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BLUE HORIZON

"Operation Rainbow"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

Blue Horizon PA1138

First Officer’s Diary 

There are times when being one in charge of an interstellar cargo carrier takes an unexpected turn. Life aboard a freighter is supposed to be quiet. This is the main reason why I sought work on such a vessel in the first place all those years go.

Some of our competitors describe our crew as a “family” that sits around, trades snack trays and gushy sentiments with one another for all occasions. Merlin doesn’t deny that he handpicked his crew of individuals to be of good character. When we’re locked into a tin can together for weeks at a time with no way out, what you don’t want are enemies on board. Nerves are strained enough as they are at times, even in this group, but for the most part everyone on the crew does get along with one another relatively well.

There are always exceptions to the rule. Samantha and Lorelei sometimes argue about pharmaceuticals, and Tanis and Renny have butted their heads together on more than one occasion lately. Those two have been friendly rivals since they first met, but some of us have had to break them up just short of a fistfight at least three times in a fortnight.

News of growing tensions between Tanis’ homeworld of Nalirra and a neighboring non-PA planet has put our medic on edge and his temper’s been touchy lately. Of course, Renny needles Tanis every chance he gets, which only causes more friction. I’ve counseled both of them separately, but it hasn’t seemed to have done much good, as the two of them continue to bicker over things that would normally be shrugged off. If this continues, I’m going to have to recommend the captain to penalize one or both of them with a financial docking; if counseling doesn’t work, hit them in the paycheck.

It doesn’t help matters that after our current delivery, we’ll be heading toward that very region. The Roppa system is a potential war-zone right now, and this makes us all uneasy despite that we’re being well-paid. Tanis has been in to see me a few times concerning the possibility of danger, and I think his nerves are getting worse. I’ve not seen him like this in a long time. He’s been one of the more stable guys I’ve known.

We are currently nearing Alexandrius with a load of imported lumber we picked up from a supplier on Ganis, and should be on the ground in a couple of hours. Hestran virrin is a type of wood in high demand on Alexandrius, so the value of our cargo is rather expensive. Samantha is looking forward to a short visit to her hometown while we’re here, and as a chance to get away for a couple days, I’m going with her. The rest of the crew can spend their standard shore leave as they wish.

And… speaking of things Hestran, our new sister ship, the Hidalgo Sun has just delivered a load of textiles for a clothing factory on Hestra, but they didn’t actually land on Hestra herself, but rather on the Vashon moon at Sharra Base. When Hestra joined the Planetary Alignment, Sharra Base was established on Vashon as a transfer station for ships, personnel and visitors not equipped to handle the heavier Hestran gravity. Made up of transparent, pressurized geodesic domes, Sharra has grown over the years to the size of a small city to support the personnel and all guests. Hestran Drop Jumpers will be used to ferry the goods down to the planet afterward, but Rezo’s crew won’t be involved in that operation. Any shore leave he grants them will be on Vashon, but at least Sharra has plenty of hotels and shops for them to visit.

Rezo seems pleased with his new ship and crew, and the reports that Durant gets from the home office on Dennier tell him the combined profits of both vessels in the company are already looking good. Pockets and Patch communicate on a regular basis, as the Sun’s crew is slowly getting used to the H-model freighter. Pockets and Max have already worked out the particulars of this ship enough that when something new comes up to repair or maintain on the Hidalgo, all Patch or Paxton have to do is contact us. Apparently, there’s a few bugs in the systems on that ship that we’ve not had to deal with on this one, but so far, they’ve been able to handle everything that has reared up.

Merlin has left me in charge of things while he takes a bit of personal leave. Bill and Shannon have been pestering him to get back to Dennier to see their new cubs, and the royal family of Tanthe has been awaiting a visit from him so he may meet the new prince who bears his name. He booked a public transport from Ganis to Dennier and should arrive there sometime tomorrow. After a short vacation with his sister’s family, Merlin is going to fly the smaller SS Cristopher Watson to a mountain fortress on Tanthe, where Prince Kal and Princess Tinara are currently staying with their infant son. Samantha wanted to go along, I’m sure, but I don’t think she mentioned anything to the captain about it. Personally, I would have liked to have gone myself, but this is Merlin’s time to spend with his extended families.

It’s been a long while since I was placed in complete command of the Blue Horizon. Merlin rarely takes time away from his ship, so my position as first officer doesn’t usually see much more authority than the times when he’s asleep or very busy and doesn’t want to be bothered. Aside from the little altercations between Tanis and Renny, things seem to be going smoothly. 

–Taro Nichols    

*** 

“In news from Earth, Tokyo Tower fell again today amidst the rampage of another giant monster. This fire-breathing turtle has risen from the sea and is on a march across the main island of Japan. Citizens are on the run, but aren’t worried, as this common occurrence takes place on a regular basis. New construction materials for Tokyo Tower are already being pulled from an awaiting warehouse and reconstruction workers are standing by. We’ll let you know more as the information comes to us. In sports news from–”

Penny clicked off the remote to the waiting room vidscreen and cleared away the wrappers of her lunch. Cindy had gone out to eat with her architect boyfriend, and Keri was away running errands, so the lithe ferret had the place to herself. It had been a quiet day. There had only been one call from Ganis for someone needing five sets of large Taiko drums delivered from Earth for some kind of ancient ritual, but the delivery wouldn’t need to be made for several months.

There was a small jingle of bells; Penny looked up from the desk with a smile.

A short desert fox dressed in a dark green shirt and black slacks walked in with a small round watermelon wrapped up in a rope net dangling from one hand. He glanced around the office before moving to the receptionist’s desk.

“Welcome to Blue Horizon Freight Transfer. May I help you?” Penny asked him.

“Hallo,” the fennec said hesitantly, in a slightly accented voice. “I am looking for Arktanis TeVann. I was told he worked here.”

Penny nodded. “He does work for this company,” she told him, “but he’s currently serving on board the Blue Horizon and won’t be back on Dennier for some months.”

“Ah,” the tan fox replied, as he scratched one of his enormous ears. “I had hoped for the opportunity to see him. It’s a matter of urgency that I contact him.”

“May I know the nature of this emergency?” Penny asked. “If it’s sufficiently important, I can relay a message to his ship’s captain.”

The fennec smiled down at the ferret. “The message I have for him will affect his immediate future. I—”

“Are you his brother?” she asked him in an excited voice.

The fox shrugged. “In a manner of speaking, perhaps,” he replied, “as we are both from the same region of Nalirra. My name is Shoji Locke, and—”

“What’s the watermelon for?” Penny interrupted again.

The stranger sighed. He set the melon on the desk, and gave it a small push so that it rolled inside its net toward her. “As Arktanis is not here, you may share it with your office co-workers.”

“Oh, thank you!” Penny replied with a grin. “The girls are gonna love this.”

“Now, as I was—”

“You said you were from Nalirra,” the ferret interrupted yet again. “Are you here about the delivery?”

“No,” he said with a dark frown. Talking to this person was a chore. “I’m not here to make a delivery.”

“No, silly,” Penny replied, “we have a delivery to make to Nalirra next week— a full shipment of food, I believe. I thought maybe you were a representative. We have a second ship that’s been hired to deliver more of the same, so we—”

The fox looked at her quietly for a moment, chewing on his lower lip as she rattled on. He was on Dennier on official business for his government, but had taken time out from his busy schedule to visit the offices of Tanis’ employer. He had just about decided to turn and walk back out of the door when the desktop Com unit emitted three quick chirps.

“You’re in luck, Mr. Locke,” Penny said cheerily. “That’s the Blue Horizon calling in now.” The fennec waited patiently while she made the connection and then informed a grizzly bear on the screen of the visitor’s request. “Tanis will be on the link in just a moment, sir,” she said to him.    

*** 

Blue Horizon PA1138

First Officer’s Diary

 The Blue Horizon is on its way to Nalirra, under the pretense of making a standard delivery of emergency food the Nalirrans are stockpiling in preparation of war against their neighboring world, Oe’Tanata. The Hidalgo Sun is a day behind us, having been hired to deliver more of the same. Our delivery is a legitimate job for the company that was already on the schedule, but I say ‘under the pretense’ because our voyage to this world has another purpose with more importance.

Nalirra is rumored to be building up their forces for a strike against Oe’Tanata. There have been recent aggressions between the two worlds over matters that INN or other news frequencies have been vague upon reporting. The tension is growing and Nalirra is recalling past military personnel who are still capable. Recalls have been going out to all the worlds of the Planetary Alignment as they try to relocate bodies to match their records.

One of Tanis’ trusted friends contacted him a couple weeks ago during a visit to the home office to let him know that his personnel file had been reclassified as a “rainbow document” – a collection of files made up of past military personnel currently off-world, but which have training the Nalirran military deems necessary for a first assault. Tanis’ medical background and piloting skills have put him on a list that can only mean he will be among the first recalled into service if war actually breaks out. By Nalirran law, he’s legally bound to return to service if recalled, no matter where he may be or what he may be doing.

Concerned that he will be drafted once again into the armed services in a time of war, we are going to use our current scheduled job to Nalirra as a front for an attempt to infiltrate the military personnel database. Locke has supplied coordinates on where to meet him, and will make arrangements to get Tanis inside. I don’t want to worry Merlin about this during his vacation, so I’ve not said anything about this in my daily reports. I’m not entirely sure he would approve of getting involved in a covert operation like this, so I’ll take full responsibility should something go wrong.

We have an extra bit of help in this, as well. Tanis’ friend, Clarence Duffy, took a quick flight from Fyn and met us just before we left Alexandrius. Duffy was informed by Locke that he was also on the rainbow listing and asked to be included. The Siberian husky brought along several Nalirran desert uniforms that he thinks will fit some of us for this operation.

As if we didn’t have enough on our minds, Pockets and Duffy took an immediate disliking toward one another. There haven’t been any arguments between them, but you can feel the tension in the air whenever the two of them are in the same room together. I’ve asked Pockets about it, but all he does is shrug me off, saying it’s nothing. I don’t like this, as Duffy seems on the up and up to me and Tanis seems to trust his friend.

As we approach the Roppa star system, Duffy has assembled a small team to infiltrate the compound consisting of Tanis, Samantha, himself and me. We’ve been going over the plan and studying maps of the building we will be getting into. Locke was quite thorough in the information he’s provided to us. Sam scanned the floor plan maps and is in the process of converting them to a 3D rendition for use with Pockets’ VR software in an effort to help us all learn the layout of the facility.

Renny wanted to join the team, but Tanis pointed out that there are no feline types in the Nalirran military and that he would give them away immediately. The Nalirran enemies, the Tanatans, are almost primarily big cats such as leopards, cougars, lions, jaguars – and cheetahs.

This is okay by me since Durant still needs a crew to make a showing of a freighter delivering its cargo, and the tension between Tanis and Renny would a distraction where the team will need to stay alert. Those remaining with the Blue Horizon will have their hands full unloading a cargo hold packed with food containers stacked nearly two stories high. It’s a good thing this version of the Blue Horizon is equipped with cargo moving cranes in the hold – something the old ship didn’t have. All in all, this could get tricky. I just hope all goes well.

Merlin reported in a bit ago just to let me know that following his family visit, Bill will be accompanying him in the Christopher Watson to Tanthe. His brother in law is taking the trip as convenient to resolve business issues for his company in another city of Tanthe. Afterward, Bill will return to Dennier with the Watson and Merlin will later take a public transport from Tanthe to rendezvous with the Blue Horizon on the next leg of our schedule after Nalirra. 

–Taro Nichols    

*** 

Tanis switched on the lights to Sickbay and plucked a white lab coat from a wall hook near the door. He motioned a male Siberian husky into the room with a smile. “Welcome to mah la-bor-a-tory…” he said in the creepy accent of a popular horror film character from Earth.

“Cute,” the canine said with a lopsided smile. “What do you need me to do?”

“Take off yer shirt and sit up on this stool,” Tanis told him while removing medical instruments from their stays in a wall cabinet. The husky closed the door behind him and did as he was told, while the medic placed the tools of his trade on a plastic tray.

“Do you remember the Well of Luck?” Duffy asked as he absently ran his fingers through the dusty gray fur of his chest and scratched at an itch.

Tanis nodded with a smirk. “How can I forget?” he asked. “I got the chance to examine it from the inside out.”

The husky chuckled as his friend took out a stethoscope, daubing the business end of it with a cleanser. “I just bought the land it’s on,” Duffy said. “I began clearing away the brush around it, and I’ve made a nice, wide pathway to the nearby road with steps along that hill you rolled down.”

Tanis put the stethoscope up to the canine’s chest. “Take a deep breath, Clarence. Then ya can tell me why ya wasted yer money on that worthless pit.”

“I’m going to open it as a tourist spot,” the husky said before taking a deep breath.

The door opened and Max walked in. “What going on?” he asked with a grin.

“Just giving Duffy a routine physical,” Tanis said as he let the stethoscope drop to his chest. He entered a few figures on a slateboard and then looked over his other instruments. “He’s not been off Fyn for so long that I’m surprised he was even allowed on Alexandrius without updated inoculations.” He glanced up into his friend’s pale blue eyes and asked, “Just how long has it been since yer last physical?”

Duffy shrugged his shoulders as Tanis consulted a chart on the husky’s physiology. “I dunno,” he replied. “Ten years, maybe.”

“Why so long?” Max asked casually. He noticed a spot of grease on his denim shirt, and licked his finger to try to rub it out. He needn’t have bothered, as it only smeared and grew in size.

Duffy smiled at the youth. “After I got out of the Nalirran service, I went hopping around the Planetary Alignment as a space jockey for an interstellar transport for people who needed to get from one planet to another cheap. I got tired of being on the go all the time, so I found a nice and quiet place on Fyn to relax and live off some investment returns that were doing well.” He winced when Tanis shined a bright penlight into his left eye. “Until I got the call from Shoji, I haven’t been offworld since.”

“Was there something you needed, Max?” Tanis asked absently as he prepared an instrument to take a tissue sample for routine DNA testing.

“Yeah,” Max suddenly remembered. “Pockets wanted to borrow some of your rubbing alcohol.”

The fennec didn’t look up as he calibrated the instrument in his hands. “Go ahead, but only one bottle this time,” he said. “I don’t know what he does with the stuff down in the engine room, but I need it up here where it belongs. I don’t want to run out again like our last voyage, when he used up all I had in my stores.”

“I’ll tell him,” Max said as he moved across the room to a supply closet.

“What’s the little squint using it for?” Duffy asked with a frown.

The canine youth grinned at him as he headed for the doorway with a bottle in his hand. “Fuel,” Max replied as he left the room.

Tanis glanced up at Duffy in surprise. “I’m not sure if I even want to know what it’s for,” he muttered.

The husky maintained a neutral expression as Tanis pricked his skin with a tiny needle. Just before the youth disappeared from sight, Duffy had seen a second bottle tucked covertly under the boy’s arm, out of view from the desert fox. He allowed himself a canine grin when Tanis turned the other way with his sample.    

*** 

Durant awoke with a start, realizing he had drifted off to sleep while reading printed periodicals he had picked up on Alexandrius. He had fallen asleep sitting up on the large bed in his quarters; all the cabin lights were still on. He’d spent several hours at his desk downstairs poring over the accounts and felt he needed a break, so he’d retired to his rooms with new magazines and a box of sweets.

There were nearly thirty of the publications scattered over the bed amidst the candy wrappers and he knew he must look like a slob. His eyes roved over the colorful cover of one publication and then gathered it together with the other magazines, stacking them neatly on a night stand. He tossed the empty wrappers into a waste bin beside the bed and brushed the crumbs from the Terran Southwest blanket that covered the mattress.

He quietly crossed the room to his closet, shedding his shirt and pants at the laundry basket. He needed a shower and quickly picked out clothing to put on afterward. As he peered into the closet, he heard a small double beep from the front room. He grinned from ear to ear and moved to the other room.

He sat down in the wide chair in front of his cabin computer terminal and smiled at a small animated figure of a dancing envelope prancing around the screen. He placed his finger on the monitor’s surface over the envelope, and immediately a message opened up for him.

 

Dear Leo,

The Hidalgo Sun is running smoothly today, a welcome change from yesterday’s excitement. Sheila’s a decent enough cook, but three people got sick from a casserole she’d made the day before; I had to pump one stomach and take care of the other two with medication and tender care. Littlefeather is still feeling the cramps from the pump and isn’t a very happy patient. I convinced the captain to let Mark rest up the few days before we get to Nalirra. He’ll need all his strength in time to unload our cargo. Patch and Riki are faring better. I dispensed medication that took care of their sicknesses, but everyone else seems to be wary of our cook today.

I’ve heard Rezo talking to Jonesy about our current assignment, and he’s nervous about the trip into a risky area. His plans are to deliver our cargo and get out of there as quickly as possible. He’s denied us shore leave and Riki and Pax are rather upset about it. Both have been pacing the central corridor in agitation.

Tsarina wants me to ask you send her love to Renny. She was disappointed that she didn’t have time to get together with him when we were all on Dennier together, even though he acted like he was interested. Tsarina is a big tease with the guys, but I think she’s more than just a little taken with your navigator and can’t wait until she can get him alone.

Anyway, enough about the others. How are you doing? The last letter I got from you mentioned that you’ve been feeling tired all of the time, no matter what you eat or how much rest you get. As your friend, this has me mildly concerned. As a doctor, this has me worried. Something like that doesn’t happen without a cause. It could be something as trivial as a vitamin deficiency or as serious as a disease. Please, get Tanis to give you a physical soon, darling. Whatever it is, you should get it taken care of as soon as possible. It’s best to treat it now before anything gets out of hand.

As for me, I’m doing fine. Nothing really of interest to tell you, except perhaps to let you know my Pop has finally remarried. It’s been nearly twenty years since we lost Mum, and it’s good to know he’s found someone again. My brother and his wife attended the small ceremony they had, and they say he looks ten years younger with his new bride. I wish them both well.

I miss you, Leo, and wish we weren’t on separate ships. If Tanis ever decides to leave the Blue Horizon and finish up his medical degree, please let Captain Sinclair know that I would transfer to your ship in a heartbeat. It’s not bad here on the Hidalgo Sun, but I’d rather be with you. You’re warm and snuggly and I miss your arms around me – and seeing your smile. I think I miss that most of all. I do wish Rezo would change his mind and let us stay a couple days after landing. From what I understand, we’ll be landing at the same warehouse where you’ll have unloaded your cargo. Hopefully, your ship will still be there by the time we arrive.

Well, my dear friend, I will close for now and send this on its way. I look forward to your letters and hope you do the same for mine.

With great love,

Carmen

 

Durant smiled at the message. “Yes, Carmen,” he said to the quiet room, “I do look forward to your letters very much.” He closed his eyes for a moment, leaning back in his seat. He had not told her about their secondary operation concerning the rainbow documents. He didn’t think anyone would be specifically monitoring his mail, but he didn’t want to take that chance with the ship so close to Nalirra. In a potential war-zone, security measures were going to be heightened and he didn’t want to chance giving away their mission with an intercepted message. He decided just to send her back a nice note to let her know how he had been doing since his last letter to her a week ago. He leaned forward to the terminal and began typing, his shower postponed.    

*** 

Clarence Duffy walked quietly around the central corridor of the crew deck, his hands behind him and his thoughts on the upcoming mission. He was now dressed in the tan uniform of the Nalirran military, which consisted of nothing more than loose-fitting shorts adorned with pockets the Blue Horizon’s engineer would love, and a simple vest also with multiple pockets, that was adorned with no more than a spot for his rank insignia. Locke would provide those before they made planetfall. It had been over a decade since he had worn one of the uniforms and he had forgotten how stiff and stifling the material and had been over his fur. He had suggested each member of the team wear them for several days to get used to the feel before they got to their destination. They needed to appear as if they were military personnel who wore them every day of their lives. Samantha had tried several fabric softeners, but the fibrous material refused to feel soft. Everyone, including himself, grumbled about having to wear them, but it was a necessity that Shoji had stressed to them.

When he had first come on board the Blue Horizon, Duffy had immediately felt out of place in this tight group. Tanis was the only one on board he had known and he had been spending most of his spare time on board with him, usually reminiscing about old times. The spare moments were few, however, as he wanted to get the team prepared for their task ahead. He had also had trouble keeping his eyes off of the two females who were going with them; the garments really accented their assets nicely. Neither of them seemed to mind, however, especially the vixen. Still, he had to keep his mind on their task. He couldn’t afford to be distracted once they were on Nalirra.

Basically, the details of the mission were simple. Shoji would meet them and take them into the records facility with falsified identification, and then they would be split up and assigned to separate document areas. As paper and crystal-recorded documents were not allowed off the grounds, they would have to destroy the hardcopy folders for Tanis and Duffy on location, a difficult task with the place fully staffed. Samantha’s expertise with computers would be needed to locate and delete the electronic backups.

Unfortunately for them, the locations they would have to infiltrate were at opposite ends of the building, some on different floors. The paper copy of the document could be in any one of the Rainbow Rooms. As a secondary course of action, if the document could not be eliminated, they were to alter the contents to show the person had perished somewhere. It had the potential of cutting off any military benefits they still enjoyed, but it would keep them from the war.

Security after hours was usually tight, even at a records facility, so the plan was to attempt the tasks during standard business hours. There were more people around, but he felt they would have better access to the material they needed and the bustle of activity would camouflage their acts.

Tired of walking in circles around the corridor, Duffy decided to see who was on bridge watch. If he remembered the schedule he had seen posted on the ship’s network, it should be Samantha; he wanted to talk to her a little more about her programming background.

He heard a soft humming sound behind him and the husky turned to look. Moss floated toward him, its primary green eye fixed upon him. It rotated a couple of its metallic whiskers as if it were thinking about something.

“Hello, Moss,” Duffy said with a grin.

“Meow!” the little flying saucer responded brightly. “Meooowrrr…” Then, without studying him further, it floated down the corridor to the nearest lift and activated the doors with a signal to the main computer system. Duffy idly watched it enter the lift and the panels close behind it.

He turned and headed toward the bridge.    

*** 

“Taro, things like this are hard for me to say, but I wanted you to know that you’re the first woman who’s ever completely captured my heart… you’ve fulfilled all my fantasies, all my dreams – and you’re the only one I’ve ever felt this comfortable around. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had and are the most wonderful, beautiful woman I’ve ever known.”

The red fox looked up into his feline eyes, with moisture in her own. She gave him a tender smile, and gently brushed the fur on his left cheek. For most of her adult life, Taro had enjoyed pleasure where she found it, thinking nothing of a serious relationship, but this one had gotten deeply into her heart and she knew that she loved him. She opened her mouth to speak, but he put a finger to her lips with a quiet Shhhhhh.

“My head tells me to run the other direction,” he said in a voice barely above a whisper, “but my heart is the one ruling me tonight.” He moved his hand under her chin, and cupped it for a moment as he swallowed, never taking his eyes off her own. Finally, he steeled himself and said to her in a voice that was much more stable than he felt inside, “Marry me?”

Tears welled up in Taro’s eyes. Somehow, she had known what he was going to ask her that night. He had been extra affectionate for days and their lovemaking had been different, more tender. She’d caught him looking at her more than usual, no matter what room or chamber of the ship they were in, and whenever he was near, he had made an effort to make sure he had touched her at least once. She had never known anyone who enjoyed tactile physical contact quite as much as he did.

Once again, she opened her mouth to speak, wondering to herself what reply would leave her lips. As a young girl, she had dreamed of getting married and settling down, but had later abandoned that fantasy when she could find no one with whom she would want to spend the rest of her life. Outside one another’s species, she’d never be able to have any children with him, she knew, but she didn’t care. She loved him.

The Blue Horizon suddenly jolted beneath them and they tumbled out of the bed together amidst the pillows and blankets. He looked up in alarm at the sound of a second explosion that rocked the ship. The lights flickered and they could feel the sudden cessation of the constant vibration in the deck plates caused by the engines.

“What the–?”

“All hands! All hands!” Samantha’s voice sounded over the ship’s intercom speakers, “We’re under attack! Pirates!”

Taro looked up in sudden fear when her lover scrambled to his feet and jumped into his trousers. He looked back down at her with a worried look and then bent down to kiss her quickly. The ship jolted once more and without another word, he grabbed a sword from a wall board; then he was out the door heading toward the bridge, his shirt and boots left behind.

The vixen sat stunned for a moment longer. Had she been about to say what she thought she’d been about to tell him? She climbed back up beside his bed, searching about the room for her scattered clothes. She felt as if she was moving in slow motion and time seemed to drag as she moved around his cabin. Pirates? she thought to herself. Now?

“The other ship just hard-docked with us!” Samantha’s voice exclaimed over the speakers. “We’re being boarded!”

Taro suddenly shook her head free of its whirling thoughts and dressed quickly. A moment later, she bolted out the door. Pockets was standing in the corridor looking frightened, wrapped solely in a towel and dripping wet from an interrupted shower.

“Lock yourself in your room!” she commanded, running for the lift. Taro waited impatiently for the panel to open, and then jumped inside when it did. As the elevator descended, she switched off the lights in the small chamber so she wouldn’t present herself as a target when she got out. When the doors parted, she peeked out into the dim cargo hold, hearing grunting voices and the sounds of a fierce struggle. There was a sudden yelp that cut off too abruptly, and the sounds of fighting ceased. Taro’s nerves felt as if they were suddenly on fire.

She eased herself out of the lift, skirting around the perimeter of the crates and containers of their cargo. She could still hear voices on the opposite side of the hold, but there didn’t seem to be any further fighting. The voices were hurried, but triumphant, and she recognized the sounds of plunder as the pirates began taking the contents of the Horizon’s cargo.

Taro slipped on something slick on the floor, and looked down at her feet. Her nose picked up the scent of blood even before she saw the growing puddle in the dim light of the hold. She put a hand to her mouth to stop herself from screaming when she saw the body from which the precious liquid freely flowed. The vixen sank to her knees, her throat constricting in horror as she stretched out a shaking hand. It was him, and the murderers had done the job with a slash across his throat. The feline’s unseeing eyes were rolled upward, focused toward infinity; blood spilled from his nose and mouth, as well as the wide opening in his neck.

Taro tried to close his wound with her hands even though she already knew he was dead, and for the first time in ages, she cried. The lift open again behind her, and a moment later she heard the captain gasp when he found them. The wolf’s eyes blazed in anger as he gripped his broadsword, and then he ran out after the pirates that were raiding his ship. Durant arrived a moment later, similarly armed, and found the vixen sobbing over Jiro’s body.

Taro felt a start and opened her eyes suddenly. She blinked several times, realizing she was sitting up in bed, panting in heaves. Through the moisture in her eyes, she looked down at her hands in the dim light of the room, but saw no bloodstains there. She felt slightly sick to her stomach in the hot room. It had been a long time since she had dreamed of that day Jiro had died at the hands of pirates – the same pirates that had later almost killed her as well. Perhaps it was anxiety of the upcoming mission that affected her dreams.

She closed her eyes and leaned against the wall beside her bed for a moment, willing her heartbeat to slow down. She got up after a bit and moved into the lavatory to wash her face in the sink. She dried her face fur with a soft pink towel, and then looked up at herself in the mirror for a moment, her nerves still raw. She cleared her throat, and felt the muscles still tight. Thirsty, she put a small paper cup under the faucet, but changed her mind. She wanted something stronger than water.

Taro rarely drank liquor, as it clouded her mind and she didn’t like to lose control of her thoughts – especially when she was in command of the ship – but she felt a tiny amount of Klovosk wine from Mainor would help calm her nerves and allow her to get back to sleep. She hung the towel neatly on a brass ring mounted to the wall, and then quietly moved through the rooms of her quarters to the corridor.

Moments later, she stepped out of the lift onto the recreation deck. All the lights were out except for the wall-sized vidscreen. Max danced in choreographed time with a pop music video, dressed in a pair of denim shorts and a white shirt with billowed, long sleeves. On the screen, a lop-eared bunny not much older than himself danced and gyrated around a brightly lit stage with a large team of other male and female dancers of mixed species. He’d not heard the lift door open, and he spun around with a flourish perfectly choreographed with the actions on the screen.

Max let out a yelp of surprise when he saw Taro’s amused expression as she leaned casually against the galley counter. She was dressed in an oversized pink tee shirt that hung to her knees and her familiar silver ornamental disk with its blue-tipped white feather was clipped to the fur behind her left ear. He scrambled for the remote and muted the sound when she started clapping.

“You’re a very good dancer, Max,” she said with a wide smile. “Are you planning to sign up for her entourage?”

Max coughed into his hand, and glanced up at the screen. “No,” he replied, embarrassed, “but I do like her music.”

Her quest for a drink forgotten, Taro laughed and looked back up at the video that continued to play out. “Max,” she said, “Pixly Dixly’s energetic, choreographed music videos can’t disguise the fact that she only has one hit with which she’s re-done, re-arranged, re-filmed and re-released a half dozen times to fans like you who don’t seem to notice…”

Max looked back up at the screen, the expression in his eyes clearly showing that she was correct. He hadn’t noticed Pixly’s career pattern before. He frowned, feeling embarrassed, and turned back to look at the vixen. “I, uh, well….”

Taro smiled and walked over to him. She put a hand on his shoulder and said, “I’m sorry, Max. I didn’t mean to tarnish your perception of someone you like.” Both of them looked back up at the screen yet again. In silence, they watched the lop dance around. Finally, Max shrugged his shoulders.

“That’s okay,” he told her with a canine grin. “I still like the song.”

Taro shook her head and gave him a tsk, but she did it with a smile. “You’re allowed to like who you want, Max,” she said at last. “I’m heading back to bed now, kiddo. You can go back to your dancing.”

Max watched her until she disappeared into the lift before he took the mute off the sound system. He thumbed the control, reset the video to play again from the start, and grinned up at the screen.    

*** 

Arktanis TeVann sat on a small swivel stool at a counter in Sickbay, quietly studying the results of Duffy’s physical. He stared at the computer terminal as it presented its data, and he chewed absently on a tongue depressor while he tapped in notes onto his slateboard. Everything seemed to be normal and Clarence Duffy appeared to be in good health. His cholesterol was lower than usual, but that was nothing that would hinder him in anything he did. There were no Fynian viruses or bacteria that the inoculations had not been able to take care of, and the medic didn’t see anything to concern him. Despite his high-profile living a decade earlier, the quiet life in the mountain air had apparently been good for Duffy.

The medical computer did find something of interest, however, and it had been flagged for his attention. Tanis was no expert with deoxyribonucleic acid, but a software routine had discovered mitochondria DNA markers in the pattern similar to another in the database. Tanis looked to see who it was - and raised his eyebrows when he read the name.

The desert fox put an elbow on the counter, resting his chin in his hand as his thoughts began to whirl. Was it possible? he thought to himself. He tapped out a few commands on the keypad with his free hand and then waited for the results. He got his answer a moment later and then sat up with crossed arms.

Tanis tossed his chewed tongue depressor into the refuse bin without looking. He licked his lips and then calmly rubbed his eyes. After a moment in thought, he saved the information into a password-protected file and then turned away from the terminal to begin pacing around the room.

He had mixed feelings over what he had found. Either it could be good news, or it could completely ruin someone’s day. He wrestled with his thoughts for a moment on what he should do, and then decided that something of this nature should be handled delicately by someone better suited.

His mind made up, Tanis turned back to the computer and opened up a new communication message. When he finished typing, he attached the file he had saved with all the information he had on Duffy’s DNA pattern and the data that had been brought to his attention, and then hit the Submit command to send it on its way.    

*** 

The Blue Horizon was six hours away from Nalirra. Renny had all the lights on the bridge down to a minimum as he concentrated on keeping the ship steady. Another vessel was alongside, positioning itself to line up with the Horizon’s main hatch.

“XK101 extending its tunnel,” Durant’s calm voice said from the bridge speakers.

“Aye to that,” he responded.

The other ship was metallic green, its fuselage long and slender. There were three engine pods clustered together on the aft end and there were atmospheric wings folded back out of the way along its sides. The computer had identified it as a Nalirran military transport identified only by its registration number. Renny had been uneasy when it had slipped in beside them with its weaponry calmly trained upon the freighter.

Down on the cargo deck, Durant monitored the controls of the main airlock. Taro waited beside him for the tunnel to lock onto their ship and pressurize. Tanis, Duffy and Samantha stood behind them, small duffels at their feet. Samantha consulted a slateboard she had with her and then nodded to herself when she got the response she wanted.

A few moments later, Durant opened the internal airlock hatch. Standing just inside was a black Labrador in a Nalirran desert uniform that matched those the team was wearing. He wore an insignia that Durant didn’t recognize.

The senior officer on board, Taro stepped forward and offered a hand to the canine. The Labrador gave her a crisp salute before extending a massive hand to shake hers with a smile.

“Welcome,” she said to him. “I’m Taro Nichols, presently in command of the Blue Horizon.

“Thank you, captain” the dark canine replied in a voice so deep it almost rumbled. “I am Kor-Chief Allano.” He glanced at her uniform and then said, “The moon is exceptionally bright tonight.”

Taro nodded, recognizing the code phrase. “It is indeed, Kor-Chief,” she replied, “but the craters are dark.”

“Kerchief is an odd first name,” Samantha whispered to Tanis.

The medic replied in an equally quiet voice, “Kor-Chief is his rank, Sam, not his name.”

“Oh.”

“Bar-Lieutenant Locke sent me to transport your team down to Mucot Airfield on Nalirra; he will rendezvous with you there,” Allano said to Taro. “Are you ready?” His large brown eyes glanced over at the others in uniform.

Taro turned to the grizzly at her side. “Durant,” she said, “you’re in command of the Horizon until I return. If Merlin calls and happens to ask about me, just tell him I’m indisposed.”

“Aye to that,” Durant said. “You all be very, very careful,” he said. “This whole thing makes me nervous.”

“We plan to, Durant,” the vixen said soberly. “Keep a candle lit for us.”

“I will.”

Taro turned toward Samantha, Tanis and Duffy. She nodded and everyone picked up their equipment bags, moving as one toward the hatch.

“After you, Kor-Chief,” the vixen said.

Allano glanced up at the feathered ornament in Taro’s fur with a raised eyebrow. “You’ll need to leave that behind,” he said. “It’s not a part of regulation uniform.”

“Ah yes,” Taro said with a smile. She reached up with one hand, unclipped it from her fur, and handed it to Durant without another word.

Durant watched the team file through the airlock until Samantha, the last in line, stopped and tiptoed up to give him a hug.

“We’ll be back soon, Durant,” she promised him.

“Take extra care, Sam,” he replied. “I don’t want to have to give the boss any bad news.”

“See you soon,” she replied and then floated out after the others. Durant closed both the inner and outer hatches after he watched the team disappear into the other vessel. The extension tunnel was depressurized from the other end and then it detached from the Horizon’s hull.

Moments later, the XK101 moved away and then quickly sped off into the darkness.    

*** 

Merlin laughed and grinned at the Border collie beside him. He was quite surprised to discover Alex Rogers in the mountain fortress when he had arrived. The new CEO for Holden Pharmaceutical was on Tanthe for a business conference concerning the company and while there, Alex had met Lady Ayana, representative for Royal Business Interests and cousin of Princess Tinara. There was an immediate attraction right off and they had spent a good deal of time together even after the conference had ended. Lady Ayana had invited Alex to accompany her to visit her aunt the Queen, and had been in the fortress at the time of Merlin’s arrival.

The lupine captain knew that Alex had maintained a lifelong crush on Samantha, but it was nice to see the handsome collie with a lady of his own. Merlin had always gotten along well with Alex, but there had always been an underlying tension due to the feelings they both shared for Samantha. Merlin didn’t get that sensation from Alex this time, no doubt because the collie had someone new to occupy his attention.

They had enjoyed supper together, laughing and relating past adventures, but then he had left them together in the dining hall to retire for the evening.

When Merlin opened the door to the high-ceiling room he had been given, his attention was immediately drawn to a flashing red light on the screen of his slateboard. He closed the thick wooden-plank door, unconsciously bolting it behind him. The room was lit by a single torch in an iron holder mounted into the stone block wall, and the wolf’s amber eyes reflected the flames as he approached the heavy wooden table next to his bed.

The Aris mountain fortress was equipped with modern conveniences, but to maintain the castle’s rustic medieval appearance, power and data lines were discreetly hidden behind draperies and wall boards. His room was equipped with hidden indirect lighting, but since the torch was already burning for him, he saw no need to change the illumination.

Merlin loosened the leather laces across the front of his tunic and pushed the billowing sleeves up his arms as he reached for the slateboard. He sat in a cushioned oak chair and then tapped out his passcode. At once, the screen came to life with three messages that awaited his attention. The first was from Taro. It was her routine report on the running of his ship. As there was usually nothing of importance in the reports, he tended to save those for last each night. The second message was from his sister as a follow-up to his visit, and the third one was from Tanis.

The wolf frowned when he saw “Eyes Only” written in as the subject of the last message. That was never a good sign. He glanced back toward the door to make sure he had locked it behind him and then keyed in their shared decryption code to unlock the message that Tanis had safeguarded. He had no reason to mistrust the Aris royalty – they had helped him on more than one occasion out of friendship – but he still valued his privacy on matters concerning his ship.

When the message opened, the first thing he saw was Duffy’s medical report. Merlin knew that Clarence Duffy was a friend of Tanis’ who lived on Fyn. The message was brief, although it didn’t explain why Duffy was on board the Blue Horizon, but Tanis had a theory that he wanted to bring to the captain’s attention.

Merlin read the message twice and then pored over the data. He was no medical expert, but he understood enough of what Tanis reported to know why it had been sent to him. There were no detailed descriptions or fanciful opinions in the message. Tanis had simply given him the results of what he had found.

He sat there for several long moments and mulled over what he had read. The odds of something like this ever coming to his attention were extremely slim, yet it had happened. Merlin shut down the message and then moved to the large bed that practically filled the room. He kicked off his soft-sided boots and then stretched out on his back. He stared into the flickering flames of the torch, letting his mind wander.

Now that he knew what he knew, there was a tough decision to make. What should he do about it?    

*** 

Lorelei had her hands up on the glass of the forward windows of the bridge, her nose pressed up between them as she strained to see the landscape below them. She was standing between the Navigation and Communication stations, her fluffy tail practically in Renny’s face as he calculated minute changes in their trajectory toward the Juxenlow Airfield. Normally this might have been enjoyable for the cheetah, but it was distracting while he was working. When she bumped into him for the third time, he reached up, grabbed her cottontail and pulled her backward into the Com station chair beside him.

“Down!” he growled at the rabbit.

Lorelei looked over at him with a hurt expression. “What was that for?” she whined, rubbing the base of her tail. “I just wanted to see!”

Without looking up at her, Renny leveled a hand toward the engineering station across the room, farthest from him. “Then go stand over there, Lori,” he said. “You keep bumping into me here and I can’t concentrate. The airfield’s long-range homing beacon is broken, so we can’t rely on the computer to get us there.”

The white doe got up without a word, looking back at Durant. The grizzly occupied the center seat, guiding the Blue Horizon down toward a semi-barren desert littered with high rocky mesas standing guard over a wide, dry riverbed that meandered between them. Without taking his hands from the controls, the bear motioned with the nod of his head toward the other seat, but gave her a friendly smile to ease her injured pride.

Lorelei moved across the room and took her place at the forward window again so she could see. The sky was completely devoid of clouds, though she could see a dust storm off in the far distance. The mesas below were wind-carved into massive, towering columns. The ground beneath them was rocky and sandy, with only the occasional oasis interrupting the landscape. They were still too high up for her to distinguish settlements, but she could imagine seeing people scurrying amongst the rocks below.

Durant followed the coordinates that Renny fed to his terminal, adjusting their trajectory to a lower altitude. Lori felt her stomach lurch with the drop and grinned as if she enjoyed a roller coaster ride. The ground jumped up toward them at an alarming rate, but Durant was in full control of the guidance shifts. It had been a while since he had handled a landing, as Merlin usually took care of that, but Durant enjoyed himself, knowing that Pockets and Max had the control systems in optimum order.

The Blue Horizon dropped ever further and then leveled out over the dry riverbed. The mesas whisked by in a blur; Durant felt the smile on his face grow as he banked around one that came up in front of them.

Renny looked back at him with a grin. “You’re enjoying this just a little too much,” he said.

Durant responded only with a smile of his own, keeping his attention on the instruments. “Is the artificial gravity still on?” he asked casually.

Lorelei glanced down at the station beside her. “Yeah, want me to turn it off?” she asked.

“No, leave it on for the moment,” Durant said with a twinkle in his eye, “but I do want you to turn the inertial dampers up to Full, please.”

The rabbit did as requested and then looked over at him. “Why did you have me do that?”

Durant only smiled, and Renny suddenly knew. He had flown through thunderclouds with Merlin at the control too many times and recognized that particular look. “Lori,” the navigator said, “You’d better sit down and buckle yourself in.” Then he got on the intercom, and relayed the same suggestion to Max and Pockets in Engineering.

“We’re already strapped in,” said Pockets’ voice from the bridge speaker.

Renny looked back at Durant and nodded. “Okay, big guy – have your fun!”

Without bothering to reply, Durant adjusted the guidance shifts, suddenly flipping the Blue Horizon up on its port side. The freighter zoomed in between two mesas that Renny quickly decided were too close together for his tastes. When they emerged on the other side, the ship spun around on its axis and then righted itself so that Durant could lower its altitude and increase their velocity. The ship was suddenly speeding toward a distant range of hills, barely high enough to miss the tops of the sporadic tropical trees below. A wave of sand billowed out behind them like the wake of a boat over water.

Suddenly there was a beeping from the Com station Renny glanced over to look at it. “Ah, it’s about time,” he said. He unbuckled his harness and moved to the other panel. He picked up the com headset and adjusted it around his ears. “We’ve come into range of the secondary beacon. Better rein it in, Durant.”

The load master nodded and altered course to gain altitude once more. When he was above the height of the oncoming hills, he lowered their speed and began watching for new local coordinates to come across his station monitor.

The Blue Horizon slowed over the low hills, but terrain still went by in a blur. Moments later, they left the hills behind and the topography below began to change. Green oases began to spring up in abundance and the horizon before them appeared lush.

Durant slowed the ship even more and finally Renny gave him a thumbs-up. “We just received permission from Juxenlow to approach and land at the airfield,” the cheetah reported. “Coordinates coming to you now.”

“Aye,” replied the grizzly. As he expected, Juxenlow was located near the lush area just ahead. Lorelei unbuckled her harness and moved back to the forward window. The Blue Horizon was low enough that the sparse vegetation below came and went at an incredible speed; the blur of the landscape began to change from mostly browns to a mixture with hues of green.

“There it is!” Lorelei said excitedly. She pointed to a small airfield at the edge of an area straddling the desert and forest. There were only a couple buildings with several miscellaneous craft parked around the largest structure; several of the smaller ships were dusty and looked as if they’d not moved in months. The landing strip for winged aircraft didn’t even have a real control tower. It was a small glass booth set into a top corner of the warehouse closest to the runway. Despite the forest a short distance away, the place looked desolate.

As Durant slowed the ship and extended the landing gear, Renny nodded quietly to himself as he received instructions over the Com headset. “Set us down on the west side of the warehouse,” he said over his shoulder, “between the red and white Okami and that light blue Prairie Dog freighter.”

The load master proved a moment later that he was a capable pilot despite his earlier wild flying. He set the Blue Horizon on the landing pad between the two freighters with only the barest of bumps. He and Renny began shutting down the systems when the Com system beeped. The navigator thumbed the control and said into the headset microphone, “This is the SS Blue Horizon.”

He listened for a moment and then said, “Just one.” He frowned suddenly and an angry expression crossed his features. “Now, wait just a—” Renny closed his mouth, and listened a moment more before finishing his conversation with “Aye, it’s understood.” He pulled the headset from his ears and tossed it irritably onto the console.

“What’s the matter?” Lorelei asked.

Renny snorted. “That was the control tower,” he explained with ears flattened against his head. “They wanted to know if we had any felines in our crew. I told them there was just one and they demanded that whoever it was to stay on board the ship!”

Durant looked at the navigator and shrugged his broad shoulders. “Do you blame them?” he asked. “The enemy they’re gearing up to fight is feline. That’s why you couldn’t join Duffy’s team, remember?”

“But, I’m not their enemy!” Renny said in a huff. “We’ve been cooped up in here for two weeks. I need fresh air!”

“Sorry, Renny,” Durant told him, “but you’ll have to stay on the ship. After the cargo has been unloaded, you can keep the bay doors open and set up a chair near the door if you want – but if you set foot onto Nalirran soil, you could be shot.”

The cheetah grumbled something beneath his breath and stormed off the bridge, leaving the others to complete the system shutdown. Durant shook his head and then touched the intercom control. “Pockets?” he asked.

“He’s already headed to the main hatch. You want me to call him back?”

“Not necessary. I just wanted to remind everyone not to mention Tanis and the others while we’re here.”

“Aye to that,” the youth replied. “Are the five of us going to unload this mountain of cargo, or are the Nalirrans going to do that for us?”

“I haven’t heard yet, but I’ll head out to the warehouse office in a moment to find out,” Durant answered. “It wouldn’t hurt to have your work gloves ready.”

“Okay, we will.”

Moments later, Durant stepped out onto the dusty ground and walked toward the buildings. The office beside the warehouse was unimpressive. It was a small box of a building with a roof of red tiles that had faded in the desert sun. The structure was made of dried clay and wood, and the windows were simply openings in the walls. There were hinged shutters to fasten against the occasional dust storm and thin curtains moved in a slight breeze, but otherwise the place was open-air. There was a small sign written in Standard beside the open door that read, “Juxenlow Airfield”.

As Durant approached the single step up to the door, a large buffalo wearing what looked like a thin Roman-style robe suddenly filled up the opening. “Hello there,” he said in a gravelly voice.

Durant gave him a nod and replied, “Hello back.” The buffalo gave him a friendly nod and allowed Durant to step past him into the building. Once inside, the grizzly had to let his eyes adjust to the relative darkness of the interior.

“What is it now, Mr. Corwin?” a voice asked irritably.

Durant cleared his throat. A harried young hyena seated behind a desk piled with hardcopy papers and cardboard folders glanced up at him. A half-buried nameplate on the desk identified him as Sal-Sgt. Veers. “You’re not Corwin,” he said flatly. “What do you want?”

“I’m Durant, load master of the Blue Horizon,” the grizzly replied. “We just landed.”

Blue Horizon?” the hyena repeated as he rifled through the worn pages of a ledger. “Oh yes, right. There are two other ships to be unloaded ahead of yours. Tell your crew to stay put and we will get to you as soon as we can. If you have any felines on board, they are not allowed outside of your ship.”

Veers went back to his paperwork, ignoring Durant further, so the bear turned and went back outside. The buffalo was still standing there, his thumbs hooked into the waistband of his robe, staring off across the tarmac.

“Little snot’s strung rather tight, wouldn’t you say?” the buffalo said with a smirk.

Durant nodded and managed a weak smile. “A bit, yes.”

The buffalo turned to him with an extended hand. “Name’s Abner Corwin,” he said. “I’m captain of the Sandburr over yonder.”

“I’m Durant, load master of the Blue Horizon,” the grizzly repeated what he had said earlier. He glanced over to the Sandburr with the notion that while the Prairie Dog-class of freighter had a lot of cargo space inside, its rectangular shape looked unwieldy for atmospheric flight.

“Where is your Cap’n, Mr. Durant? Still on his bridge?”

“Captain Sinclair is currently taking personal leave to visit family,” Durant replied. “I’m in command in his absence.”

The buffalo nodded. “Let’s hope you aren’t in any hurry,” Corwin said. “I’ve been here since yesterday and they still haven’t brought in anyone to unload my ship. They’re short-handed, y’know. I told him we usually unloaded our own ship, but Veers told me in no uncertain terms that it was not allowed here.”

“Are you next to be unloaded?” Durant asked.

“The Cherry Blossom is ahead of me, and then I’m next before you.” He rocked back and forth on his heels and added, “Captain Ros isn’t too happy right now. They won’t let anyone from her ship outside, and she’s been here longer than me and my bunch.”

“Why won’t they let them off the ship?”

“They’re all feline -- the whole lot of them is cats,” Corwin replied with the shake of his head. “The Nalirrans threatened to shoot anyone from that ship that sets foot on their dirt.”

“I have one on board they’ve forbidden to come outdoors,” Durant said. He shielded his eyes from the sunlight to watch movement inside the Horizon’s open bay. “If you’ve been here since yesterday, what is there to do while we’re waiting?”

Corwin looked at him and shrugged his shoulders. “There’s a café inside the warehouse where you can get coffee and a bite to eat, but otherwise there’s nothing here. The nearest civilization is ten miles to the east, but there’s no public transportation to get there. I haven’t even seen a military transport for the poor souls who work here. I don’t know what else to suggest, unless if some of your crew would like to get together with mine for cards or something.”

“We appreciate the offer, Captain Corwin,” Durant told him. “I’ll inform my crew.” He gave the buffalo a friendly nod and then walked back out to the Blue Horizon. With nothing to do off the ship, the rest of them were just about as limited as Renny.    

*** 

The XK101 touched down on an isolated airstrip seemingly in the middle of the desert, three hundred miles to the west of Juxenlow at almost the same time the Blue Horizon landed. From all appearances, Mucot Airfield had not been in use for some time. There was a single shack next to the end of the runway so sandblasted by desert winds that holes had been worn into the corrugated metal sides. Its roof had also been peeled back partway to reveal the rafters beneath at some time in the past.

There was a tan truck parked next to the shack waiting for the winged transport. A single individual stepped out when the ship taxied up to it. A fennec fox in a Nalirran military uniform walked toward the main hatch. Moments later, the airlock opened and a mechanical set of steps unfolded to touch the dusty ground. Tanis was the first to emerge from the ship into the hot, arid air. He twitched his left ear and looked down at the other desert fox waiting for them below.

He kept his face somber and effected a crisp salute when he stepped out onto the sand. The officer returned the salute and it was only then that Tanis grinned and extended a hand.

“Locke!” he said in a hushed voice. “I can’t say I’m glad to be here, but it’s good to see yer face again.”

Locke smiled and clasped hands with him. “Likewise,” he replied.

He glanced up toward the hatch when Taro stepped out into the sunlight. “Wow…” he said in open appreciation of the red fox’s curvaceous form. Taro grinned and made her way down the steps, followed by Duffy, Samantha and Kor-Chief Allano. The Labrador saluted Locke.

“Bar-Lieutenant,” he said.

Locke returned the salute, but gave the pilot a frown. “You’re a half-hour overdue from your reconnaissance, my friend,” he said. “You’d better get the XK101 back to your base before they send someone else out looking for you.”

“On my way, sir,” Allano replied. He hopped back up the steps as Locke led the others toward the truck. The steps retracted, the hatch closed automatically and the engines began to spin up. Locke led the new arrivals out away from the ship, but he waited until it taxied back down the strip before he turned to the team he had gathered.

“I am Bar-Lieutenant Shoji Locke,” he said to the two newcomers. “I’ve been tasked with gathering information for our government on past military personnel in order to draft them back into service preceding an action upon our neighboring world, Oe’Tanata.” He nodded toward Tanis and Duffy. “I’ve known these two for ages and I’d rather not see them have to go into combat since both of them have already served twice in our military, Nalirra’s service term limit. Each has already saved my life on separate occasions, so I’d like to return the favor.”

“Shoji,” Tanis said, “this is Taro Nichols and Samantha Holden. They’ll be helping us with Operation Rainbow. They have skills that will be an asset.”

“Hello,” Sam and Taro said in unison.

Locke nodded to the both of them with a cordial smile, “I recognize you both from your photos. Pleased to have you with us, ladies,” he said. “The facility where the documents are stored is staffed eighty percent by females, so you should fit right in. Your help is greatly appreciated.” He tilted his head and looked at Samantha once more. “How are you feeling?” he asked. “Are your injuries healed well enough for this?”

Sam rubbed her middle absently. “No worries. I can do this,” she said.  Locke took her words at face value, giving her a nod.

He glanced over at Duffy. “How are you, Clarence?” he asked.

“I’m a little rusty,” Duffy replied as he scratched an ear, “but anxious to get my name out of the running for this senseless action that Sed Amittias is planning. Good to see you again, Shoji.”

Locke reached into the truck, retrieving a packet of material. He handed this to Tanis. “These are falsified IDs, rank insignia for your uniforms, and transfer papers authorizing your entrance to the Personnel Facility,” he explained in a louder voice as the XK101 took off toward the horizon. “With this sudden increase in workload, numerous others have been transferred to our facility on a daily basis to help out. No one’s going to bother asking why you’re there and they won’t even notice a few extra bodies.”

Tanis pulled out several smaller envelopes from the larger one and distributed them to the team. “Taro,” he said as he handed one to her, “is now Sal-Sgt. Genera Ralaney, transferred over from Balan Command. Sam, yer new identity is Sal-Sgt. Jeska Anteola. Ya have come in from the computer facility at Yashe-Nor. Duffy will be Bar-Lieutenant Ridel Roscom from Fengail Station, an ex-pilot who’s been grounded by an injury.” He glanced at his own envelope and said, “I am Den-Medic Lylas Kykendol, and I’ve been demoted from Kor-Chief at Sardis for insubordination with a high-ranking officer.”

“You were insubordinate?” Samantha remarked with a smirk. “Imagine that.”

“If everyone will climb into the back of the truck, we’ll be on our way,” said Locke. “We still have a two-hour drive to the facility and there’s another stop to make before we report in. I suggest all of you try to get familiar with your new identities.”

“How did you get away from your job to come get us?” Samantha asked.

Locke opened the door to the truck. “I had orders to pick up more personnel. That’s the other stop I have to make – to pick up my legit transfers.”    

*** 

The truck had been rumbling along the dusty desert road for nearly an hour. Locke informed them it would be another half hour before they would pick up his other personnel. Taro rode up front with the short tan fox, casually chatting to while away the time; the others rode out the bumps in the canvas-covered back.

They’d discussed their mission until they were all tired of the subject and had fallen silent during the hot and dusty ride. Tanis stared dully out the open back of the truck, letting his eyes unfocus with the retreating terrain. Duffy had his eyes closed and Samantha was toying with a palm-sized slateboard programmed with all her familiar decryption software.

After a long while, Tanis rubbed his eyes and glanced back at the Siberian husky who seemed to be unaffected by the heat. He assumed the canine’s double coat of fur insulated him against the heat as well as cold temperatures. “Hey, Duff,” he said quietly.

The husky opened his ice blue eyes and looked over at him. “Yeah?” he replied.

“Have ya ever been to the pleasure houses on Quet?” Tanis asked casually.

Samantha looked up the medic, giving him an odd look for asking such a thing, but Duffy didn’t seem bothered by such a personal query. He answered the question without really seeming to think about it. “Yeah, but it was a long time ago,” he replied, “after I left Nalirra.” He stretched and arched his back. He glanced at his watch and saw there was still plenty of time to kill. He closed his eyes again and said, “I transported miners to Quet several times and usually stopped in to play while there. Not much else to do on that rotted planet, but I was paid well to ferry workers in so they could dig for micranite.”

“When was that?” Tanis asked carefully. Samantha gave him another dirty look. Perhaps this was what old military buddies talked about, but it didn’t seem the kind of topic Tanis would normally bring up; he was usually vocal about avoiding pleasure houses like a plague. He ignored Sam’s gazes, staring back out at the receding road behind them.

“I dunno…” Duffy replied lazily, “probably around eighteen years since I was there last. Why – you thinking of going and need a recommendation? The ones I went to probably aren’t there anymore.”

“I’m not making any plans to that place,” Tanis answered, “but I’ve heard things about the spaceport there. Just wondered.”

“Forget it,” Duffy said after a moment. “Unless you’re just desperate for attention, I wouldn’t bother with Quet’s pleasure houses. The best ones are on Mainor.”

Were on Mainor,” Tanis reminded him with a frown.

“Yeah… I suppose that moves Kantus up to the number one spot, then,” Duffy replied. “Not that there’s much chance of me ever getting back there again -- not for that reason, anyway.”

Tanis nodded and let the conversation die. Samantha watched Tanis closely and she could practically see the wheels turning something over in his mind. If she knew him as well as she thought she did, his question to Duffy had been anything but casual.    

*** 

Durant was against the idea, but Renny’s insistence had finally won out. Since they were informed that it would be another full day before the Blue Horizon could be unloaded, the navigator had no intention of just sitting on his hands. He had struck up a friendship across the com with Captain Victoria Ros of the Cherry Blossom wanting to visit with her and the rest of her feline crew. With the Nalirran restrictions, however, he was forbidden to leave his ship even just to get over to the other freighter.

After making a suggestion to Ros, it was decided to couple the two ships together with their extension tunnel so they could move between the two freighters without violating the Nalirran edict. Durant had been opposed to it, not so much for the logistics of aligning the ship hatches, but for the fact that the extendable tunnel was designed for zero-gee use only. Its bottom was not built to withstand weight in a planetary environment. When Pockets suggested that Renny could float across on Samantha’s anti-grav computer cushion, Durant finally relented.

The Blue Horizon had to lift off a few meters above the ground, and then rotate on its axis until its hatch lined up with the Cherry Blossom’s main airlock. The move caused quite a stir with Sal-Sgt. Veers, but by the time the hyena had managed to get someone to answer his rants over the Com channel, the deed had been completed and the Horizon was resting on the ground once more.

Renny could hardly wait to visit with Captain Ros; he was on his way to find the floating pillow as soon as he had powered down the flight systems.    

*** 

“Report in to your supervisors,” Locke told the new transfers after the truck had come to a halt outside the Personnel Facility. He pulled a notepad from his vest pocket and flipped it open. “Guidonay, report to Gun-Sergeant Wibberly on the third floor in section four. Masari, you and Jitloff report in to Raf-Captain Bokmun on the fourth floor in section three.”

“Yessir,” replied a young jackal who had been leering lustfully at Samantha for the past hour. The other two, a Cocker Spaniel and a golden retriever muttered their acknowledgement and trudged toward the building without looking back. It was clear neither were happy with this reassignment.

Locke moved closer to his team and lowered his voice after the others had gone. “Just a final word…” he said.  “As you can tell from those two, morale isn’t very high at this place, so when you meet someone in the halls, try not to look anyone directly in the eye. You might give yourself away if you seem too friendly or direct. Don’t seem too cowed if a superior officer confronts you, either. They don’t really expect much cooperation from the new personnel brought in, and they don’t really even care. The work is important to Nalirra, but I can tell you that nobody here gives a rip.”

The desert fox gestured toward a small metallic insect clinging beneath the lapel of his vest collar. “I’ll be monitoring Duffy’s miniature DataCom units if you get into any trouble. Try not to use them if you can keep from it. They have a short range that won’t extend far beyond the walls of this building, but I have no way of knowing if their signals can be monitored here.” He looked at each one of them and then asked, “Any last questions before we go in?”

No one said anything. They’d gone over their plans and rehearsed their parts so much in the last couple of weeks that they all knew what they were to do. Locke nodded, and then motioned for them to follow him to the main entrance to the place.

The Personnel Facility was a multi-level block building, the outside appearance nondescript against the surrounding scrub vegetation, tropical trees and sand dunes of the oasis. Samantha was beginning to wonder if all of Nalirra was this arid and dusty, even though Tanis had assured her that only a small part of this continent on the planet was desert region. The claycrete blocks of the building’s exterior were weather worn and crumbling in places, and the solar panels atop the roof were in poor shape. There were other outbuildings surrounding the structure in the small post and all looked as if they were in serious need of repair. Locke opened the front door gently; the rusted metal handle was loose and the hinges protested against the grit between them.

The team moved inside. It took them a moment to let their eyes adjust to the dimness inside while people hustled up and down the hallways, most laden with stacks of paper-filled folders. Taro blinked several times and noted that the interior was not getting much brighter as her eyes adjusted. Half the bulbs in the light panels above were off, and those that did burn illuminated the entrance hall only enough for them to see where they were going.

“No wonder morale’s down,” she whispered to Samantha. “I’d be depressed if I had to work in this dim light all the time, too.”

“We had a severe dust storm last week that sand-blasted the solar panels on the roof,” Locke explained. “Power is low and is limited only to important equipment. Of course, everyone feels there is a need to run their systems due to the increased workload, but things like coffee pots and water fountains aren’t currently allowed.”

Tanis moved up to Locke’s side to whisper something to him and Taro smiled to herself at the sight of the two fennec foxes walking side by side. Tanis was an inch shorter than Locke was, and his facial markings were a little different, but to someone who didn’t know Tanis as well as she and Samantha did, the two of them might have looked like brothers.

Locke led them across the small entrance hall to a cross corridor, and without a final word, Locke led Sam and Taro toward the right, while Tanis and Duffy turned to the left toward a nearby stairwell. Operation Rainbow had begun, and each of them would now have to rely upon their memorization of the building’s floor plan and their current identities.

At the stairwell, Tanis and Duffy separated. One file storeroom was on the first floor around the next corner, but a redundant file room was on the fourth floor at the opposite side of the building near the Infirmary. Duffy continued down the hallway. Tanis disappeared up the stairs.

Tanis fought the urge to take the steps two at a time, but someone was descending from the second floor with an armful of folders. An Irish setter glanced over at him above the top of her load, but she didn’t smile. She stumbled trying to find a step, almost falling headfirst, but Tanis stretched out an arm and caught her about the waist. Papers from the top three folders plunged off her stack and scattered below, but at least the young canine had not joined them.

“Th-thank you, sir,” she muttered to Tanis. “I might have…”

“Pick up yer papers,” the desert fox grumbled. He resisted the urge to give her hand, but he had to play his part, being inconsiderate to the lowly file clerk.

“Yessir,” she mumbled. Tanis left her to navigate the rest of the paper-strewn stairs with the armload of folders. When he reached the second floor landing, he proceeded through a door into a busy office and skirted between the cubicles as if he was familiar with where he were going. No one looked up at him. None asked his business. They were used to seeing new faces on practically an hourly basis, so he wasn’t even noticed.

He had to mount two more sets of stairs to get to the document center where he’d been assigned to work, and from memory he placed the next stairwell at the other end of his current room. Uniformed canine personnel sat at their desks poring through documents, new and old. Only a select few actually had working computer terminals to research those off-world who had separated from Nalirran service. The overall disarray of the entire undertaking encouraged Tanis. Operation Rainbow could actually work out as planned.    

*** 

Locke glanced over his shoulder past the women behind him, noting with relief that the long corridor they had just traversed was still empty but for the three of them. He led them around a corner into a darkened hallway toward a solitary red light at the opposite end. There was a closed door beneath the scarlet illumination and even in the dim light, they could see the panel was locked.

“I wasn’t able to get all of the security codes,” Locke admitted in a soft voice to Taro and Samantha. “I had hoped to figure out a way to get past this door into the computer room before you arrived, but I got sidetracked.”

Samantha nodded in understanding, reaching into a pants pocket to retrieve her small slateboard. She tapped in a few commands and then placed a sensor cap up to the electronic lock mechanism beside the door. Before the Blue Horizon had broken through into a time of prosperity, she and Pockets had often picked mechanical and electronic locks in order to filch material for the ship, so there were a number of tricks she could try. The Border collie worked with the lock for several moments before she bit her lip in frustration.

“The cipher code must be a locally-written program,” she whispered at last. “It doesn’t follow the patterns of what I’m experienced with. I’m not sure I can easily break it.”

“I can break it,” Taro said confidently. Samantha looked up at her in wonder. She hadn’t been aware that her friend was experienced in cipher-lock decryption, but she moved out of the way to let the vixen have access to the control panel.

Instead of working with the terminal, however, Taro stepped up to the doorframe, centering her fingertips near the edge closest to the panel. She took a deep breath, let it out quietly, and then dug her fingers into the thin metal door facing.

Taro had such control over her Hestran-born muscles that it was often easy to forget the strength she possessed. Samantha watched in awe as the metal slowly buckled beneath the vixen’s fingertips. When Taro had a solid grip into the door, she braced herself and then began to exert herself along the door facing. The metal gave out a long, low groan, and then a pop as the locking mechanism separated from its housing inside the wall. The door slid sideways into the opposite wall with only a light touch. She turned and looked at a grinning Samantha - and a frowning Locke.

“What’s the matter?” she asked him.

“A broken door will be reported,” he replied disapprovingly, “especially one forced that now has the indentions of your fingers permanently embedded in it. We could have found another way in.”

“Oops…”

Locke looked back down the dim corridor with a sigh. “This room is seldom visited,” he said after a quiet moment, “so we’ll have to hope it won’t be discovered until after we’re gone.” He turned on a single desk lamp just inside the door and motioned for the others to follow him. Once they were inside, he slid the damaged panel back into place. He moved past his partners, leading them through a number of cubicles with darkened computer terminals, past a row of large memory servers to the only desk with a functioning screen.

“Why isn’t this place in use?” Taro asked. Without responding, Locke took a seat at the desk and tapped in a few commands. A security message appeared instantly. He input a string of symbols and was rewarded with a double beep.

“Okay, we’re in,” the desert fox said. He glanced up at Taro. “There are access terminals to the database from the other offices in this building, so there’s no need to do anything directly at the computer center except for maintenance.”

“Then why did we break in here?” Samantha asked. “Couldn’t you have just placed me at a vacant desk with a terminal to do my work? Seems like it would have been easier, especially since you went to the trouble of making it appear I was a transfer to this place.”

Locke nodded and twitched his whiskers. “That was my original plan,” he said, “but with our low energy supply right now, all the available terminals that we can spare power for are currently in use. It would be suspicious to take someone else from their overworked job to have you jump in for an hour’s work.” He gestured toward the computer before him and added, “This terminal is on at all times, so there won’t be any power consumption problems by having you access the database from here.”

“I see,” the collie replied.

“Okay,” Locke said as he stood up. “You know what to do from here. I’m going to take your friend to her assignment now, but I’ll be by later to check in on you.”

“Yes, sir,” Samantha replied, taking the seat in front of the computer.

“We’ll shut what is left of the door behind us, so that it will appear to be closed in the dark hallway.”

Taro looked embarrassed, but said nothing. Samantha nodded to the fennec fox without another word and then turned to study the screen before her to determine which operating system it might be using. She nodded to herself and began typing in commands before Taro and Locke were back out into the red illumination of the corridor.    

*** 

Clarence Duffy stiffly saluted the young officer behind a desk piled high with papers, folders and data crystals. “Bar-Lieutenant Ridel Roscom, reporting for duty, sir,” he said.

The jackal saluted indifferently and then held out his hand without even looking up from a large spreadsheet. Duffy handed him his forged orders and waited patiently. “Roscom…” the officer muttered as he glanced over the documents.  “Ex-pilot… grounded from Fengail Station… injury… Right.” He handed the paper back to the husky and then motioned toward the door without looking up. “Out in the hall, turn left, four doors down to Rainbow Room Three. Val-Corporal Szabo will tell you what you’re to do. Now get out of my sight.”

“Yessir,” Duffy replied with another salute. The jackal returned the salute lazily and picked up another spreadsheet.

The Siberian husky left the room and headed down the semi-crowded hall, amazed at the lack of interest on everyone’s part that he met along the way. The hallway was painted in various shades of tan and yellow, illuminated somewhat by a single dim light panel in the ceiling halfway down the corridor. Duffy almost missed the door marked, “Rainbow Room Three.” He growled lowly at a Private blocking the door with an armload of folders and then pushed his way past him into the room.

Duffy quietly closed the door behind him and frowned at what he saw. The room was small, containing wall-to-wall bookcases filled with a rainbow-assortment of folders. Two large desks occupied the sparse area in between, facing one another and piled high with folders that were red, blue, yellow, green, purple, pink or black. Each color appeared to be coded for a different purpose; most were bulging with thick sheaves of paper documents and photos.

He heard a shuffling behind one of the stacks of folders. He peered around to see a lanky young hyena with thick round-rimmed glasses poring over the contents of a folder. Duffy cleared his throat and the man jumped.

“Are you Val-Corporal Szabo?” he asked.

The startled hyena nodded and saluted him casually, not bothering to wait for the reply. “What can I do for you, Bar-Lieutenant?” he asked in a slow drawl, “I’m busy and behind in my work.”

“I’ve been assigned to help you,” Duffy replied. “My name’s Roscom.”

Szabo looked up at him with possibly the first hint of a smile that he’d seen since entering the facility. “They sent a Bar-Lieutenant to help me? Well, sir, come right in and find a chair if you can. My name is Tage Szabo.”

Duffy shoved his orders into one of the pockets of his vest and then began to remove a tilting stack of folders from the only other chair in the room next to the second desk. There was no room on the desk for them, so he set them gingerly onto the floor, trying not to let the stack fall over.

“So, what’s the purpose in all this?” Duffy asked. “I’ve just been transferred here, something about helping out the Personnel Effort.”

Szabo smirked at him. “We have to scour through all these documents, looking for viable candidates of past service members to recall into action,” he replied. “The hardest part of all this is reading through everyone’s files to see what skills they had, and then track them down to see if they’re still alive to draft again.”

“What about those who’ve already served the two-term limit?”

“Doesn’t matter. They’re calling back everyone with skills they can get their claws into, even if they’re old and decrepit. The two-term limit was recently abolished by Sed Amittias, but I think General Duular tried to oppose him on it.”

Duffy picked up a blue folder from the top of the stack at his right elbow and opened it up before him. He felt a tingle travel up and down his spine when he recognized the name and photograph inside. “I knew this guy,” he said somberly.

Szabo stood up and peered over the folders to see which one the husky was looking into. “That’s Sean Rennin,” he said, “I did some research on him last week, but was unable to find his current whereabouts. I have that one set aside for another department to do deeper research.”

“Forget this one,” Duffy said as he handed the folder to his new partner. “He was a shyster lawyer with a wife and thirteen half-witted children. He was living on Mainor when the Kastani slammed it.”

“Is that right…?” Szabo mused as he flipped through the folder again. He reached into a box on the floor beside him and drew out an empty black folder. He transferred the contents of Rennin’s folder to it and then set it aside in a different stack. “That takes care of that one,” he muttered.

He pointed to the stack on Duffy’s left and said, “Those haven’t been researched yet, if you wanna start with them. If you find a viable candidate to bring back, transfer that person’s documents to a white folder and give it to me. Stephanie will come in periodically to take them to Processing, where they’ll use the information to send them a Draft Notice.” He explained the rest of the rainbow assortment of color-coding for several minutes. When he finished, he shrugged his shoulders and then returned to his own work.

Duffy glanced up at the folders surrounding him, feeling daunted by the task. Locke had said that there was only one copy of the original paper document that could be anywhere in this building, in addition to an electronic backup copy. Samantha should be able to find the backup by hacking into the computer system and doing an automated search, but how was he going to find his and Tanis’ documents in all this?    

*** 

“Rainbow Room Two,” Locke said to Taro when they neared a wooden door with a frosted glass window with a crack across one corner. Taro peered around his shoulder when he opened the door. It was a huge room filled with multicolored folders in bookcases and filing cabinets, and was staffed with twenty other individuals bustling back and forth through the narrow aisles between the desks and voices chatting in conversation. 

Locke motioned her in and shut the door behind them. Few workers paid them any attention as they skirted around stacks of folders, data crystals and large metal-bound books.

“Hah – more fresh meat for the dungeon and she doesn’t even look very smart. Perfect for this place…” muttered a sarcastic voice from a cubicle they passed. Taro stopped and looked at the Pomeranian who had spoken.

“Careful,” Taro growled at her. “I bite.”

“Hah!” the woman said haughtily. “You’re just another floozy who—urk!” Taro reached out quickly with one hand, snared the dog’s throat in a vise-like grip and locked eyes with her. The Pomeranian grabbed her wrist, but was unable to remove the hand from her neck. Locke watched in amusement, but made no move to stop anything.

The Pomeranian began to gasp for air, the pink areas of her face beginning to turn blue as she beat weakly against the fox’s hand. Before she had the chance to pass out, Taro released her and stood up to her full height. “You were saying?” she asked dryly.

The room was silent but for the raspy breathing of the Pomeranian who sat limply in her chair. Taro turned and surveyed the room; spectators immediately pretended to go back to their respective tasks. When she looked back down at her antagonist, the woman glared at her and gasped, “I have nothing more to say to you…” 

“How wise of you,” Taro said with a tight-lipped smile. “Remember that and we should get along fine.” She looked at Locke and nodded as if to say, Lead on…

The desert fox continued down the aisle. Conversations started up behind them in earnest whispers and chuckles as they moved around a corner. “She deserved that,” he said quietly. “Flores has been here the longest and she detests everyone. If you were really assigned to this place, your little act back there would have given you a lot of allies in the workforce.”

“There are idiots everywhere,” Taro muttered with a sigh.

A moment later, Locke stopped beside a cubicle at the back corner of the room that was full of green folders. “I’m going to start you off here,” he said, “and then I need to get back to my office. Any last questions?”

The vixen shook her head. They had already covered her task in detail. It was time to get to work and do what she was there to do. Locke nodded. “Good luck,” he said with a wink. “I don’t think the locals will give you too much trouble.”    

*** 

Tanis walked into Sickbay and pursed his lips. The Personnel Facility was so overwrought with its current workload that papers, rainbow folders and more boxes of the same had been stacked in the medical room. A small space on the countertop contained bandages, antiseptics and a few bottles of aspirin – not much more than the contents of the generalized First Aid kit he carried in a vest pocket. The rest of the cabinets, chairs and even the emergency gurney were all filled with personnel documents.

Two medics, a red fox and a beagle sat on the floor, their backs up against plastic boxes and slateboards in their laps as they pored through file folders. He cleared his throat and one of them looked up at him.

“Yeah? What do you want?” the red fox asked in annoyance.

“I’m Den-Medic Kykendol,” Tanis replied irritably. “I’ve been assigned to help ya yahoos.”

“Pull up some floor and grab a box,” the beagle said as he looked up. “I’m Den-Medic Doral and this is Den-Medic Liam. We got here yesterday.”

Tanis nodded and sat down beside the more-talkative Doral. “Tell me what which folder color means what and I’ll get started.”

The beagle picked up a handful of them from the floor in front of him. “Red means that the person who left the military went out on bad terms, but have the most-needed skills for a conflict,” Doral explained. “The government will want to know what the circumstances were when they left.”

“Okay, got it.”

“The blue folders are similar. These people also have the skills greatly needed for a battle situation, only these left the service with high commendations.  Yellow means they’re branded as cowards, but can still be usable. That probably means they’ll be among the first bodies sent to the front lines, y’know.”

“Ouch.”

“Green means they’re offworld, readily available, and are anxious to get back into the fight, but need transportation back to Nalirra. Orange means their whereabouts are currently unknown, but further investigation will be required to find them.”

“What about the purple one?”

“Undesirable. Do not recall under any circumstances.”

“Why?”

“Among other reasons, they’ll likely turn on their comrades at the first opportunity just because they’ve been given weapons and will have too much fun using them.”

“The black folder means they’re dead,” Liam muttered dryly. “I wish my C.O. were one of them for sending me to this pit.”

Tanis looked at the red fox and frowned. It only been a couple years since he had left the military himself, but he still remembered how miserable life in the Nalirran service could be. He sincerely hoped he and his teammates were successful in locating and purging his own rainbow folder. In the event it could not be destroyed, perhaps he could simply transfer the contents to a black folder to let the government think he had perished somewhere.    

*** 

Samantha sat back in her chair and heaved a great sigh of relief. Hacking into the system computers had been nervous work. Locke had gotten her into the main interface, but it had been up to her to get past certain barriers in order to find the information they needed.

The electronic backup versions of Tanis and Duffy’s rainbow documents had been well protected behind security measures, but unlike the door’s lock encryption, the main operating system of the Nalirran personnel database was a familiar one from Alexandrius that she had experience getting around. Once she had managed to get past the barriers, it was a matter of hunting down the documents she sought.

She located Tanis’ backup document almost right away; it had not yet been accessed by any of the system terminals. However, she lacked sufficient access rights to delete the file. No matter what she tried, the document could not be purged from the database. The information itself could be changed, so instead of simply marking him as deceased, she rewrote her friend’s background to reflect a different individual in the altered document with no connection to Arktanis TeVann at all. With a satisfied smirk, she replaced the fennec fox’s photograph with “image not available,” reset the name to Armando Jensen with “last known location” marked as “interstellar freighter captain, Savannah Hunter, PA1012.”

She had more trouble locating Clarence Duffy’s electronic document. It had been accessed earlier that same day, but had not yet been flagged for processing. It had most likely been cross-referenced with someone else’s folder, so it would be tricky to alter it as she had with Tanis’ document. She had to trace where it had been accessed from and make alterations to that document as well. In all, it had taken her a little over two hours to make her edits and then back out of the system quietly as so not to leave traces of her own trespasses.

Samantha left the system terminal just as they had found it, retracing her steps back out into the dim corridor. She slid the door panel that Taro had damaged back into place, wiped it down to remove fingerprints with a handkerchief from a pocket, and then hummed quietly to herself as she made her way back to the main hall. When she got to the junction, she remembered that she should have contacted Locke about her success before leaving the computer room, but he had not yet checked back on her. From her memory of the VR practicing they had all done with the building’s floor plans, she thought she could make her way to Locke’s office.

“Hey! What are you doing here?” a voice called out. Samantha turned to see an angry hyena approaching her. His hunched shoulders were so broad that the two buttons on the front of his ill-fitting vest threatened to pop off at any moment. He stopped, stood nose to nose with her and stared at her with bloodshot eyes. “Well?” he growled.

“I, uh, was looking for the latrine, sir,” she said quickly.

“It’s back that way!” the man said in a gravelly voice, pointing up the hallway. “You should know that.”

“I, uh, was just transferred in this morning, sir,” she said with a gulp, trying not to flinch from his severe halitosis. “I didn’t know where…”

The hyena grabbed her wrist and pulled her with him as he stormed into the direction he had just come from. Samantha could do nothing more than go along with him, wondering if he knew he had caught an intruder. She knew her Silloni and Kastan fighting techniques could likely subdue this guy, but that would call down more attention than was safe at this point.

The man stopped in front of the women’s latrine and pushed her toward the door. “Get in there and do your business!” he commanded. “When you’re done, we’re marching straight to my office.”

“Sir?”

“Get in there!” he bellowed.

Samantha jumped through the doorway into the latrine, her nerves shaken. She looked around a dingy and dirty room that contained two stalls but no other door out. It didn’t look as if the place had been cleaned in a long time and one of the stalls was out of order. Paper towels, neglected combs, and other remnants of makeup kits littered the single counter and the floors. A single dim light illuminated the room. She didn’t know what the hyena was going to do to her in his office, but if she had to incapacitate him and escape, she prepared herself for that possibility. She took several deep breaths and discovered she did need the facilities after that encounter, but was reluctant to do so in that filthy place. However, the need was stronger than her pride. A moment later, she readied herself and stepped out into the corridor where the hyena waited for her.

“Done?” he growled.

“Done, sir,” she replied without looking him in the eye.

“Okay,” he said in a calmer voice. He led her up the hall, this time without touching her. “Like you, I’m new to this place and I’m having a little trouble with the terminal in my office,” he explained in an almost-civil tone. “I need you to transcribe some documents into the central computer for me.”

He stopped at the open door to a tiny office and pointed toward the only desk in the room. A barely readable nameplate next to the computer monitor identified him as Bar-Lieutenant Grun Tola. “Here’s my workstation,” he said. “Give me your name and I’ll make sure your supervisor is informed that I’ve borrowed you for another assignment.”

Samantha sat down in the desk chair under a single dim light and replied, “I’m Sal-Sgt. Anteola,” as she offered him her fabricated identification. He waved it away without giving it a glance.

“Who’s your supervisor?”

“Bar-Lieutenant Locke, sir.”

The hyena nodded and pointed to a stack of green folders on the left side of the desk. It was teetering, on the verge of falling over onto Samantha’s lap. “See if you can figure out how to get the information from those folders into the system.”

“Yessir,” Samantha replied.

The Bar-Lieutenant nodded and moved to stand behind her. He wanted to watch her work. She was relieved to know she had not been discovered, but with this guy hovering over her, she would have no opportunity to report in to Locke to let him know where she was and what she was doing.

“Sir,” she said hesitantly, “my supervisor?”

“I’ll call him when I’ve seen that you can be a help to me,” he growled in her ear.

“Yessir.” Samantha sighed inwardly and gave her attention to the screen. If she could perform this task quickly, perhaps she could be on her way.    

*** 

Captain Victoria Ros handed a glass of beer to the cheetah before her, sinking down onto the velvet cushion beside him on the couch. Renny took the drink with a smile and sipped it. He tried hard not to grimace at the flavor of the cheap beer, but swallowed it quickly.

The black and white female cat leaned closer to him, resting her chin on his shoulder. “If you ever decide to leave the Blue Horizon, you’d be welcome on my crew,” she said with a purr. “My folks seem to like you well enough, and I think I’m starting to adore you, myself.”

Renny looked away from her green eyes and glanced around the recreation deck at her other crewmembers that were scattered about the room. The Cherry Blossom was the same model of Okami freighter as his own ship, though it had been decorated with a more plush design. Merlin had never been much of an interior decorator of his ships, but this vessel was pleasantly cozy. He glanced back down at his glass and considered the irony of serving him a cheap drink in the midst of extravagance.

He looked back at the captain and gave her a warm smile. “Your ship has a nice feel to it,” he admitted to her, “and everyone’s tried to make me feel quite at home – especially the ladies.”

Victoria laughed. “This is the first time I’ve had you to myself all day. I’m pleased you like it here.”

“Everyone seems friendly enough,” Renny remarked. “The guys want me to join them later in a chips game. I’m surprised none of them seem too bothered by the attention their ladies have given me.”

Victoria grinned and snickered. “Don’t be surprised,” she said in a sly voice. “I’m sure they welcome the distraction.”

Renny looked at her; he suddenly felt a common bond with the other guys of her vessel. The women had hardly left him alone since he had boarded their ship. He couldn’t remember a time when he had been in so much demand.

Victoria ran the fingers of one hand across the black fabric of Renny’s shirt and then toyed with the top button. “Care to see the inside of my cabin, dear?” she asked. “I have a special present I’d like to give you.” Renny swallowed as she gave his neck a gentle lick and felt the warmth of her body up against him.    

*** 

Duffy heaved a heavy sigh and sat back in his chair. He had been hunched over folders for hours and his lower back was aching. The light was not good in the room and he rubbed his tired eyes. He looked over at Szabo. The glazed look in his coworker’s eyes must have matched his own. It didn’t take much imagination to wonder why morale was so low in this place.

A young Irish setter named Stephanie had been by their office to collect completed white folders twice since he had been there; other than her, Duffy had seen no one else.

“When do we get to take a break?” he asked as he rubbed the soreness in his back.

Szabo snorted and looked up at him. “When you go home at 1900 hours,” he said.

“What about meals?”

“Nobody told you to bring your own?” Szabo asked him with the shake of his head. “You can eat at your desk while you work, but you have to bring your own food. The cafeteria was converted to more records space, so they don’t have the facilities to feed us. It’s also cheaper for them if they don’t have to supply meals.”

“Wonderful…” Duffy muttered. “I can’t wait to get out of here.”

“Keep dreaming, Roscom.” The lanky young hyena took off his thick, round-rimmed glasses and dropped them lightly on top of a folder. “Once you’ve been assigned here, you don’t go anywhere else. This is the armpit of the Nalirran Military... a dead end for your career.” Szabo stretched his arms and looked up at the only picture in the room that was tacked up on the backside of the door. It was a faded and torn poster, promoting the glories and benefits of life in military service. A male hyena, a female desert fox and a broad-shouldered male bulldog were snappily dressed in their uniforms, armed to the teeth and beating down silhouetted feline opponents. “I’d give anything to get out of this pit and join some real action,” Szabo said wistfully.

Duffy frowned. He’d had his own share of fighting as a combat pilot, and while it wasn’t as boring as work in a personnel facility, there was no real glamour in killing others. He was trained well enough that he would kill if he had to, but actively seeking to get into a fight was no longer a dream of his own.

“Have you ever killed anyone, Szabo?” he asked his coworker.

The younger man shook his head. “No, but that doesn’t make me a wimp,” he said defensively. “I want to fight for Nalirra!”

The Siberian husky shrugged his shoulders. “Well,” he said quietly, “maybe you’ll get your chance when this thing gets started.”

Szabo’s shoulders drooped. “No,” he said, “no chance for me.” He picked up his glasses and put them on. The thick lenses made his eyes look twice their normal size. “With eyes like mine, I’ll be stuck in this place pushing paper for the rest of my military career.”

When Duffy didn’t have a reply to his words, the young hyena shrugged his shoulders and looked back down at the folder he had been reading earlier. “Better get back to work,” he muttered.

“Yeah,” Duffy said slowly.   

*** 

“Captain Ros?”

“Yes, Benson, what is it?” Victoria replied to the intercom channel in a dreamy voice. She lay next to Renny with her eyes half open, a silk sheet covering them both. The cheetah was sound asleep at her side, lying on his stomach, his face buried in a pink pillow.

“Juxenlow has just informed us that a team has arrived to unload our cargo,” said the voice from the small speaker set in the ceiling of the darkened room.

“That’s good news, Ben. Will they let us out of the ship to get some fresh air now?”

“We’re still forbidden to touch their soil, Captain. There’s a military guard standing by with orders to shoot any of us who disobey. Any fresh air will have to come to us through the open bay door.”

“I didn’t expect any different,” Victoria admitted. “Okay, I want you, Chang and Tremus down in the cargo bay to supervise the unloading. Don’t stray beyond the bay doors or I’ll have to inform your sweethearts on Fyn that you’ve been skinned and hung out to dry.”

“Aye, Cap’n,” her first officer replied. “Unloading should start right away.”     

*** 

“Hey Roscom!” the bespectacled hyena said to Duffy with a mischievous grin. He held up a blue folder. “This guy looks like you! Can you believe his luck – he’s going to be one of the first guys going to the action!” He held up a black and white photograph of a younger Siberian husky.

Duffy felt his hackles rise. “What’s the lucky fellow’s name?” he asked hoarsely.

Szabo glanced at the label on the folder. “Clarence Daniel Duffy,” he replied. “Clarence! His parents must have hated him to saddle him with a name like that! Sounds like a complete loser.”

Duffy felt the blood drain from his face. Szabo was not looking at him or he might have gotten suspicious, but instead he studied the document. “This guy’s living in the backwoods on Fyn, but he’s about to see some action in spatial combat,” the hyena said casually. “I envy him and his chance to kill Tanatans right off the cuff, but even after this war gets started, I’m going to be stuck right here, pushing more paper. Why can’t we have the electronic, paperless society that other worlds are using?”

Duffy felt as if the time had slowed to a crawl as he watched Szabo pick up a white folder, transfer the contents of his own personnel file into it, and set the empty blue folder aside. He watched mutely as the hyena picked up his pen and began to fill out the form to process the information as someone else to draft back into the military. After several long minutes, Szabo finished the form, dropped it into the folder, and then set the document file aside on top of the stack of others he had already worked on.

Duffy could now feel the blood pounding in his temples, his heartbeat racing as his coworker picked up another folder to look through. He knew he would have to wait a few more minutes before he could attempt to take his file from the top of the stack or Szabo might suspect something.

He swallowed quietly and looked down at the folder on the desk in front of him. The information he had been looking at qualified for its own white folder, so he decided to take a chance. He would fill out the form on this person and then put it on top of the stack as Szabo had done, but would try to slide his own folder out from under it covertly. To destroy it, he might have to claim a necessary trip to the bathroom and flush the contents before returning to continue his search for Tanis’ folder.

Duffy picked up his pen and grabbed a blank form. While he slowly filled out the information, the door to the room opened. Stephanie walked in and grabbed the stack of white folders from the edge of the desk. Duffy looked up in alarm, but had to bite his tongue to keep from barking at her to stop. The young Irish setter left with her armload without a word to either of them, and Duffy suddenly stood up to follow her.

“Where are you going?” Szabo asked as he looked up at him.

“Latrine,” Duffy answered with a forced grimace. “I’ll be right back.”

“Right.”

The Siberian husky shut the door behind him and he glanced up the hallway toward the girl. He trotted after her and lunged forward when he got right behind her. He bumped the box out of her hands as if he had tripped, scattering white folders across the floor. The canine cried out in alarm, but he kept his eyes on the one that had been on top, knowing that he had to grab it at all costs.

“Sorry about that, Stef,” he said in an embarrassed voice.

“Thanks, really great,” the girl grumbled with a frown. She’d already gotten into trouble three times that day, and she would probably get a lashing if her supervisor saw the mess at her feet. She knelt down to pick up her folders. Duffy bent down to help her. Other people moving through the hallway stepped around them without a second glance.

A door opened in the hallway nearby and a high-ranking jackal stepped out of a noisy office. He saw the scattered folders and the two individuals picking them up. The officer stormed over to them, placed his right boot on top of a folder and crossed his arms across his narrow chest.

Stephanie! What’s going on here?” he asked in a huff.

“Oh, crap,” the girl said beneath her breath; it was her supervisor. “J-just a little accident, sir,’ she said in a louder voice. “We’ll have these picked up and on your desk promptly, sir.”

“Girl, you are not going home tonight!” the officer barked in a voice louder than necessary. “You’ve been in enough trouble today that you may not go home for a bloody week! I’m going to give you so much work to do that if you ever decide to cause me any more trouble, you’ll be cleaning the crapped-in toilets in this building with your own personal toothbrush!”

The jackal went on ranting at the shaking girl and Duffy felt guilty for getting her into trouble. She was nearly in tears as her superior officer detailed his views on her parentage and his opinion of her family genetics. Duffy looked for his folder, and saw that it was beneath the officer’s boot. He continued to pick up folders until the man suddenly stopped his tirade, looking at him coldly.

“Get back to your assignment, soldier…” the jackal said between clenched teeth.

“Yessir!” Duffy stood up, saluted with a jerk, and then retreated back down the hallway to the stuffy room where he had spent the last few hours. He stopped at the door and noted that the officer was verbally abusing the young Irish setter again while she scrambled to pick up the rest of the folders.

Finally, the man lifted his boot and let the girl have the last of the folders. She picked up the dusty folder and followed her supervisor into his office, her tail tucked firmly between her legs. The door slammed behind them and Duffy was left in a corridor that was suddenly as quiet as a tomb without the officer’s bellows, despite all the people moving by with their armloads.

He walked around several people toting boxes, moving to the door where his folder had disappeared. He opened it a crack and peered inside. He saw the officer sit down at a desk in a corner and watched Stephanie set the folders down in front of him. The jackal waved her away and picked up the first folder on top of the stack. Duffy noted with a sinking feeling that there was a distinct boot print across the white surface of the folder in the officer’s hand.

The Siberian husky closed the door and leaned against the doorframe with his eyes closed. There was nothing more he could do here. He had failed to keep his folder from going into processing. He knew with cold realization that he would be drafted back into the Nalirran military.    

*** 

Lorelei stood outside the cargo bay, shielding her eyes against the sun as she searched the sky for a reddish-orange freighter. Ninety minutes earlier, the Hidalgo Sun had called in to say they had reached standard orbit over Nalirra and had received clearance to land as soon as they were in optimum position. They were now on their way down into the atmosphere and Lori was excited about seeing their sister ship again. Ever since Merlin bought the second Okami freighter and welcomed Rezo’s crew into the company, Lorelei had become close friends with several of them. She was especially fond of the first officer, Jonesy.

The white rabbit was dressed in a yellow halter top and a tan pair of extremely small shorts, distracting the workers unloading the Cherry Blossom with the way her fluffy tail spilled out over the top of her waistband. She let out a small cry of joy when she saw a sparkle of light approaching the airfield. She began hopping up and down, her cottontail bouncing with the action.

Inside the Blue Horizon, Durant was at the Com station on the bridge with the headset across his ears as he spoke into the tiny condenser boom microphone. He rubbed his palms on the powder blue shirt he wore as he sat nervously awaiting the other vessel. He was just as excited for the opportunity to see Carmen again as Lorelei was of seeing Jonesy.

“Yes, that’s right,” he said. “They aren’t letting felines off the ships, so you’ll have to keep Tsarina and Jonesy on board while you’re here, Captain. We’ve had to confine Renny inside the ships, although there’s really not much to do outside the Horizon anyway.”

He listened to the red panda’s reports a moment more and then explained how the Blue Horizon and the Cherry Blossom had been coupled together. They exchanged a few more words and then had to close the conversation so Rezo’s pilot could concentrate on landing procedures.

Durant sat back in his chair with a frown. He tapped out the calling code on the Com terminal and then waited for a reply.

“This is the Cherry Blossom,” said a female voice over the speakers. “What can I do for you?”

“This is the Blue Horizon, Missy. I need to speak to Renny.”

“I think he and the captain are still—”

“Please,” he interrupted, “this is important.”

“Alright, but I don’t think he’ll be happy.” The circuit went quiet for a few moments and Durant fidgeted, wondering exactly what he was interrupting.

“Durant!”

“Renny, sorry to bother you, but…”

“That’s okay, I needed the break. Whatcha need?” The cheetah sounded as if he were in a better mood.

“I need you back over here pronto so we can uncouple the ships. The Hidalgo Sun will be landing shortly and I want to set up our two ships in the same way.”

“The Hidalgo Sun? Yeesh, I don’t think I could handle Tsarina right now…” the cheetah’s voice groaned quietly over the Com speakers.

“Renny,” Durant said in an authoritative tone, “that was an order.”

“Aye, captain, sir,” Renny said with a laugh. “I was not complaining – just let me say my good-byes and I’ll be floating over.”

“Thank you. Make it quick.”

“Right.”

Durant shook his head and then keyed in another call code.

“You’ve got the Sandburr, friend. What can we do for ya?”

 ”This is the Blue Horizon, sir. I need to speak to my two crewmen who are currently on board your ship.”

“Going to call them back to duty?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

“Wonderful!” the other voice said. “I can’t prove it, but I think that raccoon of yours cheats at cards…He’s taken most of us for what little credits we had!”

            Durant smiled. “Well, if you’ll just send them back to me, you can tell them we have company coming.”

“Okie dokie, Horizon. I’ll first have to find out which of our gals has the younger guy in her quarters, but I’ll get ‘em back to you pronto.”

“Thank you. I would appreciate it.” As Durant closed the connection, he took the headset off and laid it on the console with a twitch of an ear. Max with a woman? He thought he remembered something about the German shepherd having been neutered at a young age. Visions of Max spending time in a woman’s cabin didn’t seem right somehow, even if he had grown up working in a pleasure house.    

*** 

Bar-Lieutenant Tola stood up. Samantha could hear his joints creak as he let out a large belch. She blinked rapidly from the resulting odor, trying to keep her mind on her task. Transcribing the information was menial work that didn’t require her level of expertise to do – it was likely this guy just wanted her to do the work for him.

“Keep working, Jeska,” he told her. “I’m going outside for a smoke.”

“Yessir,” she replied mechanically.

She slowly counted down a minute before she heaved a sigh of relief. She reached up behind her lapel, depressing a tiny button on the bug-like transceiver Duffy had designed.

“This is Locke,” a whispered voice sounded near her ear.

“Samantha reporting in, sir,” she said.

“Go ahead.”

“Mission accomplished with the electronic records for Tanis and Duffy,” she told him, “but an officer saw me in the hallway and commandeered me to do his computer work for him. I’ve been in here nearly two hours, but this is the first chance I’ve had to contact you.”

“I understand. Which office are you in?”

“Bar-Lieutenant Grun Tola is the name on the desk-plate.”

“That figures. Okay, I’ll get you out of that lazy bum’s area. Just play it cool until he tells you that I’ve jumped down his throat for taking one of my employees. Did he say where he was going?”

“Outside for a smoke. He’s been gone about three minutes.”

“Understood.”

Samantha kept an ear out for footsteps. “Any luck on the others?”

“Partially. Your vixen friend found and destroyed Tanis’ physical document, but Duffy had the misfortune to see his own folder walked straight into Processing. He was unable to retrieve it in time.”

“That’s bad news. Anything we can do about it?”

“I’m afraid not. We’ve all been waiting for word on your task, so now that you’ve reported in your success, I’ll need to recall the others and get the four of you out of here before you’re caught.”

“Yes sir,” Samantha said soberly. “This means that Duffy will be going to war.”

“Very likely. If Sed Amittias has his way, a first strike against the Tanatans will probably begin just as soon as we can recall all these people we’ve been researching here.”

“I hear Tola’s footsteps. Signing off.” Samantha clicked the tiny button and then looked up at the door just as it opened. The hyena smelled strongly of pungent cigar smoke, but seemed calmer.

“How’s it coming?” he asked.

“Only two boxes of folders to go,” Samantha replied.

“You can handle it, girl.”

There was a sudden buzzing from beneath the desk. The hyena reached down between Samantha’s legs, brushing up against her crotch with a lustful grin as he retrieved the Com receiver. Sam suppressed the urge to break off his fingers one at a time and force them down his throat. It was difficult to remember the role she had to play.

“This is Bar-Lieutenant Tola,” he said importantly. He listened for a moment with a frown. “Yeah, she’s here at my desk. Now, listen, I need her to—” He grumbled under his breath, and then nodded to the receiver. “Yessir, right away.”

Samantha scooted back away from the desk to allow him to hang up the Com, mindful not to let him near enough to touch her as he did before. Tola made no effort for a repeat, however. He frowned and gestured with his thumb toward the door over his shoulder.

“That was Locke,” he said with a grumble. “He wants you back, so go on. I think I’ve watched you enough to figure out how to do the rest myself.”

It’s my chest you’ve been watching, not the computer… Sam thought to herself.

She quickly left the room after giving him a sharp salute, and as soon as she was out of earshot of his office, she activated the bug again. “I’m on my way to your office now,” she reported quietly.

“Meet us at the front entrance. I’m giving the recall now.”

“Yessir.”

Samantha sighed and rubbed her eyes before retracing her steps to the front of the building. It had been a long day. She would be glad to be back on board the Blue Horizon with plans to take hot immersion bath to soak her fur.    

*** 

“Max, may I talk to you for a moment?” Durant asked the young mechanic as he and Pockets walked in through the open cargo bay doors.

“Sure,” the canine replied with a smile. Durant led him into his small office at the back of the hold and closed the door behind them. The cool air of the office was refreshing after walking across the arid tarmac from the Sandburr.

“What’s up?” Max asked after taking a seat on a stool in the corner. He put his feet up on the stool’s rungs and crossed his arms behind his head. Half of the buttons on his shirt were unfastened and Durant frowned at them.

“I heard you’ve been spending time in a woman’s cabin on board the Sandburr,” he said in a fatherly tone. “Is this true?”

“Yeah, Jeanette has Pixly Dixly’s new video and I asked if I could see it,” Max explained with a shrug. “Is there a problem?”

Durant suddenly felt foolish at suspecting the boy of having relations with a female. “No, no problem,” he said with a smile. “Merlin would have my hide if you got into trouble while he was away. I was just checking up on your activities.”

Max grinned and then narrowed his eyes. “Ah, I know what you were thinking,” he said in a sly voice. “Sorry to disappoint you!”

Durant chuckled. Max could see right through him. “Well, yeah,” he admitted, “You’re an adult now, and some ladies might –”

“Uncle Merlin’s already given me the sex talk, Durant,” Max said with a laugh. “I became legal when I turned seventeen, so he wanted to enlighten me on what goes on out in the universe.” He shrugged his shoulders again and tilted his head to the side. “Not,” he said, “that I could go very far with my altered equipment, I’m sure you know.”

“Yes, I know... but at the same time, there are plenty of other things that a young fellow can get himself involved in, and a number of problems that can arise from them. I suppose getting a girl in trouble isn’t in the cards, but she might get you in trouble if you aren’t too careful.”

“Well,” Max countered, looking completely unabashed, “you also have to remember where I grew up and what I’ve seen with my own eyes at The Wild Star, some out in the open, some from peeking through holes in the wall boards. I already knew most of Uncle Merlin told me, but he cautioned me too.”

Durant scratched his head, feeling embarrassed. “Okay, Max, I apologize for prying into your personal life.”

“Apology accepted,” the young canine said with a smile. “You probably still think of me as a scrawny little fifteen-year-old, fresh out of slavery, don’t you?”

“Sometimes, yes,” the grizzly admitted. “That was only two years ago, but I admit you’ve grown and matured a lot since then. We’re all proud of you, Max.”

“Thank you, Durant. That’s nice to hear. It took a long time for Sam and Pockets to break me of my old way of life and my old way of thinking.” The young mechanic walked over to the load master and looked up at him. “I love this ship and I want to make my own place here among the crew.”

Durant smiled warmly and proffered a hand. “You have your place, Max. Never doubt yourself about that.”    

*** 

Tanis poured some water onto a handkerchief and put it over his nose. The evening ride to Mucot Airfield in the back of Locke’s personnel transport was hot and dry, and a strong tail wind blew their own dust back into the canvas-topped truck, making eyes sting and breathing difficult. He and the others rode on top of sandbags that had been piled behind the cab, and most were leaking from rotting fabric, adding to the swirling dust.

Locke was alone in the cab behind the steering wheel, but he preferred the silence as he drove. Kor-Chief Allano was to meet them at the airfield to take them back to a rendezvous point with a small private craft that would later transfer them to the Blue Horizon. The others behind him were tired and weary of the day, and Duffy had sunken into depression at having failed to retrieve his own document.

Taro sat beside the Siberian husky and tried to cheer him up, but he was in no mood for the attention she gave him. Samantha rested with her head on a sandbag, using it as a gritty pillow as she fought off a growing headache. They all rode in silence for miles as they passed a mixture of desert and forested areas. They were parallel to a concrete aqueduct slowly flowing with brown water and bordered with thick brush in places near the road.

Just a few miles from their destination, the truck lurched to a sudden stop and the four passengers looked up toward the cab. Through the back glass, they could see the look of surprise on Locke’s face. Before any of them could crawl out of the back of the truck to find out what the desert fox had seen, they heard a muffled boom followed by several more in rapid succession.

Tanis jumped out the back onto the sunbaked road, and then darted around the truck to look. Duffy, Taro and Samantha joined him, and the small group stared in open-mouth surprise at columns of gray-black smoke rising above a distant hill. They could barely make out several small dots buzzing around in the air near the plume.

“The airfield’s under attack!” Locke exclaimed as he stepped out of the truck cab.

“It’s the Tanatans!” Tanis growled. “It’s a first-strike!”

There were several more muffled explosions, and there was a momentary pause before they saw a tremendous fireball rise above the hill.

“There goes our ride!” Duffy said in alarm.

Locke shielded his eyes, straining hard to look at the attacking dots. “Get away from the truck!” he said suddenly. “Now!”

Everybody scattered as several of the distant dots grew larger, moving on a direct course along the road. Tanis, Taro and Samantha dove into the aqueduct beneath the dirty water, while Locke and Duffy jumped into the bushes on the other side of the road.

The dots became boomerangs, small curve-winged craft bearing down upon the truck. There were no streaks of energy or bolts of lightning to indicate that weapons had been fired, but the very air seemed to ripple. Locke grabbed his head in pain with a sharp shriek, and then the truck jumped from the ground, erupting into a ball of flame with a deafening KA-BOOM! The flyers continued on without returning to inspect their handiwork – they were headed straight toward the facility the team had left behind an hour ago.

Debris from the truck and road rained down into the aqueduct and the bushes. Duffy tumbled down into a small washout gully formed by the occasional flash flood. He managed to avoid the pelting debris, but he came to an abrupt stop hard against a tropical tree. Samantha eased her nose above the surface of the canal water, but had to dive again to avoid the twisted remains of the truck’s steering column. Other pieces of the transport dropped over Taro and Tanis, but miraculously they were able to dodge them all beneath the water.

Samantha nosed up for air once more, but there were no more vehicle parts raining from the sky. She reached up to the concrete curb of the aqueduct and hauled herself up onto dry ground. Tanis and Taro were downstream, both gasping for air as they made their way out of the water. She glanced around the sky to make sure none of the Tanatan flyers were heading back toward them. When she ascertained they were safe for the moment, she looked back at the blackened, junk-strewn spot on the road where the truck originally sat. The tops of several trees had also been blown apart, with leaves and splintered bark scattered everywhere.

“Is everyone okay?” Taro asked as she pressed dirty water from her fur. She sat on the side of the canal with her legs dangling and dripping.

“Tanis!” Duffy’s voice called out weakly from the bushes on the opposite side of the road. “Get over here, quick!”

The medic stumbled over a scorched drive shaft from the truck toward his friend’s voice. Taro and Sam followed him. “Over here,” Duffy said when they dashed past him.

Tanis turned and saw the husky kneeling beside Shoji Locke. The other fennec’s eyes were open and fixed, but there was no life in them. His head was somewhat misshapen, and blood issued from his ears, nose, mouth and several splits around his skull.

“Ohmigosh!” Samantha clasped her hands to her mouth. She sank to her knees in the sand, swallowing hard.

“What happened to him?” Taro asked hoarsely.

“It was that Tanatan weapon,” Tanis said as he knelt next to his friend and closed the staring eyes. “It had to be.” Although he knew better, the medic felt for a pulse in Locke’s neck. There was none.

Duffy looked up at the sound of more explosions in the distance. Tanis looked at him and noted some blood in the husky’s fur. “Let me look at ya,” he said to him. Duffy nodded and closed his eyes as the tan fox examined him.

“Yer Well of Luck must’ve rubbed off on ya,” Tanis told him as he pulled out a slim First Aid kit from a vest pocket. He picked out an antiseptic and a ball of cotton. “All ya have is a small cut and a bruised lump on the noggin.”

“I rolled down an embankment and tackled a tree,” Duffy explained without opening his eyes.

“That’s probably what saved you,” Taro added. “It got you away from the effects of that weapon. Locke was not so fortunate.”

All four of them could not help but glance back at the one who had engineered Operation Rainbow. He died when he had been trying to get his friends out of going into a senseless war.    

*** 

“Take off! Take off!” Renny shouted into the Com microphone. Durant was in the center seat of the bridge as the Blue Horizon lifted ponderously from its place on the tarmac, while the cheetah tried to coax the other freighters into following them.

The Juxenlow warehouse and its office was ablaze in roiling black smoke and expanding fireballs while Tanatan fliers systematically destroyed the place. The Sandburr had taken an indirect hit, but the damage was too great for aerial flight. Captain Ros of the Cherry Blossom had held off her takeoff long enough for Corwin and his remaining crewmembers to scramble on board her ship, and then she was airborne as well.

In the cargo bay of the Horizon, Pockets slid across the tilted floor, his small hands flailing. He managed to grab the webbing over a pallet of goods secured to the floor and held on tight. The bay door was still open as burning Juxenlow shrunk beneath them. Max was in Durant’s office, clinging to the desk as he punched the intercom button.

“Somebody please turn on the inertial dampers and the gravity!” he exclaimed. “We can’t get to the cargo bay door controls to shut it until you do – and we can’t get back to engineering to do it from auxiliary either!”

“Aye to that!” Renny’s voice crackled from the small speaker set into the ceiling of the booth. “Both are active now, Max – we need that door closed before we reach orbit!”

Max didn’t wait to give him a response. It was already getting hard to breathe in the thinning high altitude air as the Blue Horizon sped toward space. He ran around the perimeter of the hold toward the gaping emptiness beyond the bay door. The wind whipped at him furiously. It took all he had in order to pull himself along the wall safety railing toward the controls to close the cargo hold. He reached the primary airlock and then struggled the last few feet to the main door control panel.

Just as the young canine stretched out toward the terminal, he chanced a glance outside that made his head swim from the shifting perspectives. The Blue Horizon was tilted and banking so that he had a clear view of the dizzying depths below. He could see the leading edge of the Hidalgo Sun as it raced up behind them, with the Horizon’s own flexible extension tunnel dangling beside it, having been ripped away during the sudden launch.

Max punched a sequence of buttons and the bay door began to close slowly. With that process executing, he left the terminal and shouted above the din of the rushing air. “Pockets!”

“I’m still here,” the chief engineer’s voice came from somewhere on the other side of the large room full of cargo that had not yet been unloaded at Juxenlow. “I’ve twisted my left ankle, Max. I’m going to need your help into Engineering.”   

*** 

Blue Horizon — this is Rainbow Team. Are you there?” the fox said into her DC on an encrypted frequency. She sat in the shade next to the aqueduct, the others gathered nearby as they rested in the evening heat.

“Can’t talk right now, Taro,” Durant’s voice returned in a rush. “We had to make an emergency launch…”

“We’ve been attacked by the Tanatans, Durant,” Taro said quickly. “Our transport’s been destroyed and we’re on foot in the desert. We don’t have a way to rendezvous with you.”

There was a long pause before the grizzly replied. “Juxenlow’s been destroyed too,” he said in a voice that indicated he was trying to divide his attention between important tasks. “We’ve just attained orbit with the Hidalgo Sun and another freighter, but I think some of the small flyers that hit the airfield are in pursuit. I have your signal coordinates and —”

Taro heard Renny’s voice in the background say, “We’ve got a handful of flyers on our tail, Durant! They’re firing at—” and then the signal went quiet. Taro looked up into the eyes of her friends and swallowed hard.    

*** 

 The Hidalgo Sun had just left orbit to descend once again into the Nalirran atmosphere. Six of the Tanatan flyers followed the three freighters from Juxenlow, and they were firing upon them as they drew closer.  Fortunately for the larger ships, engines with more power kept them out of the range of the frightening ripple guns, but only just.

Renny knew the Blue Horizon was the only freighter present equipped with combat weaponry and he was aware the Tanatans would catch them quickly enough. It was time the Horizon took defensive action against their attackers.

At once, two of the flyers peeled off to follow the Hidalgo Sun, but Renny targeted them both individually before they were able to cause any damage to the other freighter. It was the first time the cheetah had used the shock thread emitters in a situation other than target practice, and discovered the system’s range was greater than those of the Tanatan weapons. Both enemy vessels shook themselves apart, the sudden decompression from failed air seals causing them to explode into pieces that would fall back into the atmosphere and burn up on reentry. He hadn’t wanted to kill anyone, but for the moment, the Hidalgo Sun was safe.

“The Cherry Blossom, Durant!” Lorelei pointed out the front window.

“I see them!”

The Blue Horizon reversed course and bore down upon the Tanatan flyers. None of them knew if their standard defense screens would stand up to the ripple guns, so Renny prepared to act quickly. It was imperative he take them out before either the Cherry Blossom or the Blue Horizon was hit. He fired at the two nearest to Captain Ros’ ship, destroying one of them.  High speed debris from the one slammed into the other, and both of the small crafts exploded near enough to the Blossom that he could see the shock wave hit the freighter’s interstellar shields, visibly shaking the vessel.

“Are you alright?” Lorelei asked over the Com headset she wore.

“We’re shaken, but I think we’re all okay,” Victoria’s voice emanated from the speakers. “Thanks for the assist!”

The Blue Horizon rocked suddenly and the bridge lights flickered. “We’ve been hit!” Renny exclaimed. There was another violent jolt and the guidance shifts tried to jump out of Durant’s hands.

“Where’d they get us, Pockets?” the grizzly bear said into his microphone as he spun the ship on its axis to face the flyers. He accelerated with a sudden burst of speed that surprised the smaller craft; both of them veered off to avoid being smashed by the large blue flying saucer. Ramming them had not been Durant’s plan, but the move worked nonetheless. Renny targeted one as they passed, and in a heartbeat sent the vessel to join the others in oblivion.

“Pockets?” Durant asked. “Where—”

“Keep your shirt on,” the raccoon’s harried voice replied. “We’re busy!”

The bear’s eyebrows lowered in agitation. He bared his teeth as he whipped the ship around to remove the last of the Tanatan flyers from the area, praying that there were no more on their way.

The Blue Horizon bore down upon the final enemy vessel, their roles reversed.  The flyer was fleeing the larger vessel and it became apparent to Renny that its guns could not fire behind it. He locked the targeting scope onto the flyer and let Durant get closer.

“I’ll give you a countdown, Durant,” he said without taking his eyes from his readout monitor. “When I reach one, take us over the top of the flyer as steep to vertical as you can.”

“Got it.”

The Tanatan flyer zigzagged back and forth, but the targeting computer was already locked on and tracking it effortlessly. “Five…” Renny intoned, “Four… Three… Two… One!”

The cheetah pressed the firing button at the same time Durant pulled back hard on the guidance shifts. The small flyer shook itself apart violently, the Blue Horizon soaring overhead and away from the scattering debris.

Renny did a sensor sweep of the area, but there were no more Tanatans in pursuit. Durant changed course so he could draw up alongside the Cherry Blossom to match her speed and trajectory.

“Pockets?” Durant tried one more time into the microphone.

“One of the ripple gunshots hit our interstellar shields, Durant,” Max’s voice responded. “It almost punched a hole right through it, but we were able to increase the signal strength enough to deflect it.  We’ve had a huge power drain and may need to replace a few of the shield transmitters, but otherwise Pockets thinks we’re okay.”

“Good work, you two,” Durant said with a sigh of relief.  “There may be more, so do what you can to keep us safe.”

“Aye to that!”    

*** 

“What do we do now?” Duffy asked.

Tanis heaved a big sigh and tossed a pebble into the running water below them. He stared after it, listening to the relative quiet that surrounded them to let it calm him. “Looks like we’re in for a long night,” he said after a moment. “The sun’s going down and we have no idea which direction to hike to find the next settlement.”

“I’m so tired and hungry,” Samantha said wearily, “that I don’t think I’d make it very far.”

A stomach growled loudly, but no one made claims to its hunger.

Duffy looked up into the deep red sky at a reflection high up in the clouds. “I just saw a ship,” he said quietly. “We’d better get under better cover than this.”

Nodding her agreement, Taro motioned with her hand toward a thicker cluster of tropical vegetation across the road, not far from where they had buried Locke. It would offer the best protection from sight should one of the flyers return to seek out survivors.

“Uh oh…” Samantha said in alarm. “They’ve found us anyway!”

Everyone dove under cover, looking out at a rapidly approaching set of landing lights from the west. Tanis growled lowly to himself, wishing he’d brought a gun, even though he knew a sidearm would have made him suspicious in a personnel facility.

A hot wind blew sand in their faces as an oval-shaped craft grew larger and extended its landing gear.

“It’s the Hidalgo Sun!” Taro exclaimed in relief. She jumped up and ran toward the reddish-orange freighter.

“Taro, wait!” Tanis shouted, “It could be a trick!”

The main airlock of the ship opened barely a moment after the vessel touched down; a tanned human male stepped out and waved to them. It was Mark Littlefeather.

Taro rushed forward and leaped onto him at the last second. She hugged him warmly, giving him a big kiss on the lips before he had a chance to say anything.

Mark coughed and grinned. “Uh, hi, Taro,” he said in a startled voice. He turned and looked at the rest of her team approaching them. “We heard you needed a lift.”

“What about the Horizon?” Tanis asked. “They were under attack when we were last in contact.”

The Amerindian load master ushered them all toward the airlock. “They were fighting back when Cap’n Rezo ordered us down here to get you guys,” he said. “I had no idea your ship was equipped for combat!”

“It was a gift from the Tanthean house of Aris,” Samantha informed him.

“We’ve got to get out of here before the Tanatans or the Nalirran Aerial Forces detect your presence,” Duffy said, “if they haven’t already.”

Mark shut the airlock door behind them and then thumbed the intercom. “Okay, Captain – everyone’s on board.”

“Aye, Littlefeather,” Rezo’s voice called back. “Take them up to Carmen, please.”

“Aye, sir.”

The ship lurched suddenly and the Hidalgo Sun was airborne again. Mark motioned them to follow him toward the lift. “Dr. Burgess will look you over and then you can all rest in the common room.”

Samantha ran fingers through her dirty and matted fur. The water in the aqueduct had not been very sanitary. “Can we clean up first?” she asked.

“After the Doc has looked you over,” Mark replied, “you can use the showers in the spare cabins.” Duffy’s stomach growled and the human nodded. “I’ll have Sheila prepare something for you to eat, too.”

“Many appreciations,” the husky said with a thankful smile. “I haven’t eaten all day.”   

*** 

Durant looked at the time and frowned. The Blue Horizon, Hidalgo Sun and the Cherry Blossom had all been clustered together on the surface of an asteroid large enough to provide some gravity for six hours. As there were no other safe havens in the Roppa star system, it was the best they could do in a hurry. The Reytharsa Asteroid belt lay in an orbit on the outskirts of the system, the remnants of a planet that had exploded from within centuries earlier.

Full-scale war had erupted quickly between Nalirra and Oe’Tanata, and although the Tanatans had attacked first, Sed Amittias’ forces had already been on alert and launched a counterattack almost immediately. The Roppa system was not currently a safe place to be, even for civilian spacecraft.

Durant drummed his fingers on the console before him. A Nalirran transport was supposed to have rendezvoused with them two hours ago, to transfer the food supplies that the three freighters had been unable to unload at Juxenlow. As yet, there had been no contact from the other vessel. The minutes passed in quiet concern.

Corwin’s crew was getting along well enough with Captain Ros’ people, though the bovidae captain was distraught over the loss of three people and of his ship, the Sandburr. The male buffalo had retired a year earlier from a major freight line based on Pomen, but discovered he missed the business and invested his money to buy a Prairie Dog-class freighter for odd jobs to keep him busy. Unfortunately, he’d never bothered to take out insurance on his vessel, so its destruction was a total loss. Three members of his crew had perished in the attack on Juxenlow, two of them sons of his sister. He didn’t know how he was going to break the news to her.

Renny stared out the front windows of the bridge toward the nearby hull of the Cherry Blossom. He knew Victoria and her crew well enough to know that Corwin and his people would be given proper care during their stay on board her ship.

“There’s an encrypted call coming in from Nalirra,” Lorelei reported at a chirp from the com station. Durant looked up from the center seat and glanced over at the weapons console where Renny sat. He nodded to Lorelei and she promptly tapped in the decryption key, and then transferred the signal to the bridge speakers.

“This is the Blue Horizon,” Durant said in a slightly raised voice, although the condenser microphone embedded into the pilot console would have picked up normal conversational tones.

Blue Horizon,” said a shrill voice from the overhead speakers, “this is Nalirran Command. Transport vessel RK207 was to rendezvous with you, but was destroyed by our enemy en route to your location.”

“I was afraid of that,” the grizzly replied. “With such a long period of silence, we feared this might have happened.”

“Regrettably, we can spare no more ships right now. We can’t send anyone else out to get your cargo.”

“Is there a place we can take it for you?” Durant asked. “With the conflict in full-swing, I suspect you’re going to need the supplies even more now.”

“This is true, Horizon, but unfortunately there’s no neutral territory in Roppa at the moment. You could be attacked anywhere you tried to go, and we can’t spare any vessels even to protect your leaving our star system. We’ve not been able to locate the Tanatan carriers that brought the small fighters to our world, so you’ll need to watch your backs.”

“Since the combined cargoes of our three vessels were paid for in advance by your government, we need to know what to do with them,” Durant said with a deepening frown. “We have other destinations on our delivery schedule and won’t be able to wait for long.”

“One moment, please, Blue Horizon.”

“Standing by.”

Another voice piped up from the speakers. “I hope they don’t expect us to haul their food back to Alexandrius and put it into storage for later delivery,” Captain Ros said dryly. Apparently, Lorelei had keyed in the other freighter to receive the conversation as well.

“Most of it’s non-perishable,” Durant replied. “If we—”

Blue Horizon, thank you for standing by,” the previous voice cut in. “Nalirran command authorizes you and the two other freighters with you to take what replenishment supplies you need from the cargo you are carrying and to jettison the rest. It’s recommended that you leave our star system as quickly as you can and make a break for battle-free space.”

Durant blinked several times. “Sir,” he said carefully, “I hope you realize your statement voids your contract. We won’t be able to issue reimbursement payment for the delivery we’ve attempted to make.”

“Understood, Horizon. You’ve fulfilled your part of the contract by making the delivery, but now I strongly advise you to leave as quickly as possible.”

“Aye, sir, we will depart at once. Thank you for your business, and may God smile upon your world,” Durant said at last, remembering a common Nalirran sign-off.

“Thank you, Blue Horizon,” the voice replied. “May God smile upon your vessels.”    

*** 

“Hello, listeners, this is News Around the Alignment and I’m Holly Harken of the Interplanetary News Network. At the top of the news this hour, Planetary Alignment member Nalirra has been attacked by their neighboring, non-PA world, Oe’Tanata in a first strike that resulted in over eight thousand casualties. The sneak-attack by small, stealth Tanatan flyers were able to penetrate Nalirran space without prior detection and were able to cause devastation with never-before-seen weapons of destruction.

“Already under an alert for such an action by their neighbor, Nalirran General Duular of Kardon immediately launched a counterattack upon Oe’Tanata, using conventional fuel-air bombs over several major Tanatan cities. As INN has been unable to get anyone safely into Tanatan space, we have been unable to ascertain the death toll there.

“Fierce fighting has erupted upon the surface of both worlds and in the area of space in between. Nalirran officials have advised that all private and commercial spacecraft avoid the Roppa star system. Although well within their right to call upon other worlds of the Planetary Alignment to assist an ally in a time of war, Nalirra has not requested assistance, preferring instead to fight their own battle.

“Word has it that Nalirra had already been gearing up to draft thousands of off-world ex-military personnel for such an effort, but during the first-strike by Oe’Tanata, several key records facilities were destroyed before many recalls could be sent out.

“Nalirran Spokesman Messala Golgoh has asked us to announce that anyone with Nalirran military experience still capable of fighting should return at once to defend their homeworld.

“Not much else is known at this point, but Nalirran Command has promised the Legislature to keep the council abreast of conflict events. We at INN will relay what news we can, as we get it. You can count on Holly to keep you informed.”

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