BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 4
— Episode 35
The Blue Horizon is a freighter to the stars. The Planetary Alignment is its highway, a charter of fourteen partner worlds in eight star systems, and its fuel is paying customers. Blue Horizon Freight Transfer has been in operation, in one form or another, for nearly a decade, delivering cargo from one place to another across the Planetary Alignment. In its current form, the company consists of a fleet of three of the latest model Okami-class freighters, with its headquarters in the coastal city of Grandstorm on the world of Dennier.
The flagship of the fleet is the Blue Horizon herself, an H-model vessel of four levels in the shape of an elliptical flying saucer. Identical sister ships are the Hidalgo Sun and the Mooncrest. The lower two levels house the cargo deck, containing the engine room and a cavernous cargo hold accessible through a huge retracting airlock bay door. The third level is the crew deck, consisting of fifteen comfortable cabins, the Infirmary, laundry room, supply storage, environmental systems, a business office and the bridge. The upper level is comprised of the recreation deck, a common area for the crew to relax, exercise and gather for their meals in the Galley.
In all, the vessel provides a comfortable ride for the captain and crew of a vessel designed primarily for hauling cargo across the Planetary Alignment. Ideally, an Okami-class freighter maintains a personnel roster of eight to ten individuals of various duties.
Due to the size and comfort of the crew deck, there are typically five empty cabins at all times. In these times of economic uncertainty, Blue Horizon Freight Transfer is pleased to offer these spare cabins as Space Available to passengers wishing inexpensive travel from one PA world to another.
For a mere ©1,200 (a sixty percent savings over commercial interstellar travel cruisers), a Blue Horizon passenger will enjoy a three-room cabin complete with fully furnished visiting area, spacious sleeping room with a Queen-sized bed, walk-in closet and a roomy lavatory equipped with overhead shower and a water-immersion bathtub large enough to accommodate most PA species. Meals and snacks provided, with menus suited to meet the dietary needs of each passenger.
A typical voyage between PA worlds can be anywhere between three to six weeks in duration, so all passengers will have access to an extensive library of entertaining books and popular contemporary vids, in addition to the use of exercise equipment on the recreation deck.
Fly in comfort in our Space Available cabins with Blue Horizon Freight Transfer. Use the contact numbers located on the back of this information flyer for reservations, information and flight schedules. Walk-ins are also accepted on a space available basis. We hope you will join us on a journey across the stars.
A broad-shouldered cougar in brown slacks and a muted orange shirt studied the color photographs on the printed paper he held in his hands. He looked up from the glossy flyer when he heard his name called, and he saw a petite coyote standing in front of a glass door into the waiting area for commercial flights. She wore a simple white blouse and a pleated tan skirt that matched the color of her fur.
He gathered up a shoulder bag and a couple of wheeled suitcases, and then stood up from his seat. “I’m Rex Concolar,” he said. The coyote lass met him halfway across the semi-crowded room and greeted him with a pleasant smile.
“Good Morning, Mr. Concolar,” she said. “I am Amanda Black, the Business Coordinator of the Blue Horizon. If you will follow me, I have a luggage pallet outside that you may use to bring your belongings out to the ship.”
The cougar nodded and gestured toward the door. “After you, ma’am,” he said. He followed her outside the building and set his luggage onto the waiting antigrav platform. When he was ready, Amanda led him across the tarmac past ground-to-orbit shuttles, out toward a large elliptical vessel painted in two shades of blue. Recently washed, the ship gleamed in the morning sunlight.
“Is that it?” he asked as he pushed the small floating cart. “The Blue Horizon?”
“Yes, sir, that’s your ride to Kantus.”
Rex gave it a critical eye and then decided it appeared space-worthy. “I know it’s not a regular passenger cruiser,” he said, “but I suppose a freighter will get me there as well as anything else.” Amanda gave him a sidelong glance and opened her mouth to reply, but the cougar chuckled with a shrug of his shoulders. “I do appreciate the ride, Sweetie,” he added. “All the current commercial flights between Dennier and Kantus are booked up, not to mention expensive, so this was a life-saver!”
“Once you’re on the upper decks, you won’t even know you’re on a freighter,” Amanda told him as they approached the primary airlock, ignoring the Sweetie remark. “You probably won’t be able to distinguish the cabins on the crew deck from those in a decent hotel here in town, and the common area of the recreation deck looks nothing like a freighter either.”
“Yeah, I saw the photos on your flyer,” he said in an off-handed manner. “Looks good enough for me, or I probably wouldn’t have even bothered.”
Amanda flipped open a hidden panel beside the airlock and tapped in a combination code. When the door split apart to allow them entrance, Rex immediately noticed the internal compression door was already open so they could walk in directly. Pressurizing the ship for the voyage had not yet begun.
The cougar reached for his luggage and then stopped. “Will the pallet be okay out here on the tarmac?” he asked.
Amanda shook her head. “That one belongs to the Blue Horizon,” she replied. “You can bring it inside up the ramp.”
Rex nodded and wondered why he had to move his luggage himself. Commercial transports always had skycaps to do that for passengers as a courtesy. No doubt, it was because he was boarding a freighter, not a cruise liner. He briefly wondered if he would have to make his own meals too.
The cougar looked up at the height of the ceiling once he was inside. With the deck practically empty of cargo, the place appeared cavernous. There were several large, octagonal crates with “Jerad Porter, PA1138” stenciled upon them, as well as several large red containers of mail that were tethered to rings in the floor near the center of the room, but nothing else.
Rex heard an approaching hum and looked up in time to see a small flying saucer slow to a bobbing hover in front of him. “Hello,” he said hesitantly.
The unit was the size of two inverted pie pans, its metal skin shimmered iridescently, and it had three whisker-like antennae sprouting from each side of its “face”. It studied the cougar with an offset pair of lenses, one slightly above the other. Amanda gave him a smile and said, “Moss, security scan, passenger authorization Rex Concolar.”
The saucer emitted a pale green light from its upper lens and scanned the visitor briefly. Then it moved to his luggage and scanned them as well. When it was finished, it moved to a position in front of the coyote and intoned a casual “Meow” as it rotated two of its whiskers.
“Thank you, Moss,” Amanda said to the unit. “You may resume your duties.”
“What was that about?” Rex asked, scratching his head as the unit floated away across the cargo deck.
“It’s just a standard scan to enter you into the profile of our onboard security system,” the coyote replied, “as well as to make sure you were not bringing any harmful devices on board.”
“Is that a problem on a freighter?” he asked, suddenly concerned.
“Not recently,” she told him. “However, Moss has cleared you to come aboard and we’ve had no other threats recently.”
“Ah, okay,” Rex replied with a slow nod.
Amanda moved to the controls to close the airlock, but an echoed voice from across the deck stopped her hand above the panel.
“Mandy! Please leave it open for me!” The coyote and cougar both looked toward the voice. Approaching them from inside was a young German shepherd dressed casually in denim jeans with a matching short-sleeved shirt. He had a duffel bag slung over one shoulder and a cheerful grin on his face.
“Well, Max, are you off?” Amanda asked the newcomer. She stepped aside to allow him access to the airlock.
“Yeah, I’m late. Uncle Merlin’s brother-in-law should be waiting for me in the terminal,” the young canine replied. “I’m kinda nervous about this whole thing, but I have been looking forward to it, too.”
“You’ll be just fine,” Amanda told him. She put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a confident smile. “Have a safe journey, Max.”
“Thank you, Mandy!” He gave the cougar a nod and said, “I’m sorry I don’t have the time to visit with the Blue Horizon’s first official passenger, but I need to be going.”
“That’s quite all right, Blue Eyes,” Rex said with a smile. “Take care, wherever it is you are going.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Amanda gave Max a quick hug, and then he and his duffel bag were out the airlock. When he had gone, the coyote sealed both the internal and external airlock doors. She turned back to her companion and gestured across the hold.
“This way to the lift, Mr. Concolar,” she said and began walking. Rex pushed the cart along behind her, admiring the shape of her legs.
“What’s the story with that guy?” he asked in casual conversation.
“That’s Max Sinclair,” Amanda replied. “He’s one of our mechanics, but he’s taking some time away for surgery.”
“Surgery?” the cougar repeated. “He looked pretty healthy to me.”
Amanda chuckled as they neared a red door. “He lost a finger a few years back,” she explained, “and he’s now having a prosthetic replacement grafted on by a Pomen surgeon. We’re scheduled to pick up cargo on Kantus for delivery to Pomen, so we’ll meet back up with him there.”
“Ah, okay.” When the lift door opened, he took his luggage from the pallet cart and set them inside. “Since I’ll be flying with you folks for a few weeks, I’m sure I’ll hear others mention ol’ Blue Eyes’ finger.”
“No doubt. You’ll also hear that Max is the owner’s nephew.”
“Is the owner on board?”
“No, sir. He was just married and is now away on his honeymoon with his new bride.”
“Your mechanic just left and your captain is away with his honey,” Rex mused as the lift doors opened up to the crew deck. “Is anyone else gone, or will your sweetness be my only companion for this flight?”
Amanda led him to the right, around the curve of the corridor. “Max will be our only absentee for this voyage, Mr. Concolar. Everyone else is on board, including our captain.”
“I thought he just got married,” Rex said.
“That was the owner, not the captain.”
“Ah, okay. What’s his name?”
“Her name is Taro Nichols. You should meet her soon after we launch, Mr. Concolar.” Amanda stopped before a door that had the cougar’s name affixed on a temporary occupant plate. “Here’s your room. If you want to stow your belongings, I can give you a brief tour of the Infirmary, laundry room and the recreation deck.”
Rex opened the door to his quarters and looked inside. The coyote was right. The place resembled a hotel suite. Without even realizing it, he immediately felt better about traveling on a freighter. Despite the photos in the pamphlet, he had actually expected a room no bigger than a closet, with a folding cot and a rusty washbasin; cruise ships typically advertised rooms that were nicer and roomier than the actual cabins would turn out to be.
He set his luggage on the floor beside a comfortable-looking sofa and then turned back to his escort. “Not bad,” he said with a smile. “How long until we take off?”
Amanda consulted a trim timepiece on her wrist. “We should be launching in about a half hour,” she replied. “The bridge crew is probably going through their pre-launch checklist right now, but we still have enough time for a brief tour.”
Rex put his hands on his hips and grinned at her. “Lead the way, Sweet Stuff!”
“Open your mouth wide, please,” Jerry Somner said to the cougar. Rex sat on a stool in front of the standing doctor, his chest bare and his shirt draped over one arm. The passenger opened his mouth as directed and the red fox pressed down on his tongue with a flat wooden stick. He shined a bright penlight into the cougar’s throat and then nodded in satisfaction.
“Is a physical really necessary?” Rex asked when the fox released his tongue and allowed him to swallow.
“Yes, Mr. Concolar, it is,” replied the doctor. “It was noted in the document you signed when you bought passage through our home office. You will be sharing our circulated air during the three weeks you’re on board, and we just want to make sure you aren’t going to catch anything we might have.”
“Or you catch anything I might have?”
Jerry gave the mountain lion a nod as he scribbled some notes onto a small paper steno pad. “That is correct, sir. I should have checked you out before we launched, in the event you had an illness or an infectious parasite on you, but there was no time when you arrived.”
The cougar crossed his arms. “I sat in the waiting area nearly an hour before your sweet coyote came to get me.”
The fox looked up from his notes and raised his eyebrows. “Really? I will have to speak to her about it.” He scratched at his notepad a moment more and then set it aside. “At any rate, you appear to be just fine at first glance, Mr. Concolar. I will know more after I’ve run the tests on your blood and urine samples, but for now you’re free to go.”
“Thanks, Doc,” the cougar replied, pulling on his shirt.
His job complete, Jerry sat down on another nearby stool and leaned against the wall. “What brings you on board with us, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Rex grinned widely, clearly pleased to have someone ask. “I bought a lottery ticket just before I left Kantus to come out here to Dennier to visit a lady friend,” he explained. “I found out last night that I won the jackpot, but I have to report in person on Kantus to claim my prize.”
“Ah, very nice,” Jerry replied with a smile.
“This lottery is held PA-wide and only once a year, so due to travel distances, they will hold the numbers for ten months to allow the winner time to claim it.”
“What was the jackpot?”
The cougar finished buttoning his shirt and then he leaned on the counter. “Twenty-seven million credits! I’m surprised you didn’t see a report about it on INN.” Then he stood up and slipped his hands into his pockets. “However, until they award my prize, I’m still stuck on a budget. Yours is the only ship I could afford to get back to Kantus.”
“When you came to Dennier to see your friend, didn’t you have a round-trip ticket to get back home?” the doctor asked.
Rex shrugged. “It was my intention to get a local job and stay for a while, so my boarding pass was a one-way trip. Buying the lottery ticket on the way to the spaceport was done on the spur-of-the-moment.”
“So what are your plans once you get your money?”
The cougar smiled again. “I was thinking I might buy a private transport with a small flight crew and travel around the Planetary Alignment with my lady. Why? Are you looking for a job as my medical officer?”
Jerry chuckled. “No, sir. I’m just curious about what someone would do with that kind of money.”
“Curious-schmurious… I’m sure I could use a doctor when I travel. Do you want the job?”
The red fox shook his head. “Thank you, but no. I am happy right here and I’m under contract anyway. Besides, you should not make offers or promises until you actually have the money. Just don’t lose your ticket between now and Kantus.”
Rex raised an eyebrow and patted his shirt pocket. “No worries, Doc. The winning ticket is safe. Once you get me home, I can pay off all my debts and then live comfortably.” He moved toward the door and gave the physician a casual wave. “See ya around the galaxy, Doc!”
When the panel closed behind him out in the corridor, Rex frowned and rubbed the spot where the physician had taken the blood sample. With the advances in modern technology, he knew there were less painful ways of extracting blood. He glanced back at the door, wondering if he’d gotten a needle simply because he wasn’t a member of the crew. With a sigh, he turned around and saw several people get off a nearby lift.
“Hello!” he said with the sudden return of his grin. Taro, Justin and Lorelei all looked over at him in unison.
“Hi, there!” Lori said with a lilt to her voice. Justy merely gave a small wave and headed immediately for his cabin.
“Mr. Concolar,” Taro said with a nod. The cougar joined them and rubbed his hands together. “What can we do for you?” Taro asked.
“The doctor’s just passed me on my physical, Lady Captain,” he said, “and I was wondering what there was to do now.”
“We have a library of books and movies up on the recreation deck,” Taro suggested, “or you may use the exercise equipment. My navigator is currently up there working through his daily routine, if you wish to join him.”
“Hmm, that sounds interesting,” Rex said with a nod.
“Are you hungry?” Lorelei asked him. “I just came from the galley, but if there’s something you want, I don’t mind.”
The cougar’s eyes lit up. “Now that you mention it, I am feeling peckish!”
Lori took him by the arm and led him back to the lift. “What can I make for you?” she asked.
Rex gave Taro a small waggle of his fingers and then he looked down into the rabbit’s bright blue eyes. “I’m not particular,” he said.
Lori nodded as the lift door opened for them. “I looked over your food preferences right after you came on board, Mr. Concolar. You have a wide variety of things you like.”
“Why don’t you just surprise me with something, Bunnyfluff?”
“A surprise, eh? Okay, I think I can surprise your taste buds!”
Taro watched the lift door close and she shook her head with a chuckle. It was different having a passenger on board their ship. She just hoped he could stay out of trouble for the next three weeks he would be with them. Fortunately, all guests were restricted to the upper levels of the ship, even if they had no cargo on this voyage. Pockets had requested the use of the empty floor space in the hold to sort out the parts to a special project; he would be nose-deep into it on their way to Kantus, so the fewer people down there would be for the best.
She absently ran her fingers across the white, blue-tipped feather clipped to the fur behind her left ear and then she turned up the corridor. It was her shift to relieve Damien from bridge duty.
A half hour later, Lorelei set a plate down in front of the cougar with a smile. Renny’s nose twitched as he finished putting away the exercise mat in a wall storage closet. “I’ll take some too, please,” he said from across the room. “Pile it high!” He hurried over to the galley and sat down with his tail through the slotted back of the chair, putting both elbows on the table.
“What is it?” Rex asked as he sniffed the aromas from the steaming plate.
Renny opened his mouth to reply, but Lori shushed him before he could say a word. “You said you wanted a surprise,” she reminded the passenger as she set up a plate for their navigator. “First give it a try before I tell you what it is.”
Rex studied the plate and sniffed it curiously. From his perspective, it resembled a mass of tiny intestinal strings covered in pulpy blood with the distinct presence of a grayish brown fungus, but its tangy aroma was throwing off its identification. As the rabbit had reminded him earlier, he had a wide and varied taste in foods, so he didn’t intend to turn his nose up at it.
Lorelei didn’t know his preference for eating utensils, so she set a ceramic canister of various instruments on the table. Rex looked again at the plate and then selected a pair of chopsticks. Renny grabbed a four-pronged fork as the ship’s chef set a plate before him. Rex watched the cheetah dig into the meal with glee and decided it was time to sample the food.
He sniffed it again and then used the chopsticks to gather up a bit of the stringy mass and raise it to his mouth. He took a moderate mouthful and chewed on it silently. Lori watched the cougar expectantly, and Renny smiled around another forkful as he continued to eat.
After the first swallow, Rex licked his lips and looked down at the meal. “I like this,” he said in genuine interest. “It’s good!”
Lorelei smiled widely and then filled drinking mugs for both her customers. “I’m glad to hear it,” she said to the cougar.
“What is this?” Rex asked as he lifted up another mouthful.
“This is popular in areas on Earth,” the rabbit answered. “It’s called pasta spaghetti, with tomato sauce, mushrooms and a bit of browned ground beef.” Lorelei didn’t eat meat herself, preferring a vegetarian diet, but she had long grown accustomed to the tastes of the predator-types she regularly fed.
“More please,” Renny said as he held up his empty plate. Lori gave him a smile and took the dish for a refill.
Rex ate his food slower than the cheetah, savoring the taste. The rabbit had not given him a large amount at first and he was soon finished with his portion. He licked his lips, picked up his mug, and then took a healthy drink. He set his mug down and then hefted the empty plate toward the waiting chef as he had seen the cheetah do. “Bunnyfluff, I think I would like more of this pasty pasketti, please,” he said with a smile.
“Pasta spaghetti,” Renny corrected.
“Yeah, what Spots said – pasta spaghetti,” Rex said.
The cheetah turned to look at him and swallowed another mouthful. “Spots?” he repeated with a raised eyebrow. “Tell me, Mr. Concolar, do you have a personal name for yourself, or do you just like hearing people call you Mister?”
“My name’s Rex,” the cougar answered nonchalantly as Lorelei set a freshly filled plate before him.
“Well, Rex, my name is Renny, not Spots. Our gracious chef here is Lori, not Bunnyfluff.”
“Don’t get your fur up,” the cougar replied with a shrug, picking up his chopsticks. “I don’t mean anything by it,” he said. “I’m just bad with names.”
Renny took a drink from his mug and then leaned toward the passenger. “Fair enough, but at least try to use our names,” he said, attempting to be diplomatic. “Your time with us will be nearly a month, and attitudes will be nicer if you talk to us using our names instead of nicknames. You’ve already been introduced to everyone on board individually, but I doubt anyone will be offended if you ask his or her name if you’ve forgotten.”
Rex nodded as he lifted another helping to his mouth. “I realize I’m your first passenger,” he said before eating, “but if you’re going to ferry people across the Planetary Alignment, perhaps you should wear name tags for people like me who won’t remember your crew names after hearing them just once.”
The cougar continued eating while Renny mulled over his words. He looked over at Lori, who nodded toward their guest. “I think that’s a good idea,” she said with a smile.
“That’s just it,” Renny replied thoughtfully. “I do, too. I don’t think this is something Merlin considered when he told us we were going to start taking on passengers.”
“You have a magician who makes the decisions for your company?” Rex asked when he finished his plate.
“Magician?” Renny repeated.
“Merlin the Magician,” the cougar replied with a smile. “You know, from Terran legends.”
Renny shook his head. “I’m not familiar with that one.”
Lorelei laughed. “I know who he’s talking about,” she explained. “My father was stationed on Earth for a while and I saw some movies about that Merlin. Strange, I never thought of him when I first met our Merlin. That was clever, Rex!”
The cougar stood up and took a bow. “Thank you,” he said with a smile.
Renny grinned at the passenger. “How can you be familiar with Earth’s legends, but know nothing about a common food like spaghetti?” he asked.
Rex raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t know about this spaghetti because I’ve never been to Earth. However, I think I may have seen the same movie she did. We get a lot of Terran movies imported to Kantus.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” Renny agreed with a nod. “I’m from Gate City on Kantus, myself.”
“Really?” Rex asked. “I grew up in Martell! That’s where I’m headed after we land.”
Lorelei picked up both empty plates and took them to a large sink. “Do you know where he’s from, Renny?” she asked.
The cheetah narrowed his eyes at the cougar with a grin. “Of course I do,” he answered. “Martell and Gate City were arch-rivals in college stamball competitions. Our two teams were pretty closely matched; it made the games intense and exciting.”
Rex chuckled. “Yeah, they were loads of fun.”
Renny leaned on the table toward their guest. “Did you ever play?” he asked. The cougar’s eyes lit up and he relaxed against the back of his chair as he began to regale his host with exploits of prowess.
Lorelei chuckled as the two males became immediately engrossed in sport talk. They’re all alike, she thought to herself with a smile.
The intercom chirped and Taro looked up from the entry she was writing in her Captain’s Diary. “Yes, what is it?” she asked.
“Captain, there’s a call for you from the home office.”
“Thank you, Justy. Could you route the audio in here for me, please?”
There was another small chirp and then Cindy Allport’s voice emanated from the intercom speaker. “Taro?”
“I’m here, Cindy. How are you?”
“I’m fine, thanks for asking. My boyfriend wants me to spend some vacation time with him on the Kellogg Islands to the south; it’s very romantic with white sand beaches, clear blue water, secluded huts and lots of decadent fruit!”
Taro smiled. “That sounds great. When do you leave?”
“Next month sometime, providing Merlin lets me take the time off. I’ve been out sick a lot lately, and he’s been taking up the slack for me himself each time I’m away.”
“Yeah, that sounds like Merlin. So, what can I do for you?”
“There’s no easy way to say this, but the delivery you’re on the way to pick up has been cancelled.”
“Please tell me you are joking.”
“I’m afraid not. Crimson Astrogation is undergoing investigation, so they’ve stopped all shipments of their spatial navigation systems for the time being. There was nothing we could do about a situation like this, but I’ve already picked up a replacement for you on Tanthe.”
“Tanthe? At least that’s in the same star system,” Taro replied as she set up a new file on her computer terminal. “Okay, give me the details and then I’ll have Renny plot a new course to reroute us to the Tanthean location.”
“Actually,” Cindy said, “You’re still going to Kantus. You have a passenger who paid for a ride to Gate City on Kantus. Once he’s disembarked, then you can launch to pick up your new shipment. At their current orbital relationships, it should only take you twenty hours to reach Tanthe from Kantus.”
Taro let out a snort. “Having passengers but no cargo is going to cost us time and money when changes in the schedule like this crop up. You know they’ve happened before, and things like this will happen again. I wonder if Merlin has really thought this through.”
“I admit it can be an inconvenience, but the decision was based upon having a regular shipment load for each voyage. The passenger space is only available as a courtesy to people like your Mr. Concolar. The only reason you’re empty now is because we altered the shipping schedules to allow you all to attend the wedding. We’ll try to keep your hold stocked for each trip from Tanthe and on out. At least your destination from Tanthe is still to Pomen.”
“Well, that’s good, at least. We can still meet back up with Max as scheduled.”
“That’s what I was trying for. By the way, how is your passenger doing?”
“He’s been with us a week now, but he seems to be finding enough to keep himself occupied,” Taro reported. “He’s caused no real trouble, but he has a bad memory for names and has been calling everyone by nicknames he creates on the spot. It was amusing at first, but it’s starting to annoy some of us. If we’re going to continue this facet of our business, I think we should invest in name badges for the crew to wear.”
“That’s a good idea, really.”
“Yeah, it was actually the passenger who suggested it.”
“That should be a negligible expense and we can probably hire a business on Tanthe to make them up for you while you’re en route. If Tina approves the funds, I’ll take care of getting them made for you in time for landfall.”
“Okay, that sounds good.”
“If you’re ready, I can transmit the details of your altered schedule.”
“I have a file open. Ready to receive.”
“Okay, Taro, Renny, you two can open your eyes now.”
When the pair looked up, Pockets and Justy were grinning ear to ear. “Ta-da!” they said in unison.
Sitting on the floor of the empty cargo hold were seven large engine components that the raccoon had built over the past week with the koala’s help, using the parts delivered to the ship while they were on Dennier. Each section was nearly as large as the engineer himself.
“Well, it certainly looks as if you’ve been productive,” Renny said as he scratched his head. “What are they?”
“All of these make up the heart of a small Particle Vault system!” Pockets said proudly.
“A Vault system?” Taro repeated in astonishment. “How?”
“Do you remember a few years back when I got shanghaied onto Natasha’s ship?”
“Yeah,” Renny said. “Merlin was mad at you for a week for wandering off into town when everyone had been ordered to stay on board while we were on Brandt. You probably would have died along with her on the Lady of Dreams as part of her crew if you hadn’t made a deal with Natasha to get out of there.”
Pockets nodded. “As part of that deal, she gave me a set of plans to convert the Blue Horizon’s engines to Vault capability, but they were encrypted. Neither Patch nor I were able to make any use of them, but even if we had, major structural alterations would have been required to our ship to make it work. I was supposed to get back with Captain Natasha for the key to decrypt the plans after she checked out some information I gave her, but we never got the opportunity to meet with her again.”
“So what’s the difference now?” Renny asked. Taro walked over to the nearest component, but she was no mechanic and it looked like just another heap of spare parts.
“The difference is that I discovered Natasha’s Rosetta stone to her encryption a couple months ago and was able to decipher them. I started going over the plans again and figured out a way to use them.”
“Wait a minute,” Taro said. “You told me the key to her code was a single word from the local language of the Hestran village where Natasha and I grew up together. How can an encryption as strong as the one you described be unlocked by a simple word?”
The raccoon stuck his hands into the pockets of his coveralls amidst the tinkling of tools, and then rocked back and forth on his heels. “No, it wasn’t that easy,” he admitted, “but each letter of the word written in your alphabet unlocked a series of encryption keys, and each of those keys unlocked even more parts to the cipher, and so on. The word itself was merely the catalyst to begin a chain reaction to translate the code to Standard!”
Renny looked over at Justy at the explanation, but the koala merely pointed at Pockets with a smile and replied, “What he said!”
“How did you get roped into his experiment?” the cheetah asked Justy.
“I’ve had some experience as a mechanic. I was bored and Pockets asked me to help out since Max was gone,” Justy replied.
“That’s very clever, Pockets,” Taro said. “I’m impressed. So… now that you’ve made the components, what do you intend to do with them? You already told us it would take a structural modification for us to use them on the Horizon. Are you asking permission to take us apart?”
Pockets snickered. “No, Captain, that’s not what I’m asking…exactly.”
“I don’t like the sound of that,” Renny muttered. Taro crossed her arms and merely waited for the raccoon to continue. Pockets raised his short arms and gestured at the vessel around them.
“This is a different model ship than the one we were flying when Natasha gave me her plans,” he explained. “That G-model Okami would have taken a structural overhaul to get these components integrated into the engine system. We don’t have that problem with our current H-model design! Naturally, I’ve already measured the space of where it would need to go.”
“Naturally,” Renny remarked.
Taro swept a hand through the air over the engine parts beside them. “I know Merlin sometimes let you and Patch experiment with the systems to get more efficiency out of them,” she said, “but I don’t know if I want these things attached to our engine.”
“Why not?” Pockets asked in sudden distress. “Being able to fly faster would give us an edge over our competitors!”
Taro knelt down to look her diminutive friend at eye level. “Pockets, I admit Natasha’s engineers probably worked wonders on her ship,” she said, “but this kind of technology isn’t available to the public. After Natasha’s death, I heard there were massive efforts to locate her base of operations to exploit her technology. They found nothing, so the general assumption was that all her knowledge was aboard the Lady of Dreams when it was destroyed. What do you think would happen if the rest of the PA found out that Blue Horizon Freight Transfer possessed technology that has been obsessively sought after by virtually every world in the Planetary Alignment?”
Pockets shrugged his shoulders and looked down at his toes. “Merlin sent Natasha’s data crystals to Master Tristan on Sillon,” he said. “He thought that if Vault technology was made available to the PA, it should come from a source not related to anyone who had any prior contact with Natasha. Tristan is wise enough to handle revealing such a breakthrough slowly. If the Silloni are successful in using her plans to build new Vault ships, no one will think twice about a world so far away developing a way to travel vast distances quickly.”
“Hmm, I wasn’t aware of that,” Taro said. “Still, that didn’t answer my question.”
Justy looked hopeful. “We could say that we’re testing a prototype for the Silloni,” he offered.
“Either that, or we just don’t tell anyone that we’ve got it,” Pockets added. “We could use it only on special occasions; you know, if we fall behind on a delivery for one reason or another.”
Taro sighed and looked up at Renny for a long moment. The First officer raised an eyebrow and made a brief shrug of his shoulders. Finally, she stood up and gestured toward the parts again.
“Are you sure these things will even work with our engines?” she asked.
Pockets nodded as he looked at his and Justy’s handiwork. “Pretty sure,” he said confidently. “We won’t have the sophisticated power technology to make extremely long hops like the Lady of Dreams, but it would cut considerable time off our trips.”
“How long would the engines be offline if you two were allowed to install these things?” Renny asked. Taro gave him a dirty look, but remained silent.
“Four hours, tops,” the raccoon replied quickly, “and we’d still be traveling along our route on current inertia so it’s not like we’d be sitting still in space. The components are already built and ready for installation. We already mapped out our procedures on how to integrate these to our engines with minimal downtime – with no structural modifications to the ship!”
“Natasha’s plans were fairly specific for use with a typical Liquid Crystal LightDrive engine,” Justy added. “It would have worked on your old ship, if only the engine room had been larger. There will be plenty of space to spare even with our new components!”
Pockets and Justy both gave the Captain hopeful smiles, and the koala had his fingers crossed behind his back for luck.
Taro was quiet for a moment. Merlin may have jumped at such a chance to give the business an edge over competitors, but something of this magnitude was beyond a casual decision. However, the wolf was out of contact and she was captain of the ship, so weighing the advantages against the precautions lay fully on her shoulders. Still, he was one of the best engineers she had ever known, and he had discovered the decryption key and worked out the intricacies of the vastly superior technology with almost no assistance, so it was reasonable to trust his judgment here. The idea had merits, if they could keep its existence a secret for now.
“Let me think about it,” she said. “We may try it later, but we currently have a schedule to maintain where four hours of downtime would put us too far behind.”
“If the Vault works,” Pockets said with a smile, “we can make up whatever downtime we have with loads of time on the clock left over. We can get our passenger to Kantus faster, and then be on to our next assignment much quicker!”
“Yes, but if the Vault doesn’t work,” Taro reminded him, “We could lose another client by failing to meet a timetable. I’m not sure it’s a good idea, but I promise I’ll give it some thought.”
Pockets’ countenance fell. He was out of arguments and it showed on his face. Justy patted him on the shoulder and looked back at the vixen with a disappointed expression.
“Listen, guys,” Taro said quietly. “You two have done a great job, and you have presented me with a nice little gift. However, give me a little time to weigh the pros and cons, okay?”
Pockets looked up at her and gave her a bit of a smile. “Sure,” he said. Justy merely nodded his agreement.
“Thanks.” Taro gave them a nod in return, and then turned back toward the lift. Renny followed beside her, but his eyes were off in the distance as he thought about the implications of Pockets’ request.
When they were out of earshot and inside the lift, Renny looked over at the vixen. “If the Blue Horizon was equipped with a mini-Vault drive,” he said quietly, “we could fit in more deliveries and bring in more income to the company, and since everyone but you is paid per-voyage, that’s more income to the crew as well. From what I heard about the Lady of Dreams, it could travel half-way across the Planetary Alignment in just minutes, instead of weeks!”
“I really don’t understand how that can work,” Taro said. “Pockets tried to explain it to me back when we first encountered Natasha’s ship over Brandt, but I’m afraid that kind of stellar engineering is beyond me. I don’t understand slipping outside of real space, hopping over imaginary valleys between mountain tops, and zipping past everything else.”
“Yeah, but just think about it. He said we wouldn’t have the power capabilities that Natasha had, but there would be no more long weeks of boredom while we get from place to place! With the Vault and our power reserves, we could probably cut it down to a few days.”
“Yes, I admit that would be great,” Taro said as the lift came to a stop, “but I can’t think of anything that would justify having the whole Planetary Alignment after us for our plans to the technology.”
“Well, as Pockets said, we could just use it sparingly instead of all the time,” Renny replied, “I’m sure it could come in handy in some cases, even if we don’t use it to its full potential.”
“Maybe,” Taro said. The pair of them stepped out from the lift, and suddenly their passenger blocked their way on his way in.
“Hiya, Foxy!” Rex said cheerfully. “Hey, Speedo! Fluffbunny said she’s going to make a new dish for everyone tonight and wants to make sure everyone is there on time! Just try not to get in my way, or I might eat your fingers off!”
“Uh, right,” Renny said as the cougar pushed his way between them and into the lift. Rex gave them a wave just as the doors closed.
“Yeesh, I can’t wait until we can get to Kantus to dump this guy,” Renny muttered. “The longer he’s with us, the more irritated I get.”
“I thought you got along with him, seeing as how you two are from the same area.”
“That wore thin very quickly. He claims he’s bad with names, but I think he’s using his nicknames just to needle everyone around him. I know he’s a paying customer, but I’m sick of having him on board.”
“Yeah, I think everyone else is too,” Taro said. “The sooner we can get him to Kantus, we...” She stopped suddenly, stared back toward the closed lift doors, and then looked back at her companion. She bit her bottom lip and then walked down the curved corridor to the nearest intercom panel. She tapped a couple pads and then waited.
“One engineer at your service,” said Pockets’ country drawl a long moment later.
Renny looked at Taro curiously, but she ignored him. “Pockets, this is Taro. You have permission to install and test your components, providing you can guarantee we won’t be down for more than your promised four hours.”
“You got it, Captain!” the raccoon exclaimed happily. “It’ll take us about an hour to get everything ready and then I will let you known when we will need to shut down the engines. Four hours, tops!“
“Thank you, Pockets.”
Renny blinked and twitched his tail. “Did I just miss something?” he asked. “What made you change your mind about Pockets’ little experiment so quickly?
“Our passenger, Mister I-can’t-remember-anyone’s-name-so-I’ll-just-make-up-my-own-whether-they-like-it-or-not…”
Renny grinned at her. “Yeah, that sounds like a valid decision-maker to me.”
Taro snorted. “My concerns still stand,” she said, “but we’re just going to consider this an experiment in research and development. If it works, we will let Merlin decide whether or not we’ll keep it, and what to do about its implications later.”
“If it doesn’t work,” Renny said, “then we’ll be four hours behind in our delivery with no way to make it up en route. It’s not like we can count on a strong tail wind out here, even if we’ll still be on inertia.”
“Let’s just hope Pockets is as good an engineer as he thinks he is. In the meantime, call the crew together on the rec deck. I want to explain to everyone what we’re about to do.”
“No, this will be a staff meeting. He’s not invited.”
“Three hours and forty-six minutes!” Pockets’ voice said proudly from the bridge intercom speaker. “We’re ready to restart the LightDrive engine.”
“Okay, restart the primary system and then stand by,” Renny said. “I need to re-calculate our new heading so we don’t come out of the Vault inside standard shipping traffic.”
“Aye to that.”
Jerry looked over at the cheetah from the pilot’s center seat. Aside from Renny, the crimson fox was probably the most experienced pilot on board, and for an experiment such as this one, Taro wanted him at the helm.
“Where are we going to come out?” the doctor asked.
“Theoretically, about two hours outside the orbit of the Kantus moon,” Renny replied distractedly. He held up a hand for silence as he worked his figures.
The door opened and Taro walked in. She saw the navigator concentrating on his task and moved to the Com station without a word. She sat down, buckled her harness and then made a notation on her slateboard.
“What’s that?” Jerry whispered to the vixen.
“A signed legal document swearing our passenger to silence concerning our engine test,” Taro whispered back. “He wants to get to his lottery winnings quickly just as much as we want to get him there, so he was willing to sign.”
“I thought we all agreed at the staff meeting not to let him know about the Vault,” Jerry whispered in alarm.
“I didn’t tell him it was a Vault test,” Taro explained. “As far as he knows, our engineer is just experimenting with a standard LightDrive engine that could give us a tremendous boost for an edge against our competitors.” She held up the slateboard and added, “However, no matter the result, this will legally gag him from mentioning it to anyone else and the penalty for breaking it would cost him half his lottery winnings.”
“Ouch, that should keep him quiet.”
“Okay, I think that should do it,” Renny said after a moment. “I’m feeding the new coordinates to your panel, Jerry.”
“Receiving.” The pilot looked over at Taro and put his hands up on the guidance shifts. “Are we ready to give this a try?” he asked.
The captain opened her mouth to reply, but Renny spoke up first. “Have either of you been through a Vault jump before?” he asked.
Jerry shook his head, but Taro gave him a lopsided smile. “I probably went through one after we crashed on Crescentis and was transported to Pomen and Hestra on Natasha’s ship, but I was unconscious and have no memory of it,” she replied. “Why?”
Renny grinned. “A few of us were on the Lady of Dreams when Natasha transported the Blue Horizon inside her cargo bay to Argeia, so the rest of you will have a new experience today,” he said. “The first time through can play funny with your insides.”
Taro exchanged a quick look of concern with the doctor. “What kind of funny?” Jerry asked.
Without answering the question, Renny looked over at Taro. “I need the intercom to connect only to the engine room and the rec deck,” he said. “I don’t want our passenger to hear what I have to say to the crew.”
Taro furrowed her brow, but then she turned to the Com panel, tapped a series of controls, and gave him a nod.
“This is Damien,” the mastiff replied.
“Engine Room,” Justy’s voice came back.
“Sound off, is everyone there?” Renny asked.
“Lori, Amanda and I are here in the Galley,” Damien replied.
“Pockets and I are down here together with the engines,” the koala reported.
“We are about to give Pockets’ home-made system components a test, but first I wanted to give you a bit of a warning. If this works as planned, we’re all going to feel a little ill when we Vault, but it will only be momentary. Natasha told us that the best thing you can do is hold your breath, close your eyes and then tense up so the effect on the body is somewhat muted. They say it gets routine as you get used to it, but the first time can be disorienting. I don’t know how well our inertial dampers are going to work with a Vault jump, so I would suggest everyone get strapped into a flight harness. It’ll take us a few moments to get up to standard cruising speed and then Jerry will announce when he’s ready to initiate the Vault. Prepare yourselves.”
The intercom chirped, so Taro switched the channel. “This is Taro, but we really don’t have time to chat,” she said.
“This is Pockets. One of the components we built enhances the inertia dampers,” he explained. “We shouldn’t need harnesses.”
“Maybe not,” Taro replied, “but since this an experiment, it’s better to play it safe.”
“Okie dokie. I’m going to monitor the systems to make sure the regular engines still operate normally. The new components should have no effect on the LightDrive until it’s switched on, but I want to be sure.”
“Keep me informed of any changes to the readings you think look the least bit unusual,” Taro said.
The captain closed the intercom circuit and gave Jerry a nod. “Take us up to standard cruising speed. Once you’re sure our LightDrive still works as it’s supposed to, we’ll make our Vault test.”
“Aye, ma’am,” the pilot replied as he initiated controls for the standard engines.
Taro tapped another control on her panel and waited for the reply. A moment later, the intercom chirped.
“Uh, this is Rex,” said the cougar’s voice. “I hope I touched the right pad to reply.”
“Mr. Concolar, this is the captain,” Taro replied.
“What can I do for the lovely vixen? My schedule is open if you want a rendezvous.”
Taro grimaced. “I just wanted to inform you that our down-time is over and we are moving again.”
“Does this mean your Coongineer’s test worked? When do we arrive on Kantus?”
“We haven’t tested the upgrades yet, but the components are now in place. Once we get up to standard cruising speed, we will make an announcement over the intercom and then initiate the test.”
“Do I need to hold onto anything?”
“If you look to the left of your desk, you will see a panel in the wall that pulls out into a small seat. It’s equipped with a harness for emergencies. To be on the safe side, I suggest you strap yourself into it when we give the warning.”
“I found it. I’ll be strapped in when you give the word.”
“Very good,” Taro said. “If this works, we should be able to shave off a good deal of our remaining timetable and get you to Kantus in record time.”
“Here’s hoping your masked mechanic knows what he’s doing!”
“We have reached standard cruising speed, Captain,” Jerry said.
“What does spatial traffic look like?” Taro asked.
“Nothing within half a light year of us in any direction,” Renny reported. “This is a good time to do it.”
Taro heaved an audible sigh and then held up her hand with crossed fingers to her companions. She turned, activated the ship-wide intercom, and then gave the physician a thumbs-up.
“All hands, prepare for engine boost test,” Jerry announced throughout the ship. “Get into your harnesses.” Taro left the com channel open while the pilot quickly went through his checklist once more. A moment later, he was satisfied everything was ready, so he reached toward a new set of controls that Pockets had earlier added to the right side of the center seat console.
The male fox held down three recessed pads simultaneously until a diode went from amber to green, and then he flipped a single toggle. He looked over at Renny and Taro and gave them both a silent nod.
“Engine Room, prepare for system activation,” he announced when he held his finger above a large green touch pad.
“Engine Room ready,” said Pockets over the open circuit.
“We are go on Five… Four… Three… Two… One!”
Jerry quickly held his breath, closed his eyes, tensed his body as Renny had instructed, and then punched the green pad.
Outside the freighter, a ring of blue-white flame encompassed the entire vessel for a brief instant.
There was a momentary sensation that everything stopped: heartbeat, brain activity, metabolism and even time itself. Everyone on board collectively felt a cessation of all senses at once. It was not a sensation in and of itself, but the lack of sensation. Then it was a feeling of suffocation, of being buried alive while sliding sideways. Those who had clenched up were too focused on their straining bodies to appreciate the experience of the Vault fully, but those who remained relaxed were sickened by it. Jerry felt as if his stomach was about to heave violently, but then it was gone.
He felt a little disoriented, as if his inner ear was a little wobbly, but it subsided as soon as he opened his eyes. Taro and Renny both still had their eyes clenched so he looked up at the system clock on his console and noted that only a moment had passed.
“Renny?” he asked in voice that sounded strangely unlike his own.
The cheetah looked around and blinked rapidly to refocus his eyes. “Yeah,” he whispered. “You okay?”
To his surprise, Jerry felt just fine. The momentary queasiness was gone already without any residual effects. “Yeah, I’m okay,” he said.
Taro opened her eyes and shook her head as if clearing out cobwebs. “Uh, that was… surreal,” she breathed; she looked up and out the forward windows at the stars. “Did it work? Have we gone anywhere?” she asked. Renny turned to his navigational console and tapped in some commands.
The intercom chirped. “This is the bridge,” Taro responded. “Please stand by while we get our bearings.”
“C-captain,” said Rex’s quivering voice. “I got s-sick on myself. C-can I go clean up?”
Taro looked over at Jerry, who gave her a nod. “Yes,” she told him, “it’s safe to move around now.” There was no reply, but the intercom chirped again on another channel.
“Did we make it?” Lorelei asked. “That was weird! I don’t see Kantus on the vidscreen.”
“Hold on,” Taro told her. There was another chirp, but before she could respond, Pockets’ voice issued from the speaker.
“Captain!” he exclaimed with a cough. “We have a component on fire down here that’s eating a lot of oxygen! We’re going to seal off the bulkhead and vent the atmosphere from the engine room!”
“Do it!” Taro replied quickly. “Report ASAP!”
“The navigational computer is down,” Renny said after a moment, “but sensors are reading a nearby solar body.”
“Is it Anya?” Jerry asked. “Maybe we just didn’t make it far enough inside the Anya solar system to Kantus.”
“Without the nav computer, I’ll have to make calculations based on the positions of the stars themselves,” Renny replied. He opened a panel near him and pulled out a brass sextant from a form-fitted, padded drawer.
He glanced up through the forward windows and then gestured behind him at the physician. “I need you to reorient the ship so the nearby star is visible through the forward windows.”
“Coming right up,” the male fox replied. While the navigator prepared to take his readings, Taro moved past him to the environmental station.
When the ship was in position, Renny turned down the bridge interior lights and then leaned up close to the middle transparent vidscreen panel. He took a number of sightings in a short period, and then had Jerry turn the ship twice. In the meantime, Taro monitored the engine room readouts and spoke quietly to Pockets with a headset so not to disturb the navigator’s concentration.
Once she was satisfied that Pockets and Justy were okay, and the engine room was once again pressurized, she let them go inspect the damage before she would make a decision on what to do. She moved to the sensor panel and examined the readouts on the nearby star system.
“We’re detecting five planets,” she said quietly. “One is a methane gas giant, two are dwarf planetoids, and the final two are similar in diameter to one another, about the size of Kantus and Tanthe.”
“Then that is Anya out there,” Jerry said with an air of relief.
“No...” Renny said with a side-glance at Taro’s readout. “Not enough planets and they’re in the wrong order.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Anya star system has seven worlds; within the Goldilocks Zone, Kantus and Tanthe are the third and fourth planets, respectively. This star only has five planets, and the two worlds that size are numbers two and four, with the fourth being in the habitable zone. This is not the Anya system.”
“Are you telling me that the star system out there is not part of the PA?” Jerry asked as he looked up at the vidscreen.
“That’s right,” Renny replied as he took another sighting. “It’s not on any of the charts.”
“How can you be sure?” the male fox asked with a strange look on his face. “You said the nav computer was offline, so how can you know that’s not the Anya star system?”
“Jerry,” Renny said patiently, “I’m a navigator and you know I have an eidetic memory of the PA star charts. Before the jump, I familiarized myself with the present locations of Kantus and Tanthe in their orbits around their sun for my navigational calculations, and I can assure you that this isn’t the Anya system.”
Jerry walked over to the forward screen and swished his tail. “Then where the blazes are we?”
Renny lowered the sextant with his eyes closed, and made some mental computations. When he had reached his decision, he looked back at Taro with a strange expression on his face.
“What is it?” she asked.
“We’re north of the galactic plane, so we’re above that star system out there, but if my calculations are correct, we’ve overshot our goal by a number of light years.”
“Overshot?” Jerry asked. “How far?”
“Without instruments, I can’t give you a figure, but I do believe we’ve gone out toward the Rim, or beyond.”
Taro dropped her headset in surprise, and then scrambled to pick it up. “Beyond the Rim?” she repeated hoarsely. The intercom chirped and all three of them jumped. “This is Taro,” she said into her headset. She listened for a moment and shook her head. “No, Lori, we’re still trying to figure that out,” she said. “Please, just hold on until we have something. Yes, you can move around now.” She disconnected the channel, unplugged the headset from its receptacle, and then sat down in the nearest seat.
“I want you two to do what you can up here to get our navigational computer operational,” she said. “I’m going down to check in on Pockets and Justy. If the Vault system is out of order, it’s going to take us a while to get back to PA traffic and I want to know what we’ll be facing if it comes to that. I’ll meet with everyone on the rec deck in two hours to discuss our situation, so if anyone else calls up here to ask, just tell them to cool their heels.”
“Justy’s our computer expert,” Renny reminded her. “If you can spare him from the engine room, he can be better utilized up here.”
“Yes, I know,” Taro replied as she headed for the door, “but he helped Pockets build those components and right now our priority is to get the engines back online, with or without the Vault. Just do what you can for now, and I’ll have Justy help you later when Pockets can do without him.”
Taro looked out at the faces of those who depended upon her leadership; some were seated and others were standing. The crew was her family, and even though they had a passenger amongst them, she was responsible for him as well.
“Okay, I’m not given to long speeches like Merlin used to make,” she said as she leaned back against the edge of the rec deck’s vidscreen terminal, “so I’ll keep this short.” The cougar’s hand went up, and Taro sighed inwardly. “Yes, Mr. Concolar?”
“How much longer before we get to Kantus?” he asked.
Not soon enough, Taro thought to herself. “A little longer than expected, I’m afraid,” she told him.
“Longer, but I thought…”
“Just a moment, Rex,” Renny said. “Let her explain.”
“Okay,” the passenger said with a frown.
“We have good news and bad news...” Pockets singsonged from the side. Taro gave him a dark look and his smile faded.
“That is essentially correct,” the vixen said. “First, the good news, I suppose. Pockets’ experiment did work. However, we didn’t arrive at our intended destination.”
“We didn’t go far enough?” Amanda asked.
“Actually, we went too far,” Taro explained.
“Too far?” several responded in union. Rex immediately sat down on the arm of the chair nearest to him beside Lorelei.
“That’s right. We overshot our destination by a number of light years,” she said. Several of them spoke up at once, making the conversation nothing more than confused yammering. “Listen,” Taro said in a loud voice over the din, “if you’ll hold all your questions for a few minutes, I’ll tell you about our situation.”
The noise faded and then everyone’s attention was on her again. “The upgrades took the ship faster toward our destination as expected, but our navigation computer crashed when the new system activated. We didn’t brake in time.”
“Yeah, it’d be hard to know when to brake when the whole trip lasts only a moment!” Justy said with a grin.
“That’s why we needed the nav computer,” Renny replied.
“I think we moved much faster than anything should,” Rex said as he sat back down with his thick tail in his lap, “but I don’t think your invention is going to sell well if it makes people sick!”
Taro opened her mouth for an explanation, and then thought better of it. That sentiment of his could conveniently keep him from inquiring further into the technology after they finally got him back to Kantus.
“Right,” she said. “I agree it will take more research and development. However, as it stands right now, we’re a long way from home with two major systems currently out of operation.”
“What systems?” Damien asked. “It’s not Life Support, is it?”
“No, it’s not Life Support,” the vulpine captain reassured him. “The nav computer is still down and the experimental engine components are also out of commission.”
“They can all be repaired,” Pockets piped up, “but it will take a while.”
“Is the LightDrive out?” Damien asked. “If that still works, we should get started on our way back.”
“The LightDrive engines are fine,” Pockets replied, “but we had a component fire in the engine room that’s depleted some of our air reserves. We probably wouldn’t make the distance back to Kantus before it ran out.”
“I thought our air was recycled,” Amanda said in alarm.
“It is,” Taro answered, “but with a depleted supply and nine sets of lungs, the reclamation unit would be over-tasked with carbon dioxide before we could reach PA traffic. Renny has calculated our position, and we’re about six months away from Kantus.”
“Six months!” Lori exclaimed. “I don’t want to suffocate!”
“You aren’t going to suffocate,” Pockets said with a shake of his head. “That’s a worst-case scenario if we head back to Kantus using only the LightDrive, but I’m confident that Justy and I can rebuild the components necessary to get our experimental unit operational again.”
“So, what do we do in the meantime?” Damien asked. “I don’t want to put a damper on Pockets’ optimism, but we’re going on the assumption that he can repair the unit. But… if he can’t, we’ll be dead before we make it back to the Planetary Alignment!”
Taro crossed her arms and nodded. “Now we’re back to where I was going with this,” she said. Everyone fell quiet and looked at her. “Using the LightDrive, we’re currently within a day’s travel to a habitable world orbiting a star that Renny has identified on the charts as TES.84497. Due to its distance from the rest of the PA, we have no knowledge that it’s ever been explored, not even by the Firebird Fleet, but our long-range sensors have scanned a habitable atmosphere with acceptable pressure and solar protection.
“Since we’re without the nav computer, Renny is going to pilot the ship manually and take us down to the surface. Once we’ve landed, the engines will be shut down so Pockets and Justy can work on the experimental unit. They may need help, so if they ask for your assistance, please give it to them. After landing, we’ll see about using the local atmosphere to replenish our internal capacity for the ride home, although we may have to filter it first. If the components aren’t reparable, at least we will have air to breathe on the long journey back.”
The Blue Horizon passed through the atmosphere without incident. Taro shut off the infrared filters on the forward window panels as Renny banked the aerodynamic saucer to the right to throw off excess speed. The sky below them was wispy with cirrus clouds, and the sun above them reflected off the airborne ice crystals in vibrant rainbow colors. It only took a moment to descend through the thin cloud layer and Taro began scanning the ground far below for a good place to land.
“What’s it looking like down there?” Renny asked. He kept his eyes glued to his instrument readings, his hands steady on the guidance shifts.
“Unspoiled countryside,” the captain replied. “Not a city in sight and there’s no air traffic. I see natural lakes in places, small groups of trees scattered in green valleys, and open fields. There are snow-capped mountains to the east.”
“In that case, I’m heading west to avoid the mountains,” Renny decided. “Find us a nice open—”
Pip… pip… pip… pip… pip…
“Huh? What is that?” Renny asked.
Taro got up and moved to the Com station with a puzzled look on her face. “It almost sounds like a standard landing beacon,” she said, checking the computer, “but it’s very weak.”
“How can that be?” the cheetah asked.
Taro looked up and out the forward windows. “I don’t know,” she replied. “The com channels are otherwise clear. The sensors don’t detect any other signs of technology.”
Renny frowned. “Can you pinpoint the beacon?” he asked. “Maybe there’s someone down there who can help us.”
“Maybe,” Taro muttered, “or it might just be a survey marker from some past visitor to this world. We’re so far from the Planetary Alignment that someone from other nearby worlds may have explored this planet, or it maybe it’s another of the lost Terran colonies.”
“Well, if the marker points us to a nice open field, we may as well set down there as opposed to anywhere else we might choose at random,” Renny suggested.
“Agreed. I have general coordinates of the signal, but it’s not strong enough for me to locate the exact spot.”
“That’s good enough. Is it near a field? That’s what I really need.”
Taro gave him a smirk. “Yes, it’s near to a field, a lake, some trees, and is close to the highlands to the east,” She handed him a scrap of paper. “Here’s your coordinates since the nav computer is still down.”
“Thanks, darling,” the cheetah replied with a toothy grin. He compared the figures with their present location depicted on his instruments, and began to work out his trajectory to the landing spot.
While he was doing that, Taro turned back to the Com station and picked up her headset microphone.
“All hands, this is the Captain,” she broadcast over the ship-wide intercom. “We will be landing shortly, but this planet may not be as untouched as we first thought. We’ve picked up what seems to be a weak landing beacon so we are currently making for its location. It is unknown if there is anyone down there, because the beacon itself is the only technology we have been able to detect on the entire planet. Once we are down, our priority is repairing the ship, so please be prepared to help out. We’ll not be resetting our shipboard clocks this time, but it appears to be early afternoon where we will be landing. Please keep in mind that we’re no longer within the established civilizations of the Planetary Alignment, which means things could be different here than we’re used to.” She looked over at her navigator, who had already plotted their course, and she briefly glanced at his instruments. “We should be landing in about twenty minutes.”
In her cabin, Lorelei looked up at the announcement with a toothy smile. “Yay!” she exclaimed with glee. She shed her flight harness and then moved into the back room with a purpose. She quickly stepped out of her garments and into the bathroom, where she grabbed up her favorite scented shampoo for a quick shower. A landing beacon meant people! If there were any local shops out there on this new world, she planned to do her best to make a good first impression.
She thumbed the control on a wall-mounted music player to fill the room with energetic music, and then she turned on the shower to a heavy amount of steam. Dancing even before she stepped into the shower, Lorelei was happy with the ship’s current situation even when everybody else saw it as a bad thing. She raised her voice to sing along with the music and began to run the water through her white fur.
A moment later, the captain’s voice once more issued from the intercom in the front room. “All hands, listen up. Our doctor has reminded me that a cargo vessel like the Blue Horizon is not equipped with the sensitive biological scanners standard on exploration ships like the Firebird Fleet, so our standard PA-regulated inoculations may not be effective against organisms native to this place. The outside vegetation seems similar to what we have on some of the PA worlds, but until we can test the local atmosphere for harmful elements, I suggest we all stay indoors. Jerry will be testing air and soil samples, so please don’t disturb him until he can provide a report on the outside conditions.”
The Blue Horizon slowed to a hover over a large field of what appeared to be waving wheat, and then Renny fired the landing thrusters as he lowered the landing gear while hoping he wouldn’t set the field on fire. The elliptical flying saucer set down gently on the virgin soil and then the sound of the vessel’s engines fell silent across the region.
Outside the star freighter, nothing moved for several long moments, but then colorful indigenous birds and insects promptly ignored the large blue rock that had fallen from the sky to resume their peaceful existence.
Taro stared out the forward windows across the wheat field and saw trees and gently rolling hills not far away to their port side. Leaves fluttered on the trees and the wheat heads gently rocked with a light breeze. “It looks like spring out there,” the vixen said with a sigh, “peaceful and inviting.”
“Hopefully Jerry will give us some good news concerning the environment,” Renny replied while he shut down the flight systems.
“That’s providing that his tests can find and recognize local bacteria and viruses,” Taro said. Renny joined her at the window and slipped an arm around her waist. He looked out on the new land and smiled.
“I’d like the opportunity to get out in that field and run!” he said merrily. “I haven’t felt the need to take a run across the countryside since I was shot in Iverson, but looking out there now, my legs are practically flexing to get started!”
Taro grinned at him. “Well, cool your heels, lover,” she teased. “I don’t want anyone going outside until we know it’s safe. It would be a bad thing if we brought back some biological hazard with us to the rest of the PA.”
“Better not let anyone else look out the windows,” Renny quipped. “Once they see that field, those trees and that sky, you won’t be able to get any work out of anyone!”
“Speaking of work,” the vixen said, “I need to make sure Pockets has all the help he needs with the repairs.”
Lorelei walked through the field with a huge smile on her face. Her small pink nose twitched with the sharp scents as she tried to identify everything around her. The stalks of wheat came up to her shoulders and she idly wondered at the potential of the plant as a supplement to their food stores. She plucked the ripe head off one and rolled its seeds between her hands, watching the chaff scatter in the light breeze.
As she neared the far edge of the field with the Blue Horizon behind her, she glanced into the shadows of the nearby trees and wondered where the nearest store might be. A flash a bright color at her feet attracted her attention and she squatted to pick a bright yellow flower. It had a mixture of red and green filaments and it gave off a pleasant scent when she put it up to her nose. She sneezed and felt her eyes water, dropping the flower as she rubbed her eyes. She felt fine a moment later, but left the flower where it had fallen.
She looked back toward the Blue Horizon, wondering why no one else had ventured outside. She surmised that her crewmates had probably already gone into town, leaving her behind. She pouted for a moment, but then she had a strong sensation of being watched. A shiver ran up her spine and she slowly looked around as the eerie feeling persisted.
Suddenly afraid, she squatted down in field, lowered her ears, and then became still and quiet. Only her wide blue eyes moved as she watched and waited. Everything around her was silent, with only the gentle breeze waving the heads of the tall, wheat-like stalks. She soon heard unfamiliar birdsong and the buzzing and tiny clicks of insects, but otherwise she could hear nothing else.
She began to wonder if it was her imagination playing tricks on her. She started to get back to her feet, but then she stopped when she heard a giggle. A giggle? Her ears went up and rotated as she listened quietly, trying to locate the source of what she thought she heard. There it was again — more giggling, but this time accompanied by indistinct whispers.
She was about to call out, but then suddenly she heard scampering through the field in places all around her. She grew very frightened as the realization came to her that something was stalking her!
She opened her mouth, wanting to scream, but she also didn’t want to give away her position. She’d not thought to bring a DataCom or a weapon with her, and she was too far from the Horizon to make a run for it. Her heart was beating rapidly and her nose was twitching, but despite the urge to run, she felt frozen in place.
There was a strange, yet familiar scent on the wind, but she couldn’t readily identify it. All she could see was the wheat all around her, and then suddenly a white furry arm reached out and took her by the wrist.
Lorelei jumped up and began to shriek, but then a lapin male face emerged over the arm and placed a gentle hand over her mouth. Lori’s breath caught in her throat and she began to shake all over. Her eyes were as wide as they could possibly go, but the face that looked back at her seemed puzzled by her reaction to his presence.
He released her wrist and then pressed two fingers to his bifurcated upper lip, but Lori didn’t understand the meaning. She swallowed back her fear and tried to calm herself. He removed his hand from her mouth and gave her a slight nod. Not knowing what else to do, she nodded back to him. He’d not harmed her, only restrained her from running or causing noise. Perhaps there was something still out there that he didn’t want her attracting its attention.
The young buck had fur that was all white like her own. He had an impressive, broad-shouldered physique like that of a professional football player, with arms that looked as if he could possibly pin her in a vice-like grip. He wore only what looked like a loose pair of shorts dyed to match the color of his blue-gray eyes, and had a simple pendant made from a polished amber stone upon his chest. Although he seemed like a robust specimen, Lorelei sensed fear from him.
He made some hand gestures that she didn’t recognize, but when he realized she didn’t understand, he eased up on her elbow, laid his long ears backward, and stood up to a stoop. She rose with him, keeping her ears down too, as they moved their heads just to the top of the wheat stalks. When she could see, they were facing the Blue Horizon, and then she understood.
This male was warning her, another rabbit, of the danger of what looked to be a large blue something that had come down from the sky. He didn’t seem afraid of her, so he may not have actually seen her come out through the airlock. She put a hand on his arm, and when he looked back at her, she nodded with a smile of understanding. The male nodded in return, and then pulled her back down to squat low to the ground.
He whispered something in a language she didn’t understand, and suddenly a dozen small rabbit children emerged all around them; there didn’t seem to be any kits older than five or six summers. The adult male looked around at them with two fingers pressed to his upper lip and the kits grew completely still and quiet. Lorelei was amazed at their sudden appearance and their obedience.
The adult male then leaned in so close to her that their whiskers brushed together and he put his lips next to her left ear. He whispered something in his language to her, but as before, she didn’t understand his words. She did close her eyes, however; his musky scent was pleasing in his closeness.
Likewise, the male’s nose quivered as he took in her strange scent. He’d never encountered perfume before and seemed puzzled at the odd aroma. It was a pleasant scent, but completely unknown to him.
He pulled back far enough to look into her eyes with puzzlement at her lack of response. He repeated his words, but when she didn’t appear to understand, he frowned deeply. He glanced back in the direction of the alien thing and then took Lori by the hand. He spoke in quiet whispers to the children, and then they all suddenly disappeared back through the wheat stalks. He gestured in what Lori thought was an invitation for her to join him and then the two of them got up together, although they crouched to remain hidden beneath the wheat.
He led her by the hand away from the Blue Horizon and she cast a brief glance behind her. She no longer felt threatened by this buck and his large litter of kits, so she allowed herself to go with him willingly.
The intercom chirped and Jerry looked up from his microscope. He reached over to his com terminal and tapped a control. “Infirmary,” he said.
“Jerry, is the captain in there?”
“No, Damien, I am alone,” the fox replied. “I am calibrating my instruments in preparation to test our new planet.”
“Hmm, okay. I thought she was headed up to see you. If you see her, please have her contact me in my office right away.”
“I will,” the physician replied. The circuit disconnected, but before he could go back to his microscope, the door opened. Taro walked in, followed by Amanda.
“I brought you some help, Doctor,” the vixen told him. “She can help with whatever you need in your study.”
“Thank you, I can use her,” Jerry replied with a smile toward the lithe coyote. “Captain, Damien needs you to contact him ASAP. He’s down below in his office.”
Taro frowned, but moved directly to the intercom. A moment later, she opened the connection at the familiar system chirp. “This is Damien,” the load master’s voice said.
“You needed me?” Taro asked.
“Captain, I just found the primary airlock open to the outside.”
Taro’s tail twitched. “I thought I ordered everyone to stay on board.”
“Yes, you did. Nevertheless, it’s open.”
“Close it and lock it with a security code. With it open, our air may already be contaminated, but I don’t want to expose ourselves any more than we have to.”
Taro punched the ship-wide intercom button in irritation. “All hands, please gather at the Galley — immediately.” She cut off the circuit and turned to her companions. “You two are excused,” she said. “I just want to get a tally of the others to see who might be missing from our ranks. I don’t think anyone on the crew would violate my orders, so I have a hunch that it was our passenger who went out the airlock.”
“I’ll finish calibrating my instruments and then test the air in the hold before I suit up to go outside for our samples. I just hope my simple lab will be able to detect and handle any foreign agents that might be harmful to us.”
“Just do the best you can,” Taro said. She gave a weary look toward Amanda and then was out the door.
The vixen stormed around the corridor to the nearest lift, but stopped short when Rex Concolar stepped out of his cabin toward her.
“What’s going on, Captain Lady?” he asked around a toothbrush. There was a towel draped across his bare shoulders, and he used it to daub at a bit of foamy blue-green toothpaste on his lips.
Taro was at a brief loss for words, but she motioned him to join her in the lift. “I just need to get a head-count,” she told him. As they ascended to the upper deck, Rex continued to brush at his teeth, but when they stopped, Taro looked at him hesitantly. “Have you been on the cargo deck, Mr. Concolar?” she asked.
He shook his head and then turned away to empty the contents of his mouth into the folds of his towel. “Not since I came on board,” he replied when they stepped out into the recreation deck. “I was told to stay on the upper decks.” He dropped his towel next to the lift door and then followed her to the Galley where the rest of the crew waited for her already. Almost everybody.
Renny sat at the head of the dining table and Damien stood beside him with his arms crossed. Justy, Pockets, Jerry and Amanda were all seated around the long table with their passenger, Rex.
“Jerry and Amanda are in the Infirmary. Where’s Lori?” Taro asked with an edge to her voice.
No one spoke up, but the captain didn’t see any deception on the faces of those who looked back at her. Justy shrugged his shoulders and said, “I haven’t seen her since lunchtime.”
Taro looked first to Renny, and then to Damien. “Why would she leave the ship against orders?” she mused aloud.
“Bun-bun’s gone outside?” Rex asked in alarm. “I thought you said it could be hazardous to our health out there.”
“I found the primary airlock open a few minutes ago and called the captain,” Damien reported. “Lori’s the only one of us missing.”
“That defenseless rabbit’s outside in an unknown environment!” Rex exclaimed, suddenly agitated. “She could be in serious danger!”
“Yes, that’s why I ordered everyone to stay on board,” Taro reminded him. “I thought I explained my reasons clearly enough.”
“I volunteer to go after her!” the cougar said valiantly. He turned and took two steps toward the lift before Damien grabbed his belt.
“Hold on, Rex,” the mastiff said. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“No one else is going outside,” Taro said firmly. Renny walked across the room to a com terminal and keyed in the combined frequencies of all the ship’s DataCom units and ship-wide intercom simultaneously
“Lori? This is the Blue Horizon,” he said into the com microphone. “Are you there?” Everyone grew quiet to listen for a response as it echoed from the overhead intercom. After a minute, Renny tried again. “Lori, this is Renny. Please respond.” He repeated his message several more times before he sighed with a frustrated look toward the vixen.
The intercom chirped suddenly.
“Lori?” Renny asked.
“No, this is Amanda. What’s going on?” she asked.
“We think Lori’s gone outside,” Justy replied.
Jerry’s voice came back in alarm. “We were about to suit up, but we haven’t been out to make our tests of the environment yet!”
Taro set her jaw and thought for a moment. Then she walked to a storeroom closet and said, “I want everyone to take binoculars. Get to the cabin windows and start looking for her visually. With hope, she won’t have wandered off too far and one of you can spot her.” Looking up at the ceiling intercom speaker, she added, “Doc, in the meantime, I want you and Mandy to go ahead with your task. Renny and I will also suit up to go look for Lori outside. If she’s been injured or is incapacitated in some way, we’ll be able to bring her back, but I’ll need you to be nearby in case we need your help.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jerry’s voice replied. “Amanda, let’s get suited up.”
“I’m right behind you,” the coyote answered.
Pockets took a pair of binoculars the vixen was passing out from the closet. “Taro, you and Renny may not need to go outside,” he said. “I can send Moss out to look for Lori. It can scan for things you might miss and it can be easily sterilized in the airlock before coming back on board the ship. It can’t carry her if she’s injured, but it can lead you to her location if you do have to go out in suits.”
“That’s a good idea, Pockets,” Renny said.
“Of course it is,” the raccoon replied with a smile. “All my ideas are good.”
“Lor-eh-lye… My name is Lorelei,” she tried again with a hand to her bosom. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be a common reference in their languages with which to work. She sat cross-legged in the grass below a large tree with triangular leaves, facing the lapin local. The small bunny kits were scattered out on the grass around them, either dozing or playing quietly with one another. The two adults had been attempting to communicate for the greater part of an hour without success.
Due to the transient lifestyle growing up in a military family, Lori knew several languages used in areas of the Planetary Alignment, but there was nothing in common with the tongue spoken by her new companion. It didn’t sound difficult to pronounce, but unless she knew the meanings and syntax, she might speak in gibberish if she tried it.
About the only thing she had been able to understand was the name of her companion. As far as she could tell, the buck said his name was “N’iik” as he put a hand up to his forehead, his palm facing outward. He tried to convey other words to her as well, but nothing else made any sense to her. Lori tried once more, unwilling to give up.
N’iik tried her name, but he stumbled over the pronunciation. Lori’s eyes lit up and she tried a different tactic. “Lor-ee,” she said, using the hand gesture to her forehead. “I am also called Lori.”
N’iik watched her lip movements as she repeated the shortened name a few more times. Then he opened his mouth and said “L’ree.”
“Yes!” Lorelei exclaimed. She clapped her hands and then nodded to him with a wide smile. “That’s close enough for me!”
N’iik seemed satisfied that they had finally made their introductions, but the lack of progress with the rest of their speech bothered him. He only knew the language spoken by his people, never having heard another tongue before. He briefly wondered if the fault lay with himself, since he didn’t appear to have the capability to understand this cute doe. Where she had come from, he couldn’t guess. Some of the other lapin communities spoke with different dialects, but they all shared the same common language. What was so different about this one?
He said something quietly to the kits and then took a quick head-count to make sure the youngsters were all accounted for as they gathered close around. Then he slipped his hand into Lori’s and gestured for her to stand up. Retaining her hand, he pulled her along with him further through the trees away from the blue thing in the field, a dozen bunnies in tow.
Lorelei followed along with him in fascination. She didn’t know where he was leading her now, but after a time, she could hear other voices. Perhaps he was taking her to his town where she could do some shopping. She’d love to have a souvenir from this quaint place.
She felt a tug on the rainbow tie-dyed tee shirt she wore and she looked down at a small lop-eared bunny who wandered along beside her. The kit held up a small handful of tiny blue flowers, and she took them from the child with a gentle smile. The little bunny seemed pleased that her gift had been accepted and she bounced up ahead of the adults in glee.
The ground beneath their feet meandered, and they were soon walking up a hill under tall trees with their lowest branches far above her head. When they crested the rise, the trees thinned and the area opened out onto a hilly plain that contained N’iik’s village. Lori found it of interest that all the homes and other structures were built into the sides of the surrounding hills, rather than buildings built on top of the ground. They were similar to some of the warrens on Mainor where lapin communities had once existed.
There were no doors that she could see, but over the main openings into the homes were long, split curtains of pastel colors that were woven with artistic designs. Small windows in the hillsides were also covered with similar curtains that wafted gently in the breeze.
At first, Lorelei thought the place was completely primitive, but she saw numerous tools in use made from many different materials, including a metal with an amber tint, and some were very meticulous and specialized. She saw nothing resembling mass transportation, however, nor did she see any non-sentient pack animals. This was simply a complete lapin community that appeared to be very much alive.
Rabbits of all shapes, sizes, colors and fur patterns moved around quietly, entertained in various tasks, and several of them stopped what they were doing to look at her in curiosity as she passed. Clothing was minimal and similar to what N’iik wore, mostly just practical enough to provide some modicum of modesty, although there were some who wore nothing but their naturally grown fur.
N’iik was apparently well known in the village, and no one seemed distressed by his strange companion dressed in brilliant tie-dye colors. It was probably not uncommon for rabbits from other villages to wander in to their territory.
The dozen rabbit kits still surrounded the two adults as N’iik led them all to a small copse of trees near the center of the village. Lori correctly surmised that the area was a common gathering place when he walked to a basket made of woven grasses hanging from a tree. He took down the basket and held it out for her to see. Inside were breads, fruit and other food items she didn’t recognize, but she politely declined. N’iik used a curved knife in the basket to carve off bits of fruit for the children, and then he sent them out across the soft grass beneath the trees to play.
N’iik carved off another piece of fruit and took a bite, and Lori could smell a sweet aroma from it. She signaled to him that perhaps she would try the fruit, and he seemed pleased when she took one from him. She bit into it and was rewarded with a delicious juicy flavor unlike anything she had ever tasted before. If there were a way to communicate with this buck, she would ask to take some of the fruit back to the ship for her crewmates to try.
Another lapin male approached them and he squatted down beside them with a few quiet words to her companion. This person had brown fur with bits of white here and there, and one black ear, and like N’iik, he wore only a pair of shorts in the warm weather.
N’iik gestured toward Lori as he spoke with the newcomer, and then the buck turned to look at her. She heard N’iik speak his version of her name, and then the brown male nodded. He took her gently by the hand with a smile, and put his other hand to his forehead, the palm outward. “J’rran,” he said.
Lorelei put her free hand up to her forehead in like manner and said, “L’ree.” She gave him a pleasant grin when he lightly stroked the fur of the arm he still held.
J’rran settled down in front of her and began to speak to her. His voice was light, but held a different dialect than the language spoken by N’iik. Lorelei realized what he was trying to do, but it was to no avail. Lori simply didn’t know their language and couldn’t understand their words. Given time, she might learn a few of their words and phrases, but the Blue Horizon was rarely ever down on a planet longer than a few days and she doubted that would be long enough to learn to converse with her new friends.
Jerry knelt down in the wheat field holding a collection kit with some difficulty. He wore a self-contained environmental suit, but since they were in a planetary atmosphere, he didn’t have the suit pressurized to full capacity. Still, the suit was bulky and the tail pouch was cumbersome. He had a little difficulty maintaining his balance and he had to watch his step since he was unable to rely on his tail to counter his movements. He had already gathered up air samples in containers filled with a thin, clear gel to trap molecules of pollens and other airborne agents. He had gathered wheat seeds, and was now digging into the rich soil for a spoonful. He planned to gather leaves and bark from the nearby trees, but was uneasy about going too far from the ship.
Inside the blue freighter, Pockets was unhappy that he had been stuck on the upper level along with everyone else with binoculars looking for their errant rabbit. He felt his time could be better utilized in the engine room repairing the damage done by his experiment. As yet, there had been no sign of Lorelei within sight of the vessel.
Out farther from the Horizon, Moss floated quietly through the trees in programmed search of the bunny. Its sensors were calibrated to maximize its scanning field, but it had not yet detected the presence of the rabbit. Its course didn’t take it in the direction that Lori had actually gone, so it could be some time before the small flying saucer might find her.
J’rran sat back on his tail, disappointed at the lack of progress he had made trying to communicate with the odd female visitor. Both of the males were usually possessed of almost infinite patience, but after a while, even that could wear down. Neither he nor N’iik could guess what far away community this doe had come in from, but both secretly wondered if she might have a type of mind madness that drove her to speak gibberish. Her language was just as insurmountable to them as theirs was to her.
L’ree seemed friendly enough and she didn’t seem to be a threat to the village, but unless they could find a way to talk, it was unlikely that she would be welcome to stay.
Lori’s general light attitude also showed signs of the strain and she no longer smiled openly. If one of the bunny kits came up to her, she was compassionate and gentle with a smile, but as soon as the child had gone, the weariness returned to her face. She began to entertain doubts of finding souvenir or clothing shops, and wondered if she should just return to the Blue Horizon.
N’iik had been silent for a long time while J’rran tried to make himself understood to L’ree, but now that all three of them had grown quiet, his thoughts returned to the field where he’d found the strange doe. It was only then that he remembered the large blue thing that sat in the wheat field.
He gestured toward J’rran and told him about seeing the giant blue rock fall from the sky, accompanied by bright star-lights and a hot breath that stirred up the ground before it settled lightly in the field. J’rran’s eyes grew wide at the tale, and then he looked over at Lori as if a new thought had occurred to him.
Lorelei watched the two bucks suddenly engage in an animated conversation, and she was sure she heard her name mentioned several times. She was tired and ready to take a nap, but she decided to see if there were any new developments.
The conversation came to an abrupt end and then J’rran got to his feet. He gave Lori a nod and then he left them. N’iik turned toward Lori and gave her a tired smile, but the look in his eyes gave her new hope. He just looked like someone who had a plan.
Most of the children had dozed off in spots of warm sunshine that came down through the trees, so N’iik roused them all. He gathered them around, spoke a few words, and then held out a hand to Lori. She took it without hesitation and then he led them all farther across the village.
They arrived shortly in front of a curtained doorway and N’iik said something to the bunnies. They obediently settled down on the side of the grassy hill, some of them still groggy from their earlier nap that they curled up against one another and immediately went back to sleep.
N’iik then called to someone inside the warren and waited. There was a muffled reply from inside, and the buck again took Lori by the hand to pull her inside with him. They passed through a split in the pale green curtains and into the darkness beyond. Lori’s eyes adjusted quickly and she saw the floor of a room covered by woven blankets and pillows. Incense burned somewhere in the midst of a natural, earthy aroma. Candles burned on small, three-legged tables near walls shored up by polished timber. Chimes made from amber metal hung from the ceiling near a covered window. A sturdy wooden table with five chairs topped in pillows was set up beside a small fireplace with a stone hearth. The place had a comfortable feeling of home and Lorelei felt at ease.
A tunnel at the back of the room probably led off to other chambers and she could hear approaching movement. A plump doe with eyes of deep brown and light tan fur came out into the room and looked at N’iik curiously. She wore a simple yellow apron, with three hand carved wooden bangles on one wrist. Several small bunnies that were not much younger than N’iik’s children were followed her out among the pillows.
N’iik said something with hand gestures toward Lori, and it was only then that the doe seemed to notice her. The female’s eyes widened as she looked over Lorelei’s colorful garments, and then a partial smile crossed her face as she locked eyes with her. The doe appeared to study her carefully, but then she cleared her throat and spoke.
“Hello, dear,” the newcomer said in perfect Standard. “My name is K’lssi. How may I help you?”
“Oh!” Lori’s eyes opened wide, but there was a pleased smile across her lips. She put a hand up to her bosom and replied, “You surprised me! I was beginning to think no one here could understand me!”
“My real name is Calissa Thalia,” K’lssi explained patiently. “I was born on Mainor, but I have been on Se’rei for the past six years with my new family.”
Calissa smiled as she shooed her children out the door past N’iik. “That’s what the inhabitants of this planet call their world,” she said quietly.
N’iik sat down on the fireplace hearth and watched the two females with rapt attention. He couldn’t understand their words, but he seemed fascinated by their exchange and pleased that someone could finally comprehend the strange white doe’s tongue.
Lorelei giggled and moved forward to take the woman’s hand. “I’m glad to meet you, Calissa. I am Lori Easter. Our ship had some engine trouble and we landed on Se’rei to make repairs.”
Calissa tilted her head, making her long ears waver in the air. “You’re a long way from home, Lori. Has the Planetary Alignment really expanded this far out beyond the Rim?”
Lori shook her head. “Oh, heavens, no. I heard our captain say it would take us nearly six months to get here with the LightDrive. Our engineer was experimenting with a new engine technology, but he says our navigation system wasn’t sensitive enough to stop us in time. We went too far.”
Calissa raised an eyebrow and gestured toward a chairs topped with hand-made pillow cushions. “What kind of new technology?” she asked with sudden suspicion.
When they sat down, Lori put a finger to her chin and looked up toward the ceiling as she tried to remember. “I think Pockets said it was called a Party Vote drive, or something like that. Some pirate lady he met up with a few years ago shared it with him, but he’s only now just tried it out.”
“Natasha!” Calissa said hoarsely. She poured water from an urn on the table beside them and took a long drink from a carved wooden mug.
“Oh, you knew her?” Lorelei asked curiously.
Calissa looked over at her and then stared for a long moment. Finally, she cleared her throat and spoke in a quiet voice.
“Natasha Khasho was my captain,” she explained. “I served under her on the Lady of Dreams for three years as an engineer.”
A small, lop-eared youngster suddenly peeked over the edge of the table at Lorelei and stared up at her with wide eyes. Lori winked at the kit as Calissa picked up the small female and set her on her lap.
“How did you wind up here?” Lori asked as she wriggled her nose at the youngster. The child giggled and hid her face in her mother’s simple robes.
“Do you know how a Particle Vault drive works?” Calissa asked. Lorelei gave her a blank look for a moment and then shook her head silently. The tan rabbit pursed her lips and then sighed inwardly. “Well, let’s just say that Captain Natasha was a genius who employed other geniuses that helped her develop the Particle Vault drive, a system that allows a vessel to travel unimaginable distances in a short moment of time by slipping outside normal space. If Natasha shared her technology with your engineer, then he must have done her a great service for such a reward.”
“That’s good, huh?” Lori asked almost absently. Her attention was on the child in her companion’s lap, but she was still listening. “I mean, that would make trips faster, wouldn’t it? That’s what happened to us.”
Calissa nodded. “With such a system at her disposal, Natasha often made time just to explore numerous regions of space out beyond the Planetary Alignment.” She gestured toward the sunshine outside the door with a hand as she bounced the child on her knee. “The Lady of Dreams came upon this star system on its third Vault jump out into unexplored space. It was the first star with a habitable planet we’d come across, so we were jubilant. Unfortunately, that made us careless when we landed to investigate.”
Calissa smiled. “We didn’t take any precautions against a possible sentient race living here, and these people found us. Fortunately for us, they were timid and fearful of the aliens who landed near their village. Natasha’s first inclination was to just go and leave them alone, but a lone male named N’maa approached us before we could depart. He was either braver than the rest - or more foolhardy - for coming close to our landing party that consisted mostly of predator types.”
“I’d say he was brave,” Lori said with a side-glance toward the quiet N’iik.
“I’d have to agree with you,” Calissa said with a smile. “N’maa assumed he would be safe since there was already a rabbit in their midst – me. Fortunately for him, he was right.”
“Then what happened?”
“We couldn’t understand one another,” Calissa replied. “I’ve always suspected Se’rei was one of the lost colonies of Earth that was just too far away to maintain any contact. Something must have happened early on that knocked the settlers back to a non-technical society. I’ve never seen any kind of historical records, so we may never know what happened. If it is one of the lost colonies, they’ve been left alone for nearly three hundred years and seem to have developed their own language. There are a number of other lapin villages I know of, but everyone speaks the same common tongue. Without contact with other outside races, any similarities between the languages of the PA have long since disappeared. It made attempts at communication extremely difficult.” Calissa shrugged and then smiled at a memory.
“One thing was certain, though. N’maa was extremely interested in me and hardly left my side. Natasha felt that so long as no one on her crew was hostile to the locals, they should be safe enough to stay a few days and collect local flora and mineral samples before the Lady headed out again.”
Another bunny kit crept into the room and stopped beside Lorelei. It was a small male with tan and white fur, and he looked up at her expectantly. When Lori smiled down at the toddler, he broke out into a grin and immediately held up his hands to her. Lorelei looked to the child’s mother, who gave her a quiet nod, and then she picked up the kit in her arms. He then snuggled up to her and closed his eyes with a tiny yawn.
“Yep, that’s a sign you’re a good person,” Calissa said with a chuckle. “T’raf won’t go near anyone he distrusts, and if he’s settled down for a nap, I suspect he’s sure you’re mommy material.”
Lorelei gently stroked the youngster’s ears and saw a contented ripple move across his face. “I’ve always wanted kits of my own,” she said quietly, “but I just can’t seem to make myself settle down anywhere. I was part of a military family that moved around a lot, and I just kept moving around when I got out on my own.”
Calissa nodded in understanding. “You sound like I was,” she said, “but by the time we found Se’rei, my contract with Natasha had expired. The captain expressed interest in retaining me, and I fully intended to sign up again, but I’m afraid N’maa’s attentions distracted me.”
“Does that mean you and he…?”
“Yes, I became his mate. Even though we couldn’t speak one another’s language, we seemed to understand one another well enough.” She said this last with a mischievous wiggle of her eyebrows. Lori laughed and suddenly realized that N’iik was standing beside her. She’d not seen him get up from the hearth. He squatted down beside her, but his eyes were on the toddler in her lap.
“I believe N’iik’s just as surprised by T’raf’s confidence in you as I am,” Calissa said quietly. At the mention of his name, the buck looked back at her and said something that made her smile.
Lori smiled. “So his name is Nick!” she said. “I wasn’t sure, since we didn’t communicate very well.”
“Your pronunciation is off a little, but otherwise yes, that’s his name.”
Lori seemed lost in thought for a moment, but then she slowly returned her attention to Calissa. “If you couldn’t understand one another, how’d you make a life here?”
“It took time,” the woman answered. “This is a slower society and these people have bottomless amounts of patience, it seems; everyone took part in helping me settle in once N’maa accepted me as a mate. Although their language isn’t related to any others in the PA that I know of, it was relatively simple to learn over time with a whole village of willing teachers.”
“Do you miss life in the PA?” Lori asked as N’iik settled down on a floor pillow beside her chair.
Calissa nodded with a wan expression. “Sometimes. I am surprised that Natasha hasn’t come back to visit, but I suppose she’s found other things to do with her time. I’ve kept a solar-powered landing beacon active for her.”
Lori tilted her head. “Calissa,” she said quietly, “Natasha died when the Lady of Dreams was destroyed in the Siilv War by the Kastans.”
Calissa froze. Nothing moved, not even her small pink nose. It seemed like she even stopped breathing for a moment, but finally moisture rimmed her eyes. “Natasha is... uhm... she’s gone?” she asked in a whisper. “Destroyed, you say… by the Kastans?”
Were it not for the kit in her lap, Lori would have reached forward and laid a hand on the tan doe’s arm. Calissa remained quiet for another moment and then she wiped away the wetness in her cheek fur. “I’m sorry,” she muttered. “Natasha was good to me... was good to a lot of people.”
“That’s what Pockets says,” Lori replied. “He said she was branded a pirate, but the things she did amounted to a greater good in the long run.”
Calissa nodded almost absently. “I can’t believe she was killed by the Kastans,” she said with sudden venom. Then she deflated just as quickly. “They killed her over some Siilv, you say? That just doesn’t sound like her style at all. Natasha frequently traded with Argeia, but to steal from them…?”
Lori shook her head. “No, they didn’t fight her over Siilv – that was a war between Argeia and other PA worlds that tried to take the Kastans’ Siilv just after they joined the Planetary Alignment.”
“During the fighting, the Kastans went after the Hestran monarch’s ship, but Natasha put the Lady of Dreams between it and one of their big ships for protection,” Lori explained as she tried to recall what she had seen on the Interstellar News Network. “I understand that Natasha took out the dreadnaught, but the Kastans retaliated with the weapon they used to smash Mainor – no, that’s wrong… not the same weapon, but they used something else no one else had ever seen before. The Lady of Dreams was destroyed.”
Calissa’s mouth fell open. “What... what do you mean, they... smashed Mainor?” She had been away from the Planetary Alignment so long that all of this was big news to her.
Lori nodded. “I don’t know what they did, but the whole of Mainor is now just fused rock with a poisonous atmosphere. Some say they somehow punched a hole in the planet.”
“My family was... was on Mainor. Why would they attack Mainor?” More silence. “Were... were there any survivors?”
“Only those who were already off-world when it happened,” Lorelei answered. “The Kastans gave no warning to the planet before they attacked.”
Calissa swallowed. “No, I meant survivors from the Lady of Dreams.”
“Yeah, there were,” Lori said. “I heard that quite a bunch abandoned ship at the captain’s orders before it was destroyed.”
“Then how do you know that Natasha didn’t make it?”
Lori frowned. “The last person to see her alive had a brief stay with us on the Blue Horizon,” she replied. “He said the captain forced him off the ship in the last life pod. The Lady of Dreams was destroyed just after.”
“Who said that?”
“I think his name was Tim... Yeah, it was Tim Mo, a young mouse.”
Calissa shook her head. The name didn’t seem familiar to her, so he must have joined Natasha’s crew after she had gone. She wiped at her eyes again and cleared her throat. The child in her lap was beginning to show distress at her mother’s own anguish, so Calissa put on a calm demeanor once more.
“Well,” she said at last. “It appears a lot has happened since I settled down here with my new family.” She looked at Lorelei with a resigned smile. “It’s probably for the best, though. Life is peaceful here, and has had its rewards.” She gave her daughter a brief tickle and the small bunny giggled.
Lori looked over at N’iik, who had been quiet throughout the exchange in a foreign tongue, and she gave him a pleasant smile. He stared into her blue eyes for a moment and then asked something of Calissa with a look of concern. She answered with a few short words to reassure him that the mysterious stranger had not intentionally caused her distress, explaining only that she had received word of her own family from a far-off land. The reply seemed to satisfy N’iik, who returned his bold gaze to the white rabbit.
Lori reached out toward N’iik’s long ears and gently stroked the one closest to her. His eyes practically rolled back up into his head and a shiver rippled through his fur. Lorelei snickered at the reaction and touched the tip of his pink nose with a finger. He opened his eyes to look at her finger, his expression almost cross-eyed.
“Now then,” Calissa said with a sudden look of amusement, “what can I do for you, Lori Easter? Beyond N’iik’s obvious fascination with you, I assume he brought you to me for a reason.”
“Nick and his children found me in a wheat field, but I have yet to meet his mate,” Lorelei started to explain. A large smile suddenly spread across the tan bunny’s face. “What’s so funny?” Lori asked.
“N’iik has no children of his own, nor is he spoken for,” Calissa said. “However, I think he is looking for a mate if you’re interested.”
“But, there were a dozen small kits with him!”
“Those belong to several families,” Calissa explained. “N’iik is their teacher, and he often takes them to the wheat field to play on nice days like this. Mine would have been there too if they all hadn’t stayed up so late waiting for their sire to come home last night.”
Lori looked over at the male with a soft smile. “He likes children, does he?” she asked with a wink. N’iik stared up into her bright blue eyes and swallowed.
Calissa snickered and the buck looked over at her with a look of embarrassment. “What rabbit doesn’t like kits?” she replied. She spoke a few words to N’iik and suddenly his eyes grew wide. He then gave her a dark look, muttering beneath his breath, and Calissa laughed aloud.
“What was that about?” Lori asked in amusement.
“Just teasing him,” her companion answered.
An elderly black and white doe near the edge of the lapin village put a wooden bucket beneath a simple water pump and gave the handle a few ratchets before cool fresh spring water flowed into her container. She hummed quietly to herself until the bucket was full, and then let the overflow spill into a trough below.
She stopped humming, but then she tilted her head when a monotone humming continued behind her. She turned around and came face-to-something with an iridescent metal saucer with whiskers! It had two gleaming glass eyes, one slightly offset above the other, and both were glowing from within in alternating colors. If that wasn’t enough to frighten the doe out of her wits, that it hung suspended in midair with no visible means of support surely did.
Her mouth opened and closed rapidly without a sound, and the water bucket slipped from her fingers to spill over her feet. The metal object rotated a few of its whiskers and greeted her with an inquisitive “Meow?”
The female rabbit shrieked and bolted away from the unknown predator, tripping over the water bucket in her hurry. She flipped over onto her back and stared up at the floating thing with her heart in her throat.
Moss recognized a rabbit profile, but it didn’t match the criteria within its programming for Lorelei Easter; it dismissed the aged lapin doe and continued to search for its crewmate. It was calibrated to look for a female rabbit, and there appeared to be many within the community it happened upon, but now its search parameters would have to be narrowed to look for a specific lapin doe.
The elderly rabbit put a nervous hand to her heart when the flying saucer moved away from her. Her shrieks had drawn the attention of several nearby bucks, and in short clipped words, she described what she had encountered. It had been a long time since the tranquil village had come under attack by the great feral mountain cats, but suddenly they were all afraid of what new danger might have come to their community.
“I think we’re being followed,” Lori said with a giggle. Calissa chuckled with a glance behind them at N’iik, and he frowned back at her. The buck had sent his class of kits back to their parents and was now following along behind the pair of does as they walked across the village.
He fully realized that Lori had probably said something about him to K’lssi, but it was frustrating to be unable to understand her. It had been no less frustrating to N’maa when he had originally discovered the group of predators when K’lssi had come to them, but she stayed and finally learned the lapin language. Through the tan doe, N’iik learned that L’ree was only there for a visit and would be leaving soon. In the short time they had been together that day, N’iik had already become quite fond of the white-furred newcomer and her pleasant scent. It distressed him to think that now when they had an interpreter between them, L’ree wouldn’t stay.
He quickened his steps and suddenly placed himself in front of Lori, almost causing both females to stumble. He put both of his hands gently upon Lorelei’s shoulders and she looked up at him with bright blue eyes. She smiled at him curiously and merely waited to see what he wanted. Those long-lashed blue eyes sent a shiver down his spine and he swallowed involuntarily. Before his nerve gave away, he leaned forward and rubbed his small pink nose gently against hers, and then slid his chin along her cheek.
Lorelei closed her eyes with a smile and then turned toward him to brush her lips against his cheek. N’iik became very still, and then he reluctantly pulled away. He pulled his simple amulet over his head and lowered ears, and then presented it to her.
He spoke for a moment to Calissa, who had watched the exchange silently with a smile, and then turned back to Lori.
“He wants you to wear his symbol,” the tan doe explained.
“What does the symbol represent?” Lori asked as she traced her fingers over the polished amber stone.
“When he wears it, it’s merely ornamental, but if you accept it and wear it for him, you are broadcasting your intent to mate with him.”
Lori’s eyes lit up. Given the chance, she would love that opportunity, but she already knew that if that happened, he would expect her to stay and bear his litter. When she played around with other males, it was always just that, play. However, with N’iik it would be a commitment to their offspring. She leaned forward and gave him a gentle kiss on the lips, but then she looked back over at Calissa.
“Is that what happened between you and N’maa?” she asked.
Calissa nodded. “Yes, and I accepted. For me, living here and having a family has been most satisfying. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Lorelei looked back at N’iik and stared into his blue-grey eyes for a long moment. She reached up and lightly stroked one of his ears, causing him a delightful shiver, but then her face grew sad. She placed the amulet into his hands and covered them with both of her own.
“Please tell him that I am honored,” she said in a voice just above a whisper, “and that although I have known him only a few hours, I would love to be the mother of his kits. However, I must decline. I am still under contract with my captain, and I really don’t wish to leave my friends; I won’t be able to stay.”
Calissa nodded again and then relayed the message to N’iik. He was quiet for a moment, but then he gave the strange doe a nod of understanding with a little smile. He said something to Calissa and then removed his hands from Lori’s to put his amulet string back over his ears.
“N’iik says that he understands obligation, but hopes that you won’t forget him when you leave,” Calissa translated.
Lorelei slipped her arms around N’iik’s neck and pulled him into a warm embrace. “I am missing you already,” she whispered into his ear, knowing he would not understand.
Calissa and N’iik jumped in unison, but Lorelei looked over at the unexpected intruder with a laugh. “Moss!” she scolded. “That was mean!” Had she not had her arms around N’iik, the buck would have bolted away in fright. His eyes were wide, his mouth was open, and Lori could feel his heart rate accelerate. She absently began to pet N’iik’s fur behind his ears to calm him as she would a child.
“Meowrr, Meow...” the floating unit responded with lower volume.
“It’s a flobot!” Calissa exclaimed with a hand over her heart. “It gave me such a start!”
“This is Moss,” Lori said. “It’s from my ship, probably looking for me.”
Lori rolled her eyes up to remember. “It stands for Mobile Sentry System, I think. Our engineer built it.”
Calissa smiled and examined the flying saucer with the eyes of an engineer. “Captain Natasha would never allow these things on board her ship,” she replied after a moment. “For all the gadgets and technology on the Lady of Dreams, she still felt a personality was an asset over artificial intelligence. Can this thing think for itself?”
“I dunno,” Lori answered. “Pockets says it only follows programming, but sometimes I think there’s more going on inside that pie plate than a set of instructions.”
N’iik reached out toward the floating sentry and touched its metallic surface with only minimal hesitation. Neither of the does seemed bothered by its presence, and that in of itself gave him the courage to touch the alien object. He waved his hand above and below the flobot in fascination, wondering how the thing could float in the air like the spring seeds of a puff-flower.
He looked over at Lori with a look of wonder and she simply smiled. He said something to Calissa, who only nodded back to him, and then he leaned in close to peer into the little eyes. While Moss’ proximity protocols had allowed the buck to touch its surface, it wanted to protect the cleanliness of its lenses, so it retreated from the rabbit just enough to stay out of reach. N’iik grinned at the thing’s reaction and chuckled.
Like all members of his race, he was naturally timid with things unknown, but once he made it past the initial fear, N’iik had a strong sense of curiosity.
“Do you think your captain will let us see your ship?” Calissa asked. “I wouldn’t mind talking to your engineer about the Vault drive he built from Natasha’s plans.”
Lori shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t see why not,” she said. “Seeing as how Moss is here looking for me, I should probably be getting back anyway. I’d hoped to see what kind of shopping this new world might have, but since there’s not a mall in sight, I can give you a tour of my ship instead.”
Calissa smiled. “You know, if all you want is a souvenir, you could always take N’iik with you.”
Lori laughed and grinned widely. “Now there’s a thought,” she said.
Both of the does knew that he’d never be happy in the realm of the Planetary Alignment, but it was still amusing to think about. After several moments, the buck tired of examining the flobot and returned his attention to the white-furred female.
“Can you lead me back to the wheat field, or should we follow Moss back to the ship?” Lori asked.
“C’mon,” Calissa said. “I know the way.” She spoke a few words to N’iik and then the trio set out across the village. Moss took up station above Lorelei’s ears, but she ignored it, slipping her hand into N’iik’s while they walked. Feeling her warm palm in his, he immediately forgot the flobot and sighed in contentment at her closeness.
The way back to the field seemed familiar to Lorelei, but this time she didn’t look around in wonder as she had on the way in. They walked down a hill beneath tall trees and meandered through the woods until they soon came upon the edge of the field.
Calissa nodded to herself when she saw the elliptical bulk of the freighter, but N’iik stopped and crouched down within the wheat.
“My first guess is that’s an Okami-class cargo hauler,” the tan doe remarked, “but I don’t remember them being so big.”
“Yup, that’s the latest model,” Lori replied. “It’s been all over the Planetary Alignment.”
“And now beyond,” Calissa added with a smile.
N’iik tugged at Lorelei’s wrist when she didn’t hide with him. She shook her head and then pulled him back up to her side.
“That’s where I live,” she tried to explain to him. When he gave her that familiar look of puzzlement, she pointed to the ship and then pointed to herself. Calissa translated for him and then he finally stood up again beside her.
Moss moved on ahead of them and floated across the tops of the wheat toward the distant airlock. Just as it reached the ship, the panels split apart diagonally and someone walked out into the sunlight. It was Taro, Renny and Damien.
N’iik’s hand tightened in Lori’s as he caught sight of the trio of predators. He felt the strong instinctual urge to run and hide, but fear also kept him frozen in place. He stopped walking toward the freighter, almost causing Lorelei to stumble.
“Lori!” Renny called out when he saw her.
The white rabbit pried her fingers from N’iik’s tight grasp and then waved at the cheetah. “Hi, Renny!” she said. “Miss me?” She leaned toward Calissa and whispered, “He’s our navigator. Cute, isn’t he? The fox is my captain, and the dog is our load master.”
Taro’s face was a mixture of anger and relief. She was still upset that the bunny had disobeyed orders and caused them all grief, but she was relieved that she appeared unharmed and in the company of more rabbits. “Lorelei Patricia Easter!” she said with venom. “You disobeyed a direct order, and I am going to dock your pay for this voyage!”
Lori’s ears drooped. “Why?” she whined when the trio stopped in front of them. N’iik stood his ground beside her, but a tremble shivered through his muscles at the proximity of the carnivores, especially the one with red fur that seemed ready to pounce on L’ree.
“I told you that no one was allowed off the ship until Doc could determine it was safe enough to go outside! We only got the okay from him a moment ago.”
“When did you say that?” Lori asked in concern. “The last thing you told us before I jumped into the shower was that you had picked up a landing beacon and that we would be landing in about twenty minutes.”
“You were in the shower?” Damien asked with a bit of a smile.
“Yeah,” the white rabbit replied. “Twenty minutes is plenty of time to clean up before going into town – only I didn’t find the kind of town I thought I’d find.”
Taro bit her bottom lip and looked at Renny with a frown. The cheetah shook his head. “You didn’t hear her warning to stay on board?” he asked.
Lorelei shook her head. “I guess not. Sorry, Taro.”
“Perhaps this would be a good time to introduce us,” the tan rabbit said from the side.
“You speak Standard!” Damien seemed surprised.
“She’s originally from Mainor,” Lori said with a grin, “but she lives here now. This is Calissa Thalia. This guy beside me is Nick, but he can’t understand us.” At the mention of his name, the buck set his jaw and looked up at them, trying so hard to remain calm. “This is Captain Taro Nichols,” Lori continued. “That’s Renny, and this is Damien.”
“Hello, Calissa,” Taro said. “Hello, Nick.”
Renny stepped forward to grasp hands with N’iik, but the action unnerved the rabbit and he looked at the cheetah’s proffered hand as if he were going to tear at him with it. Calissa intervened by taking N’iik’s hand gently and then putting it into Renny’s. She kept her hands over N’iik’s as she explained to him that it was a show of friendly greeting among Lori’s people, the clasped hands symbolizing the absence of weapons.
N’iik looked up into Renny’s large golden eyes as the cheetah gave him a friendly, non-threatening smile. The rabbit was still uneasy, but he nodded and returned the grip lightly. Then he put his hand up to his forehead with the palm outward and said, “N’iik.”
Renny deduced the gesture correctly and mimicked the action. “Renny,” he said.
“Yeah, Nick, that’s close enough,” the cheetah said.
Calissa turned to Taro while Damien and N’iik went through the same routine. “I know you thought she disobeyed your orders, Captain, but I want to thank you for letting Lori visit with me,” she said. “Spending the afternoon with her has been good for me.”
Taro nodded, looking weary. “When we landed, I wanted to make sure we wouldn’t catch a sickness from anything we might not be inoculated against. After all, the Blue Horizon is a long way from the Planetary Alignment.”
Calissa nodded. “So long as you don’t drink the water while you’re here, you shouldn’t have a problem with anything in the air,” she said with a smile. “If you do that, however, you’ll need to stay near a latrine for a couple days while your body acclimates, but otherwise it’s harmless. That’s something we learned when our landing party got here.”
Taro looked at her uncomfortably. “Uhm, how did you get here, so far away from the rest of the PA?” she asked cautiously.
“The same way you did,” the tan doe gestured toward the blue freighter. “We used Natasha’s Vault to gap the distance.”
“Natasha!” Renny repeated in surprise. “Just how many people did she give out her technology to, anyway?”
Calissa chuckled. “Very few people, Mr. Renny,” she explained. “I was an engineer on the Lady of Dreams when we came to this place. Natasha Khasho was my captain. Just how did you get her favor for such a gift?”
Taro crossed her arms. “I’ve never been sure of that myself,” she said. “My chief engineer is the one who engineered that trade with her, although he’s never revealed just what it was he did for Natasha.”
Calissa nodded. “Would you mind if I talked to your engineer about the Vault system he built? There are some dangers involved that he may not know about.”
Taro pursed her lips at the word danger. “I’d appreciate having an engineer familiar with Natasha’s Vault system look over our engines,” she said. “Pockets put ours together based solely on an encrypted set of plans she gifted him, but he’d no real guidance otherwise. That may be why our nav computer crashed and we over-shot our intended destination.”
Calissa grinned. It may have been six years ago, but she well remembered the trials and tribulations involved in testing the Vault. She had no doubt that Natasha’s people had fine-tuned it since she’d left the crew to settle here, but the vulpine captain may have given the engineer of this common freighter an older set of plans.
“I may be able to help him get —”
“Fluffbunny!” a new voice exclaimed. The small group turned in unison to look back at the Blue Horizon. Rex stepped out into the sunshine with a hand shielding his eyes and he looked delighted that the errant rabbit had been found unharmed. He bounded toward the group, but one foot tripped up on a clump of wheat stalks and he fell forward onto his face. When he got back up again with a toothy grin of embarrassment, N’iik suddenly let out a wail and bolted for the trees.
“N’iik!” Lori called. When she looked back at Calissa, there was a bit of fear in the tan doe’s eyes as well. “What is it?” she asked.
Rex ran up to Lorelei and wrapped his arms around her in a tight hug. “I’m so glad you’re all right, Fluff!” he said. “I was worried that something had happened to my favorite chef!”
Calissa swallowed and then put a hand to her heart, willing herself to calm down. “Are… are you part of Captain Taro’s crew?” she asked the cougar.
Rex released the white bunny and then immediately shook the tan doe’s hand. “Nope, just a passenger,” he said. “My name’s Rex! Pleased to meetcha.”
“Why did Nick run off like that?” Damien asked, scratching behind one large floppy ear.
Calissa let out a heavy sigh. “Because Mr. Rex resembles the great feral cats that sometimes come down out of the highlands to feed on our young,” she explained as she retrieved her hand from the cougar’s grasp. “We have been fortunate the last couple times we were attacked, but the mountain cats get desperate at certain times of the year when their native food supply runs low. N’iik lost his younger sister to one of them just last season.”
Rex looked downcast and shrugged his shoulders. “Please forgive me for rushing out and scaring the poor fellow,” he said. “I was just excited to see our bunny again.”
“About that,” Taro said as she faced him. She put one hand on her hip and then pointed back to the Blue Horizon with the other. “Our flight insurance doesn’t cover you should anything happen to you outside the ship, Mr. Concolar. Get back on board, please.”
Rex plugged his hands into his pockets and nodded. Without further argument, he made his way back to the freighter.
“What should we do about Nick?” Renny asked.
“Leave him be,” Calissa replied. “I’ll talk with him later – show him that I survived the encounter. He’s had no exposure to our technology, so it may be best that he doesn’t come on board with us anyway.”
Lorelei looked hurt. “You go on,” she said. “I’m going to go find him.”
“You won’t have to look far,” Damien said as he pointed. “He’s over there by that clump of thick trees. I can see his big eyes shining in the shadows.”
Lori moved off toward her friend, leaving the others as they walked through the wheat field toward the freighter.
With Calissa’s help, it took two days to repair the Particle Vault components and get the navigation computer in proper operation. She warned that she was unable to recalibrate the nav computer where it would be sensitive enough to be of use with the Vault, so they should use the special drive sparingly until they could upgrade to a high-end computer system. Their current navigation system would never be up to the challenge that Vault-travel presented. It was her recommendation that they use the Vault to get back into PA territory, where they could then use standard LightDrive engines to return to standard traffic corridors. Thereafter, they should save the Vault only for life-threatening emergencies.
She’d told them that traveling by Vault also had its share of dangers, though most were rare occurrences and could be avoided with a little assistance. She constructed a sophisticated device behind closed doors, and then permanently sealed its casing with a molecular weld. She attached it to a panel in the engine room with a simple set of wires merely for power and grounding, but not to the Vault components directly, knowing that it only needed to be near them to function.
When Pockets inquired about the device, which appeared to have only two outward color diodes, all she would say is that as long as the green light was on, they could use the Vault drive. However, if it should ever show red at any time, under no circumstances were they to use the Vault. Beyond this, she would not clarify her reasons.
“It’s for your protection,” she told the diminutive engineer in the presence of his captain. “This is not a rule you should ever bend.”
She went on to explain that once the Vault is used, it would take twenty-four hours for the system to recharge, and during that time, both lights would be dark and not to panic. The green diode would light up again when the system was ready and it was safe to use again.
When the tan lapin doe was sure everything was in order, Taro decided that they should be on their way. Their oxygen tanks had been scrubbed, refilled and pressurized, and with luck, the Vault would get them back to the vicinity of Kantus, where they would deposit their passenger and be on their way to their next assignment on Tanthe.
During their stay, Lorelei spent her days with N’iik and the children he taught, and the nights were spent with N’iik in his home. She continued to decline his invitations to stay and make a family with him, but knew that she would surely miss him after they were gone.
Despite her association with the blue thing from the sky, N’iik would not return to the wheat field. He hadn’t seen the mountain cat again, but as long as it was near, he would protect his students by keeping them within the village. In order to keep the peace with others in the community, Taro had forbidden anyone but Lori from visiting the village. There were too many carnivores in the crew and the less panic they induced in the locals, the better it would be all around. Several from the lapin community did venture forth to take a peek at the blue freighter, but none chanced a look any closer than from the cover of trees.
When the time finally arrived to leave, Lorelei cried in N’iik’s arms. J’rran, Calissa, and her mate N’maa waited outside the buck’s home until they finally came out into the evening air. Lori gave each of them a hug, including the brown and white sire of Calissa’s kits. She had gotten to know him over past two days, and because of his knowledge of his mate’s past, he was a stable spot of understanding in the village to her.
During a conversation with Taro, Calissa requested they not reveal Se’rei’s existence to the rest of the Planetary Alignment, even if it might be one of the lost colonies. It would take too long to get there using traditional LightDrive and this world would be better off as it was anyway. Taro promised their silence, since the sensitive nature of the topic of Vault technology would keep the Blue Horizon crew from announcing their adventure to anyone, anyway.
Calissa finally took Lori by the shoulder and led her away from N’iik’s home. He would not accompany her to the ship, so he stayed rooted to the spot and watched her go in remorse. Lorelei turned back to look at him through her tears and gave him a half-hearted wave.
“It’s not too late to change your mind,” Calissa told Lori quietly. The white rabbit followed her across the village toward the tree path that would return her to the wheat field, but she only shook her head quietly. Her throat was tight and she was afraid to speak. Calissa nodded and then led her back to her ship.
When the does finally reached the airlock, Lori clung to the other female tightly. “I... I will miss you, Calissa!” she said to her.
“I will miss you too, hon,” the older woman replied. “It’s been nice having someone around who understands my old life, but now you must go. Due to the distances, I doubt you will ever make it back out this way, but I will keep the landing beacon going for you just in case.”
“Thank you, my friend,” Lori said as she wiped her eyes. She gave her a resigned smile and then took a step back toward the open airlock. “If there’s ever an opportunity to return, I will take it.”
“Good bye, Lorelei.”
“Good bye, Calissa.”
The white rabbit walked into the airlock, turned around, and then touched the control to close the diagonal panels. Just before they came together, she looked back out to the wheat field and saw N’iik standing at the edge of the woods, quietly watching her go. Lori felt a strong lump in her throat as the outer airlock doors closed and then she turned toward the inside to seal the internal compression door.
Outside in the wheat field, Calissa gathered up her apron and then quietly walked back to where N’iik waited. Fifteen minutes later, they watched the Blue Horizon lift off out of the field with a mighty wind, and then it quickly rose into the evening sky. N’iik’s eyes followed the vessel’s running lights until it passed through a high layer of clouds and was lost to sight in the darkness.
Alone in the engine room of the Blue Horizon, Pockets monitored his station. It had been four hours since they’d departed Se’rei and everything appeared to be running smoothly. Using the navigational computer, Renny had calculated a Vault route back to the Planetary Alignment, hoping they would return to the vicinity of the Anya star system. Providing they didn’t overshoot their goal again by several light years, they could soon be on their way back to Kantus.
He glanced over at the small metal box that Calissa had installed and noted with a sense of ease that the light remained green. He had everything primed and ready for the jump, so now they merely waited until they were far enough above the solar system they were leaving behind that there should be no danger of flying through one of Se’rei’s sister planets.
The ship-wide intercom system chirped and then Renny’s voice came from the speakers. “Engine Room, prepare for system activation.”
“The light is green. Engine Room is ready,” Pockets reported over the open circuit.
“We are go on Five… Four… Three… Two… One!”
Pockets quickly held his breath, closed his eyes and tensed up all over in preparation for the jump. Outside the freighter, a ring of blue-white flame encompassed the entire vessel for a microsecond.
There was that momentary sensation where everything stopped, a cessation of seemingly everything in existence. The raccoon felt his stomach clench, but he was ready for it this time, and then the sensation was gone. He opened his eyes feeling disoriented, and immediately noted that the diodes on the box were dark. The Vault had discharged. He looked up at the system clock on his console and noted that only a moment had passed.
Pockets resisted the temptation to call the bridge, knowing that Renny would already be calculating their new position. While he waited, Pockets looked over the Vault system to make sure there were no burning components, but this time none of them was even warm to the touch. He smiled, pleased with the help that Calissa had given him. He had mistranslated a single calibration setting from Natasha’s original diagrams, and that had caused the burnout.
The intercom chirped and Taro’s voice said, “All hands, all hands. We made the jump without incident and Renny has just determined our location. We are outside of the normal traffic corridors, but we are back within the Planetary Alignment. We are only a day away from Kantus using standard LightDrive engines. We will be getting under way shortly, but you are free to get out of your harnesses and move around now.”
Pockets let out a Ganisan war whoop and danced a jig on the engine room floor. With all the tools and other miscellaneous items in the pockets of his coveralls, he sounded like a junk truck on a bumpy road, but the raccoon didn’t care. He was happy to be home.
“Where is it?”
Rex swept the covers of his bed onto the floor and then pulled off the sheets. He kicked the linens aside and dropped to his knees on the carpet. He searched under the bed, but found only dust. He rushed over to the closet that he had just emptied by packing it all into his suitcase, but there was nothing on the floor or on the shelves.
“Where is that wretched thing?”
The cougar looked in dresser drawers, the cabinet in the bathroom and on the table out in the front room. He peered under the sofa and recliner, beneath the com terminal desk, and around all the baseboards. Convinced that he had searched everywhere in his quarters, he ran out into the hallway and moved around the corridor to the laundry room.
Rex dug through a few baskets of dirty clothes, into the cleaning equipment, and even through all the cabinets. He got down on his knees to peer under the folding tables, but his search was fruitless. He growled in frustration and left the room just as Justy approached with a basket of his own laundry.
Rex grabbed the basket from the koala and dumped the contents onto the corridor floor.
“Hey!” Justy exclaimed. Rex didn’t bother him with a look as he sifted through the garments and put his hands in all the pockets.
“Y’know,” Justy said, “that’s kinda creepy!” The cougar snorted, but not finding what he was looking for he stormed away, leaving the koala with the mess. Justy frowned deeply and then knelt down to retrieve his dirty laundry.
Rex impatiently took the nearest lift up to the third level. Lorelei, Taro, Renny and Amanda were at the galley table, sipping drinks and chatting in casual conversation. When the cougar stormed off the lift and darted to the couch to start throwing cushions off onto the floor, the group looked back at him curiously.
“What’s going on?” Renny asked.
“It’s gone!” Rex muttered as he dug in between the crevasses of the couch. “I can’t find it!”
“Find what?” Taro asked. “What did you lose?”
Rex stood up, distress on his face as he replied, “My lottery ticket! Now that we’re almost to Kantus, I can’t find it!”
“Where did you last see it?” Amanda asked.
“It was in my shirt pocket,” the mountain lion said. “I’ve kept it on my person through this whole trip!”
“Want some help looking for it?” Taro asked.
Rex started to nod, but then his eyes narrowed in sudden suspicion. “I’ll bet one of you has it!” he accused. “You probably need more money to make your super-speed engine work right, and you think by taking my lottery winnings, you’ll have all the R&D money you could use!”
“Calm down, Mr. Concolar,” Taro said with a scowl at the accusation. “No one has your lottery ticket.”
“Yeah?” Rex sneered. “Doc Fox was asking me about my ticket when he gave me my physical, and made a comment warning me to make sure I didn’t lose it! I’ll bet he has it!”
“Jerry wouldn’t take it either!” Renny snarled. He rose from his chair and approached the cougar. “Don’t start accusing everyone of theft just because you dropped it!” Rex balled up his fists and took a step toward the cheetah. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Renny warned as he took up a Silloni martial arts stance. The cougar’s brow furrowed darkly, but then he stormed off toward the lift.
“Let us help you look for it,” Amanda told him. “More eyes will be quicker.”
Renny followed him across the room and the cougar felt stalked. Suspicious and frustrated, Rex whirled around, taking a swing at the cheetah. He looked up at the ceiling from the carpet and suddenly wondered how he had wound up on his back on the floor; his breath had been knocked from him and the navigator was standing over him. He knew cheetahs were quick, but he’d never seen anyone move that fast in a defensive move.
“Mr. Concolar,” Taro hissed at him, “I am confining you to your quarters for the remainder of our journey! We will look for your lost lottery ticket, and I promise you that you will get it back when it’s found, but if you are going to fight anyone on my crew, I will cancel your flight deposit and dump you out on the tarmac when we land without so much as a backward glance! Do you understand?”
Rex sat up and scowled at everyone around him. “If I don’t get my ticket back, and I find out that anyone associated with your company steps up to claim the prize, I’m gonna sue your company for my lost winnings!” he shouted. “My ticket has been DNA-imprinted, so I have legal proof that it was mine!”
“Renny, you and I will accompany our passenger to his quarters,” Taro said in a quiet voice. “Once there, he will be locked in until we land in four hours.”
“You’re gonna regret this!” Rex grumbled.
“Quit complaining and stop making threats,” Renny said with bared teeth. “You’re the fool who lost the ticket in the first place. You said it yourself that you carried it with you at all times, so I’m wondering how anyone could steal it from your body.”
“I can’t find it anywhere,” the cougar muttered. “Someone must have taken it…”
“Let’s go,” Taro said to him. “Go check your quarters again. Look through your luggage and under the furniture. We’ll do the same up here, and I promise that if it’s found, I will personally place it back in your hands.”
Rex grumbled under his breath, but then nodded as they led him back to the lift.
Taro faced her gathered crew. They were together on the cargo deck and the large bay door was open full to let the fresh morning air into the otherwise empty hold. During the last leg of the journey, they’d searched the ship from top to bottom for the cougar’s lottery ticket, but it was to no avail. Before their distraught passenger stormed out the airlock upon landing, Taro had given him a thumbprint-signed document stating that if the ticket turned up, she would ship it to him free of charge with the utmost priority. Rex had taken the document grudgingly, but once it was in his hands, he shoved it into a suitcase and then departed toward the nearest attorney’s office.
Finally rid of the passenger, the captain called everyone together in the fresh air. “Despite our little detour, we’ve arrived on Kantus earlier than originally planned,” Taro told them all. “Due to this, I am releasing everyone for now. We will need to launch for Tanthe no later than 1600 hours tomorrow local time, so that gives you all a day and a half to get out and enjoy Gate City. Renny’s from this area, so ask him about local attractions if you don’t know what to do. I don’t want any stragglers, so try to be here no later than an hour or two before launch time. The home office has transferred pay to your accounts, so you can come get your vouchers from me before you leave.”
“I’ll be staying on board,” Lorelei muttered in remorse.
“Why?” Jerry asked her.
“Taro said she was docking my pay for this voyage, so there’s no reason for me to go out.”
The vulpine captain smiled and shook her head. “Lori, I had a change of heart and had your pay deposited as usual since it was a simple miscommunication, but at your next altercation I might not change my mind about your punishment.”
Lorelei’s jaw dropped open, but then she smiled with moist eyes. “Thank you, Taro,” she said quietly.
“You’re welcome, Lori. After our recent adventure, I think you need to get out on the town anyway. Now, before you all disperse, I have a warning,” she said. “I think we were successful in keeping Mr. Concolar in the dark about our Vault drive. He believes we experimented with the regular LightDrive engine and made some mistakes. If he says anything, it will be against a gag order that he willingly signed, but even if he does tell anyone about the speed of our journey, I doubt this experience will have given him anything positive to say about it to anyone. However… I still want to keep knowledge of our new technology out of general public view. I can’t stress enough just how much trouble this would cause us if word got out. I will tell Merlin about it at some point when I can arrange a secure, encrypted channel, but otherwise you are forbidden to mention it elsewhere until we have a chance to develop the system into a more reliable mode of transportation. I can’t say that we will or won’t use it again, so for now try to put it in the back of your mind.”
She looked into the eyes of each member of her crew, and when she was satisfied that they all understood her, she smiled and gave the group a nod as she reached into a pocket. “Okay, the soapbox is put away. Come get your vouchers and then go enjoy your shore leave.”
Damien was first in line to get his receipt from the captain and immediately headed for the ramp. It was his intent to secure a hotel room for the night and then head out to see what kind of entertainment was available, preferably something with liquor. When he reached the tarmac, he made a quick sweep of the nearby landing pad, and then stepped out into the sunshine. He only took three steps before he stopped and looked back at a nearby ship.
There were two delivery trucks parked at the loading ramp of a sleek Mayfair-class freighter with the TranStar Shipping logo on its side. A company name printed in dark red lettering on the side of the trucks caught his attention. Workers of various species were loading the vessel with forklifts and power loaders, so it appeared as if the TranStar freighter might be there a while.
The mastiff trotted back inside the Blue Horizon and flagged Taro’s attention. The captain handed out the last of the vouchers and looked up at him.
“What is it, Damien?” she asked. “You look shaken.”
“Take a gander at the ship on our portside landing pad.”
The vixen followed him down to the tarmac and then peered over at the nearby ship. “That’s the Freckled Shark,” she said. “I read its transponder signal when we landed. What about it?”
“Now read the name on the side of the trucks loading it,” the load master replied.
Taro looked at the lettering and felt the blood drain from her face. Crimson Astrogation.
“Isn’t that the name of the company that cancelled our account? I thought they were going out of business.”
“That’s them. Their story was that they were under investigation and all deliveries were stopped,” Taro growled. “Listen, Damien. You go ahead and enjoy your day off. I’ll look into this myself.”
All was quiet in the wheat field. There was morning dew on the stalks, but that didn’t prevent N’iik from returning to that special place. He sat alone in the middle of the flattened crop circle where the blue thing from the sky had rested, thinking about the lovely white L’ree and the effect she’d had on him. They had only known one another for three days, but he couldn’t stop thinking about her. She’d a strange, yet pleasant scent, and had the softest fur he had ever touched, even among his own people. There were blue eyes within the rabbits of his world, but he had never seen eyes that shade before; so bright and expressive.
He wanted her to return. He wanted to know all about her and he was remorseful that she had gone away. He had invited her to stay, even presenting his amulet to her, but still she had gone away. He knew she had been attracted to him too, but she never even asked him to go with her. Perhaps it had been his open fear of her predator companions and she was ashamed of him. If she had only asked, he would have boldly joined her, facing his instinctual fears. If she felt comfortable around such creatures, maybe he would have grown to feel the same way, too… if only she had asked. He didn’t know if he would ever see her again, but he knew he would never forget her.
N’iik heaved a heavy sigh and stood up. He brushed the damp bits of crushed wheat from his shorts and started back across the field toward home. He left the flattened stalks behind him, but before he’d made it halfway across to the trees, something at his feet caught his eye.
The white buck bent down and picked up a brightly colored object. It was flat, rectangular and had strange, meaningless symbols scrawled across its surface on both sides. The plastic material was foreign to him, but he knew it had to be from L’ree’s blue sky-home. He would keep it as a reminder of her visit, so he clutched the lottery ticket in his hand and quietly made his way back to the village.
— NEXT EPISODE —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.