Return to the Library

BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 3

— Episode 27

"Light a Candle for Me"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

Renny looked at his watch as the last of the transports drove away. With their cargo preloaded into trucks, it had taken less than twenty minutes for Durant to do the necessary electronic documentation with the Book Depot representative and for their supplied drivers to move the vehicles out of the Blue Horizon’s hold. It was almost nine o’clock in the morning and Merlin had already told everyone that shore leave would last eleven days this time. All of the crew cabins had been inspected by the captain prior to landing and Merlin had given his okay that his ship had been cleaned well enough for them to go after their cargo had been unloaded. Even Pockets’ quarters had passed inspection.

Renny and Taro had not spent much time with one another during their past few shore leaves, but this time they had agreed to be together during the extended vacation. They hadn’t made specific plans as yet; they wanted to wait until they knew more about the city in which they had landed. Of those on board the Horizon, only Samantha and Merlin had been in Iverson before, but Durant had made noises about spending several days away from the city on a fishing trip. It seemed he’d already done some research and had some foreknowledge of the area, even if he had never actually been there.

Because of the trucks, there hadn’t been much to do so far as unloading cargo went. The only thing they had really had to do was disconnect the stout chains and cables that had secured the trucks to the cargo bay floor during flight. On a normal job, it would take the Horizon crew an hour or more to unload the standard octagonal shipping crates into loading trucks or a warehouse, and longer if their client happened to ship their goods in dissimilar wooden crates.

Despite the quickness and ease of this particular unloading, none of them could leave until Merlin gave the word that they could go, and most of the crew was milling around the hold awaiting that permission.

Renny glanced up at a sudden roar and watched a Seriola-class heavy freighter take off from a nearby launch pad. It was long, cylindrical, and easily five times the size of the Blue Horizon. The glare of its engine triad was brilliant even in the sunshine of the clear autumn morning and it created shadows as if it were a small sun. He squinted as it turned 180° degrees on its horizontal axis, and even at this distance, he could read the large lettering of the ship’s name: Amberjack. The cheetah’s mouth opened in awe at the sheer size of the thing. He remembered hearing about it on a news feed not too long ago. Its sole purpose was to transport settlers to new worlds that the Firebird Fleet might find habitable, in addition to their families, livestock and supplies enough to colonize new lands.

After the Amberjack finished its rotation, it angled up and began to rise ponderously, but its sluggishness was deceptive. Renny watched it until the ship reached an altitude above the spaceport traffic, and then it vanished in a sudden burst of speed. Wherever it was headed, the Amberjack was fast on its way.

Renny yawned and stretched, but something familiar suddenly caught his eye as he returned his attention to the spaceport. He had not noticed it before, but there was a Sakura-class freighter on the landing pad next to them. Its exterior colors of bluish-white with green and gold trim triggered a memory and he suddenly felt the fur along his tail begin to stand out. As he gazed at the wedge-shaped cargo carrier, he could see its main hatch open. A large male panda dressed in a red vest and black breeches stepped out into the morning air and began walking directly toward the open bay doors of the Blue Horizon. A thin gold chain around his neck sparkled in the sunlight.

“Uh oh…” he muttered to himself. He glanced over to where Merlin had been talking over the details of their delivery with Durant, and noticed that the wolf was already headed out to meet the approaching visitor. Other members of the crew started forward until Durant cleared his throat loudly and held up a hand for the others to stop. Renny watched suspiciously as Merlin and the panda stopped in front of one another.

Merlin looked up at the taller panda, knowing full well whom he faced. There were many things he wanted to say at that moment, but his sense of diplomacy won out. “What can I do for you?” he asked stiffly as he fiddled with the cuffs of his bomber jacket.

“Captain Sinclair?” the panda asked. Merlin nodded and then the visitor held out a hand in greeting. “My name is JW Chon,” he said with a slight bow. “I’m captain of the Bamboo Wind.”

Merlin took the offered hand hesitantly and squinted in the sunlight. “Hello, Mr. Chon,” he replied. “We’ve met before, though not formally.”

“Yes, that’s right,” the panda said with a nod. “I remember. It was on Earth, in Tucson.”

“Should I congratulate you on your promotion, Captain?” Merlin asked dryly. Chon recognized the tone in the wolf’s voice and nodded again.

“I suppose that depends upon your perspective,” he replied. He looked steadily at Merlin for a moment and then said, “The spaceport has a nice, but informal restaurant in the South terminal called Feather Wings. I would welcome the chance to talk with you a bit, and things are usually friendlier over a meal. It would be my treat, if you would join me.”

Merlin raised his eyebrows. “Uh, sure,” he said, taken off guard. “Do you mind if I bring someone with me? I promised her breakfast as soon as we’d landed.”

Chon smiled widely. “Of course, bring along your lady friend. I’ll pick up her check, too.”

Merlin nodded slowly. “Alright, I accept. I have a few more things to take care of before I can leave my ship. Shall we meet you there in half an hour?”

The panda pulled out an antique Terran timepiece from a vest pocket and then nodded. “That will be fine. I’ll see you there, Captain.” He gave Merlin another small bow and then began walking toward the main spaceport terminal building.

“What was that about?” Renny asked a moment later.

Merlin looked over at his navigator and then scratched the fur beneath his hat. “I’m not sure, Renny,” he replied. “I expected a fight, but instead I got an invitation to breakfast with him picking up the tab.”

Renny licked his lips. “Breakfast?” he asked. “Can I join you… you know, just to make sure he doesn’t jump you or something?”

Merlin turned and looked at him with a canine grin. “Sorry, Vacuum-Lips, but I’m taking Samantha with me.”

The cheetah’s whiskers drooped in disappointment. “Oh, I see how it is. I’m not good enough...” he whined.

“On the other hand, I suppose if Chon had to pay for your meal, his business would go broke and I’d be rid of another competitor…”

Renny put a hand to his chest with a grimace. “Oh, that hurt…”   

*** 

When Merlin and Samantha entered the doors of the restaurant, they saw JW Chon immediately. He was across the room from the entrance, but his red vest stood out like a beacon against his monochromatic fur and he looked up at them with a smile when they approached.

“Please have a seat,” the panda said pleasantly. Samantha exchanged glances with Merlin before she slid into the booth.

“Thank you,” Merlin said after he had settled in next to her. “Captain Chon, this is Samantha Holden.”

“Hello, Captain,” the Border collie said politely.

“Thank you for joining me,” the panda said with a nod of his head. Before he could say more, a waitress stepped up and set menus on the table between them.

“Welcome to Feather Wings,” the cougar said with a smile.

“You may order anything you like,” Chon told his companions. “This is my bill.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Samantha replied. She looked over the menu and was tempted to order the most expensive thing on the menu just because he was a competitor — especially since he had taken a customer away from them — but at the last moment she decided that she was better than that and ordered something only slightly less expensive. She watched his eyes when she gave her order to the waitress, but the panda didn’t even flinch. He actually smiled, which made her more uncomfortable.

Merlin gave his order to the waitress and then waited while Chon did the same. After she had left their table, the wolf leaned forward and looked up at their host.

“So,” he said warily, “what did you wish to discuss with me?’

Chon nodded his head. “Straight to the point, I see – no small talk to lead into the conversation,” he said as he leaned back in the seat. “Alright, Captain, we can go there. From the tone of our chat out by your ship, I think I can assume you are aware of the prior history of my freighter.”

Merlin nodded. “Formerly known as the Savannah Hunter, formerly captained by Armando Jensen,” he admitted. “We ran into him on Crescentis and he latched onto us like a leech, begging for a job.”

“Ah, I’m sure he gave you all the gritty details of our business transaction?” Chon said with a mischievous glint in his eyes.

Samantha nodded. “He said you tricked him into signing away his ship and business,” she replied.

The waitress returned with their drinks and then departed again quietly. Chon took a sip of his diet soda and then leaned upon the table. “Jensen has not run his own business in several years,” he said, “but he continued to spend the company profits on things other than the company. For the sake of the company, I relieved him of the responsibility of overseeing the business. We’ve done much better for it since his departure.”

Merlin heard Samantha draw in a deep breath and could tell from the way her eyebrows drew together that she was about to give Chon her opinion of his business practices. “You’re doing well,” he said quickly before she could begin, “at our expense, I might add.”

Chon blinked twice and looked puzzled. “At your expense?” he repeated. “How? I’ve done nothing against you.”

“You stole one of our long-time clients!” Samantha spat.

“Who are you talking about?”

“Brandersen Electronics,” Merlin answered tonelessly. “He broke an established contract with us to have his merchandise delivered by the Bamboo Wind instead.”

“Brandersen?” Chon repeated quietly. “Well, this is a surprise… You can’t blame me for this one. Marcus Brandersen contacted me to pick up his delivery for him. He said he’d seen one of our commercials on StellarNet and gave us a specific bid for our services. He said nothing of having a prior contract with you or anyone else.”

“You don’t know anything about it?” Samantha asked doubtfully.

Chon genuinely looked troubled. “I assure you this is the first I’ve heard of it,” he replied. “I was glad to get his business since I was trying to establish a new clientele base.” He looked at Merlin and raised an eyebrow. “If you and I had put in competing bids to Brandersen for his delivery, that would have been standard fare in the freighting business. As you are well aware, there are still parts of the Planetary Alignment still in chaos since the Siilv War. I am your competition, and I will promote my services as much as I can, but I wouldn’t coerce a potential customer into breaking a contract. That makes for a bad reputation, even in these hard times.”

“I see,” the wolf replied after a moment of thought. “Brandersen was free enough to give out your name as the one who had taken our business from us.”

“Is that so?” Chon asked with a furrowed brow. “I’ll have to return the favor.”

“Our lawyer has been in touch with him,” Samantha said quietly, “and Brandersen has been fined for breach of legal contract. Between his fine and legal fees, he has just gone into debt over this affair.”

“It’s a good thing he’s already paid me,” Chon said with an appreciative nod. The cougar returned with their meals and the trio fell silent as the woman set out their dishes and then once again left without a word.

“What about your crew?” Merlin asked after a moment. “I was aware that you often had to shanghai your employees, as the saying goes.”

Chon looked amused. “You were aware of that, eh?” he asked with a chuckle. “Jensen himself didn’t even know that, although it was a necessity with him as captain. The Savannah Hunter had such a lackluster reputation with Jensen in command that we never had any applicants for vacant positions. Things have changed dramatically since his departure.”

“You have a willing crew that is employed under contract?” Samantha asked between bites of her food.

“I do now,” the panda replied. “That was part of the changes I made to the business. I wanted to be distanced from the Savannah Hunter’s reputation in the cargo-moving community, which is one of the reasons I licensed the ship under a new name and registry. I gave leave of my crew for those who wished to return home, and initiated contracts for those hired to replace them. I still have a third of my old crew on board. Once they knew of Jensen’s removal and my intention to provide contracts with benefits for any who would stay, there were several who were glad to sign up to stay.”

Merlin nodded appreciatively as he took a lap of his coffee. If everything the panda had told them was true, his respect for this competitor rose significantly. Even if Chon had run a difficult ship under Armando’s captaincy, he seemed determined to make up for it with his people.

“Congratulations on your business,” he said at last. “Is this what you wished to discuss with me?”

“That’s a good part of it,” Chon replied. “I realize I didn’t have to give you any kind of explanation on what I do with my own business, but I knew there was a lot of bad blood between you and Jensen. When I saw your ship land next to mine, I wanted to make it clear to you that he was no longer in the picture. I’m not asking you to become my partner or anything like that. We’re both in this business for the same reasons and competition is good for the economy. If we’re going to be rivals, at least we can do it professionally.”

Merlin glanced over at Samantha and she gave him a small nod. He wiped his fingers on his cloth napkin and extended a hand toward the panda with a smile. “Unlike your predecessor, you seem to have a good head on your shoulders, Captain Chon,” he said as they shook hands. “On behalf of the Blue Horizon, it will be good competing with you.”    

*** 

Durant pulled out a pay voucher from a zippered pouch in his other hand and handed it to Lorelei. The white rabbit was dressed in a vibrantly-colored tie-dyed tee-shirt decorated with numerous necklaces of crystals and beads, sandals and a pair of cutoff jeans. “Here you go,” he told her. “Your pay was deposited to your account last night, but try not to spend it all at once. We’ll be on leave here longer than usual this time.”

“Thankies, Durant,” the rabbit said to him with a big grin. “I already have big plans for my time off.” She waved a colorful pamphlet in his face and unfolded it with glee. “There’s a Mystical Hot Spring not too far from here that’s just oozing in therapeutic mud, and the air is soaking with natural incense.” The doe grinned widely at a particular photo on the reverse side of the pamphlet and added, “Ooh, I can’t wait for a full body massage by this buck – he’s gorgeous!”

Durant cleared his throat and pushed the pamphlet out of his face. “That’s nice, Lori. Enjoy yourself.”

“I will, hon. See ya!” The rabbit put on a pair of pink plastic sunglasses over her eyes and slung the strap of an orange bag over her shoulder. She began skipping out toward the terminal building, softly humming to herself.

Samantha stepped up to the grizzly, leaned back against his arm, and batted her eyelashes at him. “Ooh, I can’t wait for a full body massage, Durant!” she mimicked the rabbit’s voice in sing-song when their cook had gone. Durant laughed and handed her the voucher with her name on it.

“You do that very well, Samantha,” he chuckled.

“Oh, please!” she said in mock indignation. “So, what are you going to do on your time off?”

“I’m going to rent a cabin in the woods in the Musty Mountains to the south of here,” he replied as he handed the last voucher to Tanis. “I want to spend some time alone, away from ships, away from cities, away from people—”

“Away from medical attention…” Tanis interjected with a frown.

Durant ignored him and continued. “I want to relax, do some fishing and roam around under the trees with my toes in the dirt.”

“Just don’t run around as a bare bear,” Samantha said with a chuckle. “Someone might mistake you for wildlife and make a rug out of you for their own cabin!”

Durant grinned at her. “I guess I can mark naturalism off my list, then,” he said with a wink.

Tanis crossed his arms and looked up at the grizzly. “Ya’ve been dodging my requests to give ya a physical for a long time, Durant,” he said. “At least let me check ya out before ya head off into the wilderness, just to be sure.”

The accountant shook his head. “There’s no need for that, Tanis,” he assured him. “All I need is rest and relaxation away from the stress of our business, letting let my mind wander and unwind. I’ll be okay. After that nasty flu virus, I need clean mountain air in my lungs.”

“I’m not convinced,” the desert fox replied.

“Well, I’m not taking you with me, if that’s what you’re wanting,” Durant said with a shrug of his shoulders.

“What I’m wanting,” Tanis said with a frown, “is just for ya to let me look ya over before ya leave. Nothing more. A few minutes are all I will need.”

Durant shook his head. “Sorry, I don’t have the time. I already have a cab on the way to take me to the aircar rental agency, and then I’ll be on my way after I pick up a few supplies. Don’t worry about me – I’ll be fine.”

Tanis’ frown deepened, if that were possible. “I need to convince Merlin that an annual physical for all crew members should be made mandatory, my friend.”

A horn honked outside the cargo bay’s main hatch and Durant waved toward the cabbie that pulled up. “Time to go,” he said with a smile. Samantha reached up to give him a warm hug and then looked up into his brown eyes.

“You take care of yourself, big guy,” she said, “and enjoy your rest.”

“I intend to,” the grizzly replied. He reached out toward Tanis, but the fox hesitated a moment before taking the offered hand.

“Be very careful,” the medic said. “Ya won’t be close to help if something happens to ya out there.”

“I will, Tanis,” Durant told him. The cab honked again and the bear moved toward the bay door. He picked up his duffel bag near the door and carried it to the cab. Tanis and Samantha watched him until the vehicle drove away, and then the Border collie turned toward her companion.

“Why are you so adamant about giving him a physical?” she asked.

“Because he’s hiding something from me,” Tanis replied with the shake of his head. “There’s something wrong with him, but I can’t pinpoint what it is without an examination.”

“He just got over that flu virus, Tanis. Didn’t you give him an examination then?”

“No,” Tanis answered as they started walking back toward the main lift. “He wouldn’t let me do more than take his temperature and a small blood sample, neither of which showed me anything more than the flu. I need different tests. I don’t have a suspicion of what is wrong with him – it’s only a gut feeling that something’s not right. I’ve had this feeling for months now, not just since the virus outbreak.”

Samantha glanced back toward the bay doors as they entered the lift and lightly chewed on her bottom lip. “I hope you’re wrong, Tanis,” she said with a worried voice.” I really hope you are wrong,”     

*** 

The door to Renny’s quarters was open and Taro walked in through the opening with a slateboard in one hand. “Renny?” she ventured when she didn’t see him.

“I’m in the closet,” a muffled voice from the back room called out. The vixen made her way around the furniture to the back room and then poked her head inside the closet.

“What are you doing?” she asked with a chuckle when she saw only his feet and swishing tail sticking out from under hanging garments.

“I’m trying to find my duffel bag,” Renny’s voice replied. “It has all of my dress slacks in it. If you and I are going to be hitting the nightclubs and going to stage plays while we’re in Iverson, I want to look better than my usual trousers and a tank-top.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in slacks before,” Taro said with a vulpine grin. “This ought to be good.”

“Found ‘em!” Renny backed out of the closet and then stood up with a navy blue duffel bag that was partially full. He took it to his bed and then dumped out several wadded garments. “I might need to iron them first,” he muttered when Taro picked up a pair of black slacks.

“Might?” she asked him with a tsk. “Honey, you aren’t going anywhere with me in these things unless they’ve been thoroughly cleaned and ironed.”

“That’s what I meant,” the cheetah replied with a grin. Taro gave him a dubious look and just shook her head. “I’m headed to the laundry room now,” Renny said. He picked up the garments and Taro followed him out of the cabin toward the appropriate room on the other side of the ship from his quarters.

“I heard Pockets and Max talking about getting air tickets to Algegrath,” Renny said as they walked. “What’s there?”

“That’s where the Hidalgo Sun is landing to pick up their mail and a shipment bound for Tanthe,” the vixen replied. “Patch and Pockets planned to have a little reunion while they’re there and Max just wanted to go along.”

“Where Pockets goes, Max will follow.” Renny remarked. “I just hope the little filch doesn’t teach Max how to pick locks, too.”

“Agreed. Now, let’s get your slacks in proper order,” Taro said when they reached the laundry room. She opened the door and suddenly threw up her hands. “Yech!” she exclaimed. A pungent odor escaped the small room and Renny’s eyes began to water.

“I wondered how Pockets was able to get his cabin cleaned so fast for Merlin’s inspection,” the cheetah gasped and backed away from the door. Inside were tubs of dirty clothing that could belong to no one but their chief engineer. Apparently all the garments and bedding that had been soiled during his sickness were just dumped inside the laundry room.

“Merlin never inspected this room,” Taro growled, “or Pockets would have been denied shore leave for three voyages!” She put a hand over her nose and reached inside the door to lift up the cover to a protected switch. She punched two buttons in a series beneath it and a small pump began venting the room’s air through a duct leading to the exterior of the ship.

“Come on,” Taro said with a frown. “We’ll just pack your slacks and take them with us. The hotel staff will get them cleaned and ironed for you.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Renny grumbled as he followed the vixen back to his cabin. They walked a few steps in silence and then Renny asked, “What’s everyone else got planned for our stay?”

“Durant’s gone up to the mountains to get away from it all,” Taro replied, “and Lori’s gone to some New Age nature resort to soak in a mud pit. Pockets and Max, you know about… Merlin wanted to go camping, but Samantha wouldn’t hear of it, so they’re going shopping instead.”

“Sounds like loads of fun,” Renny remarked dryly. “What about Tanis?”

“He said he didn’t have any plans, but was just going to wander around town and take it as it comes,” Taro replied. “Perhaps he’ll meet a nice young lady to entertain.”

“Yeah,” Renny mused, “with all that’s happened with his homeworld, he needs something to keep his mind off of it. I’d invite him along with us, but he doesn’t want to have much to do with me lately.”

Taro turned to look at him. “You’d invite him along?” she repeated with a grin. “I didn’t know you were into threesomes.”

Renny felt his skin flush beneath his fur. “I’m not!” he said quickly. “I didn’t mean that… I meant he could visit some of the sights with us!”

Taro laughed and winked at him. “Sure…. Okay, I’ll ask him if he wants to go along. If he does, great. If not, at least we offered.”    

*** 

Merlin walked onto the bridge of the Blue Horizon and tapped on the light. Although they were now to be docked for over a week, he wanted to check things over a little before he would lock things down for the duration. Most of the crew had already gone by the time he and Samantha got back from their breakfast with Chon, though the last of them would be out soon.

He moved first to the engineering station to power down all but the security systems, and noticed a flashing red light when he was near the Com panel. He thumbed the switch beside the light and played back a stored message.

“Merlin! This is Riki – Captain Kegawa needs you to contact us as soon as you get this. We’ve had an explosion in the cargo bay! We’re at the spaceport in Algegrath on landing pad seventy-one.”

“That’s terrible!” said Renny. Merlin looked up at Taro and Renny standing in the doorway. He gave them a frown as he sat in the chair before the station and punched up the Hidalgo Sun’s calling code. It only took a moment for the signal to relay along the planet’s orbital communication satellites to the other side of the world.

“This is the Hidalgo Sun, the lemur’s voice said from the Com speakers. “I’m sorry, but you’ve caught us at a bad time…”

“Riki,” Merlin said quickly, “this is Sinclair.”

“Merlin! Thank goodness you called. It’s terrible – something blew up in the –”

“Get Rezo on the line, please.”

“Right away, sir!”

There was a pause and Merlin looked up at his first officer. “Do you think it’s another attack, or a system malfunction?” Taro asked him.

“We’re about to find out,” the wolf replied.

“Boss!” Rezo’s voice rang out suddenly.

“What happened? Give me all the details.”

“About an hour ago, we were loading crates into the cargo bay when Littlefeather accidentally knocked one box into another with the forklift as he went up the ramp into the ship. The crate fell off the lift and something inside the container exploded.” They could hear the red panda swallow as he tried not to talk too quickly. “The explosion blew away half of the cargo bay door and took out the main airlock. Mark was behind the plasteel windshield on the lift, or he might have been killed. What was left of the forklift was blown halfway across the tarmac. He has a broken arm and some burns to both legs, but it could have been a lot worse.”

“Anyone else hurt?”

“There are a few bumps and bruises from blown debris, but otherwise everybody else is fine, although shaken. Carmen and Tsarina took Littlefeather to the local hospital about twenty minutes ago. Several fires inside the cargo bay ignited, but the fire suppressant system extinguished them before anything got out of control. The spaceport fire department is still examining everything to make sure nothing else is smoldering. I was talking with the police just now when you called and I really should get back down there.”

“Okay, put somebody else on the line so I can get more details.”

“Right… here’s Riki again.”

“I’m here, Merlin,” the lemur’s voice said.

“Riki, I want you to make sure everyone on your crew is issued a sidearm,” the lupine captain said gravely. “Since all you are supposed to be hauling this time is textiles, there shouldn’t be anything volatile within your cargo. This sounds like another attack on the company. There may be more forthcoming, so I want everyone to be on alert.”

“That scares me,” Riki replied. “There are some of us I’m sure have never used a gun before… I think those will probably be more of a danger carrying one than any other outside source.”

“Nevertheless, I want it done. If you don’t have any firearms, I’m authorizing you to purchase enough handguns for the crew — stunners at least.”

“Yes sir, I’ll make sure the word gets around.”

Merlin looked over at Renny and knew the cheetah’s concerned expression mirrored his own. “What else can you tell me?” he asked.

“The police have already been looking through the debris and found what they believe is a timer from the bomb.”

“Wow, they work fast!” Renny replied.

“Their bomb squad moved in quickly,” Riki agreed. “They were sifting through the debris within minutes of getting here. Apparently this is commonplace in spaceports these days and they are stationed nearby. They are currently going through the remaining crates plus the mail containers to make sure there aren’t any others.”

“What condition is the ship in?” Taro asked.

“As Captain Kegawa mentioned, our main airlock and most of the cargo bay door is in ruin. The blast blew out the windows of nearby buildings, and started a number of fires both inside and outside of the ship. The overhead crane is a wreck and the door to elevator lift is out of operation, making it difficult to get to the upper levels. Patch says he and Paxton can do most of the repairs inside the ship themselves, but until the airlock and bay door is replaced, we won’t be launching anytime soon. Pax is currently examining the outside structure of the ship around the hold. The initial report he gave the captain a few minutes ago says that it appears to be intact. It could have been a lot worse if it had exploded after we’d taken off…”

“Mark’s carelessness might have actually spared the ship,” Taro remarked.

“What about the engines?” Renny asked.

“The blast never made it inside as far as the engine room,” Riki replied. “The window in the door panel was blown out from the concussion, but the explosion didn’t make it much further. Patch says the engines are okay.”

“Riki,” Merlin said after a moment of thought, “Pockets and Max are already en route to Algegrath. They were headed to your location to visit with Patch, but inform them that their shore leave has been cancelled. Their orders are to help Patch and Paxton make the repairs as quickly as possible. As for everyone else on the Hidalgo Sun who is able – their orders are to give the mechanics as much assistance as necessary. The rest of my crew has scattered on extended leave, so I can’t send anyone else but them.”

“I understand, sir.”

“Have Jonesy contact Interstellar Insurance to get the local adjuster over to take a look at things before the repairs start. This needs to be done pronto.”

“I’ll get your orders to the captain as soon as possible.”

“One more thing,” Merlin said. “I want you to hire local security guards to watch the ship around the clock until such time as the Hidalgo Sun can take off again. The business funds will pay their fees.”

“Right away.”

“I’m going to carry a DC with me while I’m away from the Horizon,” Merlin added as he took one of the digital communication units from a drawer under the Com station. He examined its label and said, “I’ll be on frequency channel 707 and will await any report your people might have for me. I’ll stay out of your way, but if you need me to come out there, don’t hesitate to call.”

“Aye, sir,” the lemur replied.

“Stay on your toes,” Merlin said at last.

“Goodbye, sir,” Riki answered. The signal cut off and then the wolf looked back up at Taro and Renny.

“Is our leave canceled, too?” the navigator asked.

“No,” Merlin replied with the shake of his head. “There’s no need for that, but I would caution you to be careful while you’re out and about. If it’s a terrorist attack against us as I suspect, our unknown enemy may know more about our delivery schedule and be aware of the location of the Blue Horizon in addition to the Hidalgo Sun. It might be a good idea if I hire guards to watch the Horizon, too. The ship sitting here alone during an extended stay would be too easy to sabotage.”

“This is going to make for a nervous vacation,” Taro mused, “if I have to watch my back everywhere I go.”

“Well, you two will have to watch each other’s back,” Merlin replied with a wry smile, “as I doubt you’ll be inseparable.” He thought for a moment and then frowned again. “I would recommend the buddy-system for everyone so no one is caught alone anywhere, but unfortunately everyone else has already scattered to the four winds.”

“We’re going to ask Tanis if he wants to tag along with us,” Taro said, “so he won’t have to watch himself alone.”

“You’ve already missed him,” Merlin replied. “He left a half hour ago to find a travel agent to see what he could get into during his time off. He left me the address of the hotel where he’s going to be staying, however.”

“He should have gone with Lori,” Renny said. “He might have had to put up with her eccentricities, but at least he wouldn’t have been alone.”

The wolf snickered. “I don’t think he would have felt safe going to some of the places she intended to go,” he said with a grin. “Lori’s a great cook, but he knows that she’s into some things the rest of us find odd.”

“What about you and Samantha?” Taro asked. “You two have anything special planned?”

“Oh, I thought I’d drag him to all the intimate apparel shops and see if I could find something kinky that would fit him,” Samantha said with a laugh from the doorway.

“Not on your life!” the wolf replied. He gave a lopsided smile to Renny and said, “She’s been threatening me with non-stop shopping since we landed.”

“I’d vote for camping, myself,” the cheetah replied.

“You would,” Samantha retorted, “although I’m sure you’d be just as happy playing with a ball of yarn.”

“At least that would be more entertaining than a rawhide chew toy,” Renny shot back with a grin. “Where’s your flea collar?”

“It’s packed away in the suitcase, cry-kitty.” Samantha whacked the navigator on the arm with a wink. “So, what’s everyone gathered in here for?” she asked. “Are you conspiring now that everyone else has gone?”

The levity in the room disappeared at once. “There’s been an attack on the Hidalgo Sun,” Taro said somberly.

“Huh?” asked the surprised Border collie. “What happened?”

Merlin, Taro and Renny took turns filling her in on the situation. After tense moments, she sat down in the center seat of the bridge, her eyes moist. “That’s just awful,” she said in a choked voice. “Merlin?”

The wolf shook his head slowly. “Rezo’s people will start making repairs as soon as they can, but I need to call the SPF about this and inform the home office before we take off.” He looked up at Taro and Renny and added, “There’s no reason for you to stick around if you want to leave.”

Taro reached into the Com drawer and pulled out another of the DCs. “We’ll be on channel frequency 772 if anything more comes up.”

“Right.”

Taro exchanged glances with Samantha before she and Renny left the bridge. When Sam looked back at Merlin, he looked worried as he held up his DC. “I wish I’d had Durant take one of these with him up into the mountains,” he said quietly. “We don’t have any other way to inform him about the situation.”

“I know,” Samantha replied as she got up and moved to the wolf’s side. She brushed her fingers through his head fur and said, “Durant’s been looking his age lately. Maybe he’ll have the chance to actually relax up there in the woods if he doesn’t know about this.”

“Possibly,” Merlin remarked, “but you know we’ll catch fire from him for not trying to reach him when he finally finds out about it.”    

*** 

“What’s that?” Renny asked an hour later. He and Taro had stopped in a small street-side curio shop to have a look around. The vixen had picked up a small figurine from a shelf and was examining a label affixed to its underside.

Taro smiled and held up the ceramic figure in the palm of one hand. It was a red fox much like herself, but of the non-sentient variety imported from Earth ages ago that was common on some of the Planetary Alignment worlds. It was about the size of her hand and was sitting on its haunches with its head tilted in curiosity.

“Heh… that’s cute,” Renny said with a smile of his own.

“You like it?” Taro asked.

“Actually, yes,” the cheetah replied genuinely. “Its facial markings are similar to yours.”

“That’s what drew me to it,” Taro said. “If I were a wild fox, this might be what I would have looked like.”

“You are a wild fox,” Renny quipped, tweaking the base of her tail.  Taro grinned and snapped her jaws playfully at him.  “Well, that settles it,” he said while withdrawing his credicard. “I shall have to have it.”

“Uh-uh,” Taro giggled as she clutched the figurine to her chest. “I’ll buy it for you as a gift.”

“A gift?”

“Yes, Renny, a gift. Something for you to remember me by if we ever get separated again. The purpose of a souvenir is to remember.”

“In that case,” the navigator replied, “I need to find one of a wild cheetah for you in return.”

Taro chuckled as her friend began looking through the various figurines on the shelf. After a moment, he picked up another fox and shook his head. “Now, this is odd…” he said quietly. He held it up near his face and examined it closely.

“What’s odd? Find another one that looks like me?”

“No…” Renny replied slowly. “This one looks just like my best friend from flight school!”

“Your best friend was a fox?” Taro asked.

“Yeah. Jerry wasn’t Hestran, but he did look a bit like this little guy in the face.”

Taro took a close look at the figurine Renny held and then looked up at him with a wink. “If this guy reminded you of him, your friend Jerry must have been quite nice on the eyes.”

Renny chuckled. “Yeah, well, he was quite the ladies’ magnet. I used to call him the Foxenator just to get a rise out of him, but he was basically a good guy. He was studying to be a doctor, but wanted a pilot’s license too. He was more passionate about flying than anyone else in the school at the time and the women thought Jerry Somner becoming a doctor was the greatest thing since baked Jinkles.”

“What happened to him?”

“He went on to be a doctor like he wanted,” Renny replied as he set the figurine back on the shelf, “but wound up in a clinic in a backwater town on Pomen. The last time I heard from him, he was looking for an opportunity to leave the place. I don’t think a small town office suited him very much. He likes flying too much to be stationary. As far as I know, he’s still there as a general practitioner.”

“Well, I’m going to take my counterpart to the register and have your gift wrapped,” Taro said as she began to walk back up the aisle.

“Wait!” Renny said in sudden panic. “I still have to find your cheetah!”    

*** 

Tanis looked at his reflection in the mirror and sighed. He didn’t really feel like going out on the town, but he was reluctant to just stay in his hotel room and mope around. He knew he hadn’t been very good company lately and knew he had to do something to break himself out of his depression, but it seemed like every time he turned around there was a news broadcast or newspaper article about what happened to Nalirra.

The Roppa War was over. Sed Amittias had been executed by the Tanatans and the Emperor’s daughter returned unharmed. Nalirra was then claimed by Oe’Tanata as occupied territory, and as the de facto government, withdrew its membership from the PA with a warning for all outsiders to stay away from the Roppa star system. Unauthorized vessels entering the system were destroyed without preamble and all other communications on or off the planet were jammed.

 In order to keep the peace, the Planetary Alignment Legislature had voted to honor the demands of Oe’Tanata. Aid had been offered to Nalirra as a PA ally repeatedly before the downfall, but since Amittias had continued to refuse help, the Legislature was now in no frame to do anything more for the occupied planet. It had been summarily written off as foreign territory.

The desert fox often wondered why the fall of his homeworld upset him so much. He’d been happy to leave his birthplace – and his estranged family - far behind and was always hesitant to go back if the planet ever came up on the Blue Horizon’s delivery schedule. He’d held no interest in ever returning to Nalirra, but now that the option was no longer open to him, he felt a deep regret that had been eating away at him. As much as he had wanted to be away from Nalirra, he should try to put it out of his mind and feel relieved that he would never have to return… but it was so very hard.

Tanis sighed again to himself and felt his stomach growl. He had not eaten all day, and now that it was early in the evening, he was famished. He had originally considered just having something delivered to his room, but he was tired of looking at the televid and wanted to get out for some fresh air.

He nodded to himself and knew getting out was the right choice. He dressed in casual dark brown pants and black boots, with a loose, white short-sleeved shirt that was open midway to his stomach to allow his white ruff free. He reached back to adjust the tail flap at the back of his pants and then picked up a thin tan jacket in case the evening air was cool.

Tanis left the hotel room quickly and then shared the elevator to the first floor with a pair of female canines who watched him coyly behind half-lidded eyes. The desert fox might have taken up to flirting with them had he been in a better mood, but he tried to ignore them now.

When he reached the street, he wondered which way to go to find a decent restaurant. He almost hailed a cab, but at the last moment, he decided he would be a little adventurous and see what he could find on his own. He turned right merely at random and began walking along the sidewalk, his jacket draped over one arm and his hands in his pockets. There were many lights along this particular avenue and he thought he could hear live music up ahead.

When he had walked two blocks, he discovered the source of the music. A town square was teaming with crowds in what looked to be a celebration of some kind. A local band played on a raised pedestal and people of all species were dancing together in time with the lively beat in a merry atmosphere. Food and drinks were being passed around freely and there was activity everywhere. Tanis smiled in spite of himself when he saw a balcony above lined with dancing females in various stages of undress; some were close to being unclad altogether, preferring to let the night air flow all through their fur.

The desert fox had seen his days of carousing in the past, but he had never seen a gathering like this before. The people who danced together didn’t seem to have specific partners, but bumped and ground their hips, entwining their tails together with whoever was near them. He wondered what the celebration was for, but the beat of the music in his ears and the scents that reached his nose made his head swim. A banner loosely hanging from the side of a building displayed the words Loth’lan Ree” in bold Standard red letters, but he had no idea what it meant.

He moved closer to the crowd to see if he might join in on the fun and suddenly found himself surrounded by six of the cutest young females he had seen in a long while. They were all of different species and they seemed to have zeroed in on the new male in their midst.

Suddenly eager to take part in this distraction, Tanis allowed himself to dance with them and felt a strong need to simply enjoy himself. Within moments, all previous thoughts of Nalirra were gone from his mind.    

*** 

The Robin’s Red Breast?” Taro said with a grin as she looked at her feline companion. “Is this a night club or a strip joint?” she asked.

Renny gave her a smirk. “The hotel directory just called it a local bar. It didn’t say anything about the entertainment.”

“Ah,” said the vixen. “Feeling like a last drink before we head back to the room?”

“Yeah,” Renny replied. “Just something light. I know you don’t normally indulge much in alcohol, but perhaps a little something to warm the blood?” He waggled his eyebrows and she laughed in spite of herself. They had spent the evening at a nice dinner and then had gone to a theater to see a local stage play. They had left the theatre and decided to walk around in the night air on their way back to their hotel. Taro and Renny had not had many opportunities to just get out and enjoy time together on the town and both of them had a good time that evening.

Renny pushed the door open and allowed his companion to enter first. As soon as the panels parted, they could hear live music and instantly saw a crowd of people out on the dance floor. It was moderately crowded and the air was smoky, but after a quick look around, the only seats available seemed to be up at the bar. Taro looked up at a male red fox that stood guard beside the doorway and gave him brief smile before she followed Renny across the room.

There was plenty of light to see by, but dark wood paneling on the walls and ceiling gave the room a shadowy feel. As they took two empty stools between a pair of felines, Renny read the placard of the band and briefly snickered at the notion that none of the five musicians resembled the construction workers the name suggested.

Taro gave the bartender their drink order and then turned back to Renny. He had the fox figurine out on the bar and was petting it with a finger. “You really like that thing, don’t you?” she asked with a smile.

“Yeah,” the cheetah replied. “It’s a new treasure.” Their drinks were brought to them and the couple fell silent for a few moments while they listened to the music and watched the dancing. Both of them felt tempted to join the crowd.

“Why not?” Taro said suddenly as if reading his mind. Renny grinned at her and held out his hand in invitation as he pocketed the ceramic fox.

A little later, they returned to their stools when the band announced they were taking a short break. When they reached the bar, Renny took the figurine out of his pocket and set it back on the counter next to his glass.

“Where are you going?” he asked when Taro stood up.

“I’m going to take a little jaunt to the powder room,” she replied with a wink. “I need to tinkle.”

“I’ll be right here with my girlfriend,” Renny said as he lovingly stroked the figurine. Taro laughed and then skirted around the edge of the dance floor toward the public water closet.

Renny sat on his bar stool for several moments in silence until the band got up to play again. Only two of the musicians had returned to jam a duet of energetic chords, but couples all over the room jumped back out onto the dance floor as if the whole group were playing again.

For several moments, Renny watched the dancers and caught the eye of a sultry calico dancing erotically. She made some rather suggestive moves in his direction and Renny swallowed in spite of himself. Distracted, he didn’t notice the two felines who had been at the bar all evening get up from their stools and flank him.

In the midst of the loud music and dancing in the place, no one but the calico saw one of the jaguars suddenly put a fist into Renny’s stomach. The cheetah was taken completely off guard and the second jaguar brought a knee up into his face when he doubled over. Renny dropped without making a sound and the dark pair grabbed his limp arms. They dragged him to the side of the room past dancers who paid them no attention and then disappeared into a side hallway. The calico closed her eyes and continued dancing as if she hadn’t seen a thing. The jaguars moved purposely to the back exit and pulled Renny out into a dingy alley behind the establishment.

One of the assailants kicked the cheetah in the side with the toe of his boot just as he was regaining his breath. Renny chirped in sudden pain and the other cat slammed a fist into his temple. They dropped him to the newspaper-strewn ground and then began to beat and kick him vigorously.

Renny had no strength in him to fight back and could do nothing more than lie there as he was beaten. He tried to protect his middle by curling up, but one of the attackers stomped on his ankle for his trouble. Renny yelped and tried to say something, but he was kicked again.

“All right, Zuberi, that’s enough,” one of the ebony cats said in a raspy voice. “Do it.”

The other jaguar reached into an inner pocket of his jacket and pulled out an old revolver. He aimed down at the cheetah and rapidly fired three shots into him.

Without a look back at their victim, the dark cats split up and took off in opposite directions along the alley. A moment later, they were gone and Renny’s body convulsed a few times between several garbage cans before growing still in the night air.    

*** 

Taro stepped out of the ladies’ room and glanced across the nightclub through the smoky haze and the throng of bodies dancing to the music of the live band. Mountain Movers, Inc. was only a local band, but they were skilled players and the vixen felt they could have held their own professionally were they to try. As it was, she had enjoyed the music and had danced a little with Renny out on the floor earlier. The cheetah had little experience with dancing, but he had done well enough to elicit advances by other ladies in the place.

She swished her tail in time with the music as she made her way across the nightclub toward the bar where she and Renny had been nursing their drinks. When she got there, her partner’s barstool was unoccupied. Taro grinned to herself, sure the cheetah was out on the dance floor again, but when she turned to search the crowd for him, something at her feet caught her eye. She knelt down next to the stool next to her and picked up the ceramic fox figurine she had given him. Its tail was broken off, as well as the tip of the nose and one ear.

It was unlike Renny to knock something like that to the floor and leave it where it lay, especially after making such a fuss over how much he had liked it. The vixen suddenly became uneasy and began searching the crowd. When she couldn’t locate him, she frowned and turned back toward the bar. She wondered if he had gone to the men’s room and decided to wait for him. She held the trinket tightly in one hand and continued to look for him. After several minutes, there was still no sign of the cheetah, so she turned back to the bar.

The barkeep, a thin opossum in a white apron lustfully gaped at a nearby pair of scantily-clad young females gyrating to the music against their boyfriends. Taro reached out and tugged gently on his sleeve. The man looked annoyed, but nodded to her.

“Need a refill?” he asked with a gesture toward the empty glass before her.

“Where’s my friend?” she asked him loudly. She practically had to shout to be heard over the music.

The opossum shrugged his shoulders and returned his attention to the dancers. Taro snorted and reached out again. She snared his apron and pulled him up against the counter. He looked up into her eyes wildly and struggled to get free.

“Lemmee go, lady!” he squealed as he tried to pry her fingers from his garment. Her grip remained solid and she pulled him up off the floor across the bar so that he was eye to eye with her.

Where is my friend?” she asked again in a menacing tone.

“He – he left!” the marsupial said quickly with a hard swallow.

“Left?”

“Yeah… he went out the back with two black cats!” he squeaked as he gestured to the exit at one side of the room.

The vixen released the bartender and he fell back onto his tail behind the bar. Taro pushed her way through the edge of the crowd toward the back exit. She reached the door amidst unkind jeers at her for brashly shoving through them, and then she darted into a small darkened hallway that serviced an office, two storage rooms and the back door.

The exit was partially ajar and she swung it open quickly. She found herself in a narrow, garbage-strewn alley that stunk badly. She looked both ways along its length, but saw no one in the darkness. A single, low-powered bulb illuminated a small area near the door that gently closed behind her and blocked out the inside noise of the establishment. Taro was undecided which direction to take, but then she heard a raspy sound to her right. She turned toward a loose pile of newspapers behind some trash cans and recognized an out-flung yellow arm with a familiar black spotted pattern amongst them.

“Renny!” She scattered the garbage cans and moved quickly to kneel down next to him. She brushed aside the papers that partially covered him and suddenly drew in a breath of shock at the large amount of blood that covered him and the papers around him.

“Great Maker, NO!” she choked as she reached for the vein in his neck. There was a pulse, but it was weak and his breathing was labored. It was hard to tell exactly where or how he was hurt from the amount of blood that covered him, but she had to risk moving him. He was practically holding hands with Death.

Taro stumbled as she picked Renny up from the ground of the filthy alley, though not from his weight, but from the emotional turmoil inside. Although his feline body had always been limber, he was now completely limp in her arms. Her white blouse soaked up the blood flowing freely from the cheetah’s wounds when she held him close to her bosom.

“Renny!” she cried in a choked voice as she touched her nose to his. “Don’t you dare die on me!”

There was no response from the navigator other than labored breathing, and Taro swallowed the bile that rose up in her throat. She turned with him toward the back door of the nightclub. She pushed her burden through the door and then weaved her way through the narrow hallway filled with empty liquor boxes. The din of music became louder through the corridor and she moved through it into a hazy, smoke-filled room. Couples continued to dance in time with the music in the dim light until a petite Cocker Spaniel saw the bloody body in the vixen’s arms. She screamed and backed away into the crowd. Within a moment, the band stopped playing and others began talking amongst themselves in murmurs. Taro ignored them all and took Renny straight across the dance floor to the bar.

“Somebody call an ambulance!” she yelled above the crowd. Taro set her friend and lover on the floor beside the bar stools and then quickly whipped off her blouse. She tore it into sections, oblivious to the stares at her black lace bra, and tried to staunch his wounds with the fabric. The gathered crowd didn’t do a thing to help her, but merely gawked at the injured cheetah and the almost-topless vixen.

A pot-bellied pig in a white shirt and red suspenders came out of the back with the bartender and rushed up to her. He pulled a thick cigar from his lips and shouted, “Whattaya think yer doin’? Get ‘im out of ‘ere! E’s bleedin’ all over my place!”

“Can’t you see he’s dying?” Taro exclaimed. “We’ve got to help him!”

The manager snorted and gestured wildly with both hands. “We see fatal brawls alla time, lady,” he said hotly. “Get that corpse outside – you can wait for the amb’lance out dere!”

Taro was getting frantic. Renny was too badly hurt for her meager treatment to stop his bleeding, and she fought back the tears welling up in her eyes. “Give me some help, somebody!” she shouted. Then she glared at the manager and the bartender, too. “I don’t want to move him any more until the ambulance arrives. We’re staying right here!”

The pig’s brow wrinkled and his eyes narrowed. He raised his left hand and made a motion to someone across the room. Four security guards emerged from the crowd and formed a semi-circle around Taro and Renny. Taro looked up as one of them stepped forward and put a hand on her shoulder. She was about to break the male fox’s wrist for his trouble, but felt his grip tighten with enough force that she couldn’t move it easily. Not all foxes in the PA were from Hestra – in fact, they were a rarity since few Hestrans actually leave their homeworld. However, from the immobile grip upon her arm, Taro knew instantly that this fellow had the same dense musculature that she had.

“Let’s make it nice and easy to the front curb, missy,” the bouncer said in a low, but sympathetic voice. “The ambulance is already on its way.”

Knowing there would be no further argument, Taro gently gathered up Renny in her arms and followed the fox through the parting crowd. She looked down at the cheetah and could see the pale palms of his hands getting whiter from blood loss. Her heart sank with the realization that Renny would probably never make it and the tears came freely this time. If only they had known the sequence of events over the past three days, Merlin might not have landed in Iverson at all. First the Hidalgo Sun, and now Renny. How many more tears might have to be shed before they were able to leave Alexandrius?    

*** 

Tanis snickered when the young Spaniel playfully nipped at one of his large ears. He looked up at her and pulled her down to the ground beside him. He smiled at her and then rolled her onto her back on the soft grass in the park so that she looked up at him. There were other couples lying in the grass all over the park and sounds of the celebration from the nearby crowd continued on.

“Ya still have not told me what this all festivity is about,” he told her with a quick lick aside her muzzle. “Whatever it is, I like it.”

The woman chuckled as she put her arms around his neck and shoulders. “It’s a celebration of Life, my nameless friend,” she replied with a smile. “Loth’lan Ree was the patron of The Kiss.”

“Well, now…” Tanis said in a quiet voice, “I’m game to take part in local tradition, but my hotel room is about a block away, if ya don’t mind.”

The Spaniel laughed. “Too shy to play in public?” she teased. “Okay, we can disappear to your room for a while. My friends won’t be looking for me anytime soon anyway.”

Tanis grinned at her lithe form as he helped her to her feet. She grasped his arm and pulled him along as she began running in the direction of the only hotels on the street. The desert fox laughed aloud at her anticipation and they ran up the street together.

Moments later, they were in the lift heading up to his room, but they had already started kissing and licking one another’s muzzles. The doors opened and a Chihuahua looked up at them in disgust. “Getta room!” he sneered at them.

“Good idea,” Tanis replied with a laugh. “This way,” he said as he pulled his new friend up the hallway. He opened the door with his magnetic key, but just as they entered the room, the comm handset on the desk began to buzz.

“Don’t answer it,” the Spaniel said as she traced a finger along her lips.

Tanis was tempted to ignore the phone, but he bit his bottom lip and replied, “Sorry, I have to. I’m a medic and always on call. It will only take a moment – stay hot, sweetie.”

“Ooh, are you going to play doctor with me?” she laughed coyly.

Tanis licked his lips and then picked up the handset.    

*** 

Taro looked up at the sound of approaching feet and jumped up from the chair she had been warming when Merlin and Samantha stopped before her. Tanis got to his feet slowly, concern clearly in his eyes.

“How is he?” Samantha asked as her eyes went to the vixen’s blood-stained pants underneath a white medical smock she wore loosely around her shoulders.

Taro’s eyes were bloodshot from distress and she stumbled over her words as she sought how to reply. “He, uh… I mean… uhm…”

“He’s been severely beaten and has a concussion,” Tanis answered for her. “He has three broken ribs, a broken ankle and the ligaments have been torn in his left wrist. Luckily, the bullets didn’t hit anything vital, but he’s lost a lot of blood and the situation is critical.”

Merlin put an arm around Taro and she clung to him fiercely. “Is there anything you can do for him?” he asked the desert fox.

Tanis looked at the floor and shook his head. “Since I’m not a fully-licensed physician, they won’t allow me to help,” he said. Sam put a hand on his shoulder and he looked up at her with a frown. “I know I’ve not been very friendly to Renny lately,” he said in a low voice, “but I would have never wished this on him. Despite our rivalry, he’s been a good friend, even if I’ve acted like a jerk.”

“He’s been, uhm, unconscious since I found him in the alley,” Taro said quietly. “Too much blood…”

“Are they giving him a transfusion?” Merlin asked. “Surely they—”

Tanis shook his head as he looked over at Taro. “There aren’t many feline donors with his blood type in the area,” he said. “That’s all they would tell us.”

Samantha moved to Taro. “C’mon, let’s go get you into some clean clothes,” she said gently.

“No…” Taro murmured. “I don’t want to leave.”

Samantha nodded. “Okay, I’ll go get something for you.” She looked up at Merlin and he nodded his approval. She leaned forward and touched her head against Taro’s. “I’ll be back shortly,” she said.

“Thanks, Sam.”

After the Border collie left, the three of them sat down in the waiting area chairs. Doctors, nurses and orderlies moved back and forth through the room for one thing or another and a monotone voice over the intercom droned announcements for phone calls or emergencies throughout the hospital. Merlin listened gravely as Taro explained all she knew of the situation, which really wasn’t much. She had already given a statement to the policeman who’d been on duty in the emergency room and she was weary from worry.

There had been no more news concerning Renny, and when the medical staff was questioned, all they would say was to be patient. Taro finally stretched out on a bench seat with her head in Tanis’ lap, while Merlin took to pacing the floor.

The only description local police could get of the two men who had left with Renny was they were “black cats”. The marsupial bartender claimed ignorance to their exact species and there were no other witnesses who would come forth at the bar to give any leads. Merlin had known a number of black cats in his lifetime and the only one who had ever threatened him with harm was Sagan. For a brief moment, the wolf’s hackles raised as his mind entertained the idea that Sagan had somehow returned from the grave and he glanced quickly at Taro. No, he reminded himself with a shake of his head. Sagan was quite thoroughly dead. If Taro ripping his head around backwards hadn’t killed him, the gelatinous goop his body had reduced itself to had finished him off. The SPF had never been able to give him an explanation for what foul thing had happened to the pirate’s body.

Merlin ran a hand over his face and paced some more. He felt helpless, uninformed and was frustrated by it all. Only Renny could give anyone a clue as to what had happened to him, and he wasn’t able to divulge any information on the matter.

It seemed that all they could do now was to wait for the doctors to give them any morsel of information.     

*** 

“Captain Sinclair?”

Merlin started awake and his chin slipped off the hand he had been resting on. He looked up wearily and recognized the red and grey uniform of an SPF officer who stood in front of him. He nodded and rubbed his eyes. It was early in the morning and there had been no new word on Renny’s condition. He had fallen asleep leaning on his hands on the arms of the chair, though his dreams had been troubled with images of Sagan.

“Yes, I’m Sinclair,” he muttered through his hands. “What can I do for you?”

“Sir, I’m Officer Sashay with the Spatial Police Force,” the Siamese cat replied quietly as Merlin stood up before her, “and this is my partner, Officer Wagner.” The silver fox beside her nodded silently as Merlin’s eyes moved to him. “We’ve just arrived from Algegrath, where we’ve been investigating the attack on your sister ship, the Hidalgo Sun.”

Merlin felt himself coming fully awake and he looked around for his companions. Tanis sat on one end of a nearby couch, his head drooped forward as he snored softly. Taro lay stretched on her side, her head in the fennec’s lap. Her sides moved in the quiet rhythm of slumber and Samantha occupied another chair, also fast asleep. Merlin motioned for the officers to follow him down the hallway. When they had rounded a corner, he turned back to face them.

“It’s been a long night for them,” he explained quietly. “I’d like to let them sleep.”

“We understand,” Sashay replied. The feline nodded to her partner and then said, “Captain, we have reason to believe the attack on your sister ship is tied in with the previous threats you’ve received, as well as the vandalism to your home office on Dennier.”

“I’ve felt that all along,” the wolf replied. “While there’s no proof, I also suspect the attack on my navigator last night is related.”

“That hasn’t been established as yet,” Wagner said in a gravelly voice. “According to the local authorities, your friends were in a part of Iverson that is well known for its crime rate. This could be isolated from the other incidents.”

Merlin narrowed his eyes as the silver fox. “That doesn’t convince me, officer,” he said. “If the members of the crew of both my ships have been watched by these attackers, that bar would have only provided them with an ample opportunity because of the area’s crime rate. This wouldn’t be the first time that my ship has been stalked.”

Sashay tilted her head and twitched her whiskers. “Oh?”

“Pirates have plagued me for years, officer,” Merlin answered, “and one in particular monitored my movements enough that our final confrontation resulted in the destruction of my freighter.”

“Ah yes, the incident at Crescentis with Sagan,” Wagner said in remembrance. “That case file is well known to us.”

Merlin lowered his head, and his voice, when he asked in hesitation, “Sagan is dead, yes?”

Wagner nodded at the wolf’s apparent train of thought. “Yes, Captain, he’s irrevocably dead. What was left of his body was taken to the labs on Joplin for further study. The remains have been divided up well enough for research among the labs that you don’t have to be concerned with him coming back from the dead.”

Merlin blinked twice and then allowed himself a small smile for the officers. “Of course,” he said. “That was silly of me. I suppose the superstitions of my chief engineer got to me.”

Sashay gave him a little smirk. “Jerad Porter, right?” she asked. At Merlin’s surprised nod, she said, “I thought so. He asked us the same thing when we interviewed him.” The wolf chuckled in amusement, but it sounded odd in his ears due to the current situation. “Anyway,” the Siamese cat continued, “I know that your people here have already been questioned by the local authorities, but we would like to talk to them ourselves so we can keep the details straight from one person to another in this investigation.”

“They’ll still be groggy if you try to talk to them now,” Merlin told her. “I’m barely coherent, myself.”

“I’m awake enough to talk to them,” another voice said. Wagner started suddenly at the words and he spun around to face Taro. The vixen was grooming her fur with a soft brush, and although her eyes looked weary, she seemed alert.

“Officers,” Merlin said, “this is my first officer, Taro Nichols. She was with my navigator at the time he was shot. Taro, these are SPF officers Sashay and Wagner.”

“What can I tell you?” the red fox asked. “I’m afraid I don’t know who did it to him.”

“We understand that,” Sashay said with a gentle smile. “We’d just like to find out what you do know, even if you think something is insignificant.”

“I will tell you whatever I can,” Taro replied.    

*** 

Lorelei Easter hummed softly to herself as she walked through the busy spaceport terminal. She twirled a daisy-like flower between her fingers that she had purchased from a vendor in the previous concourse and then placed it in her fur just above her right ear. Although she had only been away from the Blue Horizon for a day, she’d returned so she could retrieve some of her aromatic candles to burn in her room at the resort.

She neared the concourse terminal that led out toward the freighter landing pads and passed through the scanners without a problem. She smiled sweetly at the young feline who manned the station and then walked casually down the ramp to the outside, still humming to herself. The rabbit examined her painted claws as she walked across the tarmac, instinctively knowing which landing pad where her ship was currently docked.

“Stop right there, miss,” a sharp voice called out. Startled, Lorelei halted and looked up into the deep brown eyes of a golden retriever dressed in a security uniform that blocked her path. He held a semi-automatic rifle with its muzzle pointed generally in her direction, without directly at her.

“Oh,” the rabbit said in surprise. She looked up at the ship they were guarding, thinking she had walked in the wrong direction, but she recognized the large oval shape of the Blue Horizon and its two-tone blue paint scheme. “Excuse me,” she said with a smile as she brushed her hands on her rainbow-dyed tank-top. “I didn’t mean to run into you.”

She started to step around the canine, but he moved quickly to block her way. “Stop!” he repeated.

Lori frowned and tried to push past this rude person, but this time he brought the muzzle of his weapon quickly around and jabbed it hard into her side. She stumbled and fell to her knees.

“I told you to Stop!” the retriever commanded with a growl. Lorelei looked up at him, holding her ribs in pain with a hard swallow.

“What did you do that for?” she whined. “I’m just returning to my ship!”

“No one is allowed near this vessel,” the man told her as two more guards came to his aid, a black bear and a white tiger. All three pointed their weapons at the cottontail rabbit and Lorelei suddenly realized they were not joking.

“What’s the matter?” she asked with moisture rimming her large eyes. “What’s happened to my ship?”

“Where is your identification?” the tiger demanded.

Lorelei stuck out her bottom lip and her eyebrows drew together in indignation at having her question ignored. She reached toward her back pocket and the tiger quickly brought his rifle to bear upon her forehead. She froze and then slowly moved to get her identicard. She removed it gradually without taking her eyes off of the long barrel pointed between her eyes. She held the card up just as slowly. The tiger snatched it from her hand and looked it over carefully.

“It’s not one of the special issues,” he growled at the retriever.

“Now listen,” Lorelei said as she pointed suddenly at the Horizon. “That’s my—”

The tiger growled at her sudden movement and quickly snared her wrist. He pushed her down upon the concrete tarmac and placed a foot in the middle of her back. “You are under arrest for violation of a secure area,” he said angrily. “I would advise you to stop resisting and to shut your trap! You’ll have plenty of time to make your confession to a lawyer.”

“But—!”

“If you say one more word, miss, you’ll go unconscious on a stretcher!”

Lorelei looked at the boot near her face and she could feel the tears welling up in her eyes, as well as the cold barrel resting on her neck behind her left ear. She managed to nod her understanding and bit her bottom lip as she was pulled up to her feet. The tiger roughly drew her hands behind her and sturdy handcuffs were placed around her slender wrists. Without another word, the retriever escorted her back toward the terminal building while the other two guards returned to their station points in front of the Blue Horizon.     

*** 

“Mr. Sinclair?”

Merlin looked up as the orderly approached him. Samantha and Tanis jumped to their feet and Taro stopped her pacing to run over to them. “You have news about our friend?” the vixen asked anxiously.

The beagle looked apologetic and shook his head. “No, I’m sorry I don’t, miss. I came to tell Mr. Sinclair there’s a call for him at the nurses’ station.”

Merlin nodded. “Thank you,” he said. He followed the young canine back up the corridor without a look back at his friends.

“I can’t stand this waiting and not knowing,” Taro said in frustration. She clenched and unclenched her fists and went back to her pacing. Tanis looked at Samantha and just shook his head.

“I’m going to see if I can find out something from the doctor,” he said. “Surely they can tell us something.”

The Border collie said nothing as Tanis walked away and kept her arms wrapped around herself. From what Taro had told them of Renny’s condition, she didn’t hold much hope for the cheetah, and she felt guilty for feeling that way. She watched Taro pace the floor and recognized the expression on the vixen’s face all too well. Renny had worn that look for months after the crash of the Horizon when they all awaited any morsel of information on Taro’s fate. The difference was that Renny was here, now.

Merlin’s footsteps brought her attention back to the present. She couldn’t read his expression, but he picked up his jacket and hat from a nearby chair. “What’s happened?” she asked. Taro appeared once more at his side.

“I have to catch a cab back to the spaceport,” he said with a look of longsuffering. “Lori was arrested trying to get past the guards I’d posted around the ship. They’re holding her in a security cell at the spaceport precinct and she’s rather indignant.”

Samantha raised a hand to her mouth, but she wasn’t quick enough to hide the smirk on her face. Merlin twitched an ear at her reaction and then just shook his head. Taro looked at the collie in disbelief and then walked away.

“Now, Sam…” Merlin started to say. “Well, anyway… I’m going to go vouch for her release.”

Samantha raised a hand in acknowledgement, but didn’t dare to say anything for fear she would start laughing. The lupine captain sighed and then left the waiting room.     

*** 

Merlin paid the koala cabbie for his fare and then trotted up the steps of the Aglet Spaceport security offices. It was a small, unimposing building made of corrugated metal sides and a flat roof, with a simple light pole on each side of the glass double-doors. When he entered into the main lobby, he saw nothing impressive about the place. It consisted of nothing more than a dozen closely-set desks strewn with data crystals, folders brimming with papers and photographs. All of the walls were decorated with bulletin boards full of photos and pin-laden maps.

A uniformed human looked up at him from the first desk he approached. “Yes?” the red-haired man asked.

Merlin removed his hat and held it in his hands. “I’m Merlin Sinclair, captain of the Blue Horizon,” he said. “I got a call—”

“Ah yes, you’re here to identify a rabbit who claims to be your employee,” the man said. “I’m the one who called you, Captain.”

“Thank you, officer.” Merlin replied. “I do have a cottontail named Lorelei Easter who works on my ship.”

“Alton!” the human called across the room. “Take this guy to cell one-eighty-six and see if he can identify the gal in there.” He looked back at Merlin and added, “If she’s really yours and you can vouch for her, bring her back up here and you can sign for her release.”

A broad-shouldered lion waved from across the room. “This way,” he beckoned to Merlin. The captain wove his way around the desks and then followed Alton through a doorway into an elevator. When the doors closed and the lion tapped in a series of numbers into a keypad, Merlin felt uneasy. While the guard looked nothing like his old competitor, he couldn’t stop thinking about the fight he’d had with Armando. Jensen might not have been a good businessman, but he was strong and packed a powerful punch. He rubbed his jaw unconsciously in remembrance and Alton looked down at the shorter wolf suspiciously.

A moment later, the lift door slid aside and they emerged into a chamber cut out of the solid rock strata below the spaceport complex. The lights were dim and a row of sturdy cages lined an aisle behind a heavy glassteel panel. A bulldog with a thick neck looked up from a desk in front of the panel and narrowed his eyes at the wolf.

“What’d dis one do?” he growled.

“Nothing,” Alton replied with a lopsided grin. “He’s here to take a look at your bunny in 186.” He handed his identicard to him.

The bulldog scanned the card with a desktop reader. He looked back at Merlin and shook his head. “I hope she’s yourn,” he said wearily. “She’s been a thorn in my side ever since she got here.” He tapped a complex code into a keypad and the glassteel panel slide aside.

Alton motioned for the wolf to follow him through the entrance, and once the pair of them had gone inside, the bulldog closed the panel behind them. Merlin swallowed unconsciously, but said nothing as the lion led him along the row. Most of the cells were empty, save for one or two individuals that Merlin thought looked to be no more harmful than vagrants. When they reached the farthest cell in the room, Alton gestured toward the bars.

“You know her?” he asked.

A white cottontail rabbit sat on a worn mat on the floor of the cell with her back to the door. Her head rested on crossed arms on top of her knees. Merlin sighed. He recognized the colorful tie-dyed tank-top she wore. “Lori,” he said gently.

The rabbit’s head snapped up and she whirled around in surprise. “Merlin!” she gasped. She crawled to the door and then looked up at him. “Please get me out of here,” she pleaded. “These aren’t nice people!”

Merlin looked up at Alton. “She’s mine,” he stated. The lion nodded and then gave a hand-signal back toward the bulldog. Almost immediately, the electronic lock on the cell door opened with a clunk and Alton pulled it open. Lorelei jumped up into Merlin’s arms and began to bawl onto his shoulder. “C’mon,” the wolf said. “Let’s get you signed out.”

They followed Alton back toward the front desk and a dirty poodle looked up at them mournfully from one of the other cells. “Take me instead of zat booney-rabit,” he pleaded with an accented voice. “I am a gourmet chef and ken be of more use to you.”

“You’re no chef!” Lorelei spat at the canine. “You couldn’t cook your way out of a school lunchroom!”

“Pierre!” the poodle said in a strained voice to a Manx cat in the next cell, “thees floozy can’t talk to me in such a manner!”

“Oh, go soak your head…” hissed Pierre.

Lorelei stuck her tongue out at the poodle as Merlin pulled her away in irritation. When they passed through the glassteel panel the bulldog opened for them again, he grunted with a squint at the rabbit.

“They’ve been at it like that all day,” he said wearily to the wolf. He looked up at Alton and waved toward the elevator. “Get her outta here, please!”

Almost as soon as the elevator door closed behind them, Lorelei stuck her nose up against Merlin’s and looked him dead in the eye. “Why did this happen to me?” she demanded from him. “We’ve never had guards around the Horizon before! Has it been repossessed? You should’ve never let this happen!”

“It was a security precaution after what happened to the Hidalgo Sun,” Merlin said with a growl in his voice. If his cook wanted to challenge his authority, he would be more than willing to assert himself over her. Her attitude had not placed him in the best moods, especially after all the mental exhaustion he had been through that day. He reached up, wrapped one hand around her nose, and put some distance between their faces. Alton watched them curiously.

“The Sun?” she asked in surprise when he released her. “What happened?”

The elevator doors opened, Merlin grasped her wrist, and pulled her along. “I’ll explain after we get your release signed.”

It only took a few moments for Merlin to explain that the troublesome bunny was, in fact, one of his crew members; she had not been unexpected back at the ship and had not been given a clearance badge to get past the guards. As Sinclair had been the one to hire the security guards in the first place, there were no charges filed on Lorelei, and after the signing of a release form, they were free to go.

The human clerk gave Merlin a copy of the form; he folded it neatly and placed it in an interior pocket of his jacket. The lupine captain gave the man a nod and then said, “Please express my appreciation for a job well done to the guards surrounding my ship.” Lorelei gave him an astonished look, but Merlin ignored her. “Had my friend here not been someone of my acquaintance, they might have actually caught a saboteur. Give them my thanks, please.”

The red-haired man scratched his chin and smiled in quiet surprise. “I’ll do that, Captain,” he said. “I’m sure they will appreciate your words.”

Merlin nodded and then led his employee outside the precinct. He hailed a cab, and as soon as they were inside and he had given the mouse his destination, Lorelei grabbed his arm and looked at him with fearful eyes.

“What happened to the Hidalgo Sun?” she asked. “Don’t keep me in the dark!”

Merlin nodded quickly and then gave her an account of the damage to their sister ship. Moisture welled up in her eyes as he described the damage to the ship and the injuries to Mark Littlefeather, but when he went on to tell her about Renny, she broke down and cried.    

*** 

Twenty minutes later, Merlin and Lorelei approached the Intensive Care station. A kittenish nurse smiled up at him, but instantly frowned when she recognized him.

“Hi, Gloria,” Merlin said. “Has there been any news?” The feline swallowed and nodded.

“Your friend has taken a turn for the worse, I’m afraid,” she said quietly. “Your other friends have been allowed into his room and are there now.” She pointed toward a pleated white curtain hanging across a doorway.

Lorelei’s bottom lip quivered and she left the station toward the curtain. Merlin frowned deeply and then pressed the nurse to fill him in on the details. When he entered the room a few minutes later, he found Taro, Samantha and Lorelei all clinging together and crying. Tanis stood next to the bed looking lost.

Renny lay unconscious on the bed with a white sheet covering him up to his neck. The cheetah made no movement, and had it not been for the shallow rise and fall of his chest, Merlin might have thought him dead – a conclusion that seemed imminent.

Tanis looked up at his captain and shook his head slowly as if reading his thoughts. “Renny’s blood pressure has dropped dangerously low,” he told the wolf through a raspy voice. “He is not expected to live through the night.” Merlin nodded his understanding, but said nothing. He didn’t know what to say in this situation.

“He’s lost too much blood and the doctor told me there aren’t many cheetahs on Alexandrius,” Tanis continued, almost to himself. “If they can’t find a donor quickly, he’s not going to make it.”

“The nurse told me they can synthesize a blood substitute for him,” Merlin said at last in a quiet voice, “but it will only sustain him a short while longer. I gave them authorization to go ahead and try it.”

“For what good it will do him,” Tanis muttered, “I’d like to keep him around a little while longer.”    

*** 

Taro could hear the occasional beeps of the hospital room and they silently reassured as she lay with her head next to Renny’s arm on his bed. So long as she could hear the beeps, she knew her friend and lover still lived. She could hear a couple of the nurses talking quietly among themselves out near the monitoring station, and she recognized Tanis’ soft snores from the other chair in the room. She didn’t know where Merlin or the others were, but she didn’t open her eyes to look. So long as no one was in an excited state, she felt no need for alarm.

There was some movement by her head and she ignored it in her exhaustion until something lightly stroked the ornamental feather clipped to her fur. She looked up suddenly and saw the fingers of Renny’s hand moving. She stood up with a knot in her stomach as she leaned over the cheetah in the darkened room and saw his eyes opened to slits, the lights of the nurses’ station reflecting in them. Taro choked back a sob and swallowed as she drew nearer to him. She could see his eyes track to her face and she could see recognition in them.

Renny raised his injured hand slightly and tried to gesture to her, but the action was weak. Taro reached over and lightly grasped his good hand to let him know she was there with him. She was so overjoyed to see him awake that she couldn’t find her voice. Quiet tears flowed into her cheek fur.

“Ta… ro…” Renny said with difficulty. The tubes clipped to his nostrils gave his raspy voice a nasal quality as if he suffered from a cold, and his tongue was dry.

“Yes, darling,” the vixen whispered as she leaned closer to him, “I’m here.” She felt selfish for not waking the others to let them know their friend had regained consciousness, but she didn’t want to leave Renny for any second he might be awake. Apparently, the synthesized blood they had given him earlier had been enough to raise his blood pressure, but with a quick glance at the monitor, she could tell it was still too low. She didn’t know how much longer she might have with him and didn’t want to leave him to get the others.

“You… okay…?” Renny asked in a voice barely above a whisper.

“Yes, I’m fine,” she replied with a nod. “It’s you I’m concerned about. Can you remember who did this to you?”

Renny closed his eyes, and for a brief moment, Taro thought he had stopped breathing. She jostled him gently and he opened his eyes a little. “Jaguars…” he said finally.  “Two… of them… with black fur… I think. Was dark.”

Taro nodded and began to stroke the fur of his left cheek with the back of her fingers. “We’ll get them,” she whispered in a hard voice.

“Heard doctor…” he said with a swallow.  “Said I was… dying…” He closed his eyes again and the vixen’s heart moved up into her throat.

“No!” Taro hissed. He looked at her again and she shook her head vigorously. “You’re getting better, I swear it!” She put her hands gently on his cheeks and looked into his eyes. “You were hurt bad,” she admitted, “but now you’re coming back to us.”

“Don’t… think so…” he whispered. “Can’t feel… legs…”

“That’s the painkillers,” Taro said in a rush. “You have to…” she choked up and wasn’t able to finish her words. Renny saw her tears and felt himself drifting away from consciousness.

“Do something…?” he rasped. She wiped her eyes and looked back at him with a nod. “Light a candle… for me…” he said. Renny’s eyes closed and then he went very still. Taro felt the fur on the back of her neck stiffen and she choked.

“Renny?” she asked. This time, he didn’t respond or even move, and she felt the blood drain from her face. “Renny!”

“His blood pressure has dropped again,” Tanis said from across the bed. Taro looked up at him with frightened eyes and then laid her head upon the cheetah’s chest. Yes, there was still a heartbeat, though it was slow and faint, and she could feel from the rise and fall of his chest that his lungs continued to draw in air, albeit shallow.

Tanis sat up in the chair he had slept in and rubbed his eyes. “I don’t think he’s going to make it, Taro,” he said gently. “Without a donor, there’s nothing else that can be done for him.”

The vixen glanced up at him with moist eyes, but kept her head on Renny’s chest. “Yes there is,” she said quietly. “I can continue to love him, Tanis.”

The desert fox saw no accusations for his words in her tears that reflected the monitor lights, but he could think of nothing else to say. He nodded, stood up, and then reached across the bed. He lightly stroked her fur in compassion as she wept quietly.    

*** 

“Watch your head, Max!” Patch growled around his cigar. A huge crate suspended from a rental crane swung by the canine mechanic’s ears and the German shepherd ducked in the nick of time. “Pay attention, boy!” the raccoon added with a raised eyebrow.

Max waved back without a word to acknowledge him, and then followed the moving crate until it was set down near the forward end of the Hidalgo Sun. The ship’s new Moss-unit floated nearby and monitored the activity with an occasional meow. Max hefted the crowbar he carried with him and began to open the wooden box. Tsarina and Riki followed his example on other sides of the crate; within moments, they had the top and three sides of the box removed.

The trio gathered around in the evening sunlight as Patch moved in and began to unpack the parts to the ship’s new main airlock amidst the blue smoke of his stogie. Fortunately for the business, the Sun’s chief engineer had been able to locate a local parts warehouse for the things they needed due to the commonality of Okami freighters. The parts for the larger cargo bay door would arrive on the following day according to the shipper, and they would have to be assembled.

While waiting for the airlock to arrive, Rezo had ordered everyone on his crew to assist in the repairs, inside and outside of his ship. Pockets and Paxton continued to work on the overhead crane inside the Sun’s cargo bay, while Sheila and Danaher repaired the internal lift that had been damaged. Even Jonesy and the captain worked together on the pressurized storage lockers around the perimeter of the hold that had been damaged by shrapnel. Doctor Carmen was at a local hotel looking after Mark Littlefeather as he recovered. She wanted to keep him away from the ship for the time being, and it took the polar bear’s longsuffering patience to deal with the human’s tenacity to get up so he could help with the repairs when he should be allowing the healing of his injuries to begin.

The weight of the new outer frame of the airlock was almost more than Max and Tsarina could lift to a standing position, but they managed to struggle it upright. They had removed the old hatch and frame earlier that day and had repaired the structure to the ship around where the new one would be installed. Riki rooted around inside the packing and found the purchase order slip and installation pamphlet wedged beneath the new hatch panel. It would take more than the lemur’s minute efforts to free the paperwork, so she went over to the hired crane operator to have him assist her with it.

Max exchanged grave looks with Tsarina. Despite their busy work schedule to make repairs to the ship, both of them were constantly worried about Renny. The cheetah was one of Max’s closest friends and it bothered him that he had left the Blue Horizon to come to Algegrath. His skills were needed here, but he would rather have been at the hospital waiting by his friend’s side.

It was no secret among the Hidalgo Sun’s crew that Tsarina held a crush on her counterpart on the Blue Horizon. Both were feline navigators and both were skilled pilots who loved to fly. When she had first heard the news of Renny getting shot, she had fainted and it had taken Carmen’s smelling-salts to bring the jaguar around again. She had bugged Riki for any news from the Iverson hospital to the point where the lemur had been convinced to carry a DC tied into relays from the Com station on the Sun’s bridge, just so she would be up on any news sent to them. It had never bothered Tsarina to know that Renny’s heart belonged to Taro, but that didn’t stop her for caring for him.

Pockets, on the other hand, was too immersed in his work to worry about Renny. He knew there would be nothing he could do for the cheetah had he been in Iverson and his help was needed here with his brother. Their anticipated reunion had been somber, but the siblings were glad to see one another. With tools in his hands and grease beneath his fingernails, Pockets was totally absorbed with the task at hand. Major repairs to the Blue Horizon were so seldom that he often felt his skills might get rusty, so this was a great opportunity for him – despite the disaster that had caused it.

Captain Rezo Kegawa walked down the ramp of the cargo bay to the tarmac outside and looked up at the evening stars. The diminutive red panda heaved a quiet sigh and then looked over at the armed guards that had cordoned off a perimeter around the crimson freighter. He felt uncomfortable with them around, but after what had happened to his ship, he understood their presence. Temporary identification cards had been issued to the combined members of the two ships and it was mandatory to show them upon exiting or reentering the protected zone.

Rezo idly glanced up at a departing private craft and wondered who would do such a thing to them.     

*** 

Morning had come to the Iverson hospital, and by some miracle, Renny still lived. He’d not made his way back to consciousness, but he still breathed on his own. Taro had spent the night beside him, sleeping fitfully with her head on the bed next to the cheetah’s arm and dreaming of ebony jaguars wielding huge guns that she had been unable to stop.

When Merlin brought her some coffee from the hospital cafeteria, she straightened the pale green blouse that Samantha had purchased for her and then ran a brush through her fur. She took her coffee laced with cream and a little bit of chocolate, but she barely tasted any of it.

The lupine captain studied the monitor readouts with a frown and then turned back toward her. “I think you’ve spent enough time up here, Taro,” he said quietly. “Let Tanis take you to your hotel so you can rest and clean up.”

“No,” Taro said as she tossed her empty paper cup into the trash bin. “I don’t want to leave him.”

Merlin moved to her side and then put a hand on her shoulder. “Taro, go. That’s an order. Samantha and I will keep watch—”

“No!” Taro said defiantly. “I’m not leaving the hospital until… until….”

“You are refusing an order?” Merlin said in a low voice. He understood how she felt, but he had given a command. Taro looked up at him with dark eyes and pressed her lips together at his words.

“Yes… sir,” she said hesitantly. “I am.” The vixen’s sense of duty made it hard to reject a command order, but this was not a normal situation. She tried to keep eye contact with him, but his piercing amber eyes went through her like a knife. She turned her head and lowered her ears, but didn’t say anything more.

Merlin’s heart softened and he patted her shoulder gently to let her know it was all right. He fully understood her relationship with the cheetah, and he also knew he would have reacted the same if it had been Samantha on the bed.

He looked up at the Border collie who had watched the exchange in silence and then he motioned her closer as an idea came to him. “Taro,” he said gently, “I won’t make you leave the hospital, but there is something you need to do for Renny.”

The fox looked up at him. “What is it?” she asked.

“Come with me. Samantha will keep an eye on him while you and I take a walk down the hallway.”

Taro looked up at him suspiciously, wondering if he planned to pull her into an elevator and force her to leave. However, he did say he wouldn’t make her leave the hospital and he had never lied to her before. Reluctantly, she stood up and Samantha gave her a reassuring smile. It took some effort, but she walked quietly behind her captain as he led her toward a corridor leading around a corner. She glanced down at Lorelei and Tanis, who slept against one another on one of the waiting room couches.

Her attention was on her feet as she trod the tiled floor, until she suddenly noticed a burgundy carpet beneath her. She looked up and discovered that Merlin had taken her to a hospital chapel. She looked up at him in dismay, but he motioned for her to follow him in.

The vixen closed the door behind her and the room darkened to the illumination of two large, aromatic red candles burning on the altar. She looked up at a stained-glass display on the wall of a human male brutally nailed to crossed wooden poles on a hill beneath an angry sky. She swallowed with difficulty and glanced nervously around the cushioned benches in the room. Merlin stood up near the altar and opened a wooden box beside it. From this, he pulled out two white candles and a couple of long-stemmed wooden sticks with blackened ends. He handed a candle and a stick to Taro.

“Our friend may not make it,” he said to her in a voice barely above a whisper, “so let’s honor him by lighting a few candles.”

Tears suddenly came to Taro’s eyes. She remembered Renny’s request, but didn’t think that Merlin had been awake during that conversation to hear it. Neither she nor Merlin were spiritual, but lighting a candle for the dead or dying was a practice held on many of the Planetary Alignment worlds, including her own Hestra, and she knew that her captain felt Renny needed all the help he could get. She nodded and fought back the tears as she followed the wolf’s example.

Merlin lit the end of his stick from one of the large candles and then set his white candle near the center of the altar. He briefly closed his eyes, said a quiet prayer to the Great Maker, and then silently lit his candle with the stick. Taro said a prayer of her own and then lit her candle. The two small candles looked inadequate to her, but she had fulfilled Renny’s request.

She looked up when the door to the chapel opened and Lorelei stepped in. Her long bunny ears drooped as she looked up at Taro and Merlin, and her eyes were tired. She looked apologetic, but didn’t say a word as she passed between them to the candle box. She withdrew four more candles, planning to light a few of her own for the feline navigator.    

*** 

Samantha sat beside Renny’s bed and watched his blood pressure monitor drop another number. Her mind was numb from worry. She had finally gotten to a point where she no longer held any hope for her friend and merely waited for the inevitable. The synthesized blood had helped him through the night, but there was only so much it could do for him.

She had watched Lorelei leave the waiting area and meander away up the hallway, and Tanis had checked in with her a few minutes later, only to leave again to head down to the cafeteria on the first floor of the hospital. A nurse had come in to check in on Renny, but had returned to her station after a solemn look at him. Samantha was alone with the cheetah and she leaned over him with sad eyes.

“I wish there was something I could do for you,” she said to him quietly. “I’m going to miss having you around to banter with… things won’t be the same without you, Ren-Ren.” A single tear fell from her cheek fur and landed on his chest. Samantha absently touched the tear stain on the bed sheet with a finger. “You and I were never romantically involved,” she whispered, “but I’ve loved you like a brother. I’m already missing you, my friend…”

The Border collie looked up at the sudden sounds of activity as the nurse and several orderlies rushed into the room. “Please step aside, dear,” the older nurse said as she gently stepped between Sam and her friend. A gurney was wheeled in on the opposite side of the bed as the nurse unhooked the monitors from the cheetah. The orderlies worked together and lifted Renny from the bed and quickly moved him to the gurney; one of them transferred his IV bags to an upright hook attached to the gurney.

“What’s going on?” Samantha asked desperately.

The nurse hesitated as the orderlies rushed out with the feline navigator, but only shook her head before she took off after the others who were now running up the corridor with the patient. Samantha started after them, but two security guards near the ICU station quickly barred her way.

“What’s going on?” Samantha repeated to them.

One of the German shepherds shook his head. “We don’t know,” he said apologetically, “but you aren’t allowed down that wing. You will have to wait until someone can come back to talk to you, ma’am.”

Samantha looked up at him with a deep frown, but nodded her understanding. She turned and walked to the ICU station, where she motioned for the nurse on duty. “Can you tell me what’s going on?” she asked. “Where did they take our friend?”

“Sorry, ma’am,” the Irish setter replied. “Doctor Sado will send word out to you when there’s something to report.”

“But…”

“Sorry, ma’am, but there’s nothing else I can tell you right now.”

Samantha snorted and gave the woman a cross look before she left the station. She walked briskly up the corridor until she came to the hospital chapel and then burst in through the door. Merlin, Taro and Lorelei looked up at her amidst two dozen burning candles and the vixen stood up in alarm.

“Is he….?” she choked.

Sam shook her head, but then explained what had just happened. Merlin stood up with a look of apprehension on his face and moved for the door. “Stay here,” he commanded them when the others began to follow him. “I’ll see if I can find out what’s going on with Renny.”

The lupine captain stormed out of the small chapel and headed straight down the hallway to the ICU station. The nurse looked up and sighed, having expected this encounter.

“Where was Renny Thornton just taken?” the wolf asked in a rush. “I’ve just been informed that he was removed from his room in a hurry.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t tell you anything.”

“You can’t tell me anything, or you won’t tell me anything?” he asked darkly.

The Irish setter stood up from her chair and leaned on the counter toward him. “Go sit down,” the nurse said in a tone that identified that she’d dealt with demanding people before. “When the doctor has something to say to you, he will send someone out to say it.”

Unused to having his commands countered, Merlin’s hackles raised and he bared his teeth. “Get someone out here now to talk to me!” he growled. “I don’t care if it’s a blasted janitor, so long as it’s someone with information I want to know! Renny Thornton is my responsibility!”

“What’s your problem, buddy?” said one of the canine security guards from behind him. Merlin turned around and faced the pair of them with a dark look.

“The problem is that I’m getting the runaround from this nurse,” he said. “I’m not trying to interfere with your hospital business. All I want to know is why my navigator was taken away so suddenly. A simple explanation will do.”

“As the lady said,” the other guard replied, “you’ll be notified when the doctor has something to tell you.”

“That’s not good enough!” Merlin growled with his fists clenched. “Where was he taken?”

“Captain Sinclair?”

Merlin and both of the guards turned around to see a short brown bear standing just inside the door, his white smock barely containing his expansive girth and a grim look on his face.

“I’m Sinclair,” the wolf replied. The bear motioned him to come forward and Merlin complied.

“I’m Doctor Sado,” he said. “I’m sorry for the mystery surrounding your friend, but there wasn’t time to give you an explanation and the nurse you were just talking to had not yet been given the information you sought. Time is working against Mr. Thornton and we had to act quickly.”

“Thank you for coming to talk to me, sir,” Merlin said apologetically. “Is Renny….?”

“Your friend still lives, Captain,” the doctor told him, “although it will still be some time before we know how successful we are at saving him.”

“What’s going on?” Merlin asked. “He was taken in such haste that we assumed the worst.”

Doctor Sado lowered his voice as he looked up at the wolf. “Another cheetah was brought into the hospital just a few minutes ago,” he explained. “The young woman had severe trauma to the head and neck from a traffic accident and was DOA by the time the ambulance got her here. We were unable to revive her and the decision was made quickly to use her as a blood donor for your friend. Mr. Thornton was moved to the Emergency Room and has just begun receiving the transfusion.”

“You don’t look convinced this will help him,” Merlin replied.

The physician sighed and shook his head. “The donor’s blood is not an exact match, but the blood of cheetahs, even in its different types, is all very closely related. There is a chance her blood will work for him, but we won’t know the results until later. There is still the possibility that the mismatch itself might be fatal if the antibodies in his system attack the new blood. All we can do now is let the transfusion do its job and then we wait to see how your friend reacts to it.”

Merlin nodded and put a hand on the doctor’s shoulder. “Thank you, Dr. Sado. All I wanted to know was what was going on. I won’t keep you further from your job.”

Sado looked up at him. “You should prepare your friends for the possibility that the transfusion may not help,” he said. “Without another donor, there’s nothing else we can do for him if this doesn’t work.”

Merlin nodded. He had already prepared himself for news of Renny’s death and thought the others probably had as well, but he still needed to talk to them. “I understand,” he said quietly. “Thank you.” The doctor patted his shoulder and then disappeared back through the door he had come through. The lupine captain walked quietly back to the chapel, careful not to look at the nurse and guards as he passed them.

When he arrived back inside the chapel, Taro jumped up from her seat and rushed to him, followed by Samantha and Lorelei.

“Did you find out anything?” Taro asked him. Merlin nodded and then related everything the doctor had told him. Lorelei began crying openly when he mentioned the young cheetah woman that had died, even though her death might actually mean Renny’s salvation. Taro drew the bunny to her side and let her cry on her shoulder. The vixen had brightened up with Merlin’s news, but he had to caution her.

“I don’t want to sound pessimistic,” the captain said quietly, “but there’s still the possibility that Renny won’t make it, even with the transfusion.”

Taro looked back at him and nodded. “I know,” she said with a voice stronger than she had spoken with lately, “but I’m not going to give up on him so long as there’s the slimmest chance he’ll make it.”    

*** 

Rezo ambled around the curved corridor of the crew deck toward the bridge of his ship. His hands were clasped behind him as he walked and his head was down in deep thought. When he reached the door to the bridge, he reached up to activate the switch. Before his hand connected, however, the panel slid aside and Riki stepped out in front of him.

“Call for you, Captain,” she said in a startled voice. The slender lemur had not expected to see him so suddenly and gestured into the room behind her. “Merlin’s on the line.”

“Thank you, Riki,” the red panda said in a quiet voice. He moved past her and went straight to the Com station. “Captain Kegawa here,” he said into the condenser microphone of the headset he put around his ears.

“Hi, Rezo. How’s the Hidalgo Sun?” asked Merlin’s voice, “May I have a progress report on the repairs?”

“Yes,” the small panda replied. “Our final parts shipment arrived about an hour ago and the cargo bay door is currently undergoing assembly. The minor repairs have almost been completed – I’ve had most of the crew working around the clock on them, but I had to order both Porters to bed for rest early this morning or they would have dropped in exhaustion.”

“I’m assuming that Patch and Pockets are already back into the middle of things?”

“You know them well, boss,” Rezo replied with a little smile. “Both claim they got in four hours of sleep and that it was enough to recharge them, but as we’re running on a tight schedule, I didn’t argue. Pockets said he would catch up on his sleep later and they’re both working on the assembly. So far, everything’s going together properly, but that door’s big and it’s still going to take a while to get it finished.”

“Your people have done a lot in the past couple of days,” Merlin said in appreciation. “Let them know I’m proud of them.”

“I’ll do that. Thank you,” Rezo replied. He looked toward the door when he heard movement and saw Tsarina standing there. He put the conversation on the overhead speaker so his navigator could listen in, but kept the headset on to use the microphone. “What’s the word on Renny?” he asked.

There was a hesitation and then Merlin answered. “It doesn’t look good, Rezo. They took him away a couple of hours ago to give him an emergency transfusion of blood from another cheetah who’d died in a traffic accident, but we’ve not heard anything else since then. I’ve talked to the doctor, and despite the transfusion, I don’t think he expects Renny to pull through due to a slight mismatch in the blood type. Now it’s just a matter of waiting until we get… the word.”

Rezo glanced over at the jaguar and saw that Tsarina was in distress by this news. She stood perfectly still, her eyes closed and fists clenched, with tears beginning to slip through her cheek fur. She didn’t make a sound, but the red panda could see her whiskers trembling.

“I’ll pass on the news,” he said slowly, “and I’ll let you know as soon as the repairs have been completed.”

“How’s Mark doing?”

“Littlefeather is impatient to get back to the ship. Carmen’s had to force him back into bed to rest several times, and I would have to say that if she’d been a species other than a large polar bear, I don’t think she would have been able to keep that guy at bay. He’s determined, but she’s threatened to use cargo straps to keep him in bed if he doesn’t behave.”

“Those humans are stubborn, alright,” Merlin said. “Has your armed guard encountered any resistance?”

“There have been few rubberneckers that have come close to the barrier, but it hasn’t taken much to shoo them away. Other than that, no trouble at all.”

“Okay, maybe you can appease Mark a little and have Dr. Burgess transfer him to his own cabin on board the ship. He still needs healing time, but maybe he’ll be satisfied to be back on board.”

“Aye, Captain. That should quiet him down somewhat, but he’ll still probably be difficult to keep him in his quarters. I’ll make arrangements with Carmen to bring him back, though.”

“Very good. I’m down in the lobby of the hospital and need to get back upstairs. I’ll let you know when I know more.”

“Aye, sir,” Rezo replied. “Hidalgo Sun out.”    

*** 

Tanis looked up at the cloudy sky with a frown as he approached the front steps of the hospital. He’d gone back to his hotel room to rest several hours earlier, but discovered that he couldn’t sleep very well. There was such a sense of gloom over him, and although he’d received no messages from the hospital, he couldn’t help but feel that Renny had slipped away from them.

The desert fox thought about his friendly rivalry with the navigator as he walked into the lobby and headed for the elevators. He and Renny had originally vied for Taro’s affections, but Tanis had always been aware that the vixen didn’t play favorites with the guys she toyed with and knew that he would never get serious with her. Renny, on the other hand, had always seemed the jealous type and seemed to think his relationship with her should have been exclusive.

Tanis had used this underlying tension to needle the cheetah every chance he got, merely for the point of getting a rise out of the navigator for a laugh, but eventually he had started to slack off when he realized just how deeply Renny felt for Taro. Of his own volition, Tanis had slowly distanced himself away from the vixen, and although she still visited his bed on occasion, those times had become rarer for Renny’s sake. Taro, herself, had made no conscious decision for an exclusive relationship, but it was clear to see that she loved Renny’s presence.

Arktanis TeVann was not lonely because of this, however. Lorelei was a willing companion, and even though she appeared simple-minded and easily distracted, Tanis did like her. The bunny was the first to go to him with needed hugs each time he’d received devastating news about Nalirra. It was still hard for him to believe that his homeworld was now under the control of another planet and that he could never go back – even if he had wanted to. In the weeks following the last reports from the Roppa star system, Tanis had tried to put thoughts of Nalirra behind him and Lorelei had done her best to help him think of other things.

Now their roles were reversed. Despite the hobbies she might have that Tanis would never take part in himself, Lorelei had a tender and compassionate heart. Seeing Renny on his deathbed was tearing her apart and it was Tanis she went to for security. The desert fox knew that if he aspired to be a fully-licensed physician, he would have to keep his head during crises, and this included the present situation.

When the elevator doors opened and he stepped out into the hallway, he fully expected to see everybody crying over the cheetah’s death. He knew he had to be strong in order to provide some measure of comfort to Lorelei and Taro.

“Tanis,” Samantha’s voice called to him from a side hallway. The fox looked over at her and saw her struggling with a vending machine that refused to give up the snack bar she’d purchased. “I thought you went to your room to sleep,” she mused. Suddenly, she gave a swift kick to the side of the vending machine that sounded loud in the quiet hospital wing.

Tanis allowed himself a little smile when the action resulted in two snack bars falling to the tray below. Samantha retrieved them with a shrug and handed one to her friend.

“I lay there for a couple of hours,” he replied to her as they walked back toward the ICU waiting room, “but was unable to fall asleep. All I could do was just to lay there thinking.”

“I’ve been doing a lot of that myself lately,” Samantha admitted. “It doesn’t seem possible that we may lose Renny.”

“Is he still with us?”

The Border collie nodded and took a bite of her snack bar. She brushed a few crumbs from her turquoise blouse, and smeared a bit of soft carob on the silky material. She groaned at the mess she made and looked up at Tanis with a look of resignation. She chewed her mouthful and then swallowed with the wish that she’d bought a soda as well.

“They took him away last night for an emergency blood transfusion from another cheetah they’d brought in DOA, but we’ve not heard anything new since then, one way or another. I suppose that in this case, no news could be counted as good news.”

Merlin looked up at the pair when they walked into the waiting area and nodded his greeting silently. Lorelei lay on the couch beside him with her head in his lap. She was not asleep, but she stared off into infinity, unfocused on anyone around her. The wolf absently stroked the soft fur behind her left ear.

“You’re back early,” Merlin said quietly.

“Couldn’t sleep,” the fox replied. “Where’s Taro?”

Samantha sat down in a worn vinyl chair and gestured toward the far hallway. “She’s back in the chapel again, lighting more candles. I think she feels the more she lights, the better Renny’s chances will be.”

“I think she frightened that mouse family that went into the chapel to pray for their child,” Merlin mused as Tanis took another seat. “She has so many burning candles in there that it looks like the interior of a furnace; she’s refused to put out a single one of them.”

“What’s up with the mice?”

“A drunk driver smashed into the family car. The father’s in ICU with some fairly bad injuries and his survival chances aren’t good. Their eight year old son didn’t make it.”

Tanis grimaced. He’d lost a childhood friend to a drunk driver himself and he knew how devastating it was to lose a young one to that. He stood up and Samantha looked up at him.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“To see if I can give some consolation to the mouse family,” he said. “I don’t seem to be helping Renny, so perhaps I can help these other people.”

“I wish you would help me through this…” Lorelei said in a quiet voice. She looked up at him with sad eyes and Tanis knelt down in front of her.

“Alright, come with me back to my hotel room,” he said to her with a nod.

“I don’t think I’m up to playing…” the bunny whispered.

Tanis shook his head. “That’s not what I had in mind. Ya need a chance to get away from the hospital for a while, and we can talk or rest together there.”

The white rabbit sat up slowly and brushed down the fur on the side of her face she had been laying on. “Okay,” she said in a muted voice. She looked over at Samantha first, and then to Merlin before she took Tanis’ offered hand to stand up.

“Let us know if ya hear anything,” Tanis said to his captain.    

*** 

The candles were burning all around her and the air was sweet with the scent of floral aroma. Taro was alone in the tiny chapel as she knelt on a small ornamental mat on the floor. She had prayed for what seemed hours and now merely stared into the candle flames. Her eyes were half closed as she let her mind drift though time.

She remembered the first night she and Renny had hooked up in his cabin on the Blue Horizon. She recalled the countless trips the two of the took together during their shore leaves, and she remembered the time when she thought he was going to propose to her during a mountain climbing vacation on Kantus. Her mind swirled over many more memories and her heart raced as each one vividly came back to her.

She had been unaware of it for a long while, but this situation had taught her the agony that Renny must have gone through after she had been whisked away following the fight with Sagan. He had not known if she had lived or had died and the worry that must have eaten at him had to be similar to what she now felt herself. Even after she finally returned home to the Blue Horizon, Taro had never really been aware of the turmoil that Renny had suffered. Until now. Now she understood.    

*** 

For the first time since he had arrived at the hospital, Merlin turned on the waiting room vidscreen. The channel was set to the local weather station for Iverson and he picked up the remote to change the channels. He sat down beside Samantha, who busied herself with a crossword puzzle book, and then flipped the channels until he got to INN.

A field reporter was decked out in a lavender pressure suit giving an account in a desolate-looking field of scorched and blackened rock with a glassy texture she had difficulty standing upon. The air around her was thick with toxic clouds and through them moved a large mechanical device of some sort behind her.

“…and to that conclusion, the Jerath Mining Corporation of Dennier has high hopes that the surface of Mainor in its present state might wield rich minerals. Jerath has already filed mineral rights to what was once the Dojes Plain, which is about thirty kilometers to the south of where the metropolitan city of Risen used to exist before the Siilv War. However, Mainoran organizations located off-world are up in arms over the Dennieran company laying claim to Mainor, no matter the state of the planet. Memories of the Dennier-Mainor conflicts of over a decade ago have resurfaced, but the spokesman for Jerath has expressed no concerns for the now-dead world. For INN, this is field correspondent Jennifer Saxon.”

“Speaking of war,” said the voice of Holly Harken as the camera changed to show her at her normal post as the anchor of the Interstellar News Network. She was dressed in a powder blue blouse with a white tie and a pale yellow carnation attached to her dark hair above her left ear. “The Roppa star system continues to be off-limits to anyone entering its borders. Six hours ago, a starship for rival news network PANN was shot down just inside the Reytharsa asteroid belt by a Tanatan battleship. Our sources tell us that the SS Noio Bloom tried to sneak into Nalirra for a news story, but the Planetary Alignment Network News cruiser was detected by the Tanatan battleship just as it entered the asteroid belt for cover. A chase into the Reytharsa region lasted only twenty minutes before the Noio Bloom was destroyed with all hands aboard. Names of the passengers and crew of the vessel have not been released pending notification of their families.”

Holly shuffled several papers in front of her without looking at them and then gave the camera a pretty smile. “Before we sign off with this broadcast, I have another news story to brighten the day of those interested in the royal House of Aris of Tanthe. The long-awaited birth of new children in the royal line has just been confirmed only a few moments ago from our offices in Aris Grand. Princess Tinara has given birth to two healthy pups, one male and one female, as a result of a royal tradition to infuse new blood into the family line by an unrelated outside father. The identity of the children’s father has been kept anonymous in Aris tradition, but it has been made known that the coyote infants are half wolf, a hybrid sometimes known as a coywolf. Names of the infants have not yet been publicly released, but we will be sure to let you know as soon as we have them.”

Samantha looked up from her crossword book at the screen and then glanced over at Merlin with narrowed eyes. “Celebrations all over Tanthe have begun to honor the people’s favored Princess Tinara,” Holly continued. “Whoever the father of the children may be, the Aris monarch, King Adion Aris, has assured his subjects that the anonymous male has been well-compensated for his contribution to the family line. Well folks, that wraps up tonight’s edition of News Around The Planetary Alignment. I’m Holly Harken, bidding you a Good Day or Night, wherever you may be.”

A commercial for TranStar Shipping came on the screen and Merlin muted the sound. He felt Samantha’s eyes on him and he turned quietly to look at her.

“Is there something you need to tell me?” she asked in a flat tone.    

*** 

Samantha wrapped her arms around her middle as she stared out the window of the hospital lobby and watched it rain. The sky had been cloud heavy most of the day and the rain had begun at sundown. Rolling thunder sounded far off on the horizon and Samantha smiled thinly at the thought of Renny shaking in fear had he been able to see the distant lightning. For several moments, she watched the puddles grow on the garden walkway outside, but then she finally closed her eyes.

The rain shower outside the building was nothing compared to the storm within her mind. Had she not already been on edge from Renny’s situation, she might have been able to think more clearly, but the newscast in the waiting room had dropped a load into her thoughts. Merlin had been hesitant at first, but then seemed relieved to have someone to talk to concerning the House of Aris.

He had given her a lengthy account on what had happened with him during his visit to see Prince Merlin, but there were parts of his tale that she found hard to believe. He had never lied to her in the past, at least she didn’t believe he had ever done so, but she had trouble swallowing everything he had told her.

Samantha told herself that he had been completely honest with her and she wanted to believe him, but it was so difficult. She was not as close to the Aris royalty as was her captain, but for the sake of the relationship she had with him, she was determined to contact Princess Tinara at the first opportunity that presented itself to her. Perhaps then she would be able to make up her mind about it all.

The Border collie opened her eyes with an audible sigh and shook her head in frustration. She took another look out into the rain showers that were strengthening into a storm, then turned and walked back to the elevator. She rode the lift back up to the floor where they had been camped out and then headed slowly back to the waiting area.

Merlin was nowhere to be seen, so she went up the hall toward the chapel. Perhaps she would find him in there, although she wasn’t sure she really wanted to discuss anything more with him at that point.

She turned the corner in the corridor and saw Doctor Sado talking quietly with Taro up ahead. She could not hear what was said at this distance, but Sado shook his head and Taro suddenly buried her face in her hands. The black bear put a hand on her shoulder and said something else before he turned and walked away.

The vixen looked up at Samantha when she approached, then jumped to her, holding her tight. She cried onto the Border collie’s shoulder and Samantha swallowed hard, instinctively knowing what the doctor must have told her. Tears came to her own eyes as she listened to her friend’s sobs, but she said nothing to give the fox time.

Taro calmed down after a moment and then pulled away from the canine. She wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her blouse and then looked into Samantha’s widened, brown eyes.

“The doctor just told me,” the vixen said in a hoarse voice, “that Renny isn’t responding to the transfusion.” She swallowed and then said, “He advised me to gather his friends around him… for his last few moments…”

“Taro…” Samantha whispered with moist eyes, “we knew this was coming…”

“I… I know, Sam… I just…. I just…”

“I know, Taro. I know.” The collie took the vixen in to a warm embrace once more and for several moments they cried upon one another’s shoulders. Time, however, was on their minds, and if they were going to gather the others for Renny’s last moments alive, they would need to hurry.    

*** 

Tsarina exited the lift she had taken to the crew deck and she stepped out into the corridor with her eyes barely open. Her rest period could not have come at a better time. She was exhausted from the rigorous repair schedule and could barely stand up. She wasn’t sleepy, so much as she was just tired.

The Hidalgo Sun’s Mobile Sentry System floated past her and meowed its greeting, but Tsarina chose to ignore the Moss-unit. It had done nothing against her, but she didn’t like the little thing primarily for what it represented – that they had been under attack and that a dangerous element was still out there gunning for them somewhere.

She found her way to her cabin and then tapped the control to open the panel. It slid aside with a gentle hum and she looked into the darkened room for a moment before she stepped inside. She closed the door behind her and then leaned back against it with her arms wrapped around herself.

Tsarina Ahnya had served aboard various freighters over the years, and of those there were several which had been attacked by pirates wanting their cargo, but this was the first time she had been employed by a company stalked by terrorists. It unnerved her and frightened her. After the attack on the home office on Dennier, Tsarina had considered looking for a job with another ship, but the freightliner business still hadn’t fully recovered from the economic disaster following the Siilv War, and jobs in the market were hard to come by. Horizon Freight had done well due to a good PR team and Captain Sinclair’s good sense of business, but other freighters hadn’t been so lucky. Despite the terrorist attacks, working for Sinclair had paid well and allowed her to work on board one of the newest Okami-class ships in the business.

Still… being stalked by an unknown enemy frightened her. She felt she could hold her own in a straightforward fight, but this situation scared her more than she realized. When she allowed herself to ponder the situation, Tsarina was filled with horror. What would happen next? Would she be shot down in a dark alleyway like Renny… or would it happen to her out in the open, even in the midst of a crowd? When would it be her turn?

She choked up when her thoughts turned to Renny. Captain Kegawa had informed them all that the health of the Blue Horizon’s navigator had deteriorated further and now it was probably only a matter of time before they got word of his passing. Tsarina shook her head.

“No!” she hissed to the dark room. So long as he was still alive, there was hope that Renny could make it, no matter how pessimistic the doctors were.

The black jaguar reached out and found the light panel. She turned the light on to a low setting so she could see her way across the room and then moved through a Japanese noren curtain into her bedroom. She turned the light on to its lowest setting there as well before moving to her vanity table.

She sat down on a short stool covered with a large blue pillow and then reached for a framed photo on a corner of the tabletop. It was a picture of Renny Thornton in a pair of black swim trunks and a grey tank top with the Blue Horizon’s logo across the chest. He smiled toward the camera and his large yellow eyes glinted in the flash.

Tsarina held the framed picture before her and she lightly caressed the cheetah’s photo. She got up from her chair and took the picture back out into the front room. She set it on a low coffee table in front of her couch and then walked to a wall cabinet. She pulled out a lighter and a cardboard box, and then took them back to the coffee table.

The jaguar knelt down on the carpet and opened the box. Inside were a number of short, red candles that she saved for special occasions. She pulled out eight of them and arranged them on the tabletop in a circle around Renny’s photo. When they were arranged, she closed her eyes in prayer for a moment then picked up the lighter. She lit each candle slowly, and with each one, she intoned the cheetah’s name in a whisper.

Tears fell freely from Tsarina’s cheeks as she lit the final candle. She lay her head down on her arms on the table and allowed herself to cry.    

*** 

Merlin tried to swallow, but the lump in his throat was too big to get down. He looked around the small ICU room at the others gathered around their fallen friend. Taro stood next to him at the head of the bed, with Samantha holding hands with him on his other side at the navigator’s feet. Tanis and Lorelei were on the opposite side of the bed. The rabbit was on the verge of crying openly, but bravely held it in. With the exception of the EKG and blood pressure monitors, all the rest of the sensors and IV tubes had been removed from the cheetah.

Probably for the first time since she had picked him up from the filthy alleyway, Taro’s eyes were dry. It had been a long time since she had been cried out and she now leaned over Renny’s head to lovingly stroke the short fur on top of his head. She looked stronger than she had over the past couple of days and Merlin knew in his heart that she had finally given him up. Whatever it was that Renny now faced, the wolf hoped it would happen smoothly and without pain.

Samantha stared mutely at each of the faces around her and realized her own expression must mirror those she saw around her. Each one was already in some form of mourning, but held their ground until what would be the very last moment.

She glanced over at the monitors still running and let her eyes become unfocused after a moment. The amber numbers counted up slowly and the monotony of it helped her mind to wander.

There was something at the back of her mind that tried to penetrate the fog surrounding her brain and it took several heartbeats before it solidified in her understanding. Samantha refocused her eyes and studied the monitors.

The numbers were counting up.     

*** 

“This Hidalgo Sun,” a bobcat said into the headset microphone placed around his feathered head. “Sorry, but video not working at moment. What can do for you?”

“Danaher? Is that ya?”

“Aye, yes, is me. Who you?”

“Dan, this is Tanis of the Blue Horizon. Would ya please call Captain Kegawa to the Com?”

The feline narrowed his green eyes. “Name not Dan. Name is Danaher, mister Arktanis. Sorry, but captain asleep, is tired.”

“Sorry about the name,” the desert fox’s voice said with levity. “Since Rezo is asleep, I need ya to relay a message to all on yer ship. Renny’s blood pressure is rising steadily on its own and the doctor says he is looking better with each passing moment!”

“YAHOO!” shouted a voice from the doorway of the bridge. Jonesy grinned in at the startled bobcat and practically jumped into the room. “Here, let me have that!” the orange cat exclaimed as he plucked the headset off the accountant’s head.

“Tanis, this is Jonesy – I just heard what you told Dan… that’s great news!”

“Danaher!” the bobcat complained at the shortened use of his name. Jonesy ignored him as Tanis replied.

“We were all gathered around Renny’s deathbed a few hours ago when Sammy noticed the monitor numbers rising. Doctor Sado says it must have been the combination of the synthesized blood they’d put in him earlier along with the transfusion from a donor. Whatever it was, it worked. It looks like Renny’s going to live!”

“I’ll bet Taro’s relieved,” the feline first officer said with an ear to ear grin.

“We all are,” Tanis replied. “Taro’s been stationed beside his bed and won’t let go of his hand as she watches the monitors. He regained consciousness about ten minutes ago and Taro made sure that her face was the first one he saw when he opened his eyes. He’s not completely out of the woods yet, but Doctor Sado is taking this as a good sign and they’re continuing to watch him closely.”

“Thanks for calling, Tanis,” Jonesy said, “but I’m itching to spread the news. I want to be the one to tell Tsarina – she’s likely to kiss me just for making her day!”

Tanis chuckled. “That’s a devious way to get a kiss, but I hope yer successful. That’s all the news I had for ya anyway. I just wanted everyone over there to get the word.”

“Thanks, Tanis. Hidalgo Sun signing off!” Jonesy cut the circuit and then set the headset on the counter in front of him.

“Danaher!” the bobcat said again with a shake of his head. “Have told you again! Name is Danaher!” Jonesy ignored him as he darted off the bridge. He trotted along the corridor and then stopped beside Tsarina’s cabin door. He knocked on the door and waited with a smile. When he didn’t get a response, Jonesy frowned. He knocked again and then heard a muted voice through the doorway.

“Not now…” he heard the jaguar’s voice.

“Tsarina,” he called through the door, “I have news about Renny!”

He heard nothing for moment, but just when he was about to try again, the door panel slid aside. Tsarina was dressed in a sheer teal nightgown and the tabby cat’s eyes bulged at the sight of her. The scent of roses was strong in the air, too. “C’mon in,” she told him, oblivious to the first officer’s stares.

Jonesy followed her into her cabin and then stopped still when he saw the front room. The room was full of lit candles. Every available tabletop surface contained red candles. He could feel the heat they generated and for a brief moment wondered how they hadn’t set off the fire alarm. In the middle of the room, on the low table in front of the couch was a framed photograph of Renny. Tsarina walked over to it and then picked it up.

“Did you come to tell me that Renny has…?” she asked quietly, unable to finish the sentence.

The tabby cat shook his head and then looked up at her with a grin. “No, Tsarina,” he said quickly. “Renny is responding to the treatments – he’s going to be okay!”

The jaguar looked at him with wide eyes. “R-really? This had better not be a joke…” she said dangerously.

“No jokes, Tsarina. I just took a call from Tanis saying that Renny’s blood pressure is rising and that he regained consciousness just a little while ago!” He took a step toward her and opened his arms wide in invitation.

Instead of the expected response, however, Tsarina didn’t run to him for a hug, but instead dropped to her knees on the carpet, clasping the photograph close to her chest. She began crying, but this time the tears were of relief and joy. Jonesy sighed, dropped his arms, and then walked over to her to lend his support.    

*** 

Taro looked up at Merlin when the wolf entered the room. She had been keeping watch over Renny, but now he slept normally, no longer in a coma. Merlin set a tray of food from the cafeteria on a small table next to the vixen and smiled at her.

“You’ve been in here so long,” he said to her. “I knew you wouldn’t leave his side, so I brought you something to eat.”

Taro stood up and pulled Merlin to her. She embraced him gently and then laid her head on his shoulder. “Merlin,” she said quietly, “I……”

Without warning, Taro collapsed in his arms. He struggled with her unexpected weight, but managed to get her back into the chair without dropping her. He looked at her closely and realized that she was physically and emotionally exhausted. Now that Renny was out of the worst danger and on his way to recovery, Taro’s mind had shut down to rest.

Merlin gave her a compassionate smile and brushed a few locks of red fur from her forehead gently. He picked up a blanket from a nearby chair, draped it around her shoulders and then made sure she would remain upright in her seat as she slept. He moved up to the head of the bed and put his hand lightly on the cheetah’s shoulder.

“You can both rest now,” he said in a whisper. “I’m glad to have you back with us.”    

*** 

“Repairs have been completed, the safety inspectors have signed off on it, and the Port Security has given us authorization to leave as soon as we file our departure time with the Alexandrius Defense Authority.”

“What about your cargo?” Merlin asked of the red panda on the bridge screen.

“The SPF has examined everything closely and has found no other dangers. The material damaged by the blast has been replaced for immediate shipping to Tanthe, plus we have our mail quota that has also been scrutinized. Our delivery will be a week and a half late getting to Tanthe, since it took us nearly that long to get the ship space-worthy again, but I’ve informed our contact on Tanthe of the situation and the SPF has validated our story with them. Aris Grand assures us the delay will be of no consequence, so we’ll be getting underway as soon as you give the word. Pockets and Max are already en route back to Iverson, so you should see them soon.”

“What about Mark?”

“Although he’s still in a cast and on crutches, Carmen has released him back to work – much to her personal relief. That man doesn’t make a good patient and his complaining was really getting on her nerves. As for everyone else, we are more than ready to get back into a routine.”

“Well, then,” Merlin nodded, “you can launch as soon as you’re given the green light from the ADA.”

“Aye sir,” Rezo replied. “I will call back with a report after we’ve cleared the system.”

“Have a safe voyage, Captain.”    

*** 

Merlin stood at the seventh floor window of Renny’s private hospital room, his hands behind his back and his eyes closed as the warmth of the sunlight washed over his face. The last five days since the cheetah had regained consciousness had been thankfully uneventful. Renny was still in sore shape from the gunshot wounds and broken bones, but he was now out of danger. All he had to do was relax and heal, but waiting was not one of Renny’s finer attributes.

The navigator had been of such good cheer that the crew of the Blue Horizon joked with him and teased him constantly, but despite his sneers at their bad puns and snorts at their jokes, he enjoyed the attention he got from everyone.

Pockets and Max had returned to Iverson bearing several get-well-soon baskets and gifts from the crew of the Hidalgo Sun, as well as a personal letter from Tsarina. Renny would not divulge the contents of the letter, but he seemed quite embarrassed after reading it. Not even Taro could get him to talk and he would show it to no one.

Despite all that had happened, the Blue Horizon was being prepared for its next launch. They were scheduled to take standard relief supplies to Joplin, the headquarters of the Spatial Police Force. It would be a four-week journey with an immediate turnaround back to Earth flying empty. Officers Sashay and Wagner were personally inspecting the supplies that would be taken to their headquarters, to make sure there were no more incidents like the one that had temporarily crippled the Hidalgo Sun. As Durant had not yet returned from his mountain excursion, Samantha was assigned as load master to supervise the weight distribution of the load placement.

In association with the Iverson hospital, Tanis arranged to have Renny transported to the Blue Horizon, where he would be monitored closely during the rest of his recovery. Taro and Lorelei had already appointed themselves as his nurses, and as soon as the cheetah healed well enough, a rehab exercise routine was already planned to get him back up on his feet.

Merlin opened his eyes at the sound of wheels behind him. He turned as Tanis and two male nurses approached the sleeping cheetah. “Renny,” the desert fox said with a gentle shaking of his friend’s shoulder.”

The navigator yawned and opened his eyes. “Time to go?” he asked.

The nurses lined up beside his bed and one nodded to him. “We’re going to move you onto this gurney,” the cougar said, “and then you’ll be taken downstairs to a transport that your captain has arranged for you.”

“Okay,” Renny said. The nurses picked him up gently and moved him to the gurney. Due to his ribs and abdomen wounds, he still could not sit up, so he had to take his trip to the spaceport on his back. Tanis patted his friend on the shoulder and then walked over to Merlin as the nurses rolled Renny out of the room.

“Dr. Sado is in surgery right now,” Tanis said, “but he’s already approved Renny’s release. They need yer thumbprint down at the main desk on the first floor and then we can head to the Horizon.”

“Okay,” Merlin replied. “Let’s do it and be rid of this place. I don’t particularly like hospitals.”

“They’re not so bad,” Tanis mused. “I hope to get a job working in one someday.”

Merlin glanced at him with a smile. “I know you want to be a doctor, and I think you’ll make a great one, Tanis,” he said, “but for now, I’m glad to have you on my crew.”

“Thanks, boss,” the fox replied meekly.    

*** 

Samantha looked up when a levitating green cab settled down to a stop near the rope perimeter surrounding the Blue Horizon. Durant stepped out of the vehicle, paid the driver, and then removed his luggage from the back seat. The aircar floated away and an armed guard approached the surprised grizzly with his weapon brandished.

Before a repeat of what had happened to Lorelei could take place, Samantha shouted toward the guard. “Let him through!” she said loudly. “He’s one of ours!” The guard lowered his weapon and waved the puzzled bear through the ropes.

“Hi, Sammy,” Durant said when she met him at the loading ramp. “What’s with the guards?”

Samantha gave him a warm hug and then took one of his bags for him. “Just a safety precaution,” she told him. “We’ve had a lot of excitement in your absence and the guards are there to prevent any more of that excitement before we launch in the morning.”

“Oh? What kind of excitement?”

Samantha shrugged her shoulders, deciding to keep it simple for now. “Oh, nothing much. A bomb exploded in the Hidalgo Sun while they were loading cargo,” she said almost nonchalantly, “and Renny was shot outside of a nightclub and almost died.”

Durant stopped in his tracks and set down his suitcase. “What?” he exclaimed.

The Border collie took his arm and looked up at him. “You can get the details later, but everything’s fine now. The Sun has been fully repaired and is already on its delivery run, and Renny is up in his cabin being tended by Lori and Taro. The hospital released him earlier today. He’ll be out of commission for a while so he can heal, but for now the excitement is over.”

Durant looked down at her incredulously. “All this in the eleven days that I was gone?” he asked.

“Yeah, and if ya had taken a DC with ya on yer mountain trip, we could have let ya know about it,” Tanis said dryly.

The grizzly turned around to see the desert fox walking toward them. Tanis held a paper grocery sack in his arms full of printed books and crossword puzzle magazines for Renny’s convalescence. Despite his words, the medic was pleased to see him.

“It was probably better I didn’t know,” Durant admitted. “It would have ruined my perfect vacation, and it doesn’t sound as if there is anything I could have done had I been here anyway.”

“What an attitude,” Tanis said to Samantha. “It still would have been prudent had ya taken one with ya anyway, in case ya got into trouble yerself. How did things go?”

Durant smiled. “It was a perfect vacation – probably the best one I’ve had in years,” he said. “I fished in a mountain lake and took it easy in the fresh air at the cabin. I relaxed in a peaceful environment and didn’t do a thing that involved using my brain.”

“Any… problems with yer heart?” Tanis ventured to ask. “Any trouble breathing… in the thin air?”

Samantha looked at him strangely, but Durant only shook his head with a grin. “No problems whatsoever, Doctor Tanis. I didn’t so much as sneeze at the hummingbirds while I was up there, nor even got a splinter from a thorn. I feel refreshed and fully recharged, as Pockets might say.”

“Well, as least you didn’t come back with a hunter’s ear-tag on you,” Samantha quipped with a grin.

“Ya took an awful risk going up there by yerself,” Tanis said, “but… I’m pleased to know yer feeling okay. I still intend to give ya a complete physical, objections or no.”

Durant merely shook his head and then winked at Samantha. “He’s persistent,” he said. “I’ll give him that.”     

*** 

It had been a week since the Blue Horizon left Alexandrius. The ship was cleared to leave by the Spatial Police Force and Merlin had paid the security guards well for their help with letters of appreciation going to their bosses. Company insurance had been filed for Renny and Mark for their injuries and Interstellar Insurance had come through for them again for the damage to the Hidalgo Sun. Long range sensors detected no other ships on their flight plan to Joplin, and for the time being, there appeared to be no further danger to ship or crew.

In the cabin of Renny Thornton, all the lights were out save two tall, red candles lit on a table beside the cheetah’s bed. He had healed well enough that he could now partially sit up with some pillows and Taro had personally prepared a special meal for him.

The vixen was dressed in an elegant black dress with the right side split up to her hip, and a plunging neckline that left little to the imagination. Renny was in awe of her beauty and could not think of a time he had ever seen her so gorgeous. Although the setting was only his personal bedroom on board a freighter, Taro was dressed for him as if they had been invited by royalty for dinner.

The red fox uncovered a tray of food and spread it out on top of his dresser so she could feed it to him slowly and deliberately. This was a special night and she had chosen soft music from his cabin Com system.

Renny swallowed in anticipation after seeing the food spread out for him, but he couldn’t keep from smiling up at her.

“What is so amusing?” Taro asked with a grin of her own.

“Your feather seems out of place with the rest of your clothes,” he said hesitantly.

Taro instinctively reached up and stroked the feather clipped to the fur above her left ear. “I’m so used to seeing it in my reflection that I’d forgotten I was still wearing it,” she replied. She narrowed her eyes and gave him a mischievous grin. “I can’t wait until I can use it again,” she added.

Renny’s eyes widened. “Just because you’ve been designated a Grand Major by the Hestran Society of the Feather,” he said, squirming in his bed, “don’t think that you can go around tickling anyone who’s available. I heard what you did to poor Durant a few weeks back.”

Taro leaned forward over his bed. “There’s no one on board who’s more ticklish than you, my friend,” she said, “although I can think of other activities I’m looking forward to more.”

Renny swallowed once again. “Forget the feather… I’d rather have the other activities,” he said with a smile. “Right now, however, I’m starving!”

“Before I feed you,” Taro said quietly, I have a special gift to give you.” She turned her back on him and reached beneath a tented napkin on the dresser. When she turned around, she held a small package wrapped in red and white checked paper that was adorned by a red ribbon and a tiny bow. She held it out to him on one hand.

“What is this?” the cheetah asked.

“Open it,” Taro said. Hesitant, Renny picked up the small package and then carefully pulled off the wrapping. Underneath was a simple white box, so he stuck a claw under the lid and slowly lifted the top.

Renny smiled and pulled out a ceramic figurine of a wild red fox that was identical to the one she had purchased for him so long ago. Next to it in the box was the ceramic cheetah that he had bought for her in exchange. A single red thread was tied with each end around each figurine, binding them together.

The navigator looked at them for a long moment and then hesitantly stretched out a finger to caress the head of the fox. “Thank you,” he whispered.

Taro sat on the edge of the bed and looked into his eyes with moisture in her own. “The red string signifies the bond between us,” she said to him. She closed her eyes for a moment and then looked back at him. “Don’t ever do this to me again,” she said in a quiet voice. “I don’t think I could have survived had you died back there.”

Renny set the figurines on the bed next to him and then reached out to take her hands. “Remember when you were hurt by Sagan and nearly died?” She nodded. “I didn’t have the luxury of worrying beside your bed, sweetheart,” he said in a whisper. “I was all alone.”

Taro swallowed and nodded. They had each come near death and both had agonized over the other in different ways. She picked up the figurines and set them aside, and then she leaned forward to give him a deep kiss. Afterward, she clung to him and held him tight, ever so thankful that each had survived for the other.

NEXT EPISODE

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