitors!” he said.

The older female twitched her tail and whiskers and stuck her face up to the airlock window, fogging up the glass with her breath. “Who is it?” she asked.

“Not sure,” Mark replied as he checked the pressure gauge, “but it’s another freighter, registry number PA1138. I couldn’t see the ship’s name.”

“The Com system is still down,” Alice commented as she brushed food crumbs from her lavender nightshirt. “How did you know they were coming?”

The human laughed and replied, “Toni looked out the window and just saw it. She’s gone to get the captain.” A small beep from the panel indicated full pressure in the airlock. Alice glanced out the side window and saw that the flexible tunnel sides were taut and looked like a solid wall of metal now. Mark toggled a switch and the inside hatch locks released with a clunk. He stepped back and the thick door slid to the right on tracks.

The person inside reached up to release the seal ring on the neck of the pressure suit. With a sharp snick, the helmet came loose. Mark had expected a Fur, but he swallowed hard when he saw the lupine head uncovered. It was his spiritual guide!

Mark grinned widely and extended a hand toward the visitor. “Welcome to the Hidalgo Sun, stranger!” he said excitedly. The wolf hesitated briefly but then shook his hand in greeting. “We’re so very glad to see you! My name’s Mark and this is Alice.”

The individual inside the suit nodded quickly to each and then said in a low-throated voice, “I’m Merlin Sinclair, captain of the Blue Horizon. We picked up your distress signal.”

Taking the initiative, Alice said, “Our LightDrive engine is out of commission, Captain, and...” Approaching footsteps interrupted the beginning of her explanation. A short, very thin lemur ran up to them and stopped beside her. The diminutive critter stared up at the wolf with a big grin, her red eyes unblinking.

“Boy, are you a welcome sight!” she said excitedly. She sniffled and then blew her nose on a handkerchief she produced from a pocket.

Merlin smiled down at her and then shifted his attention up to more arrivals. Before anyone could say more, he lowered his chin onto a tiny lever within his pressure suit and spoke into the condenser microphone near his lips. “Cindy, give the all clear. Have Tanis, Renny and Samantha join me over here. The tunnel is pressurized, so they won’t need suits.”

“Aye, captain.”

Merlin looked over at an approaching group of individuals and noted how bedraggled most of them looked. He didn’t know how long they had been without engine power, but he correctly assumed it had been more than just a few days from the expressions on their faces.

A female black jaguar moved in close to him and he resisted the sudden urge to flee. The memories of Sagan were still fresh in his mind. Before he could react, however, she slipped forward and gave him a fierce hug. The action surprised him, but he decided to let it go. Apparently they had given up hope of a rescue. The jaguar pulled back long enough to peer into his golden eyes and then gave his cheek an emotional lick. This elicited chuckles from the assembled group, but the shapely feline remained at his side with an arm around his waist.

“Well, now,” a short red panda said in a squeaky voice with a wide smile as he stepped forward, “I see Tsarina has given you her standard greeting!” There was more laughter from the group. “I am Captain Rezo Kegawa of the Hidalgo Sun.”

Merlin managed to pull himself away from the jaguar and knelt down to face the panda eye to eye. Rezo was about the same height as Pockets, rather than his larger black and white cousins.

The wolf extended a hand in greeting. “I’m Captain Merlin Sinclair of the Blue Horizon,” he replied.

Rezo shook his hand willingly. The dark stripes in the fur beneath his eyes made them look slightly slanted and small, but the gratitude in them was genuine and warm. “Thank you for stopping to investigate, Captain,” he said. “We’ve been adrift for twelve days, our engines and communications inoperative.”

“Anyone injured?” Merlin asked. “We have a medic on board.”

A female polar bear moved forward one step and replied, “I’m Doctor Burgess, Captain,” she said, “but everyone’s in good health.” She looked around at her crewmates and added with a smile, “Unless you want to count Riki’s sinus infection and some mild cases of cabin fever from boredom.” There were a few chuckles.

There was a clunk at the far end of the walkway. Merlin turned to glance behind him and saw three members of his crew floating toward him in casual clothing. He wanted to get out of the suit as soon as possible. With the helmet off and the extra pressure in the suit gone inside the artificial gravity of this ship, the joints were creased and causing him discomfort.

The jaguar whistled when she saw Renny step from the gravity deck plates of the airlock and float toward them across the space between ships in the pressurized tunnel. “This is getting better and better,” she said with a grin.

Like his captain, Renny felt his heart skip a beat at the sight of the dark feline and he took a hesitant step backward after reaching gravity again. He bumped into the desert fox behind him. Tsarina noticed the expression on his face and was puzzled at his reaction. She left the wolf’s side and rejoined her own crew.

Merlin looked at the cheetah with a frown. “Help me out of this suit, please,” he said. Immediately, Renny and Tanis began to unbuckle the joint seals. As they worked, Merlin nodded toward the Border collie at his side. “This is Samantha, my computer tech,” he said, and then with a wooden smile gestured toward the cheetah. “This is our navigator, Renny, and the other guy is Tanis, our medic.”

“Hello,” Renny and Tanis said in unison.

“What happened?” Samantha asked. Merlin quickly repeated what he had been told as the suit came apart around him. He finally stepped out of the leggings and turned his attention back to Rezo.

“If you’d like,” he said, “you can join me in my office and we can discuss your situation in more detail. In the meantime, our two crews can mingle a bit.”

“That would be good,” the red panda replied, “but I’m afraid we don’t have much room for a large gathering.”

“That’s okay,” Samantha said. “Our ship has a spacious recreation deck perfect for mingling.”

Merlin nodded his approval. “The tunnel is secure between our two ships, so everyone can come and go as needed while we’re coupled together.” Tsarina snickered at his choice of words and Rezo rolled his eyes.

“Let me introduce my crew to you, Captain,” the red panda said. “You’ve already met my navigator, Tsarina Ahnya.” He gestured toward the snow leopard at his side. “This is my chief engineer, Alice Forrestal. Doctor Carmen Burgess, you just met. Next to her is Sean Jones.”

The orange tabby cat cleared his throat with a smile and said, “Everyone calls me Jonesy.” 

“Next to him is Keri Petrie, my supply officer and our cook.” The small grey mouse smiled, though seemed lethargic. It had been a while since her last fix of caffeine.

“This big guy I think you’ve already met. Mark Littlefeather is our load master.”

“Hello,” the human said.

“Next to him is Roger Paxton,” Rezo said, indicating a palomino horse. “He’s our mechanic.”

“Just call him Roj,” the lemur said with a smirk.

“Don’t start that again,” the equine mechanic snorted with a shake of his head. Like the rest of his species, his kind had been gene-spliced from Terran horses three hundred years earlier, and although he stood upright on hooves and digitigrade legs like the Silloni, his arms ended in human-like hands. He placed one of those hands upon his chest and splayed out long fingers. “If you don’t mind, just call me Pax.”

Rezo chuckled. “Riki Nori, my communications officer,” he said of the lemur. He turned and then gestured toward a human female in glasses who stood behind everyone else. “And this is Toni Delondin, my accountant.”

Merlin twitched his right ear when he saw her. “Antoinette Delondin?” he asked.

Toni stepped forward and smiled. “Hello, Captain,” she said. “Nice to see you again, especially now.”

Riki looked back and forth between the wolf and human. “You two know one another?” she asked with a sniffle.

Merlin looked embarrassed, but nodded. “She put in an application with my ship a couple months ago when I needed a temporary replacement for one of my crew.”

“Was it on Pomen?” Jonesy asked.

“Yes, it was,” Merlin replied. “How did you know?”

“Captain Kegawa hired me about a week later,” Toni explained with a shrug.

Merlin stepped closer and held out a hand, palm upward. “Please forgive me for not selecting you,” he said.

She smiled at him and took his hand. “Forgiven,” she said. “My experience is more toward accounting, so my duties on the Hidalgo Sun are more appropriate than the position I applied for with your ship.”

“Ah,” the wolf said.

Tanis took the lull in the conversation as a sign and held up a hand for everyone to see. “The Blue Horizon is the latest model of Okami freighters,” he said, “and there’s plenty of room for everyone if ya want to come over and take a look around.”

Merlin and Samantha smiled at one another. It looked like Tanis was going to play tour guide. “Captain?” he said to the red panda.

“Lead the way,” Rezo said.  

*** 

When Durant walked onto the rec deck, the place was noisy with the buzz of animated conversations. The crews of both freighters were visiting and the grizzly bear couldn’t remember the last time the third deck had been so lively. Pockets and Maximillian were involved in a discussion with a snow leopard and a palomino horse close to the lift and he heard them all speak in the techno-babble language that engineers and mechanics were known for. He couldn’t tell which ship’s engines they discussed and he just nodded his head toward them with a smile as he walked past.

Cindy and another mouse relaxed on one of the couches laughing and talking in whispers together and a small lemur joined them with sodas. Durant looked around and saw Lori at the galley counter with a female black jaguar who looked rather forlorn. He hesitated a moment when he saw her and had to force Sagan’s face from his mind. Near the front video panel was Samantha. She had her arms crossed as she listened to an orange tabby’s account of their current troubles. Two humans, a man and a woman, stood behind the feline to inject their own comments into his tale when needed. Tanis and Renny were across the room engaged in a conversation with someone, but Durant couldn’t tell who it was from his vantage point.

He turned his attention back to Samantha and approached her small group.

“Whoa,” the orange cat said as the grizzly bear stopped beside the Border collie. “You’re a big ‘un...”

The accountant looked down at him and gave him a smile. “Hello,” he said. “I’m Durant. Pardon me for interrupting.”

“Sure, jump on into the conversation,” Jonesy said with a grin.

Durant hadn’t met any of the crew of the Hidalgo Sun until now and almost felt like a stranger on his own ship within the crowd. He looked over at Samantha and gestured casually out over the room.

“Where’s the boss?” he asked.

Samantha took a pull on her soda straw and shrugged her shoulders. “The captains have been in his office for over an hour,” she replied. “What’s up?”

The grizzly leaned close the collie to speak over the noise of the room, but when he did, he saw the person Tanis and Renny had been talking with. He immediately forgot what he was going to say and started to grin.

“Uh, never mind,” he said absently. “It wasn’t important.” Without waiting for a reply, he wandered off in the direction he had been staring.

“What was that all about?” Mark Littlefeather asked curiously.

Sam was puzzled. “I’m not sure,” she replied.

Durant stopped when he was directly behind Renny, leaned on the cheetah’s shoulders with an arm, and looked over at the female polar bear they were talking with. The navigator looked up at him with a grin. “Hi, Durant,” Renny said.

“Durant?” the polar bear repeated. She looked at him with her head tilted slightly to the left. “Leonardo Durant?”

Tanis immediately stepped backward a pace to put distance between him and the bears. He knew how much the load master hated his first name and expected that an irritated response was forthcoming. He was surprised, however, when Durant merely grinned.

“Hello, Carmen,” he said.

“Carmen?” Renny looked back and forth between the bears and laughed. “Well, I’ll be... this is the Carmen you told us about?” he asked.

“Yes, it is.”

Carmen looked at him curiously. “What did you tell them about me?” she asked.

Durant shrugged his shoulders and replied, “I told them I met a wonderful woman on the beach on Pomen named Carmen, and that we shared a nice dinner and conversation.”

Tanis stepped back up to his original spot and added, “Spending time with ya that one day helped bring Durant up out of his depression, y’know.”

Carmen smiled at the desert fox and replied, “No, I didn’t know that.”

“We were all fairly down at the time,” Renny said. He looked over at the grizzly and sighed. “I think Durant and I were competing to see who was hardest to get along with.”

“How sad.” Carmen stepped forward and gave both of them a quick lick on the cheek. “As a doctor,” she said, “I have an interest in the mental well-being of my patients, as well as the physical. Even if you weren’t my specific patients, I still feel for your pains.”

Renny looked up at her as she stepped back. “We’re okay now,” he said, “but we went through some rough days.” He glanced over at the desert fox and made a motion with his head. Tanis nodded and looked up at the polar bear.

“It was nice meeting ya, Doctor Burgess,” he said, “but Renny and I are going to mingle with the other guests a bit and let ya and Durant catch up.”

Carmen smiled at the medic. “Thank you, Tanis. We’ll talk again later.” As the cheetah and fox walked away, she motioned toward a surprisingly empty couch and said to Durant, “Shall we sit down?”

Across the room, a lull had come into a conversation that had left Max floundering for understanding some time ago. The snow leopard named Alice was an older motherly type, but she had an extensive knowledge on the workings of an Okami freighter.

“So, Jerad,” she said to the Blue Horizon’s chief engineer, “where’s your brother? I keep expecting him to walk through the lift at any moment. I haven’t seen him since we ran into one another on Pomen.”

The raccoon frowned and stuck his hands in the pockets of his coveralls. “Jasper isn’t with us anymore,” he said sourly.

The leopard’s eyes went wide. “Oh no... What happened to him?” she asked.

Pockets suddenly realized how his comment must have sounded. “Oops,” he said. “I didn’t mean it like that, Alice. He’s okay... he just doesn’t work here anymore.”

The other engineer let out a heavy sigh and then smiled crookedly with a hand up to her chest. “Don’t scare me like that,” she said with a strained laugh. “I like the old coon.”

“Hey!” Pockets said with mock indignation. “I’m the same age as he is, and he’s not that old!”

“Okay, so tell me, why did he leave?” Alice asked. “I never thought I’d see the day when the Porter brothers would ever be willingly separated.”

Pockets still felt sore toward his brother for leaving the way he did, but they had known Alice years ago when they had all three served together on a Ganisan battleship. He quickly detailed the situation that led up to Patch’s departure. After he finished, Alice crossed her arms and gave him a perplexed look.

“So he’s on board a cruise ship now, eh?” she said. “I’ll bet it irks him not to be Chief Engineer anymore.”

Pockets shrugged. “Probably. He always did like being in charge of the engine room, but I haven’t heard anything from him since he set sail on the Argonautia. I’ve sent a few letters, but he hasn’t answered any of them.”

Paxton had been quiet throughout the recent turn of the conversation and suddenly put a hand on his stomach. It growled loudly. Max snickered and looked up at the horse with a grin.

“Want something to eat?” he asked. “Lori’s got a lot of stuff in the galley.”

The palomino looked embarrassed but nodded with a smile. “Lead the way, boy,” he said. “We’ve been rationing our food stores.”

Pockets watched Max and Pax head across the room and then turned back to the leopard. “He’s a good kid and is a fine student,” he said to her. “Max has a lot of potential in him.”

“Perhaps with the four of us working together, we can come up with a way to get the Hidalgo Sun operational again.”

Pockets glanced up at her and bit his bottom lip. “I know you’re probably sick of looking at the inside of your ship right now, but can I go over and take a look?” he asked.

“Sure,” she said. “I’ll take you over there, myself.”

When Max and Paxton arrived at the galley, the jaguar sitting there put her head on her arms on the counter; Lori had gone out into the crowd to visit. “What’s the matter, Tsarina?” Paxton asked her. “You’re usually excited to meet new people.”

The ebony feline glanced up at him with doleful eyes and sighed. “Everyone acts like I’m some kind of pariah,” she groaned. “Every time some of the Horizon crew looks at me, I see fear in their eyes. I don’t understand it.”

Max sat down at the counter beside her and put a hand on her arm. “I know why,” he said timidly. “It’s not you they’re afraid of, but seeing you brings up some awful memories.” Tsarina looked at him silently, waiting for him to continue. Pax sat down on her other side and focused on the young canine. Max looked for the right words to say.

“Are you familiar with the name of Sagan?” he asked.

Tsarina shook her head that she did not, but Pax nodded. “What’s that pirate got to do with this?”

“Sagan was the one who unleashed that nasty virus on Hestra,” Max explained. “He also attacked the Blue Horizon on more than one occasion. The last time we met up, he got on board somehow, hurt some of us and killed Taro, too. Well, we’re not really sure she’s dead, since we haven’t heard anything about her since the crash, but everyone thinks she died.”

“That’s bad, but I still don’t understand what this has to do with me,” Tsarina said.

Pax leaned over to her and whispered into her ear, “Sagan was a black jaguar, dear.”

“Oh...” she muttered in a quiet breath.  “They think because I’m a jaguar that I’m related to him?”

“No,” Max said quickly. “That’s not it at all. No one blames you for what happened to us, only Sagan and his crew.”

“But, because I’m the same species...”

“...it brings up memories of the attack.” Pax finished. 

“Uh huh,” the young canine replied. “It’s not your fault, but I think that’s probably what’s going through their minds.”

Tsarina looked at him, sure that she didn’t really feel any better by his explanation. “Were you there when it happened?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said, “but I never saw Sagan, myself.”

“Is this why you aren’t afraid to talk to me?”

“I guess,” Max said with the shrug of his shoulders. “I think you’re pretty, too.”

Tsarina suddenly smiled in spite of herself. “Why, thank you, Max,” she said. She touched him gently on the back of his hand with a finger, making him wonder at its significance.

Max cleared his throat and said, “Uh, would you like me to introduce you to some of the others? There were only three on our crew who actually fought with him face to face. If you talk to the others, perhaps you can show them you’re not the same as Sagan.”

“I don’t know,” she said as she absently fingered the straps of her yellow overalls. “It might not make a difference.”

“Then again, it might,” Pax said. “Go ahead, Tsarina.”

Max looked up at her renewed interest as she glanced around the room. “Can you introduce me to the cheetah?” she asked. The other feline had piqued her interest ever since she first saw him.

“Uh... that might be difficult,” Max said with a lump in his throat. “Taro was his girlfriend, you know, the one we think died. He still misses her a lot.”

“Yeah, that figures… Okay then, how about the cute fox? Was he traumatized by this Sagan?”

“Nope, he’s good. Tanis is a neat guy. Let me go get him.”  

*** 

“I dunno about this,” the voice of Pockets shouted from the opening of a small access panel. Alice knelt beside the passageway and peered inside at the raccoon. “The primary load lifter on the energy transfer unit is so shot I don’t think there’s a way to fix it, even if we could get it out onto the workbench in one piece.”

“That’s why I haven’t bothered to pull it out of there yet,” the leopard replied. “I crawled in there last week to remove it, but once I saw its condition, I didn’t see a need to go through the trouble. It would take half a day just to get it out of there and then the ship would be without any kind of power at all in the meantime.”

“You crawled in here?” Pockets asked in an amazed tone and looked out at her. “There’s barely enough room for me and you’re bigger than I am.”

Alice gave him a sultry look and said, “I’m very flexible.”

Pockets grinned back at her. “Yeah, that’s a neat trait you felines have. Okay, I’m coming back out. There’s nothing I can do in here.”

“Most ships carry spares of their important parts,” Alice said as the raccoon inched his way back out toward the engine room, “but we’ve used up most of ours over the past couple of years with no budget to keep any in stock.”

“I can look in my stores to see if I have something that might work,” Pockets grunted as he neared the opening, “but our parts are for an H-model, not a D.”

“Think we can modify it to work?”

“Dunno, but we can try,” he said. “I’m pretty handy with gadgets.”

Alice gave him a hand and pulled him free of the tight passage opening. “Yes, I remember your gadgets,” she said with a grin. “I still use a couple you made for me way back when.”

Pockets glanced up at her. “Oh, really?” he replied with a smirk. “Okay, let’s get back over to the Horizon to see what we can alter.”  

*** 

“I can’t tell you enough how glad I am to see you, Captain Sinclair.” Rezo took a lap of his coffee and savored the rich flavor. “The foremost reason, of course, is because my ship broke down, but I’ve also heard a lot of good things about you,” he added. “Of all people to come to my rescue, I’m glad it was you.”

Merlin leaned back and propped his feet up on the desk of his office, his own cup of coffee in hand. “Oh? Who’s been talking about me?” he asked.

The red panda smiled at him. “Holly Harken, for one. Coverage of your voyage to Sillon was the main focus of her newscasts for months, and while your final battle with the Basilisk over Crescentis didn’t make all the headlines in the PA, there are those who took notice.”

Merlin looked at him and frowned. “Notice, yeah. I was threatened against rebuilding my business. Not the kind of notice I really wanted. No one’s made a move against us as yet, but we have to be on the alert because of that threat.”

Rezo looked at him in surprise. “Threatened?” By whom?”

“I don’t know, but I have to assume it was someone associated with Sagan,” the wolf replied after taking another lap of his drink. “My only other enemy wouldn’t pull anything like that. It’s not his style.”

“You have another enemy?”

Merlin chuckled. “That’s too strong a word. Armando Jensen is more of a business rival that we’ve bumped into on numerous occasions. He flies a Sakura-class freighter called the Savannah Hunter and we always end up verbally sparring anytime we meet.”

Sakura? Why on Moloch would he want to fly one of those things for?” Rezo exclaimed. “Back when I was younger, I was the pilot for a Sakura freighter. The controls are unwieldy and it has too many blind spots, despite external cameras and sensors mounted all over its hull.”

“It can carry a larger payload than an Okami,” Merlin replied. “His ship will hold more cargo that even mine and he thinks by having that capacity that he can get more customers.”

“Does he do well, business-wise?”

The wolf smiled. “Not really. Armando likes to cut corners and even cheat to get his clients, but I’ve not really seen that it’s done him any good.”

Rezo leaned forward and rested his arms on the desk. “Sounds like you keep tabs on him,” he said.

Merlin shrugged. “It never hurts to monitor your competitor’s business,” he replied. He took another lap of his coffee and then put his feet on the floor. “What about you?” he asked. “How’s your business doing?”

Rezo sighed and sat back in his chair. “Not good,” the red panda answered. “I barely make a profit after paying my employees and maintaining my ship, and sometimes I have trouble doing even that.” He looked over at the wolf and shook his head. “The Hidalgo Sun is seventeen years old. Parts are getting harder to find and when we can locate them, they are either expensive because of their rarity or we have to dig them out of a salvage yard. I can’t afford a newer ship because I can barely afford to even restock our supplies for each voyage.” He ran a hand over the red fur of his head and sighed again. “I hate to say this, but the Planetary Alignment needs a catastrophe somewhere so our business would pick up.”

Merlin looked over at him oddly. “A catastrophe?”

“Yeah... something where freighters such as ours would be in high demand to transport supplies, aid or people.” Rezo slid down in his seat a little and stared down at his feet. “If things don’t pick up soon, I’ll probably have to shut down my business and lay off my crew before long.”

“What’s your debt situation like?” the wolf asked him.

Without looking up, Rezo answered with a smile on his face. “Oddly enough, I’m in good shape. I paid off the loan on the Hidalgo Sun within three years of getting it and the rest of my credit history is good.”

“With a credit history like that, why not take out a loan to get a newer ship?” Merlin asked. “You wouldn’t have to get the newest H-model, but at least one that’s a little easier to maintain and get parts for.”

“I can’t afford the payments,” Rezo explained. “Until business picks up, it’s not likely I can afford another loan even if I do have a good credit history. I still have other bills to pay beyond that.” He looked over at the wolf with a deep frown. “If our combined mechanics can’t find a way to get my engines operational, I may have to abandon the ship altogether and beg you to let me buy passage for me my crew to ride with you to Mars. We might be able to find other jobs there.”

Merlin pursed his lips in thought for a moment and then said, “Hopefully, it won’t come to that.”  

*** 

Durant stretched, yawned, and glanced across the room at the clock on his cabin terminal. It was still too early to crawl out of bed so he snuggled in closer to Carmen. She stirred a little in her sleep, but remained within her dreams.

The grizzly bear smiled to himself and felt grateful for the substandard parts of the Hidalgo Sun with only a hint of guilt. Carmen was a gentle and affectionate lover and it had been a while since Durant had spent time with someone like her. He glanced over at her face in the dim light of his cabin and saw her pleasant smile.

So lovely, he thought to himself. Had it not been for the breakdown of the Hidalgo Sun, he might not have ever seen her again after their brief meeting on Pomen. While he couldn’t be sure of her own feelings, Durant resolved to stay in touch with her.   

*** 

Antoinette floated gently across the tunnel that connected the two freighters. She enjoyed the sensation of weightlessness away from the artificial gravity deck-plates she had gotten used to on board the ships. She smiled to herself and halted her progress toward the Hidalgo Sun. Then with a tiny caress of the wall, she pushed away and twisted her body gently so that she executed a graceful pirouette. She turned slowly around and around, her eyes closed and her arms wrapped around herself.

Toni turned lazily in the air, her mind ignoring the constant thrumming of power from both freighters that vibrated across the tunnel walls. She heard one of the airlocks release and she looked up to see who had joined her. It was the Border collie from the other ship.

“Hello, Samantha,” she said with a smile.

Sam gave her a canine grin. “Hi. What’s going on?” she asked.

Toni shrugged and replied, “I like the weightlessness... I can dance in the air.” With her words, she turned in another pirouette, her arms outstretched in fluid movements. Had she been wearing veils, she would have trailed them around her. “I can rarely find a place to do anything like this.”

Sam chuckled and tried her own take on what the woman had just done. She turned quietly in the air, and just for the fun of it, Samantha drew her legs up to her chest and turned end over end three times before righting herself. She looked at Toni with a smile and waved to her.

“Enjoy yourself,” she said with a chuckle. “I need to talk to our engineers.”

“Bye, Samantha,” Toni replied with another gentle twist. Before the Border collie had made it to the airlock at the other end of the tunnel, she could hear the human quietly humming to herself.   

*** 

Moss hovered above Max’s ears as he, in turn, peered over Pockets’ shoulder. The raccoon browsed through the ship’s spare parts inventory list with a frown. Alice and Paxton watched from the sides, the equine mechanic nervously grooming his mane with a brush he carried with him everywhere. Pockets found the part they needed and a three-dimensional diagram popped up on the screen with its design specifications. Alice glanced over the images and frowned. Pockets heaved a sigh and sat back in his chair, almost bumping into Max.

“I don’t see a way the newer model design can be altered to work in the Sun’s engines,” the snow leopard muttered into his ear. “There are just too many differences.”

“It looks like they totally redesigned it from the ground up,” Pockets agreed.

“How much difference is there?” Paxton asked. In response, the raccoon ordered up the specifications in the computer’s memory of past Okami model designs. The D-model version of the part they needed looked nothing like the H-model part that was available on board the Horizon.

“The wiring, configuration and even just the way it works are all different,” Pockets said with a frown. “They’ve been improved over the years between each model.” To prove his point, he called up the data of the same part for each model of Okami freighter between the D and H series.

“See?” he asked as he pointed to each of the five units with a tiny claw. “The major design change came between the F and G models. Prior to that, the units were virtually identical.”

“Would the unit from an F-model work?” Max asked out of boredom.

Alice nodded her head. “It would work perfectly,” she said, “if only we had an F-model to cannibalize.”

“Do you think Durant would let us use one from our cargo?” the canine asked.

Pockets looked at the young mechanic in wonder. He had not even remembered that the Horizon carried a load of parts bound for the starship repair facility on Mars.

“If Durant has the unit we need amongst our cargo,” the raccoon answered with a conspiratorial smile, “the Hidalgo Sun will have a new energy transfer unit very soon, permission or not.”  

*** 

“Now, isn’t this better?” the jaguar purred. Tsarina sat straddled across Tanis’ upper legs and gently kneaded the desert fox’s shoulders. He lay face down on his bed, his tail draped across her lap, with a contented smile across his lips as she worked the kinks out of his muscles.

“Mmm hmm...” he mumbled. Tanis had spent some time with Tsarina since Max had introduced them on the rec deck. Like Maximillian, Tanis had never actually encountered Sagan and he had been more receptive to the feline’s company than the others had. He found that she was quite sensuous and she enjoyed flirting. He didn’t know how much time she would spend with him before moving off to someone else in his crew, but at the moment, he didn’t mind. Her ministrations kept him pleased and he resolved to enjoy it as much as he could.  

*** 

“Come in.”

Merlin looked up from his desk as Durant, Samantha and Pockets filed into his office. Rezo smiled up at them curiously from his seat near the wall. Pockets and Samantha looked pleased. Durant did not.

“Yes?” the wolf asked.

Pockets spoke up first. “Captain,” he said, “none of our own spare parts will work with Captain Rezo’s engines. The differences between the models are too great. However...”

“However,” Sam repeated, “our present cargo includes parts that are compatible with his ship.”

Merlin didn’t say a word, but looked up at the grizzly bear. He already knew what Durant was going to say to Sam’s unspoken request.

“Boss,” the load master said, “we don’t own the parts we’re carrying as cargo. We can’t use them for the Sun as if they were readily available stock.”

Rezo bit his bottom lip, but kept his mouth shut.

“I know Pockets occasionally filches from our cargo,” Durant continued, despite the hurt look the raccoon gave him, “so I had a perimeter alarm set up around the crates in the hold. He set it off.”

Merlin kept his face impassive and directed his focus on the engineer. The raccoon stuck his hands into the pockets of his coveralls and the sound of tools could be heard jingling against one another as he made room for his hands in there with them.

“There’s no other alternative, Captain,” Pockets finally replied. “Alice and I have determined there is no possible way to repair the Sun’s engines, and the spare parts for the Horizon will not work for them either. Parts from our cargo will work, but Durant won’t let me use them.”

Merlin glanced quickly at Rezo and then back to the bear. “What’s the cost on the parts they need?” he asked, knowing the bear would have already checked on the information.

“Twelve hundred thirty seven credits,” Durant responded without hesitation. “It’s too much to just let slide, boss. It’s a theft that Mars would notice immediately.” He looked over at the red panda and shook his head. “Sorry, Captain.”

Rezo frowned deeply and looked over to the wolf. “It looks like there’s no alternative,” he replied with his head lowered. “If you would be kind enough to take me and my crew with you to Mars, I can pay you for our passage. Perhaps I can work out some kind of deal with the repair depot there for parts.”

“What about your ship?” Samantha asked.

“We’ll have to abandon it until I can arrange a ride back here from Mars with the parts we need.”

Pockets put his hands on the desk. “Merlin, Paxton told me about Captain Rezo’s financial state.” He looked apologetic at the red panda, but continued, “I seriously doubt he has enough to pay for the parts and a transport back here to install them. They’ll probably just turn around and sell him the parts we already have on board!” He looked up at the grizzly in silent accusation.

Durant crossed his arms. “I’m not arguing with you, Pockets,” he said with a scowl, “but you just can’t take the parts you need from a customer’s inventory!”

“Merlin,” Samantha said quickly, “what if we contacted the Mars colony director and explain the situation to him? If we offer to pay them for the parts we use, they shouldn’t complain.”

“Unless the parts were already earmarked to fix someone else’s ship,” Durant countered.

Samantha frowned at the bear as if to say ‘you are not helping at all.’

The lupine captain looked over at his red-furred counterpart. “If Mars gives the okay, would that be acceptable?” he asked.

Rezo didn’t look happy. “I... don’t have twelve hundred credits in my account,” he admitted in a quiet voice. “I think I can afford to pay you for our passage to Mars to cover food and air, at least. Once there, we’ll all look for new work. I can put the Sun up as a salvageable derelict for someone else to pick over.”

“That’s not right!” Sam exclaimed. She knelt down next to the red panda and looked into his eyes. “If you will allow me,” she said in a sincere tone, “I would like to pay for your parts if Mars will sell them to us.”

Rezo felt his eyes grow moist and he nodded. “I don’t know why you would do that for me, but I don’t really have a choice, my dear,” he said. “I will accept your kind offer, but I promise you I will pay you back when we get back on our feet.”

The Border collie looked up at the load master and accountant of the Blue Horizon. “Durant?” she asked.

The bear nodded quietly. “If Mars gives the okay for this, I don’t have a problem with it.”

Merlin looked over at Samantha and nodded too. “Get on the Com at once to Mars. See what you can do.”

“Thank you, Merlin,” Sam replied with a smile. She looked back to Rezo. “We’ll get those parts for the Hidalgo Sun,” she promised, “and then you’ll have a working ship again.”

The small red panda smiled at her and then nodded gratefully to Pockets. “Thank you,” he said. “I do appreciate everything you are doing for me.”  

*** 

“So what’s it like working for Captain Sinclair?” Keri asked Cindy. Both mice were back on the recreation deck in the galley area. They had been talking for hours about anything that came to mind. Both women loved to chat and they acted as if they were best friends catching up on old news, even though they had only just met.

Cindy leaned back against the wall from the table and put her arms behind her head. “He’s fairly easy going,” she said, “but you don’t want to get on his bad side. He’s quite a grump if you do something against his orders.”

Keri leaned forward on the table with a grin, her ears practically wiggling in anticipation. “So, what did you do?”

Cindy gave her a lopsided smile. “Everyone on the ship has to take a six-hour watch on the bridge so that it’s manned all the time,” she explained. “He told me one day a few weeks back that it was my turn for bridge watch. I was up here watching a movie at the time and had a half hour left before it was over.” She shrugged her shoulders and bit her bottom lip gently. “Nothing ever happens out here and the ship’s always on auto-pilot while en route, so I didn’t go to the bridge until the movie was over. By the time I got to the bridge, Merlin was waiting for me and you could practically see the black cloud hovering over his head. It seemed an important message from one of his business contacts came in during that half hour the bridge was unmanned and we lost a job because no one was there to receive it. The job went to a competitor.”

“Ooh, not a good thing,” Keri replied with a wince. “What did he do?”

“He docked half of my pay for that voyage, partly from the lost job and partly for disobeying an order.” Cindy sighed and put her hands in her lap. “I haven’t missed bridge duty since.”

“How does he act when you haven’t disobeyed him?”

Cindy smiled again. “He’s all serious if you’re talking to him about the business, but if you visit with him at any other time, he’s pretty casual. He doesn’t have too many rules for us, so it’s a relaxed atmosphere so long as you follow them.”

Keri took a long drink of her soda and then winked at her new friend. “So, tell me...” she said in a low, conspiratorial tone, “What’s he like in bed?”

“Dunno,” Cindy replied with a mock frown. “Samantha’s in the way.”

“Oh? So they’re exclusive to one another?”

Cindy shook her head. “No, not really exclusive from what I’ve heard, but it seems like she can sense when he’s in the mood, y’know, and has already made plans with him before I have a chance.”

“You’re just not trying hard enough, girl,” Keri replied. “You’re going to get lonesome that way.”

It was Cindy’s turn to grin widely. “Not so,” she said. “You only asked about my captain. I have other willing guys whenever I need company.”

“Ah...”

“So, it’s your turn. What is it like to work for Captain Kegawa?”

“He’s moody,” Keri answered after taking another drink of her soda. She was addicted to caffeine and in the time the Hidalgo Sun had been adrift, she had already depleted the ship’s supply of coffee and soft drinks. The Blue Horizon was stocked with a large supply of caffeinated drinks and she was delighted to have so much to live on.

“When he doesn’t get his way, which seems to be most of the time, he rants endlessly and is quite a pain to be around,” she continued. “During the times when he’s not in a snit about something, he can actually be fun. He loves to joke around, almost to the point of playing pranks, but he doesn’t take pranks against himself very well.”

“Sounds wishy-washy,” Cindy replied.

“Of course, it would be nice to have a better salary, but the business is broke most of the time. The budget rarely has enough for replacement parts for the ship, which is why the Sun is currently out of commission.” Keri stuck out her tongue and made a face. “I’ve been thinking of looking for a new ship to hire onto if things don’t pick up soon. Do you think Captain Sinclair would like another hand?”

Cindy shook her head with a frown. “I doubt it. I’m only here temporarily, myself.” She took a few moments to tell the other mouse about Sagan’s attack on the ship and then added, “If Taro ever comes back, my job is history. That was a condition in my contract.”

“Yuck...”

“Yeah, but I agreed to it when I signed on. We haven’t really discussed it since then, but I’ve heard some of them talk about Taro as if they think she’s really dead. They’ve heard nothing about her since the crash and that’s been nearly six months ago. If that’s so, I’ll probably be here from now on; maybe the captain will even make me permanent. I like it on board the Blue Horizon.

“What will you do if this Taro does come back?”

“I’m not sure,” Cindy replied. “There are agencies on each world of the PA we work with to line up new jobs. I might try one of them if that time ever comes.”

Keri sat up slowly and leaned back in her seat. “If things don’t start to look up for us,” she said, “I might want to apply for a job with one of them, myself.”  

*** 

Lorelei crawled out of her bed and padded softly toward the bathroom, nimbly stepping over the clothing that covered the floor of the cabin. When she started the water for the shower, there was a knock on her door. She quickly wrapped a small towel around her and went to the door in the front room. When she opened it, the orange tabby cat of the Hidalgo Sun smiled up at her.

“Hullo,” he said.

“G’morning, Jonesy,” Lori said with a grin. “You’re up early.”

The feline twitched his whiskers and licked his lips. “It may be morning on the Blue Horizon,” he replied, “but the Hidalgo Sun is still set on the Panos time zone on Mainor.” He shrugged his shoulders and grinned. “However, you mentioned you had a big breakfast planned for the crews of both our ships.”

“I’m sorry, but it’ll take me a while to prepare everything,” Lori replied.

“Want some help?” Jonesy asked. “I occasionally give Keri a hand when she has something like that planned.”

Lori grinned as she let him in and then turned to take a fresh towel from the closet. “Sure,” she replied with a sly smile. She handed him the towel she had just been wearing and added, “I can always use an extra pair of hands.”

The orange tabby cat gave her a feral grin and shut the door behind him. He was not overly fond of water, but he could tolerate a shower – and sharing a shower with someone was even better.  

*** 

Mark Littlefeather straightened his burgundy flight jacket and cleared his throat. He knocked on the door to Merlin’s office and waited for a response. A moment later, he heard a voice call out from behind the panel.

“Enter.”

The human male thumbed the door switch and the panel slid to the side. Merlin was at his desk poring over three slateboards displaying spreadsheets of data on the Blue Horizon accounts. He was dressed in black slacks and a loose beige sweater, but his boots were set aside so he could feel the soft carpeting on his toes.

“Hello, Captain,” Mark said quietly.

The wolf looked up and hesitated a moment before giving the human a reply. He’d distrusted humans for years and hadn’t been comfortable having two of them on his vessel. Having one in such close quarters of his office made him pause.

“Mr. Littlefeather,” he replied courteously after a couple of heartbeats. “What can I do for you?”

Mark smiled and nodded respectfully toward him. “I’ve wanted to speak with you ever since you came aboard our ship, sir,” he answered. “May I have a moment of your time?”

Merlin frowned and tapped out a command on each of the slateboards. The files saved on each and then a screensaver of small Dennieran crustaceans began dancing across the screens.

“Have a seat,” he said.

“Thank you, Captain.” Mark took one of the two seats on the opposite side of the desk that was covered in printed books, trinkets and several green plants.

“Okay,” Merlin said tonelessly, “what is it you need to discuss with me?” He crossed his arms and leaned back in his seat.

Mark had a difficult time reading the wolf’s expression, but he got the impression that Merlin was not pleased with the interruption. He swallowed and put his hands in his lap. He managed a bit of a smile and his dark brown eyes were slightly averted so not to appear confrontational to the wolf.

“Sir, it’s not really a matter of need,” he began. “I just... just wanted to talk. You’ve visited with my crewmates ever since our two ships came together but I’ve not had a chance to really meet with you myself.”

Merlin maintained his frown. He had purposely avoided the humans whenever he had the opportunity, but it looked as if he was cornered. He sighed and tried to relax a little. “Sorry about that,” he replied. He uncrossed his arms and picked up a small water pot. He gave a little of the liquid to a plant on the corner of his desk and said, “I suppose it’s your turn to visit with me.”

Littlefeather nodded with a smile. “Well, sir, I’m sure you know that there are many different beliefs among the people of Earth,” he said. “I was taught to respect the elements of nature and to live in harmony with the things and people around me.”

Merlin looked up at him. “You worship the elements?” he asked.

The human shook his head, “No, sir, I respect them.”

“That’s commendable.”

“Yes, sir. Anyway, it is traditional in my family to find a common bond with something in nature and to consider that person, animal or object as a lifetime friend to turn to in times of difficulty.”

The captain set his water pot aside and returned his attention to the man. “I don’t follow you,” he said.

Mark leaned forward and rested his elbows on the desk. “When I was younger, I went on what we call a dream quest in which to discover who or what my spiritual guide might be. In the course of my mental search, I discovered that my personal guide was the grey wolf.”

Merlin’s frown reappeared, but he remained silent as the human continued. “There have been times in my life where I’ve faced significant crossroads, but didn’t know which way to turn.” Mark said, “Every time I’ve had an important decision to make, I have seen the image of a wolf in some way, almost as if this creature guided my judgment. At other times, the appearance of a wolf has heralded some kind of good change in my life.”

Merlin Sinclair resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “So you think I’m your lucky wolf?” he asked.

Littlefeather swallowed and shook his head. “No, sir,” he replied, “but seeing you does encourage me. Sir, I don’t know what the future holds for me. I’m not clairvoyant and I don’t believe in magic, but what harm is there in recognizing signs that things may turn out for the better?”

Merlin was puzzled. This man was like no other human he had had any close dealings with before. Usually he had to deal with the likes of Victor Faltane or Connie Davies, which always left a bad taste in his mouth from the encounter. Mark Littlefeather didn’t have that kind of air about him.

“Okay,” he said after a moment, “now that seeing me has given you hope, what now?”

Mark smiled. “I don’t require anything from you, Captain,” he answered. “I just wanted to let you know that I am glad to have met you and already feel my life enriched.”

“Even though I haven’t done anything for you?”

“Even though, sir.”

It was Merlin’s turn to lean on the desk with his elbows. His expression softened toward the man. “You amaze me, Mr. Littlefeather. I admit that I have never felt comfortable around humans,” he admitted. “You are the first I’ve talked to who did not want something from me, and my dealings with your people have usually gone badly.”

Mark nodded in understanding. “I’m not surprised,” he said. “Even though Earth engineered the Furs and later formed the Planetary Alignment with its lost colonies, there are still a lot of xenophobes around. In spite of the fact that Furs have been around for three centuries and are genetically related, a lot of humans still don’t see Furs as being on the same sentient level as they are. In my family, however, we were raised to respect all people, no matter which race, species or planet they happen to be from originally. This is how I believe.”

Merlin nodded with a soft expression. “I can’t fault you for that,” he said. “I admit that you puzzle me, but I am surprised that you seem to actually respect me.”

“Yes, sir, I do.”

The captain leaned back in his seat. “I would like you to do me a favor, Mr. Littlefeather.”

“Anything, sir.”

“Please stop calling me Sir,” the wolf replied. “It’s okay to use as a form of respect at an initial meeting, but not as a title, and not all of the time. I’d prefer if you would just call me Captain or even by my first name, Merlin.”

“On one condition,” the human answered, “that you would do the same and call me Mark instead of Mr. Littlefeather.”

“That’s a condition I think I can handle.”

“Thank you, s... uh, Merlin. Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”

“Okay, Mark, I will do that.” Merlin looked at the time displayed through the wall and sighed. “I’m afraid I need to get back to my budget now. I have something rather important I’m trying to work out with my accountant and I need to get back to it.”

“I appreciate your time, Captain.”  

*** 

“This is the SS Blue Horizon,” Durant said into the headset microphone. “What can we do for you?”

Blue Horizon, I’m Kent Terrace, central manager of the Okami Repair Facility of the Mars Colony.”

“Yes, Mr. Terrace, we’ve been expecting your call.” He turned and gave his companions in the room a thumbs-up sign and then put the call on the bridge speakers.

“I need to speak with Captain Kegawa, please.”

“I’m here, Mr. Terrace,” the red panda said into the microphone that Durant handed him.

“I’ve called to inform you that you are granted authority to use whatever parts among the Blue Horizon’s cargo as necessary to get the Hidalgo Sun operational in this emergency situation. Provide us with an itemized list of the parts you use so we can compare it to the manifest when our shipment arrives. Once we have a list of what you’ve used, we will reply back with an itemized pricing at wholesale costs. Payment will be required within thirty days of this transaction.”

Captain Rezo smiled at Jonesy and Antoinette, who stood beside him. “Thank you sir,” he replied. “You’ve been most generous.”

“As a condition of this transaction,” Terrace continued, “you will bring your Okami freighter to our facility as soon as you are flight capable, where your vessel will undergo proper repairs to specifications to prevent a further occurrence of these issues. We are proud of our ships, Captain, even the older models.”

Rezo had not expected this. Samantha had agreed to pay for the parts they needed, but not to further repairs to his old ship. He didn’t know how he would be able to pay for the depot repairs, but he didn’t really have a choice. He needed his ship operational.

“Aye, sir,” he said after a brief glance at Merlin. “Once we’re on our way, we will chart our heading directly to your facility.”

“Then I won’t take up anymore of your time, Captain, and let you start your repairs. We will see you soon.”

“Yes, sir, and thank you again, Mr. Terrace.”

Rezo handed the headset microphone back to Durant and looked at Toni with a frown. “Tis a mixed blessing,” he said. “We should now have the parts we need, but we’ll still have to scrounge the bottom of the barrel to pay for a depot visit.”

The human accountant looked at the slateboard she held in her hands and frowned. She adjusted the glasses on her small nose and cleared her throat. “Captain,” Toni said, “I don’t think we have enough in the coffers to even pay for more than a couple days at a hotel in the Mars dome for the whole crew. Besides this, we’re so overdue on delivering our cargo that we probably won’t even get paid for that job.”

Rezo patted her on the arm. “I know, Toni, I know,” he said. He looked at Jonesy and said, “Please assemble the Sun’s crew on the Horizon’s recreational deck. I want to inform everyone that once we get to Mars, I’ll clear everybody’s contracts so you all can find other work.”

The orange cat heaved a sigh. “Yessir,” he muttered.

Merlin looked at Durant, who nodded silently in return. The wolf stepped forward and sat down in the command seat of the bridge. “Captain Kegawa,” he said, “Durant and I have been going through our budget and I’ve worked up a small loan for you out of our surplus, if you’ll accept it.”

“Captain, I can’t afford another loan,” Rezo reminded him.

Durant handed his own slateboard to the red panda and let him see the readout. “We’ve worked out an interest-free, low-payment plan for you with that should not hurt your profits very much,” the grizzly said. “With your vital systems repaired, you can invest your cargo fees in your employees’ salaries and build up your profits again.”

“You won’t be able to update all the systems on the Hidalgo Sun, but the more urgent needs will be taken care of so those systems shouldn’t break down again.”

Rezo showed Durant’s slateboard to Jonesy and Toni.

“How can you do this?” Jonesy asked. “Why would you do this?”

Merlin gave the feline a genuine smile. “As I said, I have the surplus, and I’ve spent a great deal of time talking with your captain since our two crews came together,” he said. “I sincerely believe he’s the type I can trust to pay me back. It may take a while with a small payment plan like this, but I have confidence that Captain Kegawa will pay back every credit in time. This is not something I would do for just anyone.”

Rezo wiped sudden moisture from his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket. “Thank you, Captain Sinclair,” he said in a quiet voice. “You’re right about me. You’ll get back every credit, one way or another.”

Antoinette moved to the wolf and kissed him gently on the side of his nose. He looked up at her in surprise. “That’s thanks for the whole crew, Captain. You don’t know just how much this means to us.”  

*** 

Alice knelt on the metal floor of the Hidalgo Sun’s engine room and peered into a narrow access panel at ground level. Immediately in sight were the bare feet belonging to the canine youth, Maximillian. He had shed his sandals to get better traction crawling into the cramped space. The snow leopard had to resist the temptation to run a finger along the exposed soles, but Max and Pockets were hard at work removing the power transfer unit. The confines of the access tunnel were so cramped that the unit had to be disassembled a piece at a time, so the two smallest mechanics were crammed inside together. Miscellaneous parts they had kicked out were already scattered about the engine room floor.

“I have the Initiator ready to be taken offline,” Alice said to the feet. “All but the four of us have transferred to the Horizon and Pax is ready to shut down the system power.”

“Just a few more minutes before you do that,” came Pockets’ voice from deep within the access shaft. “We still have a couple items to break free, so don’t shut everything down just yet.”

“Roger,” Alice replied.

“Huh?” Paxton asked at the mention of his first name.

Alice twitched an ear. “Nothing, Pax. Just hold on for a moment before you shut down the power to the whole ship.”

“Will we lose life support?” Max asked. “Doesn’t it take power from the engines, too?”

Pockets grunted as he worked loose a tight part. “Normally we’d have to use the standby life support generator, but in this case, the Horizon will be providing life support for both ships while the main system is down over here.”

“Oh.”

Alice looked down at the printed schematics laid out on the floor beside her to make sure they had done everything necessary. Once the power had been discharged from the unit, there would be no starting it back up until the part had been completely replaced.

<bang> <clunk> “Yeowch!”

“What was that?” Paxton asked.

“I’m okay,” Pockets’ voice called out. Then, a moment later, “All right, shut ‘er down!”

Alice looked across the engine room at her partner and watched as Pax spread out his fingers and simultaneously pushed three red stiff buttons at the back of the console. There was a loud clunk and the ship grew instantly quiet. The familiar, continual vibration of the deck plates ceased immediately and an eerie silence fell upon the engine room. The only light on board the vessel emanated from a single transparent flexible hose containing a glowing yellow gel that was threaded into the access way with the two small mechanics.

“Give me a reading,” Pockets called out.

“Zero,” Paxton replied after looking at a dial with a pocket flash.

“Zero,” Alice relayed in to the raccoon.

“Are you sure?” Pockets asked. “If there’s the tiniest bit of energy in this thing, I’ll be roasted for your supper tonight as soon as I grab onto it.”

Alice smiled. If the raccoon could see her, she would have needled him with a tongue across her lips in mock anticipation of that meal.

Paxton double-checked the readouts. “Zero on the console. Not a quiver.”

“Absolute zero on the readings,” Alice relayed.

Inside the cramped access shaft, Max looked over at Pockets and swallowed hard. The raccoon saw his expression and smiled.

“Don’t worry, Max,” he said confidently. “Once we get this thing separated from the rest of the LC engine, the rest is easy.”

“I don’t want to be fried,” the canine youth said quietly. “Are you sure this is safe?”

Pockets nodded. “There’s no power channeling through it now. At this point, it’s only a hunk of inert metal.”

“Okay,” Max replied uncertainly. Pockets had warned him from getting up against that particular piece of equipment after they had removed its outer cover and had stressed the danger. Now he was being told to physically grab onto it and take out the mounting bolts on his side of the unit.

“All right,” Pockets called out. “We’re going to take it loose now.”

The raccoon handed Max a powered spanner mounted with the correct receptacle that matched the one he would use himself. The German shepherd took it and eased its business end up to the large insulated fasteners. He steeled himself against a jolt just as the socket touched the first bolt. When nothing happened, he released the breath he had held and gave his partner a nervous smile.

It took another ten minutes before the unit finally came free of its housing. The mechanics eased the heavy unit to the floor and Pockets lifted the end of the glowing hose to peer up inside the scorched part. He mumbled something to himself with a creased brow.

“Wow,” Max said as he peered into the unit.

“Well,” Alice asked impatiently, “what is it?”

“It is all burned and melted inside,” the canine answered. Pockets gave him a nod and pushed on the part. Max started to scoot backward and pulled on the unit at the same time. “We’re coming out now.”   

*** 

Lorelei smiled at her companions. Keri and Jonesy were helping her prepare a celebratory dinner for the two crews and they were making good use of their time. The ships’ engineers were deeply involved in the repair work on the Hidalgo Sun and everyone else waited in different areas of the Blue Horizon. At interstellar speeds, the Mars Colony was only two days away from their present location, so the cottontail rabbit dug into her goods to make this meal a grand one. She had pulled up her special recipe file and had acquired the services of her two new friends to help out with the preparations.

Despite the impatience of the Sun’s crew to hear word of completion on the repairs, everyone seemed to be in good spirits. It was this atmosphere that Lorelei hoped to enhance with good food.  

*** 

Twelve hours after they had begun repairs, Paxton reengaged the power system to the LC engines and the lights came up normally. “So far, so good,” the palomino said. He looked over at Alice, Pockets and Max and grinned at them. All four of them were tired and dirty from long hours of hard work. The new parts were in place and everything had been hooked back up with minimal issues.

Alice moved to the main engineering console and said, “Now for the first test.” She thumbed the intercom button and said into the small condenser microphone set into the terminal, “Riki, are you there?”

“You’re coming in loud and clear, Alice,” the lemur’s voice said cheerfully. “We have internal communications again.”

“See if you can...”

“I know my job, engineer. Hold on while I contact the Horizon.” Alice frowned at the others and waited. Nearly five minutes passed before Riki’s voice sounded again in the engine room. “The Blue Horizon comes in clear as a bell,” she said, “and I was able to contact the Mars Colony in a tachyon message test. As far as communications go, we’re operational again.”

“What about the main computer?”

“The boot sequence has finished and appears to be fully operational. There are no errors reporting.”

“Okay,” Alice said after checking another readout, “have the Horizon disengage and retract the access tunnel so we can try an engine test. Our Life Support systems are now operating normally and Mark has just secured the main hatch.”

“Aye, will do.”

Without waiting for further conversation, Alice pointed a finger at Paxton, who nodded and began calibrating systems for a cold restart. Pockets moved to another console of the room and went through another checklist. Max watched silently as the raccoon tapped touchpads and made adjustments to the controls. The ship might be old, but Pockets was familiar enough with it to know what he was doing.

Pockets looked up at Alice and winked at her when the deck plates began vibrating quietly. There was power building up in the liquid crystal core just as it should, but they would still have to see if they could get any thrust from it.

“The access tunnel has been retracted,” Riki announced after several minutes. “Captain Rezo is here on the bridge at the controls and awaits your word for engine test.”

“Aye to that,” the snow leopard responded. A moment more and she looked up from a set of gauges that monitor power reserves. Paxton nodded to her and Pockets gave her a thumbs-up sign. “Okay, bridge. All systems are set and seem to be operational. At your discretion.”

“Aye.”   

*** 

From the bridge of the Blue Horizon, Merlin and Renny watched the faded red hull of the Hidalgo Sun slowly pull away. Merlin nodded to the cheetah and said, “It looks like they’re good to go.”

The crimson freighter rotated briefly on its Y-axis and then hesitated only a moment before it suddenly shot away into the distance. Renny grinned. “Course laid in for the rendezvous coordinates.”

“Aye,” Merlin replied. The wolf engaged the engines and the Blue Horizon took off in pursuit of the other ship.  

*** 

As Lorelei had hoped, her grand celebratory dinner had been a big success. The two ships were once again coupled together and both crews were gathered on the Horizon’s recreation deck, the meal finished. The long galley table was occupied and others were sitting on the couches and recliners out in the room. Conversations were in full force and general spirits were high.

Cuddled together on a couch, Durant and Carmen spent the last of their time making promises to stay in touch after their ships departed. Long distance romances seldom worked out, and they’d both agreed they couldn’t be exclusive, but they were determined to try to keep their relationship going as long as possible.

Tsarina and Tanis occupied the other couch. The desert fox lay with his head in the jaguar’s lap and Tsarina gently stroked his large ears as they talked. Across the room, Lori and Jonesy were quietly nuzzling their good-byes. The Hidalgo Sun would be leaving within an hour.

Others around the room also spent the last of their moments together with new friends and it looked as if the two crews had made good use of their time intermingled.

Captains Merlin and Rezo sat at the head of the galley table. The red panda listened intently as his lupine counterpart pitched a business idea to him. Renny sat beside them, his tummy full and his eyes half closed as he listened in. Samantha relaxed beside him, her attention also on the captains’ conversation.

“We’ll follow you all the way in to Mars to make sure the replacement parts are working okay,” Merlin said. “After we’ve unloaded our cargo there, we’ll continue on to Earth to deliver your shipment for you to the warehouse of Misty’s Toybox in Paris. Cindy’s already made arrangements with Misty Paltier for the delivery.”

Rezo nodded quietly and took a lap of his drink. “As to be expected,” he said after a moment, “I had to waive my fee to her for our extended delay, so this is another setback for my business.”

Merlin nodded. “It couldn’t be avoided. However,” he added, “after your repairs are made and you’ve left Mars, I’ll do my best to send some business your way. Sometimes we have clients that need our transport services, but we can’t take them on due to other deliveries on the schedule. It’s those I’ll refer to you.”

“Thank you,” Rezo replied. He held up his drink and said, “I salute you, Captain Sinclair. You’re one heck of a guy and you’ve done so much for us already.” He swallowed his drink and leaned closer to his counterpart. “I like being your friend. I know you can’t cover for me beyond this, but it’s been great knowing you.”

Merlin looked at his watch and smiled. “We need to end our little party,” he said. “Both of us need to get back on a schedule and we both still have our pre-flight checklists to go over.”

“You’re right,” the red panda agreed. “It’s time to finalize our fare-wells and be on our way.”

Merlin held out his hand and Rezo took it gratefully. Their two crews had worked well together and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that they would be seeing one another again. 

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