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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 4

— Episode 33

"Gemini Pi"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

 Thump, thump, thump, thump.

Thump, thump, thump, thump.

Renny Thornton’s eyes were open only to slits as he quietly jogged around the curved corridor of the Blue Horizon’s crew deck. The carpet beneath his bare feet was a blur of blue and grey and the simple white walls were only in the periphery of his vision as he made one circuit after another around the oval hallway.

Although he had no place to trim out at a full run, the cheetah was pleased that he felt well enough to jog around the corridor. Having been shot three times and then later beat up by the same person who had shot him, Renny felt fortunate to be alive. His former captain had noted that he’d been frequently injured far more than any others in the crew had. Considering the feline navigator had always been in better physical condition than most of his coworkers, it made his situation grimmer.

If anyone else had been out in the corridor, he didn’t see anyone. Renny’s thoughts wandered over the events of the past few months as he jogged, and it was those horrors that he saw before him. It was becoming more difficult to maintain the casual personality he had always presented to others, and the dangers he had faced during the past few years had hardened him somewhat. He was now more alert and was apt to be distrustful of strangers, but he was growing stronger in both body and mind. He would be ready for further perils that might confront him.

He would no longer be afraid, and promised himself that he would never again be caught off guard.    

*** 

Thump, thump, thump, thump.

Thump, thump, thump, thump.

Jerry Somner opened one eye and looked out sleepily across the front room of his cabin. He had fallen asleep on the couch while reading the crew medical records. The compartment was dark, save for a small reading lamp above the coffee table that had paper-stuffed folders scattered across it. Jerry distrusted computers for maintaining medical records, so he had printed out everything from the database onto hardcopy. He would use the computer records system only for his backup.

His eyes felt tired and he rubbed them sleepily before allowing himself a pleasant stretch.

Thump, thump, thump, thump.

The red fox frowned and sat up. He’d thought the thumping had been a part of a dream, but now that he was actually awake, the muted noise rose and diminished again. He stood up from the couch and absently brushed the wrinkles from his medical smock as he padded softly toward the door. The thumping returned just as he opened the panel.

Thump, thump, thump, thump.

Renny jogged past his cabin without seeing him and quickly disappeared around the curvature of the corridor. The cheetah was loosely dressed in a matching pair of black trunks and a tank top, his preferred dress for working out.

Jerry nodded quietly to himself and shut the door behind him. Although hearing the navigator trot around the corridor had awakened him, he was pleased to note that Renny had recovered well enough to resume an exercise routine during his off-duty hours. It had taken the feline quite some time to recover from his near-death experience, in both mind and body, and the ship’s doctor felt that his friend had progressed well.

Renny gave him a casual wave and a cordial nod when the physician stepped out into the corridor. Jerry returned the wave and made his way to the lift to the third deck. Now that he was awake, he needed coffee.    

*** 

Blue Horizon PA1138

Captain’s Diary 

I will probably get used to keeping a Captain’s diary after I do this for a while, but right now it feels like a chore to remember to sit down to record my thoughts concerning our voyages. Merlin says that I will prize my journal entries as time goes by, so I have taken his recommendation to heart.

It has been over a month since Merlin gave up his command of the Blue Horizon and promoted me as its captain. Almost half of my crew consists of new faces. Amanda, Damien, Jerry and Justy have taken the places of Durant, Merlin, Samantha and Tanis. Since I am still getting used to my new duties as captain, I have not taken as much time as I probably should to get to know the others, but I plan to place a priority on this soon. I already need to have a conversation with Damien about the recent friction between him and our doctor.

Our current mission has two purposes. We’re on our way to Alexandrius with a load of textiles for Fiddlestone and our standard mail quota, but just before we launched from Kantus, the home office called with a last-minute addition to our schedule. Added to our crates of fabric, we are also transporting a LightDrive engine pod and heat-shielded engine cowlings for a Gusev-class personnel cruiser that’s run into some trouble on Alexandrius. After we drop off the textiles, I can’t grant more than a couple hours of shore leave before we need to be off to a desolate place called Casperverah on the equatorial continent Parat.

I can’t help but feel apprehension with this assignment, and I have told Merlin of my concerns, but I have mentioned it to no one else. The last time we made a delivery into a remote area, it resulted in the torture of the Blue Horizon’s captain. I’m in no hurry to follow Merlin’s example. 

– Capt. Taro Nichols    

*** 

“Can an area be any more isolated and bleak than this?” Renny asked as he peered up at the vidscreen from his navigational station on the bridge. He swished his tail through the slotted opening in the back of the seat and narrowed his eyes at the uninviting images.

“It’s about as remote as the Valley of Bones,” Taro Nichols muttered from her seat at the Com station, “but more desolate.”

Jerry cast a glance toward the screen for a moment before he returned his attention to the piloting controls facing him. Taro fell silent and continued to study the terrain beneath them.

With the possible exception of Sillon, Alexandrius boasted the plushest environment in the Planetary Alignment. Casperverah’s existence seemed out of place on this world, but it seemed that even Alexandrius had its blemishes. The jutting, weatherworn hills and grayish, layered canyons appeared devoid of plant life, but upon closer inspection in the early morning sunlight, Taro could see sparse shrubs bleached of color among the washouts and gullies that blended into the inhospitable environment. The ground was riddled with small caves and sinkholes, with dirt mounds that appeared to have popped up randomly throughout the terrain. It was hard to tell if wind or water had shaped this land, but it looked about as arid as any place could be. Even the sky above seemed washed out and bland. One thing was certain - this was no place for a ship to break down.

“We’re coming up on the delivery coordinates,” Jerry reported, his eyes glued to the instrument panel before him. He reduced the Blue Horizon’s airspeed, but maintained their altitude to avoid jutting spires of sandstone.

“There it is,” Renny said with a frown. A blue and green vessel consisting of a fat central fuselage winged with upper wedge-shaped nacelles was upended, lying partially on its port side, the sinkhole-riddled ground underneath it having collapsed beneath its weight. The damage to the engine pod was visible even from their altitude.

Taro thumbed a control on the Com panel and picked up a headset microphone. “Gemini Pi, this is Captain Nichols of the Blue Horizon, Registry PA1138. We’re on final approach.”

“Horizon, this is Garnet Castor of the Gemini Pi, Registry PA31415” a woman’s voice replied instantly. “We’ve just spotted your running lights and are so glad you could help us out.”

“The Blue Horizon is considerably larger than your vessel, Captain,” Taro said with a critical eye at the vidscreen. “I’m not sure landing on such an unstable area is going to be feasible for us.”

“I don’t know what to recommend, Captain Nichols, but we can’t get airborne again without your help.”

“There’s a wide, flat area over there by the caves that looks large enough for us,” Renny said as he stood up for a closer look; he pointed to the place he had seen. “I don’t see any sinkholes or depressions, and it looks stable enough.”

“Doc, what do you think?” Taro asked as she absently straightened out the wrinkles in her tan blouse.

Jerry frowned and kept an eye on his instruments. “I can use extra thrusters to set us down gently, with a finger on the power level to boost us back up if it appears the ground is going to give way beneath our weight. The Gemini Pi probably could have done the same thing, had they known what the ground stability was like.”

Taro nodded in approval. “Okay, take us down and be alert. Renny, watch the indicators like a hawk. If you get the slightest reading that the ground is collapsing, shout out a warning.”

“Aye, ma’am,” Jerry acknowledged. Renny merely nodded and focused his attention on his task.

“Captain Castor,” Taro broadcast in a quiet voice, “my navigator has spotted a place we may be safe to land, but our thrusters will be ready for a power boost if things get dicey. Stand by.”

“We’re standing.”

“All hands, all hands,” Taro announced on ship-wide speakers, “landing sequence has begun. Strap yourselves in away from breakable items. This might not be an easy landing due to unstable terrain and we may have to make an immediate re-launch.”

Jerry moved the guidance shifts forward slightly and then pushed gently on a pad beneath one foot. The Blue Horizon slowed to a stop and hovered momentarily over the patch of ground they all hoped was solid. Renny held his breath as he studied his readouts and Taro crossed her fingers for luck.

Jerry lowered the large freighter slower than usual, but his hands were steady and his concentration focused. A few moments later, the landing gear touched down; to everyone’s relief, the ground remained steady beneath the ship.

As soon as the physician was sure there would be no ground shifting, he gave Renny a nod and then began shutting down the flight systems.

“Good work,” Taro said with a pat on the fox’s shoulder. She leaned back over the Com station and tapped a control. “We’re down and secure,” she broadcast ship-wide. “Everyone to the cargo deck.” She closed the circuit and then moved out the door, leaving the two men alone.

“I think you’ve earned your pay for the day,” Renny said to his longtime friend with a smile.

Jerry arched his back and then rubbed his eyes with a yawn. “I’m glad you think so,” he said. “I didn’t get much sleep last night and I was concerned it would affect my performance.”

“Why the trouble sleeping?”

“I had another argument with Damien after the movie on the way back to my quarters. It’s getting so that I get jumpy if he just walks into a room.”

“You two bickering about the usual thing?”

“Yes. I’ve reported him to the captain, but I don’t think she’s tried to do anything about it. As first officer, can you do something?”

“Taro has her own way of dealing with people, Jerry. Give it some time.”

The red fox yawned again widely with a curled tongue and then wiped at his eyes. “If she doesn’t do something soon, I won’t be fit to fly.”    

*** 

By the time Taro got down to the cargo deck, Damien already had the bay doors rising. The coolness of the bay quickly evaporated as the arid, musty air from outside stole in through the opening. The load master stood next to a control panel near the primary airlock, dressed only in sandals, white tee shirt and a loose pair of blue shorts with the Blue Horizon logo printed in white near his right hip. The captain saw a look of clarity in the mastiff’s eyes as she approached, and she wondered if this might be a good time to talk to him.

The chance was suddenly lost when two human women approached the lowering cargo ramp. Both were short in stature and possessed brilliant red hair and sharp green eyes. Their heart-shaped faces were almost identical, though their hairstyles and clothing helped to distinguish one from another. The hair of one was short and curled under; she wore tan shorts and a pale yellow blouse. The other had longer hair caught up in a ponytail; she wore blue jeans and a man’s white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows.

“Ahoy there!” said the one with the ponytail. “May we speak with Captain Nichols?”

Taro gave the women a pleasant smile. “I’m Nichols,” she said, “but please call me Taro.” Before she walked down the ramp into the hot, dry climate, she gave the area a quick sweep with just her eyes. She didn’t see anyone else around, but wouldn’t let her defenses relax as she approached the strangers.

“Glad to meet you, Taro,” the woman said. “I’m Garnet Castor, and this is my twin sister, Gina Pollux.”

“We sure are glad to see you, Taro,” Gina said as she extended her hand up to the taller fox in greeting. “This is not the best of places to be, as we’d been led to believe.”

“What happened here?” Damien asked as he ambled down the ramp to them. The sisters looked up at the load master in unison, frowning together.

“We use the Gemini Pi as a tourist service to ferry visitors to interesting parts of the Planetary Alignment,” Garnet said with a sweep of her ponytail. “Our cruiser can hold up to ten passengers and it’s equipped with the latest LightDrive engine technology from Kantus.”

“My late husband started the business, but we kept it going after he passed away, God rest his soul,” Gina added.

“Anyway,” Garnet continued, “we got a tip last week from a local that Casperverah was so different from the rest of Alexandrius that it was frequented as a tourist attraction. We decided to check it out before promoting it as part of our business.”

“We found a likely landing spot, but the ground fell in before we knew what was happening,” Gina explained. “We’re one engine down and we’ll need your help with the repairs.”

Taro tilted her head. “Delivery of the materials you needed was the only thing you contracted for,” she said uneasily. “We were not informed that you would need our mechanics as well.”

Garnet frowned. “You weren’t? I distinctly remember asking your dispatcher for the help. While we both have the engineering backgrounds, neither of us will be able to install an entire engine without some kind of assistance. After we get the damaged engine removed, we’ll need help hoisting the ship out of its hole before we can even hook up and calibrate the new engine you’ve brought us from the Kantus manufacturer.”

“We have the funds to pay you for your help,” Gina added. “It will set us back a little, but one or two tourist trips to Mainor will recover those costs.”

“Mainor?” asked a new voice with a thick accent. “I thought the hulk of Mainor was now off-limits.”

The Terran sisters looked up in unison at a small group that had gathered at the top of the cargo ramp to listen to their story. Gina broke out in a huge grin when she saw the speaker, a small grey koala in a brightly flowered shirt.

“Garnet, look! A teddy bear!” she exclaimed.

Justy looked confused and a bit intimidated when the woman walked up the ramp to him and began running her fingers through the soft fur between his ears. The koala rolled his eyes up at her with a goofy grin, but then realized how many faces were watching. He was about to ask her to stop when she stood and gathered him up in her arms as if he were a toy.

Standing beside them, Pockets smiled as he remembered a similar encounter with the human female accountant on the Hidalgo Sun when they’d come across the decrepit freighter stalled in space. Like Gina, Toni Delondin had cuddled up to him, practically gushing about how cute the little raccoon was. Pockets quietly stepped out of sight behind Amanda and wondered if all human females were captivated by small, furry citizens.

Justy squirmed when the red-haired woman hugged him close to her and he cast a look for help at his captain. Taro laughed at the sight and turned back toward Garnet, who showed more restraint.

“Before I can agree to help you,” Taro said, “I will have to contact our home office to see if our delivery schedule will allow us the time. We had only planned to be down here long enough to unload your cargo before heading off to our next pickup.”

“When you’re talking with them, see if your dispatcher remembers our conversation,” Garnet said with an audible sigh of frustration. “I specifically requested the help of your mechanics in addition to the delivery.”

“I’ll contact them immediately,” Taro answered. She looked up at her load master and waved a casual hand toward the interior of the ship. “Go ahead and get everything unshackled. Whether or not we help install them, we still have a contract to deliver the cargo.”

“Aye, Captain,” Damien said. When the Hestran fox disappeared back up into the ship, the mastiff clapped his hands and said, “Okay, folks, get your work gloves on. Time to get unpacked.”

“Make sure you people have plenty of water to drink,” Garnet said in a carrying voice. “It gets hot quickly when the sun gets higher.” She turned to go and added, “There are some big ants around here too. Try to avoid them if you can.”

Justy tried to squirm out of Gina’s grasp, but she didn’t appear to want to let him go. “Excuse me, miss,” he said after clearing his throat to get her attention. “I – I should get to my work.”

“Gina, let him go,” Garnet said. Gina ran her fingers through his cheek fur and then released him with a smile.

“Go on, Mr. Teddy Bear. I’ll find you again later.”

Justy swallowed with a nervous smile and silently vowed to make himself as scarce as he could after his duties were done. He darted back inside toward the crew lockers at the back of the cargo bay to put distance between himself and the woman. She hadn’t hurt him, but the attention was embarrassing.

Lorelei strode up beside him and chuckled. “Looks like you have a fan, Jus-tee,” she sing-songed. When they got to the lockers, she leaned over and pulled him to her bosom the same way that Gina had done. “Oh, Mister Teddy Bear! You are so cuddly and huggable!”

“Not so loud,” Maximillian whispered as he pulled on his work gloves. “The customers may hear you making fun of them!”

“Be careful, mates,” Justy replied with a strained chuckle. “She might like bunnies and puppy dogs, too.”    

*** 

“Honestly, I don’t remember Castor’s request for assistance on installing the items shipped to her, but I can do a search and replay the original conversation. Merlin says to go ahead and assess the situation and then have Amanda work up a credit figure on what to charge them.”

“What about our next delivery?” Taro asked the figure on the central bridge vidscreen. “Something the magnitude of replacing a LightDrive engine is not going to be on the order of an afternoon job. Once we get started, this may take us several days! Wouldn’t it better benefit Castor for us to find a local mechanic who can fly out here to do the job for them on-site? That kind of business would likely be better equipped to handle something like this.”

Cindy face looked concerned. “Normally, yes.”

Taro’s eyebrows drew together. “Normally? Uh, Cindy, what’s happened?”

“I didn’t want to burden you with this just yet, but the customer at your next stop cancelled the delivery to go with a different carrier. Merlin was so mad that his hackles were raised talking to the guy, and has threatened a lawsuit on breach of contract. Unfortunately, since the Horizon hasn’t already picked up the shipment and started its voyage to them, a contract hasn’t officially gone into effect yet, according to our lawyer Jackson Wyatt.” Cindy sighed and absently brushed an errant strand of hair behind one of her large ears. “This means your ship has a bit of downtime and we’ve lost the revenue from that job. If Castor agrees to the price of the repair work, Merlin says to take the job.”

“Great, just great,” Taro muttered. “First, we’re told to take on mail quotas whether we want them or not, then we’re hired out as starship mechanics. Next Merlin will want to hire out our spare cabins as space-available for people needing personnel transportation…”

“Don’t joke,” Cindy said with a strange smile. “I heard Merlin discussing that very thing with Captain Corwin yesterday afternoon.”

“Lovely and wonderful,” the vixen muttered. “Okay, I’ll have Amanda get with Pockets, Max and the Gemini twins to discuss the work and see what kind of figure we can come up with. I’ll contact you back as soon as we have a yea or nay from Castor on the price of our extended services.”

Good luck, Taro. I know it’s frustrating, but the stellar freighting business is an expensive one, and we need the income anywhere we can get it.”

“I’m halfway hoping that Castor won’t be able to afford us.”

“Now, now,” Cindy chided with a grin. She glanced quickly to something off to the side and then looked back at the vixen.

Taro looked up at her with both hands on her hips and then let out a frustrated sigh. “I always figured being the captain of the ship meant I could make my own decisions.”

“You’re free to make whatever decisions you think necessary,” said Merlin Sinclair as he stepped into view, “but you’re the one who called asking for guidance.”

Taro looked startled to see the wolf, but then caught herself and gave him a wry smile. “Have you been standing there the whole time?”

“Yes.”

“Sneak!”

“How else am I going to find out about my captains’ complaints if they don’t tell me directly?” He smiled back at her, his hands casually in the pockets of his slacks.

“Well, it’s just as well you knew my opinion on the matter,” Taro replied. “However, we have our assignment and I’ll make sure it’s carried out, even if I do think we’re stuck on the backside of Alexandrius just as it’s about to make a stink.”

“Thanks, Taro,” Merlin told her with a laugh. “I do appreciate it. Just do what you need to do and then report in when you’re finished. We should have another assignment for you by then.”    

*** 

 “Please come in,” Amanda’s voice called through the open door. Taro stepped inside the coyote’s cabin and looked around hesitantly. It was the first time she had been in the business coordinator’s quarters since the quiet woman had joined her crew. Amanda Black was about as “average” as anyone could be. Taro noted that while Amanda appeared to take pride in her work, she usually tried to stay out of the center of attention, apparently preferring instead to be an observer from the sidelines. She would usually only take part in a conversation if someone else drew her into the discussion, and then would keep her responses short and to the point, expounding on nothing. Communication skills were necessary as business coordinator and she was competent in her position, but Amanda rarely made an effort to join in activities when not working.

The Hestran fox glanced around the room in wonder. The entire décor of the room reflected a dragonfly motif of many colors and styles. Paintings of dragonflies over water or fields decorated the walls, while ceramic and wire collectibles occupied spaces on the room’s bookcases. A knitted afghan with green and blue dragonflies was draped across the back of a sofa, with matching soft pillows neatly arranged on each end. A small coffee table in front of the sofa contained a sewing kit and scraps of fabric that were in the process of being converted into a garment of some sort, also bearing detailed stitching in the unmistakable dragonfly design.

The coyote was seated at a desk on the far wall beneath the rectangular port window, where muted Alexandrian sunlight streamed in through the polarized glass. Her ears swiveled at the vixen’s approach, but she kept her attention on the spreadsheet displayed on her computer terminal.

“I will have your figures in just a moment,” Amanda said quietly as she tapped in commands on the keyboard before her. Taro didn’t wish to appear impatient by standing over her, so the vulpine captain walked over to a bookcase to study one of the paintings on display. In the lower right corner of its simple frame was the coyote’s signature. Taro smiled, noting how talented her quiet crewmember was in her hobbies. Several moments later, Amanda stood up from her chair and approached the fox with a printout.

“Here you go, ma’am,” Amanda said with a smile. “As directed, I figured in every little detail I could think of. Pockets provided a list of what tools it would likely take to do the work, in addition to whatever spare parts they might have to take from our stores to make the repairs. I’ve calculated a working salary for everyone on board who might take a hand in the work, based on an approximation on how long it will take.”

“Thanks, Amanda,” Taro mused as she looked over the list. She didn’t like working this way, but she was determined to discourage Castor and Pollux from wanting their extra services. From the look of the final figures on the spreadsheet, she knew it would be cheaper if a local mechanic were hired to do the work. Merlin had ordered her to offer their services at a price, but he didn’t say she had to make the price reasonable.

“I see you didn’t include your own salary in the figures,” Taro said to the coyote.

“I’m not very mechanically inclined or that good with my hands,” Amanda admitted quietly. “I would be more of a hindrance than an asset in repair work.”

Taro glanced briefly at the meticulous skill of sewing she saw on the coffee table, but decided not to pursue it. “Don’t worry about it; you’re excused from the repairs. These figures are what I needed anyway,” Taro said to the coyote. “Good work.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Amanda replied.

“Now comes the hard part – presenting it to the customer. Keep your digits crossed.”

“Yes ma’am, I will.”     

*** 

When Taro approached the wreck of the Gemini Pi, Garnet Castor was on her knees on the coarse ground, peering ruefully down into part of the sinkhole beneath her ship.

“C’mon out of there,” the human woman said in a soothing voice. “That German shepherd isn’t going to eat you, but the ants might if you stay in there.”

“Don’t tell me your sister is afraid of us now?” Taro asked as she knelt down in the shade of the crumpled engine pod.

Garnet looked back at her with an amused grin. “No, it’s not Gina under there, it’s our ship’s cat. Your canine mechanic gave her a good-natured woof when she wandered out of the main hatch, and then she darted beneath the ship.”

Taro chuckled. “What is your crewmate’s name? Maybe I can talk her out of there.”

Garnet gave her a strange look. “Her name is Cinnamon and she’s down there with her fur and tail all fuzzed up.”

“Cinnamon?” Taro called softly. “My friend Max isn’t mean - he was just teasing you. I’m sure we can all get on if you come out of there so we can discuss it. What do you say?”

The human snickered. “Cinnamon is just a common housecat, Captain. Unless you understand kitty cat meows, it won’t be much of a discussion.”

Taro twitched an ear. “She’s not sentient?”

“No, Captain. She is only a pet who keeps us company on the long voyages and keeps mice out of the food stores. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but she’s just an animal.” Taro twitched an ear, but otherwise gave no indication she had reacted to the human’s last statement.

There was a little movement in the depression beneath the ship and Taro saw a pair of green eyes staring back out at her. The vixen had a sudden sense of nostalgia; it almost felt as if she were looking into the eyes of her friend Sparky.

Garnet extended a hand toward the hole and a moment later, a ginger longhair cat slinked out toward her. The human gathered up the feline into her arms and began to stroke the cat’s fur. Taro watched them for a moment, always in wonder at humans and their relationship with their pets. The vulpine captain would have never considered having another animal as a pet, unless it was someone like Renny. She smiled at the comparison, but then remembered why she was there.

“We’ve been in contact with our home office about your request, but you may not like the result,” she said as she presented Amanda’s printout.

“What’s this?” Garnet asked as she took the sheet.

“All audio and video feeds to our headquarters are recorded and the playback of your original request to pick up and deliver the engine has nothing of a request for help installing it.  However, I’ve been authorized to present our services to you anyway if you agree to the amount.”

The woman looked over the figures quietly. “What’s this entry for Schedule Restructuring?” she asked as she gave Cinnamon a scratch behind the ears.

Taro tried to seem perplexed. “As I mentioned earlier, we’re scheduled for another pickup after unloading your shipment. If we stay to help you with the installation of your engine, that pickup will have to be rescheduled with the other customer in order to make our timetables; likewise with the consecutive assignments after that. This will put us behind.”

Garnet nodded quietly and continued to study the report. Taro saw her furrowed brow and thought her ruse was going to work, until the human handed the spreadsheet back to her with a nod.

“This is a little steep, but as Gina said before, we can make this back up with a couple of tourist runs to Mainor,” Garnet told her. “I’ll transfer the funds to your home office immediately.”

Taro suppressed her disappointment and gave the woman a nod. “I will gather my crew together to put at your command.”

Garnet shook her head. “If it’s all the same to you, I would rather have your chief engineer in charge of coordinating the repairs. Gina’s a capable engineer on the Gemini Pi, but she’s not used to anything of this scale.”

Taro managed a smile. “Pockets enjoys this kind of thing – he’s the raccoon. I’ll have him meet with your sister to get things started. We’re still on a schedule, so we need to get this done as quickly as we can.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Castor said with a genuine smile. “We really appreciate this, and we’ll be sure to send any cargo business your way that we hear about.”    

*** 

Work began quickly on the engine replacement. A workbench that Pockets had previously set up for Max in the engine room was used as the central table for coordinating the repairs and laying out schematic prints that had been included with the new engine. Together with Gina, Pockets quickly worked up a checklist so that the procedures would be done in a specific order so that nothing would be missed. Replacing a LightDrive engine was not the same as changing out a faulty power module or some other minor component. If not done right, critical components of the engine could be inoperative when needed the most. Power for all primary ship systems were routed through the LightDrive and even the smallest power falloff could affect sensitive areas. It would be too easy to get optical bundles misrouted, so special care would need to be maintained at all times.

The raccoon knew that most of the Blue Horizon’s crew were not mechanics, but everyone’s help would be needed at one point or another to get the job done quickly. For those with lesser skills, he would delegate tasks of lesser importance, but things that were necessary nonetheless. Gina looked over his recommendations and was impressed with her fellow engineer’s checklist. She only found a few places in the plan that needed tweaking, and together they finalized a work list they both thought was the most efficient.

The first project would be to construct a structural framework beneath the Gemini Pi’s fuselage with sufficient scaffolding to keep the ship stable when they removed the weight of its crumpled engine pod. Due to the two-story height of the Horizon’s cargo bay, Pockets had plenty of scaffolding on hand. Renny, Jerry, Damien and Lorelei were assigned the task of building the framework, while Gina, Pockets, Taro and Max began removing the heat-shielded cowling from the engine pod and nacelle strut. Due to the damage, some of the cowling would have to be cut away since it wouldn’t be an easy task of simply removing the connecting fasteners. Justy and Amanda would act as runners to retrieve tools and parts that the work crews needed, and even Moss would take a part in the repair work since its cameras could relay back images from inside the sections too small for anyone to fit.    

*** 

Justy panted in the heat and from the exertion of carrying his burden. He moved from person to person with a knapsack full of water bottles. The arid conditions made everyone thirsty as they worked in the full sun.

He set his pack on the ground in the shade of the engine pod and looked up at Max, who was missing from the waist up. Justy peered up into the narrow access panel, but was unable to make out the canine’s face in the darkness; it was too bright outside for his eyes to adjust well enough.

“Care for some cool water, Max?” the koala asked of the pair of legs before him.

“Yes, thanks!” replied a muffled voice. “It’s like an oven up in here!” The young mechanic squirmed his way back out of the hole and then sat down on the dusty ground in the shadow of the ship. Justy handed him a bottle with a straw from his knapsack and Max took it with relish.

The koala swallowed and pulled out another bottle as Gina emerged from the other side of the engine pod. “Did someone say ‘water’?” Gina asked. “I’m parched!”

Justy handed her the bottle he had been about to open for himself and gave her a weary smile. “Here you go,” he said.

Gina took the offered bottle with glee, but then took hold of his arm and pulled him into a snug embrace. “Thank you, ya little cutie. You’re my hero!” She stroked the fur beneath his round chin as he struggled to free himself from her clutches; the woman had taken to hugging him at every opportunity. She nuzzled his ear and then released him.

Justy suppressed a heavy sigh and turned toward his shipmate. “How’s it coming?”

“We should have the main taper-lock fasteners loose soon, but we don’t want to take them free just yet,” Max replied after a long pull from his straw. “Taro’s gone to prepare an anti-grav cargo hoist to handle the weight of this engine, but the scaffolding beneath the starboard pod isn’t ready to support the altered center of axis when the weight distribution changes.”

“Spoken like a true mechanic,” Justy said with a grin. Max put his hand on his chest and made a formal bow from his seated position.

Gina chuckled, but then she saw his stubby index finger. “What happened to your finger, Max?” she asked curiously.

The German shepherd frowned and absently covered the hand with his other. He disliked recounting the reason for his damaged extremity. Although he now had a good life with his friends on the Blue Horizon, he was still ashamed of his upbringing on Quet. Instead of giving her the details, he simply said, “It was an accident a long time ago.”

The human pursed her lips, realizing it was a sensitive subject. “Sorry,” she muttered.

Max sighed, but gave her a small smile as he held up the hand. “That’s okay, Gina,” he said. “I have an appointment in a few months to have a prosthetic finger grafted on by a surgeon I know. He’s certain he can make it match my others and it will be fully functional. I made the arrangements with my uncle only a few days ago. He’s going to meet us when our schedule takes us back to Pomen, and then he’ll bring me back to the Horizon after a little recovery time.”

Gina reached out quietly and took his hand in her own. She stroked the back of his hand as she looked at the finger stub and then looked up into his ice blue eyes. “You’re too young to lose fingers or toes, Maxie. You be more careful.”

The canine mechanic gave her a warm smile and replied, “Yes, ma’am, I intend to keep the rest of them connected to me.”

Justy tilted his head and gestured toward a set of grimy work coveralls tossed to the side. “What happened to Pockets? Did he melt away in the heat?”

Max chuckled. “He’s up inside the nacelle strut with Moss, labeling wire bundles before he disconnects them from the engine systems. He had too much junk in his pockets to fit up in the narrow access, so he shed his coveralls to squeeze in. I’m not sure how we’ll get him back out, though.”

“I’m very flexible!” called out the raccoon’s voice from an open access panel.

Justy picked up his knapsack and pulled out another water bottle. He handed it to Max and then pointed up to where Pockets’ voice had emanated. “Give this to him when he gets out,” he said. “I would imagine he’s probably thirsty.”

When the koala stepped back out into the sun, Gina looked up at him. “Where are you going, cute stuff?” she asked.

Justy hefted his knapsack and said, “Gotta finish my rounds.”

As he walked away, the human woman glanced over at Max. “I like him,” she said. “I would love to take him home with me.”

Max raised an eyebrow, but instead of voicing the remarks he had in his head, he merely took another pull of water before returning to work.

Justy stepped around the engine pod and made his way past the edge of the sinkhole to the other side of the vessel. Tubular plasteel scaffolding had been erected beneath the starboard engine to hold its weight after the Port pod had been disconnected. Lorelei was on the ground, handing up sections to Renny, who in turn passed them up to Damien and their doctor. When the koala stepped up to Lori, she turned to greet him with a frown.

Justy wasn’t used to seeing her with a frown in the short time he’d known her. “What’s the matter?” he asked as he pulled out a bottle of water for her. Normally she would have inspected the bottle’s label to make sure there were no inorganic ingredients, but she seemed distracted and gestured toward the nacelle above them.

Jerry’s ears were back flat against his head; his eyes were locked with those of the mastiff. Damien glared at him for another moment and then waved off the doctor with a hand. He turned and made his way unsteadily across the scaffolding to the other side of the engine.

The red fox watched the load master settle down on a set of cross bars and turn his back to him. Jerry shook his head and exhaled a sigh that even Justy heard on the ground. “I see those two are at it again,” the koala muttered.

Lori nodded and fiddled with the straw in her bottle. She took a long drink and then started playing with the straw again. “I know Doc means to help, but I don’t think Damien is the kind to accept advice very well.” One of her long ears drooped and she gave her friend a shrug. “I don’t see a good outcome to this.”

“Well,” Justy said with a crooked smile, “maybe you could console one or both of them.”

The bunny moved only her eyes to peer down at her companion and then snickered after a moment of trying to look stern. “The idea has merit, but I’m afraid I would be the only one to benefit from it.”

A shadow fell over Justy as he chuckled, and he suddenly looked up to see Renny hanging upside down from the scaffolding above him. Both feet were curled around the plasteel tubing, his tail was stretched out for balance and one hand was extended toward the koala.

“Hi! I could use some water,” the cheetah said with a weary smile. “It’s hot up here!”

Justy fished a bottle from his insulated pack and then handed it up to the first officer with a grin. “Here you go, Ren-Ren!”

Renny did a double take and then narrowed his eyes at the short supply officer. “You’ve been talking to Samantha, haven’t you?” Justy’s wide grin was answer enough. “Have it your way, Fuzzball,” Renny chuckled. “By the way, how is the First Lady these days?”

“She’s excited about the wedding,” the koala replied as he moved over into the shadow of the engine pod. “I’m not sure why she always seems to call while I’m on bridge watch, but she sure enjoys chatting.”

Lori moved over into the shadow with him and she bent down so that she was nose to nose with him. “What about the wedding?” she asked with sparkling eyes.

Justy swallowed at her proximity and shrugged. “All she can talk about is all the fluff she and Shannon have planned. The wedding is still weeks away, but she keeps talking like it’s tomorrow.”

Renny smiled. “That sounds just like—”

“Damien!”

The trio looked up at Jerry’s shout just as the mastiff hit the ground on the other side of the scaffolding, kicking up a cloud of dust. Justy dropped his pack and ran around the framework, followed closely by Lorelei. Renny looked up and saw the doctor scrambling down the plasteel pipes to join them. With a lump in his throat, Renny fished a DataCom from his shirt pocket and thumbed for transmit.

“Taro, get to the Gemini, pronto! Damien just took a dive into the dirt off the starboard engine!”

“We’re on our way!” came back her prompt reply.

Justy reached out toward Damien, who lay face down in the dust, but Jerry’s shout stopped him. “Don’t move him!” the fox exclaimed as he stepped down off the scaffolding. “If he’s broken anything, it could cause more damage if you move him before he’s stabilized.” Jerry ran over to his medical bag that he had kept close by and opened it. He pulled out a small medical device and then knelt down next to the load master with it.

Lorelei’s eyes were moist as she softly petted the back of Damien’s hand. The mastiff groaned and wheezed a little. Justy brushed dirt away from the canine’s snout so he could breathe better.

“What happened?” Renny demanded as he knelt next to the doctor.

“The radius bone of his left arm has a hairline fracture and he probably has a bruised snout,” Jerry muttered, “but otherwise he’s just had the wind knocked out of him. Here, help me get him onto his back.” Renny and Justy helped turn him over, while the doctor gently cradled the injured arm. Damien groaned, but didn’t open his eyes.

“Doc, what happened?” Renny asked again.

Jerry prepared a hypodermic without looking at the cheetah. “Damien fell off the scaffolding. Good thing it wasn’t any higher.”

Why did he fall off?” Taro asked.

Jerry looked up at the vixen and the human woman beside her, but then returned his attention to his patient. He tightened his lips across the front of his snout and then replied matter-of-factly as he gave Damien an injection for the swelling that was already forming around the injured forearm. “He is intoxicated.”

“Intoxicated?” repeated Max as he and Gina gathered around.

“He’s dehydrated and likely has a bit of heat exhaustion,” Jerry answered. “We need to get him inside the Horizon quickly and get him cooled down or it could result in heat stroke.”

Renny grabbed a semi-flat access panel door as tall as himself and set it down next to the mastiff. “Here, we can transport him on this.”

Several of the group helped lift the heavy canine onto the makeshift litter, and then Renny took the lead as they carted him back toward the freighter. Taro put a hand on Jerry’s arm to hold him back.

“Tell me what happened, Doc,” the vixen commanded.

The physician twitched an ear with a frown. “He carries a flask of Winstle Vodka with him everywhere he goes. I’ve caught him taking sips from it today, but every time I warned him about the effects of alcohol and heat, he’d brush me off.” Jerry looked his captain straight in the eye and added, “I’ve already asked you to talk to him about his drinking on the job.”

Taro nodded, feeling a little deflated. “Yes, you have,” she admitted, “but I haven’t found the right time to bring it up.”

“You’ll have your opportunity as soon as I have him stable. You’re now down two people on your repair work, Captain,” Jerry said in clipped words. “Let’s hope that’s all that drops out.”

“Two?”

“Damien and myself. I’ve got to tend to him now, to make sure this doesn’t progress further; I won’t be of any more help to you here,” he said with an irritated gesture toward the Gemini Pi.  Without waiting for a reply, the vulpine doctor gathered up his med bag and trotted off toward his Infirmary.

Taro crossed her arms and watched him go, her emotions in turmoil. She saw her crew watching her and knew they had all recognized the scolding she had just received from her subordinate. “Doc will take care of him,” she said stiffly. “Everyone take twenty minutes, and then we’ll need to get back to work.    

*** 

“Okay, everybody clear!” Pockets announced over the Horizon’s DataCom hand units. The day had been long and the evening sun didn’t seem much cooler at their equatorial location, despite the lengthy shadows already cast across the terrain. With ten bodies helping with the work, they had accomplished a lot, but there was too much to do to finish it in one day. With the daylight they had left, Pockets wanted to get to a certain place on their schedule before they stopped.

Inside the cockpit of the Gemini Pi, Garnet Castor sat at the piloting controls and waited for the signal. Without the energy generated through the port engine, the cruiser’s internal power was diminished, but there should be plenty from the starboard for thrusters.

“Port side is clear!” Renny’s voice issued from the DC unit.

“Starboard side, clear!” reported Max. “Alternate pad to the Starboard also clear!”

“All clear aft!” announced Gina.

“All clear fore!” Taro confirmed.

“Okay, Captain,” Pockets said, “Take her up!”

Castor spread her fingers out on the thruster slide controls and gently pushed them away from her on the control panel. Chemical rocket thrusters beneath the ship ignited and began their downward force. The Gemini Pi wobbled for a moment and then began the lift at a skewed angle before Garnet remembered to compensate for the uneven weight of her vessel minus one engine pod. She gave extra power to the starboard thruster to counter the imbalance and the ship slowly became level.

Outside the small starship, the others watched the vessel rise up out of the sinkhole with a steady roar.  Its movement slowed to a hover as rocks and dirt fell from the landing skids now freed of the earth. It maintained its position only for a moment before it began to slip laterally to the starboard toward an area free of stones or vegetation.

The Gemini Pi floated sideways until it had cleared the sinkhole by several meters, and then Pockets lifted the DC to his mouth.

“That’s good, Captain!” he signaled. “Hold it there until we can get the secondary scaffolding rolled into place.”

“Aye to that, Pockets!”

Renny, Max, Taro and Gina ran to another set of tubular scaffolding mounted on large rubber wheels. They moved quickly, rolling the smaller construct into place beneath the starboard engine amidst the dirt and rock kicked up by the thruster winds. Max adjusted the goggles on his face and then signaled Pockets that the framework was in position.  Renny and Gina locked down the wheels and then cleared the area as Taro gave the raccoon a pre-arranged hand signal.

“Everything’s ready, Captain!” he announced into his DC unit. “Lower her gently!”

The blue and green vessel began to descend, its thrusters marking more power to keep the ship level. When the skids touched the dirt, and the ground remained stable beneath them, Garnet breathed a sigh of relief and removed her cramping fingers from the thruster controls.

Outside the vessel, Pockets nodded in satisfaction and walked over to the sinkhole where the Gemini formerly rested. He thought he saw movement down it its shadows, but it was getting dark with the setting sun.

“What do you see?” Renny asked as he removed his work gloves.

Pockets stared into the shadows a moment before looking up at the navigator. “Probably nothing,” he said. “Maybe just rock and dirt falling into the hole.”

The cheetah gestured toward the original scaffolding they had erected beneath the engine that was now standing free. “Should we start taking that apart?” he asked.

“Leave it for tomorrow when we have more light,” said Taro as she walked up behind them. “I think this would be a good time to leave off for tonight. Lori and Mandy should have supper ready soon, so let everyone get cleaned up and relax. We’ve done enough work for one day.”

“Mandy?” Renny asked with a grin.

“Amanda,” Pockets chuckled. “Max started calling her Mandy since it’s easier to say, and it seems to have spread.  She doesn’t seem to mind the nickname.”

“All hands, this is Lori,” broadcast the rabbit’s cheery words across the crew DC units. “You’ve labored hard and put in a good day’s work, but now it’s time to get cleaned up and report to the galley. Supper’s ready!”

Renny and Pockets exchanged amused looks. “Good timing,” the raccoon said to Taro with a grin.

“What about those two?” Renny asked as he nodded toward the Gemini twins.

“You have to ask?” Taro replied with a tsk.  The vixen walked over to where the human sisters were talking next to their vessel’s primary airlock hatch.  Taro spread out her arms wide and put them around each of their shoulders.

“You heard the bunny,” she said with a friendly smile, “let’s all get cleaned up to eat.”

Gina’s eyes lit up and Garnet returned her smile. “Thanks for the invitation,” Castor said with appreciation. “We’ve been so busy today that we’ve not really given much thought to preparing a meal beyond the nutrition bars we’ve nibbled on through the day.”  Her stomach let out a prolonged gurgle and she bit her bottom lip in embarrassment.

“You’re welcome to share in our food,” Taro told them as they headed for the large freighter. “Lori’s a great cook and she’s good with interspecies meals.”

“That sounds wonderful!” Gina said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what she’s prepared.”

“We also have spare cabins with clean linens, if you wish to sleep in the Horizon tonight.”

Garnet pursed her lips. “Gina and I were just talking about that. I could feel a wobble to the Gemini when I walked through her corridors just now. With one engine pod missing, the ship is a little unstable on its skids, even if the scaffolding is helping to support the unbalanced weight.”

“If you don’t mind putting us up for the night,” Gina added, “I’m sure we’ll sleep more comfortably knowing the deck beneath us isn’t going to tilt if we both roll over at the same time.”

Taro chuckled and gestured toward the Horizon’s hatch. “We don’t mind at all,” she told them. Her own stomach snarled for a moment, so she said, “Let’s eat now and relax. We’ll give further thought to your ship tomorrow morning.”

“Sounds good to me,” Garnet replied.    

*** 

Garnet and Gina discovered that Taro’s words were true. Lorelei had prepared a fresh garden salad made of Terran vegetables for the two women with a nice pasta dish accompanied by light tomato sauce and garlic toast. Lori knew that most humans were omnivores, but she was unaware of the sisters’ meat preferences. The bunny was a vegetarian, herself, but with a ship full of carnivores, she was used to their diets and had many recipes to cover all meals. Lori’s culinary hunches won out in this case, and the Gemini twins were appreciative of her skills.

As he had feared, Justy became the object of attention for Gina Pollux. She set her meal down beside him and spent the evening chattering away merrily while she constantly ran her fingers through the soft fur of his head, ears and his arms.  The koala didn’t mind physical touch, but her unwavering attention made him nervous. His experience around humans was limited, but he knew they usually stuck with their own kind for relationships. Gina’s constant touching made him wonder where her motives lay, and he really wished she would just leave him alone. Unfortunately, she was a paying customer and had been invited to stay the night on board the Horizon. Besides that, Justy was a nice guy who disliked upsetting others, so he endured the attention as best he could. He would keep his cabin door locked during the night, however.

The only ones absent from the supper were Jerry and Damien. Legrand was resting in his cabin, with the vulpine doctor watching over him from the Infirmary; Amanda had taken them something to eat on server trays so they wouldn’t be left out.    

*** 

A little while later, Justy excused himself from the gathered party on the rec deck and took the lift down to the crew deck. He padded around the curved corridor to the Infirmary and let himself in quietly.

The front room to the sick bay consisted of nothing more than cabinets and counters, with two roller stools out in the floor. There were various instruments mounted to the walls, as well as a number of charts that Doctor Somner had put up concerning his crew stats. The male fox sat on one of the stools as he quietly read printed pages from a folder on a counter.

“Hey, Doc,” Justy said quietly.

Jerry looked over at him. “Hello. Is there something I can do for you?” he asked.

“No, just wondering how Damien was doing.”

The fox rubbed his eyes. “He’s asleep in his cabin. I put his arm in a gel cast and gave him an injection to accelerate his body’s natural healing, but the alcohol in his system will slow its effects.”

“Did you give him anything to get over the alcohol?”

Jerry chuckled, but shook his head. “No, he’ll still get to have his hangover when he awakens.”

“Doc, that’s mean-spirited!” the koala said in disapproval.

Jerry shook his head. “No, Justy, the alcohol nullifier also inhibits the medication for his arm. Between a hangover and a broken arm, I’m sure he would take the hangover.”

“Well, I suppose,” Justy said with a frown. He wasn’t entirely convinced by the doctor’s explanation. Jerry and Damien had often argued about the load master’s drinking, with the physician usually losing the arguments.

“He chose to drink on the job,” Jerry said, “so he chose to accept its after-effects as well.” He fell silent for a moment, and then added, “If he ever drinks while he’s on bridge duty, we could all be in trouble.”

“I don’t think he would do that. He seems more responsible than that.”

Jerry’s brow furrowed. “I’d like to think that, Justy, but I just don’t get that feeling from him.  He makes me nervous.”

“Aww, you’re just not used to him yet,” the koala replied with a smile. “Sit in on one of his card games sometime. You’ll get to know him better.”

The physician rubbed his eyes again. “Perhaps you’re right,” he said. “I don’t know what’s in his past that drives Legrand to drink so much, but when it gets to a point where he endangers others, I’m going to have to interfere. He doesn’t like people meddling into his personal affairs, and I think he holds grudges against those he thinks have wronged him; I’m probably on his list.”

“Justy?  Are you in there?”

Jerry and Justy looked up together. Gina’s voice had come from the corridor. She began knocking on a door somewhere, likely Justy’s nearby quarters.

The koala looked back at the physician in alarm. “Hide me!” he whispered.

Jerry chuckled and gestured over his shoulder toward a doorway behind him. “You can hide out in the patient room, but don’t touch any of the equipment, please. It’s all been sterilized.”

“Thank you!”  Justy crept into the back room just as Gina knocked on the Infirmary door.

“Come in, please,” Jerry called out.

The door opened and the short, red-haired woman peeked inside. “Hey there, Doctor,” she said. “Have you seen Justy?”

“You just missed him,” the fox replied. “He may have headed outside for some fresh air.”

“Thanks, Doc!”  Gina closed the door behind her and was gone.

Jerry rubbed his eyes once again and decided he’d done enough reading for one night. He closed Damien’s medical file and placed it in a drawer beneath the counter. Without a backward glance to the room where Justy had hidden, the doctor turned out the light and left the Infirmary.

Several moments passed before Justy felt it was safe to come out. There were only a few red diodes from the doctor’s equipment on the walls to mark his way, but he managed to make it to the Infirmary door without knocking anything over.  He eased open the panel and peered out into the corridor.

He saw Taro casually leaning up against the wall a short distance away. Renny was standing in front of her, with a hand on the wall beside her on each side and one foot on the carpet between her feet. They were talking in quiet whispers and snickers, and then Justy saw the cheetah lean in and give her a kiss.

He felt like a voyeur, embarrassed to be witnessing something like this between the Captain and her First Mate. His cabin wasn’t far in the opposite direction, so he padded as quietly as he could around the curved passage, hoping they’d not seen him. He let himself into his quarters and locked the door behind him.

It was only when he was in the bedroom that he finally sighed in relief. He had already cleaned up before supper, so he quickly undressed, turned out the lights and slid between the sheets of his bed.    

*** 

Morning sunlight streamed in through the polarized window and fell across Garnet Castor’s face. Without opening her eyes, she raised a hand to her forehead and brushed the long red hair from her face. She stretched languidly, yawned without a sound, and finally opened her large green eyes. She gave the room a quick glance with a contented smile and brushed aside the single sheet covering her.

Despite that she had spent the night on a freighter, this cabin was comfortable and she had slept well. She could remember having no dreams, but this never bothered her. What mattered was that she felt well rested.

She lay still a few moments more before she sat up on the side of the bed and snared her cotton robe from the carpeted floor where she had discarded it the night before. She made her way into the lavatory and started the water for a shower. This freighter had a full-sized bathtub that she could have soaked in, but with the work still ahead of them today, she didn’t feel she had the luxury of time on her side.

After she had showered and dressed, Garnet gathered her long red hair into a ponytail with a simple elastic band and then walked barefoot out into the corridor. She heard the thump, thump, thump of padded feet and looked up to see the cheetah in a matching pair of black trunks and sleeveless tee shirt. He gave her a courteous wave as he trotted past her on his morning jog.

“Good morning, Renny!” she called after him. She heard his mumbled reply as he disappeared around the curve of the corridor. She didn’t remember exactly where the lift up to the galley on the rec deck was located, but didn’t think she would have too hard a time finding it. As she mused on this, a nearby cabin door opened and Justy’s nose peered out into the corridor. He saw her and started to withdraw back into his room, but stopped himself when he realized that Gina was not with her.

“Good morning, Miss Garnet,” he said to her with an embarrassed smile.

“Good morning, Justin,” the woman replied with a chuckle.

“Excuse me, but uhm… is your sister… uhm…”

Garnet laughed and shook her head. “No, she usually sleeps in as late as she can; you should be safe for now.”

Justy visibly relaxed. “Thank you,” he said. He stepped out into the hallway wearing a pale blue shirt over a set of denim shorts, and walked with her to the lift. Renny’s thumping feet overtook them as he passed on another lap around the corridor.

“Please forgive my sister,” Garnet said quietly. “She’s always been an… animal lover, and gets over-enthusiastic sometimes.”

Justy noted the slight hesitation at her choice of words, but dismissed it with a slight shrug of his shoulders. “I usually don’t mind a little attention,” he admitted as they stepped into the lift, “In fact, I usually try to get all the attention I can.” He thumbed the third level pad and continued, “However, Gina seems just a little too focused on me, and… well, it makes me uncomfortable.”

“I understand,” Garnet told him. “Do you want me to talk to her about it?”

Justy’s expression changed to one of gratitude, but then his countenance fell before he replied. “I would,” he said quietly, “but I really don’t want to hurt her feelings. Although a little clingy, she’s only been nice to me. I think I can tolerate it for the duration of our stay.”

“As you wish,” Garnet said. The lift came to a stop and they could hear the sound of voices before the door opened before them. “However,” she added, “let me know if you change your mind.”

“Thank you, Miss,” he said politely.  His stomach suddenly growled lowly when he caught the aroma of Lorelei’s breakfast. He excused himself and made his way straight to the galley where he knew a cup of coffee was calling out to him.     

*** 

Amanda stopped next to Justy outside the loading ramp of the Horizon, and touched him quietly on the shoulder. The koala looked up at the tall coyote and gave her a pleasant smile.

“Hi, Mandy,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

Amanda snickered and put her hands on her hips. “So now you’re calling me that too, are you?” she lilted.

“Does it bother you?” Justy asked with a frown.

Amanda shook her head and put her hands behind her back. “No, it’s kinda nice, really,” she replied with a small smile. “Up until now, I really hadn’t felt like the crew had accepted me as part of the team, but if they’re giving me a nickname now, perhaps I was wrong.”

Justy grinned at her. “That’s possible, but I don’t think you ever had anything to worry about.”

The pair fell silent for a moment and the koala’s gaze returned to several nearby caves in the hills that surrounded the landing site.

“What’s got your attention?” Amanda asked quietly when she noticed his focus.

Justy pointed toward the closest cavern entrance. “Have you heard anyone say what’s inside there?” he asked. “They don’t look like natural formations created from wind or water erosion.”

“I really hadn’t given them much thought,” the coyote admitted. “I haven’t heard the humans talk about the caves at all. I don’t think they’ve been in them.”

A smile slid across Justy’s lips. “Not even Gina?” he asked.

Amanda looked at him strangely. “I don’t think so,” she replied. “Why?”

The computer tech shrugged his shoulders. “Just curious…” he answered in a quiet voice.

“Justy, I need a number three spanner, please,” Max’s voice suddenly erupted from both of their DC units. “I’m up on top of the Port side nacelle.”

“Be right there,” Justy replied into his handset. He turned to go back up inside the Horizon to the tool chest, but cast another glance over his shoulder toward the caves. “Time to do my job, Mandy,” he said with a smile.    

*** 

“Justy, are you okay?” Renny asked. His arms were loaded with optical bundles to be reconnected between the new engine and the control systems of the Gusev cruiser.  He’d just stepped out of the Horizon’s cargo bay when he saw the koala kneeling down behind the Gemini’s new engine cowlings that were to be installed later.

The crews of both ships had been working on the installation of the new engine all morning and afternoon. With so many helping hands, the work had progressed nicely, but there was still a lot to do. Even Damien was back to work, acting as tool and parts runner, and Jerry was helping reconnect pneudraulic lines with Garnet.

The most difficult part of the operation had been maneuvering the new engine pod into place and raising it with their limited equipment to the nacelle struts, but they had miraculously managed the task without incident. Now the tedious task of reconnecting power transfer conduits, optical and electrical lines, and other small parts was under way.

Justy looked up at Renny in alarm and put a finger to his lips. “Don’t talk to me!” he pleaded. “Gina might realize it’s me you’ve seen!”

Renny sighed. “This is getting tiresome, Justy,” he said. “By hiding from the woman, you’ll only encourage her to look for you! Listen, you need to ask her to stop bothering you, as simple as that. She may be a customer, but if she can’t leave you alone, then she’s disrupting the work we’ve been hired to do.” 

“Do you know what she’s doing now?” the koala croaked. “I overheard her talking to the captain about buying out my contract so she can take me with her when we’re done here!”

The cheetah readjusted the bundles in his arms for a better grip. “Justy, I think she was only joking when she said that to Taro. Gina’s a nice gal, but I don’t think she’s that obsessive.”

“Says you,” the computer tech snorted.

Renny furrowed his brow. “Justy, you’re of no use to anyone like this. As First Officer of the Blue Horizon, I’m giving you an order. You can either resolve your situation with Gina or you can forfeit your pay for this voyage and go hide in your room until we’re done. I don’t care which.”

The koala looked up at him in surprise. “You wouldn’t do that to me…” he whispered.

“We’re all tired of your game,” Renny said darkly. “Several of your crewmates have offered to speak to Gina for you and you’ve turned them all down. I know, because they’ve all come to either me or Taro about it. Since you’re so determined to endure what’s going on, I’m making it simple for you. Go find Gina now. Talk to her. Get it out into the air and get over with it. Otherwise, stop hiding behind the equipment or your shipmates and go confine yourself to your cabin.”

Justy swallowed and then bowed his head with a nod. Renny shifted his bundle again and said in a gentler voice, “You’re a good guy, Justy. We all like you, so please take care of this so we can all focus on the job at hand.”

The koala nodded again without a word, so Renny headed toward the Gemini Pi with his armload of optical bundles. The tedious job of reconnecting the ship’s systems through the new engine and then getting everything calibrated would probably take the longest to do out of everything they had done so far.

Justy watched the cheetah walk away and felt the pit of his stomach twist. He harbored no ill feelings toward Renny for the reprimand he’d just received, but he sighed, knowing what it was he was going to do.  He walked up the ramp into the Horizon’s cargo bay, went straight to an equipment locker and pulled out a flashlight torch. He walked deliberately to an insulated cooler, pulled out a chilled water bottle and fastened its strap to his belt next to his utility knife. He heard his DC unit chirp with a low-charge alert, so he unfastened it from its clip and set it aside on a nearby crate.

As he walked out of the ship, he turned without looking at the Gemini Pi and headed straight for the opening of the nearest cave.    

*** 

“How are you feeling?” Taro asked of her load master. When he handed her a small anti-static sleeve containing a circuit board, the mastiff looked over at her with sad eyes. She knelt in front of an open access panel in the small engine room of the Gemini, quietly working on a monitoring system for energy flows between the two nacelles.

“Feeling foolish,” Damien replied. “It’s one thing to break your arm from an avoidable fall in front of your crewmates – it’s another when you do it while drunk. The arm hurts, but the injury to my pride is worse.”

Taro set the circuit package on the deck beside her and gently brushed his cheek with her fingers. “Both will heal,” she told him quietly, ‘if you let them.”  She studied his deep brown eyes for a moment and then said, “I’m no psychologist, nor am I a mind reader, but it’s easy to tell that something’s bothering you, else you wouldn’t drink as you do.”

Legrand opened his mouth to reply, but his words caught in his throat. He closed his mouth and turned his head to look away. Taro frowned and picked up the packaged circuit card.

“Whatever is troubling you,” she said, “I want you to consider confiding in one of your crewmates about it. It doesn’t matter who you tell, but trust me when I say that it helps to share your burden. Just talking about it seems to ease the pain, even if it might not solve the situation.”

“It’s not easy for me to talk to others about my private concerns,” Damien said in a hesitant voice. “I once trusted someone with some very private information about myself, only to have it later used against me to great pain and embarrassment.”

“Old girlfriend?”

“Fiancé,” he admitted. “Three weeks before we were to be married, she decided that the transient lifestyle I used to lead on starship freighters would cause a hindrance in our marriage. It didn’t matter that I had given that up for her and already had a steady job lined up to be working elsewhere. That was just an excuse for ending our engagement, I think. She had a lot of pent-up frustrations in areas I won’t go into, but in dumping me, she brought up every little personal tidbit I’d told her in confidence, and used it all to hurt me while giving me the boot – all in front of mutual friends.”

Taro nodded in understanding. She’d known two very good friends who had split amidst a similar situation. “Is that why you drink?” she asked in a whisper. To her surprise, Damien gave her a chuckle and shook his head.

“No,” he said. “That is why I don’t share my private concerns with anyone. If I couldn’t trust someone I was about to marry, who can I trust?”

“Perhaps you should choose someone with whom you have no attachments – an impartial third party, if you will.”

Legrand was silent for a moment, but then he gave the vixen a tired smile. “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea either, but it might be something to consider.”

“That’s all I ask,” Taro replied. “That and your promise that you will limit your drinking to when you are on your own time. I won’t order you not to drink, because I know it doesn’t work that way, but you’d better not do it again when you’re on duty. You only hurt yourself this time, Damien, but next time it could be someone else. Consider yourself reprimanded, with a broken arm as your personal punishment.”

“Aye, Captain,” the mastiff acknowledged with a nod.

“Then we’ll consider this matter resolved,” Taro said. “I need to get back to work now. I know you two are at odds with one another, but if you see the Doc while you’re out running your errands, send him to me, please.”

“I will let him know you want to see him,” Damien said as he got up off his knees.

Taro pursed her lips as she watched him go. She felt she had taken care of one problem, but had another that involved the doctor. For the first time in all the years she’d known and worked with Merlin Sinclair, she finally understood his reactions to insubordination.    

*** 

Despite the light of the torch, Justy’s eyes took a few moments to adjust to the darkness of the cave. The featureless passageway curved to the left just inside the entrance and he quickly left the oppressive sunlight behind. The ambient air temperature dropped considerably, and it was a welcome relief from the equatorial heat. There was an odd odor to the air, but the koala hadn’t spent much time in caves before, so didn’t know if the aroma was common to caverns or not.

The ceiling of the passage was barely high enough for his head; anyone taller would have to stoop. The floor was uneven, but there were many odd tracks in the grey dust at his feet. He was no geologist, but Justy’s original assessment of the cave held out; he didn’t feel as if this corridor had been formed by erosion. A tingling at the back of his neck told him that it had been tunneled out but there was no sign of who might have done it or why.

He’d not walked very far when the passage branched off into three separate tunnels. Two jutted off to his right and one went to the left.  The left-hand passage descended at a slight angle while the other two appeared to remain level. He wavered a moment at which one to take and then shrugged his shoulders; he took the one on the left.

The downward angle of the passage wasn’t difficult, but he did have to keep a hand on one wall to maintain his balance.  After he’d gone about twenty steps, the tunnel began to curve toward the left and level out, with several smaller side passages branching away.

He kept to the main tunnel, not by conscious thought, but merely kept walking as his brain mused over recent events. He stepped on a few sticks that had probably been washed into the corridor by a past flash flood, but ignored them as he trudged on into the darkness.

He’d not confined himself to his cabin, but there was no doubt he would be in trouble with Renny when he returned to the Blue Horizon. He needed time away from Gina’s scrutiny to figure out what to do about their situation. He knew he should probably just endure her attention with a smile, but was afraid that would only encourage her. He was not the kind of guy who would deliberately hurt a woman’s feelings by arrogantly telling her to back off. What could he do?

He stepped on another of the abundant sticks and it rolled out from under his heel. Shaken from his thoughts, he looked down with his flashlight and suddenly noted the sticks scattered on the passage floor were from neither trees nor shrubs. They were bones.

Justy squatted down with his torch to examine them closer. He picked up the one that his foot had rolled on and held it up close to his face in curiosity. He had no medical background, but he knew enough to identify it as a femur, possibly from a small animal.

He looked around and saw more bones scattered about. He twitched one of his large ears and unconsciously flexed his fingers. Had some critter crawled in here, injured or sick, and died in the passage? That would account for the odor he smelled.

The computer tech shrugged his shoulders and stood up, dropping the bone and suddenly feeling out of place in the cave passage. He checked his watch and noted that he hadn’t been gone as long as he thought he had. He took a drink from his canteen and decided to head back to work topside.  Perhaps he hadn’t yet been missed.

Chk, chk, chk, chk.

Justy stopped, his hand with the canteen frozen over the belt clip. His ears twitched and he slowly looked beside him in the passage toward the sound. He saw nothing in the darkness, but he suddenly felt nervous. He didn’t know what it was that he had heard, but he suddenly felt like getting back out into the sunlight. He turned to head back the way he had come in, but then he heard it again.

Chk, chk, chk, chk.

Justy swung around and aimed his flashlight along the passage behind him. This time, the light of his torch fell across an ant. This was not just any common ant, however. This one would have come up to Justy’s knees – the size of a joey just learning to walk. Its entire head and body was solid black, its large multifaceted eyes were cold, and its wavering feelers sent a shiver down Justy’s spine.

He remembered Gina’s sister comment on the large ants in the area, but something this size hadn’t occurred to the grey koala. He swallowed when he heard the sound again. Moving only his flashlight, he aimed the beam farther up the passage behind the ant. There were three more, all the same size.

At the moment, none had advanced closer, but the feel of an animal bone beneath his boot reminded him that he might be staring at the reason for its presence there. He took two steps backward, but the ants held their ground, possibly stunned by the light of his flashlight.

He took a chance and moved his light so that he could see his way in the opposite direction as he began to walk quickly.

Chk, chk, chk, chk, chk, chk, chk, chk.

Justy let out a little whimper. They were coming after him!

His boots were not able to get much traction in the soft sand that covered the cave floor, and his heels slipped as he rounded the curve in the tunnel. He nearly stumbled over himself when he stopped where the passage branched off in three directions.

Chk, chk, chk, chk.

He aimed his light behind him and saw an increased number of ants crawling along the corridor behind him. Most were on the floor, but some were advancing along the walls, too.  There was something sinister about the determined movement they made toward him. Justy didn’t have time to remember which branch of the tunnel was the one he had originally come through, so he darted into one passage and began running for his life.

Chk, chk, chk, chk.

As he ran, the walls of the corridor became a blur to him. His feet slipped on more bones or sticks on the floor, but his self-preservation gave him enough determination to keep himself on his feet. He passed more branches in the tunnel and he realized this wasn’t the way he had come before. There was suddenly no doubt in his mind that he would never see the sun again. Justy was about to become ant food.

“What the – Justy!” a voice echoed in the confines of the passageway.

The koala slid to a stop and looked behind him at another junction in the corridor he had just passed. Renny’s head was peering out at him, a look of combined anger and confusion. Relief spread across Justy’s face at the sight of the cheetah, but then he returned to his earlier state of panic.

Chk, chk, chk, chk, chk, chk, chk, chk.

“Renny!  Run!” he screamed out in terror. Without looking to see if the first officer heeded his warning, Justy continued running in the direction he had been going.

Renny heard the chk, chk, chk, chk of the ants and his mouth dropped open when he saw dozens of kit-sized creatures swarming toward him. He darted back into the passage he had come out of; he did his best to put distance between him and the ants that followed him, wondering just how the koala had gotten into something like this. As he ran stooped over, Renny pulled a DC unit from his pocket and thumbed the call button, hoping the signal would penetrate the dirt and rock of the cavern.

Chk, chk, chk, chk.

Justy felt he was losing ground. The ants were gaining on him and the ground was rising, slowing his momentum. He was certain that the ants would get him, but now he would probably be the cause of Renny’s demise as well.

As he scrambled up a sandy slope, the thought came to him that he would prefer to be in the arms of the overbearing human named Gina. He had felt threatened by her attention, but it was only an embarrassment and was nothing compared to the threat of the ants behind him.

He suddenly felt a hot breath of air and instantly realized that he must be near an exit from the cavern system. He saw another passage branch off to the right and decided to take the risk. He darted into the tunnel and scrambled as fast as he could, hoping the ants had been far enough behind him to miss his quick detour.

He rounded another corner in the passage and plowed headlong into another body. He and the body rolled over once before coming to rest against the cave wall. Justy held up his flashlight and looked up into the green eyes of Gina Pollux. He let out a cry of joy, and before she could say anything, the koala jumped into her arms, hugging her fiercely.

“Justy!” she gasped. “Are you okay?”

“For the moment,” he replied in a dry, raspy voice. His thick accent and heavy panting made his words hard to understand, but he gripped her arms and said, “We’ve got to get out of here!  The ants…!”

“Let’s go!” Gina said in immediate alarm. She stood up, but could only stoop in the small passage. She took him by the hand and led him back in the opposite direction with a finger to her lips for silence.  They could hear the chk, chk, chk, chk of the ants in another corridor, but it didn’t sound as if they were heading their way.

When she was sure they were safe for the moment, Gina pulled out a DC unit and thumbed the call button. “Taro, I have him,” she whispered into its tiny microphone.

“Good! We’re ready out here,” returned the vixen’s concerned voice.

“Renny’s back there somewhere,” Justy gasped suddenly. “We’ve got to find him or the ants—”

“Jerry? Report in,” reported the cheetah’s voice from the DataCom. “The rest of us are out here waiting for you, Gina and our wayward Fuzzball.”

“I’m already out,” replied the doctor’s voice. “I’m about thirty meters to your right.”

“Okay, I see you.”

Justy sighed audibly, relieved that the first officer had made it out of the caverns safely. A moment later, he saw light up ahead in the passage that came from no flashlight torch. It was sunlight!

Chk, chk, ch-ch-chkk!

Something clamped down hard on Justy’s boot and he stumbled. He yelled out and looked down at the solitary ant that had followed them up the side tunnel to prevent a potential meal from getting away. Its pinchers had latched onto his boot and it was squeezing hard even as the koala fell to the ground, his balance upended.

Gina kicked at the thing’s face, trying hard for its eyes, but it was determined to keep its food source. Gina shined her flashlight back along the passageway, but so far, this was the only ant in sight. She moved around behind it and began stomping hard on the back of its head.

Justy shrieked in terror as he began frantically kicking the ant in the eyes with his free foot. He pounded hard, but his boot only slipped a little from the thing’s pinchers. It had an iron grip on the thick heel of his boot and he could see the hard indentions in the rubber.

He kicked harder as Gina continued her attack from the other side. It would probably be only seconds before more ants arrived, so Justy grabbed the utility knife from his belt and pulled open the longest blade. He stopped struggling for a moment so he could slip the blade beneath the leather laces, though it was difficult with the ant’s head bouncing from Gina’s heel.

Justy sawed quickly at the laces and watched them part. He would have to gift something expensive to Pockets for keeping the blade razor-sharp for him. When he’d cut enough laces, Justy pulled his foot from the boot and rolled over backward to put distance between himself and the ant.

“Let’s go!” he cried out to Gina.

With her diminutive friend no longer in immediate danger, she leaned against the wall and brought both feet down on the ant’s thin neck. There was a satisfying crunch and then the insect fell forward onto the empty boot. Justy didn’t bother trying to retrieve the footwear and just waved Gina toward him with his torch.

Chk, chk, chk, chk, chk, chk, chk, chk.

Justy and Gina grasped hands and ran through the small tunnel as fast as the woman could go in a stooped position. Ants swarmed into the passage behind them, but they slowed when several in front paused at the body of the dead ant.

Justy shielded his eyes with an arm when they burst out of the cave into the sunlight, and Gina stumbled over her own feet when she straightened up in the open air. Taro was there to catch them both from falling at her feet. Several others gathered behind her, but explanations would have to wait.

Max suddenly lifted a compact Binfurr pistol he had taken from the Blue Horizon’s armory and fired rapidly at several ants that made it out into the sunlight behind them.

Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!

Exoskeletons came apart quickly under the barrage. Encouraged, Garnet and Jerry produced pistols of their own and fired off a few more shots at ants that began to emerge from the cave entrance.

Unseen by anyone else, Pockets lifted a small metal globe that resembled an oversize marble, thumbed a tiny switch on its side, and then lobbed it into the cave.

Whoom!  The air compressed and then suddenly expanded outward from the cavern in a blaze of terrific heat. Justy jumped off the ground with the concussion and blinked rapidly in the sunlight.

“Wow…” he gasped at the sight of burning ant bodies and a plume of smoke from the cave.

Whoa, Pockets!” Max exclaimed with his hands up to his ears. “Warn us next time!”

“There’s more!” Renny shouted from somewhere off to the right. Everyone followed his voice and saw the cheetah fire his pistol at several ants that had come out of another cave. Pockets ran over to him as quick as his short legs would take him, and lobbed another marble toward the passage that more were coming out.

“Fire in the hole!” he announced loudly. His aim was off, however, and the intense thermite capsule exploded upon the side of the cave, causing dirt, rock, and bits of ant bodies to shower the area. The roof of the passage collapsed in a plume of dirt and dust, burying more ants.

Before the dust could even settle, three more ants came out of another entrance further away. Unlike the others, these only stopped to stare for a moment before they retreated back into the safety of their domain.

For a few long moments, nobody moved, unsure if there would be more ants, but it soon became apparent that the ordeal was over. A number of ants were near the two cave entrances, dead, burning and stinking in the arid equatorial air.

Taro looked down at the koala in her arms. “Are you okay?” she asked in concern.

Justy wiggled the bare toes of his bootless foot and then glanced over at Gina, who still panted for breath in the heat. “Thanks to my friend, yeah. I’m okay,” he replied.

Gina gave him a wide grin and blew him a kiss. Justy returned her grin, not at all bothered by her gesture of affection. “That was close,” the human said. “We almost didn’t make it.”

Jerry walked up to them and gave the koala a quick examination to make sure he was okay. “How did you get into this mess?” he asked. “One minute we were calling for parts, and the next, Renny had us scrambling for weapons!”

Justy looked uncomfortable, especially when Renny crossed his arms and looked down at him disapprovingly. He glanced over at Gina, feeling foolish, and opened his mouth to reply. At a loss for words, nothing came out, so he shut it again.

“It’s time we had a little talk,” Taro said to the koala with a frown. She turned to Gina and looked at her with an expression of embarrassment. “Sorry about this, but I think this concerns you too.”

Justy looked alarmed and Gina appeared confused.  “Me? Uh, sure,” she replied.

Taro gave a nod to Renny, indicating he should come along, and then she turned to Pockets. “Get everyone back to their tasks,” she instructed him. “It’s better if there’s no more idle time for tongues to wag about what happened.”

“Sure, Captain,” the engineer acknowledged.

“I’ll get everyone together later after we’ve gotten this sorted out,” Taro said as Justy started hobbling toward the Blue Horizon with Renny and Gina. “In the meantime, keep a watchful eye that the ants don’t come back out looking for more of us.”

“Right,” Pockets agreed. Taro turned to go and heaved a sigh as she followed after the others. Max stepped up to his partner and popped the clip from his pistol to reload its ammunition.

“How’d you get thermite fire marbles?” the German shepherd asked in amazement. “I thought those were only available to miners!”

Pockets looked up at the youth and cracked a wide smile. “How do you think I got them, Max?”

The mechanic stared at him only a moment before his eyes registered comprehension. His mouth formed a perfect “oh” and then he smiled in return at the little bandit.     

*** 

Taro led them all in through the door of her cabin. The front room would be large enough for the four of them, whereas it would have been cramped in the captain’s office.

“Take a seat, everyone,” Taro said with a wave toward the group. Justy sat down in the recliner, but kept his feet near the floor. Renny and Gina sat on the couch while Taro stood with her feet planted apart in front of them all. She crossed her arms and then looked at the koala.

“Okay, let’s have it,” she said to him.

Justy looked uncomfortably at Gina, then looked down at his lap where he was wringing his hands together. “Captain,” he said in a low voice, “I don’t think this is really such a good —”

“Yes, it is,” Renny countered with a dark look.  Justy looked up at him, swallowed and then returned his attention to his hands.

“Renny caught me hiding from Gina a while ago,” he confessed.

That took the human woman by surprise. “Hiding from me?” she asked. “Why?”

“Because… be-because you wouldn’t leave me alone,” Justy replied in near whisper. “I felt like I was being… stalked.”

Gina put a hand up to her chest. “I was only teasing, Justy,” she said quietly. “I didn’t mean to cause you any distress. I thought you knew it was just a friendly game.”

The koala continued to stare at his fingers. “That’s what I thought it was at first,” he admitted, “but when you kept it up and got bolder, I thought you were giving me a little too much attention.”

Gina glanced over at Taro, her cheeks red and then gave a small shrug of her shoulders. “Maybe I was,” she said, “but it wasn’t intended as anything more than a game with a new friend. I’m sorry, Justy. Will you forgive me?”

Justy looked up at her and saw the concerned look on the woman’s face. She reached out with both hands and held them out to him. He swallowed, feeling very foolish, and then gave her a nod. He put his hands into her own, and she gave them a gentle squeeze.  Gina wanted to draw him into a hug in appreciation, but in light of his revelation, she made herself do nothing more than give him a caring smile.

“Thank you,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to lose a new friend over miscommunication.”

Renny relaxed against the back cushions of the couch and let out an exaggerated sigh. “Well, that was simple enough. I’m glad that’s over,” he said.

“It’s not over yet,” Taro said stiffly. “This only explains why you were hiding, Justy. Now I want to know why you went into the caves with the ants, when you were supposed to be running parts and tools for the rest of us.”

Justy looked up at his captain and nodded, drawing his hands back into his lap. “When Renny caught me hiding from Gina a while ago,” he muttered, “he told me that I needed to either work out my trouble with her, or confine myself to my cabin for the duration of our stay, forfeiting my pay for this outing.”

Taro looked over at her first officer with a look of surprise. “You told him that?”

Renny nodded. “I did. He was getting on everyone’s nerves and I wanted him to resolve it for all of us.”

The vixen chuckled and said, “I’m impressed. You’re starting to get a feel for your authority.”  Renny gave her a smirk but the captain had already returned her attention to the koala. “I’ve already had to reprimand two of my crew since we’ve landed in this place. I didn’t really want to add you as a third.”

“Who else?” Renny asked.

“Legrand and Somner,” she answered. “Damien for drinking on the job and Jerry for insubordination.”

“Sorry to be the cause of so much trouble,” Gina said with a raised eyebrow. She said it so dryly that it felt to Taro as if she had been stuck with a barb, but then she noticed the crook of a smile on the human’s lips. She gave her a nod to indicate she recognized the intent.

“Yeah, well, I may have three guys swabbing the cargo deck on the way to our next destination,” Taro replied as she rested a critical eye on Justy.  The koala gulped and wrung his hands again. “Continue,” the captain told him.

“Yes, ma’am,” Justy said meekly with a quick glance at the human. “I didn’t want to lose my paycheck, so I knew I’d have to talk to Gina. I needed some time to work out how I was going to approach her, but I couldn’t do it while we were working. If I went back to my cabin, Renny would think I had taken the coward’s way out.”

Renny nodded. “You’re right. I probably would have.”

“I figured that if I went into one of the caves, I could be alone long enough to work out what I was going to say to Gina.” He looked apologetically toward the human, and then back down at his hands.

“I saw you take off for the caves,” Renny said as he leaned forward onto his knees. “I figured you were running away to throw a tantrum. I wasn’t the only one who saw you go; Max told me he thought he had seen you take a canteen and a flashlight, and I remembered Garnet warning Taro about the ants.”

“Garnet had told me how large the ants were and that their colony was in the caves,” Taro explained, “but I didn’t know you’d gone in there until Renny started putting together a search party.”

Justy looked up at the vixen, then over to Renny, and finally to Gina. “I’m sorry for being a bother to everyone,” he said. “I knew nothing about the ants, but I never should have blindly gone off into an unfamiliar cave. I’m glad you all came after me or I would have been ant food by now. I’m just happy none of you were hurt.”

Gina reached out and tapped the back of Justy’s hand with an index finger. “When I heard you had gone into the ant colony,” she said, “I feared for your life.”

“Thanks,” Justy replied.

Taro heaved an audible sigh and then looked over at Renny. “Well, I think this little episode is over,” she said to him. The old familiar light in Justy’s eyes flickered and he almost smiled. He didn’t want to hope his luck was that strong, so he lightly bit his bottom lip.

“I still think swabbing the deck is a good idea,” the cheetah replied with a nod toward the fidgeting koala. “Neither Pockets nor Max have cleaned it since we were back on Fyn.”

Taro nodded. “Yes, it does need a good cleansing,” she agreed with a glint in her eyes. She glanced back down at Justy, and he tried to look as innocent as he could possibly appear to her.

Gina patted the computer tech’s arm with a look of sympathy.  “Poor Justy,” she said in a mock tone of pity. “First a clingy human, then a colony of ants out to eat him, and next a journey of intimacy with a mop and bucket. This isn’t likely a voyage you’ll remember with fondness!”

“Oh… thanks for your compassion,” he told her with a lopsided grin.     

*** 

Blue Horizon PA1138

Captain’s Diary 

We’ve just completed our launch away from Alexandrius. Usually I am always eager to visit this world, but I have just seen a part of the planet that I never wish to see again. It was not so much the area, however, as it was the events. I have had to reprimand three of my crew, and having to do so as a new captain has left a bad taste in my mouth.

First, there was Damien Legrand. He’s a capable loadmaster, but drinking on the job resulted in self-inflicted injury by a fall from scaffolding. Our doctor reports that he will be okay, with just a broken arm to contend. I discovered that Damien has some personal issues that led him to drink on the job, but as yet he won’t tell me what’s eating away at him; I am hoping in time he will open up to someone on board. The Blue Horizon has always had a close-knit crew, so maybe it’s only a matter of time before he realizes that we do care.

My second reprimand was for Doctor Jerry Somner. He’s a great guy to be around most of the time, but this voyage has shown me that when it comes to medical attention, Jerry can be quite bull-headed and even insubordinate. I understand that on military vessels, the chief physician can outrank the captain on certain issues, but I had to remind him that the Blue Horizon is not a military ship and that he has no such rights under my command.

I don’t want to compare my captaincy to the way Merlin ran this ship, but I served with him for so long that I can’t but help but follow his lead when it comes to problems among the crew. I understood Jerry’s indignation when Damien flatly refused the doctor’s advice concerning his drinking, but when the fox jumped down my throat — in front of my own crew — that was the last straw.

As soon as I was sure the doctor had stabilized Damien’s injuries, I ordered him to my office and gave him a stripping down that he won’t soon forget. I don’t often yell when I get mad, but by the time I let him go, Jerry left my office with his ears down and tail between his legs. Unfortunately, I’ll now have to order a new desk. It will be difficult doing paperwork around the dent in the desktop I made when I drove home a point while talking to the doctor. I need to get a handle on my anger if this is how I am going to react to situations that arise on my watch.

My third problem child was Justy Mandolin. Here’s a guy who has an easy-going nature, who tries to get along with everyone around him and tries to make light of situations with laughter and a smile. He’s probably the last person who should cause me any trouble.

While I understand that he felt harassed by one of our customers, a human woman named Gina Pollux of the personal cruiser Gemini Pi, his final reaction to dealing with her caused no small concern to the rest of his shipmates. I want to give Justy the benefit of the doubt, but my gut tells me that he didn’t go into the ant caves merely to think about how he was going to confront the woman. He had just been reprimanded by Renny on his behavior, and I think he was running away to sulk, despite his words stating otherwise.

No matter his reasons for going into the caves, he risked his life needlessly, as well as several of his crewmates and one of our clients. In the end, no one was hurt, but it caused quite a stir. Renny feels that Justy’s ordeal should have been punishment enough, but it’s my intention to make sure he thinks twice before doing something so foolish again. For our voyage to Dennier, I have assigned him to laundry detail, whereas Damien and Jerry will be cleaning the floor of our now-empty cargo deck.

As for this particular mission, we were able to complete everything within four days on the surface. To replace a LightDrive engine on a Gusev-class cruiser is not an easy task, and would normally have taken much longer, but with ten people working together, we managed to get everything reassembled and calibrated in record time. We were on our guard after Justy’s little adventure, but there were no further encounters with the ants.

Pockets signed off on the paperwork only a few hours ago, certain that everything would function as it should. Garnet was impressed with his coordination of the entire process and even offered him a job on her ship. Fortunately for me, Pockets declined, saying he was right where he wanted to be. Gina’s earlier infatuation with Justy has now become a joke between both crews, so after Pockets turned down Garnet’s earnest job offer, Gina made the same offer to our little koala.  Justy was embarrassed, but this time he went along with the gag long enough to let her act as if she were going to carry him away in her arms back to her ship.

Garnet was appreciative of our work, and despite my initial misgivings, everything seemed to turn out okay. The purpose of their landing in Casperverah was originally to check it out as a possible location to ferry tourists into, but after the incident with the ants, she and Gina have agreed that the place was better left to the ants. Their damaged engine has been left behind, a warning to others who might want to land there.

We finally said our goodbyes to one another, and after our launch, we monitored their progress into high orbit to make sure their systems were indeed working properly before we left them. Once Garnet informed us that everything looked good, we went our separate ways. Without another immediate customer, Merlin has recalled us to Dennier, where we can rest in a bit of downtime before attending the wedding.

Merlin and Samantha have known one another for many years and it’s about time those two got together permanently. I am looking forward to seeing what Sam has prepared for the event, and I am excited about seeing two of my best friends becoming lifemates.

Time to close my diary and take a long, soaking bath. I think I’ve earned it – with lots of bubbles.  

– Capt. Taro Nichols

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