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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 3

— Episode 30

"Never Say Long Goodbyes"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

The blue-green sky of Pomen was partly cloudy, and although the afternoon sun tried to warm the proceedings below, it was a cold day that chilled to the bone. Tiny white flowers, the last remnants of a fading autumn season, dotted the hillside that overlooked a small lake in the foothills of a weathered mountain range. A gentle breeze came in off the water and dried tears in the cheek fur of those gathered around a bronze marker and an alabaster urn beside it in the grass.

“…To this we release you. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” intoned an ursine minister as he lightly tossed a pinch of dirt over the marker. “From the dust we came, and to the dust we return. Leonardo Allen Durant, we bid you farewell.” He raised his hands, laid them both palms outward on his forehead, and then put them palms-down against his chest with his eyes closed. He recited something in a local language and then raised his head to look at those gathered around.

“The family of Leonardo Durant thanks you for coming to pay your respects,” he said to them. He gave a short bow and then gathered his black robes around him to leave. An aged grizzly ambled toward him and then placed a huge paw on the minister’s shoulder.

“Thank you, Sire,” he said in a gravelly voice. “My son would have appreciated your words over him. Nicely done.”

The black bear looked up and nodded. “I’d known Leo since he was a cub, Allen. I remember him as a bright student and an attentive listener in the church, and although I hadn’t seen him in recent years, I have fond memories of his kindness. However, I must leave you now, Mr. Durant. I have another service to perform across town.”

“Anyone I know?”

“Altaira Adams.”

“Ah yes, I’d heard about her accident a couple days ago. Poor girl. That was an awful way to go.”

“If you will excuse me, Allen.”

“Of course, Sire. Thank you again.”

The aged bear watched the minister depart and then he turned back toward the mourners who had already begun to mill around loosely. Low voices comforted those who still cried, but there were others who chuckled softly, recounting some humorous moment in their relationship with his son. Allen Durant inhaled deeply, taking in the scents of the small cemetery. There were no tears in his eyes. Those had been shed three weeks earlier when he had received the news from the captain of the Blue Horizon.

Even when they landed two days ago and presented the local medical authorities with the body of his son they had kept in cold storage, he had not cried. It was difficult, however, to remain so with a host of friends and family who were open with their emotions, especially since Leo’s marker had been set into the earth next to that of his mother, Joan. He swallowed hard and then turned to his remaining son, James, who clung to his fiancée in remorse. Allen placed a hand on James’ shoulder and then drew the man to himself. It was then he allowed a few tears to fall.

A group of friends who had known Leonardo huddled together near the headstone marker, none of them saying much. Captain Merlin Sinclair stood behind Samantha, his arms around her gently as they stared mutely at the alabaster urn. Both were dressed in their best garments, and if they had not been standing in a cemetery, onlookers might have thought their sartorial perfection the result of a high-class family. Taro stood nearby between Renny and Tanis, their heads together in quiet conversation, accompanied by Jerry Somner, a local male red fox of the cheetah’s acquaintance. A few steps away, Lorelei was on her knees in the grass so she could weep openly on Pockets’ shoulders for support.

Max stood a short distance away from his crewmates, his hand holding tight to the hand of a shapely Bengal tigress at his side. Wendy Bengoro’s parents had not been able to attend the funeral, but the young tigress had driven two hundred miles from their home on Pomen to meet her friend of the Blue Horizon. They had been near inseparable since they had been reunited. She knew that Max was trying to be strong, but she had felt his shoulders shudder during the eulogy.

Standing in a group to themselves was the crew of the Hidalgo Sun. They had arrived several days earlier than the Blue Horizon due to their scheduled delivery, but Merlin had granted them leave to stand by for the funeral. Of the Hidalgo, only two of its crew was personally familiar with Leo Durant. Jasper Porter stood downwind of the gathering, puffing on a cigar in silence. He had largely ignored his former crewmates from the Blue Horizon, with the exception of a muted reunion with his brother. He didn’t look as if he mourned the grizzly bear’s death at all, but in reality he was nauseated by it. Of those he had served with on board the Horizon, the ill-tempered raccoon had always respected Durant.

He watched Renny step away from a male fox he didn’t know and approach the Hidalgo’s crew. The cheetah said a few quiet words to Sheila and Riki and then moved between them to the back of the group. Patch watched him take Tsarina’s hand and lead her down the hill to the edge of the lake. They talked for several moments, and then the jaguar flung herself into the cheetah’s arms to bawl onto his shoulder. Renny stroked the fur of her cheeks and spoke words of comfort. Patch grunted to himself with a nod. He had wondered how long it would take those two to get together.

The stoic raccoon had not been the only one to observe the felines’ behavior. Carmen Burgess watched them with sad eyes, but when she saw Tsarina start to cry, she felt a sudden lump in her throat. She turned and spoke to Mark Littlefeather, and the human immediately produced a handkerchief from the pocket of his suit coat. The polar bear thanked him, wiped her eyes with it, and then stepped away from the group. She walked across the lawn toward the alabaster urn and then knelt down in the grass beside it.

Samantha knew that she and Durant had maintained a long distance relationship, so she led Merlin away to give the woman a few moments alone. Carmen looked up gratefully as the couple walked toward their friend’s father and then she folded her hands together in her lap. She glanced back down at the receptacle that housed the load master’s ashes and felt tears escape down her cheek fur. She reached out quietly and stroked the edge of the container as if touching him one last time.

“You were to be my future,” she whispered, “but our plans were not meant to be.” She swallowed back a sob and closed her eyes briefly, but more tears escaped anyway. “Why did this have to happen?” she asked as she wiped her cheeks with Littlefeather’s handkerchief.

Although they had not yet announced their plans to anyone, Carmen had intended to tender her resignation with the company in a month’s time to coincide with Leo’s planned retirement. They’d discussed setting up a medical office together in his hometown and then get married in the spring.

Carmen covered her face with both hands and cried into them. Her shoulders racked with sobs until she felt a pair of strong arms pull her into an embrace. She didn’t look to see who it was, but blindly accepted the comfort as she allowed herself to shed her tears.

“Let it all out, dear,” Taro whispered into her ear. “Take all the time you need. He will understand.”     

*** 

Blue Horizon, PA1138

Captain’s Journal

 My ship feels empty without Durant. I’d known him for many years and losing him was like having lost a brother. It hurts. More than I would have imagined. As I write this, I am sitting in the dark in my cabin on board the Blue Horizon, with only the light of a single candle burning for him on the desk before me. I have released the crew for now, as this is difficult for all of us, and everyone will need time to deal with this on their own.

With Taro, we had no finality if she had actually died. With Renny, it was a slow time of waiting for the inevitable. With Durant, his death is past tense. It’s happened. It’s done. It was a complete shock to us all. Tanis told me that he had suspected something was wrong for months, but Durant wouldn’t allow him to examine him… until it was too late. Why did he wait? That seems to be the question on everyone’s mind. He never procrastinated about anything else.

Tanis feels guilty that he went into his quarters and read his mail that day. He feels that if he had gone on to Sickbay with Durant instead of stopping in his quarters for his smock and slateboard, he might have been able to save him. No one has blamed him but himself. There is no way he could have known those few moments were crucial, but all Tanis can seem to remember is the final look that Durant gave him, and his ‘thanks for everything’. It was almost as if Durant knew his time was near.

If nothing else, this has served to strengthen Tanis’ resolve to finish his medical training, and he’s moved forward in his plans to leave us for the University of Alexandrius. This was a difficult time to concentrate on hiring a replacement medic for the Blue Horizon, but Renny came to our rescue. He told me that he had a friend right on Pomen who was a local doctor that had been looking for a change of scenery. He prompted me to contact him, but even with the increase in business for my company, I doubted I could match the salary of a fully-licensed doctor; Renny assured me that what I was paying Tanis more than surpassed what his friend was getting in the backwater town clinic he was serving in, but I was dubious.

Upon his recommendation, I contacted Jerry Somner and tentatively presented him with an offer. It turns out Renny was right. The man accepted the salary and position without hesitation following a quick Com-link interview, and thanked me for the opportunity. By the time we traveled from Fyn to Pomen, Jerry had settled his affairs and met us at the home of Durant’s brother, James. I would have wished for better circumstances to introduce our new doctor to the crew, but he handled our free emotions in stride and was respectful at the funeral. I assured him that he would see us under better times.

Dr. Somner is a red fox, but unlike Taro, he is not Hestran. Renny has told me a little bit about him, but confessed that it’s been a number of years since they last ran around together in flight school. He’s an excellent pilot and showed enthusiasm when I told him of my requirement that my crew be able to fly the ship in an emergency; he has a passion for flying and even offered to take over the primary pilot’s duties. Renny told me that Jerry was quite a womanizer, but to his credit, I’ve seen no signs of this during our time of mourning; such people are known to prey on the distraught when emotions are raw.

Perhaps Jerry has settled down since he and Renny knew one another in school. I just hope this doesn’t cause a conflict between he and Renny about Taro – the same valid concern I had when Tanis came back to us. He seems introspective, but is experienced and knowledgeable with current medical technologies. I don’t know all that much about his personal background, but there will be plenty of time to get better acquainted once we’ve launched again.

Just when we’ll be space-borne again is still undecided. I’ve had the home office juggle our schedules around and try to explain our situation to our ever-growing list of customers. I’m almost afraid we’ll lose a few to our competitors if I don’t get my ships back in operation soon, but I want to give everyone a chance to mourn first… There are few aboard the Hidalgo Sun who were close to Durant, knowing him only as an associate on their sister ship, but Carmen is the one I’ve been worried about the most.

I suppose I could have brought her onto the Horizon and assign Jerry to the Hidalgo, but in one brief visit onto our ship to let her see if there was anything from Durant’s quarters she wanted, she burst into tears just from his lingering scent. I realized then that making her a part of the Horizon’s crew would not necessarily be beneficial. She told me of their personal plans, which was not entirely surprising to me, but she said that since such plans were now gone, she would remain with the Hidalgo Sun and abandon her thoughts on resigning.

Captain Rezo will be launching his vessel tomorrow to pick up his mail-quota and our overdue delivery of automobile parts from Pomen to Earth, and Carmen has promised me that she’ll be okay to go. She has had a long visit with the Durant family, and despite her loss, she’s ready to be on her way.

As for the Blue Horizon, I’ve authorized another three days of downtime for the crew. It feels like it’s still too soon to be thinking about hiring a replacement for Durant, but eventually I need my ship back in operation; I’m currently without a load master and the senior accountant for my whole business. I’m still in mourning, but it’s time to move on. The funeral was only yesterday afternoon, but Durant died nearly a month ago. He had a great mind for business and I am sure he would agree with me. I need to get my business back on track.

Leo Durant was my friend, and although he was of a different species, I gladly considered him part of my family. I will miss him. 

Merlin Sinclair, Captain

     *** 

Merlin closed his journal and looked at it with a sigh. He stood up after a moment and blew out his candle, dropping the room into darkness. Time to get to work, he thought to himself. He had to do a little research and then he would need to contact the home office after he talked to Taro.

Rather than stay free in their cabins on the Horizon, the collective crew had rented rooms at a local hotel during their stay on Pomen in Arctos, the Durant family’s hometown. As with their usual planetary downtime, the lupine captain liked to spend time away from the ship. Although the vessel had better Com equipment than most hotels might afford, they were equipped with decent enough systems. Merlin felt he would make extensive use of it today.

He left his den quickly and then rode the lift down to the cargo deck. When he stepped out into the empty hold, something caught his eye. He glanced over at the load master’s office and noted that the light was on over Durant’s desk; he was sure it had been off when he had come on board earlier. He frowned and made his way to the room. When he stepped inside, he didn’t see anyone and wondered how the light came to be on.

He reached for the pad, but hesitated when he heard a sniffle. Merlin walked slowly around to the other side of the desk and then leaned over between the desk and Durant’s large chair. There on the floor beneath the oak desk was Pockets. He had his arms wrapped around his knees and his eyes glistened from recent tears as he looked up at his captain.

“I can’t seem to stop crying…” the raccoon whispered apologetically.

Merlin pushed the chair back against the wall and then knelt down on the carpet beside him. He put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a tired smile. “It’s okay, Jerad,” he said compassionately. “Durant was with us a long time. It will be hard for a while.”

“I know, but… I was fine until the funeral.”

“Come on out of there,” Merlin said gently. “I’m heading back to the hotel. Let’s leave this place for a while.”

The raccoon nodded somberly and crawled out beside his captain. He pulled a handkerchief from one of the pockets of his familiar coveralls and blew his nose on it noisily. Merlin stood up, helped his chief engineer to his feet, and then led him around the desk. He looked back at Durant’s chair briefly and then shut off the light.     

*** 

The ride back to their hotel was uneventful. Merlin drove the rented passenger van through the streets of the small town without a word and Pockets stared out the window at the passing trees. The quaint houses in Arctos had been built over a hundred years earlier, but had been taken care of exceptionally well. Durant had been reared in this community, and it was easy to see where he had gotten his easygoing personality. Here, life was quiet without being backward. Many of those old homes had the latest satellite multicom systems within their walls and there were recent vintage automobiles all around.

Children played happily in their yards and Pockets noticed that the majority of the population was ursine. If Carmen had gone through with her plan to settle here without Durant, she would have fit in well. She was not xenophobic, but in a medical career it was always simpler if you only had to concentrate upon the anatomy of one species.

Merlin pulled up to their hotel, a recently constructed lodge next to a large, tree-filled park. There was a small stone amphitheater at the far end of the recreational area and a cluster of children was gathered at its center stage. The wolf smiled when he saw them, thinking of his sister’s cubs. He missed seeing them and wished there was a way he could spend more time around them during their formative years, but as a star captain, he didn’t see that as possible. He would have to remember to call Shannon soon. It had been a while since their last communication.

He parked the van and Pockets hopped out of the other side. They walked into the plain lobby of the one-story building and saw Max and Wendy sitting on the couch in the common room. Pockets waved and headed off to his room, but Merlin stopped to visit with the young couple.     

*** 

“But where did it come from?”

“I pulled it out of yer sister’s ear,” Tanis answered with a smile as he handed a small copper coin to a child in front of him.

“You didn’t!” exclaimed the unconvinced bear cub. “I was diggin’ in her ear a minit ago and didn’t see nuthin’ in there before!”

Jerry laughed and his eyes crinkled merrily. “Why were you digging in your sister’s ear?”

The young boy stuck his hands in the pockets of his overalls and shrugged. “I dunno,” he mumbled.

Tanis and Jerry sat on the edge of the amphitheater’s stage in the park next to their hotel, surrounded by children. They had been casually discussing the various members of the Blue Horizon earlier. Since Jerry would soon be looking after the physical well-being of his new crewmates, he’d wanted to know as much about them from their current physician as he could. Children playing nearby had come over to them one by one, curious to see two different kinds of foxes in their park. For the majority of the kids, it was the first time any of them had ever seen a Fur from another world before.

Before long, Tanis was entertaining them with sleight-of-hand illusions, wowing the children with magic! As with every group, however, there were always skeptics.

You put that coin in her ear!” the cub complained.

Tanis only shook his head and laughed. “No,” he said with the first real grin he’d had in weeks, “I pulled the coin out of her ear.”

The little girl cub with the financial ear canal looked up at him with wide eyes and promptly stuck a finger in her ear, obviously feeling for more coins. There was a sharp whistle and all the children looked up in unison.

A short brown bear near a school bus at the street waved them toward her and one of the other kids said, “Miss Collins wants us!”

The little skeptic looked up at Tanis and grinned. “Bye-bye, mister foxes,” he said and then ran away with the other cubs.

“You really like kids, don’t you?” Jerry asked as he stretched and yawned. Tanis turned back to the doctor and nodded.

“Yes, I do,” he replied. “They’re such a joy to be around and it’s easy to make them laugh.”

The red fox looked at him with a tilt to his head. “Is pediatrics the field of study you intend to focus on?” he asked.

Tanis shook his head. “I once considered it, but after recent events, I’m thinking more along the lines of cardiology.”

“I can see where that would become important to you,” Jerry mused, “but you have a nice gift dealing with children. I wouldn’t discard that possibility if I had your talent with kids. The little carpet-commandoes are a mystery to me, and I’ve been a general practitioner for years.”

Tanis laughed. “Well, Doc, ya won’t have any of them to worry about on board the Horizon. Max is the youngest ya’ll have to deal with, and he won’t give ya any trouble at all.”

“What’s the story with that tigress he’s been orbiting? She isn’t another new member of the crew, is she?”

“Wendy? No, she’s a cute lass he hooked up with while we were recuperating over in Adasa. They’ve maintained a long-distance relationship ever since.”

“Adasa? Oh yeah, the crash Renny told me about,” Jerry replied. “I was off to Kantus when you guys were here on Pomen. I didn’t get back until you had left.”

“We were there three months,” Tanis said. “What were ya doing on Kantus for so long?”

Jerry smiled. “One of my kid sisters got married and the whole family helped her and her mate build their new home. My brothers and I did most of the construction on the place.”

“Sounds like ya come from a big family.”

“My folks had eight kits – four boys and four girls. I was the youngest male and I have two sisters younger than I am.”

“Everybody on Kantus?”

“No, we’re scattered across the Planetary Alignment, but we all try to get back to see Mom and Dad whenever we can.”

“Well, if ya come from such a large group, ya should have no trouble with a crew of eight – so long as ya can stand being cooped up with them inside the ship for weeks at a time with no way to get away from anyone.”

Jerry rubbed his chin and nodded. “I’m looking forward to serving on the Blue Horizon.”

“It’s only a freighter, ya know…”

Jerry grinned. “I know that doesn’t sound very glamorous to you, but after spending several years in a tiny clinic in a backwater town, I’m ready to see new sights. The Horizon may only be a freighter, but to me she’s a cruiser and I am anxious to fly her.”

“It sounds like ya and I will be trading places,” Tanis quipped. “Yer a doctor wanting a job that requires the skills of no more than a medic, and I’m a medic who wants to be a fully-licensed physician.”

“That about sums it up.”

“Then I wish ya luck,” Tanis said. “As for me, I’m looking forward to getting back to medical studies again. I’ve tried to keep up with new advancements online, but there’s only so much ya can learn outside a classroom or a real application.” He glanced up and the red fox followed his gaze. A large crowd was moving toward them from the hotel, consisting of the entire crews of both the Blue Horizon and the Hidalgo Sun. He hopped down from the short stage and Jerry followed him to the outer wall.

“I wonder what’s up,” Tanis mused.

Jerry leaned toward him. “Thanks for taking the time out to talk with me, Tanis,” he said in a quiet voice. “I think I have a fair idea what everyone is like from what you’ve told me, as well as my brief exposure to them over the last couple days.”

“I think ya will do fine. Anything else?”

“I tried talking with Dr. Burgess about the crew she oversees with your other ship, but she doesn’t seem to want to talk to me.”

Tanis shook his head. “Don’t mind her,” he said. “Merlin told me that she and Durant were planning a future together. This has hit her rather hard, so it’s not just yerself that she’s being quiet with.”

“Ah, okay. However, I do have a question concerning your bunny, Miss Lorelei.”

Tanis smirked at his formal use of Lori’s name. “Yes?”

“Does she always move in on the new guys so quickly?”

The fennec fox laughed. “Yes, actually. She does. She is a rabbit, after all. What’d she do, crawl into bed with ya?”

“Uh, nothing so bold,” Jerry said with a frown, “but I did feel as if I were being propositioned.”

“Knowing her, ya were…” Tanis said in a whisper. “However, from what I heard of yer reputation, ya should not mind her free spirit.”

Jerry narrowed his eyes at him. “What’s Renny been telling you?”

Tanis hesitated for a brief instant. That was not the reaction he had expected. “He said ya were quite the womanizing playboy.”

Jerry shook his head with a frown. “He should talk, from the way he’s been all over Taro and that jaguar lady, Tsarina.”

Tanis laughed. “Renny’s been serious about Taro for a long time, but Tsarina has been after him for a while now, not the other way around.”

“Ah... well, Renny has a selective memory.  Yes, I’ve enjoyed the company of ladies in my time, but I’ve settled down in recent years. He knows that.” He grinned at the tan fox and added, “Spend time in a backwater town where the selection is limited, and you’d settle down too.”

“Do ya still like the ladies?” Tanis asked cautiously.

Jerry laughed out loud. “Very much,” he replied. “My tastes have not changed, but I don’t chase every tail I see anymore. However, I may have to investigate this Miss Lorelei a little closer, if it won’t upset any of the guys on board.”

Tanis put a hand on his new friend’s shoulder. “As I said, she’s a free spirit. Yer welcome to give her any attention she will have.”

There was laughing and joking from the voices of the mingled crews when the entourage approached the small amphitheater, filed in through the opening in the wall and began to sit down among the stone seats. Merlin didn’t feel like looming over everyone, so he moved to a position below the stage. He stood in the middle so that everyone could see him and Rezo took a seat on the front row. Jerry and Tanis sat down three rows up, next to the bobcat, Danaher. He nodded to them and Tanis leaned toward him.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

The feline gestured around at the gathered personnel. “Is a meeting of staffs,” he replied. “Merlin-captain says must talk, be short.”

“Oh, okay. Thanks.”

“Is welcome.”

“Hello, Mr. Tanis,” said a voice below him.

The medic smiled down into the amber eyes of the tigress that sat beside Max. He put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Hello, Wendy. Is Merlin about to announce that ya have signed onto our ship?”

Wendy giggled and shook her head. “No, silly. I’m just being nosey and decided to sit in on the meeting.”

“It would have been rude to leave her back at the hotel,” Max added when Tanis leaned forward, resting his elbows on the mechanic’s head.

“This will be a short meeting,” Merlin said in a loud voice, drawing everyone’s attention. The rock walls, seats and stage of the amphitheater carried the sound easily and he flinched at just how well his voice traveled. He smiled and continued in a quieter tone, “Due to recent events, I’m about to make a few changes to the company and thought everyone should be in on it. This is the largest spot I could think of to hold our meeting. Naturally, we don’t have a large vidscreen to stage a teleconference with the ladies at the home office, but Samantha has them online on her DataCom and will relay any comments they may have.”

He cleared his throat as he looked over the slateboard datapak in his hand and his voice took on a more somber tone. “This is not an easy subject, but one that has to be covered. Due to the loss of Durant…” —the amphitheater went silent instantly— “there are some gaps left in our personnel, and not just in the crew of my ship. Not only was he the load master for the Horizon, Durant was also the senior accountant for the company. All financial transactions for the home office, the Hidalgo Sun and the Blue Horizon were given to him for tracking in the company books. This included your salaries and pay transfers, as well as expenses for parts, groceries, supplies, all insurance claims and processes.”

He cleared his throat again and looked around the solemn faces that stared back at him. “In a regular freighting business such as ours, all the accounting work would be handled from a central office, rather than a small desk on one of the ships. I should have offered Durant a desk job at the home office as soon as we’d established it, but it never occurred to me. Leo Durant was my friend and accountant, and had been with me for nearly ten years, and although the home office was originally his suggestion, nothing was ever said about setting up the accounting department there.”

He cleared his throat and fidgeted with the slateboard in his hands. “As everyone’s expected, I will soon be interviewing applicants for a load master for the Blue Horizon. Taro and I will take care of that, but for the role of senior accountant, I want that position based at the home office as it should be. I’ve already been in contact with the SPF, who will help screen the security credentials of the applicants for such a sensitive job, as well as coordinating with the ladies of the home office. Until such time as this position can be filled, Samantha and Danaher will be responsible for the accounts on their respective ships, and I will handle everyone’s pay myself. Captain Kegawa will relay the pay vouchers I set up for the crew of the Hidalgo, so that no one will be overlooked in getting their pay. Likewise, Rezo and I will handle any insurance issues that come up, but hopefully that’s something we won’t have to deal with for a while.”

He put one hand in a pocket of his trousers and then looked straight at Taro. “I’ve also been thinking of implementing another of Durant’s suggestions, one that could help our delivery schedules, but there is someone I need to talk to first before I announce what it is. Any questions?” No one said anything for several long moments, but Samantha quietly answered something the ladies at the home office wanted clarified. Merlin pulled the hand from his pocket and then gestured toward the fennec fox seated next to Danaher.

“In other news, I’m sure everyone knows about the opportunity that Tanis received concerning his career, but in case anyone from either ship has somehow missed out, Arktanis TeVann has been accepted by the University of Alexandrius to continue his medical studies.” Half-hearted clapping echoed around the amphitheater, but Merlin noted some of the faces brightened to have the subject moved away from Durant.

“He will be leaving us tomorrow afternoon, so you’ll want to say your good-byes to him tonight. Also, for those who haven’t met him yet, Dr. Jerry Somner has graciously accepted our invitation to serve as Medical Officer.” There was more clapping, a little livelier. “Tanis has been filling him in on all your dirty little secrets…” The crew of the Horizon groaned collectively, but Merlin continued with a grin. “…so you’ll want to get in on his good side.”

Please replace the needle syringes with a new air-hypo!” Pockets said plaintively over his shoulder at the male fox. “The last time we all got sick, Tanis took too much pleasure giving us shots!”

Jerry knew he’d have to have a sense of humor working with this crew, so he looked down at the raccoon with a sly grin. “Treat me well,” he said to him, “and I’ll consider it.”

“Chocolate or whisky?” Pockets asked with a mock expression of wide-eyed innocence.

“Either or both… among other things,” the physician said with amusement. There were chuckles in the crowd at the exchange, and Merlin knew some of the ice had been broken. They still mourned the loss of Durant, but for the moment they had something else to think about.

“Do we get to initiate the new guy?” Renny asked with a grin.

“What do you mean by initiate?” Jerry wanted to know.

“We could all line up with wooden paddles and have you run past us!”

“Hey, that sounds like a good idea!” Max quipped. “I’m all for it!”

Jerry looked down at the German shepherd seated in the row before him and said in a voice loud enough for all to hear, “Pockets, your helper mechanic had better stay healthy. He gets a needle the next time he gets sick – him and Renny, both!”

“Hey!” the cheetah exclaimed.

Wendy punched Max in the arm. “You deserved that,” she teased.

“Captain Sinclair?” another voice called out. Everyone looked down at the first row to the red panda that had sat quietly during the recent exchange.

“Yes, Rezo?” Merlin asked.

“You said you had something you were going to implement in the business to help our schedules,” the short captain replied. “Can you tell us anything more than that? My ship leaves to pick up our shipment to Earth tomorrow morning and I’d like to have an idea of your plan before we leave.”

“I’ll let you know as soon as I can,” Merlin said with a sideways glance at Taro, “but I need to talk to someone first.”

“How long will that take?”

 ”As long as necessary, Captain.”

“Can’t you make it quick?”

Merlin gave the panda a dark look. “I will let you know when I have—”

“Listen, we don’t have much time, so if you think you have someth—”

Merlin took three long strides and stopped abruptly in front of the diminutive red panda. He towered over Rezo, his lips curled back in a snarl with a low growl in his throat. “Mind your place, Captain,” he said in a menacing tone.  “I will tell you when I am ready to tell you, and not before! Got that?”

Rezo cowered. “Y-yes, sir…” he squeaked.

Merlin stared down at him with piercing amber eyes, daring his subordinate to argue with him further. The back-talk was uncharacteristic of the red panda, but the wolf had always been intolerant of such disrespect.

Taro stood up from her seat next to Renny and Tsarina and made her way down to the front. She walked directly to the wolf and whispered something in his ear. He growled lowly, but then nodded toward her and gestured briskly toward the stage. Without a word to the gathered crowd or another glance at Rezo, Merlin led the vixen to a large evergreen tree that grew at the side of the stage and then bent his head low toward her.

“What did you need to ask me?” Taro whispered, her orange eyes smiling warmly at him. She clasped her hands behind her and leaned in toward him.

Merlin sighed and gave her an embarrassed smile as his anger melted away. “I wanted to wait until this evening and take you out for dinner to talk to you about this.”

“That sounds serious. Were you going to propose to me?” she asked with a grin.

Merlin chuckled softly. She sometimes knew ways to diffuse his anger. “You can’t have me. I’ve already proposed to Samantha!  However, what I need to ask is a proposition of sorts,” he replied to her teasing smile. “On at least a couple recent occasions, Durant suggested that I purchase another ship for the business to help out with the workload.”

“We have been getting more requests for our services than we’ve had time to do, even with both ships,” Taro agreed with a nod of her head, “but you don’t need my input for that, Merlin.”

“Not for that,” he agreed, “but a new ship will need a captain and I would like it to be you.” Her eyes grew wide and he added, “It’s a big responsibility, but it comes with a significant raise in salary. I think you’re perfect for the job.”

Taro swallowed and hesitated. “Thank you, Merlin,” she said after a long moment of thought. “I’m flattered that you thought of me, but if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather stay on board the Blue Horizon.”

Merlin tilted his head to the side, as if unsure he had heard her correctly. “You don’t want your own command?” he asked in a near whisper.

Taro chuckled. “Of course I do,” she admitted, “but I have higher aspirations, Merlin. I’m aiming for the flagship of your fleet! If you and Sammy ever decide to settle down somewhere and raise some pups, or you decide to retire from command of the Blue Horizon, I’ll gladly accept promotion at that time.”

“You’re the third person who has suggested that I step down to raise a family,” the wolf said with narrowed eyes. “You all just can’t wait for me to leave, can you?”

Taro stared back at him in surprise, but then recognized the twinkle in his eyes despite his scowl. She laughed and gave him a hug in front of everyone. “Don’t let it bother you, boss,” she said. “If you don’t step down for another lifetime, I’ll still be there beside you. Thanks for the offer, but I’m afraid you’ll have to find another captain.”

Merlin smiled at her and then turned back toward the crowd that had begun to murmur amongst themselves. The two of them walked back to the center of attention and then Taro made her way back to her seat. The wolf glanced at Rezo briefly, making the red panda cringe, but then he looked back out over the expectant faces.

“Due to our increasing workload,” he said in a voice to carry, “I am going to add another ship to our company.” He held up a hand to silence the sudden conversations and regain their attention. “Since Captain Kegawa was too impatient to give me the chance to ask her formally over dinner tonigh, I just offered the captaincy of the new ship to Taro,” he said with a smile. A few claps started up, but the wolf held up his hand for quiet again. “She turned it down, however. It seems she intends to eventually challenge me for control of the Blue Horizon.” There were a few chuckles at his choice of words.

“That decision having just been made, I will be conducting a series of interviews for another captain and a whole new crew over the next week.” He looked at Rezo. “Go ahead and make preparations to launch as planned. I will inform you of the details once the new sister ship has been purchased, staffed and put into operation.” He turned toward Samantha and gestured toward the DC in her lap.

“Taro and I will be coordinating things for the new personnel with the home office every step of the way, so there’s likely to be some overtime in your near future, ladies.” Samantha listened to the unit for Cindy’s response and then gave Merlin a thumbs-up gesture.

Merlin set his slateboard up on the stage and then put both hands into his pockets, looking over the faces of both crews. “We’ve had a rough time in the past few months, from the situation at Nalirra, the terrorist attacks on the Hidalgo Sun, the home office, injuries to Mark and Renny, the business on Fyn with the Basilisk, the passing of a friend, to changes in the business and its personnel. However, as always, it is time to move on and get back into a routine. The Hidalgo Sun will be leaving tomorrow morning and Tanis will be departing the same afternoon, but the crew of the Blue Horizon will be here on Pomen just a little while longer.”

“Vacation time?”

The wolf shook his head. “No, not this time, Pockets. While Taro and I are conducting interviews here and through the home office, I’m placing you in charge of shopping for a new freighter to add to our inventory, which you will then get the others to help you get it stocked with standard supplies and tools for routine flight. We need to do this quickly. I want the ship ready to fly by the time I’ve hired the last person, so they can launch shortly thereafter. We’re nearly a month behind schedule on our entire timetable due to recent events and the new ship is going to help us make it up.”

“What are you going to call the new ship?” Riki asked.

Merlin shrugged his shoulders. “I haven’t really given it much thought yet, but there’s still time. I might have a name that would work, but I would need specific permission from someone else before I can use it. You’ll all be informed when it’s all done, unless Captain Kegawa is in need of that information right now as well.” He glanced at Rezo, who crossed his arms and averted his eyes. “I’ll have a conference call between the home office and all three ships to introduce everyone when it’s time.”

The lupine captain stood there and looked at his employees for a moment, and when there were no more questions, he raised his hands and said, “Okay, that’s all I have. You’re free to do what you need to do for today, but we’ll need to get right on this first thing tomorrow. Captain Kegawa, I want to speak to you before you go.”

Rezo got up and stepped forward as everyone else dispersed. Many from both crews cast sidelong glances at the two captains as Merlin led the red panda toward the stage. When they stopped beside the rock wall of the platform, Rezo turned and looked up at his boss.

Merlin remained silent and didn’t do anything but watch the rest of the people leave, but when a couple from Rezo’s crew tried to linger to listen in, he cleared his throat and gave them a stern stare that told them to leave. Once the final body was out of the area and heading back toward the hotel, the wolf turned to face the red panda.

“As someone with authority over others,” he began in a low, throaty voice, “you should realize that you placed yourself in a precarious position by challenging me openly.” He snarled, bared his teeth at the cowering panda, and stuck his nose into Rezo’s face. “Want to challenge me now?” he growled.

“N-no, s-sir!” the short captain stuttered. “I-I didn’t m-mean…”

“Then tell me what you did mean, Mr. Kegawa.” Merlin asked harshly, his words echoed around the amphitheater. “Insubordination will not be tolerated, especially by a captain who thinks he’s above his employer!” He growled deeply in his throat and opened his mouth to say more, but then he noticed just how large Rezo’s pupils had grown in fear. He swallowed his tirade and straightened up, but never broke eye contact.

“Due to the amount of work we’ve had, sometimes doubling up multiple customers having their material shipped to the same places, you’ve almost paid off your loan on the Hidalgo Sun,” he said in a quieter voice. “If you wish to terminate your employment with me, Captain, you can take the ship so you can start up your own business. I will sign off on the loan and we can forget the rest of what you owe me, but since your personnel are contracted with me, I should have another ship soon they can serve on. You can hand-pick a new crew as you see fit.”

Rezo swallowed twice and then finally blinked his eyes, which had gone dry. He dropped his gaze and stared at his feet. “N-no…” he said meekly.  “We’ve d-done much better working for you that we did on our own. Please let me stay with the company. I… I apologize for my public outburst. Please forgive my arrogance and my impatience.”

Merlin stared unblinking at him a moment, and then he nodded. “Apology accepted, Captain.” He motioned the panda to follow him to the stone seats and then the two of them sat down. “This has been a trying time for all of us,” he said in normal conversational tones. “Even though it’s been nearly a month since I was beaten, I’m still sore in places – and then I’ve been wrought with emotional pain over my friend’s death.” He looked over at Rezo and sighed. “I admit that I’ve always been testy when my authority is challenged, but this was not a good time to try it with me.”

“I’m sorry,” the red panda said again. “As you said, we’re behind schedule and since coming to work for you, I’ve been afraid of losing any of our customers to a bad schedule as I did all too often before you came along and rescued me twice. I don’t deal with down-time very well and I’m more than ready to get back to work, sir, but I didn’t mean to usurp your authority. I was flustered and spoke out of turn, but I won’t let it happen again.”

Merlin gave him a nod. “I accept that,” he said, “and I believe you’re right. Get your ship ready for an early launch tomorrow, Captain. Pomen Air Command should have no trouble granting you launch privileges from the local airfield. We’re far enough from standard air traffic that you should be able to take off as soon as you’re ready.”

“Thank you,” Rezo said in relief. “We’ll leave at dawn.”     

*** 

Wendy leaned in and gently pressed her lips against Max’s as she wrapped her arms around his neck. The canine pulled her close and returned the kiss with closed eyes. They stood like that for a long moment outside the entrance to the hotel. The Bengal tigress had spent several days in a hotel room next to one Max shared with Pockets, but now it was time for her to return home. She had just begun pre-medical school and couldn’t afford any more time away, but she’d become fond of him and she was reluctant to leave the star-stranger.

“I wish you could come with us on the ship,” Max said quietly when they finally parted.

“I wish you could come with me back home,” Wendy replied. The young couple smiled at one another at their exchange and then the canine pulled her close in a warm hug.

“Be sure to write to me and let me know how your studies are going,” Max said. “I want to hear about everything.”

“Likewise,” the tigress replied as she stared into his ice blue eyes. “I know you’ll be starting your online college courses soon. It won’t be the same as actually attending a campus, but you’ll get a better education than what you have now.” She held up his left hand and then tapped his stubby middle finger with one of hers. “I’ll let Dad know you’re interested in a prosthetic finger. He should get back with you with some information soon.”

Max nodded and then gently put a hand on either side of her head. He peered back into her yellow eyes and said, “I’m going to miss you, Wendy,” he said. “A lot.”

“I’m going to miss you too, Max,” she said. The tigress gently licked the side of his muzzle and then turned away.

Max put her suitcase into the back seat of her convertible aircar as she climbed into the front seat. She activated the repulsors and then looked back at him. “Take care, sweetheart,” she told him. All he could do was give her a sad smile when she raised the suspension landing gear and put the vehicle in motion.

Max watched his feline girlfriend float away and didn’t take his eyes off of her until she turned a corner far up the street.     

*** 

Merlin rubbed his eyes as Taro entered the last of their notes into the slateboard on the desk before her. They had rented office space in the small metropolitan city of Fyerton for a few days to conduct interviews and the last applicant had just left to await their decision in the reception room where Jerry and Samantha kept an eye on things.

“Well, what do you think?” Taro asked with a yawn.

Merlin looked over at her and shook his head. “I wouldn’t have believed there were so many out-of-work, ex-freighting personnel in this area. How many have we interviewed this morning?”

“Twenty-three,” the vixen replied after consulting the slateboard. “Unfortunately, all of them fit the qualifications you have for the position.”

“I guess it comes down to their personalities, then,” Merlin muttered. “Which one do we want sealed up in the ship with us for weeks at a time?”

“Are you asking me, or thinking aloud?”

Merlin rubbed his eyes again. “Thinking aloud,” he answered, “but I want your opinion, too.”

“Okay, in that case, I would say it’s a toss-up between these three: Conroy, Legrand or Kodai.” Merlin looked at the notes she pointed out and reread them.

“Hmmm… the mastiff… is he one of those?”

“Yes, that was Damien Legrand. He’s the one who used to work for the Leaway Moving Company of Tanthe. You were thinking about him?”

The wolf nodded. “He seemed to be the most relaxed when he came in here, and probably the most experienced as well. He certainly knew how to make quick mental calculations for weight distribution in the cargo bay of an Okami freighter.” 

“Do you want to speak with these three once more before making your decision?”

Merlin studied Taro’s notes and then glanced at the clock. “No, I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” he replied. “It’s almost time to take Tanis to the airfield to catch his shuttle, so we won’t have time right now. Besides… I think Mr. Legrand is probably the best of the lot.” He stood up, stretched and then fluffed the fur on his tail where it had been pressed into the back of the chair for so long. “Go ahead and thank all the applicants for their time and send them all away – except Legrand. I’ll need Samantha to do a local background check on him, and I want Jerry to give him a complete physical this afternoon. If our new doctor gives him a clean bill of health, he’s got the job. “

“Okay, I’ll thank the other applicants while you speak with Sam and Jerry.”

Merlin touched the vixen lightly on the arm when she stood up; Taro looked at him curiously. “Are you okay?” she asked.

The lupine captain sighed and then gave her a weary look. “Durant was the one who always sat in on interviews with me,” he answered. “It felt strange not having him in here today… and stranger yet to be interviewing applicants for his job. Thanks for helping me with this. I don’t think I could have done it alone this time.”

Taro gave him a warm smile. “I understand what you’re feeling, Merlin,” she whispered. “You’re welcome.”     

*** 

Tanis turned to look at his former crewmates and he gave them a friendly smile. With all the events of the past weeks, there hadn’t been much time to get with each person as he had originally intended, but now time had run out. He’d just checked in the luggage containing all his possessions and the lot of them had followed him to the departure terminal, talking animatedly amongst themselves. Everyone fell silent as he met each pair of eyes. Some smiled back at him, while others looked remorse at his leaving.

He started to say something to his extended family, but he couldn’t seem to get the words across his tongue. He set his carry-on bag on the floor at his feet and struggled with the words. Taro took the initiative with a smile and kissed him on the lips. Then she pulled him to her in a warm embrace. He closed his eyes briefly and took in her scent for the last time.

“The shuttle for Merriam Flight 1621 to Alexandrius is now boarding,” an electronic voice said from the facility’s overhead speakers. “Ticket holders may now begin boarding flight number sixteen-twenty-one, bound for Alexandrius.”

Tanis forced himself to pull away from the vixen and then he looked at the other faces around him. “Never say long goodbyes,” he said hoarsely. “That’s what my Gram always used to tell me, but now it looks like I have no choice. I have to go now.”

Samantha stepped forward and licked him lightly on the cheek and then Lorelei pushed her way forward to do the same. Pockets and Max moved in simultaneously to shake his hand and he wound up taking them together with a grin, one on each hand.

Jerry eased up beside him and offered his hand as well. “Good luck, Tanis,” he said. “Study hard and the rewards will be worth it.”

The desert fox nodded as he shook his hand and then turned to Merlin who had appeared at his other side. “Tanis,” the wolf said quickly, “all the work you’ve done with us is well appreciated. Thanks for everything.”

“Thanks, boss,” the fox replied with a smile. “It’s sure been interesting working for ya.”

“Yeah, but I’ll be the one to miss you the most,” Renny said. Tanis looked up into the eyes of his friendly rival and suddenly felt moisture rimming his own. He had enjoyed sparring with the cheetah, but regretted their recent arguments.

“Thanks for putting up with me,” he said in a choked voice. “I know I’ve been a pain in the tail lately, but…”

“Forget it, Tanis,” Renny said with a grin as he embraced him. “I’ll probably get bored without you ruffling my fur. You take care of yourself.”

“This is the final boarding call for Merriam Flight 1621 to Alexandrius. Ticket holders must board the shuttle now.”

Tanis looked apologetically to his friends. “I have to go…” he said. Before anyone could give him any further well wishes, he picked up his carry-on bag and sprinted toward the ticket clerk. He pulled his slateboard from the bag’s side pocket and showed his ticket to a young canine by the door; the desert fox then disappeared without a look back.

Merlin’s crew gathered by the large tinted windows and lingered a while until the shuttle launched toward the primary transport vessel in orbit. Nobody said anything as the crewmembers of the Blue Horizon turned and walked out of the terminal, several of them with eyes that were not dry.     

*** 

Tina Winters lowered her head and tail submissively, but looked at the vidscreen with steady yellow eyes. “Thank you, Mr. Sinclair,” the white wolf said with genuine appreciation. “I know you have done a thorough security check on me, and I want you to know your finances will be safe with me.”

Merlin’s face stared back at her with a warm smile. “Welcome aboard, Ms. Winters,” he said as he reached up to adjust a new nautical hat between his ears. “Once Cindy’s set you up with a desk at the home office and has activated your account on the company system, contact me and we’ll arrange to transfer the company books and records to you for immediate processing. You will have the home office accounts, as well as those of the Blue Horizon and the Hidalgo Sun. My chief engineer has located another Okami-class freighter for the company, but I don’t think you’ll be in place before we process the financial paperwork on it. I’m afraid you’ve got your work cut out for you – likely some long hours of overtime until the transfer has been completed.”

Tina nodded and looked at him with a confident gaze. “I understand the situation you are currently in, sir, and I will try to get settled in as quickly as possible. I’m used to working long hours, and I’m sure I can help you get everything in order in short time.”

“Very good, Tina. You were highly recommended and I’m glad to have you on the team. My company is informal, so you don’t have to call me Mister Sinclair now that you’re a part of us.”

“How do you prefer to be addressed, sir?”

“First off, you can drop the ‘sir’ when you talk to me. You can call me Merlin, captain, boss, or anything similar. I’m sure you’ll find other creative names for me after you’ve worked with us for a while, but I’ll treat you as fair as I do the others.”

Tina smiled. “I think I can handle that, boss,” she said.

“Excellent. Please put Cindy on the line. I’ll have her process your employment and then get you set up for your work.”

“Right away.” Tina got up from Cindy’s desk and walked to the door. She stepped out, saw the mouse, and gave her a pleasant smile. “Captain Sinclair has accepted my application,” she said. “He wants to talk to you about getting me set up.”

The gray mouse brushed a stray lock of hair over one ear and then smiled widely. “Yay!” she said merrily. Cindy gave her a quick hug and then moved past her into the room. Tina chuckled, straightened the hem of her dark blue dress, and then walked down the short hall of the office to the front room. A smaller mouse with an extraordinarily large coffee cup sat on the edge of the receptionist’s desk, swinging her feet and idly chatting with a lithe ferret.

Keri looked up at the white wolf and said, “You look pleased. You must have gotten the job!”

“Yes, Miss Petrie, I did,” she replied. “I’m to start as soon as Ms. Allport can get me set up with an office.”

“That’s great news!” the ferret said in a rushed voice. “You’re going to like it here.”

“I’m sure I will, Miss Pon,” Tina replied, “but it looks like I’ll be quite busy at first jump.”

The receptionist snickered and waved a casual handpaw at the wolf. “You can stop already with the formal names, dearie! I’m Penny, this is Keri and that’s Cindy in the other room.”

Tina gave her words a nod. The informal atmosphere of this small company would take some getting used to. It was nothing like the offices of Merrick Enterprises where strict business protocols were observed, but she was well aware that the increasing business of this little freight transfer company would keep her busy for a while. She also knew that a background check on her normally would have found little-to-no information on her time working for Harrison Merrick, but the SPF was thorough and obviously found some sort of records that had not been destroyed along with the rest of Mainor. Harrison had employed numerous accountants, but despite being one of many, she had distinguished herself professionally and she had been recognized for her skill with numbers and data.

She had been away on a visit to her family on Dennier when the Kastan super-weapon destroyed her employer’s headquarters and homeworld. She had been working small, unrelated jobs ever since. She was glad to have the opportunity to do accounting again, even if for a shipping business with only three ships and two dozen employees. Sinclair had told her that his late accountant was a stickler in maintaining the books, so perhaps there would be no discrepancies to deal with.

“You may call me Tina,” she replied with a smile.

Cindy walked out of the back room and pulled on a light jacket. “Okay, Tina, let’s go pick out your office furniture!”     

*** 

Merlin looked up at the emerald green paint job of the SS Rambler and nodded appreciatively. Damien Legrand stood beside him and whistled his own approval. The mastiff was now a member of the Blue Horizon’s crew, but the load master appreciated being included checking out their newest sister ship all the same.

Renny, Pockets and Max had found the Okami freighter in a metropolitan city on the other side of the mountain range, and it was in perfect condition. The raccoon had been thorough in his inspection of the vessel, including a lengthy crawl through the access passages beneath the hold and in between the ship’s double hulls. Although just a year old, it hadn’t seen many flights. Its owner had purchased the freighter to start up his own little business, but had fallen into ill health before he could establish himself in the market. It had been up for sale for three months, but Pockets had been the first to contact him about it.

“We got it for ten thousand credits less than what we paid for the Hidalgo Sun,” Pockets told him cheerily, “and it’s in better condition. Mr. Rambles was fond of his ship and took care of it.”

“How much flight time is on its engines?” Damien asked with a quick glance at the Blue Horizon parked next to it on the small tarmac.

“One trip to Ganis and back, and two hops across Pomen,” the engineer replied. “It’s been in a flight hangar the past few months, so it’s even been out of the weather.”

“What was in the large package you brought with us?” Damien asked.

The raccoon smiled. “A mobile sentry system for the new ship. We have them on all our vessels, so I thought it might be good to go ahead and integrate it into the system.”

“We call it Moss,” Max supplied. “It kinda just floats around in the background keeping a watch on systems and personnel. Everyone gets used to ignoring it after a while.”

“We’ll have you added to the Horizon’s security protocols when we get back,” Pockets added, “so our own Moss unit will see you as part of the crew.”

“Want to take a tour, Uncle Merlin? Mr. Legrand?” Max asked with a gentle wag of his tail.

“You can call me Damien, son,” the mastiff offered with a smile.

Merlin chuckled. “It has the same floor-plan as ours, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t imagine it looking any different.”

“Well,” the young canine answered with a shrug, “the carpet and the walls are different colors than ours, but yeah, it’s the same layout. There’s more stuff on the recreation deck, though.”

Merlin put an arm around Max’s shoulders and nodded with a smile. “All right, take us on a tour. Before we put a crew on her, I suppose I should take a look around at least once.” Pockets and Legrand fell in step behind them as they headed for the ship, and were met at the airlock by Renny.

“Sorry about that,” the cheetah said with a grin. “I had to test out the ship’s facilities.”

“Everything in working order?” Merlin quipped.

“The plumbing’s in good shape,” he replied with a smirk.

“Yours or the ship’s?” Damien asked.

Renny looked at him with wide eyes and then grinned. “Both!” he answered. Max laughed aloud at the joke and Merlin chuckled with a shake of his head.

“Do we have a name for her yet?” Renny asked as he brought up the cargo bay lights from a control by the airlock. Aside from bright yellow reflective alignment lines painted on the floor, it looked identical to the Horizon.

“Since buying it was originally his idea,” Merlin replied, “I wanted to call it the Leo Durant in his honor, but I wanted his family’s permission first. However, Allen Durant asked me not to do it. He just wants to let his son’s name rest, so I agreed to honor his request.”

“That’s understandable,” the navigator said. “So what name did you come up with?”

“The Mooncrest,” the lupine captain answered. “It’s what Jiro and I almost called the Blue Horizon when we first started this business.”

“That name sounds familiar,” Pockets muttered as they arrived at the forward lift. He thumbed the pad and then looked up at his captain. “Wasn’t she a legend somewhere?”

“That’s right. Noiré Mooncrest was instrumental in bringing the rediscovered colonies of Earth back together by forming the Planetary Alignment. I’m hoping this additional ship will help keep the business together as well.”

“Okay, she has a name. Now all she needs is a captain and a crew,” Renny mused.

The door to the lift opened and they stepped out into a corridor of green carpet and light gray walls. The lights came up immediately and Merlin looked up at the recessed light panels with a nod. “I hired the Mooncrest’s captain this morning,” he said casually, “but Taro and Samantha are conducting interviews for the rest of the crew until I get back.”

“Who’s the new captain?” Max asked.

“A buffalo by the name of Abner Corwin,” the wolf replied as he headed for the bridge. “He’s a retired…”

“…a retired freighter captain who prefers life in space,” Renny finished for him.

Merlin stopped in his tracks and looked back at his navigator. “How did you know that?” he asked in amazement.

“That’s how Corwin describes himself,” Pockets replied.

Renny, Max and Pockets all grinned at the wolf. “Did Taro tell you what happened on Nalirra while you were off on Tanthe getting seduced by the princess?” the cheetah asked.

“You were seduced by a princess?” Damien asked with wide eyes.

Merlin twitched an ear and narrowed his eyes. “Let’s just try to forget the incident on Tanthe,” he muttered. “If you’re talking about the covert operation concerning Tanis’ records prior to the Roppa War, yes, she told me about it. What does that have to do with Corwin?”

“He was the captain of a Prairie-dog freighter called the Sandburr that was stuck waiting to unload just like we were with the Blue Horizon. His ship was destroyed when the Tanatans attacked the warehouse.”

“I played cards with his crew on his ship while we waited,” Pockets added. “They weren’t very good either.”

Merlin nodded. “Corwin mentioned losing his ship on Nalirra, but never said anything about meeting up with the Horizon. Good, at least a few of you know him already.” They stopped in front of a familiar blue door painted with a golden sailing ship’s wheel. It was a trademark on all Okami freighters, harking back to the days of water vessels.

The door opened before him and the bridge lights came on automatically as the small group moved inside. “Navigator,” Merlin said to the cheetah as he moved to the center seat, “get on the Com and contact the Pomen Air Command. See if you can secure permission to launch into an orbital altitude of one hundred fifty miles, duration two revolutions, and then a return to our present position.”

“Sure, boss. What reason do I give them for this flight plan?”

“Tell them it’s just a test run of a new ship. I want to make sure it’s really flight-ready before we put Captain Corwin’s people on board and a three-hour flight should give us plenty of time to determine everything we need to know.”

Renny grinned at him and then gave him a crisp salute. “Aye, aye, Cap’n!”     

*** 

Later that afternoon, Merlin returned to the office they had rented for their interviews. The test flight of the Mooncrest had gone without a hitch and all systems seemed to be in perfect working order. Pockets confirmed that the ship had not been in service long enough to develop any bad quirks and seemed impressed with the condition of the engines. They had spent the past hour of their flight time in low orbit over Pomen, taking the ship through several scenarios and then finishing out the ride just marveling at the beauty of the world below them.

He had left Max and Pockets with the ship to change the security codes throughout the vessel and get the new Moss integrated into the system while he and Renny returned to the office. Damien left them at the entrance to seek out a bite to eat. The wolf and the cheetah stepped inside the front door and removed their flight jackets in unison. The front room was filled with more people than there were seats, and all of them looked up when they came in. Lorelei was half asleep in a chair by the door, the slateboard in her hands leaning heavily toward the floor.

“Good evening,” Merlin said to the assembled crowd as he slid Lori’s slateboard back into her hands. Several smiled courteously back at him, but it was apparent most of them had been there all day and were getting tired. He passed through the crowd and then moved toward the back room.

“Hey!” exclaimed a short bulldog, “Yer gonna hafta get signed in by the door and wait like the rest of us!” Merlin stopped and turned to look at the canine. Renny rolled his eyes with a sigh and watched the wolf walk over to the dog.

“I don’t have to sign in, sir. What’s your name?” Merlin asked.

“Walter Maverick, what’s it to ya?” the dog said haughtily. “I’ve been here all day an’ yer not takin’ cuts! Ain’t no one da likes of ya going to jest walk right in!”

Merlin stared at him for a moment and then looked up at Renny with a twinkle in his eye. “Mr. Thornton?”

“Yes, Mr. Sinclair?” Renny replied with a smirk.

“Please escort Mr. Maverick off the premises. He won’t be selected for the job he is applying for.”

“What?” bellowed the bulldog. “Who do’ya think ya are?”

“Whoever is hired today will be working for me.” Merlin smiled with brandished teeth. “I’ll be making the final decisions on who signs a contract and I’ve just decided you won’t be among them,” he replied in a firm tone.

The bulldog’s eyes went wide and he sputtered as he tried to issue an apology, but Merlin tilted his head toward Renny. The cheetah stepped up beside the man and gestured toward the door.

“Please leave,” the navigator said in a clear voice. “It’ll be easier if you walk out on your own.”

Maverick looked mad at first, and then hung his head in embarrassment. He turned and walked out the door without another word. When Merlin looked up at the faces around him, he was greeted by smiles all around, as if letting him know that they were worthy of employment. A large wolf near the fireplace gave him an abbreviated salute and Merlin nodded in return.

“Excuse me, folks,” he said with a cordial smile. He turned and walked toward the back room. Samantha sat behind a small oak desk on her red floating pillow and grinned up at him when he stopped beside her near the hallway. He leaned over, gave her cheek a quick lick, and then looked at the slateboard in front of her.

“Thanks for getting rid of him,” she whispered in his ear. “He’s been on everyone’s nerves all day.”

“Only too glad to help. After the last time he contacted us, I knew I didn’t want him anyway.”

“You knew him?”

Merlin nodded. “Remember the last time we were on Pomen conducting interviews for Taro’s job?  Walter Maverick was the name of the guy who got rather upset when I told him I wouldn’t hold off all other interviews for the four weeks it would take him to travel here from Kantus.”

“Good memory,” Samantha replied. “I hadn’t remembered him.”

“His name stuck in my brain,” the wolf replied. “What else is going on?”

“Corwin came in a little bit ago. He’s back there with Taro now.”

“How far along are you?”

The Border collie looked up at him wearily. “Just about everyone in this crowd has been in to see Taro and Abner, but there are still a few left. These people have been here for a long time, waiting to find out if they’ll be chosen.” She glanced back at the crowd and added, “The funny thing is that most of them already know one another. I hadn’t thought Pomen would have yielded so many local applicants for nine jobs, especially in this part of the world.”

“Times are hard,” Merlin admitted with a nod of his head. “Our company has been doing well, but there are still a lot of folks out of work following the Siilv War, even this long afterward. Losing Mainor put a lot of people on the streets, whether they were from there or not.” Samantha looked up at him with a strange expression on her face. “What is it?” he asked.

“You won’t believe who’s back there with Taro right now…” she said quietly.

“Oh?” he replied. “I take it that we know her?”

“Him,” Sam corrected. She opened her mouth to continue, but then looked up quickly at someone coming up the hallway behind the wolf. Merlin saw her diverted attention and turned. He narrowed his eyes and snorted.

“Armando Jensen…” he said in a low voice. He stood up to his full height, but only came up to the Mainoran lion’s shoulders.

“Hiya!” Armando looked pleased to see the wolf, but Merlin only sighed. The room was full of potential employees and the last thing the wolf wanted was a public confrontation with an old competitor. Before the lion had a chance to say more, Merlin took him by the arm and led him back down the hallway. Taro and Abner looked up from the notes they were comparing when the two of them entered the room. Merlin cast them a brief glance, but then turned his attention back to the large feline.

“Armando,” he said quietly, “what are you doing here?”

The lion looked embarrassed and stuck his hands in the pockets of his slacks. He was dressed in nice clothes and his mane had been well groomed. “I came in for the interview,” he said meekly. “I need a job and freighting is the only thing I really know. Listen, Captain, I know we’ve been at odds in the past, but I promise to be a hard worker if you hire me.”

Merlin studied him a moment. “We treated you rather badly the last time you hooked up with us,” he stated in a neutral tone, “and you still came back looking for a job?”

Armando nodded. “You’n me had some bad blood between us and I figure you were getting it out of your system by taking it out on me. I don’t blame you,” he said. “I might have done the same if you’d been on my ship. I’m willing to forget all that.”

Merlin nodded and found that his old hatred of the feline just was not what it used to be. Perhaps seeing him humiliated had been compensation for their past conflicts. He still wasn’t sure he trusted Armando, but at least he didn’t hate him anymore. He glanced over at Taro and Corwin.

“You do the standard background check on him?” he asked. Armando brightened up. That question alone told him that his application might actually be considered.

Taro nodded, but it was the buffalo that answered. “I just got a response and what he told us checks out,” Corwin said in a gravelly voice. He absently scratched his chest beneath the blue robe-like garment he wore. “After he was released from Nalirra—”

“Nalirra!” Merlin exclaimed. He turned back to Armando and the lion nodded in confirmation. Merlin gestured to the chairs in front of Taro’s desk; he and the lion sat down. “How did you wind up there?” he asked. “How did you get back out?”

Armando shrugged his shoulders and then put an elbow on the desk. “Something got mixed up somewhere,” he began, giving the explanation he had given to Taro and Corwin earlier. “MPs from Nalirra came for me, claiming I had tried to infiltrate their military and put me under arrest.”

“You infiltrated their non-feline military?” Merlin asked incredulously.

“No,” Armando replied. “I had no part in their conflict with the Tanatans, but somehow they thought I had given it a try. I’m not sure who turned in my name, probably someone from my old crew making trouble for me, but I wound up being taken to their planet in chains and manacles. They tossed me into a stinking prison somewhere in a tropical jungle and I stayed there until the Tanatans beat them down in their war and found me in my cell.” He glanced over at Taro, but she didn’t look sympathetic.

“At first they thought I was one of them that had been captured,” he continued, “but after their doctors checked me over, they decided I wasn’t from Oe’Tanata, but wasn’t from Nalirra either. They found nineteen others like me imprisoned, and after they set up their own government in place over the occupied planet, they put us on a transport out of their system and sent us here to Pomen; we were processed as ex-POWs and released. I’ve been here about three weeks, looking for work.”

Merlin leaned forward in his chair and rested his elbows on his knees. “What are the conditions on Nalirra?” he asked.

“Pretty bad,” Armando answered with a frown. “Oe’Tanata is punishing the people of Nalirra for kidnapping their emperor’s little daughter and they’ve hit them hard. Every warship and private craft capable of getting to orbit has been destroyed, and even low-altitude aircraft were blown up so no one could escape. Major industries were eliminated and now the Nalirran population has to depend upon the Tanatans even for food and medicine. It’s not likely Nalirra will be a part of the PA again for a long, long time, if ever again. I’m not siding with Oe’Tanata,” he added quickly, “even if they did save me from rotting in that prison, but they’re in the right in this war. Nalirra’s leader is the one who initiated the whole mess, but the Tanatans sure put an end to it. Unfortunately, it’s the Nalirran population who are still paying for it.”

“Has anyone from the media talked to you yet?” Taro asked.

“The media? No, why would they?”

“There’s been no word from Nalirra since the Tanatans conquered it,” the vixen said. “INN would probably pay a lot to interview you. They’ve been trying for months to get any information out of the Roppa system on what’s going on there.”

Armando shook his head. “I don’t wanna talk to them,” he said. “Maybe some of the others who got released with me might talk, but I’m just glad to be back in the PA. All I want is a job to do some honest work.” He looked at Merlin’s steady gaze and dropped his eyes. “I told you how I lost my ship,” he said in a quiet voice. “I blew it with my own business, but I’ve learned my lesson. I’m lousy with a company of my own, but I promise I’ll work hard if you hire me.”

Merlin looked over at Corwin, who nodded to him, and then to Taro, who pursed her lips. He stood up and then said, “I’ll take your application under consideration. If you’ll wait outside with the rest of the applicants until we can finish up the last few, we’ll let you know what we decide.”

The lion stood up and extended his hand to Merlin. “Thanks, Captain,” he said. “All I ask is for a fair chance.” Merlin hesitated a moment and then took the proffered hand. He shook it briefly and then Armando left the room.

After he had gone, Taro set her stylus on the desk beside her slateboard and then stretched. “That sure was unexpected…” she commented.

“What position did he apply for?” Merlin asked.

“Anything available,” Corwin answered, “but he seems best suited for load master, having had a little experience in that field.”

Taro looked up at the wolf in surprise. “You aren’t actually going to consider him, are you?”

In answer, Merlin looked over at the buffalo. “What’s your personal impression of him?” he asked. “It’s your ship he would be on.”

Corwin moved his massive neck around until it cracked and then he raised his eyebrows. “Well, he looks like a strong back,” he said. “That’ll be handy in moving cargo, with or without equipment. Despite a deficiency in business sense, he worked as an assistant to another load master before he got his own ship and he answered all my questions about it correctly, so he is qualified. Plus, he seems genuinely sorry for whatever trouble he has caused you in the past and wants to make up for it. I think he should be okay.”

Taro crossed her arms. “We’ve had other applicants for load master that are more qualified,” she said with a frown. “We already know what Armando is like.”

Merlin nodded. “True,” he admitted, “but it might be better to have him where he can be watched.” He chewed on his bottom lip for a moment and then looked up at the buffalo.

“Okay, I’m putting him into your hands, Abner,” he replied after a moment of thought. “I’m willing to give him a chance, but I want him on six-month probation. Should he prove to be untrustworthy, I won’t hesitate to terminate his employment. He’s been irresponsible in the past, but if he can keep his nose clean and do a good job, you can decide whether or not to make him permanent on your crew. Armando has promised his good behavior, Abner. Keep an eye on him to make sure he lives up to that promise.”

“Aye, sir, I will.”

Merlin nodded to Taro. “Okay, let’s see the last ones on your list so we can send those tired people out there home. I’ll look over your notes tomorrow and then call back the ones we decide to employ.” He looked over at the buffalo and added, “It will then be your job to call the ones who aren’t hired and thank them for coming in.”

Corwin crossed his thick arms and gave the wolf a lopsided smile. “Oh, joy.”     

*** 

It had taken nearly a week to get the Mooncrest fully stocked and prepped while Merlin and Abner finalized the crew positions. In all, Corwin was pleased with his new team and he had spent a good deal of time with each of them prior to their first assignment together. Their new ship’s medic had already given everyone their mandated inoculations and despite a few grumblings, everyone had checked out healthy. For his crew, Corwin had only made one specific request. He wanted his twenty-five year old nephew as the ship’s cook. The young buffalo was something of a specialist when it came to feeding different species and with a crew of various races on board, Abner could think of no one better for the job. Merlin allowed him that decision, citing captain’s prerogative.

When the trucks from Holden Pharmaceutical arrived that morning with their cargo, Armando took the initiative and gave instructions to his new crewmates on where to set the heavier crates for proper load placement based upon floor sensor information fed to his slateboard. The process for filling the hold went smoothly. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits and ready to be on their way. Bored with waiting, the crew of the Blue Horizon had joined in the loading, although some of them cast furtive glances at the Mainoran lion dressed in a bright, flowered shirt. Merlin stood next to Captain Corwin out of the way of the activity and chatted idly while they waited.

“Your mail quota should arrive any moment,” Merlin told the large buffalo. “They always seem to know when a ship’s cargo loading operation has completed. It’s almost as if they time it that way.”

Corwin stretched in the bright sunlight and then looked over at the wolf. He smiled at the lupine’s nautical cap and chuckled. “Does Captain Kegawa wear one of those too?” he asked.

Merlin looked at his teasing smile and shook his head. “No, it’s just my personal preference, Abner. I don’t have one your size, but if you want one too, there’s a shop just inside the spaceport terminal that sells them in all sizes.”

Corwin laughed aloud. “No, thanks,” he said in his gravelly voice. “I like my head uncovered. It’s hard enough having the edges of my horns in the periphery of my vision when I’m trying to navigate through a doorway, and I’ve been doing that all my adult life. A hat would only complicate matters.”

Both looked up at the same time when Armando approached them with a slateboard. He gave the buffalo a smart salute and then said, “Here’s the manifest, Cap’n. Who’s supposed to sign for it, you or me?”

“Either of us can, but in most cases it will be your job to make sure the manifest matches what you load into the ship. We have to keep a record of everything that goes on and off the Mooncrest.”

Armando nodded, remembering similar words from JW Chon. He pressed his thumb against a box on the screen and signed it with his print. He gave Merlin a quick nod of acknowledgement and then walked back toward the awaiting delivery driver to transfer the electronic document to her. Merlin noticed something with bright colors rolled up in the lion’s back pocket.

“What’s that he’s got there?” he asked.

Corwin glanced to where the wolf was looking and chuckled. “It’s a comic book,” he answered. “I saw him move a large box of them into his cabin this morning.”

“Sounds harmless enough.”

“You should have seen the size of the case of Adirondack’s Exotic Honey Mustard he had my nephew order for the galley. It seems he likes a dab of it on all his food.”

The delivery truck started its engine and a moment later pulled away. Right on cue, a mail truck emerged around the corner of the terminal building and rumbled toward them. “See? Here they come,” Merlin said.

“Once the mail is loaded on board, I suppose we’ll need to be leaving,” Corwin said as he turned toward the wolf. “Mr. Silverthorne is making final preparations in the engine room, and Michaleen is on the bridge going over the pre-flight checklist. Everyone else has been running cargo duty.”

“Thanks for all your help, Abner,” Merlin said with an outstretched hand. “I think you and the Mooncrest will be a good asset to the company. Take good care of your people.”

Corwin returned the handshake warmly. “Glad to be a part of the team,” he said. “How much longer are you going to be here on Pomen?”

Merlin scratched his left ear and glanced back at the blue freighter behind him. “We’ll be loading up the Horizon with cargo bound for Dennier tomorrow morning,” he answered. He looked pensive for a moment, but it passed quickly. “Everything is done here. We’ve brought our friend back home, made changes at the home office, and added a new ship with a batch of new friends to the company. It seems like every time we’re on Pomen, it’s an extended stay. I have nothing against the place, but we’re all ready to be on our way.”

“I know what you mean. It can get monotonous out in space on those long journeys, but sometimes I get antsy if I’m on the ground for too long.” Corwin noticed various members of the crews of both the Blue Horizon and the Mooncrest giving one another farewell hugs and handshakes while the cargo bay door closed. “Time to go,” he said.

“May the wind be at your back, captain,” Merlin said, quoting an old seafarers’ saying.

“Thank you, sir. I’ll report in once we’re underway to let you know our operational status.” With that, he turned and headed toward the main airlock of his ship. Merlin watched him go and sighed quietly to himself. He was now the master of three ships and employed over two dozen individuals. It would be hard to coordinate them all from the bridge of a ship, but he knew expanding his business was a smart move. How had Taro said it? Yes, he now had a small fleet of freighters and a thought was growing in his mind.     

*** 

Later that afternoon, Merlin lay stretched out on his hotel room bed, his hat on the table next to him and his boots on the floor. It had been a full morning and the Mooncrest had launched on her maiden voyage with her captain and crew. Corwin had reported in two hours later to say that everything had gone smoothly to orbit and that they were fast on their way to cruising speed out of the Lia-Noa star system.

The door to the room opened and Samantha walked in. She set a satchel on the room’s small table and then kicked off her shoes.

“I’ve turned in the keys to our rental office and got our deposit back after Jerry and Lorelei gave it a good cleaning,” she said, looking pleased. She crawled onto the king-size bed next to him and looked into his smiling amber eyes. She gave him a little nuzzle and then cuddled up next to his side, her tail wagging gently on the mattress beside her.

“Do you want to discuss our wedding plans before or after we take off?” she asked him quietly. “We really haven’t had a lot of opportunities to talk about it since Tanthe.”

Merlin gave her a gentle smile. “I’m sorry we haven’t made the time for it,” he said. “We could have discussed it on the flight from Fyn, but I don’t think either of us felt up to it, with my injuries and Durant’s….”

“I know, love,” the Border collie said, “I know.”

“If you want to discuss it now, I’m open,” he said.

Samantha smiled and nodded. “Shannon and I have been on the Com quite a bit lately,” she admitted. “She’s told me all about the various wedding customs on Dennier, specifically from the region you are from. Everything sounds simple enough, but there’s a lot of extra room for fluff in your traditions. I want a lot of fluff in my wedding.”

“You want fluff?”

“Yeah, I want fluff!”

Merlin chuckled and touched noses with her. “Okay, you can have your fluff. All I want is you, with or without the fluff.”

“Yay!” she exclaimed with a grin. “Okay, now let me tell you what fluff I want.” Samantha went on to tell him all the ideas that she, Shannon and Taro had come up with for their wedding. Merlin listened in patience and made a few suggestions, but was ultimately impressed by the amount of planning she had already done. Shannon had found a local wedding dress that went well with Samantha’s projected image and the price was reasonable. Merlin’s sister had been ecstatic when Sam contacted her for ideas and had been instrumental finding prices with the Grandstorm businesses.

“We are going to have the wedding in Grandstorm, aren’t we?” Samantha asked. “I just assumed…”

“Where else would it be?” Merlin asked with a smile. “I grew up in Grandstorm, that’s where Bill and Shannon and the kids live, and that’s where the home office is. I know your family was from Alexandrius and you grew up on Sillon, but Dennier is better suited for the business if we settle down there.”

Samantha looked at him quizzically. “Settle down?” she repeated.

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately,” the wolf explained. “Something that Bill said not too long ago.”

“About having cubs of our own?” she asked. It was no secret that Bill had often teased Merlin with complaints that his children didn’t have any cousins. Bill had no siblings of his own, so it would be up to Merlin and Samantha to produce more relatives.

“Well, there is that,” the lupine captain replied, “but that’s not the idea foremost in my mind.”

“What then?”

“I just bought another freighter for my business and staffed it with ten people who are contracted to receive salaries and benefits. I moved the company accountant to Dennier to make it more accessible to everyone through the home office, but yet here I am still commanding my fleet from a mobile location.”

Samantha nodded, understanding his train of thought. “Bill suggested that you give up your ship and run the business from the home office, didn’t he?”

Merlin nodded. “Having my own ship and business was something I’d wanted to do,” he said, “and I got to have it for nearly ten years. However, now that I have more than just a single crew to look after, it makes better sense to run the company from a centralized location.”

“Bill has a good mind for business,” the Border collie agreed.

Merlin gazed into her deep brown eyes. “We’d have a real home together, Sam,” he said quietly. “It wouldn’t just be a shared stateroom on a freighter, but an actual house.”

Samantha’s eyes widened and she grinned. “I was already thinking Bill’s idea had merit, but you just added icing. I think it’s a wonderful idea… I like it.”

“We’d be leaving our friends behind,” Merlin reminded her in a quieter voice. “We’ve been with them a long time.”

“True,” the collie replied, “but we’ll still be in contact. If you think it’s time to let someone else command the Blue Horizon, Merlin, I’m behind you. You’ll still have a crew to command at the home office – it just won’t be out in space where pirates are always a threat. Besides, I would like to give Bill and Shannon’s cubs those cousins.”

Merlin looked at her with renewed interest. “Oh, you would, would you?” He started to move closer to her with a certain glint in his eye, but Samantha laughed and pushed him away with a hand on his nose.

“Hold on, handsome! I didn’t mean right now!” Merlin gave her a playful pout and then settled back down against his pillow. Samantha giggled at his expression. “Do you remember what you said when Sparky and Roland were married?  ‘A cargo ship with limited room is not the place to raise a family’. If we have pups, a house on Dennier is a better setting. Children need fresh air in the open sun and a lot of room to run.”

Merlin chuckled and looked at her lovingly. “I was worried you wouldn’t want to leave the Blue Horizon, but it looks like you’re already packing for us. I’m sure it will make Shannon happy.” 

He thought for a moment and then added “It’s decided, then, but don’t tell anyone just yet. Taro already expressed an interest in taking command of the ship if I ever decided to leave, so let’s take her out tonight to discuss it with her before we tell the others.”

Samantha leaned forward and ran a finger through the soft fur behind his left ear. “You’re a good man, Merlin Sinclair. It’s no wonder I love you.”     

*** 

“Okay, Merlin, out with it.”

The lupine captain looked up at his first officer in mock surprise, but he couldn’t keep a smile from creeping across his lips. He set his fork down on the table beside his plate then picked up his glass. He didn’t drink, but held it in his hands without breaking eye contact with the vixen. He peered at her between two candles that occupied the center of their table and then set his glass back on the table.

“Out with what?” he teased with a side-glance at Renny and Samantha, who occupied the other two seats at their table.

Taro snorted and leaned on the table with her chin rested on steepled fingers. The four of them were in a classy restaurant and the large room was dark to provide the candle-lit ambiance. A quartet of black bears was in a corner playing soft music and the tinkle of silverware and low voices of quiet conversations were in the air. Renny sat uncomfortable in a suit and tie, but he had refused none of the food. He was used to more of a casual atmosphere, but Taro and Samantha looked at home in their elegant evening gowns. Merlin wore a dark blue suit with an amber tie to match his eyes, but had abandoned his hat for the night.

“It’s rare that you will take any of your royal subjects out to eat at an expensive restaurant,” the vixen said with a suspicious smile. “What’s on the king’s mind?”

“We’re practically done with our meals,” Samantha as Renny took another bite and looked up at her. “Go ahead and tell her.”

Merlin smiled mischievously. “I’m sure you already know what’s on my mind,” he said to Taro. “After all, it was partially your idea.”

Taro sat back in her chair, a sudden look of uncertainty on her face. “You aren’t… retiring… are you?” she asked.

Merlin chuckled. “No, I’m not retiring. However, what I am doing is offering you the captaincy of the Blue Horizon.”

Renny choked on his food and took a quick drink from his glass. “What?” he said after he regained his breath.

Merlin looked over at him in amusement and then grasped Samantha’s hand on top of the table. “Once we get to Dennier, Sam and I are going to start shopping for a house of our own, and then I am going to run the company from the home office instead of from a mobile location.”

Taro nodded and smiled. “I wondered how long it would be until you decided the business was getting too big to operate from the Horizon,” she said.

“You’re leaving?” Renny asked. He seemed surprised that Merlin would even think of giving up his vessel.

Samantha giggled. “That’s right, Ren-Ren. We’re going to settle down and raise a family.”

“Well, that’s great, I guess,” he grumbled with downcast eyes. Renny had enjoyed working for Merlin and considered him a close friend.

“Taro Nichols,” the wolf said formally, “the position of Captain of the SS Blue Horizon, with all its benefits and responsibilities, is hereby offered to you. Do you accept?”

The vixen nodded her head elegantly and responded, “Yes, Milord. I accept your kind offer and am humbled by it.” Samantha burst out laughing and had to cover her mouth. Taro snickered and Merlin chuckled along with her, but Renny just heaved a heavy sigh.

“May I make a request?” Taro asked when the mirth subsided.

“Anything,” Merlin replied. 

“May I assign Mr. Gloom, here, as my first officer?”

Merlin nodded with a smile and replied, “That’s your prerogative as the captain,” he said. “Once you’ve formally assumed command, your responsibilities will include whatever crew assignments you wish to make.”

“When does this go into effect?” Renny asked quietly. He’d lost his appetite, a feat in of itself, and pushed his plate away from him.

“Once we land on Dennier, we’ll have an informal Change of Command ceremony,” Merlin explained after taking a lap of his drink. “This will be my final voyage as captain of the Blue Horizon.”

“I never thought I’d see the day when you would leave the ship,” Taro said, “but I think you’re doing the right thing.”

“Thanks,” Merlin said. “That means a lot to me.”

The conversation came to a lull and all four of them sat for a moment, lost in their own thoughts. Then Taro stood up and picked up her small handbag. “Excuse me,” she said, “I need to visit the powder room.”

“Me too,” Samantha said. “I’ll go with you.” She licked Merlin on the nose and then followed the vixen across the room.

Merlin and Renny sat quietly for a moment and then the cheetah looked over at him. “I don’t want you to go,” he said seriously.

“Times change, my friend,” the wolf replied. “If it was still just me and a crew on the Blue Horizon, I wouldn’t even consider it, but I have a whole fleet of employees now.”

“You’ve been running everything from the Horizon this long, even after we took on the Hidalgo Sun,” Renny countered. “What difference does it make if you’re behind a desk on the ship instead of a desk on Dennier?”

“The biggest difference is Samantha,” Merlin told him. “We’re about to be married and we both want a family. Considering the amount of danger we’ve run into over the past few years, I wouldn’t want to raise my cubs in that kind of environment. Children need fresh air in the open sun and a lot of room to run.”

“Yeah, I suppose so.” The cheetah picked up a meal bone and began to gnaw on it idly.

“Are you going to stay with the Blue Horizon if I leave?” Merlin asked after a moment of thought.

Renny looked up at him in surprise. “Why would I leave?” he asked.

“You’ve had more injuries than anyone else since you came on board,” Merlin answered. “Frankly, I’m surprised you haven’t resigned after all that.”

Renny’s eyes flashed and he pointed his bone at the wolf. “I’m no quitter,” he said in a strained voice. “No one will ever accuse me of that!” He dropped his bone to the plate with a clatter and leaned back in his seat. “I admit this job’s been more hazardous than I would have thought for a freighter navigator, but I like working for you and the Horizon has become my home. I get along with my coworkers and the pay is decent. You may have to increase my medical insurance benefits, though.” He said the last with a bit of a smile.

Merlin nodded with a smile of his own. “Well, you’ll be getting a raise just having the First Officer tag on you,” he said. “I think I can arrange a bit of hazard pay as well.”

“Fortunately for us, the Basilisk won’t be stalking us anymore.”

Merlin’s eyes grew dark at that comment. “I wouldn’t count on smooth sailing,” he cautioned in a low voice. “The Basilisk was just one pawn controlled by Victor Faltane. We got in the way of his plans for Argeia and he’s apparently trying to hunt down Lucas for the same reason. If he sent the Basilisk after us, I have no doubt he has other ships to take its place. From what we learned on Fyn, Faltane is more powerful than we knew and he probably hasn’t enjoyed our interference. I doubt we’ve seen the last of terrorists. Are you sure you want to remain on board?”

Renny snorted. “You sound like you’re trying to scare me away,” he said with a smirk. “Don’t worry, boss. I’m not going anywhere. Besides… I’m now second in command for the flagship of your fleet! I doubt I’d do as well anywhere else.”  Merlin nodded and gave him a smile of appreciation. He had never regretted hiring Renny Thornton.

Both of them looked up as the ladies approached the table. Samantha sat down next to Merlin and gave him an impish smile. “Miss me?” she asked.     

*** 

There was a knock on the door, but Lorelei didn’t hear it at first. She sat naked in the middle of the front room of her cabin on board the Blue Horizon. All the lights were out save for a single red candle on a small table before her, with a stick of incense burning from a stylized holder. She had her eyes closed, her legs crossed and her hands together in her lap holding a common wildflower she had picked just prior to the ship’s launch from Pomen.

The knock on the door repeated and a soft voice called out to her through the panel. “Lorelei? Are you in there?”

The white rabbit opened one eye and smiled gently when she recognized the voice of the ship’s new doctor. She closed her eye again and replied, “You may come in, Jerry.”

The door opened and the red fox took one step into the room before he realized what he was seeing. “Oops,” he said in an embarrassed tone. “Sorry to bother your contemplation, Miss, but the captain’s called a staff meeting on the recreation deck.”

Lori opened her eyes slowly and then looked up at him with amusement as he unsuccessfully attempted to avert his gaze. She set her flower on the small table and then tapped out the incense stick before she stood up.

“Would you like to help me get dressed?” she asked with half-lidded eyes.

Jerry swallowed and put his hands into the pockets of his medical smock. “I think I’ll just wait for you, Miss,” he said. The rabbit laughed and then disappeared into the bedroom. She reappeared a moment later wearing an ice-green hapi coat tied over a pair of yellow shorts and then walked to her candle. She blew it out with a gentle breath and then moved to Jerry’s side.

She threaded an arm through his with a smile and chuckled at his discomfort. For someone who was supposed to have a reputation with the ladies, the doctor was acting awfully shy. “You can escort me, foxy,” she said. Jerry raised an eyebrow and then led her out into the corridor without a word. The door shut behind them automatically.

A few moments later, they walked out of the lift together and all eyes from the rest of the crew watched them enter the room. Merlin stood at the forward end of the recreation deck in front of the large window. Several sensor readings were displayed by the near-invisible circuitry in the upper right corner of the glass in red letters, but otherwise the view was of the stars before them.

Taro and Renny sat together on a short couch and Damien occupied a recliner next to them. Pockets sat in the other recliner and Max was stretched out on the carpet at his feet. Samantha was absent, having the current bridge watch duty, but she had tied in the intercom system to listen in on the conversation. Jerry led his charge to another couch and sat down with her.

Merlin nodded to them and then all eyes returned to the captain when he cleared his throat. “I wanted everyone here together to let you know that although there have been a lot of changes to the company lately, there are a few more yet to take place.”

“What kind of changes?” Pockets asked suspiciously. “Are you buying another ship?”

Merlin chuckled, but shook his head. “No, I have enough ships for now,” he replied, “but there will be a few more personnel changes.”

“More?” Lorelei asked in a lazy voice.

“I know it will come as a shock to some of you…” Merlin hesitated, “…but Samantha and I will be leaving the Blue Horizon when we get to Dennier.”

“Leaving?” Max asked. He sat up and crossed his legs, his blue eyes imploring. There was a long and uncomfortable silence, and then Lorelei’s previous calm demeanor evaporated as the implications set in.

“What do you mean by that?” she asked with one ear drooping. “You aren’t leaving for good?”

“Are you selling the company?” Pockets asked in a near whisper.

“I am not selling my company,” Merlin explained calmly. “Now that there are more ships than just this one in the business, it has become apparent that I will need to move my desk to the home office to run things from a central location.”

“Aww, no…” Max replied with a downcast expression.

Pockets sat very still in his seat, his lips partially open and his eyes wide. He had been with the Blue Horizon since Merlin had first put it into operation and had undoubtedly never entertained the thought that the wolf would ever leave. Neither Jerry nor Damien expressed distress at the announcement, both of them still a little new to the company.

“Sam and I will be finalizing the plans for our wedding and begin house-shopping shortly after we depart,” Merlin continued.

“No!” Lorelei exclaimed with tears in her eyes. “That’s not fair! There’ve been too many good-byes lately!”

“Lori…” Jerry said with a hand on her shoulder. “The boss is right. It makes better sense to run things from the office.” The rabbit gave him a cold look and then turned her back on him.

Merlin shook his head and then said, “Taro has accepted promotion to captain of the Blue Horizon. There will be a short change of command ceremony after we’ve landed on Dennier, and then your captain will be conducting interviews for a new business coordinator, supply officer and computer technician.”

“Merlin…” Pockets said in a quiet voice, “are you sure you want to do this? I mean… the Horizon has been your child…”

The wolf looked at his longtime friend with an uncertain expression. “All children grow up and eventually need to be on their own,” he said quietly. “Using your analogy, I am a father… one who now has three children. I can’t play favorites, Pockets. The home office will be my home for the children to come back to for advice and direction.” He gazed around at the faces gathered before him and added, “Samantha and I plan to have cubs of our own and we don’t want to raise them within the confines of a ship. Perhaps in the future when they’ve grown up, Sam and I will return to a life in space, but for now, we need out feet on the ground.”

Max got up and then walked to the wolf. He stopped in front of him, and for a moment, they searched one another’s eyes.

“Uncle,” the canine said in a steady voice, “even when you were reluctant to bend the laws of Quet, you helped me escape my previous fate. You gave me a better life, you gave me confidence, and you gave me a real family. I don’t want you to go,” he swallowed briefly, “but I understand family. You’ll still be there for us, just not on board our ship. Thank you for everything you’ve given me.” He held out his hand to the wolf, but Merlin gave him a soft smile and then drew him into a warm embrace.

Lorelei jumped up, ran to them, wrapped her arms around them both, and began to cry. Pockets got up and joined them. He moved behind Merlin and then wrapped his arms around the captain’s middle. He closed his eyes, buried his nose in the wolf’s shirt, and tried very hard not to start crying too. Renny and Taro exchanged smiles and then stood up. They moved in and both of them joined the group hug.

Renny grinned widely at Merlin as he grabbed the back of his neck. He had finally accepted the reasons Merlin had given him the previous night, and although he would miss his friend, he was no longer upset by it. Taro leaned in to give Merlin a lick on the cheek and then winked.

Jerry and Damien looked at one another and stood up, but otherwise didn’t approach the others. Although they were now a part of the crew, they were still relative outsiders to the “family” of friends. Jerry stuck a hand into a pocket of his smock and then motioned for the load master to follow him to the galley for coffee.

Lorelei continued to cry, and even Max and Pockets began to grin, but the rabbit continued to hold onto Merlin as if afraid to let him go.

“Hey!” Samantha’s voice cried out suddenly from the intercom speaker, “I think I’m missing out on all the hugs!”      

*** 

There was a knock on the door and Merlin frowned. “Come on in,” he stated loudly. “I’m already awake.”

The door panel opened and Samantha stood there in a short silk robe with a tray of food. Her fur was well groomed and the scent of flowers followed her in. She smiled widely and stepped inside. The Border collie touched the pad to close the door before turning back toward the bed. She moved to where the wolf sat on the couch with his slateboard on the short coffee table in front of him. She set the tray on his lap as so not to cover up his slateboard.

“What’s this?” Merlin asked with a friendly smile. The tray held all his favorite breakfast foods with a nice, steaming cup of coffee. He picked up the cup and lapped from it first.

Samantha wagged her tail gently and shrugged her shoulders. “Today’s going to be a full day for us all, so I thought I would help the captain get a good start.”

“At three in the morning?” he asked as he picked up a slice of buttered toast.

She laughed. “You can never get to sleep the night before a planetfall, Love. Everyone on board knows that.”

Merlin mocked a deep sigh. “Yeah, I’ve been told that I’m predictable.” Both snickered and Sam sat on the couch beside him. She watched him eat, and after a few moments, the wolf arched an eyebrow at her. “Something on your mind?”

“Not really,” she admitted, “but I wondered if you wouldn’t mind a bit of snuggling when you are finished eating.”

“You wake up in the mood?” he teased.

Samantha shook her head with a smile. “No, I just need your arms around me.”

Merlin set his cup down and lightly brushed the fur on her left cheek. “You’re always welcome in my arms, Sam,” he said with a gentle smile. “Always and forever.”

Merlin quickly finished the last of his breakfast and then took another lap of his coffee. He set the tray on the table, stood up, took her by the hand, and then led her to the back room.  They slid under the covers of the bed and then settled in.

“I love you, Merlin,” she said quietly. “Forever and always.”

“I love you too, Sam.”

The collie wrapped her arms around his middle and they both slid down to a reclining position. The wolf held her close and then shut his eyes.     

*** 

The northern shore of land appeared in the vidscreen and Samantha pointed with a smile. “There’s Grandstorm!” she said. The Blue Horizon had left orbit and descended upon Dennier over the Arvallian Sea. The blue flying saucer zoomed over green water toward the shore and Merlin raised their altitude back up to standard air traffic while Taro exchanged information with the spaceport control tower. Since the Blue Horizon would be loaded up there for its next assignment, they couldn’t land at Bill and Shannon’s place as they had on previous visits.

The evening sun was just touching the western horizon and the traffic near the seaside spaceport facility was heavy. The five main skyscraper spires of the city were already lit up from internal offices and glittered in the evening as the ship approached Grandstorm. Commercial and private sea craft were plentiful nearer the coast and the boardwalk at the beaches was lit up for nighttime visitors.

“There’s the spaceport,” Taro said. “Control tower is directing us to pad sixty-one, Captain. Bill had it reserved for us; he and Shannon are there already with the kids.”

“Excellent,” Merlin said. “Sam, start equalizing our internal air pressure with that of the outside and then begin atmosphere transfer.”

“Aye, Captain,” the Border collie answered with a grin.

Taro touched a few pads and then spoke over the ship-wide intercom, “Artificial gravity will be disabled in fifteen seconds. In another five minutes we’ll be on the ground with full engine shutdown.”

The ship slowed even more and Renny glanced out the windows. They were now moving beneath the spaceport traffic and on approach to a landing spot ringed with flashing green lights. The Blue Horizon stopped and hovered above the pad, and then began dropping slowly. Merlin flipped the toggle to lower the landing gear, and then a moment later, they were on the ground.

Merlin and Renny began shutting down the onboard systems and Samantha looked over at Taro. She grinned at the vixen, but her smile froze when she saw Taro’s sad expression.

“What’s the matter?” she asked her quietly. Renny and Merlin both looked up at the question.

“This is it….” the red fox replied.  “The end of our last voyage together…”

Sam moved forward and put a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “Don’t look at it like that,” she said after a moment. She sat down in the chair nearest Taro and regarded her. “Think of this as the beginning of The Adventures of Captain Nichols and the Blue Horizon.”

Taro nodded with a chuckle. “I suppose you’re right,” she replied.

Renny stood up and then turned to Merlin, who still sat in the center seat, possibly for the last time. The others turned to look at him too, but the wolf didn’t meet anyone’s gaze. “Please assemble the crew outside the main airlock,” he muttered quietly.

“Merlin…?” Samantha asked. He didn’t look up at her, but continued to stare at the guidance shifts in front of him.

“I will be down in just a moment,” he said. “Wait for me there.”

Sam nodded and then followed Renny and Taro off the bridge. She turned back to look when she reached the door and saw Merlin unbuckle his harness quietly and then get up out of his seat. He retrieved his flight jacket from the back of the chair and slowly put it on over his blue shirt.

“I think the realization of your words just hit him,” Renny whispered to Taro as they headed toward the lift. “Until now, his leaving has been something in the near future. Now that it’s here…”

“Shhh…” Taro shushed him as Samantha caught up to them at the lift. The three of them climbed into the small elevator and took it down to the cargo deck. Damien came out of the nearby load master’s office and walked over to join them. Everyone else was waiting outside the main hatch, and Lorelei was cooing over the four children standing with Bill and Shannon. Max introduced Jerry to them and then Damien.

Two of the cubs, Marissa and Shane, looked up at the large mastiff with wide eyes when he gazed down at them with an unreadable expression. After a moment, his countenance softened and then he squatted down to look them at their level. “These are fine looking pups, ma’am,” he said to Shannon. Another black cub walked up to him and stuck out his little hand to the canine.

“Ah’m Jacob,” he said to Damien. Legrand shook his hand with a nod and then looked over at a chubby cub peering out at him from between his parents. Damien let out a soft sigh when Jaran suddenly smiled at him.

“Unca Merlin!” Shane exclaimed. He ran through the small group and jumped into the lupine captain’s waiting arms. The other three followed, yelling his name, and he gave them each a hug and a nuzzle on the cheek.

“Hello, cubs,” he said happily. Shannon walked over to them and then Merlin put down the youngster to stand up. He gave her a warm hug. “Hello, sister of mine,” he said with a grin. “Is that husband of yours still treating you well?”

He shook hands with Bill and Shannon chuckled. “Very well,” she replied. “It’s good to see you again.”

Merlin looked down at a tugging on his tail and saw Shane gazing up at him. “Are you gonna stay with us again, Unca Merlin?” he asked.

Merlin nodded with a smile. “For a little while,” he said. “Samantha, too.”

“Samma?” Marissa jumped up and down and exclaimed. “Yaaaay!”

“Bill, can you and Shannon take the kids over there a few paces?” Merlin asked Bill. “I have a small ceremony to perform.”

“Sure,” the black wolf replied curiously.

While the family moved away, Merlin turned and looked at his people. “Taro Nichols, front and center!” he said aloud. The rest of the crew gathered to one side and then Taro stepped forward. She stood in front of the wolf at rigid attention amidst chuckles.

Merlin looked at her with a grin and said in a semi-serious tone, “To be recorded for this date and time, I hereby transfer command of the SS Blue Horizon, PA Registry 1138, to Captain Taro Nichols, with all the benefits and responsibilities that are associated with the position.”

With her arms straight at her sides, the vixen tried hard to keep a straight face and then replied, “I accept transfer of command, sir.” She gave him a crisp salute worthy of a military veteran and then said, “You are now relieved of command, sir.”

Merlin extended his hand, but Taro shook her head and then drew him into a tight hug instead. The wolf squeaked and she quickly released him with an apologetic smile.

Merlin pulled his hat from off his ears and then placed it on Taro’s head. “You don’t have to wear this,” he told her amongst the laughter of the assembled group, “but it’s symbolic of the position… and I won’t be wearing it anymore.”

“Thank you, Merlin,” Taro replied with a grin.

“However…. I do have something you might like instead,” the wolf added in a more serious tone. He stuck his hand into a pocket of his flight jacket and withdrew a small gray box. He handed it to her and she took it in curiosity. The members of her crew gathered around to see what it might be, and when she opened it, Taro’s eyes grew moist.

Inside was a small gold pendant in the shape of a sailing ship’s wheel, much like the image painted on the door of the bridge. Set into its center was a deep blue gem. Merlin pulled it out of the box for her, raised its strong, yet lightweight chain over her head, and then set it gently upon the bosom of her white blouse.

“It’s lovely,” she said in a choked voice. Lorelei oooh’d at the sparkly gem.

“It was a gift from Shannon when I bought the first Blue Horizon,” he said at his sister’s look of recognition. “I rarely wear jewelry myself, but have kept it with me ever since. I’m now passing it on to you to keep safe.”

“Thank you, Merlin.” Taro put her arms around the wolf and then kissed him full on the lips. When the kiss lingered just a moment too long, Samantha and Renny exchanged glances. In unison, each grabbed one of the vixen’s arms and pulled her away from Merlin.

“That’s enough,” Samantha teased the vixen with a grin.

“Yeah,” agreed Renny. Once again, laughter echoed across the landing pad.

“Well folks,” Merlin said to the assembled crowd, “you now have a new captain. I’ve already made all the legal arrangements, so this is legit. She’s your boss, so be sure to give her plenty of grief!”

“Hey!” Taro said with a laugh.

Bill stepped in and shook hands with Taro. “Congratulations, dear. You managed quite a feat to make him give up the ship!”

“That was my doing, thankyouverymuch!” Samantha exclaimed. “It took me years to make him fall in love with me and propose!”

“Well, whosever fault it was, thanks!” Bill replied with a grin. “Now, if everyone will follow us, we have transportation lined up for the lot of you, with reservations for dinner.” He looked at Merlin and Samantha and added, “You can retrieve your personal effects from the ship later.”

Renny licked his lips. “All right, I’m starving!”

“Better hope the restaurant is stocked…” Pockets quipped. “If Renny’s starving, watch your fingers and don’t get too close to his mouth!”     

*** 

A blue and gold taxi stopped at the edge of landing pad sixty-one of the Grandstorm Spaceport. A tall coyote slid out of the back and the cabbie retrieved two large suitcases from the trunk after she paid her fare. She tapped a control on the handle of each bag and gravity repulsors discs activated to levitate them a few inches above the tarmac. The cab drove away and the woman straightened her burgundy dress as she looked up at the two-tone, oval bulk of the Blue Horizon.

She was about to grab the straps of her wheeled luggage and pull them toward the ship when another taxi pulled up behind her. A koala in a pair of sunglass goggles opened the door and dragged a large gray duffel bag out of the back seat with him. He handed the cabbie a few credits and then had to jump out of the way when the car took off in a hurry.

The koala looked up at the coyote and smiled. “Hello,” he said. “Are you here to welcome me?” he asked in a thick voice.

The woman looked amused. “No, sorry,” she replied. “I just arrived myself.”

“New recruit?”

“Uh, something like that,” she said. “You?”

“Yeah, me too. Hello, my name is Justin Mandolin. Most folks call me Justy,” the koala said with a smile as he looked over the top of his sunglasses at her. “And no, I don’t play the musical instrument.”

“Pleased to meet you, Justy,” the woman said. “I’m Amanda Black, the new business coordinator for the Blue Horizon.” They shook hands and then Justy turned to look at the parked vessel.

“I’m her new supply officer and computer tech,” he explained, “starting today.”

“I don’t know if anyone else knows we’re here,” Amanda said. “Do you think we should go up to the front door and knock?”

“Sure, sounds like a good idea.” Justy picked up his duffel bag and hefted it up onto his shoulder. It was nearly as large as he was and looked to be just as heavy. Amanda grabbed the straps of her bags and pulled them behind her as they walked toward the ship.

When they reached the main airlock, they found it open. Justy looked at Amanda, shrugged, and then walked up the ramp into its interior. The coyote followed him inside, but the only lights on in the cargo bay were the emergency glow panels.

“Hello?” Justy called out as he removed his sunglasses by its strap. His voice echoed in the semi-empty hold, but there was no reply. It seemed the only cargo on board consisted of six large crates anchored to the floor with the initials ‘DWT’ emblazoned in large letters upon their sides, and one tremendous red container marked ‘Mail: Dennier-Kantus’.

“There’s a lift over there,” he suggested.

“Do you think it’s advisable if we just walk in?” Amanda asked hesitantly.

“Why not?” said the koala. “Captain Nichols has our contracts and this is our ship. C’mon, let’s go see if we can find someone upstairs.” Amanda followed him across the cargo deck. Justy tapped a pad beside the lift and they heard a light hum as the carriage descended to their level.

When the panel opened, they found themselves face-to-lens with a small flying saucer hovering in the air before them. Its metal surface was light blue, and printed in tiny letters below a pair of offset sensor lenses was Moss3.

Amanda started when it peered at them and said, “Meow!”

The small unit’s lights began to alternate between several colors as it tried to identify the intruders, and within a microsecond, it had made a match in its database for both individuals. It rotated a few of its whisker antennae and then floated past the pair toward the engine room.

“What was that?” Amanda asked. Justy stepped into the lift and shrugged his shoulders, setting his duffel on the floor at his feet.

“It might be a flobot,” the koala suggested. “I heard they use something like that on the ships of the Firebird Fleet, but I’ve never seen one in my trade magazines that looked like that.”

Amanda pulled her luggage into the carriage beside the koala and then the door slid shut. It opened again on the crew deck a moment later. There were no lights in the corridor, but as soon as Justy stuck his nose out into the hallway, the recessed lights came up full.

“The place looks deserted,” the coyote said nervously.

“If you want to wait here,” Justy said, setting his duffel on the floor next to the wall, “I’ll take a quick look around.”

“Uh-uh,” Amanda shook her head. “You’re not leaving me alone!” She left her suitcases beside his duffel and then followed him around the curved corridor. There were nameplates on seven crew cabins and Justy knocked on each one, but there was never a reply. When they reached Sickbay, the koala put his nose inside and sniffed at the scents. There was no one in there either.

“This is spooky. Let’s try the bridge,” he suggested. They found the blue door with the ship’s wheel and went inside. As with the other rooms, the bridge was deserted, though several systems were active on the boards. Justy studied them a moment while Amanda went through a side door and found a small water closet that contained an all-species squat toilet with a small sink. A fresh hand towel hung on a rack with the words SS Blue Horizon in fading blue-to-black letters.

Justy looked up at her from the computer terminal. “There’s another deck above us,” he said. “If they’re not there, then everyone must be out on the town.”

“That’s odd,” Amanda said as she checked her small wristwatch. “I was supposed to report to the ship at 0900 hours. We were standing at the main hatch right at that time and it was wide open.”  She followed the koala back to the lift and they got in once again. They didn’t bother with their belongings and left them in the corridor.

A second before the door opened, they heard the sound of laughter. The scene that greeted them was one of pandemonium. On a large exercise mat spread out on the floor was nearly every member of the Blue Horizon’s crew. The red fox that Justy and Amanda knew to be Captain Nichols was pinned to the mat with two people holding each limb. A rabbit and a mastiff were on Taro’s right arm and a German shepherd and another red fox were holding down her left arm. A Border collie and a wolf were on her right leg, and a cheetah and a raccoon were on her left. The wolf and the cheetah were voraciously tickling the bare soles of Taro’s feet while the others tried to keep the Hestran fox immobile as she laughed, cried, begged and pleaded.

The wolf wriggled the fingers of one hand between each of the vixen’s black toes and her foot jerked with each touch; his other hand continuously tickled the sole of her foot. On the other leg, the cheetah had grasped her toes with one hand and was tickling the underside of her toes with the claws of his other.

Taro screamed out with laughter and tried to jerk her legs free, but even with her strength, the combined weight of four people held them down. Then, as if the foot attack wasn’t enough, the rabbit began tickling underneath Taro’s right arm. The vixen’s eyes flew open wide and then shut again, but she was unable to contain her laughter.

The young German shepherd practically sat on top of her left arm; he reached out with his fingers and found her ribs. He tickled them enthusiastically and grinned in satisfaction at her renewed efforts to free herself with shrieks of laughter.

Amanda put her hands to her mouth to cover up her smile, but Justy grinned openly and laughed at the commotion. He wondered if it would be rude to join in the fun without having been introduced to anyone but the captain herself, and had to restrain himself from moving from his spot.

As the assault on the vixen continued, Amanda took a moment to look around the recreation deck. Streamers and balloons were attached to the walls, and a galley table was spread out with a half-eaten cake, punch and assorted meat and vegetable snack trays. The large vidscreen on the forward end of the room displayed Congratulations and Fare Well, Merlin and Samantha! in large blue letters.

Her attention returned to the mob on the floor when the German shepherd and the male fox tumbled backward. The vulpine captain’s left arm had gotten free. Still grinning, Taro reached over, pulled the bunny off her arm, and then managed to extricate her right arm from beneath the large mastiff. Before the four of them could regain their hold on her, Taro sat up quickly and grabbed the first person she could reach.

The Border collie squealed out in surprise when Taro grabbed her around the middle and began tickling her in return. Samantha was as ticklish as they came and she shrieked out in laughter at the vixen’s attack on her ribs from behind. The raccoon’s eyes went wide at the screams in his ears and he turned to see what had happened. With a wide grin, the diminutive raccoon launched himself at Taro and tried to tackle her middle. Big mistake. Taro abandoned Samantha and wrapped her arms around Pockets, still laughing from the assault on her own feet, and grinning ear to ear at the raccoon’s own squeals of laughter from her fingers under his arms. Fortunately for all involved, Pocket was not wearing his heavy, tool-laden coveralls, but was in a red shirt and trousers today.

Merlin was still oblivious to the fight behind him and continued to work on Taro’s feet, although it was getting harder to hold her without Samantha’s help. Renny had felt Pockets disappear from behind him and chanced a look back… just as Pockets rolled off onto the mat and Taro reached out to grab him!

It was Renny’s turn to shriek out in laughter. He was kneeling on the mat next to her leg and she had found his foot. The cheetah was extremely ticklish, himself, and yowled in distress. Instead of fighting back, he began to claw at the mat to get away. Taro tickled his toes with relish, knowing that Renny had made the mistake of taking off his own boots.

When Max knelt down behind her and went for her ribs again, she yelled out in surprise. After a moment, Taro finally released Renny’s foot and then held up her hands in submission. “Enough!” she managed to say between giggles and deep breaths. “Th-that’s enough…”

Merlin released her foot and sat down on the mat beside Samantha. Everyone who’d been a part of the action breathed hard and continued to giggle or chuckle. One by one, almost all of them lay back on the mats to catch their breath.

Taro giggled and managed to sit up again, and it was then she finally saw the newcomers standing by the lift door. Amanda’s eyes crinkled in contained amusement, but Justy laughed openly.

“H-hi…!” Taro managed with a wide grin.

Justy gave her a wave and Amanda smiled with nod.

“Hello,” she said.

It was only then that the rest of the crew noticed the two new people. Merlin got to his feet and wiped his sweaty palms on a handkerchief he pulled from a pocket. He walked to them as the others slowly stood up, and he offered his hand first to the coyote.

“Welcome aboard,” he said with a smile. “I’m Merlin Sinclair, president of Blue Horizon Freight Transfer.”

The woman shook his hand and replied, “Thank you, sir. I am Amanda Black.”

Merlin shook hands with the male koala. “Good to be here, sir. I’m Justin Mandolin,” the marsupial said with a grin. “Quite a lively bunch you have here.”

Taro found a glass of ice water at the galley table, drained it dry and then wiped her hands on a napkin. Other members of her crew began introducing themselves to the newcomers until she rejoined them. “Sorry I didn’t meet you at the hatch,” she told them. “As you can see, I got sidetracked!”

Merlin looked up at the digital display on the vidscreen. “You’ve arrived just in time,” he said to Justy. “You’ve got about an hour to get acquainted with your crewmates, but Sam and I need to be going. We have an appointment to meet a realtor in a half hour so we can start shopping for a house.”

Lorelei moved to Merlin’s side and put her arms around him. They had already made their going away speeches and already said their emotional goodbyes, but the rabbit was still reluctant to let them go.

“I’ll miss you,” the rabbit said to him with moist eyes and a smile. Merlin gave her a warm hug and then the rabbit moved to Samantha, who had joined her wolf’s side. Samantha had always had a difficult time dealing with Lorelei, but as this was good-bye, she returned the bunny’s embrace without reservation.

“It won’t be the same without you,” Pockets said as he moved in, “but Max and I will take good care of your ship.”

“That’s right, Uncle Merlin,” Max agreed. The wolf shook hands with the engineer and then with Max.

“I know the Horizon is in good hands,” he told them. He put a hand on Max’s shoulder and repeated a sentiment he had voiced recently. “I’m proud of you, Max,” he said. “Keep up the good work.”

Renny came up behind Samantha and put an arm around her shoulders. “Think you’re leaving without giving me a goodbye kiss?”

Merlin, who had his back to the cheetah while talking to Max, said over his shoulder to him, “If you think you’re going to kiss me, you’re mistaken, mister…” Samantha and Renny exchanged amused looks and then burst out laughing. Merlin turned and then saw the cheetah’s arm around Sam, immediately feeling foolish.

“Don’t worry, boss,” Renny said. “I only have lips for your sweetheart!” Sam looked at him with an upraised eyebrow, but didn’t resist when the cheetah leaned in to give her a kiss on the lips. He didn’t linger as Taro had with Merlin.

Samantha pulled away and then grinned at him. “So long, Ren-Ren,” she said. “I’ll miss sparring with you.”

Renny smiled widely and then clasped hands with Merlin. “You take good care of this woman,” he told the wolf. “I think you have a keeper there.”

“I will, Renny,” Merlin replied, “and she is a keeper.”

Samantha turned to Pockets and Max. She gave a Max a warm hug, then a lick on the cheek, and then did the same with Pockets. She had never been aware that each of them harbored a crush on her for some time, but even at their parting, neither felt strong enough to say anything about it. She put a finger on Max’s nose and smiled.

“You’ve done very well with your studies,” she told him. “It was a pleasure tutoring you, Max. I know you’ll go far in life if you apply yourself to everything you set yourself to do.”

“Thanks to you,” the mechanic said with a grin.

She turned to Pockets and then gave him a wink. “You’ll always be my co-conspirator, Jerad,” she whispered to the raccoon, using his first name as she’d done in their earlier years serving together.

Merlin walked across the room to Damien and Jerry. “I know we didn’t have a lot of time to get to know one another,” he said as he shook hands with each, “but you’ll still be working for me and I dare say we’ll have a lot of contact in the future.”

“Glad to be working for you, Captain,” the mastiff said.

Merlin grinned. “I’m not a captain anymore,” he corrected, “but I’m still glad to have you on board the company.”

“Take care,” Jerry said with a smile. “If you have an appointment, you’d better get a move on.”

The wolf looked at the clock display and grimaced. “You’re right. It’s not far, but we’ve got to go.” He walked back over to where Samantha was trading hugs with Taro. “Sorry, but it’s time we were on our way,” he said.

“We need to prepare for our launch to Kantus, too,” Taro replied. “Good luck, you two.”

Samantha took the wolf’s hand in hers and then they turned toward the assembled crewmembers. “See you all later,” she said to them.

“Bye,” said the group in unison.

Merlin and Samantha moved to the lift and then moved inside. They took a last look at their friends and then the doors closed.     

*** 

It had been a week since the Blue Horizon had taken off from Dennier, its cargo consisting of nothing more than a half dozen containers of recording equipment for new studios on Kantus owned by Dragon, Wolf & Tiger. The progressive rock band had branched out to produce the music of others in addition to their own albums, and had chosen their friends with Blue Horizon to deliver the equipment for them.

The voyage was quiet, and with everything in working order, Pockets was using the free time in his cabin to study a set of data crystals he had held locked up in his personal safe. The crystals were unremarkable and a common configuration, but the data contained on them had the potential of being something of great value. They had been secreted in the battery pack of a young mouse that had once been the cabin boy for the infamous Captain Natasha Khasho, otherwise known as the Pirate Queen.

Pockets knew from firsthand experience that the vixen had not been a bloodthirsty pirate as the vids made her out to be, but was rather an opportunist whose personal goals were admirable. She’d possessed a keen mind, and just from his brief visit to her vessel, the Lady of Dreams, Pockets knew that she had developed technologies only fictionalized by others. After she had died in the Siilv War protecting a defenseless vessel with her own, governments all over the PA had begun treasure hunts to track down her base of operations in the hopes of finding the secrets of her Particle Vault technology. None had yet to be found, however, and it became a common belief that all information on her sciences was contained on her ship that was destroyed by the Kastani.

Since he had obtained the data crystals, Pockets had spent innumerable hours trying to crack the code that Natasha had used to encrypt them, but he had been unsuccessful. Even Samantha had tried her expertise on them a few times, but as with Pockets, she had not been able to get into them. It was a task that intrigued him, and the more he worked with it, the more convinced he was at her genius. As difficult as the encryption was, the engineer somehow felt that the Rosetta stone of the code would be something simple, if he could just determine what it was.

He leaned back in his chair with his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. He calmed his mind with one of the relaxing techniques Lori had taught him, and then tried to remember his visit to her vessel. Surprisingly, he found that he could remember most of her conversation with him and he concentrated on it for a long time.

A half hour later, Pockets opened his eyes. He leaned forward and thumbed the intercom pad on the computer terminal. “This is Taro,” he heard a moment later.

“This is Pockets, Captain. I need to ask you a couple questions,” he said. “Didn’t you tell us at one time that you had grown up with Natasha Khasho?”

There was a hesitation. “Yes, that’s right. We knew one another as kits in Taquit.”

“I thought so,” Pockets replied. “What’s the Hestran word for tickle from the region you’re from?”

There was a chuckle from the intercom speaker. “The word is pronounced ‘anejmil’ – what does this have to do with Natasha?”

“Just doing some research,” Pockets said vaguely. “Thanks, Taro.”

“Uh, you’re welcome.”

Pockets disconnected the circuit and then went to work on his computer. He inserted the first data crystal into the reader and then used the word Taro had given him as a key. He had tried this process so many times, but he always got an instant error message. It was no different this time.

The raccoon grumbled beneath his breath, but then had a wild idea. He opened another application and called up a language translator from Standard to the Hestran region of Taquit.  He entered the word and directed it to display it in that locale’s alphabet.  Then he copied the new configuration to system memory, went back to the screen for the data crystal, and then input it that way.

He expected the typical error, but this time, however, the monitor sat there without a message of any kind. He saw no activity that he could determine and was about to start a diagnostic when the screen suddenly came alive. Random characters filled the display, but instantly began to translate automatically into words of the common Standard language.

It had worked! That simple, yet obscure word had been Natasha’s key to her encryption. Decompressed data began to wash across the monitor at an astonishing rate, but Pockets had had the presence of mind to set his terminal to capture all keystrokes and displays.

The raccoon whistled to himself as the information flashed by too fast for him to read, and he felt giddy at his discovery. A random thought that crossed his mind was that although encrypted, the crystals might contain information no more useful than the tickling thresholds or underwear sizes of her crew. He knew he shouldn’t get his hopes up, but he couldn’t help it. One just didn’t put an encryption that strong onto something that wasn’t important.

After nearly an hour of downloading just the first crystal, the scrolling data ended. Pockets jumped at the terminal and began to play back the data at a slower rate. As he expected, the information was not unimportant. He was a starship engineer and always thought of himself to be one of great talent, but most of what he read was beyond even his knowledge. He knew he’d hit the jackpot, but it would take years to analyze the data on his own, and this was just from one of the crystals.

He studied the information for hours, but he finally sat back and rubbed his eyes. He stretched and got up from his chair. He closed the translated file with a password of his own and then left his cabin. He walked around the curved corridor to the bridge and went inside. Jerry looked up from the book he was reading during his bridge watch and gave him a smile.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“Would you please step outside,” the engineer requested. “I need to make a call that’s sensitive in nature.”

Jerry shrugged his shoulders. “Sure,” he said as he got up. He left the bridge with book in hand, and when the door had closed behind him, Pockets sat down at the Com terminal. He dialed up the access code for the home of Bill and Shannon, but it was several minutes before the connection was made.

“Wallace Residence,” said a sleepy voice.

“Bill, this is Pockets on the Blue Horizon. Sorry to wake you, but it’s important that I speak to Merlin.”

“It’s two in the morning, Pockets.”

“Sorry about the time differential, but this is really urgent.”

“Okay, I’ll get him.

A few long moments later, his former captain got on the line. “This is Merlin. What’s the emergency?”

Pockets hesitated. He didn’t want to blurt out what he had found on an unsecured channel, so he had to think fast. “Uh, hi,” he said. “There’s something I wanted you to know…”

“Pockets…”

“Right… Do you remember the young mouse we met after our last visit to the white planet?”

There was a hesitation and then, “What? Pockets, what are you talking about?”

“Do you remember him — Tim?”

“Okay, yes, I remember him. Little guy, big ears.”

“Do you also remember what I found on him?”

Another hesitation. “Yes.”

Pockets nodded in satisfaction. The tone in the wolf’s voice had changed to one of recognition. Good… they were thinking along the same lines now. “My studies have opened my eyes.”

Another pause, much longer as the wolf apparently went over the implications in his mind. “And?”

“Most of it is beyond me,” he admitted. “It’s going to take someone with better resources than what I have here.”

“Are you sure it’s what we think it is?”

“Oh yes, that much I’m positive about. I’ve seen enough to recognize some of what I’ve studied.”

“Alex Rogers is currently back on Tanthe in Aris Grand,” Merlin said with sudden life. “Tell Taro that after you’ve made your current delivery, you are to take what you’ve found to him, with instructions to get it to Master Tristan as quickly as possible. He will have the resources for further study. Don’t tell Alex what this is about – only that it’s very important that it get to Sillon.”

“Understood, sir,” the raccoon replied.

“Good work, Pockets. I knew you’d find a way.”

“Thank you. I’ll let you get back to bed now.”

The raccoon shut down the Com system and then padded lightly from the bridge. Jerry leaned against the opposite wall and looked up from his book curiously.  “All done?” he asked.

“All done,” the engineer replied with a smile.  He moved around the curved corridor to Taro’s quarters and knocked on the door.  Ten minutes later, he left for his own cabin after having given her Merlin’s message. As soon as he was back inside, he went to the closet of his bedroom and reached into the back corner. He pulled out a large, rolled up tube of coated paper and then spread it out on the bed after smoothing down the sheets. He pinned down the curled edges with books and magazines from the floor and then stood back to study it.

The blueprints were somewhat crumpled, a survivor of the wreck of the original Blue Horizon, but they were still readable. A smile crossed the engineer’s face as he remembered a long-ago conversation with Captain Natasha. The instructions on the plans were written in scrambled hieroglyphs that he had never been able to decipher, but the Pirate Queen had promised to meet with him again at a later date to release the cryptography to him. That meeting had never taken place, but now that he had unlocked the encryption of her data crystals, he may now be able to make use of her blueprints for upgrading the Blue Horizon’s engines with her technology.     

*** 

On the faraway world of Sillon, a small white transport craft approached a small community built around the base of a massive overhanging rock cliff of a huge mountain. A large blue lake completely circular in shape was nestled up against the cliff, almost as if an ancient meteorite had created the watery crater. Sitting on the edge of the lake was a large, extravagant-looking lodge built in soft curves and iridescent colors that appeared to be made of fluid metal poured into place.

The slender ship set down gently upon a landing platform a short distance from the lodge as a fat silver tube approached soundlessly a meter above the surface of the grass. The shuttle seemed to be molded as a solid structure without seams and, to an outside observer, it had no doors, nor even a window to see through. The tube slowed, stopped beside the transport, and an opening suddenly appeared in the side closest to it.

The side of the transport ship parted and a short female lynx in a yellow sundress stepped out into the spring air. She squinted in the sunlight and brought a hand up to shield her amber eyes.

As she walked up to the silver tube, an aperture appeared without actually seeming to open and then she smiled as she stepped inside. She exchanged pleasantries with the operator of the craft and then sat down in a soft seat of burgundy velvet. The aperture closed, but the interior was well lit from the sunlight streaming in through the transparent metal of the tube. The operator played the control panel as if it were a musical instrument and there was only the faintest hum as the shuttle slipped quietly away from white transport to move quickly back the way it had come.

The tube approached the magnificent lodge and stopped near an outcropping that served as a covered walkway. Once again the door of the craft just appeared. The single passenger said a few words of appreciation to the operator and then stepped back out into the morning air.

The lynx walked quietly through the front doors of The Dragon Loft, which were open to the outside air, and the metallic technology gave away to a different world of rich wood. She glanced around at the familiar interior of the finest timber that was polished to gleam, and was glad to be back after a trip to Wathradrim, a metropolitan city a hundred miles to the north. Crystalline chandeliers hung from high rafters and soft music could be heard from somewhere down a long carpeted hallway. The receptionist at the registration counter waved her over to the desk and handed her a handwritten note.

“A message was flagged for you while you were gone, Mrs. Carlton,” a lithe gray Silloni told her.

The lynx took the note with a smile. “Thank you, Khari.” She had long ago realized that no matter how often she chided the lass about addressing her formally, she knew the girl would never call her Sparky, the feline’s preferred nickname.

She moved across the receiving area to one of the public terminals in the sitting room and sat down in a plush seat. She tapped out several commands and then entered her personal pass code to retrieve her personal mail on the active terminal. At once, her mail center came up on the screen with a dozen messages awaiting her attention. She quickly scanned through the list of originators for the one that matched the name on Khari’s note.

When she opened the message, it was all she could do to contain her delight. 

 

You are cordially invited

to the joyous union of

 

Miss Samantha Holden

to

Mr. Merlin Sinclair

 

On Saturday, the twentieth of June

at eleven o’clock in the morning

at the Wildwood Cathedral

9300 South Anderson Road

Grandstorm

Capemay County

Dennier

 

 Reception immediately following the ceremony.

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