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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 3

— Episode 22

"Expanding Horizons"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

SS Blue Horizon PA1138

Captain’s Journal 

I need a vacation.

My crew and I are tired. We’re worn out from our adventures, and resulting from recent events of such enormous circumstance, our immediate future looks uncertain in the business of interstellar commerce. We escorted Victor Faltane and his aides to Earth six weeks ago, and without anything else on our delivery schedule following the delivery of Martian hematite for the Terraformation Corporation, I plotted a course for Dennier from there. My sister and brother-in-law have wanted us to stop in for an extended visit for some time and this looks like the perfect opportunity for it.  Instead of occupying a rental pad at the spaceport, Bill has invited me to set the Blue Horizon in an empty field he owns adjacent to their home for the duration until business picks up again; this whole incident with Argeia has disrupted interstellar commerce across the Planetary Alignment and another forthcoming customer might be a while.

Our next pickup was to be on Mainor, but for all practical purposes now, it doesn’t exist anymore; everything on the rest of our previous schedule has been withdrawn by worlds now distrustful of one another by this whole affair. Once on Dennier, I’ll grant indefinite leave to my crew, as we have no indication of when we’ll have another interstellar delivery. I have already instructed everyone to try to stay nearby in case one does come up, but they are otherwise free to do as they wish. At least this time, I have reserves in the company account in the event of extended down-time.

Jape Devon has departed us for a long-needed vacation of his own. An edict was issued from his government that the black-eyed members of his race like himself are now persona-non-grata, and for all practical purposes he can never go back home. There’s now considerable antipathy against Kastans in general and I’ve read reports of lynching in places. Rather a depressing end to have to come to after all he has done for the safety of the Planetary Alignment as a whole. Trusted by my crew, I offered him a place amongst us, but he declined, assuring me that we would be safer without him and that he could survive well enough on his own.

Samantha is recovering well. The Kastans’ quick medical action kept her from losing more blood, though they needed Tanis’ medical knowledge of her anatomy since they were not familiar with her physiology. They wouldn’t let him do anything more than advise, and while their techniques were different than ours, they did a good job on her. If her current healing is any indication, she will either have little or no scar left beneath her fur when she’s fully recovered.

She can sit up now without pain, but she still has to stay off her feet for a while. Pockets added anti-grav generators to the bottom of a small, backless seat cushioned with a large red pillow, with an attached a small platform where she can rest her slateboard as needed so she can still access the main computer. We’ve already gotten used to seeing her float around the ship on it, and she likes it so much that she told Pockets that she might continue to use it even after she’s back on her feet.

I have noticed moments when Samantha seems preoccupied with some inner thought that she gets quiet during this time. I’ve tried to coax her into confiding in me, but she just shakes her head and mumbles thanks for my concern. Our resident psychologist, Cindy, has tried talking with her as well, but with the same result. Something has bothered her since her encounter with the assassins, and I don’t think it’s just the healing wound. Something happened during the fight that she won’t discuss with anyone.

I don’t know if it’s related to her inner struggle, but Samantha has also been more affectionate with me lately. Due to her injuries we haven’t gotten too intimate, but she seems to spend more time around me than she has in the past. She also lingers when we’ve touched, and I’ve caught her looking at me with soft eyes on other occasions. I don’t think I can attribute it to that one night on Argeia, so I’m mystified.

I wish I knew what was on her mind.

Anyway… I suppose I should make an additional note here in my journal that diplomatic relations throughout the Planetary Alignment are currently under extraordinary stress. This has been a period of change like no other I have seen in a long while – so much has happened in such a short period of time. There is even talk of new aggression between Nalirra and a sister world that isn’t a member of the Planetary Alignment that has made Tanis nervous.

Due to the siege against Argeia, or the Siilv War as it has since become known on the news vids, interplanetary commerce and trust have broken down almost completely throughout parts of the Planetary Alignment. What is left of Mainor after the attack by the Kastan’s super-dreadnought is a darkened rock of death. What atmosphere remains of the fused planet consists of opaque, poisonous clouds, and released heat from its core is trapped beneath a virtual greenhouse that has efficiently killed all life on the once-populous world. Probes sent to the surface by SPF investigators last only a few minutes before breaking down in the heat and acidic atmospheric conditions. Natives of Mainor who were offworld for one reason or another now have no home to return to. It’s a stark reminder to the rest of the Planetary Alignment how close Dennier and Earth were to the same fate. For all appearances, Mainor now resembles Rombess, the small poisonous world closest in orbit around our sun, and I’m told the environment is similar to what naturally exists on Venus in the Sol system.

Devon explained that at the heart of every dictatorship is the idea that there is no rule of law superior to the will of those who hold power or the ideology they are promoting.  Such was the position of several of the worlds in the PA when we invited Argeia to join our ranks. Argeia has slammed its doors shut for obvious reasons, but there are now a few thousand tons of Siilv on the market again. It will be enough to keep Brandt going for ten more years if only they use it, especially now that Intergalactic Aid has been dissolved. I suspect they will probably hoard it to drive up prices, but in doing so, their economy could break down further, especially with that loss of Intergalactic Aid. As if that were not bad enough, more of the unstable corollary element, Ionic Siilv, has shown up as well. I.S. is so volatile that it vibrates slightly in your hand, sort of like putting your tongue on the ends of a small power-pack. Ionic Siilv could possibly replace liquid crystal as a cell fuel, but there just isn’t enough of it outside of Argeia.

The Lady of Dreams was lost in the fighting. Despite her reputation as a pirate, Captain Natasha acted valiantly. A few of her surviving crew members have stated that it seemed the Captain’s purpose in the whole affair was not to exploit the situation to her advantage, but it was her intention to act as a deterrent to those hostile to Argeia. Unfortunately, her intentions were misread by the Kastans, who attacked her Hammerdine with one of their own as she tried to protect an important Hestran vessel merely by its presence. The Kastans fired upon the Lady of Dreams without provocation, but Natasha refused to sit idle. Once her vessel was actively attacked, she returned aggressive fire in self-preservation. Unfortunately, the Lady of Dreams didn’t survive a final assault from an unknown weapon launched from the surface of the planet.

 In the short time I’d known Captain Natasha, I had grown to respect her brilliant mind, and I believe I was beginning to understand her goals, if not her methods. Due to her gallant actions which resulted in her end, the Hestran monarch has cleared all past charges against her and has even given her the title of Hero. Given her personality, I don’t know what she would have thought of that, but I’m sure it makes the Hestran politicians feel better about themselves for surviving a place where they shouldn’t have been in the first place.

Laura Jazz Laura to us,  Jazz as she was known to the crew of the Lady of Dreams has left for Sillon to rejoin her family, and she has taken young Tim Mo with her on the long voyage. She grew attached to Natasha’s cabin boy during their time together and will take him on as her personal ward. Certainly, her father would welcome them both.

Pockets had a chance to look over the boy’s endosuit construction and he was impressed. Endosuits are commonplace for visitors to heavy gravity planets like Hestra, but Natasha’s design is far more sophisticated than those currently on the market. Although she was the communications officer, Jazz was also one of her captain’s many engineers and enjoyed my chief’s enthusiasm for her captain’s technology.

During his examination, Pockets discovered a capsule filled with data crystals in the empty battery pack, so he removed them for further study. He restored Tim’s power supply, and Cindy worked with the boy to help get him past the emotional trauma. It was heart-wrenching work, given the hardship Tim has endured in his short life. I can only hope that on Sillon he can find something to fill the gap left in his soul.

Pockets has been reviewing the investigative reports concerning his brother’s ship. The cruise liner, Argonautia, was destroyed in a collision with another vessel due to a malfunction caused by the Cold Fire virus. From what I’ve heard, it had a crew of nine hundred with over fourteen hundred passengers on board at the time, but there were less than seven hundred survivors picked up in escape pods afterward.

Jasper Porter was one of those survivors, along with the Argonautia’s Captain Ransdell. All surviving crew members have been detained for questioning by the ship’s parent company as they investigate the situation on why a pleasure cruise ship was in a war zone. We have had no word when or if Patch will be assigned to another company ship, but Pockets is hoping we’ll get the chance to see him again before he’s shipped off elsewhere.

We’ve had no leads to Lucas’ whereabouts following the war. As much as I hate to admit it, things could have been a lot worse if my flea-bitten brother hadn’t encrypted the solution into the virus itself. Theres a very high probability that he’s dead, a casualty of the war, and all I can do is hope he lived long enough to know he helped stop that war; considering he lived the life of a drifter, however, we may never get any word on his fate.  

Merlin Sinclair, Captain 

*** 

Cindy tapped a pad and then spoke over the ship-wide intercom, “I’ve disabled the artificial gravity,” she announced. “Air Authority has cleared us to land outside the spaceport traffic and we’re over the landing site now at the Wallace residence. We’ll be on the ground in just a moment.”

Merlin checked his controls and gently lowered the freighter onto field adjacent to the house that belonged to his brother-in-law. Merlin and Renny went through their shut down checklist as Cindy rushed through a side door of the bridge.

“Okay, we’re down,” the wolf said. “Cindy, please tell everyone…”

“She’s gone to the head,” Renny said.

Merlin looked back toward the door to the lavatory and shrugged. He stood up, moved to the Com terminal and turned the intercom system back on.

“All hands, listen up,” he broadcast. “For now, you can bunk in your quarters on the ship or take advantage of my sister’s hospitality in their home. You’re free to go wherever you wish, but take a DataCom with you anytime you leave the vicinity. We don’t have any other jobs lined up at the moment and may be down for a while, but you never know when you might need to get in touch with me or one another.” He shut off the intercom and then leaned against the console.

“I wonder if your sister knows a local gal I can snuggle up with,” Renny mused.

Merlin grinned at his feline friend. When he’d first come on board as the Blue Horizon’s new navigator, Renny hadn’t had much experience with women, but in the two years he had been there, the cheetah had grown more outgoing and flirtatious.

When Taro’s fate had been uncertain, Renny’s attitude had been dark and withdrawn, but after Merlin had received word that she was alive and recuperating on Hestra, the navigator’s outlook had improved tremendously. Renny had accepted that the vixen may never return to life on a freighter following such a traumatic experience, but she was alive and that’s all that mattered.

“I thought you and Lori …”

“Not in a while,” the navigator replied with a shrug as he stood up and stretched his arms. “Our cute bunny has plenty of attention from the other guys. She and Pockets already have a date into town planned after we all get settled.”

“Well,” the captain replied, “I’m sure you can find someone quickly enough.”

Renny grinned at him as the pair headed off the bridge. “Are you and Max staying here with your sister?”

Merlin nodded and then they moved toward the lift. “Of course, she wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said. His face grew serious before he added, “I also need to tell her about Lucas.”

“Yeah, he surprised me, too.”

Cindy opened the door of the small restroom and peeked out onto the bridge. Seeing it was empty, she moved across the room to the Communication terminal and keyed up a recent message. She stared at it for a moment with a frown and then quickly deleted the communiqué. This was not a day she wanted to face.    

*** 

Durant was already at the controls of the Blue Horizon’s large bay door and had begun to raise it before anyone else had descended from the upper decks. They had no cargo to unload, but after all their time in space, the hold could use a good airing out. Even before the panel lifted above his knees, he could smell the fresh aroma of a recent spring rain, as well as the salty flavor of the nearby sea. The bay door faced the east and the morning sunlight began to stream into the hold. The bear whistled a nameless tune softly to himself as he waited for the door to finish rising. His first order of business would be to get a ride into town to find more chocolate. His private stash had run out some time ago and he craved the confection.

He heard a quiet shuffle outside the door and looked down to see a pair of booted feet below the rising panel. He stared at the boots curiously, and as the door cleared his field of vision, his eyes went wide.

Standing before the load master was a shapely female fox with fur of ginger, white and black. She was dressed in a pair of loose-fitting denim jeans and a powder blue sleeveless blouse with half the buttons open from the top. Clipped to the fur above her left ear and swaying in the breeze was a blue-tipped white feather hanging from a small ornate disk. She stood with her weight centered mainly over her left leg and a hand rested on her right hip. Beside her was a small red suitcase. The vixen wore a large grin above orange, slotted eyes.

He started to take a step forward, but suddenly became lightheaded and began to tilt. Taro Nichols rushed forward and took the heavy bear in her arms. Without dense Hestran musculature, she wouldn’t have been able to manage his bulk, but it seemed she was in good physical shape. She set him upright and smiled into his puzzled face.

“Hello, Durant,” she said happily.

Durant shook his head to clear the cobwebs and then returned her smile. “It sure is good to see you again, girl,” he said softly, his large brown eyes growing moist. He drew her into a warm embrace, but she had other plans. Taro rose up on the tips of her toes and gave him a lingering kiss on the lips; it was the first kiss she had ever given him in all the years they had known one another and it was warm and full of emotion. The accountant nearly melted beneath her before she finally drew back a step.

Durant looked down at her with a smile that wouldn’t leave his face. “How did you know we’d be here?” he asked as he reached toward the intercom control.

The vixen shushed him with a raised finger to her lips and looked past him into the cargo hold. “I’ll answer all questions later,” she replied. “Don’t broadcast my presence to anyone else yet. I want to greet everyone as they come out.”

Durant looked a little uncomfortable. “We’ve had a few changes in personnel since you’ve been gone,” he told her.

Taro looked at him with an understanding smile. “Well, I have been away a little over a year,” she said. “I suppose I should have expected that.” She studied him a moment and asked, “Are you feeling okay, Durant?”

“Sure, why wouldn’t I?”

“You look tired, and even a little… grizzled.” She smiled a little when she said the last word.

Durant chuckled. “I’m getting old, girl,” he said to her. “This whole mess we just got out of does have me feeling tired, though. I need the vacation.”  He reached up and stroked the soft feather near her ear with a smile. “This is a nice touch.”

“Thank you, it was a gift.” Taro gave him another hug before she stepped back. “Okay,” she said, “besides me, who else has gone?”

“Patch left us for a job as an engineer on a cruise liner,” Durant answered,  “but then his ship was lost in a collision with another when that Cold Virus hit. I heard he made it out in an escape pod with his captain and is now awaiting assignment to another ship.”

“Wow, that’s tough.”

Durant shrugged. “Yeah. Anyway, we’ve acquired two more crew members, Cindy and Lorelei. You’ll meet them in a bit.”

The red fox nodded and then glanced back up at him. “And the others?”

Still alive, kicking and causing a fuss,” he said with a chuckle. “They’ll all be glad to see you. How long is your visit?”

Taro looked at him for a long moment with an expression that almost looked as if his words stung. Finally, she settled on a humble expression and replied, “Durant, I’m not just here for a visit… If Merlin will have me back, I’d like to crew with the Blue Horizon again.”

The bear pulled her back into a soft hug and said, “You’ve been greatly missed, Taro. Because of this war mess, we don’t have any current contracts, but I’m sure Merlin will be glad to see you again.”

Taro looked up around her when she finally pulled away. “The new ship’s bigger,” she said. “I almost didn’t recognize her when you landed, but Merlin’s sister said this was the Blue Horizon.”

“Where is Shannon?” he asked, looking across the grassy field toward a large nearby house.

“She’s making sure the guest rooms are ready. You know her, Durant. It’s just she and Bill, but she’s still a homemaker.”

“Hey, Durant,” Pockets’ country accent called out from the interior of the cargo bay, “You wanna come with us? Max and I are…” The voice ended in a small squeak and then running footsteps came from the shadows. Taro turned with a smile as the short raccoon jumped up into her arms gleefully.

“Taro!” Pockets exclaimed cheerfully. “Goodness, but it’s great to see you!”

“Hello, Pockets,” she said. The red fox closed her eyes and held him warmly for a moment. As with Durant, she gave the raccoon an unexpected kiss, letting her lips linger before she finally set him on his feet. When she looked down at him, the diminutive engineer was rubbing tears from his eyes. Standing behind him was Maximillian, and it was her turn to stare in wonder.

The German shepherd youth with the light blue eyes was no longer a scrawny, former slave and cabin boy. He had to be seventeen years old by now, she thought to herself. He had grown taller and a little muscular since she had last seen him, and he also looked as if he was more confident with himself. She was unaware that Samantha had been instructing him in the Silloni martial arts, and that he had been weight-training with Renny. He had matured a lot in recent times and was beginning to look like an adult.

“Do you remember me?” she asked him. He had been on board less than a year at the time of Sagan’s attack and she didn’t know how much he might recall of her.

“Aye, I do,” Maximillian replied, his hands in his pockets. “Are you feeling better?” he asked.

Taro walked up to him and put her hands on his shoulders. “Much better, thank you,” she said. She gave him a gentle kiss on the lips and then pulled back to wink at him. “You’re looking good, Max,” she said to him. “I’m glad to see you again. Have you become a gourmet cook by now?”

Pockets slapped the canine on the shoulder with a laugh, and then looked up at the vixen. “Actually, he’s becoming a very capable mechanic now, Taro,” he explained. “Max is more comfortable with engine grease on him than cooking oil. Someone else feeds us these days. “

“Yeah,” Max finally spoke with a smile, the feeling of her kiss still lingering on his lips, “I didn’t really have a knack for the kitchen.”

“Don’t let him kid you, Taro,” Pockets said. “He did just fine keeping us fed, but he wanted the chance to learn how to maintain the ship instead.”

“Taro!” Tanis raced across the empty cargo bay, and grabbed her into a fierce hug with his eyes closed tightly against her chest. Taro lifted his chin to pull his pointed nose from her cleavage, and when he opened his eyes, the desert fox’s eyes were moist. She kissed her former lover deeply.

“Whoa-ho,” a new voice said with a giggle. “Who’s Tanis so wrapped up in?”

Taro pulled away from the medic and looked up to see a grinning white rabbit standing beside them. Tanis turned to look and winked at the ship’s cook.

“Taro,” he said, “this is Lorelei, the one who feeds the hungry masses these days.”

“Taro!” Lori said with a big grin and clapped her hands together. “I’ve heard so many good things about you.”

“Thank you, Lorelei,” the vixen replied pleasantly.

Samantha floated up to the group on her anti-grav chair and said, “I wanna hug, too!”

Taro looked down at her friend, and her eyes went wide at the sight of the bandages wrapped around her middle. “Ohmigosh! What happened to you, Sam?” she exclaimed as she knelt down in front of the Border collie.

“I tried to follow in your footsteps,” Samantha said with a grin. “I tangled with someone who wanted to gut me.”

Taro’s own eyes grew moist and she leaned forward to give the Border collie a warm hug. “Are you going to be okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine with some rest. My wounds weren’t nearly as bad as yours.”

“Thank goodness! You’ll have to tell me all about it later.”

“We’ve missed you so much,” Samantha said to her with emotion. “So very much!”

“I’ve missed you all, too,” Taro whispered in a choked voice.

“What’s going on?” another new voice asked merrily. “Looks like a reunion!”

“Cindy, this is Taro,” Lorelei said.

“Oh.”

Taro stood up and gave the newcomer a friendly smile, but the mouse didn’t return the courtesy. The vixen started to open her mouth to say something to break the sudden awkward silence, but a body of golden yellow fur and black spots jumped in front of her.

Without a word at all, Renny wrapped his arms around her and picked her up, the excitement in his large eyes sparkling. When he put her back down, he leaned her backward and kissed her long and hard. It didn’t matter to him who was watching. He pulled away after a moment and allowed her to catch her breath as most of the others chuckled.

“Renny, dear,” Taro said to him in a soft voice, a finger tracing light patterns across the front of his shirt, “I’m glad to see you, too.” She let her eyes glide over his physique and then returned her gaze to his uncertain expression.

The cheetah looked deep into her eyes and swallowed. “The last time I saw you,” he said with difficulty, “youd been sliced open by that demon and you were dying. I’ve had so many nightmares.

Taro bit her bottom lip and gently took his face in her hands. “I’m alive and the demon is dead,” she said. “I’ve had a long road to recovery, but I’m back in shape and doing well.”

Renny finally smiled, and then his eyes fell upon the feather she wore. He was about to ask if it had any special meaning, but his thoughts were interrupted.

“Aren’t you eggs gone yet?” a voice said to the small crowd from inside the ship. “You have money in your accounts and time on your hands to scatter.  You are free to leave.”

Taro pulled away from the cheetah with a grin and jumped into the surprised arms of the Blue Horizon’s captain with an uncharacteristic squeal of delight.

“Oh my…” was all he managed to say before she greeted him with a warm kiss on the lips. It was the first time Taro had ever kissed the wolf with more than just a peck on the cheek. Merlin felt his head swim, from the kiss and the shock of actually seeing her in the fur. When she finally let him go, Taro grinned at him with crinkled eyes. The wolf gaped at her, his voice lost to him.

Taro laughed and then looked at the group around her, shrugging her shoulders sheepishly.

“I’m so glad to see all of you,” she said. “I sent Merlin a message saying I would meet you here, but I wanted to surprise the rest of you. Did I succeed?”

“You certainly did!” Pockets piped up.

Merlin looked puzzled, but finally found his voice. “Message?” he asked. “I haven’t heard from you since that brief communiqué months ago to let me know you were recuperating on Hestra.” He turned to look at Cindy, but she stared down at her own feet. He furrowed his brow and started to say something, but Taro put a hand on his arm.

“Shannon wanted me to tell you all to go on up to the house as soon as you arrived,” the vixen said. “She will start supper in earnest as soon as she gets the chance to see you all.”

“Where’s Bill?” Merlin asked.

He had to run in to town to take care of a spot of business, but should be back within the hour. He was already gone by the time I arrived.”

Everyone began walking across the field toward the large house by the sea, but Taro turned to Merlin. “Captain?” she asked. “Durant said you don’t have any job contracts right now, but when you do, I’d like to help out if you think there might still be a place for me on your crew.” Everyone stopped to look back at them and a few quick glances went toward Cindy, but the wolf was oblivious to them. He smiled with a canine grin and gently put a hand on the fox’s shoulder.

“Durant’s had your account on standby,” he said cheerfully. “I’m sure we can find a place for you.”

“Wonderful!” Taro replied delightedly. She turned and looked toward their former crewmates. “I’m glad to be back!” The faces that looked back at her contained mixed expressions and she was puzzled. Briefly, she wondered if they even wanted her back, but then Renny grinned at her and gave her a wink. Merlin motioned toward the house and the group took his hint to resume walking.

Taro strode forward to walk beside Samantha’s floating pillow. Renny assumed a position on her other side and he listened in quietly as the Border collie began to fill her in on all that happened in her absence.

Durant held to the back of the group, and a soft tug of Merlin’s sleeve made the wolf slow down. “Y’know, boss,” the bear said quietly to his captain, “now that Taro’s back, you might want to make her your first officer again.”

Merlin looked at him and replied in an equally quiet voice, “You don’t like the extra pay?”

Durant grinned. “The pay is good, but that comes with the duties of the job. I’m already pulling triple duty with my hands full of the business accounts and taking care of our various cargoes too. Honestly, as far as I’m concerned, she’s welcome to have that responsibility back. It would free me up to focus on the more important work I’m best at.”

The captain nodded. “I’ll consider it, Durant, but she’s also been gone for a year. Our crew, the ship and even some aspects of the business have changed during her absence. Until she gets reacquainted with everything, it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else to put her over them so soon.”

“So, what are you going to do with her?” the load master asked. “We’ve kept her account open and you’ve made sure a balance was maintained in her absence, but what job are you going to pay her to do?”

Merlin glanced toward the vixen, who was showing off her Hestran fitness for Max by picking up Renny and Tanis in each of her arms. After a moment, his gaze shifted to Cindy. She looked uncharacteristically gloomy and it suddenly occurred to him what it was that bothered her. In his original interview with her on Pomen, Merlin had told the mouse the position he was hiring for was temporary, dependent upon whenever Taro ever returned to the Blue Horizon. Now that the vixen had indeed returned to them, and he had just told her in front of everyone that she could have a job back on his ship, he was certain that Cindy felt her days of employment were over, even though she had been with them a little over a year.

The captain frowned and shook his head. “I spoke before I thought,” he told his ursine friend. “That’s not like me, but I was so excited to see Taro again that I just didn’t even think about Cindy.” 

Durant glanced at the mouse and nodded slightly. She was walking with the others, but her movements were listless and her eyes downcast; even her tail was limp behind her. “When are you going to…?” he asked, letting his words trail off.

Merlin looked at him and shook his head again. “Taro will need to get reacquainted with the business, so there’s no need to rush into this.” He bit his bottom lip and then added, “I’m not sure how this is going to work out, Durant, but eventually I will have to let Cindy go. At the moment, however, I still need her right where she is.”

“May I make a suggestion?” the bear asked.

“Anytime.”

“What if you reinstated Taro as first officer, but kept Cindy as the Customer Liaison instead of giving that job to Taro? I know you are determined to keep your promise and bring Taro back into the crew, but…”

Merlin put a hand on the bear’s arm and they both stopped to talk as the others continued. “I know you’re just trying to help keep me from laying off Cindy, but if Taro’s only job was being first officer, she wouldn’t have much to do, and to a certain degree we can’t just give Cindy the axe after all the help she’s been as our collective therapist.”

“So,” Durant repeated, “what are you going to do?”

“I don’t think I can just drop Taro into her old position without some retraining,” Merlin said, thinking aloud, “so I might put the two of them working together whenever business picks up again. Later, if I see that Taro might be able to handle it by herself, then I might have to let Cindy go. I don’t have any other positions to fill.”

Durant made a tsk sound. “Do you really think Cindy’s going to be happy retraining her replacement?”

“Probably not,” the captain replied, “but what choice does she have as a temporary employee? If she refuses, I don’t have another job for her and will have to let her go. The provisional consideration was in the contract she signed with a thumbprint.”

The two of them fell silent as they walked, but then Durant looked over at the wolf. “What about the home office?” he asked. “We’d discussed creating one at one time.”

Merlin looked up at him. “I’d forgotten about that, actually. With the decrease in interstellar commerce throughout the Planetary Alignment, I hadn’t seen a need to pursue the idea further.”

“Yes, but it has to pick up again,” the brown bear replied. “You have to plan on that.”

“Well, I did want to put the office here on Dennier.”

“Despite the war, the Kastans did pay us well for the strawberries, blue diamonds and our help, not to mention Devon’s addition and the fee as Mr. Faltane’s escort,” Durant reminded him. “Rezo paid off the loan on his decrepit ship last month, so that’s more in the coffers. You have the money to get a home office set up before business picks up again.”

“How about a PR campaign to promote the Blue Horizon’s business?” another voice suggested. Merlin and Durant looked over at Tanis, who had dropped back to talk to them.

“You heard what we were talking about?” Durant asked as the desert fox fell into step with them.

“With receivers like this,” Merlin smirked as he thumped one of the fennec fox’s subject ears, “are you kidding?”

Tanis grinned and playfully hid his face in the crook of an upraised arm. “Yah, I’m guilty of eavesdropping!” he whined.

“A public relations campaign, eh?” the captain repeated. “That might not be a bad idea.”

“Why wait for the business to pick up on its own?” Tanis asked. “Create some ads, use yer resources to yer advantage.”

“What resources?” Durant asked.

“Well…” Tanis rubbed his chin as they neared the Wallace home. “Whether or not ya planned it, the Blue Horizon is well known in the PA because of our trip to Sillon when that other star blew up, as well as our fight with Sagan at Crescentis after his atrocity on Hestra. Samantha is friends with Holly Harken of INN news, and Cindy used to work for an ad agency. That looks to me like…”

“When did Cindy work for an ad agency?” Merlin asked. “She didn’t list it on her résumé.”

“It didn’t have anything to do with the job she was interviewing with ya for, so she didn’t think it was necessary to mention it.”

Merlin frowned. “A résumé is supposed to encompass your experience, no matter where you’ve worked. How did you find out about it?”

Tanis smiled. “If ya spend a lot of time with her, she opens up nicely.”

“Like a flower,” Durant mused with a little smile.

Merlin stared at the pair a moment, wondering at the connotation behind their statements and then decided not to inquire further. Instead, he shrugged his shoulders and looked at his accountant. “I think his idea has merit.”

Durant nodded. “I agree. It’s worth looking into.”

“Okay,” Merlin said, “I’ll talk to Cindy and Taro about it tonight.”

“Look at Cindy, boss,” the bear said. “You probably should talk to her sooner than that or she’s going to be depressed all day.”

Merlin nodded. “Good point. I’ll discuss it with her now before I talk to Taro.” The Blue Horizon’s crew had arrived at the front doorway to the Wallace’s house, and Shannon was greeting everyone with a hug and a reminder to remove their shoes before entering. The grey and brown female wolf was delighted to see everyone, her tail wagging happily behind her, and she did her best to make sure they all felt welcome in her home.

Merlin tapped Cindy on the shoulder, motioning for her to take a walk with him. “May I talk to you, please?” he asked quietly. She looked at him with doleful eyes and nodded, following him back away from the crowd.

Cindy made no sound as the two of them headed across the cropped green lawn toward a small gazebo nestled underneath a copse of danra trees. This is it, she thought. I’m getting the axe. The mouse stepped up into the structure meekly. Merlin sat down on the wooden bench seat and motioned for the mouse to do the same. Instead, Cindy merely stood in front of him, her eyes focused on her feet, and her hands clasped together.

“Cindy,” the wolf started in a gentle tone, “I have a proposition for you.”

The mouse looked down at him, “I remember,” she said. “I was only temp help until she returned.”

“True, that is written into your contract,” Merlin admitted, “but I’m not ready to release you just yet, if you don’t mind staying on with the company.”

Cindy looked at him, puzzled. This was not what she expected. “Oh… okay,” she said slowly.

Merlin gave her a bit of a smile hoping to ease her fears a bit, and then he began to detail the plan of setting up an advertising campaign to generate business for the ship. She was quiet during his explanations, but by the time he finished, she was relieved and not altogether displeased with the turn of events.

“Thank you, Captain,” she said meekly. “Since you told us about the message you got from Taro a few months ago, I knew shed be back.” She looked away briefly and added, “I’ve been dreading this day ever since.”

Merlin put a hand gently on her shoulder. “Cindy,” he said, “you’ve been a valued member of my crew and have made some good friends. I still need you to help me out, if you’d like to stay.”

“Yes, sir, I would.”

“Before all this mess with Argeia, Durant and I were making plans to set up a home office for the business here on Dennier. Originally, the purpose was to take over the duties of Customer Liaison to find and secure deliveries for the Blue Horizon.

“That means you were planning to abolish my position anyway,” Cindy said with a frown.

“Well, yes and no,” the wolf replied. “I had intended to replace the on-board position with a Business Coordinator. Instead of someone on the ship trying to seek out future deliveries and then coordinating all the specifics for pickup and delivery, the home office would focus primarily on promoting the business and getting the jobs. The Business Coordinator would then get back with the actual client contacts to work out the particulars for the pickup and deliveries: where, when, who to meet, and such.”

Merlin leaned back against the railing behind him, putting his arms up across it in a relaxed manner. “It would have actually lightened your workload, but you’d have been working in conjunction with those in the home office.”

“I see now…” Cindy said with a hand beneath her chin, “Taro has come back, and since you’d promised to hold a position for her, you want her on board as Business Coordinator. And… since business is rather scarce at the moment, you plan to set up a home office here on Dennier to promote the Blue Horizon, and want me to do your advertising.”

“Something like that, yes.”

“It certainly does sound appealing.”

“Would you be interested in the job?” he asked. “It would still mean leaving the ship, but as head of the home office, it’ll come with a nicer salary than what you’re getting now.” He gave her a figure and her eyes widened in appreciation.

“How can I pass up a deal like that?” she asked with a smile. “Yes, I would like that very much.”

“Thank you,” Merlin said with his own pleasant smile. “Durant and I will probably begin looking for a location to set up the home office in a couple days. Once we’ve found a suitable place, we’ll need to stock it with furniture and supplies, and then set up interviews for the other positions.”

“Other positions?”

Merlin grinned. “I don’t expect you to do all the work by yourself. I’ll put you in charge of the office and hire two others to divide the rest of the work up between. As I understand it, advertising is a lot of work and you’ll need the help.”

“May I help you get things set up?” Cindy asked with a smile.

“I was hoping you would volunteer,” the captain replied.

“Thank you, Captain.”

He studied her briefly and the look in his eyes grew dark for a moment. “Now… there is a matter I need to ask you,” he said in a tone she’d hear from him before. Her shoulders drooped and she looked down at her feet.

“Did you intercept a message from Taro saying that she would meet us here?”

Cindy hesitated, then nodded.  Merlin sighed audibly.  “Did you try to deliver it to me or anyone else?”

Cindy shook her head after another hesitation. “No, sir,” she murmured. “I… deleted it.”

“Any others?”

“No sir, just the one.”

He reached out with a finger and put it under her chin. He lifted her face until she met his eyes and she visibly flinched at his directness.  “Don’t ever do that again,” he said in a stern tone. His voice was quiet, but there was no missing the command behind it. “If I find out you’ve withheld information from me again, there will be consequences.  Do you understand me?”

Cindy nodded again, swallowing with difficulty.  “I understand… sir.  I’m sorry.”

The wolf held her gaze for a heartbeat more and then his expression softened. “Apology accepted,” he said in easier tone. He used the back of his finger to lightly caress the edge of one of her ears.  A shiver went through her and she looked up in disbelief.  He gave her a light smile and she found herself responding in kind.

 “Listen, Cindy…” the captain said quietly. “Please don’t let this color your opinion of Taro. She helped me set up the business when I started and she’d been a good friend. The two of you will be directly working together as a team once everything’s up and running, and since she’s been out of practice for a while, she’ll need you to help get her back in.”

“Yes, sir,” the mouse said with a small smile, having recovered from her rebuke. “I’ll be her Wingman,” she assured him, referencing a military term her veteran father had often used.

The wolf twitched his whiskers in satisfaction and then nodded toward her.  “So, with that out of the way, do you still want to work for me?”

Cindy’ mouth quirked up into a smile. “Yes, sir, I do – that is if you still want me working for you.

Merlin grinned, stood up and extended a hand toward her with his tail wagging gently behind him. “Durant will work up a new contract for you in a day or two.”

The mouse took his hand, shook it with a relieved expression and said, “Thank you, captain.” When he released her hand, however, she slipped her arms around his neck and gave him a quick peck on the cheek.

When the two of them returned to the house, the others noticed the relaxed smile on the mouse’s face as soon as they entered the main gathering room. Merlin gave his sister a warm hug and exchanged a few pleasantries with her before he moved to Taro and asked to speak with her alone.

Pockets elbowed Renny and gestured toward the mouse with the drink he held in a hand. “What’s up with her?” he asked in a whisper. “She looks too happy to have been let go.”

“Maybe he gave her a good separation bonus,” the cheetah replied.

“That can’t be it,” Pockets said. “She wouldn’t be over there grinning so much if she’d just gotten the axe, bonus or not.”

“I don’t know. Maybe the captain will explain shortly.”   

*** 

Taro readily agreed to the idea and promised to get back into the swing of things as soon as she could. Merlin told her of his plans for the home office, and had asked her to work out a partnership with the mouse. The two of them would be dealing with one another on a regular basis in the new business setup and it would be better for everyone involved if they cooperated right off.

While Merlin and Taro were discussing matters, Durant took it upon himself to inform the rest of the crew on what was going on. He had intended to wait and let the captain make the announcement, but Cindy had already started to talk about it, so he thought he should take the lead to make the official announcement. He detailed the new direction of the Blue Horizon business and fielded their questions. Since their interstellar delivery schedule had been disrupted, and there were no other jobs in their immediate future, everyone was in agreement that advertising was a good venture. Durant also made sure to let everyone know that promoting the business was Tanis’ idea. It would be a change in operations for the business and he wanted credit given where due.

Merlin knew that if he and Taro went back into the house together, the vixen would be set upon to tell her story before she could catch her breath, so in order to give her a little respite before dropping her into that situation, he offered to take her on a tour of the ship. The current Blue Horizon was now a little over a year old, but it was new to her. Taro had never been on board an H-model Okami freighter before and was delighted with the tour. He let her pick out her cabin from those not occupied, and she was amazed at the amount of room now available to them.

Nearly an hour had passed when they returned to the house. The first one to greet them was Bill Wallace, a solid black wolf with piercing yellow eyes. He smiled when he saw Merlin and gathered him up in a warm embrace. The brothers-in-law had always been good friends, and each was glad to see one another.

“Brother Bill,” Merlin said with a smile, “it’s been a long time.”

“Yes, Merle, it has,” the black wolf replied. He slapped the captain on the back so hard the other nearly fell over, but Merlin still had him in an embrace and slapped Bill’s back equally as hard in return. Bill responded with another pounding, of which Merlin repeated. For a moment, they pounded one another with strained smiles until Taro forced them apart with a grin.

“Okay, boys,” she told them. “I’d rather get my hug now, instead of watching you two trying to burp the testosterone out of one another.”

Bill grinned and pulled her into his arms. “It’s good to see you again, Taro,” he told her. “Shannon said you’d arrived while I was in town.”

“I’m glad to be back, Bill. It’s good to see you again, too.”

Bill gestured toward the others gathered in the front room and said, “Come on in and make yourself comfortable. Shannon and I have something to announce.” Merlin looked at him, but Bill only gave him an innocent smile. The wolf and the vixen removed their shoes at the door and followed him inside.

Taro sat on the couch between Renny and Tanis, and Merlin stood behind Samantha and her floating pillow. Shannon went to stand beside her husband in front of a dormant fireplace and shared a quick smile with him.

“As most of you know,” Bill said, “Shannon and I have lived here in this place for nearly ten years. It’s a large house comparatively, but it looks like we’ll need to build on a few extra rooms. It was confirmed last week that Shannon is pregnant with pups… four, to be exact.”

“Wow!” Pockets said in surprise. “Four!”

“Four?” Merlin asked with a silly grin.

“Oh, come now! Four to six pups are not uncommon for wolves,” Shannon explained with a laugh.

“Way to go, Bill!” Renny said.

“Way to go, Shannon!” Lorelei countered.

“Have you picked out names yet?” Cindy asked.

“No, not yet.”

“When’s the due date?” Samantha asked. She looked pleased, but her attitude was subdued. Shannon noticed her behavior, but was distracted by the rest of the reactions.

“In about two and a half months.”

Taro grinned widely. She knew that Merlin’s elder sister had wanted pups for a long time. She got up and gave Shannon a warm hug. “I’m so happy for you,” she told her.

“Uncle Merlin’s going to be real uncle,” Max said with a grin.

Bill smirked at his brother-in-law, and pointed a finger at him. “This means you’d better come to visit more often so my children will grow up knowing their uncle,” he said.

Merlin moved forward and grasped hands with him. “I will try,” he promised. Then he moved to give his sister a hug. “Congratulations,” he told her. “I know you’ve really wanted this.”

Congratulatory conversations went on for several minutes before the commotion quieted again. Bill got a couple of chairs from another room, and then he and Shannon sat down. Shannon looked to the red fox and smiled at her.

“Taro,” she said with a wave of her hand toward those in the crowded room, “this bunch won’t disperse until they hear your story, so I guess it’s your turn to talk.”

The vixen got up from the couch and moved to stand beside a tall grandfather pendulum clock that was in need of rewinding. She couldn’t figure out what to do with her hands, so she held them together and looked out across the faces that were watching her expectantly.

“After Sagan…” she started, “I passed out. I have no memory of the crash itself or much of what happened to me immediately afterward, but I later woke up from a coma on Hestra in the care of a medical facility. I was surrounded by strangers, doctors, nurses and specialists, and when I asked them why I was there, no one would give me a straight answer. My wounds were still not healed enough for me to begin physical therapy. Because I had spent so much time away from the heavier gravity of Hestra, my body had to re-acclimate first, so I continued to warm my bed for another two months, slowly regaining my strength.”

Taro put her hands behind her back and leaned against the wall as she continued. “At the start of physical therapy, I discovered my therapist was a relative of my father, who had not been in Taquit at the time of Sagan’s biological attack. I’d never actually known Leslie Rhinehart, but I’d heard my father talk of his favored cousin in the past. Although a distant relative, I took comfort knowing I was not the only survivor of our family following what happened in Taquit.”

Everyone in the room was focused on her words and she could see Renny swallow in anticipation for her to go on. She shrugged and continued. “Nearly four months after coming out of my coma, Dr. Rhinehart finally let me see the official report they had on me. I had been taken from the crash site to Pomen by someone they wouldn’t name, and later transported to Hestra by the same person when I was stable enough to move.”

“That would be Captain Natasha,” Pockets interrupted.

“Natasha…” Taro repeated. She nodded her head and smiled to herself at an old memory, but then she shook herself from her thoughts and continued with her narrative.

“I was given emergency treatment to keep me alive, but due to my specific physiology, it was necessary to transfer me to a Hestran hospital. It was there I later came out of my coma, following numerous surgeries to repair the damage. I received three organ transplants and several blood transfusions before I was stabilized. In the end, I was eventually released, and it was then I discovered all my medical expenses had been paid. I didn’t know who had done it, but thinking on it now, it was probably Natasha.”

She wrapped her arms around her middle and shrugged. “I had no idea where to go after that. I had no immediate family and my hometown was gone, so Leslie rented out a room in her home to me, and let me stay with she and her husband. She later introduced me to several more of my surviving relatives.”  A gentle breeze caressed the curtains of Shannon’s open windows, and the smell of the sea wafted through the room. Taro stared outside for a long moment, her thoughts going back in time.

“While living there, I got in touch with some of my old business contacts, and was able to track down the Blue Horizon’s delivery schedule; I followed your progress for a while, and wondered how all of you were doing. Several months after moving in with Leslie’s family, Adam Singlebet of Dragon, Wolf & Tiger, came to our town for a dual concert with singer, Dahlia Neko. They had to hold it in a low-gravity auditorium made for such events. I got word to him and managed to get backstage. Adam remembered me from when the Horizon brought him, Brand and Carsen back from Sillon. He invited me to a gathering after the concert, and it was then I discovered he and Dahlia were headed next to Dennier for a multi-city tour with one stop in Grandstorm. I sweet-talked Adam into letting me ride with him to Dennier. Once in Grandstorm, I only had to wait for your arrival.”

She smiled at her friends, but the sudden quiet of the room was disturbed by the sound of crying. Tanis looked over at Lorelei and put a hand on the sobbing rabbit’s shoulder. “What’s the matter?” he asked her.

Lori looked up from her hands and stared at him through wet eyes. “I’m so… moved…” she gasped. “I’m so h-happy she’s back!” A few more sobs shuddered through her, and Tanis turned grinning at Taro with a shrug.

“Lori,” Pockets said to her with a smirk, “you don’t even know Taro. Why are you crying?”

The cook looked up again, and then she rushed across the room to give Taro a warm hug. “Her story tears at my heart…” she cried. Taro grinned in embarrassment and quietly stroked the fur on the back of the rabbit’s head. Lori looked up at her, and in a sorrowful expression, she said, “They’ve told me so much about you that I feel you’re my friend too!”

Taro chuckled and returned the hug. “Thank you, Lori. I’d like to be your friend, too.”

A bell sounded from another part of the house and Bill left the room. A moment later, he returned and motioned to Samantha. Sam activated the controls of her floating pillow and followed him out of the room.

With Taro’s story finished, the vixen was suddenly besieged with other questions and comments; she seemed happy to answer them all and fielded them one by one. Shannon walked over to her brother, who looked up at her expression with a puzzled face.

“Renny told me about Lucas,” she said quietly,

Merlin glanced down at his feet for a moment and then nodded when he looked back into her amber eyes. “He finally did some good,” he said in a muted voice. “Someone else saw his potential and forced him to use his talent to create the computer virus that caused so much trouble, but on his own, he took a gamble and encrypted the antidote solution for it deep into the virus code. I doubt he knew for certain anyone would examine the code so closely, but he took that chance. In the end, that’s what saved us – saved a lot of people.”

“Is he… still alive?”

Merlin sighed quietly and shook his head. “I don’t know. Probably not.”

Shannon moved forward and pulled her remaining brother into an embrace, moisture glistening on the fur beneath her eyes. “Has he redeemed himself?” she asked him. Merlin recognized the tone of her voice, and knew it was not a rhetorical question. She wanted his honest, personal opinion.

“Yes,” he said a moment later. “For all the heartaches and headaches he’s given us over the years, I would say Lucas has cleaned his slate. I just wish we could tell him.”

“Me, too.”

Samantha came back into the room a little while later, but it was difficult to read the mixed emotions on her face. Pockets went over to her and looked at her with worried eyes.

“What is it, Sammy?” he asked.

The Border collie looked around the room and noticed everyone’s attention had shifted over to her. She folded her hands together in her lap and Bill put his hands on her shoulders from behind.

“That was Master Tristan,” she said. “He says he’s recovering well, and that he’s happy his daughter was returned to him, but the reason for his call was about my father’s company, Holden Pharmaceutical.”

“What happened?” Tanis asked.

“As most of you know, even from the distance of Sillon, that Master Tristan has overseen the interests of the company as specified by my father’s will,” she explained. “Since he has not been able to attend board meetings and such in person, a trusted otter named Stelan Willamette was appointed to sit in for him in his absence.”

She looked up at Bill and patted one of his hands. “For some time now, Tristan has been grooming Alex Rogers to take his place in my father’s company. Alex is a lifelong friend and the Dragon Loft’s assistant executive. Most of you met him when we made the journey to Sillon. On a recent trip to the main offices on Alexandrius to check up on something for Master Tristan, Alex did a close examination of the company records and discovered that Willamette has been dipping into my personal trust fund that was set up by Tristan when I was a pup. My lawyer was called in, and Jackson Wyatt confronted Willamette with a roomful of detectives. He was given a choice. He could refund the trust fund with interest and resign quietly, or legal action would be taken with the hard evidence Alex had discovered. Willamette chose to resign.”

“That’s terrible!” Pockets exclaimed.

Samantha nodded. “Had he not been caught, I would have soon lost my fortune. However, that’s not the end of the story.”

“There’s more?” Durant asked.

“Now without a resident CEO for Holden Pharmaceutical, Master Tristan put in Alex Roger’s name before the board of directors. With Tristan’s strong endorsement of his capabilities, and a complete grilling by the directors, Alex was voted in and is now the president of my father’s company.” Samantha smiled a little and shrugged her shoulders. “I’ve known Alex longer than even Merlin, and I trust him fully with dad’s business. He’s now living on Alexandrius in the capitol city, where he can oversee the company in person at the corporate headquarters.”

“Wow,” Lorelei replied with a lopsided smile. “A bad situation turned out good, even if it is for a company that makes something as useless as drugs.” Sam shot a withering glance at the rabbit, but didn’t favor her with a response.

“Even that’s not all,” Bill said.

Sam turned and looked at him with a puzzled expression. “More?” she asked.

“Mr. Rogers is currently on his way here.”

“Huh?” Samantha said in surprise. “He’s coming here? Why?”

Bill smiled down at her and replied, “To see you, my dear. He heard you were injured by the same people who tried to kill Master Tristan and insisted on visiting you.”

“That’s a long way to go just to visit a sick friend,” Cindy observed.

Taro snickered and Renny looked at her sideways. “What’s with you?” he asked with a smile.

The vixen grinned widely and looked at the Border collie across the room from her. “Samantha’s not just an old friend,” she said. “Alex has had a crush on Sammy for a long, long time!”

Sam’s eyes widened. “Uh…” she started to say, “Uh, no… he’s just a friend.”

“Sure he is,” Taro teased, “but I know personally he’d like to be more.”

“Personally?” Merlin asked.

It was Taro’s turn to shrug her shoulders. “I flirt with Alex every time I see him,” she explained with a twinkle in her eyes, “merely because I know it embarrasses him. He’s always turned me down, and he once told me he was holding out on the hopes of one day getting together with Sammy.”

Everyone looked back to the canine with smiles. “It makes sense,” Tanis said. “They’re both Border collies.”

Samantha cleared her throat and said, “C’mon guys. Alex is only a longtime friend; a handsome friend, but only just a friend.” No one replied to her unconvincing comment, and they all just smiled back at her with knowing looks. Samantha growled lowly to herself and then moved her pillow to Merlin’s side. She put her arms around his waist and rested her cheek up against him to show everyone where her feelings lay.    

*** 

Later that night, Taro and Renny were out on the sandy beach near the Arvallian Sea, a short distance from the Wallace home. Both small moons were full, and the couple had been chasing one another along the shore. At the moment, the two of them walked slowly through the knee-deep waves, since there wasn’t much of a sandy beach beyond the water at that point.

“Taro,” the cheetah asked after a long silence, “how are you doing?”

The vixen looked at him sideways and replied, “I’ve already told you my story,” she said. “What else do you want to know?”

“I was really worried about you,” Renny said. “I’ve thought about you a lot during your absence.”

“That’s sweet. I’m glad I wasn’t forgotten.”

“Never!” Renny chewed on his bottom lip for a moment. “May I ask you a personal question?”

Taro stopped and turned to look at him with a smile, her feather swaying in the breeze. “Sure.”

“What about us?” he asked quietly. “Will we pick up where we…?” His voice trailed off.

The red fox tilted her head to the side and took his hand as they resumed walking. “Probably, but give me time,” she requested. “I’ve been away a long while and need to adjust to having a normal life again.” She looked at him with a smile and then added, “Besides, I hear you’ve become quite a flirt, yourself. I’ll bet you’ve been keeping the other ladies on board busy. You can’t have been too lonely.”

“I will neither confirm nor deny that supposition,” he replied with a snort, “but I’ve missed you specifically. For a long while I wasn’t interested in anyone else.” 

“Well,” Taro said with a wink, “I shouldn’t think it will take me too long. I’ve already got my strength and agility back.”

“Think you’re strong enough to wrestle me?” Renny asked with a smirk. He had not received the reply he’d hoped for, but he was willing to be patient longer. In its place, he felt playful having her back.

“Strong enough?” she repeated in surprise. “Have you forgotten where I’m from?”

“Not at all, foxy lady,” he answered, “though some people change over time.”

“So you think you can stand against me, kit?”

“Let’s find out, if you think you are up to it.”

Taro grinned at the cheetah, suddenly curious when he took a stance suggesting training he’d not had before. This could be interesting… she thought. She took a step toward the navigator, and noted he waited for her to come to him. She obliged and reached up quickly to grasp his shoulders. However, he sidestepped briefly, took her extended arm, and whirled around to place himself immediately behind her. The move surprised her, but she countered his move with a sweep of a leg toward his.

Renny anticipated the tactic and walked up the leg she swung around, and then swiftly gathered himself around her middle, throwing her completely off guard. Then he slid a leg down the length of the one she used to support her weight, and curled his knee around hers to pull inward. While it was difficult to move the dense Hestran muscles of the vixen’s leg, he was successful in altering her balance; she fell backward onto the sand with a surprised look. This had all taken place within a few seconds.

“Wow,” she said with a grin. “You’ve never been able to do that to me before.” He only smiled back and waited for her to regain her feet. She stood up before him and he assumed a different stance, with his arms crooked and his hands rigid and upright. She decided a different strategy and moved in to slap his hands aside in rapid succession. In another unexpected shift, Renny was able to counter every move she made, and in a flash of movement, he had her in a headlock. She struggled to free herself from his arms and actually found it difficult.

Renny smiled down at her and winked. Taro grinned and said, “I do believe you’ve gotten stronger and quicker.”

“In many ways,” he purred. Then just as quickly before, he maneuvered himself around her and planted a kiss full on her lips.

Taro snickered, but gave in to the temptation and returned the kiss. What the heck, it had been a long time, and she found herself enjoying the banter and play.   

*** 

Tanis looked through pages of the local news of Grandstorm on his slateboard while sitting in the dining room of the Meers Restaurant, a favored place in the middle of town they had been going to lately. Cindy sat across from him, finishing her lunch while the tan fox sorted through the classified ads.

“I’m not really seeing a lot of vacancies,” he muttered. “Most of the office spaces in the city just aren’t available.”

“We’ll have to keep looking,” the mouse said around the yellow vegetable she was eating with her hands. “The captain put me in control of finding a place for the home office, while he and Durant are giving interviews at Bill’s business, but I haven’t liked any of the places we have looked at. None of them were really suitable for our needs.”

“Is there anything I can get for you?” another voice asked. Tanis and Cindy looked up into the canine face of a golden retriever, the owner of the restaurant.

“No, ma’am,” Tanis said with a smile. “Lunch at yer place is always wonderful. Right now, I couldn’t eat another bite!”

“That means I’ve done my job right.” The large woman smiled and looked at the mouse. “What about you, honey?”

Cindy looked up at her and shook her head. “Not unless you can find us a vacancy in an empty office for our business.”

The woman chuckled and lifted the coffee pot she held in her hand. “Did you two try looking out the window?”

As one, Tanis and Cindy turned to look out the front glass of the rustic restaurant. Across the busy street was a sign in a window that read:  

Office Space for Sale or Lease.

Ready for immediate occupancy.

13508 Timber Valley Road 

The building was small but self-contained. It was built in a similar style as the Meers Restaurant itself, with a rustic external appearance, but they could easily see through the empty front glass that the interior seemed spacious.

“Wow…” Cindy said in pleasant surprise. “We walked right by it to come in here and didn’t see the sign.”

Tanis looked up at the retriever and gave her a grin. “That would be a wonderful location, providing the internal facilities are kept up,” he said. “We’ve already looked at five other offices, and none of them looked very desirable.”

The golden retriever pulled up a chair from an empty table and sat down with them. “It used to be a Savings and Loan office, but they relocated downtown. The place has been vacant for a year,” she told them. “I know the owner of the building. If you’d like to see it, I can arrange an immediate showing.”

Cindy wiped her mouth with a napkin and slid her empty plate away from her. “As soon as we pay our check, we’d like to go over there, please,” she said.

“I have a deal for you,” the woman said with a smile. “If you decide you want that place for your new office after you’ve looked it over, I’ll let you have this lunch for free.”

“Why?” Tanis asked suspiciously. “Is the owner of the office a good of a friend of yers?”

“You could say that,” she replied with a smirk. “The place is mine.”

Cindy grinned widely. “How soon may we look at it?”

“One moment.” The woman stood up and moved to a feline waitress behind the counter. She spoke a few words to her, set down her pot of coffee on a warmer and then took off her apron. Then she returned to them with a small grey rectangular object in hand. “Okay, if you’re ready now, we can go take a look at it.”

“Wonderful!” Tanis said.

The golden retriever smiled warmly at him and introduced herself. “I’m Mrs. Meers,” she said. “My husband passed away a couple of years ago. The office building was his.” 

The trio darted across traffic to the opposite curb, and the retriever unlocked the door with the tap of the grey magkey. Tanis noted the door was made of sturdy virrin wood and opened quietly on its hinges. The lights of the main room came on immediately, its controls on a motion sensor.

Cindy whistled at the room, duly impressed with the dark woodwork of the built-in book cases, file counters and corner trim. The floor was polished wood, all the lighting was hidden and indirect, and a large fireplace was an added bonus for the seasonal winter days of the coastal city. The front room was spacious, and as they moved to the back rooms, Cindy and Tanis thought each of them had a charm all its own. Through a door in the rear, they found a set of steps that went down below the foundation of the building. They led down to a metal-reinforced, storm shelter that was easily accessible without having to go outside to reach.  In all, there were four rooms, a kitchenette, the storm cellar, a walk-in storage closet and a water closet.

After their tour, Cindy and Tanis looked at one another and smiled. Of all they had looked at, this seemed perfect. Only the price had yet to be discussed. They talked with Mrs. Meers at length, and in the end they agreed to lease it from her for a year. If the business had done well at the end of that time, the company would purchase the building from her.

Cindy had been granted the authority to sign any documentation for the lease, and within an hour, Mrs. Meers handed her several magkeys to the place and wished them well.   

*** 

Merlin approved of the office and location, and had gone out immediately with Cindy to pick out furnishings for the place. Two days later, the crew of the Blue Horizon gathered at the new home office to unload the furniture and supplies from a delivery truck they had rented.

A curvaceous female mountain lion was painting the words, Blue Horizon Freight Transfer in an arc across the front window as Renny flirted with her. Taro grabbed the cheetah’s arm with a grin and pulled her friend toward the truck to help her unload a heavy wooden desk for the front room.

In the back room of the office, Merlin introduced Cindy to her new co-workers.

“I believe you already know Keri Petrie,” Merlin said with a smile. Cindy remembered the caffeine-addicted woman and rushed forward to give the brown mouse a warm embrace.

“How did you wind up here?” Cindy asked her with a grin.

“Captain Kegawa canceled all our contracts and sold off the Hidalgo Sun for scrap to pay off his loan and give us all our back pay,” Keri replied with the shrug of her shoulders.

“He scrapped the ship?” Cindy asked with a hand up to her mouth.

“Yes, and I’ve been on Dennier the past month looking for work. When I saw the ad Captain Sinclair put in the paper for your new headquarters, I had to try for it.” Merlin smiled when both mice looked his way. “It always helps when you know someone,” Keri added with a grin.

“Cindy,” Merlin said as he held out a hand to a petite ferret that stood meekly to the side, “this is Penny Pon. She’ll be your receptionist.”

“Hello,” Cindy said to her with a smile.

“Hellohowareyoudoing?” the ferret said in an excited rush.

“I’m quite fine,” the mouse replied with a laugh.

“You three can get to know one another later,” the lupine captain said. “Let’s get your office in order now, shall we?” He led them back toward the front room and glanced momentarily into another room where a team of technicians was installing industrial com equipment. Everything seemed to be going smoothly.   

*** 

SS Blue Horizon PA1138

Captain’s Journal 

It’s been a month since the home office was opened for business. It took a couple of weeks before we began to see any results, but due to the slow rebuild of interstellar commerce, the only jobs we’ve gotten have been deliveries from one place to another here on Dennier. Still, it’s income for the business and I’ll will take them as we get them.

Samantha is walking around fine these days, though she got so used to her floating pillow and slateboard platform that she continues to use it to interface with the VIP computer on board the ship. She seems to be in better spirits, but she still doesn’t seem herself. Whatever it was must have been awfully traumatic for her to deal with. She still won’t talk to anyone about it, and we’ve all decided not to even bring it up anymore.

She did brighten up briefly when Alex Rogers came to visit her. Most of us already knew him, and it was immediately apparent that quite a change has come over him.  He’s no longer the resort lackey at The Dragon Loft. He is the president of one of the largest pharmaceutical companies across the Planetary Alignment and even I have to admit he looks good in a business suit. He holds his shoulders straight and isn’t afraid to look anyone in the eyes.  From what I’ve heard in the time he’s been in charge of Holden Pharmaceutical, Alex has implemented some changes in the business structure that has already started to show improvement in their profits and customer base. It’s clear that Master Tristan recognized his potential. Renny conjectures it’s nothing more than the Border collie’s herding instinct, but that’s just Renny.

Alex and Samantha met a number of times during his visit, but every time he wanted to get together with her she arranged for someone else to accompany them. I don’t think she distrusts him, but it’s more likely she’s hesitant to be alone with him now knowing the feelings he has for her. She likes him – likes him a lot – but she acts as if she doesn’t want to pursue anything further with him beyond their longtime friendship and their new business relationship.

The other members of the crew that she’s taken with her on their outings seem to feel they need to report to me everything that goes on between them. While Samantha and I have been casually intimate for years – a fact that has never been hidden from my crew – we’ve never been completely exclusive to one another. Does everyone think they have to protect my interests in Samantha? I know of a couple in my employment who thinks she should give Alex a chance and run the business with him as his mate instead of a business partner.

Speaking of relationships, Cindy met an architect in her apartment high-rise a couple weeks ago. His name is Tim Sylvan and he works for Howard Kincaid, one of the more well-known architects on Dennier; he’s currently involved in constructing a skyscraper on a vacated lot downtown. The two mice have been going out on a regular basis, and I think Cindy has seen this as a benefit to working in an office instead on board the ship.

In the time between the small deliveries we’ve had, Renny and I have been teaching Max how to fly the Blue Horizon. Sure, he’s been trained on bridge duty during our routine flights between worlds, and he’s even managed to make some correct in-flight adjustments, but this is the first opportunity we’ve had to instruct him for launches and landings. We’ve had a few close calls, but I think he’s starting to get the hang of it. His largest problem seems to be adjusting for planetary gravity and shifting air currents with the mass of such a heavy vessel.

Primarily, it’s usually Renny or I that handle the critical launches and landings, but I require everyone in my crew to have the ability to fly the ship if an emergency ever arose where the two of us were incapacitated or unavailable. Ever so often, I have one of the others do a launch or landing just to keep them in practice. Max needs the same abilities as the others, so our current downtime has been the perfect time to teach him. I just feel sorry for the folk in the rural communities we’ve been practicing over.

We’ve also gotten word on Master Tristan. He’s doing much better since his alicorn was grafted back on and it’s had time to heal, though he’s now considering full retirement. After his life as a former Regent and successful businessman, he’s more than earned it. 

Merlin Sinclair, Captain   

*** 

Renny looked up at the darkening storm clouds overhead through a break in the trees and frowned as he, Taro and Tanis walked through a lush green park in the middle of Grandstorm dominated by trees with old gnarled trunks and branches and a thick canopy of leaves. They had just returned to Dennier following a couple of off world deliveries that took them in turn to Alexandrius and Fyn, and were once again on their standard three day shore leave before their next assignment. It had been three months since the home office had opened for business and things were picking up.

It was an odd thing to see advertisements on the INN broadcasts for Blue Horizon Freight Transfer as well as other StellarNet channels, but word had gotten out that the company was still in business after the messy events of the War. Cindy, Keri and Penny had their hands full and Taro enjoyed the familiar routine of coordinating efforts with their growing list of clients. It seemed unthinkable, but they’d actually had to turn away some delivery jobs while other freight businesses were scrounging to find work at all.

“I have another idea for promoting the company,” Renny commented as they skirted around a park bench.

“Another one?” Tanis asked.  “Cindy didn’t think much of yer last idea.”

“Yeah, well even I admit that one was pretty lame,” the cheetah replied.

“Don’t ya think we’re getting enough exposure?”

Renny shrugged. “Too much work is better than not enough,” he answered.

“So what’s your new idea?” Taro asked.

“Maybe you can sweet-talk your friends in DWT to do a commercial for us,” Renny said to the vixen.

“I don’t know about that,” Taro replied with a frown. “They wouldn’t be advertising something like a new car or soft drink.  As much as we like it, the Blue Horizon is just a cargo-carrier.”

“Well, they don’t have to sing a jingle or anything,” Renny said with a shrug. “Just a nice instrumental in the background might work.”

“It would be a lot cheaper just hiring local musicians for something like that.”

“Maybe, but having a name band would be a bigger draw.”

“Right. You can bring it up at the next budget meeting, love.”

“I’m hungry,” Tanis said. “Let’s get something to eat.”

“Yeah!” Renny agreed with a smile.

Taro welcomed the distraction and pointed ahead of them. “There’s a hotdog cart up the street. Will that hold you?” she asked.

“Yeah, it should, but with Renny’s appetite I want to get my order in first or there won’t be anything left in the cart!”

“Hey!” the cheetah whined. “I can’t help it if I have a high metabolism.”

“That’s exactly why I want to eat before ya do,” Tanis said with a smile. They neared the small wheeled cart and the desert fox stepped up first. He looked at the short red panda behind the cart and began to order, “Hi, I’ll have three Dennieran beef hotdogs with…”

“Rezo?” Renny asked suddenly. He leaned closer toward the cart, and stared at the vendor. “Rezo Kegawa?”

The red panda looked up at the cheetah, but didn’t look as if he recognized him. “I’m not wearing a name tag,” he replied suspiciously. “How do you know my name?”

“Captain Rezo?” Tanis asked in surprise. “Well, I’ll be… Captain Rezo, it’s us, Renny, Taro and Tanis from the Blue Horizon.”

“Blue Horizon!” the short red panda repeated in sudden recognition. “Tanis and Renny? Yes, I think I remember you now.” He looked at Taro’s figure in appreciation, but shook his head. “I’m sorry, miss, but I don’t remember you.”

“I don’t believe we’ve met, actually,” the vixen said with a smile. “I’m Taro Nichols, Business Coordinator for the Blue Horizon.”

“Taro,” Renny said with a smile, “this is Captain Rezo Kegawa of the Hidalgo Sun. We helped repair his ship some months ago.”

Tanis realized that talk of the dilapidated freighter caused discomfort in the red panda. In his white uniform, greasy apron and paper hat, Rezo looked nothing like a freighter captain. He leaned on the cart and asked in a gentler voice, “Why are ya selling hotdogs?”

Rezo looked at the three of them and swallowed hard. “Well, uh… it’s like this,” he said with a frown. “I had to sell my ship as scrap and release the contracts on my crew so I could pay them and pay off my loan. This is the only job I could find..” He wiped his hands on his apron with an embarrassed expression. “I even tried to get onto another freighter just as an extra hand, but times are hard for the business right now and no one’s hiring.”

“What happened to your ship?” Taro asked in a soft voice.

Rezo sighed heavily and shrugged his shoulders. “We’d picked up a shipment of canned goods on Mainor and had left orbit only moments before the Kastans destroyed it. We caught the edge of the shock wave and sustained heavy damage.” He smiled thinly and gestured to both Renny and Tanis. “You two know how old and bad the condition of the Hidalgo Sun was. Anyway, we managed to limp toward Dennier and had a tough landing that damaged it further. It was beyond repair, so I had no choice but to sell it to a scrap dealer and use the money to pay off my crew and my loan. Since then, I’ve been working odd jobs just to eat and pay the rent where I’ve been staying.”

“Wow, that’s tough,” Renny replied. “Our business has picked up so much that we’d send some your way if you still had your ship.”

Rezo’s frown deepened as they told him about their expanding business. At length, he sat down on his small wooden stool and leaned on the cart. “You three look like you’re pretty hungry,” he said. “If I give you some free hotdogs, would you ask Captain Sinclair if he can find a place on his crew for me?” His voice quivered a little, and he practically pleaded with them. “I don’t care what position he can put me in, so long as I have can work on his ship.”

Renny’s stomach growled loudly at the subject of food and he looked over at Taro. The vixen moved around the cart and knelt down to look at Rezo in the eye. “I promise we’ll bring it to Merlin’s attention as soon as we get back to the ship,” she said, “but we’ll pay you for all the hotdogs we eat, including everything that Mr. Vacuum Lips, here, can consume.”

“Thank you, miss,” the red panda replied with moist eyes. “Please tell Captain Sinclair I would be eternally grateful for his help once more.” He scribbled his address and Com number on a paper napkin and gave it to her. “If you can convince him that he needs another hand, this is where you can find me when I’m not out here in the park. It… isn’t much more than a walk-in closet, but it’s all I could afford.”  

*** 

Later that afternoon, Merlin and Durant were sitting in the front room of the home office. Penny was out on a late lunch break and Cindy sat behind the desk in discussion with them. Durant was weary of the conversation, and it showed on his face.

“Cindy…” the grizzly said in a tired voice, “the three of you have to keep the receipts of company expenses so I can figure them in the books. I can’t keep everything on the level without them.”

“Even for things like paper cups and towels for the water closet?”

“Everything that you use company funds to pay for.”

“That’s such a bother,” she said. “Some places don’t even give receipts unless you ask for them.”

“Then ask for them! Do you want to pay for the stuff from your own salaries?”

“Not really.”

“Then you have to keep all the receipts and turn them in to me.”

“Well, I did save the receipt on the shirts,” she said as she rummaged through a shoebox on the desktop.

“Shirts?” Merlin asked. “What shirts?”

Cindy smiled as she located a yellow slip of flimsy plastic. “Yeah, I had company shirts made up with our logo on them. It’s another source of advertising.”

Durant groaned and looked over at the wolf. Merlin frowned and leaned on the desk. “I didn’t authorize this,” he said.

“You said I could buy things for the office.” The mouse handed the receipt to Durant, and the bear’s eyes widened. Merlin really didn’t like that look on his accountant.

“For the office, yes,” the wolf replied. He took the receipt from Durant and looked it over.  “That’s an awful lot of shirts,” he said after a moment. “Quantity and sizes for everyone…”

“Hold on,” Cindy said, “I’ll show you what they look like. They were delivered this morning.” She left the room momentarily, and Merlin leaned back in his chair with his arms crossed. The mouse returned with a smile, holding a grey shirt large enough for even Durant to wear.  Across the left breast area was the name of the company in blue letters, written in the same stylized typeface as was on the front window. Below it was the logo that Jiro had designed ages ago, with the name of the ship and its registry number beneath it. Cindy turned it around and showed them the back. The same logo was larger, spread across the shoulders, with the advertising motto and address underneath. 

“Interstellar Deliveries throughout the Planetary Alignment”

Competitive Shipping Rates — 9 Years in the Business

13508 Timber Valley Road, Grandstorm, Dennier 

Merlin and Durant looked at one another, and finally the captain shrugged his shoulders.  “Okay,” he said with a sigh of resignation, “we now have company shirts for the employees.”  He looked back up at Cindy and pointed a finger at her.  “But… from now on, clear this with me or Durant first before you do anything else like this.”

“Okay,” Cindy said with an embarrassed smile. She handed the large shirt to Durant. “I promise.”

There was a little jingle of bells as the front door to the office opened. The sky outside had grown dark and the overhead clouds were threatening rain. Renny was eager to get inside.

“Hi, guys,” Cindy said to them. “What’s up?”

Taro leaned against the wall near the dark fireplace as the two males took up positions around the desk. “We ran into an old friend,” Tanis said to Merlin. “Do ya remember Rezo Kegawa?”

“The captain of the Hidalgo Sun?” Durant asked.

“That’s him. We found him selling hotdogs out of a cart in West Park.”

“Keri did say that he had to sell his ship,” Cindy reminded them, “but she didn’t mention that he was still in the area.”

“He needs a job, Merlin,” Taro said. “Renny and Tanis told me about the time you helped him get his freighter running again, but this time there’s no ship to repair.”

“Yeah, I told him we could send some work his way, if he only had a ship,” Renny added. Merlin looked up at the cheetah at his words, and the navigator looked surprised. “What?” he asked.

“You just gave me an idea,” the captain said. “Do you think you can find him again?”

“He wanted me to give this to you,” Taro answered as she handed over a folded paper napkin. “Are you going to hire him?”

“I may actually have something for him, but not for the Blue Horizon.”

“Here at the office?” Cindy asked with a frown.

“Nope.”  Merlin glanced at the napkin and then gave it to Tanis.  “Call Rezo and invite him over as soon as he can get here.”

“Aye, sir,” the desert fox replied. He turned, left the room and then Merlin began to outline his sudden idea to the others.   

*** 

Lorelei sat with her legs crossed on the floor of her hotel room, her attention riveted to a vidscreen monitor on a small wooden stand. She was overjoyed to discover the place was equipped to receive the StellarNet signal, which showcased popular programs from the various worlds of the Planetary Alignment. Her favorite cooking show was among those she was able to pick up, and she watched with rapt attention.

She was so intent on the program that she didn’t hear the knock on her door. She wore a silly grin and sat only a meter away from the screen. The sound was turned up so she wouldn’t miss a word of what the chefs said as they prepared the meals in a cook-off challenge.

“Lori?” a voice called through the door. “Lori!  It’s me, Keri – open up!”

Lorelei’s eyes blinked momentarily as the voice filtered through to her mind. Fortunately for the mouse outside the door, the program broke for a commercial and Lorelei finally heard her. She set aside the salad bowl she held in her lap and wiped her hands absently on the multi-colored tee-shirt she wore over a pair of running shorts. She moved quickly to the door and opened it. Keri stood with her hands in her pockets and looked at the rabbit in concern, her nose wrinkled from the aroma of incense from the room.

“Hi, Keri, what’s up?”

“Lori, didn’t you hear me knocking?” the mouse asked as she stepped inside the room. “I’ve been out there nearly five minutes.”

Lorelei smiled at her and tilted her head. “Oh, sorry ‘bout that,” she said as she gestured toward the vidscreen. “I was watching my favorite show and had it turned up.”

“Yeah, I know,” Keri said with a shake of her head. “I could hear it out there, as clear as if I were in here with you.”

As if to punctuate her words, the music piped up from the small, overtaxed speaker and Lori’s eyes grew wide.  “It’s back on!” she said excitedly.

“Lori!” the mouse said in frustration.

“Huh?” Lorelei asked absently. Her eyes were already focused on the small screen.

“Merlin’s calling a meeting in the office. You have to turn that off and come on.”  Lorelei didn’t seem to hear her, as she watched the challengers engaged in their culinary battle. Keri exhaled and shook her head again. She walked across the room and picked up the television remote from the coffee table in front of the couch. She shut off the set and waited for the expected outcry.

Lorelei’s eyes went wide and she began to tap frantically at the controls on the front of the set. Keri overrode her actions with the remote, and the doe began to whine in frustration at losing the signal.

“Oh no…” Lorelei whimpered.  “What’s happened to my show?  I’ve got to find out who the winner is!”

“Lori!” Keri said in a loud voice, “We have to go.  Now!

The rabbit looked at her with wide eyes. “I can’t go anywhere… I have to get my program back!”

Keri reached out, grabbed Lori’s arm, and pulled her toward the door.  “You’ll have to catch a later show,” she said. “Merlin wants everyone at the office, now!

“But… but….”   

*** 

A ripple of lightning snaked across the sky, illuminating the pane of glass like a flashbulb. Seconds later, a malevolent growl of thunder rattled the windows in the hotel room over the Meers Restaurant where Renny was staying. An involuntary shudder coursed through the frightened cheetah as he drew himself into a tight ball. He was huddled on the floor in an empty corner beside the bed, his knees drawn up to his chest, and his face buried in his arms atop them. The navigator could face many things, but he had not grown up around thunderstorms and they continued to unnerve him any time he was close to one. The tornado they had survived on Earth had only served to fuel his fear of them.

There was a knock on the door, but just as he opened his mouth to speak, another peal of thunder sent his face into his arms again. The knock repeated, and when he did not answer, the door opened a bit. Max stuck his head inside and looked around the apparently vacant room.

“Renny?” he asked. “Are you in here?”

A close lightning strike made a deafening crack and the lights flickered. The young canine heard a muffled gasp from behind the bed and he eased into the room, biting his bottom lip. His eyes widened in surprise when he saw the cheetah on the floor; he moved quickly to his friend’s side.

“Renny, are you okay?” he asked. “What’s wrong?”

The navigator’s large yellow eyes peered up over his arms at the youth, and he swallowed with difficulty. “Don’t… like… storms,” he managed to say through clenched teeth.

“I remember,” Max said with compassion. He looked up when the wind outside rattled the windows and then looked back at the cheetah with a frown. “It’s okay, Renny,” he said in a soothing voice, very similar to the one the feline had used with him in the past, back when he was a former slave and was himself very timid.

“Mrs. Meers said the storm’s almost over and no tornadoes have been predicted,” he added. Indeed, the deep rumbles that continued to sound were farther away, though still too close for the cheetah’s tastes. It had never occurred to him there was a reason the area had been named “Grandstorm”.

Renny felt foolish cowering from a storm, especially in front of a young canine who didn’t seem to mind the thunder at all. He set his jaw tightly and forced himself to raise his head.

“What d-did you need?” he asked.

“Uncle Merlin’s calling everyone together for a meeting,” Max replied. “He sent me to get you.”

“Tell him… to start without me,” Renny said in a quiet voice. “I already know… what he’s going to say anyway.”

Max looked down at his hands a moment and then nodded to the cheetah. He knew what it was like to be frightened, and he was all too familiar with how storms affected the cheetah. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll tell him.”

“Thanks…” Renny said. Another round of thunder lightly shook the house and he quickly buried his head once more.

Max stood up quietly and left the room. He glanced back at the door when he closed it behind him, wishing there was something he could do for his friend; Renny had saved his life during the twister in Woodward and comforted him afterward. For the past few weeks, Renny, Durant and Samantha had been training him in the techniques they had learned from Jape Devon, and as a result, he felt a lot closer to them. Renny was a good friend.

The young German shepherd bounded down the wooden stairs and waved to Mrs. Meers as he retrieved his umbrella from the corner by the door. Then he darted outside and ran across the street in the pouring rain. When he opened the door to the home office and pulled his umbrella in behind him, he saw the front room was packed. With the exception of Renny, all of Merlin’s employees were there. The lupine captain sat behind the receptionist’s desk with Durant, Cindy and Taro sitting up close. Leaning against the fireplace was the red panda, Rezo Kegawa.

Max put his umbrella away and stood beside Lorelei, who didn’t look as if she wanted to be there. Merlin looked at him expectantly. “Renny’s not feeling well,” he told the wolf. “He said he knew what the meeting was about already.”

Merlin nodded and then turned toward his people. “Due to the success of our home office, Blue Horizon Freight Transfer is back on track with a full schedule,” he told them. “We’ve reestablished contact with old clients and have been bringing in new customers with our PR campaign. Interstellar commerce is still struggling to recover from the effects of the Siilv War, and many of our competitors still have not regained their feet, but we’ve had good luck with our advertising crusade. In fact — we’ve had such good luck that we’ve actually had to turn away the jobs that won’t wait for an empty slot in our schedule.”

Rezo crossed his arms and shook his head. “I’m happy for your growing business, Captain Sinclair,” he said in a voice that suggested otherwise. “You’ve already told me you don’t need anyone else on your ship, so did you invite me here to gloat?”

Merlin acted as if he’d not heard the red panda’s sarcasm and said, “The Blue Horizon has more work than we can handle, and I would like you to take up the surplus deliveries for us.”

“With what?” Rezo asked, waving his arms in the air. “I don’t have a ship or a crew.”

“Hypothetically, if you had a ship, would you help us out?”

“Okay, hypothetically speaking, yes. I’d jump on it in a second. But why—?”

“I intend to buy another freighter,” Merlin interrupted quickly, “to handle our surplus deliveries before our competitors can pick them up.” Eyebrows went up all over the room, and there were whispered comments throughout the group. “If you’re interested,” he added, “I would like you to hire a crew for it and serve as its captain.”

Rezo’s mouth opened and closed several times before he finally managed to nod his head. “Keep talking,” he said in near shock. “I am most definitely interested.”

Merlin smiled. “Here’s the deal. The new freighter will be a sister ship to the Blue Horizon and will be managed by this home office in the same manner as current business,” he said to the red panda. “A portion of the profits your crew generates for the company will be earmarked as automatic payments on a loan for the new ship. At such time in the future when your loan is paid in full, you will have the option to stay with Blue Horizon Freight Transfer as a partner, bearing the benefits of the home office, or you can take the ship to go back into business for yourself.”

Rezo looked stunned. Durant handed him a slateboard with a contract on its screen that had been put together earlier that evening; the panda looked it over silently. He noted a set salary for the captain, as well as specific per-voyage wages for the crew. The contract looked straightforward, and he didn’t see anything out of place. He found it hard to swallow and he slid down the wall to sit beside the baseboard, the slateboard resting on his knees.

He looked up at Merlin and simply asked, “Why?”

“I need another ship to pick up our excess,” the wolf told him again.

“But, why me? And why set it up so that a portion of the profits go toward a loan on the ship?” he asked. “You could easily keep the ship in your business and keep all the profits, with standard wages for the captain and crew.”

Merlin got up and moved toward the panda. He squatted down to look him in the eye and replied, “A little over a year ago, someone helped me when my business was down. This is my way of extending that favor. That’s something my parents instilled in me when I was a cub. If you think there’s something in the contract you want to change, you and I can discuss it privately in the back room.”

Merlin and Rezo stood up, and the panda moved to the desk. He glanced over the contract once more and then signed his name at the appropriate spot with a thumb print. He held up the slateboard to Merlin with both hands.

“I accept your terms as written, boss,” he said with a smile.

Merlin offered his hand and Rezo shook it gladly. “Welcome to Blue Horizon Freight Transfer, Captain Rezo.” A round of applause issued from the gathered crowd, and Pockets even let out a sharp whistle.

Merlin waved a hand over his head to get everyone’s attention. “I still have another matter of business to announce,” he said. All eyes were on him as he continued. “Per Durant’s request, and my approval, I am reestablishing Taro as my first officer. Her leave-of-absence is over and Durant says he doesn’t want that job anymore.”

“Were we too hard on ya?” Tanis asked with waggling eyebrows.

“I have too much on my plate to spend time looking over my shoulders after yahoos like you!” Durant replied with a mock growl. The effect was ruined, however, with the mischievous glint in his eyes.

Merlin grinned at the bear and continued, “Nearly everyone here knows that Taro was capable as my first officer and she has a long history with the company. She has agreed to resume her prior duties, so you’d better be nice to her.”    

*** 

SS Blue Horizon PA1138

Captain’s Journal 

Yesterday morning, Rezo and I took a shuttle to Harmon to visit what was basically a “used starship lot” to find another Okami freighter – giving me flashbacks to my original purchase of the Blue Horizon all those years ago in the process. We’d first tried the original manufacturer, but it would be three months before we could get a new one from Okami, so I decided to look for a pre-owned vessel. As to be expected, the hyena who ran the lot was as crooked as the branch of a shrub, and even though he had one on the lot that was in good shape (from what I could tell), he wanted considerably too much for it.

While checking in with Durant, he suggested we try the local financial companies to see if there were any repossessed ships to look through. Sure enough, the first place we checked had two repossessed Okami freighters, in addition to a Sakura, a Prairie Dog, and two Guarana-class ships. One Okami was nearly as decrepit as Rezo’s old ship, but the other was less than a year old and had been repossessed only a month ago. I had Pockets and Max fly out to meet us, and had them give the ship a thorough inspection while Rezo and I discussed matters with the financial rep.

When I inquired into why the ship had been repossessed, I got the reply I suspected. Someone had purchased the ship to expand their business just before the Siilv War broke out. With the economic crisis afterward, the poor coyote couldn’t afford to keep it, so she let the bank have it back. My mechanics gave me a favorable report on the ship’s condition, so I trusted their judgment and bought the freighter outright from the surplus business funds.

After taking possession of the vessel, the four of us flew it back to Grandstorm to record the title transfer with the PA Registry. Since Rezo would be master of the new freighter, I gave him the liberty of naming the ship. He was rather timid when he asked if he could reuse the name Hidalgo Sun, since the old vessel was no longer in service. Seeing as how I had done the same thing with my own freighter, I approved his request. It didn’t hurt that the new ship was only a darker shade of scarlet than his previous vessel had been.

Captain Rezo was unable to rehire all of his old crew members for the new Hidalgo Sun. It’s been too long since he released them from their contracts that some of them have already found other jobs, so he’s currently taking interviews for the remaining positions.

This has been an interesting time. Almost nine years ago, I bought the first Blue Horizon and decided to go into business for myself. At that time, I couldn’t foresee having an expanding business like the one I’m now in charge of; interesting how things turn out. 

Merlin Sinclair, Captain   

*** 

Rezo looked up at his new boss, nervous to please the wolf. Merlin sat alone behind a desk in a back office, scowling at the report he held in his hands. Durant would again have to instruct the three working the home office on the proper procedures for requisitioning new supplies. HQ might coordinate and find jobs for the two ships, but Durant was still the Business Accountant for the company, and everything had to go through him first before new purchases were made.

Merlin looked up and saw the red panda fidgeting before him. He hadn’t noticed when Rezo had entered the room, but he set down his slateboard to give him his full attention. “What can I do for you, Captain?” he asked.

Rezo swallowed and answered, “You wanted to meet my new crew as soon as I had them all assembled. Everyone’s out in the reception room.”

“Did anyone from your old crew come back?”

“You already know about Keri,” the panda replied. “She prefers her job here in the office. Not that I really mind,” he said in a lowered voice. “I never thought she really enjoyed being out in space – and I don’t think she’s ever liked me anyway.”

Merlin raised an eyebrow. “Continue,” he said.

“Right. In the time since I released them from their contracts, only two have found permanent jobs they want to stay with. Do you remember Toni Delondin? She was hired by an accounting firm on Kantus. My chief engineer decided to retire and open up a coffee shop right here in Grandstorm.”

“Yeah?” Merlin asked with interest.

Rezo nodded. “Alice’s still in the process of getting it set up for business. It’s only about six blocks from here, too. She wants to feature exotic coffees from around the PA.”

Merlin smiled with an even bigger interest. The wolf was well-known for his love of coffee. “I’ll have to look up this new business of hers. Okay, who else?”

“The rest of my old crew were willing to leave their little jobs to come back to work for me… or rather, some weren’t interested until they found out they would actually be working for you instead.”

Merlin frowned at that last statement. “What about the vacancies?”

Rezo gave him a tired look. “Two hundred forty-seven people applied for three jobs,” he replied. “It took me a week to visit with everyone, and another two days to make my decisions. Durant gave me some good suggestions that helped me decide who to pick.”

“I’ve always relied on Durant’s counsel when hiring others. I don’t know what I would do without him,” Merlin remarked. “Okay, fill me in on those you picked.”

Rezo nodded in reply. “I’ve chosen Sheila Aval, a twenty-seven year old kangaroo as my supply officer and our cook. She’s worked at three supply-related businesses and comes highly recommended. She’s never been in space before, and is looking forward to it.”

“Wait,” Merlin said, “she’s never been in space before?”

“Not once, but she says she’s looking forward to it.”

“Captain,” Merlin replied slowly as a new realization came to him, “just how many of your old crew was able to pilot your ship?”

The odd question took Rezo by surprise, but he put a hand under his chin and glanced toward the ceiling as he searched his memory. “Let’s see, besides myself… Jonesy, Mark, Tsarina, Alice and Pax.”

“That’s less than half your crew.”

“Uh, yeah. Is that a problem?”

Merlin told him about his standard policy, that every crew member be able to fly the ship in the event of an emergency. Rezo swallowed as he listened. This was something that had never occurred to him on his own vessel. Finally, Merlin said, “After you and your crew have gotten familiar with the new Hidalgo Sun and are used to working on the schedules that HQ will set up for you, I want you to begin training all of your people to fly your ship. Even my seventeen-year-old mechanic is capable of flying the Blue Horizon.  If you can get just one certified as a pilot each time you land, it shouldn’t take more than a few months to get your whole crew rated properly.”

“Uh, okay,” Rezo said with a frown.

“Who else?”

“Danaher Tillane is a thirty-six year old bobcat. He’ll be my accountant, and he’s also an experienced computer hack. He’s pretty serious-minded and is very good juggling numbers,” Rezo said. “I’ve already introduced him to Durant since the two of them will be working together with the finances.”  He leaned forward with a frown.  “He’s from the backwoods of Fyn,” he whispered.

“Will that make a difference?”

Rezo shook his head. “Probably not, but he has a funny way of speaking.”

“Okay, that makes two. Who else?”

“I hired the last guy just this morning… someone who already knows your crew.”

Merlin raised an eyebrow. “Oh?” he asked. He privately hoped it wasn’t someone from Armando’s ship.

“Jasper Porter.”

Merlin blinked several times in rapid succession. “Patch?”

“That’s him. He said he’d just been released from his former employer, a cruise line I believe. It seems he was a survivor of a ship that was a victim of that nasty computer virus. His company had too many displaced employees after that, and he was one of them.”

“Jasper’s brother works on the Blue Horizon. I wonder why he didn’t let us know he was in the area.”

“I dunno,” the red panda replied. “He saw my advertisement for interviews, and applied for chief engineer. He said he wasn’t aware the application with my ship was for your company and he almost turned down the job when he found out.”

Merlin frowned. He thought he’d parted ways with Jasper on decent terms, so didn’t understand the apparent animosity the raccoon had for him. He probably blames me for his situation, the wolf thought to himself. If he’d let Patch know about the new ship only an hour earlier, it was unlikely he would have left the Blue Horizon to sign up with the Merriam Cruise Line in the first place. Patch was originally the chief engineer on Merlin’s ship, but went to a vessel as just one engineer of several on a team. Staying in contact with Pockets, Patch knew his brother was now the chief engineer on the Horizon, and probably knew if he came back, that Pockets would retain his position. On board the Hidalgo Sun, Patch would be chief engineer again.

Merlin was well aware of Jasper’s qualifications, so he nodded quietly. “Okay,” he said at last, “let’s go meet with your crew.”   

*** 

Pockets was furious. He stood nose to nose with his brother and ground his teeth together. “You could have asked for your old job back!” he said angrily, his arms up in the air for emphasis. “I know more about the new Blue Horizon than you do, but I would have handed you the top spot if that’s what it took to get you to come back.”

“Jerad…” Patch growled in a voice that proved he had expected a reaction like this, “you and I both know that Captain Sinclair wouldn’t set me in a position above you on a ship I knew nothing about.” He stepped back from his sibling and crossed his arms. “At least on the Hidalgo Sun, I’ll be in common company. No one on this crew has served on an H-model Okami freighter before.”

When Merlin and Rezo stepped into the front room and heard the argument, the wolf almost thought he was looking at mirror images. The brothers had always been near identical in appearance, but usually Pockets was a cheery soul and easy to identify by his smile. In his rage, Pockets now resembled Patch more than he had ever done so in Merlin’s memory. Rezo was about to break up the conflict, but Merlin put a hand on the red panda’s shoulder and put a finger to his lips to quiet him before he spoke.

“Do you remember the letters you sent me after you first got the new Horizon?” Patch asked his brother. “Remember your excitement discovering the upgrades and changes from the old G-model?” Pockets nodded quietly. “I want to make those discoveries for myself,” Patch said as he gestured to the rest of the Sun’s crew. “Most of us know what it’s like to serve on an old ship, and we’re all looking forward to finally having one that’s up-to-date.”

Pockets lowered his chin and nodded as Patch continued. “You finally have your own engine room, Jerad,” he said in a softer voice. “I want mine, too. The job on the Hidalgo Sun is a good opportunity. We’ll both still be working for the same company, just not on board the same ship.”

Patch held out a hand to his brother, sincerely hoping he would take it. Pockets moved forward and hesitated. He looked up into his sibling’s eyes, and then jumped forward to embrace him tightly.

“I’m sorry,” Pockets said in a choked voice. “We’ve been together most of our lives… Being apart from you has been harder than I thought.”

“I know,” Patch replied with a hard swallow. “I know.” They stood embraced for a moment, and then stepped back to give each other a smile.

“Now that that is settled,” Merlin said from across the room, “welcome back to the business, Patch.”

Jasper Porter looked up and gave the wolf an uncharacteristic smile. He walked over to grasp hands with him. “Thank you, Captain,” he said. “Glad to work for the company again.” He looked over at the grinning red panda and shook his hand, too. “And thank you, Captain Kegawa, for hiring me.”

“You’re welcome, Patch,” Rezo replied. “You have a good reputation and I’ll be glad to have you in my crew.” Then he turned toward the others and gestured to the wolf beside him. “Sheila, Danaher,” he said to the kangaroo and bobcat at the front of the group, “this is Merlin Sinclair – the owner of Blue Horizon Freight Transfer and captain of our sister ship, the Blue Horizon.”

The bobcat, Danaher, stared at Merlin with piercing eyes. “I happy to meet you,” he said in an accent the wolf couldn’t identify. “We glad what you do for us.”

Merlin took the bobcat’s offered hand and shook it gently. Despite being of a smaller breed of feline, he was fully as large as most in the room. “I’m pleased to meet you as well, Mr. Danaher. Please tell me, where are you from?”

Danaher nodded and replied, “Yes, I from Gohl. Left six years ago.”

Merlin tilted his head to the left slightly. “Gohl? I’m not familiar with that place.”

Rezo looked up at him with a smile. “Gohl is a region of Fyn,” he reminded him.

“Ah, I see. Welcome to the business, Danaher.”

“Thanks you.”

“Hi, I’m Sheila Aval,” the kangaroo said with a big smile when Merlin turned to her.

“Hello, Sheila,” the wolf replied, “and where are you from?”

“Right here on Dennier, sir. I’m a home girl. I grew up down the shore in Anaran.”

Merlin chuckled and shook her hand. “Welcome aboard.”

“Delighted to be here, sir!”

The wolf nodded to her and then moved out into the room. He looked down at two of the shorter members of the Hidalgo Sun, a female ringtail lemur and a male orange tabby cat. The feline smiled at him, giving an almost-imperceptible bow of his head. “Hello, Captain,” he said. “Remember me?”

Merlin nodded. “Sean…  Jones, if I recall correctly.”

“Yeah, that’s me. Everyone usually just calls me Jonesy. I’m still the first officer and the ship’s Business Coordinator.”

“I believe your name is Rixy?” the captain asked of the lemur.

She smiled, but shook her head. “You’re close, Captain. It’s Riki - Riki Nori.”

Merlin returned the smile. “Ah, my apologies. You take care of communications, yes?”

“That’s right,” Riki replied. “I’m also a bit of an electronics technician.”

“She’s also our self-appointed morale officer,” Jonesy quipped.

Merlin nodded. “Nothing wrong with that,” he said. “Every ship needs one.”

“Anyway, thank you for the opportunity to work for you, Captain Sinclair,” Jonesy said. “These aren’t good times to be without a decent job.”

“True, too true,” Riki agreed.

“Welcome to the company,” Merlin told them.

He gave them a nod and then made his way to the back of the room, where he saw Durant seated in a visitor chair facing the Sun’s doctor, Carmen Burgess. The two ursine friends had their heads close together, speaking in whispers. Merlin remembered that the two of them had maintained a long-distance relationship, so he backed away to let them visit. He could talk to Doctor Burgess at a later time.

He saw Max chatting with a large palomino horse, who was busily brushing his mane with a worn brush. Similar as a species to the Silloni, he had hoofed feet but his arms ended in long-fingered hands.

“Max and Pax,” Merlin said with a smile. “How are you, Mr. Paxton?”

“Howdy, Captain,” the equine mechanic replied. “I’m doing right good today, ‘specially with my ol’ job back!  I missed workin’ on starship engines… I’ve been in an auto garage the past few weeks and those small toys are more difficult to maintain.”

“Well,” Merlin replied, “we can all hope your new ship won’t actually need you to work on it for a while. If you and Patch keep it well maintained, it’ll be a good ship.”

“Yessir, Patch n’ I have already been talkin’ about that very thing.”

“Patch seems like he’s looking forward to working with Pax, Uncle Merlin,” Max said in a quiet voice. “I’ve told Pax about some of Patch’s habits, so he won’t be too surprised when the bagpipes come out.”

Merlin raised his eyebrows. “I thought Patch lost his bagpipes in the crash,” he said.

“He bought some more,” Max replied.

“Oh, Great Maker…” Merlin whispered in mock horror.

A movement in the corner of his vision drew the wolf’s attention to an ebony figure dressed in a teal jumper, standing behind the horse. It was the jaguar, Tsarina Ahnya. She’d been talking with Tanis, and surprisingly, Renny and Taro. She stopped to look in his direction, but the wolf maintained his composure. The sight of a black jaguar still brought back memories of Sagan, but enough time had passed that he knew could handle himself better. Since she was now on his payroll, he knew he had to put such uneasiness behind him and go speak with her.

“Excuse me,” he said to Paxton. The horse nodded courteously and Merlin moved off toward the small group.

Tsarina watched him with steady amber eyes at first, but averted them in submission when he stopped beside her. “H’lo, captain,” she said in a quiet voice without looking back up at him. Tanis looked at Merlin without a word, but the expression on his face spoke a clear message. Renny and Taro seemed to be at ease with her presence, and so should he.

Merlin bent down so that his head was lower than hers was and then turned his head so that he was looking up at her. “Hello, Tsarina,” he said with a smile. “Did you lose something?”

A smile crept across her lips and her eyes twinkled. “Only my dignity,” she replied as she lifted her head. Merlin stood up and grinned at her.

“Well, if that’s all, I think you’ll be okay,” he said. “Are you ready to start navigating around the cosmos again?”

“Aye, Captain, I am,” she said. “When do we leave?”

“Don’t be in too big of a hurry!” Taro said with a laugh, “We still have to line up a few jobs first, and your ship isn’t even stocked with general supplies yet.”

“Ah, okay,” the jaguar replied.

Merlin put a hand on Tsarina’s shoulder and said to her, “Welcome to the company.”

The jaguar grinned widely, sliding her shoulder under his arm so that she was up against him, and then put a hand on his chest. “Thank you, Merlin,” she said.  “How shall we seal our contract?”  She batted her eyes and he could feel her purring up against him. He grinned foolishly and peeled her arm from around his shoulders.

He waved a finger in her face and said, “You’ve already signed your name to the contract. You don’t need to do anything more for me.”

“I don’t need to,” she admitted, “but I could offer more…”

Merlin cleared his throat and Renny stepped in. “Here,” the cheetah said with a tongue across his lips, “I’ll take his place.”

Tsarina looked at him with a laugh. “Oh, really?”

Renny took a backward glance at Taro, who only laughed at him.

“Don’t let Tsarina intimidate you, Captain,” another voice said.

Merlin looked up at the large human who had walked up beside him. The wolf smiled and nodded his head in acknowledgement. “She moves fast, doesn’t she, Mr. Littlefeather?” he asked.

“About as fast as your cheetah friend,” Mark said with a grin. “Hello, Captain.”

Merlin offered his hand to the man and shook it pleasantly.  “Hello, Mark, how have you been?”

Taro looked at the wolf strangely. Ever since the end of their first voyage together, Merlin would have little to do with humans and would have never prompted a friendly handshake with one in the past. It seemed she had more catching up to do on what she had missed in the time she had been away.   

*** 

Merlin Sinclair applied his thumbprint onto the appropriate spot of the contract before him and slid the slateboard across the table to the otter sitting opposite from him.  The business clerk looked over the electronic document and then nodded in satisfaction. He took another look at the financial transaction receipt that had paid for the vessel in full, and then smiled at the wolf.

“Thank you, Mr. Sinclair,” he said cheerily. “I will have the PA registration set up for you and then you’ll be ready to go.” Without waiting for a reply, the otter got up from his seat and left the small cubicle.

Merlin sighed and felt pleased.  With two freighters and a home office in full operation and repeated visits back to Dennier a decided part of the new business, he had felt a company ship for the boss was in order.  He knew there would be times he would need a vessel to make trips in that did not require the use of either freighter, so he had gone out on his own to shop for a viable ship. He usually put his profits solely back into the business, so he felt justified spending a bit on himself this once.

The one he had finally chosen was small enough that he could fly it between cities without needing a spaceport landing pad, but it also had long-range LightDrive capabilities should he need to go off-world in it. It could sleep up to three and required only a single operator to fly it. He had chosen the latest model 301 Starwolf, a sleek red and black sport design that was currently popular across the Planetary Alignment. It was small enough that when not in use, he could park it in a hangar on the back of Bill’s place.

A few moments later, the otter returned to the cubicle with a thick packet of actual printed material in hand.  He set it on the table between them and pulled the contents out of the envelope.  He picked up a small, sealed container and handed it to the wolf.

“Here are the security codes for your onboard systems, Mr. Sinclair.  The Registry number is PA30578 and it’s listed as the SS Christopher Watson – your father’s first and middle names, I believe you said. A copy of your title, registration and transaction is here, as well as all user manuals and service data crystals.”

He smiled at Merlin and held out his hand.  “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Sinclair.  It’s one of our finest ships and I’m sure you’ll be happy with it.  You’ll be able to pick it up tomorrow afternoon after we’ve taken care of the options you ordered.”

Merlin stood up and took the otter’s hand with a smile.  “Thank you, Mr. Tochigi. I appreciate all the help you’ve given me.”   

*** 

The Blue Horizon was en route to Ganis to deliver the entire stock of a new department store going up in Sogor. Their sister ship, the Hidalgo Sun, was on its first flight as a member of Merlin’s team toward Fyn with farming equipment. The home office was smoothly coordinating the two ships from Dennier.

In the darkness of his room, Merlin sat up on his bed and rubbed his eyes at the sound of an insistent chirp. The wolf felt for the intercom switch with his eyes still closed and tapped it lightly. “Yes, what is it?”

“Merlin? There’s an important call for you,” Samantha’s voice emanated from the overhead speaker.

“Who’s it from?” he asked groggily.

“Prime Minister Nishalt of Tanthe.”

Merlin opened his eyes blearily and swung his legs off the edge of the bed. “Stall him, Sam, until I can unruffle myself and get the sleep out of my eye-pits.”

“I told him you were sleeping. He wouldn’t be too surprised if you look ruffled.”

“Thanks too much…” he grumbled. He pulled on a blue muscle shirt and slipped his brown ship’s jacket over it. He smoothed down his pants and ran a brush through the fur on his head. It wouldn’t stay down, so he grabbed his hat from a wall peg and perched it between his ears as he headed out the door for the bridge.

He composed himself before opening the door, and then walked casually toward the center seat. Samantha remained seated at the Com station and introduced him to the coyote on the center vidscreen. “Prime Minister Nishalt,” she said, “this is Captain Sinclair.”

“Good evening, Captain,” said the voice from the system speakers. The coyote was dressed in a black suit with red highlights and he held himself with regal bearing, even if he were not an actual member of the Aris bloodline.

Merlin gave him a short bow of courtesy and replied, “Good evening Prime Minister. I did not have the opportunity to meet you during our last visit to your world.”

“Yes, I have heard much about your visit, Captain. I was incapacitated at the time. It is good to finally meet the King’s hero.”

“King’s hero?” Merlin repeated slowly.

“It was your discernment that resulted in an heir to the throne.”

“An heir…” Merlin looked perplexed.

“Captain,” Nishalt said, “I have been instructed to present to you an official announcement from King Adion Aris that his royal daughter, Tinara, has given birth to a healthy male pup.”

Samantha grinned widely and Merlin smiled back at her. “Please give the royal family my deepest congratulations, sir,” he said to the screen.

“I will, Captain. Thank you. However, Prince Kal also wanted me to relay to you some details surrounding the birth.”

“Yes?”

“There were three pups in the litter, but only the one male endured. One male and one female did not survive the birthing.”

“Oh no…” Samantha said with her hands to her mouth.

“Please give my…”

“The royal parents are doing fine,” the Prime Minister continued. “They are saddened by the loss that was not altogether unexpected, but are comforted with their remaining prince.”

“Excuse me, sir,” Samantha asked, “have they chosen a name for the pup?”

Nishalt smiled gently and nodded. “Prince Merlin Sel Aris.”

Merlin grinned widely. “I didn’t think she would actually do it,” he replied.

“What was that, sir?”

“Before we left Tanthe, Princess Tinara commented that should they have a son, the pup would be named after me. It surprises me that she actually did this.”

“May I inform the royal family of a visit, Captain?”

Merlin bowed again slightly. “I have a current schedule to maintain, Prime Minister, but I am sure I can find a visit to see my namesake in there somewhere.”

“I will inform Prince Kal that you will contact us as soon as you are able so we may make arrangements.”

“Thank you, sir. I would be most grateful.”

“Then, fare well, Captain.”

The connection ended and Sam looked up at him with a smirk. “You have a royal kid named after you,” she teased. “And just think, if you had given in to the Princess, it could have been yours!”

Her smile faded instantly at her own words and Merlin’s expression suddenly mirrored her own, though he didn’t know why. Her eyes welled up with tears, and she buried her face against his chest without a word. He wrapped his arms around her and let her cry. She didn’t sob, but wept quietly as he held her. It took several long moments before she calmed down enough to look up at him.

Merlin pulled a handkerchief from a pocket and wiped away at the tears from her eyes and wet cheek fur. She looked at him fearfully as he tried to find a purpose for her tears.  Finally, he asked in a very soft voice, “What is it?”

Samantha swallowed as she tried to find the words. “I…” she started.  She swallowed again, but didn’t break eye contact with him. “I lost… I… …lost…”  She put her forehead up against his chest and held onto him tightly.

“What did you lose?” Merlin asked in a quiet voice. He instinctively knew that whatever it was she wanted to tell him was what had been on her mind of late. He was patient and kept his arms around her. For several long moments, the only sounds on the small bridge came from the active systems monitoring the flight of the Blue Horizon.

Then at last, Samantha found her voice, though she kept it low as if afraid someone might eavesdrop. “I lost our baby, Merlin…  I lost… our baby.”  She felt him stiffen at her words, but he didn’t pull away and bolt out the door as she had been afraid he might do. He pulled her closer, as if trying to make her a part of himself.

“What happened?” he asked in a quiet voice after a long moment. “Please. Tell me.”

Encouraged, she began to explain. The conception probably happened during their first visit to Argeia, when they were both seduced by the exoticness of the place. She hadn’t really known, nor even guessed, that she was with child until her fight with the assassin. She told him of Navarre’s revelation that preceded the vicious attack, and how Devon confirmed it later when she asked him for the truth.

“If Devon knew beforehand, why didn’t he say anything?” Merlin asked, still holding her close.

Samantha shook her head. “He probably thought I knew already. And in all fairness to him, he probably had no idea that we would be up against other Kastans who could sense a lifeprint, so he probably dropped it to save me the stress.”  The Border collie sighed and then looked up once more into his golden eyes. “Had I had known,” she said, “I wouldn’t have taken part in the fighting.”

“Had I known,” Merlin repeated, “I wouldn’t have allowed you to come with us.” He led her to the center seat and coaxed her gently onto its cushion. Then he knelt down in front of her on the soft carpet. “Samantha,” he said quietly.  “I… I’ve never been a father before, but I know I would have taken my responsibility seriously.”

She smiled at him and cupped his chin in one hand. “You’ve always taken your responsibilities seriously,” she said.

Merlin reached up and took her hand in his own.  He swallowed and then looked up at her with another lump in his throat, his heart beating rapidly. “Let me do the right thing.  Samantha, will you ma—”

Sam put her fingertips against his lips and shook her head gently. “You don’t have to do this,” she said. “It’s not necessary.”  For a moment, she couldn’t read the expression on his face. Was it relief or disappointment? After a moment, Merlin released a sigh and laid his head in her lap. She removed his hat, set it on the floor, and then gently stroked the fur between his ears.

The lupine captain closed his eyes and was silent for a long time. Moments later, he looked up at her again and asked, “What now?”

Samantha inhaled and exhaled slowly, no longer feeling the weight of what had long been troubling her. She glanced up and over at the forward windows to the stars beyond for a moment, and then looked back down at him with affection.

“Now, we go on with life as we’ve done before,” she said. “Things don’t have to change between us, Merlin. My wounds are healed and I’m still here.”

Her longtime friend nodded. “Do we tell the others about the baby?” he asked.

“No,” Samantha replied. “This will be between the two of us. I’ve told no one else.”

Merlin got to his feet and pulled her up to him into a warm embrace. “Okay, it’ll be our secret,” he said. Then their lips met and lingered for a long while.

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