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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 3

— Episode 25

"Rise of the Bamboo Wind"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

In the darkness of space, the color of a starship is hard to determine, but in the case of the SS Savannah Hunter, it wouldn’t have mattered much if the wedge-shaped freighter had been in a spotlight. Its ridged hull was painted a green so dark that it was almost black. Even the cabin portholes were polarized to let little, if any, light out into space. The exception to this was one tiny room on the starboard side beneath the bridge where the window polarization had not worked in months. The room was poorly insulated, often cold and served as the First Mate’s office.

As the Savannah Hunter approached the watery world of Crescentis, a passing orbital space satellite detected the solitary light floating through space. The instrument’s purpose was to alert ground-based tracking systems of approaching ships that would be delivering much-needed cargo to the island colonies that supported the fishing fleets, but the collective budgets of the settlers were not endowed well enough to afford top-rated equipment. The vessel’s freighter profile should have triggered an alarm at a tracking station on the nearby planet. Instead, it merely registered the dim light emitting from the solitary window as glowing space dust being drawn into the planet’s gravitational field; it was quickly dismissed as anything of importance.

JW Chon sat in the small room that served as his First Mate’s office and the chair underneath him groaned beneath his weight. The classic panda pored over the account books and snorted to himself. Were it not for him, Captain Jensen’s business would have gone bankrupt long ago and they would have all been out on the streets of some forgotten town on a backwater world.

Armando had no sense of business, and as far as Chon knew, the Mainoran lion had never personally taken care of the company that his father had given him years ago. The Savannah Hunter was a Sakura-class freighter only five years old and already it was in poor shape due to the plethora of unsavory help that had worked its maintenance during that time. Although the ship was Armando’s, he was the captain in name only. Ever since he had hired Chon as his accountant and delegated his duties to him as his First Mate, business for the wedge-shaped freighter had steadily increased, in both quantity and quality. JW Chon had a good head on his shoulders that was keen with business savvy and numbers. He was also a natural leader.

It had been said by competitors who knew them that for the past three years, the real captain of the Savannah Hunter was JW Chon. Armando may own the vessel and the business, but he was merely a figurehead these days. He had given Chon full authority to run the ship for him so that he could spend his time and money on the things he wanted. Chon took his occasional orders with the proverbial grain of salt and then ran things his own way. The business was better for it.

Unfortunately, there was a high turnover in the crew of the Savannah Hunter. Those who signed contracts to hire onto the freighter often jumped ship at the next available port. Although without any real power on board his own ship, Armando was not an easy man to be around. He ranted often when he didn’t get his way and pounded on anyone who happened to be near him, whether or not they were responsible for his plight. The crew roster for the ship had been fluid, whether or not they were under any kind of contract.

Besides Armando and Chon, only one other crewmember had stayed on throughout all the changes. A small runt of a ferret named Lon Hunkle had become Chon’s right hand flunky. He was king of the brown-noses and was delighted to have Chon’s trust. He didn’t have a specific job on the ship other than to follow the panda’s orders, but he obeyed without question and Chon rewarded his loyalty.

For the past year, the crew of the Savannah Hunter had consisted entirely of individuals shanghaied by Chon and Hunkle. JW Chon was afraid of no one, including Armando, and was often forced to assert his authority with everyone brought on board the vessel. His soft appearance was deceptive. As yet, he had not lost a fight even against aggressive predator types.

Most of the crew had developed a fear of Chon’s wrath, but the majority of them respected him even if they harbored hatred for kidnapping them for his crew. They worked hard when he gave them assignments, and while some escaped at their ports of call, most stayed on board the ship. Chon paid them well, but while the lot of them didn’t want to be there in the first place, they waited patiently until the ship might return to their homeworld before jumping ship. It was a wise person who didn’t want to be stranded somewhere far from home.

The crew recognized Hunkle for the weasel he was and often plotted to do nasty things to the little snitch. The ferret kept Chon informed of everything going on aboard the ship, which had often been in time to foil a mutiny or other disruptive action. The panda was in the business for the money and didn’t intend to let disgruntled employees get in the way of ship operations. Lon Hunkle had been instrumental in keeping that order.

JW Chon snorted to himself in impatience as he tallied up Armando’s personal expenses. The captain’s quarters were more luxuriously equipped than any other cabin on board, whether it was the expensive linens for his bed, various books, magazines and comics, the audio and video equipment, or case upon case of Drock’s Exotic Honey Mustard for the galley. Armando loved honey mustard with everything and demanded that the ship be well stocked for all his meals.

Unfortunately for Chon, who managed the business account, Armando rarely saved his receipts for the purchases he made on their planetary stops, so keeping the books in line was often frustrating. Fortunately for the rest of the crew, Armando didn’t venture out through the corridors of his own vessel very often. Instead, he usually locked himself up in his quarters throughout most of the voyages, emerging only to eat his meals or to give his First Mate some new order that would likely be ignored.

When he did happen to roam the passages, Armando often saw faces among his crew that he didn’t recognize. When asked, the hapless individual would usually respond with something like, “Mr. Chon brought me on board.” Since Armando trusted his First Mate’s judgment implicitly, this was usually enough for the lion.

The panda stared incredulously at the one receipt in his hand that Armando had remembered to turn in to him. It was for a box of costumed super hero comics from their last stop on Pomen.

Chon heaved a sigh, set the receipt and his pen on the ledger book before him, and then rubbed his eyes. Something had to be done or the Savannah Hunter would go bankrupt – not from a box of comics, but from everything else Armando acquired in impulse without reporting. He sat back in his chair and it gave another groan beneath his weight. He put a hand under his chin as his thoughts whirled over several ideas to bring in more money for the business. However, all of his thoughts kept returning to the same conclusion.

JW Chon began to smile. It was a smile of amusement at first, as if the thought was merely a fanciful dream, but then it transformed to a grin that spread across his whole countenance. If handled just right, the Savannah Hunter’s financial problems could very well improve. He allowed himself to laugh aloud, something he didn’t do often, and it felt good to do so.

He stood up from the chair, moved soundlessly out of his office and into the corridor. He had another job for the ferret.    

*** 

Lon Hunkle’s tiny eyes shined in delight in the dim illumination of the corridor. The mask of brown fur around his eyes gave him a mischievous look that was enhanced by the tip of pink tongue sticking out between his lips.

The diminutive ferret carried a folder of papers in both hands, and he was careful not to let any of them drop to the floor. A jaguar dressed in a pair of denim shorts and dark green vest stepped out into the hallway. She scowled when she saw Chon’s little snitch.

“What are you up to now?” she growled unpleasantly.

Hunkle glanced up at her and shrugged his shoulders. “I gots more requisitions for the captain to sign,” he replied.

“More acquisitions? Who is it this time? Another snooty cook like that poodle we picked up on Sillon last year?”

The ferret grinned, but shook his head vigorously. “No, Phile, nothing like that,” he said. “Just something for the ship.”

Phile Mavron crossed her arms and leaned against the wall. “C’mon, weasel, spill the beans. What’s going on? You don’t ever look this pleasant unless you’re doing someone dirty.”

Hunkle snorted. “You’re too suspicious,” he said to the mechanic. “Sometimes things are as simple as they look. Mr. Chon sent me to get the captain’s signature. Nothing more.”

“On paper?”

“On paper. You know the captain doesn’t trust slateboards.”

The feline glared at the smaller fur. “Watch your step, ferret. One of these days you’re going to be alone in a remote place on this ship without Chon’s protection.”

Despite his diminutive frame, Hunkle was unafraid. “Oh really?” he said. “I would imagine that Mr. Chon might find interest in knowing where the spare silver relays that went missing from the engine stock room last month have turned up. Very interested indeed…”

Phile looked uncomfortable. “How did you…?”

“Doesn’t matter,” the ferret said as he resumed walking down the corridor. “Mr. Chon doesn’t have to find out, but should anything happen to me, he has instructions, the link and the passcode to access my personal diary. He might see something in there.”

Phile watched him go silently, biting back a retort to the ferret’s subtle threat. With another growl beneath her breath, the mechanic turned and headed aft.

Hunkle chuckled to himself as he neared the captain’s quarters. He really hated that room, but he had a job to do. He reached up and knocked on the green painted panel just beneath the seal control. A moment later, an annoyed growl emanated through the door.

“What is it?”

“It’s Hunkle, sir,” the ferret answered. “I have more papers for you to sign.”

The metal wheel in the center of the door turned and there was a tiny hiss as the door seal vented. The pungent aroma of incense filled the corridor as the door opened. The large frame of Armando Jensen towered over the ferret and glared down at him. He wore a silk bathrobe of gold and black thread with stylized dragons battling across the surface of the material.

“Who sentchu?” the Mainoran lion growled at him.

“Mr. Chon, sir. I have more papers for you to sign.”

“What’s it for?”

“Mr. Chon needs your approval to invest a bit of the ship’s funds in stocks for Drock’s Exotic Honey Mustard. He has a contact to get them at a good price, and word has it the company’s worth is about to go up.”

Armando’s face lit up. “That Chon’s the best guy I ever hired to work for me. He knows how much I love that stuff on my food!”

Hunkle held up the folder containing two sets of papers toward the lion and then produced a pen for him. “Just sign the flagged line at the bottom of page five of both sets and Mr. Chon will take care of the rest.”

Armando flipped directly to the last page of each document and then took the pen from the ferret. He signed each one against the door with a flourish, and then gave the pen and folder back to Hunkle with a grin.

“Here ya go, Hunkie,” he said. “Tell Chon he’s earned his pay for the day.”

“Yessir, I will.”

Armando nodded and then disappeared back inside his room. The door handle turned to reseal the panel, and then the ferret opened the folder to look at the documents the captain had just signed.

 ”This is gonna be good,” he whispered to himself.    

*** 

Several hours later, Lon Hunkle watched the landing of the Savannah Hunter from an observation cubicle beneath the floor of the cargo bay. He lay on his belly on worn cushions in the small enclosure, watching the evening clouds push past the wedge-shaped freighter on its way toward the watery surface of the planet. This was his favorite place to be during landing operations, as it gave him an unobstructed view of what lay below them. It was also the safest place for him, as it was an area not well known to the rest of the transient crew. It took a crawl through an access tunnel between the double hulls of the ship, and most of the species on board would have a tough time negotiating the cramped passageway had they known about it. The same could be said for the other access tunnels that ran throughout the ship, which the diminutive ferret used frequently to move about unobserved.

The observation window on the bottom of the Sakura-class ship was made of Ganisan glassteel that could withstand temperatures far greater than most planetary reentries. Even through the brunt of the Savannah Hunter’s descent into the Crescentis atmosphere, Hunkle had never been uncomfortable while watching the colorful display through darkened goggles. That was behind them now, and the lithe ferret enjoyed the view as he munched on a sugary snack treat from Earth.

The destination of their cargo of standard colony supplies was currently near the solar terminator, which would mean the local time was dusk over the island. Red and orange clouds were now above the green ship as they neared a tiny landing strip that was set up to accommodate both spatial and aerial craft. Within moments, the ship would be safely on the ground and the crew would assemble to unload their payload.

A movement outside from the starboard signaled the ferret that Chon had initiated the landing sequence. A set of massive caterpillar tracks extended beneath the ship and the ground rapidly rushed up toward them. Hunkle took that as his cue, swallowed the last of his snack and then started back through the narrow tunnel to the nearest access panel.

By the time it took the ferret to reach his exit, the ship had landed and powered down. He opened the panel inside a modified storage locker and quietly closed it behind him; it would not do to have a disgruntled crewmember discover the entrance to his labyrinth. He opened the locker door behind a stack of cargo cushions, and then moved along the outer edge of the hold toward the cargo bay doors. He could already hear the huge seals release their locks and knew that Justin was anxious to get the work out of the way.

The load master was probably the least resistant to work on the freighter he had been shanghaied on than any of the others on board. The malamute enjoyed hard work and preferred to unload their cargoes as manually as he could get away with. Hunkle knew that Justin longed for the day when the Savannah Hunter would return to the northern regions of Kantus so he could jump ship and rejoin his family, but Chon was no fool and had no intentions of making another delivery to that area just so he could keep him.

“Alright, you mugs,” a deep voice rumbled from the back of the hold. “Let’s get this cargo unloaded quickly. The locals will want to have their evening meals soon and will be annoyed that we’ve arrived so late in the day!” The crew members that had gathered looked up at the large black and white panda that approached them from the lift and decided it was time to break off the idle chatter. Lon Hunkle picked up the slateboard that held the manifest from the workbench where Justin had set it down, and then took his place at the panda’s side as work gloves and moving jacks were taken out of storage. The dock master had not yet arrived from the nearby warehouse, but Chon always liked to get things going before the officials arrived.

Chon gave his diminutive friend a nod and then cleared his throat again. “I know the past few weeks have been rough,” he announced to the working crew, “so I’ve arranged a little entertainment to boost your morale.” There were murmurs and grunts of disbelief, but several of them looked up in interest. “As soon as the captain gets here, I’ll show you what I mean.”

He looked back down as his sidekick handed him the manifest, and asked out of the side of his mouth, “Did you bring it?” Hunkle nodded vigorously and pulled a small camera from the pocket of his vest. “Good,” Chon said quietly. “Keep it handy.”

“The Savannah Hunter sure has a hard-workin’ crew!” another voice bellowed out in satisfaction. “Barely on the ground and everyone’s already hard at work… That’s what I like to see!” Almost as one, everyone stopped what he or she was doing and looked up at the large Mainoran lion that had arrived on the scene. He wore a brightly flowered shirt and a pair of loose tan slacks. Everyone wondered what the panda had in mind, but now that their captain had shown up, they were soon to find out.

Chon walked over to the lion and gave him a salute; it was something the panda hated doing, but was required by the captain when his First Mate reported to him. “Everything is on schedule, sir,” he said formally. As expected, Armando was anxious to get off the ship, so he began walking toward the bay opening as the panda went over the manifest with him.

“Listen, Chon,” the lion said as he grimaced in anticipation, “I’ll let you handle this as you always do. There’s a nice lil’ club down on Argyll Street that has a lioness dancer to put all others to shame. By local time, she should be starting her show pretty soon!”

“Captain,” Chon said in a slightly over-loud voice, “I’ll take good care of the ship. Here, you might need this tonight.” The panda pulled out a small envelope from a shirt pocket and handed it to the lion. Armando opened up the envelope in curiosity and pulled out a glossy strip of paper. He looked at it closely in the fading sunlight and laughed out loud. He reached out, grasped his First Mate’s hand and shook it cheerfully. Hunkle quickly took a picture of the scene as Armando nodded his head.

“A voucher for an extra hundred credits!” the lion said merrily. “Extra spending money for my good time tonight!”

“You accept the money?” Chon asked in clear voice.

Phile Mavron narrowed her eyes as she watched the proceedings. Something smells rotten, the jaguar thought to herself.

Armando laughed. “Of course I accept it!” he replied. He shoved the voucher into his pocket and then slapped the panda’s shoulder

“You had better spend it wisely,” Chon said in a sudden change of voice. “It’s all the money you have left to you.”

Armando snickered and grinned at the panda. “Surrrrre, it is,” he chuckled. “Listen, Chon, I hate to break up our little jokey session, but I need to get to my show.”

“You’re free to go,” Chon said in a darker tone, “but don’t think twice about coming back. You’re not welcome around here anymore.”

The only sound that could be heard in the cargo bay was the crash of ocean surf not far from the landing pad. None of the crew dared to breathe and everyone seemed anxious to hear the next words from their leaders.

“What?” Armando asked half-heartedly. “What did you say to me?”

Hunkle scrambled over to Chon’s side and handed two things to him. The panda held up a multi-page document so Armando could see it clearly. “Do you recognize this?” he asked.

The lion shrugged his shoulders and peered closer at it. “Not really,” he admitted. Chon flipped to the last page and held it up so that the handwritten signature of Armando Jensen was visible to the lion, as well as the nearby crew.

“This is a legal document that you signed last night, Jensen,” the panda explained. “For the price of one hundred credits, you have sold the ship, the company and all interests of the Savannah Hunter Freight Services to one Jiawen Chon of Brandt – that’s me, if you’re too thick to realize it.”

“You’re joking, right?” Armando asked with a swallow.

“I’m as serious as a heart attack.”

“I didn’t sell my ship to you!” Armando roared.

Undaunted, Chon held up the other object that Hunkle had given him. “Here is a photograph of you and I shaking hands on the deal, with you accepting a one hundred credit voucher.” The panda handed the document and photograph back to Hunkle, who quickly shoved them into a large envelope. He retreated several steps and looked back up at the lion with a satisfied smirk before he ran off toward the lift to the upper levels.

“You tricked me!” Armando shouted into the panda’s face, his fists clenched tightly. “That lying weasel told me that document was to buy stock in my favorite mustard!”

“You should have read what you were signing,” Chon said evenly. He had been ready for Armando’s bluster and was more than prepared for what he knew would happen next. “You no longer have a ship, Jensen,” he said with a sneer. “You’ve been trying to bankrupt the business your daddy gave to you, while I’ve been trying to keep it above water. Now you’re stuck, without a ship, without a business… without any money but the one hundred credits in your pocket.”

“I trusted you, Chon!” Armando roared. “You BETRAYED me!” He jumped for the panda, but Chon had expected it. For all his bulk, Chon stepped aside quickly and Armando stumbled past him. Before the lion had a chance to regain his feet, Chon brought a muscled arm up and drove his fist into Armando’s chin in a powerful uppercut.

The Mainoran lion didn’t hear the cheers and jeers from his former crewmembers. He fell backward, tumbled over the top of a cargo container, and landed headfirst between two more boxes. Before he could get up, Chon grabbed Armando’s collar and hauled him back out into the open. The panda shoved another fist into his former captain’s middle; Armando doubled over with the forced loss of breath. The lion was normally a competent fighter, but he’d been taken totally off-guard. He sank to his knees and fell over onto his side, his arms clutching his stomach.

Armando looked up at the panda towering over him and swallowed hard. “Chon…” he said in a strained voice.  “Don’t do this to me… I’ve always been good to you… trusted you with my business…”

“Armando Jensen,” Chon said down to him, “you are a liability to the business. We can’t even keep a solid crew with the way you manhandle everyone. With you out of the formula, we can change the way we do business. This ship can begin to recoup its losses and start taking in a real profit for a change. I’ve been running this ship for the past three years despite your ignorance, and now things are going to get better.”

Chon looked over at the sound of footsteps and nodded to Hunkle, who wrestled with the weight of a box full of colorful publications. He dropped them on the floor beside the lion and retreated behind Chon.

“What’s that?” Armando wheezed.

“All the comics you’re so fond of,” Hunkle replied with a cackle. “On top, there’s also a set of the bill of sale documents you signed with an original handwritten signature. Feel free to have a lawyer look it over for you!”

“Take your box and get off my ship, Jensen,” Chon said in a menacing tone. “The sale of the Savannah Hunter is legal and binding, and now it’s mine. If you make any attempts to retake the ship, I’ll have the SPF issue a watch for you as a pirate. Now… get out.”

Armando coughed into his hands and gathered himself together. As he stood up, the lion roared with the breath left in him and launched himself at Chon. He drove his head up into the panda’s chin and then punched him in the side as hard as he could, while holding onto him with his other arm. Chon had seen Armando tense his leg muscles and recognized the stance for attack, but the lion was quick. Despite the pain in his chin and his side, Chon swung a powerful arm and drove his fist into the lion’s left temple twice, very fast. Armando grunted and dropped amidst the sparks within his vision.

JW Chon rubbed his chin and then picked up the large lion. He carried him to the edge of the bay door and then tossed Armando out into the dirt. A moment later, the feline’s box dropped onto the ground beside him. The crew erupted into cheers and applause.

Armando shook his head and hauled himself up onto his feet. The tendons in his neck were taut in fury and he took a step back toward the ramp up into the ship. As one, the assembled crew lined up across the entrance to confront his return. The lion had been unaware of their personal animosities toward him, but he suddenly realized they all sided with Chon. They all looked as if they were eager for a fight, simply waiting for the excuse to jump him; he knew he couldn’t take them all on at once.

Dazed, dejected and beaten, Armando picked up his box and slinked away into the darkening night.    

*** 

Blue Horizon, PA1138

Captain’s Journal 

I have finally been reunited with my ship and crew. Since my voyage to Crescentis from Tanthe was a longer one than the route the Blue Horizon took from Nalirra, my people have been here awaiting my arrival for nearly a week. They’ve taken the time for shore leave to enjoy the sun, sand and surf of Emmett Island.

While it’s true that Crescentis was not one of the original Terran colony worlds, enough settlers from other PA worlds have populated fishing colonies on practically every major island on this planet. Thirty years ago, the fishing fleets organized and formed their own government, and were later granted entry into the Legislature as another Planetary Alignment member. Emmett Island is one of the larger landmasses, though at only twenty miles wide and thirty-seven miles in length, and it has a population hovering around five hundred thousand.

There’s plenty to do here and my crew has enjoyed the time off, but since I have been in space for the past three weeks, I gave everyone another two days of shore leave. I need the salty sea air in my lungs to flush out the scent of that old man I was cabined with for so long. I have no way of knowing what he thought of me, but although he was a nice enough gentleman, I honestly hope never to meet him again.

The island where the original Blue Horizon crashed is on the other side of the planet from us. Thankfully, we have no need to visit that vicinity. None of us has a desire to see it again.

I’ve been informed that Clarence Duffy caught a public transport back to Fyn a couple of days ago, so I’ve missed the opportunity to talk to him about Max. This is the kind of thing I would rather not discuss with him over a Com channel, but I don’t know if we’ll be back on Fyn again before he’s recalled into active duty.  

Merlin Sinclair, Captain 

*** 

Samantha stretched and wiped the sleep from her eyes. She glanced over at the softly snoring form beside her and smiled. She blew lightly into Merlin’s left ear and watched it twitch, but the wolf continued to sleep. It had been a while since he had been as affectionate toward her as he had been since his return from Tanthe, but the night had been wonderful. She and Merlin had been casual lovers for years, but his attitude toward her in recent months had become more focused.

She closed her eyes with a quiet sigh and wondered, Was it because of the baby I lost?

 Neither of them had ever maintained an exclusive relationship with one another, but she found that she now enjoyed his full attention – especially since she was not really interested in anyone else on board. She and Tanis hadn’t shared a bed in nearly a year and there had been no one else in her life. Lorelei had recently admitted that she had been unsuccessful in luring the captain to her own bed more than one time, and that her feelings had been a little hurt. Fortunately for the rabbit, Lori had plenty of other willing partners on board the freighter to take her mind off of it. She never brought up again.

Samantha opened her eyes and looked at Merlin again. She touched noses with him softly and his breathing slowed for a moment before returning to its normal sleeping pattern. She smiled, brushed his cheek fur gently with a finger and then left him alone. Was the relationship she maintained with him now exclusive? It wasn’t a thought she would mind if it were true, but she felt she really wanted to know. She didn’t want to assume anything, as Alex Rogers had done.

She had read the private letter that Alex had sent with private amusement. She’d not been oblivious to Alex’s infatuation with her, but she’d never felt a romantic attraction to him, despite their shared species and history; he was a close friend and nothing more. Apparently Alex had long hoped that the two of them would be married and raise a family together, but Samantha was happy that he’d found someone else to occupy his thoughts.

When she looked at Merlin again, his amber eyes were open, watching her. “G’morning,” he whispered.

“Good morning, love,” she replied. “How did you sleep?”

“Good and restful. You?”

“I slept well,” Samantha replied quietly, “but I dreamt…” She cut herself off and lightly bit her bottom lip.

“But you dreamed…” Merlin prompted.

“…that — that someone took you away from me.”

Merlin stared at her for a long moment, wondering if she were precognizant. “What happened in this dream?” he asked finally, prompting her again.

“I dreamed you got serious with someone and wanted to settle down with her,” the Border collie admitted in a small voice.

“I am serious about someone,” Merlin replied.

Samantha stiffened and wondered if she wanted to hear more. “I…uh…” was all she could say.

“The one I’m serious about is you, Sam,” Merlin told her. Samantha searched his eyes for any sign of amusement, but his gaze was steady. He didn’t appear to be joking. “You’re the only one I want,” he said a moment later.    

*** 

Renny picked up a figurine from the shelf before him and looked at it dubiously. He and Pockets were in a small beachside curio shop where they had been for the past half hour. The cheetah and raccoon didn’t normally pal around together on leave, but they’d shared a cab from their hotel to the same area of town. Both had begun walking in the same direction, and both had stopped at the same café to eat. When they’d finished their meals, Renny and Pockets continued their route about town together. The navigator had never really considered Pockets to be of much interest to him, but had never had anything against him either. Their browsing had taken them to the boardwalk near a sandy beach and the two of them had gotten along well.

As to be expected, Pockets tended to talk shop about the ship’s systems that he either maintained or repaired, but it had actually been interesting to the cheetah. Renny was an experienced pilot and often boasted that he could drive or fly anything created if given a few moments to examine the controls. He had studied engineering during flight school, but his passion had been in the area of the actual control of the systems, rather than their inner working mechanisms.

Nonetheless, he knew enough that Pockets’ rambling actually made sense to him. During their stroll along the boardwalk, the thought occurred to the cheetah that he should probably volunteer to help Pockets and Max in the engine room on occasion. It wouldn’t hurt to know more about the ship he flew and lived in.

The figurine Renny picked up was of a squat, fat pig sitting in a lotus position, both hands outstretched together as if holding something, with a thick tongue protruding from its lips. He assumed the ugly little thing was designed to hold a stick of incense in its hands, but wasn’t quite sure. It might be something Lorelei would pick up, but he set it back onto its dusty shelf and looked toward the front counter where Pockets was bargaining for something he had found.

When he walked over to see what his crewmate was haggling over, he raised his eyebrows in curiosity. The item in question was a simple-looking wooden tube with a pattern of holes along its length; it tapered to one small end with an opening in it. Moments later, the shop owner nodded, resigned to the deal.

“Okay, you little thief,” the Irish setter said at last, “you can have it for thirteen credits – but I assure you it’s worth twice that price!”

“Thirteen credits,” the raccoon nodded in satisfaction. He looked up at Renny and winked at him as the canine took his money.

“What is that thing, Pockets?” the cheetah asked. “It doesn’t look like any kind of tool I’ve ever seen you use before.”

Pockets grinned up at him. “It’s not a tool, my friend. It’s a birthday present for Patch. It’s called a woder… it’s a music instrument from Ganis, similar to one he lost in the crash.”

“When’s his birthday?” Renny asked. “I know yours is coming up in a couple months.”

The raccoon stared at him in amusement. “Renny,” he said with a grin, “Patch is my litter mate.”

“Yeah, I know. What’s that got to do with it?”

“We have the same birthday, you nut.”

“Oops…” Renny said with a lopsided grin. “I forgot.”

Pockets laughed at him and then took the wrapped package the storeowner handed to him. “Nice doing business with you,” he told the man. The Irish setter nodded without another word and then the two Horizon crewmates left the shop together. The morning air was pleasant and lazy clouds floated high above the as they continued on their way.    

*** 

“Does this outfit make me look fat?”

Taro Nichols looked up at the rabbit that examined herself in a triad of mirrors outside the dressing room. She shook her head. “No, Lori,” she replied, “but the tail flap is too low for you. If you wear it like that, you’ll be showing more than your cottontail when you lean over.”

Lorelei turned her hips toward the mirror and then bent over. “Whoops…” she said with a giggle.  “I want to entice the guys, not give them a free show! The top straps are a little tight, too.” She began removing the pale pink overalls she had tried on.

“Better take it off inside the booth, Lori,” Taro said. A pair of teen felines had stopped to stare at Lorelei as she unfastened the straps to the garment. Lori looked up and saw the guys watching her with lecherous grins. She gave them a seductive wink, but withdrew into the dressing room cubicle before undressing further.

Taro looked back at the two males and furrowed her brow. “Scram!” she hissed. Both cats nearly tripped over one another in their haste to retreat. When the peeping toms had gone, Taro returned her attention to the garment she had considered buying, a medium green sleeveless blouse with a loose turtleneck. She walked to the mirrors that Lori had vacated and held the garment up beneath her chin. The shade of green accented her reddish-orange fur nicely, and she nodded to herself in satisfaction. The price was reasonable and it looked to be the right size. All she needed was to try it on, so she moved into the dressing cubicle adjacent to the one Lorelei had gone into.

“May I ask you something, Taro?” Lori asked through the door as the vixen removed her purple blouse.

“Sure, Lori, what is it?”

“Have you slept with all the guys on board the ship?”

Taro froze and grimaced. There were women in the other dressing room stalls and she didn’t normally discuss her bedding habits in public. “No,” she answered cautiously.

“Tanis and Renny?”

“Uh, yeah.” Taro set her blouse aside and then pulled on the new one. She didn’t understand why mirrors were not installed inside the dressing rooms, but she could tell just by looking down at herself that the fit was good. She opened the door to walk out and noticed a brown eyeball peering at her through the opening of another door. She ignored the eavesdropper and went out to look at herself in the mirrors. Lorelei stepped out beside her a moment later. She wore a red bikini that barely covered her furry assets.

“With the exception of Max,” the rabbit said casually, “I’ve had them all at least once.” She studied her appearance and nodded in satisfaction as Taro walked back into her dressing room without another word. “Of course,” Lori said in a slightly louder voice so her friend could hear her, “I’d give him a try too, but I’ve heard he’s been altered. It wouldn’t be the same.”

“Lori…” Taro said in a quiet voice that she hoped would carry only to the rabbit, “let’s not discuss this here.”

“Why not?” Lorelei responded as she returned to her own cubicle. “I don’t care if anyone knows that I like the guys.”

“That’s because you’re a slut!” said a new voice from outside the stalls. Whoever the person was, they could hear her stomp away. Undaunted, Lorelei laughed aloud and changed back into her own clothes. She’d picked out three outfits she wanted to buy and folded them neatly atop one another on the tiny bench inside the cubicle.

In the dressing room next to her, Taro sighed and shook her head in disbelief. She enjoyed the company of males herself, to be sure, but she’d never been as loose as the rabbit. In the months she had been back on board the Blue Horizon, Taro had tolerated Lorelei better than anyone else on the crew, but the more time she spent with the ship’s talented cook, the more she realized just how trying the girl could be.    

*** 

“Wow, Tanis, look at the design of that house!” Max said as he pointed to a large, Victorian-style home across the street from the shore boardwalk they strolled along. The canine youth stared up at the high roof and decorative mauve trim of the pale blue structure. A human couple relaxed on a porch swing on the veranda and Max thought the place looked peaceful. When he didn’t get a response from his companion, Max turned to look at him. Tanis had stopped and leaned against a wooden rail. He stared out to sea, a breeze cupping his large ears and the wide sleeves of his orange tropical shirt, but he didn’t look as if he actually saw the ocean or the fishing fleet off in the distance.

Max wiped sweaty palms on his Blue Horizon tee shirt and frowned. Tanis had been preoccupied a lot on their last day of leave, and Max wished he knew what was bothering him. Samantha had taught the German shepherd youth to be bolder when he wanted to know something, and Max nodded to himself. He still had difficulty mustering up the nerve to look for answers at times. His childhood of submissiveness was not always an easy rearing to get over.

“Penny for your thoughts,” he said to Tanis.

The fennec fox looked over at him with a crooked smile. “What does that mean?” he asked.

Max shrugged with a grin. “I was just wondering what you were thinking about,” he admitted. “I heard that phrase when we were on Earth, though I’m not sure what a penny is…”

Tanis sighed and nodded to his young friend. “I think it’s one of their local coins,” he said. He glanced back out toward the ocean again and then shook his head. “I was thinking about Nalirra,” he answered. “I have no desire to join such a senseless war, but it was my home for the first half of my life.”

“Does your family still live there?”

“I’m not sure,” Tanis admitted. “I haven’t talked to any of them in a long time. I don’t even know if Pop is still alive. He and Mum were doing okay the last I heard, but he’s up in years. There’s been nothing in the news about whether or not any of the Tanatan attacks have hit their area, but there are no military bases in that region, either.” He fell silent again and Max saw the distant look return to his eyes.

Several quiet moments went by and then Max tapped him on the shoulder. “How long have you known Duffy?” he asked.

Tanis looked over at him. “Duffy?” he asked, “What made ya bring him up all of a sudden?”

Max shrugged and began walking. Tanis followed him and they stepped off the boardwalk onto the beach sand. “Thoughts just jump into my head sometimes,” the canine youth replied with a smile.

Tanis scratched his chin. “I first met Clarence during our original draft into the Nalirran military service,” he said. “We were in boot camp together and were later assigned to the same squadron. I became a pilot and he was my mechanic. It wasn’t until after my first conscription ended that I went into the medical field. Duffy and I stayed in contact after we split up and have remained friends.”

“What’s conscription?”

“That’s when yer leader sends ya off to war, risking death, disease, famine, maiming and blinding whether ya believe in a cause or not. Most cultures did away with it a long time ago, but it’s tyranny’s first line of self-defense.”

“Oh… anyway, I didn’t get to spend much time around Duffy on our flight here from Nalirra,” Max mused as they walked up a sandy dune. “I was just wondering what he was like.”

“Duffy’s a good guy,” Tanis said. “He’s good with machines, and as a friend he’s fairly reliable. I wouldn’t trust him around yer girl, though.”

“My girl?” Max asked as they trudged down the other side of the dune. “Does he know Wendy?”

The desert fox laughed aloud. “No, Max, I meant in general. He loves the ladies and has been even known to play around with those who have steady boyfriends.”

“How do you know that?” Max asked carefully.

“I once caught him in bed with my cousin, and she was engaged to be married to someone else at the time.”

“Oh… What about money?” Max asked. “Does he have a decent income?”

Tanis stopped at the bottom of the next dune and looked at his companion with narrowed eyes. “Yer being awfully interested in his affairs, Max. What gives?”

Max stuck his hands in his pockets and looked off toward a red and white lighthouse farther up the shore. He didn’t answer for a moment and Tanis was about to repeat himself when the youth shook his head.

“Uncle Merlin told me something about him last night,” he explained.

“What was that?”

Max looked into his friend’s eyes and shrugged, something the youth tended to do a lot. “He said that Duffy was my father. I was just curious to know a little more about him.”

Tanis bit his bottom lip. “Do ya believe it?”

“Sure,” Max replied. “He told me how you discovered our similar DNA markers, and how he had King Aramis check it out for him.”

“King Aris,” the fox corrected.

“Yeah, him.” Max started up the sand dune and said, “It fits, y’know. I never really knew my mother either, but I knew that she was a pleasure girl somewhere else on Quet. I grew up around a lot of pleasure girls at the Wild Star and often saw them turning tricks, so I know there was the occasional pregnancy. I have no doubt that’s how I was born.”

“And yer okay with this?”

Max smiled. “Why not?” he asked. “It’s no real shock to know my biological father was still out there somewhere. It was just a fluke that I actually met up with him, without either one of us knowing it at the time.”

“For a kid, yer acting rather mature about this whole thing,” Tanis said in amazement. “Okay, so ya have accepted that it’s probably true. How do ya feel about Duffy being yer father?”

“I don’t know yet.” Max said. “I haven’t made up my mind on how I feel. Duffy’s a complete stranger to me, but I know he was your friend. That’s why I asked you about him.”

“Has anyone contacted Duffy about this?”

“No, I asked uncle Merlin not to do that just yet,” Max replied as he reached the top of the dune. “I want to sort this out on my own a little more. I think that —”

Max stumbled and almost fell. Tanis could see the youth’s look of surprise, so he scrambled up the rest of the way to join him. As soon as he crested the dune, he saw a body lying at the bottom of the dune next to a cardboard box, partially covered with newspapers.

The medic scrambled down toward the person and he knelt in the sand beside the large form. When he leaned over to take a look at the face, Tanis gasped in surprise.

“Armando!”

At the sound of his name, the Mainoran lion opened his eyes. He lifted a dirty paw to shield his eyes from the sun and squinted up at two silhouettes staring down at him. “Whut?” he asked groggily. “What do you want wit’ me?”

“Aren’t ya Armando Jensen?” Tanis asked.

The lion lifted his head and focused his eyes on the fox. He looked familiar, but he couldn’t place him. “Who wants ta know?” he responded cautiously.

“What are ya doing out here on the beach? Is yer ship nearby?”

Armando shook his head. “Got no ship no more,” he answered remorsefully. “Chon stole it from me.” He looked over at the German shepherd boy with ice blue eyes and suddenly recognized the logo on his tee shirt.

“Blue Horizon!” he said in recognition. “You’re with the Blue Horizon?”

Max nodded. “Yeah,” he replied. “You’ve heard of us?”

Tanis laughed. “Of course he has, Max. Armando was our most annoying competitor and quite the pain in the neck. It doesn’t look like we’ll have to worry about him anymore.”

“Listen,” Armando said as he crawled up onto his knees. Sand clung to his slept-in clothing, the party shirt and pants he had been in when he thought he was going to a dance club before he got booted off his ship. “I know me and Sinclair have had our differences, but can you ask him to take me to my dad on Mainor? My dad will pay him well.”

Tanis snickered. “Whoa, there, ya idiot,” he said. “There are two things wrong with yer request.”

“Whut?”

“First off, I don’t think Merlin would give ya the time of day. Ya have been a thorn in his side since you two first met and I think he’d be happy for yer plight. Yer also forgetting Mainor was blasted to a smoldering rock. If yer Pop was there, he won’t be helping ya anymore.”

“Oh…” was all Armando could say. He didn’t look as if he really missed his old man, but it was easy to tell he realized his predicament had worsened.

Max frowned as he listened to the exchange. He remembered hearing Armando’s name on the ship, but as he didn’t know the guy, he didn’t understand why Tanis treated him so callously. He opened his mouth to say something, but Tanis motioned for him.

“C’mon, Max,” he said, “let’s leave this loser. We should get back to the ship.” The two Horizon members began walking away in the shifting sand, but the lion got to his feet and followed them, his box clutched in his arms.

“No, please!” Armando pleaded. “I got nowhere to go now. Take me with you!”

“Don’t follow us!” Tanis said over his shoulder to him. “Yer presence is not welcome!” When he saw that his words were being ignored, he started trotting away. Max had to do likewise to keep up. When he looked back, Armando was still shuffling along after them.

“Go away!” Tanis shouted.

“Ask Sinclair to hire me!” the lion shouted back. “I need a job!”

“Go away!” Tanis repeated. He motioned Max forward and the pair of them broke out into a run.    

*** 

By the time Max and Tanis arrived at the warehouse on rented bicycles, the rest of the crew was already unloading cargo from four panel trucks and taking it in though the open bay doors of the Blue Horizon. Merlin crawled out of a truck and looked up at them as they arrived.

“You’re late,” he said with a frown.

“Yeah, sorry about that,” Tanis said as he pulled off his sunglasses by its elastic strap. “We ran into an old buddy of yours and had a tough time ditching him.”

“Buddy?”

Max waved at Lorelei and then ran into the ship to grab his work gloves. Tanis helped his boss load a grey box onto a flatbed cart.

“Yer pal, Armando Jensen,” Tanis replied with a smirk.

“Oh, Great Maker,” Merlin grimaced as they set down the crate. “Is that idiot here, too?”

“Yeah, he’s stranded and wanted us to take him on as hired help.”

Merlin straightened up and looked at Tanis. “Stranded?” he asked. “What happened to the Savannah Hunter?” Before Tanis could answer, Merlin held up a hand and shook his head. “No, I don’t even want to know. He probably got drunk at some bar and his crew accidentally left him behind,” he said as he crawled back up into the truck. “He can eat rocks for all I care.”

Tanis grinned and shook his head. “Yeah, I thought as much. Okay, I’ll tell ya about it later after we’ve launched,” he said. “Ya should get a snicker out of his predicament.”

“I doubt I’ll want to hear about it,” Merlin grumbled as Renny shoved another box toward him from inside the truck. “Go get your work gloves and help Pockets over in truck three.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Almost as soon as Tanis walked away, Merlin had put Armando out of his mind. Whenever they were moving cargo, he always cleared his mind of distracting thoughts in order to get everything moved, weighed and placed to Durant’s direction inside the hold. Unfortunately for him, that particular distraction suddenly reared his head.

Armando nearly fell to his knees right beside Merlin’s flatbed cart, panting for breath and holding his sides as he leaned against the cart. He dropped a box at his feet; comic books and a manila envelope spilled out onto the concrete tarmac. He had been running, fearful that he would miss the Blue Horizon before take-off. The wolf turned at the sounds and then flattened his ears in disbelief. A low growl filled his throat. “Get away from my ship!”

The Mainoran lion managed to straighten up and looked at Merlin in relief. “Sinclair,” he gasped. “Gimmee a job! I need your help!”

Merlin knew this particular irritant wouldn’t just get up and leave without a confrontation, so he motioned to Renny to take a break and then turned back toward Armando.

“I own two freighters that are doing well,” he said dryly. “Why would I give any of my customers to my chief competitor?”

“You don’t understand,” Armando said as he tried to catch his breath. “Chon stole my ship and business from me. I don’t own ‘em anymore and I’m stuck here. I need you to take me with you.”

“Wait a minute,” Merlin said with an upraised hand. “How did your first officer take your business away from you? That’s not just something you can shoplift from a coat pocket.”

Armando fidgeted and looked at the manila envelope on the ground his feet. “He tricked me into signing papers that said I sold everything to him,” he said humbly.

Merlin stared at him in amazement for a long minute as he worked out in his mind what the lion had just said. “Was… there a monetary transaction,” he asked slowly, “or did you just donate your livelihood at your signature?”

“No… he gave me a hundred credits.”

“One… hundred… credits…?”

A look of amusement crept across Merlin’s features, and Armando felt worse than ever when he saw a smile form. Merlin crossed his arms and shook his head. “If you can be tricked into selling your ship and business for a mere ©100, you have no right being in charge of your own business, Armando, even if it was given to you by your daddy!”

The lion stuck his hands in his pockets. He was starting to get hot under the collar, but had enough sense to know that he couldn’t afford to make the wolf upset at him. “C…can I buy passage on your ship to your next destination?” he asked meekly. “I don’t want to be stuck on Crescentis.”

“You want to buy passage on the Blue Horizon?” Merlin repeated with an upraised eyebrow. “Do you think you can afford it?”

“All I have left is eighty credits,” Armando admitted in a quiet whisper. “You can have it all.”

Merlin looked up at the large person before him without a trace of intimidation. “Eighty credits,” he repeated. “Get lost, Jensen. I have no reason to ever see your mug again.”

“Sinclair… please…” Armando said weakly. “You’ve helped other people before. Why won’t you help me?”

Merlin narrowed his eyes and looked at him darkly. “Because you’ve often tried to hurt my business and you can’t be trusted,” he said to him. “I don’t mind honest competition, that’s what makes the economy better, but I’ve tracked you at times and know about the dishonest means you’ve used to get and cheat your customers. Your first officer did me a favor, Armando. I should send him a gift in thanks.”

“But…”

“Get out of my sight, Jensen,” Merlin growled, “or I’ll have the Port Security escort you from the premises in manacles.”

Armando heaved a great sigh and looked around. The entire crew of the Blue Horizon had gathered around them and all were staring at him in either disgust or indifference. Several looked as if they were preparing to fight. Without another word, he knelt down, picked up the contents spilled from his box, and then tucked them all under an arm. He turned and then trudged away from the ship.

Merlin shook his head and then noticed his crew standing nearby. He didn’t feel like discussing the matter further, so he clapped his hands and said, “All right, the show is over, people. We’ve got cargo to move!”    

*** 

“Meow…”

Durant ignored the floating saucer that greeted him and entered the lift to head up to his quarters. The launch of the Blue Horizon had gone smoothly and the ship was now two hours into its journey to Kantus, loaded down with self-regulated, cold storage containers of fresh seafood. As Pockets was especially fond of seafood, the load master knew he would have to set up a perimeter alarm around it to keep the raccoon out of their customer’s goods. First, he needed sleep. He felt tired and thought a short nap would help to perk him up.

Moss turned in mid-air on its axis and watched the grizzly bear go, studying him with its two shimmering green eyes and twitching its metal whisker antennae. When it had registered the closed lift doors, it turned and moved out into the hold on a routine security sweep, its quiet whirring of internal mechanisms the only sound in the dark chamber. For its first random check, Moss altered its course and shot straight up toward the cargo bay’s ceiling, two stories above. The small flying saucer stopped and then floated quietly beside the overhead cranes as it detected a stress fracture in one gear wheel. It logged the matter into a file that would flag the chief engineer the next time he signed into the engine room terminal. It continued on, its scanners penetrating the dark recesses until it was satisfied there was nothing out of the ordinary to report. Slowly, Moss descended back down toward the cargo pallets secured to the Horizon’s deck plates, where they barely took up a third of the lower capacity of the hold.

The saucer moved quietly around the perimeter of the crates, reading individual systems maintaining each container’s interior temperature, and making note of those that showed any fluctuation in the normal settings monitored before launch. As it moved around almost lazily, the upper scanning eye changed from green to a red inner light. It stopped in its path and changed subroutines for a new set of scanning protocols that tied it in the with ship’s security files. There was a change in atmospheric pressure registered on the other side of a large box and its auditory sensors picked up a slow, regular pulse of sound. It checked its records, searching for signatures. It ran in a microsecond a profile on each of its records, and found no match.

Back in his cabin, Pockets looked up from his workbench and saw a flashing green light on his cabin terminal. He reached up, tapped a series of switches on a console, and patched his way into Moss’ infrared video capture. He swore suddenly, pulled a small microphone from a receptacle on the terminal, and thumbed its pickup switch.

“Moss, security routine gamma-gamma,” he asked into the microphone. “Don’t let it out of your sensor range.”

Following its new command, Moss responded with a simple flashing light on the engineer’s console, instead of its normal “meow”.

Pockets keyed the intercom switch to the bridge, and the first officer’s voice came back to him immediately. “This is Taro,” she said.

“Pockets, here,” the raccoon said. “Moss just discovered an intruder in the cargo bay.”

“Why does this always seem to happen on my watch?” the vixen asked. “Does Moss have an ID on the stowaway?”

“No, the signature doesn’t match that of anyone who’s ever been on our ship before.” Pockets knelt down, pulled out a slim case from under his workbench, and opened its top. “I’ve got my Binfurr rifle and am heading down to the cargo bay to make sure whomever it is doesn’t move.”

“Okay, I’ll inform the captain. Be careful, Pockets, but hold back until I can get Durant and Renny down there, too.”

“Thanks, Taro.” The raccoon closed the intercom circuit and then checked to make sure the rifle had a full clip. He pulled a second clip out of the case, shoved it into one of his many coverall pockets, and then was out the door headed toward the lift. Renny burst from his nearby cabin dressed only in a pair of blue athletic shorts and joined the engineer as the lift doors opened.

The cheetah saw Pockets’ rifle and frowned. “I should have brought mine, too,” he mused as the doors closed and began its descent.

Pockets reached into a leg pocket a pulled out a slender, sheathed knife. He handed this to Renny with a smile. “Better to be prepared,” he said. Renny pulled the blade from its sheath and could tell it was razor sharp even without testing it. “It’s made of Damascus steel,” Pockets told him.

Renny put a finger to his lips as the lift stopped and the doors parted. They crept out into the dimly lit cargo bay and the cheetah immediately caught movement on the other side of the hold. Renny gave Merlin and Durant a silent wave. The grizzly returned the greeting with a nod and hefted his own rifle to the ready.

Pockets pulled out a small device from a belt pouch and consulted the readings displayed there. He gestured with it to the right and whispered, “Moss is stationary over there about twenty paces, at the edge of the crates.” Renny nodded and hefted his blade as they moved quietly in that direction.

Merlin and Durant reached the location first. Moss turned and scanned them briefly, but under the security protocol it now followed, the small hovering saucer made no sound in greeting. Merlin gripped an antique broadsword in one hand as he eased his nose up to look over the crates beneath the sentry unit. He turned back to Durant and nodded as Pockets and Renny arrived. He didn’t seem to be surprised at what he had seen on the other side.

“Get out here, Jensen!” Merlin said in a loud voice. Since they had all been stalking quietly in the dark hold, the wolf’s voice seemed louder than necessary; Pockets started in surprise. There was a shuffle behind the crates and then the head of a Mainoran lion appeared between two of them. Armando looked surprised that he had been discovered so quickly after the launch and wondered if the Blue Horizon possessed internal biometric scanners. He saw the rifles and blades and meekly raised his hands above his head.

He saw Merlin’s scowl as he crawled out of his hiding place and then dropped to the ground in front of him. “Listen, Sinclair, I don’t mean any harm to your ship or crew,” he said quietly. The captain put the tip of his sword up against the lion’s breastbone.

“I’m not quite sure how you got on board my ship,” Merlin said with a growl, “but I know an easy way you can leave.”

Armando glanced suddenly at the nearby airlock and swallowed hard. “Now… w-w-w-waitaminute!” he stammered quickly. “Don’t space me, please!”

“Why shouldn’t we?” Pockets asked coldly. “You’re using up our oxygen.”

Armando lowered his hands and Merlin pressed the blade tip into the thin fabric of the lion’s party shirt. The point barely penetrated, but Armando got the message and nodded his head. He put one hand slowly into his pants pocket and then drew out several silver coins. He held them out to the wolf and said plaintively, “Eighty credits isn’t much, but this is all the money I have in the universe. Please take it.”

Without shifting his eye contact, Merlin scooped the coins from Armando’s hand and handed them over to Durant. “Now, you’re broke,” the wolf said as he lowered the sword to his side. “You have no money, no ship, no business and no life. What do you expect me to do about it?”

Armando swallowed and sat down on a nearby crate. He lowered his head and put his massive hands in his lap. “Gimmee a job,” he said humbly. “I’ll work for my passage.”

“What can you do to earn it?” Durant asked. “Are you a mechanic… a computer tech… a cook…?”

Armando looked up soberly. “I really don’t know much about any of that,” he admitted. “I’ve always hired other people to do those jobs for me. I used to work with a load master before I got my ship, though.”

“That’s convenient,” Durant snorted, “since the cargo was weighed, placed and tethered before we launched.”

“So…” Merlin asked dubiously, “what job on my ship are you applying for?”

Armando recognized the sound of resignation in the wolf’s voice and felt inspired. “I dunno… give me anything. I’ll clean your clothes, wash your dishes and help you move cargo…”

“We won’t be moving cargo until we land a month from now,” Durant replied.

Merlin sighed and then looked at his crewmates. They knew he would never jettison anyone short of an attacking pirate, but he didn’t like having to cater to his former competitor. “Alright,” he said at last, “you can stay until we get to Kantus, but you will have to earn your passage, Jensen.”

“Thank you, Sinclair.”

“You will address him as Captain,” Renny spoke up.

Armando nodded his acknowledgement and then slowly got to his feet. “Thank you, Captain,” he said.

Merlin gestured to the bear at his side. “This is Durant. He’ll be in charge of your work assignments, but you will follow the orders of anyone else on my crew if they have something for you to do.”

“Yessir.”

“I’ve got something he can do,” Pockets said. He thumbed the safety on his rifle and slung it over his shoulder.

“Good,” Merlin replied. “Armando, this is our chief engineer, Pockets. He’ll get you started.”

The raccoon smiled slyly at Renny and then headed off toward his engine room with Armando in tow.

As soon as they were out of sight around the perimeter of the cargo bay, Renny chuckled. “I hope that lion’s not too fastidious,” he said with a grin.

“Why’s that?” Merlin asked.

“Pockets thinks some beach sand might have blown into the landing gears while we were on Crescentis. He was intending to clean them out and re-grease them during the voyage. I think he’s going to make Armando get dirty and do it for him.”

Durant groaned and his companions looked up at him. “Sorry to burden you with him,” Merlin said, “but I thought you could probably handle his work assignments better than anyone else.”

“That’s not what has me concerned, boss,” the bear responded with a frown.

“What is it?”

“Armando only has one set of clothes with him,” he explained, “and I’m the only one on board who has anything big enough for him to wear.”

“Oops…” Merlin said with raised eyebrows. “During our next landfall, buy some replacement clothes for yourself from the ship’s funds.”

“Thanks, boss.”    

*** 

Tanis shook out the wet brush he had been using to comb the dirt out of Lorelei’s pelt and then dipped it back into the bath. “There’s sand all in yer fur,” he said to the rabbit sitting in the water in front of him. “I don’t have this much in my own fur, and I spent more time on the beach than ya did.”

The bunny smiled at him over her shoulder and snickered. “I don’t suppose that you’re a desert fox means your fur is better equipped to ward off sand than mine?” she asked as she tickled his toes beneath the water.

“Stop that!” Tanis commanded with a smirk. He dropped his brush and it made a splunk as it hit the water. He reached into the water to retrieve it and Lorelei suddenly giggled.

“Watch where you’re grabbing,” she teased.

“Can’t,” the fennec replied with a straight face. “The bath’s too murky with yer dirty water.” Lorelei giggled again and squirmed. She lay back against him suddenly and pinned his arm between them.

“Gotcha!” she said with a snicker.

Resigned to his fate, Tanis leaned back against the side of the bathtub, causing her to lean back further. She rested the back of her head on his chest and smiled up at him.

“So,” she said after a moment, “what did you and Max do today?”

“We mainly just talked as we wandered around the beach town,” the fox replied. “He asked me some questions about Duffy and I told him about Nalirra.”

The rabbit frowned. “That doesn’t sound so exciting,” she said. “How are you handling the whole war thing?”

“Okay, I suppose,” he replied. “It’s not easy seeing yer homeworld bombed apart by the very people yer government was going to bomb first. However… I cut ties with home years ago and I have to keep reminding myself that.”

“What about your friend, Duffy? Does he know he’s Max’s father?”

Tanis looked down at her in quiet shock. “How… did ya know about that?” he asked.

Lorelei grinned. “I saw your notes in the Infirmary. You left your slateboard out on the counter with the screen on them.”

“I see… Have ya told anyone else about it?”

“Renny, Taro, Pockets, Samantha and Durant were all eating lunch when I mentioned it.”

“Lori… that means everyone on board knows about it now. For Max’s sake, we weren’t going to tell anyone else!”

The rabbit shrugged her shoulders. “Oops,” she said. “Too late now.”

“I just hope Max doesn’t think I betrayed his trust,” Tanis replied solemnly.    

*** 

Armando Jensen grumbled and growled to himself as he left the engine room and headed for the nearest lift. He was tired, wanted to crawl into bed in the cabin that had been assigned to him, and sleep for a month. He had been on board the Blue Horizon for nearly eight days and he had hardly had any time to rest. It seemed that over half the people on board the ship had gone out of their way to find degrading assignments for him to do. He had done everything from scrubbing toilets with a toothbrush to vacuuming floors and washing dishes. He had been made to crawl into a filthy maintenance tunnel between the double hulls of the ship that were not designed for someone of his bulk, to get to greasy gears that he later discovered were just inside a large access panel in the engine room. He had mashed his fingers reorganizing equipment cases for the load master so they were arranged by size, and had gotten carpet burns on his knees picking fur out of the air reclamation unit filters. He had already lost track of the other little disgusting jobs that had been found for him, and he strongly suspected some of the things he had been assigned had never been done before by any of them.

He had taken to griping about everything in sight, even though he was constantly reminded just how fortunate he was to be a privileged passenger instead of free-floating in space. The only ones who hadn’t treated him like dirt were the rabbit who cooked for them all, and that canine boy who seemed to look on him in pity. Armando didn’t mind pity from Max. At least he hadn’t made him wash his socks as the cheetah had done.

He heard a sound ahead and looked up to see what it was. Durant was sitting on the cold flooring of the hold outside a locker full of cargo tie-downs, tarps and cables he had been looking through. Armando thought the bear looked winded, and despite the dirty assignments that had been given to him, the lion thought the load master needed a hand up.

“Are you okay?” he asked. “You need some help?”

Durant looked up at him and shook his head as he massaged his left arm. “Just feeling a little light-headed,” the bear replied in a raspy voice. “It’s nothing.”

“You need me to help you clean up this stuff?” Armando asked. “You don’t look too good.”

Durant waved a hand at him and swallowed. “No, just go on, please.”

Armando shrugged and shuffled off toward the lift, thankful he had not been berated or given something else to do. He had been sincere when he offered his help to the bear, but wasn’t bothered to have that help denied.

Durant watched the lion disappear into the lift and then turned over so that he was on his hands and knees. He closed his eyes to gather his bearings and then slowly stood up. He wavered a little, but remained on his feet. He glanced at the stuff he had pulled out of the locker and decided it could sit there a while longer. The grizzly bear made his way to his office at the back of the cargo bay and shut the door behind him.    

*** 

Merlin kicked off his boots and sat down on his bunk with a sigh of relief. He had just turned over the bridge watch duty to Samantha and he was more than ready to relax for a bit. Granted, bridge duty while the ship was on automatic was dull and boring, but despite the non-activity, it usually drained whoever released it to the next person.

The wolf wasn’t sleepy, but he didn’t really feel like doing anything else at the moment. He looked over at the small table beside the bed and picked up a printed novel he had begun reading earlier. He thumbed it open to the page where his bookmark resided and made himself comfortable against his pillow. No sooner had he settled into the first paragraph, the intercom chirped at him.

The captain groaned and closed the book as he leaned over to tap the remote beside the lamp. “Yes?” he grumbled.

“Sorry to bother you, dear, but Cindy’s on the line for you,” Samantha’s voice said from the overhead speaker.

“Patch it through.”

“Aye.”

“Captain! Captain Sinclair!” another voice issued from the speaker.

“Hello, Cindy,” Merlin replied. “What is up?”

“Bad news, captain…” she answered.  “Brandersen Electronics has cancelled our contract!”

“Brandersen? Isn’t that who we’re supposed to pick up our next cargo from on Kantus? A breach of contract is serious, especially with the distances we have to travel.”

“Marcus Brandersen himself called to make the cancellation.”

“Brandersen has been a repeat customer for years,” Merlin growled. “Why would he pull out all of a sudden? His business hasn’t been doing that badly.”

“Captain…” Cindy seemed hesitant and paused before continuing. “Another freighter offered Brandersen a better price on the same delivery, so he went with them instead.”

“We had a contract that was agreed upon weeks ago,” the wolf said angrily. “We have to schedule our shipments in a series or we’ll lose money. Start searching for another customer from Kantus to Alexandrius in order to keep up the rest of our delivery schedule.”

“Yessir!” the mouse replied over the speaker. “We’ll get started immediately.”

Merlin hit the intercom button again.

“This is Samantha.”

“You hear all that, Sam?”

“Yes, I did. That jerk…”

“Contact Jackson Wyatt, and see if there’s any action our lawyer can take against Brandersen for breaking contract.”

“That’ll be a pleasure.”

“First see if you can get Brandersen on the line for me and pipe it in here. I want to find out who stole our job from us.”

“Right away.”

“So much for taking it easy,” Merlin muttered under his breath.

A moment later, the intercom chirped and a deeply gruff voice spoke from the speaker. “This is Marcus Brandersen.”

“Mr. Brandersen,” the wolf said, “this is Captain Sinclair of the Blue Horizon. I’m calling about…”

“You want to know why I cancelled your services. Yes, I was expecting to hear from you.”

“Would you mind explaining why you dropped us while we’re currently on our way to you?” Merlin asked in a strong tone. “You’ve done business with us for a long time. Why would you bail out on us now?”

“Captain, you’ve always given me fair market prices for your deliveries to other worlds in the Planetary Alignment,” Brandersen replied. “As a businessman, I’m always on the lookout for more economical means of shipping my goods, since the cost for deliveries from one planet to another are phenomenal. Nevertheless, times change and other freighters sometimes offer better prices. That’s fair competition, Captain Sinclair.”

“I don’t have a problem with the concept of competition, Brandersen, but we had a contract! You’re bound to it until the deal has been completed. If you like this other freighter so much, you can wait until your next delivery to hire them!”

“Contracts mean nothing to me. The Savannah Hunter will be here a full two days before your arrival, Captain, and—”

“The Savannah Hunter!” Merlin croaked.

“Yeah, that’s right,” Brandersen replied. “That’s the name of the ship that belongs to a new freight business called Bamboo Cargo Services. I understand her captain is having the name of the ship changed soon, but that doesn’t concern me. I need my goods moved quickly and they offered the same delivery at a cost of ©40,000. That’s ten thousand credits cheaper than your usual price for deliveries between star systems.”

“Mr. Brandersen,” Merlin said through clenched teeth, “I agree that competition is good. If you had been approached with that price, I would have matched it to keep you as a customer. That’s still something we can negotiate if you’re interested.”

“Sorry about that, ol’ boy. At first, he offered to do it for ©45,000, but I told him it wasn’t enough of a discount to warrant my interest. That’s when he dropped it to forty thousand credits. I couldn’t turn down that price, then. That’s the way the business goes, Captain. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my dinner guests.”

“Mr. Brandersen, we had a legitimate contract signed weeks ago. Since you are unwilling to honor that agreement, you can expect to hear from my lawyer over this incident. Prepare to spend the money you think you just saved.” Merlin jammed his thumb down on the connection switch and disconnected the conversation before the bulldog had a chance to say anything more.

The wolf nearly tripped over his boots as he stormed out of the bedroom into the front room of the cabin. Angrily, he kicked them up against a wall and then growled beneath his breath as he departed his quarters. The first person he saw in the corridor was Armando.

“Jensen!” he shouted. “Get over here!”

The weary lion grumbled, but ambled toward the captain with dark eyes. “What do you want?” he said with impatience. He desired nothing more than to clean up and go to bed, and he didn’t care if the captain of the ship wanted him to do something more or not.

“I just got word that the Savannah Hunter managed to take away our next delivery job,” Merlin growled.

“Did they, now?” Armando said with sudden pleasure. He drew himself up to his full height, towering over the wolf. “That serves you right, Sinclair. Right after the Siilv War, finding shipping jobs was difficult, and every time we turned around, some job we tried to get had already gone to one of your two ships!”

“That’s fair competition!” Merlin replied darkly, unfazed by the lion’s size. “Your ship just took a job that was already contracted to us. I ought to jettison you right now!”

“That’s not my ship anymore, remember?” Armando sneered. “Chon’s your competitor now – not me, and believe me when I tell you that he’s a shrewd character. You’ll have to compete harder now that he has the business. He’ll do things that I wouldn’t have considered to get your customers.”

“That sounds unlikely,” Merlin said with narrow eyes. “I kept tabs on your activities and know about some of the things you tried.”

“Oh, you think so?” the lion snorted.

“Tell me, why did your deal with the black market on Nalirra fall through a couple years ago?”

“The SPF was tipped off to what we— hey! How did you know about that?”

“I told you I was aware of your activities,” Merlin answered. “If that deal had gone through, you might have ruined chances for any other honest freighting company from ever using that travel route again!”

Armando stared at Merlin for a long while and the corridor became eerily silent. He could hear whispers from inside a nearby door, likely some of the Horizon’s crew eavesdropping on the conversation that could hardly be called quiet.

“So, you’re the one who tipped off the SPF on me…” he stated dangerously. “That deal would have gotten me completely out of debt, Sinclair. Lucky for me, we got out of the area before the SPF discovered which ship was involved.” He moved toward the wolf and clenched both fists. “I should thank you properly for that,” he snarled.

“Take another step forward,” hissed a voice from behind him, “and no one will ever find your body.”

Armando moved only his eyes and looked at the muzzle of a weapon that had appeared at his forehead. Without looking, he could sense the presence of someone else behind him, also likely armed. The lion chose to relax his hands and took a cautious step back to his former position. Renny kept his rifle aimed at Armando’s head, and Tanis moved forward to show the lion that his weapon was also ready to do business.

“Lock him in his cabin,” Merlin said without taking his eyes off the lion. “He’ll stay there until we can kick him out on Kantus.”

Armando looked back at Merlin and gave him a wry smile. “At this moment, I hate JW Chon for taking my ship and business as much as you hate me. However, I know him well enough to know that your easy days in this business are over. He’s going to make it tough on you even if he has to cut his prices to underscore every delivery you try to get – that is what he tried to talk me into doing a few months ago, but I didn’t want to lose the money to gain the jobs. He’s more determined than I was.”

“Get out of my sight,” Merlin growled. “I don’t want to see your face again until we land.”    

*** 

Max grinned as he floated near the ceiling of the cargo bay. In order to repair a faulty gear system, Pockets had prompted Durant to make sure everything was secured in the hold so he could turn off the gravity plates. He and the young mechanic were hovering around the cargo crane near the top of the two-story chamber, their tool belts dangling lightly at their waists.

“Okay, lad,” the raccoon said, “I’ve got the pins loose. Ease the primary gear out toward you, but don’t let that cable near your ear wallop your head.”

Max gingerly grasped the piece of machinery and braced his feet on the supports on either side of it. With the pins free and the gravity off, the gear slid out of its housing with minimal effort, but it jerked momentarily as it came loose and sent the German shepherd youth floating away.

“Whoops!” Max said. He turned his body so that his feet were out in front of him and eased his toe to the upper support beams of the hold to stop himself. “This reminds me of when we were on the Walkabout,” he said with a laugh, “though without the pressure suit.”

Pockets chuckled as his assistant came drifting back with the gear in hand. “Perhaps,” he said, “but without the carnage, too.”

Max came to rest lightly back where he had started and held out the gear. “Yikes,” he said with a frown. “I had nightmares of that for weeks!”

Pockets took the gear and hooked an elastic tether to it to keep it from floating out of reach. He turned to his other side, latched onto an identical cog from a packing crate, and then passed it back to the young mechanic. “I don’t doubt you did,” he said. “That wasn’t easy to go through.”

“I kept seeing that woman’s face,” Max mused quietly.

“Why don’t we talk about something else,” Pockets suggested, “while we get this replacement cog into place.”

“Right,” Max agreed. He lined up the part into its new housing and had to hold onto the surrounding supports to work it back into place without pushing himself backward. “So, why do Uncle Merlin and Armando hate one another?” he asked.

Pockets looked over at him in amusement. “No one’s told you?” Max shook his head. “Well, those two have disliked one another since they first met.”

“What happened?”

“It was about five years ago,” Pockets explained as he lined up a series of pins to secure the cog. “The Blue Horizon had just received clearance to land at the Arnsberg Spaceport on Mainor and was on final approach when this dark green freighter shot past us. Arnsberg was a busy place and landing spots were at a premium, so the Savannah Hunter tried to jockey past us to get to the only remaining available pad first – despite that we were the ones given permission to land.”

Pockets motioned for Max to hand the floating cable to him so he could thread it through the gear pulleys. “Anyway, Merlin gunned the Horizon to take our promised spot. In the race to land, our two ships got too close and jostled into one another. Both ships and their cargoes sustained damage; Merlin managed to get the Horizon in first, but nearly crashed in the process. Armando’s ship wound up clipping the spaceport’s control tower and almost killed seven people. Luckily for him, no one died, but he got into hot water with the local police over it and his father had to pay for the damages. Armando claimed he had the right of way, since his company was based on Mainor and should have been allowed to land first. His cargo delivery was late and a costly portion of Vaterfin Crystal was broken. He tried to sue us, but since the Blue Horizon had records of receiving official landing clearance, the case was thrown out.” Pockets shrugged his shoulders and added, “There’s been bad blood between those two ever since.”

“No wonder there’s more to this than just a competitive rivalry,” Max mused. “It’s too bad they can’t put that behind them.”

“Well,” Pockets drawled, “that was only the beginning. We’ve had run-ins and even a few brawls with Armando and his crew on several occasions. Believe me when I say that there are few of us older folks on this ship who have any kind of respect for Jensen. Now that the Savannah Hunter has a new master, things might improve.”

“Improve? From what I’ve been hearing, this Mr. Chon is meaner than Armando.”

Pockets smiled. “I wouldn’t say he was meaner,” he said. “Chon is a better businessman than Armando and will take more competitive steps to make his new company earns respect and a clientele that will stick with him. I’ve met him on a couple of occasions and he’s a smart cookie. He won’t make the same mistakes that Armando made.”

“I just hope he won’t do something harmful to our business,” Max replied. “Samantha said he’s already after our customers.”

“If it’s a legitimate competition, Merlin knows how to play that game,” Pockets said as he secured the cable tightly with a small spanner.    

*** 

Merlin kicked off his boots and crawled onto his bunk. He reached over to the small bedside table and picked up the novel he had tried reading earlier. He thumbed it open to his bookmark and made himself comfortable against his pillow. No sooner had he settled in to the first paragraph, the intercom chirped at him.

The captain groaned, rolled his eyes, and then snapped the book shut. He leaned over and tapped the remote beside the lamp. “Yes?” he grumbled.

“Sorry to disturb you, boss,” Durant’s voice said, “but you have an emergency call from Mrs. Meers.”

“Mrs. Meers? Alright, pipe it in here.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Captain Sinclair?” Merlin recognized the voice of the golden retriever who ran the restaurant across the street from his office on Dennier.

“Yes, Abigail, this is Merlin. What can I do for you?”

“I hate to be the one to tell you this,” her voice said from the overhead speaker, “but your office across the street has been broken into.”

“Broken into!” Merlin repeated in surprise.

“That’s right. I’ve already called Cindy, who is over there now with Penny, Keri and the police. When I came to my restaurant this morning to start preparing for the breakfast crowd, I noticed your front window was smashed in.”

“I… I see,” Merlin replied in a stunned voice. “What else can you tell me?”

“Keri was over here a little bit ago, all shook up. She told me that all the computer and communication equipment has been smashed and their paper records are scattered all over the place. Furniture has been overturned and light fixtures were torn off the walls. No one was hurt, since it was done during the night when everyone was away, but they’re all pretty scared.”

Merlin cleared his throat and ran a hand through the fur on his head. “Thank you for calling me,” he said after a moment. “You’ve been good to my girls ever since we set up shop. I appreciate your friendship. Will you give a message to Cindy for me when you get a chance?”

“Yes, I will.”

“After the police are done with them, tell them to take off a few days to gather their wits and then call me back when they’re ready. I will have Taro handle the business end of the company from here, so we’ll need the calls automatically routed to us. Daily backups of the office records are routinely uploaded to us. I’ll have Durant contact our insurance company on the damage to your building, and we’ll coordinate their investigation with the local police.”

“I understand and will make sure they get the message. Anything else?”

“Yeah,” Merlin replied. “When they’re ready to get back to work, have them get the office back into order and then look into a good security system for the place.”

“Okay, Captain. I’ll take care of it for you.”

“Thank you so much, Abigail. You’re a wonderful person!”

“You have good people working for you. I only wish I could do more for you. Well, good-bye, Merlin. I’ll relay your messages and then I need to get back to work.”

“Good-bye, Abigail. Thanks again.”

Merlin closed the connection and then sat back on his bed. It never rains… he thought to himself. He frowned at the book that was still in his hand. He tossed it back to its place on the bedside table and then reached for his boots. He had to work this out with Taro and Durant before they lost any more time.    

*** 

Armando paced back and forth the length of the cabin that had been assigned to him. Despite that it covered three separate rooms, the accommodations were still smaller than what he was used to on the Savannah Hunter. It was true that he often locked himself up in his cabin during the voyages between planetary systems, but that was different from being confined to quarters. They had cut off his communication and video feeds to the terminals in the cabin, and he was locked out of the computer system as well. As it had been an unoccupied cabin, there were no real personal touches to the rooms. There were no pictures on the walls, curios in the cabinets or even books on the shelves. The lion was bored beyond boredom. Even his box of comics no longer interested him.

The cute bunny girl brought him meals twice each day-cycle, but she was always accompanied by another armed crewmember. At least he had been loaned some clothing that fit him somewhat. The load master’s pants and shirts were still a little big for the Mainoran lion, but none of the others on board was near large enough for their clothes to get into. He currently wore a pair of cinnamon-colored breeches and a burgundy, short-sleeved shirt with an open collar. His own soft-sided boots were travel-worn, but more comfortable that anything else they had found for him.

Armando glanced at the door and snorted, wondering how hard it would be to force the door open. There was no place he could go with the ship still out in deep space, but it would be better than being cooped up inside one cabin.

He walked to the door and examined it. A small access panel four inches across was in the wall near floor level on the right side. He picked up a butter knife from his meal tray and then stretched out on his stomach near the panel. He pried at the cover and managed to work it loose. A moment later, he had exposed four optic cables and a flexible pneumatic conduit.

Armando studied the configuration for a moment, as he tried to remember his basic flight system repair training. He was not sure what he was doing, but relied on instinct alone. He grabbed onto the pneumatic line and then gently twisted it back and forth where it connected to the thick doorframe just inside the airlock pane. He worked it for a few minutes and was about to give up when it came loose with a sharp pop! Armando smiled when the internal door shuddered for several seconds and then became still once again.

Tentatively, he got up on his knees and then leaned against the door with his hands. He pushed toward the right, and the door panels parted quietly. He picked up the butter knife, stuck it out of the door slightly, and then looked closely at the reflections on the silvery metal surface. There was no movement to the right. He turned the blade toward the other side and noted no movement to the left. Satisfied he wouldn’t be caught right away, Armando stepped out into the hallway and then closed the panels behind him. As he had been fed recently, no one would be checking in on him for a while.

He moved toward the left and passed several doors as he crept past each one. He stopped when he saw a blue door painted with the image of a golden sailing-ship’s wheel. He stepped toward the bridge entrance, but then hesitated as he changed his mind. He continued around the curved corridor and quickly found the lift. He punched the call button and within a moment, the doors parted for him. The lion stepped inside and hit the button marked “Level 3”. The door shut and the lights dimmed momentarily. When the lights brightened up again, the lift doors parted.

Almost immediately, he could hear labored action music and the clash of metal upon metal. He eased his nose out of the lift and saw Merlin and Renny both dressed in some type of white outfit over their fur, practicing their sword techniques with thin rapiers. He watched for several minutes until Renny lunged at the wolf, his blade tip missing his opponent only by Merlin’s sudden turn to the side. The captain followed through, whipped his blade up and sideways, effectively knocking the rapier from his navigator’s hand. It clattered to the floor and rolled across the carpet until it came to rest against Armando’s boot.

Merlin and Renny saw the lion at the same time. Both stood extremely still when Armando bent down and picked up the cheetah’s sword. “You two are very good,” he said quietly.

He carried the blade toward the combatants and tested the air with a couple of quick swishes. “I’ve always thought these things were for sissies,” he added as Merlin raised his own weapon in the event a new match started. Armando smiled toward him, but tossed the rapier back toward Renny, hilt-first. The cheetah caught it easily and then looked toward his captain.

“Personally,” Armando continued, “they’re no match for a pistol.”

“As you aren’t equipped with a gun at this moment,” said another voice, “you’re at a disadvantage.”

Armando turned his head and found Pockets looking up at him. Moss floated quietly beside him, both its eye lenses fixed upon the lion. The raccoon held a rather large and heavy-looking wrench in his hands, a cross expression on his features. The tool was nearly half as tall as the engineer himself was, and was smeared with grease on one end. Armando smiled.

“I didn’t come up here to pick a fight,” he said casually, putting his hands into the pockets of his trousers. Merlin eased his rapier tip up to his broad nose.

“If I recall correctly,” Merlin said with a growl, “you were confined to quarters. What are you doing here?”

“I was bored,” he said with a shrug. Merlin lowered his blade with a frown. “You’ve had me locked up for days with nothing to do,” Armando added. “You’ve given me no books nor audio or video feeds to help pass the time.”

“You haven’t earned those rewards,” Renny said. “You stowed away on our ship, have breathed our air and eaten our food. You’ve done nothing to endear yourself to us.”

“I’ve done all the filthy little jobs you’ve found for me to do!” Armando said in his defense. “I’ve worked for my passage and I want to move around to see more than just the insides of my cabin!”

“When you owned the Savannah Hunter,” Merlin said, “did you expect the captain’s commands to be law?” He picked up a cloth from a nearby chair and began to wipe down his blade.

“Of course I did,” Armando replied. “If I caught anyone disobeying something I told ‘em to do, I would pound ‘em into the deck plates.”

“I am captain of the Blue Horizon,” Merlin said as he put his rapier into a felt-lined case. “While we were still on Crescentis, I told you that I didn’t want you on my ship, yet you stowed away and then expect to be left alone to your own wishes.” He stood up and faced Armando as Renny put away his own blade. “You disobeyed the Captain’s Law, Jensen. Do you think I should ‘pound you into the deck plates’ now?”

Armando looked uneasy. “Listen, captain,” he said quietly, “all I want is a break.”

“Arm or leg?” Pockets asked from the side. Armando shot the engineer a dark look; the continuous jibes were beginning to get to him.

“Just cut me some slack, will you?” he asked Merlin. “I’ve had it rough lately.”

Moments earlier, Merlin had considered doing just that. He was tired of their feud and only wanted to be rid of this guy, but it seemed Armando was never apologetic for anything. He seemed too smug. He was not exactly sure what he was going to do with the lion, but before he had thought it out further, his mouth seemed to speak of its own accord.

“I really couldn’t care less about your situation,” he said coldly. “You’ll always be a loser.”

Armando Jensen had lost his ship, his business, his comfort and his pride in the space of a week. His stress level was higher than it had been in a long time, and Merlin’s last comment set him off. Before anyone could think, Armando slugged the wolf without warning.

Merlin’s head rocked back from the force of the impact and an explosion ripped through his ears. He spun around, fell sideways over the back of a recliner, and his head bounced off the carpet. His vision went black, and for a moment, he forgot where he was.

He shook his head and immediately regretted it. His jaw hurt on the left side and he had to blink several times before he could get his bearings back. This only took a few seconds, but when he was fully cognizant again, he realized that Renny and Armando were slugging it out with one another. Both were fast, but neither managed to avoid the other’s punches. He saw another movement from the side and looked up in time to see Pockets swing his huge wrench at Armando’s left ankle. The Mainoran lion roared in pain and fell to the floor as the heavy, greasy wrench slipped out of the raccoon’s small hands.

Renny took this to his advantage and jumped on Armando’s chest to pummel his face with both fists. Merlin stood up shakily and moved toward the commotion. Any pity he might have felt toward his old competitor had vanished completely and he had no qualms about kicking the lion when he was down. He stumbled trying to walk and suddenly found himself sitting back on his tail on the carpet, still dazed by the unexpected blow to the head.

Amidst the cheetah’s blows, Armando managed to grab one of Renny’s wrists and jerked sideways as hard as he could. The navigator gasped in pain and followed his wrist as Armando threw him off to the side. The lion rolled up onto his hands and knees, but a punch to his ribs made him collapse again. Forcing himself to move, Merlin knelt next to him and threw another punch to Armando’s jaw. From the other side, Renny kicked out from his prone position and caught Armando in the other side. The lion curled up to protect his middle and gasped for breath.  He gathered his strength and was about to get back up on his hands and knees when there was a thud at the back of his head.  He dropped to the carpet and stopped moving.

Pockets dropped the spanner he had pulled out of a pocket and laid against the back of the lion’s head, and moved to Merlin’s side.

“Are you okay?” he asked in concern.

The captain wiped away blood from a split lip. Pockets helped him up onto a chair and Merlin gingerly felt of his sore snout. “I’ll make it,” he said after taking inventory of his limbs and digits. Renny rolled over so that he could sit up, but held pressure against his injured wrist.

“What about him?” the cheetah said between pants.

“He’s out cold,” Pockets replied. “I hit him with a number eight hydra-spanner.”

“Better get Tanis up here to make sure you didn’t crack his skull.”

“Why?” the raccoon asked defiantly. “I hope I did crack it.”

Merlin looked over at him wearily. “Just get Tanis,” he repeated.

“Right, boss.” The engineer purposely walked slowly across the room to the intercom control, an act that didn’t escape Merlin’s notice.

Renny gestured toward the unconscious form of Armando with a grimace. “Now what do we do with him?” he asked. “If he got out of his cabin once, he can do it again.”

Merlin rubbed his jaw again and found it hard to think. “Dunno,” he replied.

“Would it be too much to ask to just jettison him?”

“Yes,” Merlin replied with a grin that hurt for him to make. “I know it would make you happy, but we can’t do that.”

“Aww, gee…” Renny said in a childlike voice, “you’re no fun.”

“However,” the captain said in a lighter tone at an idea that came to him, “I think I know how to keep him out of our fur until we land.”    

*** 

“Hold still,” Tanis admonished his captain. He daubed a foul, blue-soaked cotton swab on Merlin’s split lip and the wolf winched again. “It’s been a while since the last time ya got involved in a brawl, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Merlin replied through the stinging of the antiseptic. He sat on a small stool in the Infirmary while his medic looked him over. “I suppose I had it coming to me, though,” he added.

“Why’s that?”

“I’ve done nothing but degrade Armando since we saw him on Crescentis.”

Tanis tapped him on the chest with a claw tip. “Aren’t yah supposed to be the good guy?”

“I suppose I could have been more lenient,” the wolf admitted, “but I have to admit I’ve enjoyed having the upper hand on him.”

Tanis tsked and took a look at the bruise under the fur on the left side of Merlin’s jaw. “I could debate ya on who had the upper hand in this fight,” he chuckled.

“I should have expected him to be in for a fight,” the wolf said, “but he took me by surprise. At least Renny got to hit him a few times.” Tanis looked over his shoulder at the cheetah stretched out on a nearby gurney, snoring softly. There was a gel cast around his left wrist where the lion had broken it with a small fracture, and the painkillers had worked their magic on the exhausted navigator.

“Well, ya should be happy to know that Armando had more cuts and bruises that either of ya,” the tan fox replied. “Lucky for him, Pockets didn’t break his neck with the wrench. I suppose Armando has a thicker skull than normal.”

“I could have told you that without a medical examination,” Merlin said with a stinging grin. “He’s never had a good head for his own business.”

The intercom chirped and Tanis moved to the small panel near the door. “This is Tanis,” he said into the tiny condenser microphone.

“Tanis?  Is the captain in there with you?” Samantha’s voice asked.

“I’m here, Sam,” the wolf replied.

“Cindy called just a few minutes ago,” she replied. “I knew you were still being attended to, so I went ahead and talked to her myself.”

“That’s fine. Tanis has seen to our injured egos. He says we’ll be back to our normal surly selves shortly.”

“Nice.”

“What did Cindy have to say?”

“While she and the others were cleaning up the mess at the home office, Keri found a sealed envelope addressed to you. Neither she nor Penny can recall seeing it the day before. They’re afraid to open it.”

“What did you tell them to do?”

“I said I’d ask you about it first, since it was addressed specifically to you.”

Tanis whispered something to the wolf and Merlin frowned. “Get Cindy back on the line and tell her to have it opened and analyzed only by the authorities, and not to open it herself.”

“Okay, I can do that.  Why?”

“Tanis said there’s a chance it might be booby-trapped somehow, either with a chemical agent or a spring-loaded explosive. Let the police handle this as another possible threat.”

“That’s a lovely thought. I’ll pass along your orders right away.”

“Thanks, Sam.” 

Tanis closed the connection and looked back at his captain. “I don’t like the sound of all this,” he said quietly.    

*** 

When Armando regained consciousness, he felt strange. He was sore and aching, but was unable to move his arms. His eyes were open, but he couldn’t see anything except a fuzzy light somewhere in the distance. It took him a moment to remember the fight with Sinclair and the cheetah, but was unable to recall how it ended. He could feel a bandage wrapped around his head, however, as it was a little tight.

He strained his eyes at the light and it suddenly dawned on him what he was seeing. The dim illumination was coming from the door of Durant’s cargo bay office, two stories below him.  Armando’s eyes widened and he struggled against his bonds.

“Sinclair, you wretched cur!” he shouted out in fury. He began to swing back and forth from writhing about. “Get me down from here!” His voice echoed in the vast chamber but he received no reply.

Inside Durant’s office, the grizzly bear smiled and got up from the seat behind his desk. He walked out into the cargo bay and looked up in the direction of the shouting, but couldn’t see Armando in the darkness, bound hand and foot and hanging from the overhead crane hook. The Blue Horizon was due to land in a couple of days, and all Durant had to do to block out the lion’s shouts of indignation was close his pressure door.

“Sinclair!” Armando’s voice echoed, followed by a string of profanity in several languages.

Durant smiled and shut his door to continue work on the accounts.    

*** 

The Blue Horizon was a day away from Kantus and Taro had little luck trying to find another customer to replace Brandersen. She was tired, frustrated and was about to give up and tell Merlin they would have to fly empty to Alexandrius when the Com panel chirped.

She tapped the control and spoke into her headset microphone, “This is the SS Blue Horizon. How may I help you?”

“Blue Horizon? Good – I’m glad I got through! We’ve had a winter blizzard hit the city and we’ve had trouble getting off-planet signals for several days.”

“How may I help you?” Taro repeated patiently.

“Yes, right. My name is Crispin McDowell and I manage the Kantus district office for Book Depot. We’ve had a massive order from Alexandrius for a great number of printed book titles and we need to get them delivered to Oshua as soon as possible. I heard your ship would be on Kantus soon and was looking for a contract. Are you interested?”

Taro smiled. “Yes sir, we would be happy to take your order. Our usual delivery price from one planetary system to another is ©50,000, but we’re willing to—”

“Listen, I know it’s standard procedure to give your crew a few days off every time you land, but if you can make a quick turnaround and be on the way to Alexandrius with our cargo within a day of your arrival, I’ll pay you ©60,000 in advance.”

“This must be a fairly important set of books,” Taro said cheerily. “I’m sure Captain Sinclair will be only too happy to make an exception to our standard rule for your case.”

“Wonderful, Horizon. I have heard good things about your company. You will need to pick up our cargo at the Wiltz Warehouse in Oshua. Everything will be in cargo trucks that can be driven into your cargo bay and secured without having to unload them.”

“If you will send me your contact and financial information, I will get with Captain Sinclair to make the final arrangements.”

“Thank you, Horizon. I’m now sending information to you now via encoded carrier.”

“Data just received. I will contact you within the hour, Mr. McDowell, to finalize the contract and get the landing coordinates.”

“That will be fine. I look forward to doing business with you.”

Blue Horizon, out.” Taro made a few notes into the computer log and then reset the Com terminal for the intercom. A moment later, the panel chirped.

“Yes?” came Merlin’s weary voice.

“This is Taro, captain. I’ve just secured a contract to replace Brandersen.”

“Excellent!” the wolf replied in a sudden change of mood. Taro relayed the conversation she had had with McDowell to its ending. “That’s good news, Taro. Please finalize the contract and put it through just as you described it. Then inform Durant to arrange receipt of the advance funds from Book Depot. Since our turnaround will be quick, tell Lori that she is excused from cargo duty. She will need to get her replacement stock for the galley purchased and onboard in a few hours’ time before we transfer to Oshua for our pickup.”

“I’ll get on it right away.”

“One more thing,” Merlin said. “Even though Mr. McDowell has his inventory conveniently loaded into trucks, I want them searched before we put them into the Horizon. This would be an equally convenient way to sneak a bomb on board the ship. After what happened at HQ, I want to be a little more cautious.”

“That’s a good idea. Okay, I’ll get the ball rolling on all of this.”

“I appreciate your good work, Taro. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. Taro, out.”    

*** 

“Mr. Sinclair,” a grey feline said from the main vidscreen of the Blue Horizon’s bridge. She was an officer of the local police force in Grandstorm, Dennier, dressed smartly in a dark green uniform with a gleaming silver-plated badge over her left shirt pocket.

“Yes?”

“I’m Officer Dana Deonta of the Grandstorm Eighth Precinct. I wanted to contact you about the suspicious package that was found in the midst of your office break-in.”

“Go ahead.”

“It was tested for biological threats and mechanical triggers, but it turned out the envelope itself was safe to open. However, the note that was inside was important enough to warrant our attention, and we wanted to let you know that we’ll be on the lookout for further trouble around your office.”

Merlin frowned. “What did the note say?”

The feline officer frowned and nodded. “The message reads…”    

*** 

“We’re all here, Captain,” Rezo Kegawa’s voice emanated from the Rec Room’s vidscreen speakers. The large vidscreen panel was in split screen with the crew of the Hidalgo Sun on one side and the three from the home office on the other. The crew of the Blue Horizon was gathered in front of the vidscreen and Merlin stood in front and off to the side so that everyone could see him. He wore his flight jacket and captain’s hat formally to look like the commander of his group.

The wolf cleared his throat and nodded toward Rezo. “By now, everyone here knows about the company office break-in,” he said. “Nothing was actually taken in the incident, but office equipment was destroyed and everything was scattered throughout the rooms. In the midst of the mess, a sealed envelope was found addressed to me that had not been in the office the previous day. The local authorities took the envelope to their lab to test it for biological contamination, but found it safe to open. Inside, however, was a letter of serious consequence.”

The captain looked over the faces of his gathered crews from all three locations and then read from his slateboard. Everyone listened in rapt attention. He cleared his throat and read a transcript of the message.

 

“Merlin Sinclair of Blue Horizon Freight Transfer,

“A year ago, you were warned not to rebuild your business. Despite this, you have put two new ships into operation and have pulled in a nice profit for your expansion. This first attack on your home office is the result of your sin, but won’t be the last.”

 

Merlin looked up and added, “The note was unsigned.”

“That doesn’t sound good at all,” Rezo said. “When were you warned before?”

Merlin looked up at the red panda on the vidscreen. “Right after we lost our G-model Blue Horizon,” he answered, “we were staying at the Tanthean embassy on Pomen. While there, I found a note stuck to my apartment door that warned me not to attempt to rebuild my business. It was also unsigned, but at the time I strongly suspected it was someone from Sagan’s crew who planted it there.”

“You don’t sound like you think that’s who it is now,” Keri said from the home office.

Merlin shook his head. “No, in light of our recent loss of a customer due to the bold actions of another freighter, I’m starting to suspect the perpetrator is Jiawen Chon, current owner and captain of the Savannah Hunter.”

“Do you have proof that he’s the one?” Patch asked from the Hidalgo Sun.

“No, I don’t,” Merlin admitted. “I have no more proof than I did when I got the other note. It seems to be too much of a coincidence to dismiss, however.”

“From what Armando’s been telling us,” Renny spoke up, “this Chon guy could very well be desperate enough to do something like this.”

“Yes, but did this Chon have any reason to threaten you while you were down before?” Mark Littlefeather asked.

Merlin put the slateboard into a pocket of his jacket. “No, and I’m not saying it is Chon behind the notes,” he said, “but it’s possible he was intending to take the Savannah Hunter away from Armando even back then and wanted to keep our possible competition out of the way for his plans.”

“So, what do we do now?” Rezo asked.

“As we have no proof on who is behind this,” Merlin replied, “we’re going to have to be on our guard. I want everyone to be extra-cautious around the people we come into contact with in our business. Don’t let anyone board the ships without a specific reason for them to be there. If you have a customs inspector, make sure that person is accompanied by a chaperon from the crew while they are aboard. Don’t bring any guests on board while you’re on shore leave, and don’t give out any tours. If anyone gives you a gift before takeoff, be sure to inspect it before it’s brought on board.”

Merlin crossed his arms. “We’ve been threatened, attacked and threatened again, and now we have to be alert for more attempts to disrupt the company business. It may not only be equipment or documents that are smashed next time. Until we know who is stalking us, I don’t want anyone I employ to get complacent, even when we’re out in space and weeks away from any planet.”

The captain looked at his chief engineer and said, “Pockets, I want you to share your mobile sentry system plans with the home office and the Hidalgo Sun. I want a Moss unit constructed and operational in all three places, and I want the security protocols in their programming strengthened.”

“Aye, captain,” the raccoon answered. Durant rolled his eyes at the order, but understood Merlin’s reasons.

The wolf looked back up to Rezo. “I don’t know of anything else to do at this point, other than just stress that we have to be alert to further attacks that may take any form. I know that you will be making landfall on Quet soon. Be cautious, Captain. That would be a place ripe for something like this.”

“Understood.”

“Cindy, I want you to hire security guards for the home office. Be very picky about who you hire and make sure their references are checked thoroughly with the local police. Until this issue is resolved, I want someone in that office around the clock at all times.”

“We’ll take care of it right away.”

Merlin looked around at the twenty-one people in his employment and then sighed. “Life working for a cargo-moving company is supposed to be mundane, but someone else has caused this situation. Be careful in everything you do from now on, and be alert. There’s nothing more I can say.”    

*** 

Merlin and Renny began shutting down the ship’s flight systems as usual, but the thoughts running through the wolf’s mind were far from routine. They had just landed in the snowy city of Askran on Kantus and he knew that Durant would already be opening the bay doors of the hold to prepare their cargo for unloading. When he stood up from the center seat, Samantha looked over at him from the Com console.

“Max said that Armando’s causing a fuss,” she reported with a frown, taking off her headset.  “No one can get near enough to him to let him off the sky-hook.”

“You’d think he would welcome the chance to get off our ship,” Renny commented dryly as he locked down the rest of his controls.

“Where does he get his energy?” Merlin wondered. “I thought he’d be weak from hunger for hanging up there for two days.”

“That’s what he’s complaining about,” Samantha replied. “He hasn’t been fed since we put him up there and he stinks from soiling himself. Now that he’s been lowered to ground level, he’s thrashing about to try to get his hands on anyone.”

Merlin thought about this for a moment and then gave her a look of resignation. “Call the local authorities. Report him as a captured stowaway and tell them we need them to take him off our hands.  I won’t press any charges, but I want him off the premises as soon as possible. Tell them they might have to stun him.”

Samantha nodded.  “I’ll get right on it.”

Renny rubbed his gel cast in annoyance. His wrist was itching, but he couldn’t get to it. “Durant will have to forget about getting his clothes back,” he muttered.

“We won’t have a standard shore leave this time,” Merlin reminded him, “so he’ll have to wait until our next port of call before he can replace them.”  He looked up at Samantha on the Com talking to the local police, and then frowned when he looked back at Renny.  “I hate to do this to you, friend, but since your wrist won’t let you help us unload cargo, I’m giving you the chore of cleaning the cabin Armando occupied during his stay with us.”

“That’s right…” Renny grumbled. “Pick on the invalid…”    

*** 

Due to their quick turnaround, the Blue Horizon departed within twenty hours of landing. Lorelei managed to get the galley restocked for their next voyage and the cargo had been thoroughly searched in Oshua before they let it on board the ship. They found no hint of trouble and were able to make their launch window in time. Max was up and out of his cabin as soon as Durant had given the All Clear over ship-wide intercom. He headed toward the bridge, but as he reached the door, the blue panel slid aside. Merlin and Renny stepped out together.

“Durant’s on bridge duty,” the captain said. “Is there something we can do for you, Max?”

The young canine nodded. “Uncle Merlin, may I speak to you privately?”

“Go right ahead,” Renny said with a smile. “I’m heading toward the galley to find something to eat.”

“Thanks, Renny,” Max said. The cheetah sauntered off toward the lift, leaving the two of them alone.

“You want to talk in the office or my quarters?” Merlin asked him.

“Your quarters, if you don’t mind,” Max replied. The wolf nodded and led the way around the curved corridor to his cabin. The door opened at the touch of a button and Max followed him inside. Merlin took a seat on one end of his front room couch. Max took the other.

“What’s on your mind?” the captain asked him.

“It’s about what you told me concerning Clarence Duffy,” Max answered, looking at the carpet beneath his feet.

“I see, okay.”

Max fidgeted a moment, his hands clasped together between his knees. He wore a black tee shirt and tan carpenter pants that had a few tools inside the large leg pockets. He opened his mouth to speak, but a wrench settled in his pocket with a loud clink in the quiet cabin. Merlin smiled and said in a soft tone, “You’re picking up Pockets’ habits.”

Max grinned and nodded. “I don’t have quite as many tools in my pockets as what he carries on him at all times,” he said with a chuckle. Sensing the ice had been broken, he swallowed and said, “From what you and Tanis have told me about Duffy, I have to concede that he probably is my father.”

“It helps to have an open mind about it,” Merlin agreed.

Max swallowed again and then looked up into the wolf’s amber eyes. “What… what is this going to do to our relationship?” he asked.

Merlin leaned forward and rested his arms on his legs. “I don’t see how this should change anything between us, Max,” he replied. “Do you think it should?”

“Since you know he’s my real father, are you going to make me leave the Blue Horizon to go live with him?”

Merlin straightened up at that. “Make you leave?” he repeated in quiet surprise. “Listen, Max, even though I’m was your legal guardian and am your adopted kin, you are now an adult by Dennieran standards. That kind of decision is not up to me anymore – it’s yours to make. If you don’t want to leave the Horizon, you’re welcome to stay. I’ve had no plans to get rid of you.”

“Thank you.”

“So, how do you feel about Duffy?” Merlin asked

Max tilted his head slightly and shrugged. “Well, I can’t say that I hold anything against him for not marrying my mother,” he said. “I was really young when she sold me; I don’t really remember much about her anyway. Duffy seems okay, but I don’t really have an interest in going to live with him either.”

“Max, Duffy isn’t aware he has a son. If you want to keep things as-is, I’m more than willing to keep you in my family.”

“Thanks, uncle Merlin. I wish to stay.”

The wolf smiled. “Great! I didn’t want to have to hire anyone else anyway.”

“May I ask you a big favor?”

“What do you want, a bigger allowance?” Merlin asked with a large smile. Max returned the grin.

“Please don’t tell Duffy what Tanis discovered,” the canine replied. “It would only complicate everybody’s lives and I believe I like things just the way they are. If I decide to tell him, I might want to do that myself.”

Merlin stood up and offered a hand to his nephew. “Sounds like a reasonable request,” he said as Max shook hands with him. “However,” he said, “you should go to each person on board and make the same request. Lori’s already blabbed it throughout the ship.”

“Yeah,” Max replied with a smirk, “I know.”    

*** 

When Merlin and Max walked onto the rec deck a few moments later, the captain noted that nearly everyone was there, watching INN on the large vidscreen panel. Max ran to the galley to get something to snack on and Merlin walked over to the nearest couch. He stood behind it with his hands in his pockets as the dark-haired, human news anchor shuffled the pages before her and looked at the camera with a grave expression.

“Hello, listeners, this is News Around the Alignment and I’m Holly Harken of the Interplanetary News Network. The latest reports on the Roppa System War confirm that Nalirra has suffered tremendous losses to Oe’Tanatan attacks. The Nalirran fleet is down to one-half its original strength and its government has recalled its heavy cruisers from bombing their enemy planet just to maintain a line of defense. Casualties are heavy and Nalirran Personnel Forces are scrambling to draft as many off-world citizens as possible to keep up the front. The draft has been met with mixed results; in some cases, military SPs have had to be called in to forcefully take personnel back to Nalirra.”

Lorelei sat on the floor between Tanis’ legs and she could feel how tense his muscles were. She glanced up at him and saw his attention riveted to the images of defensive battles on the surface of his homeworld that played in the background behind Holly. His eyes were hard, and she could see his lips drawn taught as he fought to control his emotions. Her heart went out to him. She laid her head on his knees and gently wrapped her arms around his right leg.

“Casualties on the Tanatan world are still unknown. Attempts to get reporters into the area have met with disaster and even a few civilian deaths in that arena. Sed Amittias has issued no official statement as yet on the fighting, and still hasn’t requested assistance from other PA worlds, but associates to the dictator have anonymously reported that his mental condition is borderline unstable. While Amittias has not requested military assistance, the hospitals of Nalirra are in desperate need of medical supplies. Earth, Pomen and Alexandrius have already responded by sending relief supplies with heavily-armed escorts on their way into the war zone.”

Taro looked at the screen and a shiver ran through her. Her memory of Shoji Locke’s demise was still fresh in her mind. She didn’t think she would ever forget the sight of his split skull from the Tanatan ripple gun, especially knowing just how close she and her friends had come to the same fate. She started at the sight of similar victims on the news report and Renny gasped for breath from her sudden constricting grip on his injured wrist.

“Sorry, luv…” she whispered, releasing her hold on him. Holly continued on for several minutes before the images behind her stopped. She brushed a hand through her volley of hair and then reshuffled her pages that served no purpose other than a prop.

Next to Tanis on the couch, Samantha leaned over to him. “What’s this all about?” she asked him quietly. “No one seems to know why your world is at war.”

Arktanis swallowed and looked around the room at his crewmates. “I’ve been away from home news for too long,” he said in a muted voice. “Nalirra and Oe’Tanata were colonized in the system around the same time, but developed apart. They’ve always left one another alone, but from what Holly reported about Sed Amittias’ mental condition, it’s possible he tried to extend his dictatorship off-world.” He closed his eyes and dropped his chin to his chest. He let out an audible sigh. “Ya’ll saw the images from the news report…” he said somberly.  “I actually recognized a few faces of people I once knew, their heads busted open and their abdomens split apart from the enemy weapons.”

The fennec fox looked up and behind him at Merlin, his expression forlorn. “When we went in to destroy mine and Duffy’s personnel files, this is what we wanted to avoid,” he said. “I’m not against fighting for my world when there’s a proper cause, but this war is pointless. Amittias is not even telling his people what they are fighting for, so there’s no patriotic reason to take part in it. I know this makes me look like a draft-dodger,” he said lowly. “Maybe I am, but…”

“No one thinks of you that way, Tanis,” Merlin said with a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “The heavens know how glad I was to leave my own military unit after the Dennier-Mainor conflicts. I’m sure I can speak for everyone when I say that your career in the medical field is more important than fighting and killing for an unknown purpose.”

Tanis was thankful for his captain’s words, but he snorted in personal disgust. “No offense to ya, Merlin, but I’m not much of a physician on a space freighter. I never got to finish my medical degree to become a fully licensed doctor – I was short one semester of graduating when I was recalled into active duty four years ago. I suppose I should have gone back to the university when I finished up my service time, instead of coming back to work for ya again as a medic.”

“You still can, you know,” Pockets said in a quiet voice. “We’re glad to have you here, Tanis, but no one would fault you if you left us to further your career.”

Tanis looked up at the engineer gratefully. “I appreciate that, Pockets,” he said with genuine feeling, “but right now that’s not an option. No university in the PA would accept me when there’s an open call for citizens to return to Nalirra to fight. Perhaps later when this is all over, I might try to finish up my degree somewhere.”

Merlin gave a little squeeze to the desert fox’s shoulder and nodded. “Whenever that time comes,” he said warmly, “you can count on us for personal references.”

“Thanks,” Tanis said, seeing the friendly faces around him. “That means a lot.”

“Hey, what’s this?” Durant asked suddenly. Everyone’s attention returned to the vidscreen to find video images of rioting outside a prominent building on Pomen. Holly had continued her broadcast during the Blue Horizon’s personal conversation.

“…just as devastating to other parts of the Planetary Alignment,” she said, “Interpost has just laid-off some three hundred fifty thousand employees and closed its doors, citing embezzlement and internal tampering by its committee members. In an age of routine spatial travel and advanced tachyon communications technologies, there are times when physical packages must still be shipped between the worlds of the PA. Interpost was created thirty-five years ago to handle this interstellar postal traffic, and with its sudden collapse, the company has effectively stopped millions of small-scale shipments without a backup plan for the billions of customers on seventeen worlds.

“The PA Legislature convened for an emergency meeting today to address the problem. An investigative team was selected to begin an immediate, full-scale investigation into the Interpost shutdown, and in a PA-wide broadcast transmitted roughly an hour ago, Senator Wrigley of Pomen addressed the Legislature to announce temporary measures.

“In a mandatory declaration, all interstellar freight and shipping companies are ordered to help out in this time of need.” Several of the gathered crew looked quickly at Merlin, but he only shrugged to indicate he had heard nothing of this beforehand.  “Directives will be sent out en masse within the next few days to all known interstellar freighters, but INN has received an advance copy of the message that will soon be distributed all over the PA.

“Every vessel shipping goods from one world of the Planetary Alignment to another will be required by a new law to take on as many parcels as is possible upon each voyage to maintain a semblance of order for customers on all the affected planets. Each ship will be paid a flat fee of ©5,000 for each delivery of postal crates it makes along with its normal business. However, each vessel that lands and does not release a shipment of the mail will be fined ©5,000. All freighters currently en route between worlds are exempt from this fine until their next planetfall, but any ship that launches toward another PA-member world will be required to carry mail to its next destination.”

Holly nodded again off camera and then looked back with a smile. “We will take a short break for this station identification. When we come back, I have some good news from the world of Tanthe.”

“Whoa…” Pockets said when he muted the broadcast audio. “That came out of nowhere.”

“Not really,” Durant said. Everyone turned to look at him. “Interpost has been going up on their shipping rates every year for the past five years, but their fleet of delivery ships is getting a bare minimum of maintenance just to keep them flying. They haven’t purchased any new ships in nearly eight years, despite their price increases.”

“Holly said there were allegations of embezzlement,” Samantha said. “That probably shows where all the monies have gone.  Looks like their bookkeepers couldn’t cover for them any longer and just shut down operations.”

“How badly is this going to affect us?” Taro asked.

Merlin spread his hands outward and smiled. “At first glance, I can’t see how it would hurt us at all,” he replied. “It’s rare we’re fully loaded to every cubic area of space in the hold, so taking on a few more crates each time isn’t going to affect our schedule or business, unless it’s to add another five thousand credits to the coffer each trip.”

“Since you put it that way,” Renny said, “I don’t see why the Legislature would need to fine anyone. I would think every freighter out there would be pleased to add a little extra to their incomes without doing anything else to really earn it – especially with the way the economy is right now.”

“Holly’s back on with the news,” Lorelei said.

“Welcome back to News Around the Alignment. I’m Holly Harken of the Interplanetary News Network. Many of my viewers will recall the excitement and celebrations on the world of Tanthe when Princess Tinara Shei Aris, the second daughter of King Adion Aris, gave birth to the new official blood heir to the throne, Prince Merlin Sel Aris. We have received word earlier in this broadcast that the Princess is pregnant yet again, the result of an ancient tradition enacted to infuse new blood into the family line using an unrelated lover. Details on the conception and the surrogate father have not yet been released, but the royal family is celebrating their good fortune with worldwide festivities. Stay tuned, folks. You can count on Holly to bring you the latest updates as soon as they are known.”

“What do you know about that?” Renny said. He looked over at the captain and flashed him a wide grin. “Your royal girlfriend found herself another man!”

“Yeah,” Taro said with a smirk. “I’m surprised she didn’t try to get Merlin for the job!”

Samantha looked up at the lupine captain, who stared at the screen with an unreadable look on his face. He didn’t respond to the jovial jabs at his love life, and the Border collie felt a sudden cold feeling along her spine.     

*** 

Night and snow were falling over the suburb of Askran on Kantus. Armando Jensen sat on the floor in the middle of his studio apartment eating a meager supper. After spending a night in jail, he had quickly managed to find a job moving boxes at a local warehouse, and had been able to convince the foreman into an advance on his first paycheck so he could secure a place to live. Despite that the lion didn’t appear to be very intelligent, he was a strong worker when prodded enough and warehouse work didn’t require too much thinking. He’d done well enough his first few days that the foreman had agreed to keep him on.

He had only been in his tiny apartment for two days and the only furnishings he could afford were a lamp, a pillow, a space heater and an insulated sleeping bag. He had been eating off paper plates, drinking out of plastic cups and frequently ate out at convenience-food establishments as he had nothing yet to stock in the refrigerator. Other furniture would have to come later as his pay was issued, but for now his living was rather Spartan.

Armando had just finished eating his meal and immediately wished he had a couple more bags of the same. He had found an inexpensive place that served honey mustard with their meals and he tended to frequent the establishment. He crumpled up the juvenile green and yellow paper wrappings and tossed them into a plastic sack. He didn’t have a communication set, so he couldn’t watch the news or listen to music and there was little else to do. Still moping about the loss of his livelihood, the lion gloomily reached for his worn box of comics, the only personal possession left to him from the Savannah Hunter.

Before he could get started, however, there was a loud knock on the apartment door. He grumbled something about salesmen keeping late hours, got up off his sleeping bag and trudged to the door. He opened the panel and was about to mouth off his irritation when he noted that the pair of Rottweilers that stood at his front door were dressed in full-length, tan uniform coats; both carried a sidearm.

“Yeah?” he said as he picked up his coat off the floor near the front door and struggled into it. The air was crisp and flakes of snow blew in past his ears.

“Excuse me; is there a Mr. Jensen who lives here?”

“That’s me.”

You’re Armando Jensen?”

“Yeah, that’s right. What do you want? I don’t want to buy anything.”

The two Rottweilers looked at one another briefly, and then one pulled out a white folder from a briefcase he was carrying.

“Armando Jensen, age thirty-seven, the son of Arturo and Shawnetta Jensen?”

“Yeah, that’s me! Now, what d’ya want?”

In unison, both Rottweilers pulled guns from their holsters and leveled them at him. “I’m afraid you’re under arrest, Mr. Jensen,” one of them growled. “We had a hard time tracking you down, but we have you now.”

“Arrest? What for?”

“We have a rainbow document that says you’re claiming to be a former army military technician in the Nalirran armed forces. As there are no felines allowed in the Nalirran forces, you must be a spy against our war with Oe’Tanata.”

“Now wait just a—” He swallowed his words when the other canine shoved his weapon up beneath his massive jaw.

“We can do this the easy way,” the Rottweiler growled, “or the hard way.” He cocked the hammer on his old style revolver. Armando swallowed, but said nothing more.

The other guard opened a clip on the side of his belt and pulled out a set of thin manacles made of a metal alloy that was more than strong enough to resist the strength of the Mainoran lion. He commanded Armando put his hands behind him and then secured the bracelets around his thick wrists.

“Come with us,” the canine with the gun instructed. Armando followed him meekly, the other guard bringing up the rear.

“I didn’t do anything,” Armando said plaintively. “I don’t know anything about no rainbows or a war with tomatoes. I ain’t never even been to Nalirra!”

“Shut up,” the guard in back said with the nose of his weapon gouged up into the middle of the lion’s spine. “You can wail your excuses all you want in front of a Nalirran military court.”

Armando may not have possessed a very good mind for business, but he was no idiot either. He sized up the two guards and weighed his chances for getting away as they walked down the icy stairs of his apartment complex to the darkened street below. His chances of escape died when they reached the ground level and he saw three more armed Nalirran canines near a personnel carrier full of other captives. He doubted he would be able to get far on the snow-covered ground before being shot.

He didn’t know that the guards had originally come to his address to draft him into military service, nor did he know anything about an altered rainbow document that had been processed with his name and family information before that facility had been attacked. Rather than Arktanis TeVann, whose information had originally been on the document, it was Armando’s data that had been processed and researched.

The guards put him in the back of the transport with a crowd of bewildered canine draftees and then climbed into the cab of the vehicle themselves. Armando Jensen looked at the faces around him and heaved a big sigh. Could this get any worse? he thought to himself.     

*** 

The Savannah Hunter had just cleared Kantus orbit and the bridge crew worked quickly to prepare its LightDrive engines to increase speed for their destination on Alexandrius.  JW Chon watched his people keenly from a console near the back of the bridge and nodded to himself in satisfaction. Ever since he had rid the ship of its former owner and captain, Chon had noted a marked improvement in the attitude and performance of those who staffed the dark green freighter. It was amazing that such a small thing could improve morale so much.

“We’re in the clear, sir,” a koala bear told him from the navigational station. “Ready to increase to cruising speed on your command.”

“Very good, Mr. Netter,” the giant panda said approvingly. “Increase speed, Mr. Sitka.”

“Aye sir,” responded the mouse occupying the pilot’s seat. “Increasing to cruising speed now. We will attain optimum velocity in approximately four hours, sir.”

“Okay, listen up everyone. I want you to lock down all systems and put the ship on auto-pilot,” Chon said. “Everyone is to assemble in the Rec Hall in fifteen minutes for some important announcements I want to make to everyone in person.”

Without another word, the bridge crew did as they were told and set all their systems to automatic function. The captain knew that Hunkle would be informing the rest of the crew of the assembly, and by the time he stepped into the ship’s largest crew chamber, all hands would be present. Sure that his people would follow this command, Chon left the bridge and headed for his quarters to pick up a slateboard.

Twenty minutes later, Jiawen Chon walked into a room packed with his personnel. Lon Hunkle ran up to him and executed a sharp salute. “All personnel present, captain.”

Chon smiled and gave the ferret a nod of approval. He moved to the front of the room and stepped up onto a metal box that Hunkle had arranged for him to stand on. He put his hands behind his back and looked out over the faces of the seventeen individuals that made up his crew. He was dressed in a pair of tan pants and a red vest, and was comfortable in what he was about to announce.

“The first thing I want to tell you,” he said in a friendly tone that carried in the quiet air, “is that I am pleased with the performance of this crew in the wake of change.”  There were several whispers between people. It was probably the first time any of them had received a kind word from the panda since they had been shanghaied to the crew.  “There are more changes to be made, but some of the decisions will be your own,” Chon continued.

“Now that Armando Jensen is no longer in the picture, I would like a stable and secure crew aboard this ship.”  He was amused by so many unblinking stares. None of them was aware of what he was going to say, including Hunkle.  “Now, I know that you were brought aboard the Savannah Hunter against your will, and I know that many of you have been looking for any excuse to jump ship and return to your homes. As part of the changes around here, I have a proposal for all of you.  If you will willingly stay on board with me for just two more voyages, I will freely release you if you wish to go back to your homes.” There was a sudden, almost simultaneous intake of breath by many in the crew. Was he serious?  Could they go home? Lon Hunkle’s mouth dropped open wide. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“If I lose you all,” Chon said with a shrug of his shoulders, “so be it. However… if there are any among you who would wish to stay and work for me under a standard legal contract, I will grant to each person a competitive pay raise, as well as a full benefits package.”  More whispers filtered through the crowd.  “I have no doubts that many of you will choose to leave, and for the positions vacated, I plan to lawfully hire new workers to fill them. A lot of freighting companies went out of business after the Siilv War, so there should be plenty of former cargo-movers willing to sign a standard contract to crew for me.”

 He looked around, recognized looks from several he knew would be gone no matter what he offered them, and then he crossed his arms.  “If there are any who will agree to stay beyond two more voyages, you will be treated well and with respect, but under a contract I will expect nothing less than honest hard work and your loyalty.  This ship is in the business to make money, and it will take an effort on everyone’s part to keep the business running well – especially since single-ship cargo movers like this one are dropping out of operation at an alarming rate due to large-corporation freightliners like TranStar Shipping expanding their territories and making smaller hauling jobs harder to find.”

He pulled a folded sheet of paper from an inner vest pocket and then held it up before his eyes. “One last thing and then you will be free to go back to your duties,” he said. “I submitted registration for a new name for this vessel this morning, and as soon as we make our next landing, I will be having the exterior hull repainted to a cool-blue shade of white, with green and gold trim to reflect the new freighter, Bamboo Wind. It’s time to distance ourselves from Armando’s reputation and drop Savannah Hunter altogether.”

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