Taro stared across the tarmac of the spaceport where they’d landed, to a ship parked on Blue Horizon’s port side. She felt the blood drain from her face when she read the name emblazoned across the side of the delivery trucks that were loading it. It was Crimson Astrogation, a spatial navigation systems company that had cancelled a delivery contract with the Horizon while in flight, supposedly due to an investigation that was driving their client out of business.
The vixen turned to her cargo load master. “Listen, Damien. You go ahead and enjoy your day off. I’ll look into this myself.”
“Are you sure?” the mastiff asked. “I’d like to know what happened before I go.”
“Come along if you wish,” she said.
Damien’s first inclination would have been to seek out the captain of the Freckled Shark, the freighter being loaded, but Taro had a different approach. She walked up to a Siamese cat with a slateboard who oversaw the loading process.
“Excuse me,” Taro said to him, “may I ask you something?”
The feline glanced over at her. “What?” he asked brusquely.
When he faced her, Taro saw the Crimson Astrogation logo on his dark red uniform. “How did your company get back on its feet so quickly,” she asked. “That was a fast investigation.”
“Huh?” asked the puzzled cat. “What are you talking about?”
“Word has it that Crimson Astrogation was under investigation and that all shipping of their products had been frozen until after the inquiry.”
The Siamese narrowed his blue eyes. “I think you’re mixed up, lady,” he said with a frown. “We’re not under any investigation. Our operation is strictly legit.”
Taro frowned and bit her bottom lip. Damien looked again at the freighter that was being loaded and then turned back to the cat. “Is that the ship you were scheduled to load up?” he asked.
“Not originally,” the feline replied in irritation, “but when our trucks got here, we were directed to take it to the Freckled Shark instead. I was told it was a replacement for the other ship.”
“What was the name of the other ship?” Taro asked.
The cat looked down at his slateboard and then pointed toward the name with the tip of a claw. “Blue Horizon,” he answered.
“You mean that ship,” Damien said as he indicated the vessel behind him.
The cat looked over at the blue freighter and frowned. “I don’t understand,” he said.
“We were scheduled to pick up a shipment from Crimson Astrogation for delivery to Pomen,” Taro explained, “but in-flight, we received word the contract had been cancelled due to an investigation into Crimson’s company.”
“There’s no investigation, and I wasn’t given a reason for the change of freighters,” the Siamese replied defensively, “just the orders that another ship would be used instead.”
“Where did your change of orders come from?” Taro asked.
The feline pointed with his stylus to a nearby service shed at the edge of the tarmac. “Hexter’s in there. He’s the official Crimson rep, so you can bother him for more information.”
“Thank you for your time,” Taro said.
“Yeah, whatever.” The feline forgot them immediately, suddenly immersed in the data on his slateboard.
Taro and Damien walked to the shed, both of them puzzled by the information.
“What’s going on?” Damien asked.
“I don’t know. This doesn’t make any sense.”
Taro tapped on the door to the shed and a muffled voice said, “It’s open.”
It was dark inside the quiet, air-conditioned office when they stepped through the door, and it took a moment for their eyes to adjust. An aged badger looked up at them from behind one of three paper-strewn desks that filled the small room. The fellow was the only individual in the place and wore eyeglasses with thick, round lenses that made his eyes appear to bulge.
“What may I do for you?” he asked in a raspy voice.
“We’re looking for Mr. Hexter, the representative for Crimson Astrogation.”
“Amuel Hexter at your service, ma’am.” He peered at her through his thick lenses. “Have a seat and tell me how I may help you.”
“I just need to ask you a few questions,” Taro replied as she sat down in a well-worn seat in front of the fellow’s desk. Damien remained standing beside her.
“I’m Captain Nichols of the Blue Horizon.” The badger’s eyes appeared to bulge out farther. “Oh, good,” the vixen said dryly, “you know of my ship.”
Damien crossed his arms and took a step toward the desk. Hexter peered up at him and involuntarily crinkled the invoice he held in his hands.
“Uhm, w-well y-yes…” he stammered.
Taro leaned forward. “You have a contract with me, mister Hexter,” she said in an even voice. “Your dock workers are currently loading your equipment into the wrong freighter.”
“I-uhm-I am sorry, Captain,” the badger said, “b-but your contract was cancelled this morning. Another ship was hired as your replacement.”
“Why was it cancelled?” Taro asked icily.
“Y-your ship was deemed unsuitable for our needs,” Hexter answered. “I can’t tell you more than that.”
“Read the contract you have with us,” Taro reminded him with bared teeth. “There’s a ©25,000 cancellation penalty for the forfeiture of a contract in-progress, payable upon reaching the intended destination. We have been en route from Dennier for three weeks to pick up your cargo.”
“Twenty-five thousand credits!”
“Why the surprise?” Damien growled. “It’s clearly stated in the contract your company initiated with us.”
Taro nodded her agreement. “If you switched freighters for a lower price, this is going to put a knot in your budget,” she snarled. “Now you get to pay Blue Horizon Freight Transfer and TranStar Shipping!”
“Uh… uhm… I, uh… will need to consult my home office,” Hexter said with a gulp. “Y-you should expect to hear from us within two to three weeks.”
“Nope,” Taro said as she put her hands on the edge of his desk. “Payment is to be rendered upon reaching the intended destination. Read your contract. We are here, so that means right now.”
Hexter swallowed, his eyes darting back and forth between Taro and Damien, and then he saw the impressions of the Hestran vixen’s fingers in the metal edge of his desk. He swallowed, heaved a heavy sigh, and then nodded. He turned to his computer terminal and logged into the Crimson Astrogation financial system. A moment later, he held out his hand. With her eyes locked onto his, Taro handed him a small metal device no larger than a stubby cigar case with one end flattened into a computer interface.
Hexter plugged the credicard into a slot, tapped in a command, and then passed the hand-sized unit over to her so she could enter her authorization. Once she tapped in the passcode, a green light blipped in response; the badger removed the credicard and a printed receipt, handing both to her with a deep frown.
“Twenty-five thousand credits have been transferred to your company account,” Hexter said in a huff. “Now get out of my office.”
Taro stood up. “C’mon, Damien. Let’s go.”
“Not before I find out why this happened,” the load master replied as he cracked his knuckles noisily. He stepped up to the desk and leaned over so that his nose was mere inches from the badger’s.
Hexter’s expression darkened and he stood up behind his desk. “Get out,” he repeated.
Damien reached out, snared the badger’s shirt roughly, and then yanked him closer over the top of the desk. “Answer the question!” he bellowed at high volume.
His eyes wide with fear, the badger’s momentary boldness evaporated. “Th-the order came directly f-from Arbogast Crimson, p-president of the company,” he stammered. “I d-d-don’t know why, other than you were unsuited. I don’t know anything more! I swear it!”
“Damien, let’s go,” Taro said calmly. “Merlin will take care of the legal ramifications from here.”
The mastiff released Mr. Hexter and made a show of brushing imaginary dirt from his knuckles. “Thank you for your time,” he said. The badger only glared at him.
Taro and Damien walked out of the shed without another word and started back toward their freighter. After a moment, Taro looked up when the local mail truck arrived to pick up their shipment.
“This is happening too often lately,” she said to her companion. “Merlin’s going to have a fit when he finds out what Crimson pulled on us.”
“Did they really think we wouldn’t find out about their lie?” Damien asked. Taro didn’t answer. She walked with her eyes on the ground as she replayed the whole scene in her mind.
“Hey, who’s that?” Damien asked after a moment. As they neared the mail truck, they saw the uniformed lupine driver talking with a couple who stood just inside the open bay doors of the freighter.
The mail carrier gave a wave as they approached and then pushed his antigrav dolly toward the red mail crates in the ship’s hold without a word.
Taro turned to the pair who had been talking with the him. “May we help you?” she asked politely. A large male wolf and a shorter female Siberian husky smiled in unison.
“Yes, hello!” said the wolf in a friendly voice. “We’re looking for the captain of the Blue Horizon.” Taro rarely felt small next to anyone, but she was dwarfed by the size of this guy. He was muscular, with broad shoulders and chest, a full mane of fur around his head, and golden amber eyes that held a direct gaze that was hard to behold. She almost felt as if she were looking into the piercing eyes of her former captain.
“I’m Captain Nichols. What can we do for you?”
“You’re the captain of this fat bird?” the wolf asked in a throaty voice, maintaining his grin.
The husky put an elbow into her companion’s ribs. “You’ll have to excuse him,” she said. “He forgets himself a lot.”
Taro smiled and tilted her head as she looked up at the wolf. “Yes, I’m the captain, and you are standing inside my fat ship.” She said the last so casually with a straight face that the large visitor almost didn’t catch it.
“Right!” said the male wolf. “My friend and I need to book passage with you to Pomen. I just bought my own ship, but we have to get there to take possession.” He held up one of the Blue Horizon flyers. “We saw your availability announcement on the terminal vidscreen, and then when I was at the public Com terminal on a call to your home office, they told me you would be landing here at any moment! How’s that for timing?”
Damien nodded. “Yeah, you had a stroke of luck.”
“They said you had vacancies, so here we are to fill them!”
“Just so you are aware,” Taro said, “we’re not going straight to Pomen from here.”
“Wait,” the smaller husky replied. “Your home office said Pomen was your next destination.”
“That is our ultimate destination, but we will first make a stop on Tanthe to pick up the shipment that’s bound for Bassaris, Pomen.”
“How much longer will that take?” the wolf asked.
“It will only add a day to our schedule,” the captain replied. “The flight time from here is roughly twenty hours to our Tanthean destination, with another two hours to load up and square away the manifest.”
The wolf made a casual gesture of his hand through the air. “An extra day won’t matter,” he said. “How long will it take us to get to Pomen from there?”
The wolf wrung his hands together. “More good timing!” he said.
“How’s that?” Damien asked.
“Frosty ordered modifications to the ship’s design,” the husky explained. “The shipyard said it would take about a month to get them installed.”
Taro nodded. “I take it you are Frosty?” she asked the large male.
“Tarjon Frost, ma’am,” the wolf said with a smile. “This is Mina Ferris, my engineer.”
“Well, Mr. Frost, the fare for you and Ms. Ferris together will be ©2,400. Will you need one or two cabins?”
Tarjon glanced quickly at his companion and cleared his throat. “Two, please.” Mina looked obviously disappointed, but remained silent.
“Well then, if you will follow me up to my office, I’ll collect your payment and get you registered. However, we won’t be able to put you up tonight. My crew is on shore leave this evening, so you will need to find lodging until tomorrow afternoon. Please be here two hours before liftoff, so you will need to be here no later than 1400 hours.”
“Lead the way, Captain,” Tarjon replied.
“Should I stay around until you are done?” Damien asked the red fox. He glanced over at the mail truck as it drove away with their delivered shipment.
“No, thank you,” Taro answered. “Go and enjoy your leave, Damien. I’ll see you back here tomorrow.”
“Aye, Captain,” the mastiff replied. “See you then.” The load master departed and then Taro looked over at her passengers.
“This way,” she said.
“Why do we have to be here two hours before launch?” Mina asked as they walked across the empty cargo deck. “That seems like a long time to wait around.”
“For insurance purposes, our doctor will give each of you a physical before we depart,” the vixen replied. She noted Mina’s alarmed expression, so she gave her a smile for assurance. “Don’t worry, dear,” she added. “It’s brief and primarily to make sure you’re not inadvertently bringing anything on board that will infect the rest of the crew on our month in space.”
“Ah, okay,” the husky replied. “I’m not fond of getting poked and probed by doctors.”
“Neither am I,” Taro told her, “but my physician is experienced and is compassionate toward his patients. You won’t have anything to worry about.”
The husky gave her a pained expression. “Thanks, but I think I’ll choose to worry anyway.”
Renny hopped down the steps in front of the antiquated bed and breakfast inn where he and Taro were registered and looked up at the vixen as she took slower steps down to him. “You look wonderful!” he told her.
She spun around slowly so that he could view her lavender dress from all sides. “It’s nice to see you dressed up, too,” she replied with a smile. The cheetah wore a pressed pair of dark gray slacks and a tan dress shirt with a thin silk tie. He felt conspicuous in garments that were anything but casual, but Taro wanted to go out on the town and enjoy the evening as a couple.
Renny extended his elbow courteously and the vixen slipped her arm through his. “Shall we go?” he asked.
“Lead the way, my handsome navigator.”
The cheetah looked up at the night sky, but was unable to see many stars due to the city lights. He feigned confusion and then pointed toward their left. “This way, I think,” he said.
Taro raised an eyebrow. “I thought you lived in this town all your life,” she said.
A wide grin spread across Renny’s face with a mischievous glint in his eye. “The Thornton farm is out on the savannah about a hundred miles from here,” he said, “but I moved into Gate City when I was old enough to attend college. However… the restaurant is only three blocks that way. It’s one of the reasons I booked our room here at the Crescent.”
“That’s the one that has the live magic act, right? Have you ever eaten there before?” Taro asked when they began walking in the night air.
“That’s the place, but no, the Caplan Garden is generally out of my price range. However, since you’re buying tonight…”
Taro snickered. “I hope their kitchen is well-stocked, but I can only afford so much, Renny. Please be reasonable when you order.”
The navigator licked his lips. “I will… try,” he said with a waggle of his eyebrows.
Taro laughed and gestured casually back at the bed and breakfast inn. “Did you see the pamphlets in the lobby?” she asked. “The Crescent is supposed to be haunted!”
Renny shook his head with a frown. “I’d forgotten about those stories,” he muttered. “Hopefully they’re only tales to draw in tourists. If I’d remembered that, I might not have come here.”
“Why, Mr. Thornton, are you afraid of ghosts?” Taro teased. “I thought Pockets was the superstitious one.”
The cheetah looked over at her. “Don’t tell anyone about this,” he said in a quiet voice, “but I think I had a run-in with a spirit, ghost or something like it when I was younger.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“My sister and I were prowling around in an old abandoned farmhouse one night while our folks were off to a neighboring town for a jamboree. We saw… something in the attic that we couldn’t explain, almost like a pale mist in the vague shape of a lion. It came at us with upraised paws and frightened us so badly that we ran from the house and didn’t slow down until we got back home! She and I both swore we felt something shove us as we ran.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t a—” Taro began.
“We didn’t know what it was,” Renny responded by stopping in his tracks, “but Sophie couldn’t stop talking about it whenever she and I were doing our chores the next day. She was always too curious for her own good and she snuck back out there a few of nights later when everyone was asleep.”
“What did she find?”
Renny’s expression grew dark and he stared down at his feet as they resumed walking. “When we all got up the next morning to do our chores, Sophie wasn’t in her bed. We looked all over for her, but she wasn’t in the house or barn. Ma started to panic and Pa was fixin’ to start calling up neighbors for a search party when I remembered something she’d told me the night before. She wanted to go back to see if she could find what we saw, but I didn’t want to. I confessed to us sneaking over there earlier and Pa took off without waiting on anyone else. By the time Ma, a neighbor and I got near the abandoned farmhouse, Pa was hiking back home with Sophie in his arms.”
“Was she okay?” Taro asked in a whisper.
Renny shook his head and swallowed. “No one knows exactly what happened, but… but… Pa said she probably fell from the attic ladder, landing on some old, rusty furniture with sharp edges. It was ruled an accident, but sometimes I can’t help but wonder if she was pushed by the apparition we saw.” He looked over at his companion and heaved a heavy sigh. “I’ve never been afraid of ghost stories, but sometimes I get a chill if I think about Sophie’s death.”
“Wow… I’m sorry to hear that,” Taro said after a moment. “Listen, if it makes you uncomfortable, I won’t mind if we get a room somewhere other than the Crescent.”
Renny’s familiar smile returned as he puffed out his chest in comedic exaggeration. “No need for that, ma’am. I’ll protect you from any free-floating apparitions who dare enter our room!”
Caught off guard by the cheetah’s sudden mood switch, Taro simply stared at him with an open mouth. Renny reached out and closed her mouth with a finger. “I’m okay,” he assured her with a calm smile. “I still miss Sophie, but that was a long time ago and it was her own curiosity that got the better of her. You know what they say about curiosity and cats…”
Taro chuckled and shook her head. “Even after all this time, you can still surprise me. Come on, then. Let’s forget this ghost nonsense and go eat some expensive food.” Renny’s eyes lit up and he practically pulled her along the sidewalk toward the restaurant.
“Blue Horizon Freight Transfer. Keri Petrie speaking. How may I help you?”
“Keri, hello,” Taro said toward the port side bridge vidscreen. “We’ll be launching in a few hours and I wanted to report in.”
“Taro! It’s good to hear from you!” the brown mouse exclaimed with wide eyes and a big grin.
“I don’t usually get you when I call in to the home office. Where is everyone?”
“Penny’s out sick with the flu, Cindy is away on vacation, Stu went across the street for coffee, and Tina is in Merlin’s office filling him in on the books. It’s just me and my caffeine out here in the front room.” She took a drink from an oversized coffee mug and then licked her lips with a smile.
“Merlin’s back?” Taro asked. “Isn’t he supposed to be on his honeymoon?”
Keri snickered. “He and Samantha were only at Ocean City for three weeks, Taro. Merlin came in this morning looking fluffed, relaxed and ready to get back to work. He also smells of cinnamon.”
“Cinnamon? Okay… Listen, I need you to have the cinnamon wolf contact me at his earliest opportunity. I have some information for him concerning Crimson Astrogation. Please tell him it’s important.”
“Isn’t Crimson under some kind of investigation?”
Taro’s brow furrowed. “Not yet, but I’m sure they will be after I talk to Merlin.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s okay, Keri. I’m sure you’ll hear it all when he explodes after I tell him how else the business is taking a hit.”
“Does this have anything to do with the Mooncrest?” the mouse asked.
Taro tilted her head. “Uh, no. What’s going on with them?”
“Abner’s ship left Fyn nearly four weeks ago with a load of perishable goods for Quet. When they got to the landing coordinates, the mining town they were to supply was abandoned, and it looked like it had been deserted for years. There was no one there to deliver the cargo to, so we tried to double-check the delivery location in case we had gotten it wrong. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to contact the customer who put in the order. Something about this is all wrong, but none of the business contacts will work. The Mooncrest was supposed to pick up a full load of micranite there for delivery to Dennier after unloading their Fynian cargo.”
“We tried to get in touch with the customer on Dennier who’d ordered the micranite from Quet, but that contact information is non-working too. After that, Merlin authorized the Mooncrest to restock the ship’s stores from the cargo and continue on to their next assignment. We’ve arranged with a local store to buy the rest of the supplies at a reduced price to help recoup some of our costs, but we had to completely cancel the delivery of micranite to Dennier. We lost over a hundred thousand credits because of this and our lawyer is having difficulties trying to locate the ones responsible. He’s been working overtime for us lately.”
Taro looked down at the console in front of her and pursed her lips. “In that case, I’m not sure he’ll want to know about Crimson Astrogation…” she muttered.
“What is it I don’t want to know about?” asked Merlin’s voice. Taro looked up sharply and saw that Merlin and Tina had joined Keri behind the secretary’s desk. “I just caught the last of your conversation.”
“Merlin, hi! Uhm, I have twenty-five thousand credits to transfer into the company account,” the vixen said with a wilted smile.
“That’s always good news,” the gray wolf replied dryly. “Now tell me how we came to have this extra income.”
Amanda led their latest passenger up the ramp into the airlock with a careful hand on his arm for assistance. The elderly human gave the coyote a grateful smile as she retrieved his suitcase from the tarmac and brought it inside for him. He’d pulled the roller-equipped case across the tarmac, but had been unable to lift it up the ramp.
“Thank you, Miss,” he said. “I can take it from here.”
As the business coordinator handed the wrist strap to the gentleman, the Blue Horizon’s security unit floated across the cargo bay toward them. The saucer’s metal skin shimmered iridescently in the overhead lights, stopping to study the human with its offset pair of lenses; it rotated all six of its whisker-like antennae as if it were wondering what it was looking at.
“Moss, security scan, passenger authorization Lehigh Desmond,” Amanda told the unit. The saucer emitted a pale green light from its upper lens and scanned the elderly visitor briefly. Then it moved to his luggage and scanned them as well. When it finished, it moved to a position in front of the man 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.”
“That was curious,” Mr. Desmond said with a smile as he watched the unit float around the tethered cargo.
“It’s just a standard scan to enter you into the profile of our onboard security system,” the coyote explained, “as well as to make sure you weren’t bringing any harmful devices on board. We have to do this for all passengers who travel with us.”
The human grinned at her. “I hope it found me a harmless old man,” he said, running his fingers through his wispy shock of silver hair and then scratched his chin. “I am only a danger to myself these days.”
Amanda returned his smile. “Welcome aboard the Blue Horizon, Mr. Desmond. We can leave your luggage here for now; I will have someone take it up to your cabin for you shortly.”
“Thank you, Miss.” As the coyote led the elder gentleman toward the lift, he took her arm and hooked his elbow around hers with a smile. She didn’t know how old the human might be, but for his apparent age, he seemed to walk beside her well enough. He didn’t seem frail, just aged.
“Do you have a doctor on board?” Desmond asked.
“Yes sir, we do. Dr. Somner is a fully licensed physician.”
“Might I have a chance to talk with him before we take off? I brought my medication with me, but I’m not sure I will have enough for the whole voyage.”
“You’re in luck,” Amanda told him with a smile. “I was just about to take you to him.”
“Very good,” replied the old man. “We haven’t even left and you’re already taking good care of me. Thank you, Miss.”
“You’re quite welcome, Mr. Desmond. I’m happy to help.”
Releasing himself from the flight harness in his cabin, Jerry stood up and stretched. The launch went smoothly with Justy at the controls on the bridge, and Taro had just announced that it was okay to move about.
He stepped over to the small refrigerator beneath his desk and took out a cold bottle of minted water from his personal stash of drinks. He took a long swig of pale green liquid and then recapped the bottle while licking his lips.
The red fox walked to his bookcase and unstrapped a large blue tome from the bottom shelf, but as he pulled it out, he remembered something. He re-strapped the book and headed for the door, grabbing his medical smock on the way out.
A moment later, he knocked on a door and heard a quiet reply.
“Please come in. Yes, please come in.”
He opened the door and stepped inside. The elderly human was still strapped in his flight harness. He held an old book with worn pages in his hands and he marked his place with a thin red ribbon. With a look of gratitude to the fox, he said, “Hello.”
“Hello,” Jerry replied as he tried to hide his smile.
Lehigh Desmond looked apologetic. “These are good buckles,” he said. “I can’t seem to get loose.”
The doctor looked at the straps with a frown. He tried to release it, but the buckle mechanism appeared to be jammed with a bent pin. He worked with it for a moment before the straps finally slid through the frame.
“There you go,” he said. “I will have someone fix this broken buckle before you need to use it again.”
“Thank you, I appreciate it!” Lehigh replied as he stood up and set his Bible aside. “I may have some age on me, but I’m not usually this helpless.”
Jerry looked at the man with a critical eye and then nodded. “I came by to make sure you were okay after the launch,” he said. “Other than a faulty harness, how are you feeling?”
Moving to the room’s rectangular window, Lehigh looked out into space and could see the receding disc of Kantus. “I’m a little stiff, but that’s my arthritis. The launch was interesting. I’ve never been out in space before.”
“Space travel is as routine as cross-country travel these days,” Jerry said with a smile.
“How come we can stand up okay? Shouldn’t we be floating around the room?”
“All the floors are equipped with one-gee artificial gravity regulators,” the doctor replied. “We just call them gravity plates, but they help us keep a sense of normality. It also helps keep muscle tissue from atrophy while out in space. Now, would you like to go up to the galley for some coffee? I believe Lori picked up a few Kantan blends before we left.”
Lehigh’s gaze lingered on the window a moment more before he turned toward the fox. “Yes, a cup of coffee would be nice.” He followed the doctor out the door and around the corridor to the lift.
“So, what brings you out into space now?” Jerry asked merely to make conversation with the guest. “It must have been important.”
Mr. Desmond nodded as the lift doors parted and they stepped out onto the recreation deck. “I’ve been a farmer all my life, doctor. My wife and I had a son and tried to raise him with strong family values, but he moved away to Pomen after his mother passed away, unable to cope with the loss. I don’t think he realized that by going away he left me all alone, but he does send money with his letters from time to time.”
Lorelei had not yet come up to the galley, so Jerry moved back into the kitchen while Lehigh took a seat at the galley table. The fox rummaged around in the cupboard and found several bags of coffee strapped into the cabinet. “I know Lori bought some coffee from Kantus, but I only see one bag at the moment. Will Kidwell coffee do for you? It’s a simple breakfast blend.”
The human smiled. “That will be fine,” he said. Jerry pulled down a tan package and began preparing the rich granules to brew. “I’ve never met my daughter-in-law Chloe,” Lehigh continued, “but now that they are going to have my grandchild, I want to be there for that.”
“How long do you plan to stay with them?” the physician asked.
Lehigh chuckled. “I’m too old to keep up a farm on my own now, and my son has no plans to return to Kantus to work the crops, so I sold it before I left. I am hoping Pomen will be hospitable enough for a gentleman like me to live near my grandchild.”
“How do your son and his mate feel about you staying?”
The elderly human looked thoughtful. “They say I am welcome, but I’m hoping that does not change after my daughter-in-law meets me in person. I have enough money in my account from the sale of the farm that I should be able to get a small place of my own near them.”
Jerry nodded and leaned against the tabletop. “It’s not easy to pick up and move when you’ve been in one place for so long. It’s even tougher when you go to another world altogether.”
“That sounds like the voice of experience,” Lehigh said.
“Yes, sir,” the doctor replied. “I also grew up on Kantus. I have seven siblings and we always had a close family. My parents were pleased when I announced that I wanted to study medicine, but were not happy when I said I wanted to study on Pomen – that’s where the best hospitals in the Planetary Alignment are. I was the first of my family to go off world, and it wasn’t easy learning new places and histories, but my leaving seemed to prompt a mass exodus among my siblings to all parts of the PA. My parents made us all promise to make an effort to come back to visit as often as we could, but space-travel is expensive and I wasn’t able to afford it until after I had my license and was practicing. Despite that we’re all scattered across the cosmos, my family still remains close.”
“Did you get to visit with them before we left Kantus?”
Jerry nodded. “Yes, and it was nice to see them again. Two of my brothers were there too, so it was a nice little reunion.”
“I am hoping the reunion with my son goes as well,” Lehigh said with a nod. “Jack and I have stayed in contact, but it’s been ten years since we last saw one another face to face.”
“I’m sure he will be glad to see you again,” Jerry assured him as he pulled two cups from a cabinet. “He will get to show off his bride to you, with the anticipation of their child as well.”
“Whatever the outcome, I plan to make the best of it,” Lehigh said. “Even if I occasionally have my doubts, I have always been an optimist.” The human looked up and sniffed the air as Jerry brought him a cup adorned with a white unicorn. He took a sip of the hot liquid and leaned back in his chair with a smile.
“Yes, that’s good. Thank you, Doctor.”
Renny stepped out of Sickbay, studying the flight roster for the rest of their voyage. Taro had tasked him with making the bridge duty assignments and he juggled names in his head as he scratched them onto a slateboard with a claw tip.
Another door nearby opened, but he didn’t look up until Pockets stopped beside him with a grimace.
“Have you seen the Doc?” Pockets asked in a pained voice. “I burned my hand with a soldering iron.”
Renny looked alarmed. “Bad?”
“Not really, but I still want to get it treated. I forgot to turn off the iron before the launch and tried to catch it when it rolled off my workbench.”
“I was just looking for him, but Jerry left a note saying he’d be in Mandy’s quarters.”
Pockets’ eyes lit up. “Mandy?” he asked. “I never expected she and Jerry would hook up together!”
Renny chuckled. “I don’t think it’s like that between them,” the cheetah replied with a grin. “Ever since Taro had them working together on Se’rei, Mandy has been helping Jerry with the paperwork associated with Sickbay. He doesn’t trust computers to keep good records, so he’s printed out everything, just about using up all our paper stock. She’s good with paperwork, so she volunteered to help him out.”
Pockets shook his head. “You know how relationships are in this ship,” he said. “If they aren’t together, they probably will be if they spend so much time in one another’s company.”
“Are you jealous?” Renny asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Nope,” the raccoon answered. “Mandy’s okay, but I don’t find myself attracted to her.”
“It’s possible that Jerry isn’t either. They may just be friends, do you think?”
“Maybe… but I still think they spend way more time together for just friends.”
Renny shook his head in resignation. “Jerry’s in Amanda’s quarters,” he said. “Go see him about your burn, but don’t cause a scene.”
“Who me?” Pockets responded with an innocent expression.
“Yes, you little bandit. You.”
“Come in, the door’s unlocked.”
Tarjon thumbed the control pad and then stepped into his partner’s room. The lights were dark and there was no one there. “Where are you?” the wolf asked.
“I’m in the bedroom, Frosty. Come on back.”
Tarjon tapped on the lights of the front room so he wouldn’t run into the furniture, and closed the door behind him. When he entered the back room, he stopped with a frown. The Siberian husky had her tail to him, but her garments were neatly folded on the bed. She wrapped a towel around her middle and then turned around to give him a smile with a wag of her tail.
“Hi,” she said.
“What are you doing?” Tarjon asked. “I thought we were going to get something to eat right after the launch.”
“That was before I decided I wanted an immersion bath,” she said. “I’ve never been on a ship with a bathtub before and it’s been a long time since I’ve used anything but a shower anywhere else.”
Snorting, her companion turned to go. “Have your bath. I’m going up to eat,” he said.
“Wait,” Mina called. Frost turned to look at her. She stepped up to him and put a hand on his muscular arm. “Share my bath with me,” she whispered. “There’s enough room.”
Tarjon let out a long exhale and shook his head. “No, Mina. We’ve discussed this before and you know my answer. Go take your bath. I’ll see you later on the upper deck.”
The husky shrugged her shoulders. “Can’t blame a girl for trying,” she said impishly. Just to spite her companion, she handed him her towel and then padded off into the bathroom wearing nothing but her fur.
Tarjon shook his head with a deep frown and then departed her quarters after dropping the towel on a chair. Out in the hallway, he saw Lorelei at the lift. The door opened and she stepped inside before noticing him.
“Going up?” she asked.
“Yes, thank you,” he replied.
“Where’s your friend?” the lapin doe asked as the door closed. She tapped the upper level button.
“She wants to try out the bathtub,” he grumbled. “She’ll be up later.”
Lori smiled up at him with large blue eyes. “I’m surprised you aren’t in there with her,” she said.
Tarjon looked at her incredulously. “Lady, Mina is my business partner, not my bed partner,” he snorted.
“Why not? I’ve seen the way she looks at you.”
Tarjon couldn’t believe how direct this rabbit was with him. It was irritating. He stuck a finger in her face and growled, “That’s not your business!”
Lorelei only grinned at his response. “I thought so!”
“You do like her, don’t you? You’re just afraid of a relationship!”
Tarjon felt like wrapping his thick fingers around the doe’s neck, but he closed his eyes and silently counted to ten. The lift doors opened and Lorelei slipped an arm around his, pulling him out into the room with her. Renny and Jerry were in the galley, quietly chatting with the elderly human, and Damien was spreading out an exercise mat on the far side of the room.
He followed Lori to a couch and then sat down beside her, his breakfast temporarily forgotten. He sat there quietly for a moment while Lorelei merely waited. Without prompting, the wolf began talking in a low voice so the others wouldn’t hear.
“Mina and I first met about fifteen years ago,” he said. “We dated for a while, but she let her finances get out of hand and dug herself fairly deep into debt. My cousin’s brother-in-law had helped me make some good investments with my savings, so I had a nice little bank account that Mina thought she would tap into. She told me I’d gotten her pregnant, but her doctor was actually a friend of mine and I discovered otherwise. I realized that it was just a ploy to appeal to my sense of family and get me to propose to her. I thought that if I confronted her, she’d bolt and run away. I was wrong.”
Tarjon leaned back against the couch cushions and rubbed his temples. “She admitted that she was never pregnant, but still wanted to marry me. By this time, I figured out that she saw me as nothing more than a way to get her out of debt, no matter how she felt about me.”
“But yet you’re still together after all this time,” Lori said.
Tarjon scowled at her. “Since she wouldn’t let up on me, I’m the one who bolted. In an effort to get away from her, I joined the Dennieran military as a helmsman on the battleship Deep Well during the Dennier-Mainor conflicts. Unfortunately, it did no good to run. She signed up too, but I’ll probably never know how she wound up serving on the same ship as a mechanic. We got busy with our assignments and she stopped trying to marry me, but she’s never let me out of her sight.”
Lori tilted her head, letting one ear droop. “She can’t be too bad if you still let her tag along with you, even now.”
The wolf finally smiled. “Well, she’s an extremely good mechanic,” he replied. “Our service contracts ended a year after Dennier and Mainor agreed to a truce and she followed me wherever I went as my mechanic. We hired out as a team on several vessels, but my investments finally earned enough that I could buy a ship of my own. She talked me into keeping her on as my mechanic and helped me pick out the rest of my crew.”
“Where’s your crew?”
“They’re waiting for us on Fyn, where we’re headed after I take possession of my ship on Pomen.”
Lorelei stretched and then smiled at the wolf. “Do you think that you and Mina will ever get married?”
“You may call me Lori.”
“Lori, I may one day take a mate for life, but knowing Mina as I do, I don’t intend for it to be her. She’s a great mechanic and sometimes is a good friend, but she also likes to play mind-games. She probably thinks she’ll eventually wear me down, so I have to maintain a psychological barrier against her at all times.”
Lorelei’s pleasant smile faded at this last revelation, but then her eyes sparkled with a new thought. She put a hand on his knee and whispered, “If you need a break from her attentions, I’m willing to offer you a new distraction.”
“What kind of…. uh… oh…” Tarjon swallowed when he realized what her offer meant. “Uhm, thanks,” he said.
Lori giggled at his reaction and then stood up. “What would you like for breakfast?” she asked. Tarjon’s stomach growled at the mention of food. He stood up with her and named his request. Lori nodded at his short list and said, “I can have that ready for you in about twenty minutes, if you can wait that long.”
“Yes, thank you.”
Lori padded off to the galley. Tarjon considered joining the others at the galley table, but Damien’s exercise routine caught his eye. The mastiff was stripped to the waist and exercising in a number of moves that the wolf didn’t remember ever seeing before.
“Hello,” Tarjon said when he stopped beside the mat. Damien looked over at him, but continued exercising.
“Hi,” he replied. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“Just watching you work out,” Tarjon answered. “I don’t recognize your moves.”
“I used to be a Tanthean boxer. This was my trainer’s personal exercise routine.”
“You’re a fighter?”
“Used to be, but I like to stay in shape. Boxing, wrestling, martial arts… How about yourself?”
Tarjon smiled. “I’ve been in more barroom brawls than I can count, but I’ve done some boxing in my time.”
Damien studied him quietly and Frost could almost read his mind. “How about a friendly match?” Tarjon asked.
Damien gave him a good-natured smile. “I’m not sure your passenger flight insurance will cover us if I hurt you.”
Pulling off his shirt, Tarjon grinned. “I’m willing to take that chance,” he said. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a good workout.”
Damien looked over toward the galley. “Did you hear that, Renny?” he called. “How about it?”
“Yes, I heard. Why are you asking my permission?”
“You’re the first officer.”
“If you’re both willing, go for it.”
Damien walked to a wall cabinet, pulled out two pair of boxing gloves, and then tossed one set to the wolf. “Give us a hand lacing up,” he said. Renny walked over to the mat just as the lift door opened. Taro walked onto the deck and went to the galley to sit down next to Jerry.
“Hello, Mr. Desmond,” she said to the passenger.
“Hello, Captain,” the gentleman replied with a smile. He picked up a slice of toast and buttered it with a greenish paste from Alexandrius.
“What’s going on?” Taro asked when she noticed the trio on the exercise mat.
“Two fools want to beat up on one another,” Jerry replied. “I’m staying out of it until one of them needs Sickbay.” Taro frowned; several of her crewmates occasionally worked out together on the deck, but she was unsure if including one of their passengers was a good idea. The fox tod correctly guessed her train of thought and added, “Mr. Frost offered to work out with Damien. Renny gave his permission after Damien informed our passenger that his flight insurance won’t cover him if he’s injured.”
“I see,” she said quietly.
Jerry stood up. “Maybe I’d better play referee and keep a close watch on them,” he said.
As the fox approached the gloved pair, Renny told them, “The edge of the mats will mark the rope boundaries. Go to your corners and wait for my signal to begin.”
“I’ll take over from here,” the physician said. “Go eat your breakfast.”
Both combatants stood ready until Jerry dropped his hand a moment later. Damien and Tarjon approached one another and then tapped their gloves together. Tarjon then took a sudden swing at the mastiff, but only found empty air. He grinned and then tried another tactic.
The lift door opened again and the ship’s engineer wandered into the room, both of his hands in his namesake pockets. He looked around the deck, watched the boxers jab at one another for a moment, and then noticed Lorelei serving a plate to the navigator. He sauntered over to the cheetah and took a seat next to him. He gave a casual wave to the captain, but she was busy watching the fighters.
“Hey, I heard you two spent the night in a haunted hotel while we were on Kantus,” Pockets said with wide eyes. Renny looked up as he swallowed the first bite of his breakfast.
“It was a bed and breakfast, not a hotel, and it was supposedly haunted,” the cheetah replied a moment later. “If there were any ghosts there, we never saw them.”
“Did you hear any strange noises or bumps in the night?”
Renny shook his head. “No, nothing. The place was peacefully quiet.”
Pockets looked thoughtful. “If I’d known you were going to a place like that, I would have given you my lucky four-leaf clover from Earth.”
“What is lucky about a plant with four leaves?”
“The clover on Earth only has three leaves. The locals there believe a rare one with four leaves is lucky!”
Renny took a drink from his cup. “Silly superstition,” he said with an amused expression. “I know you believe in that sort of thing, Pockets, but I saw no sign of paranormal activity while we stayed at the Crescent Bed & Breakfast Inn. I don’t think your mutant clover could have made our stay there any quieter.”
The raccoon frowned. “The Crescent, huh? I’ll have to remember not to stay there anytime I’m in Gate City.”
“Why? You don’t like a good night’s sleep?”
“There are rumors of ghosts there. I don’t want to anger any ghosts!”
The first officer rolled his eyes. The diminutive engineer apparently heard only what he wanted to hear. “I’ve heard the stories, but we didn’t see any ghosts, Pockets!”
“Did you go to sleep?”
“Of course I did.”
“They could have been in your room without you seeing them if your eyes were closed!”
Renny signed audibly. “Pockets… you’re making my brain hurt. Forget about it. I’m sure the Crescent won’t miss your money if you don’t check into one of their rooms.”
“You can bet I won’t be staying there!”
The cheetah left his empty plate and glass for Lorelei and then headed for the lift without another word to the superstitious raccoon. Pockets pulled out a transparent circlet from the shirt pocket of his coveralls and examined the clover within the disc. The acrylic was scratched and scuffed from sharing space in his pockets with tools and miscellaneous junk, but he vowed to keep it with him everywhere he went.
Damien found an opening and drove his glove up against the wolf’s jaw. Frost’s head rocked with the blow and he fell backward onto the mat. His equilibrium was skewed, so he lay there gathering his wits. When the marbles finished spinning around inside his skull, Tarjon looked up at the mastiff with a lopsided grin.
“You win,” he conceded. “You’re good… better than I am.”
Damien smiled and offered his glove to help him up to his feet. “You’re pretty good too,” he replied, “but you could use a little training to fine-tune your offense.”
Tarjon stood up and put a glove on the load master’s shoulder. “Is that an offer to coach me?”
“Are you serious?”
“Sure am. As you say, I can use the training.”
“Hmm, okay. I’m agreeable, providing the captain gives her approval.”
Tarjon grinned and looked over at the vixen. “How about it, Captain?” he asked before he grabbed the end of a glove lace in his teeth.
Taro frowned. “I have to admit that I’m impressed by my load master’s boxing abilities, so I’m afraid he might hurt you inadvertently, Mr. Frost. Your passenger flight insurance doesn’t cover something like that.”
“What if I sign a waiver?” the wolf asked. “I won’t hold him responsible if it’s an accident.”
“I don’t know…”
“I can pay him extra for the training,” Tarjon added. “Listen, we’re going to be with you folks for a month and this would be good to help me pass the time.”
Taro finally nodded. “If you’re willing to sign a waiver, then I don’t see why I should refuse it. All I ask is that you be careful.”
“Thank you, Captain. I’ll gladly sign it.”
“See me sometime tomorrow,” the vixen replied. “I’ll have the waiver drawn up for your thumbprint by then.”
“Excellent!” Tarjon said with a wide smile. He turned back to Damien as he removed a glove and went to retrieve his shirt. Lorelei waved at him from the galley, and the wolf licked his lips in anticipation of his breakfast.
“Okay, folks, we have an unusual cargo this time around, so you can’t just load up the hold as we normally do with standard crates,” Damien told the gathered crew. The Blue Horizon landed twenty minutes earlier and the mastiff had just signed off on the official documents taking possession of the cargo.
“What’s so different about this load?” Justy asked. He looked over at a pair of large delivery trucks backed up to the loading ramp. Damien walked to the nearest one with his slateboard and flipped the latch. He raised the door with one hand and gestured inside.
“Rather than standard octagonal shipping crates, we have a number of rug and carpet rolls,” he said. “We’ve got them in several sizes, in length and diameter, so standard tie-downs aren’t going to work. Some of these are extremely heavy.”
He gestured up higher on the back wall above the storage bins at a series of racks with adjustable horizontal arms. “The larger ones will go up there, where they will transport better, but we’ll still have smaller ones secured to the deck with special straps I’ve requisitioned from Aris Grand so this can be done correctly.”
“These hand-made items are very expensive and are being exported to the Pomen ruler of Bassaris under serious scrutiny,” Taro added. “The Tanthean monarch has guaranteed safe passage for this cargo simply by requesting our services by name. The Blue Horizon has a special relationship with King Aris and we’re going to treat this cargo as if everything was made of irreplaceable Vaterfin Crystal. The Bassaran prince will have an armored truck waiting for them when we land.”
“Armored?” Justy repeated. “Wow…”
Damien clapped his hands and said, “We can hand-carry the smaller rolls with one person to each end, but power loaders will be needed for the larger rolls.”
“Jerry and I will operate the power loaders if they’re working,” Renny announced. He and the male fox left the group and walked across the hold to a pair of exoskeleton power suits stowed near the engine room. They’d picked them up secondhand after getting the ship, but it turned out they weren’t very reliable and often broke down under a heavy load.
The captain looked over at the coyote standing at her elbow as the others started in Damien’s direction. “Do you have a ride to the print shop?” she asked.
Amanda nodded. “I just called for a cab to meet me here,” she replied. “The name tags that Cindy ordered for us have been paid for and are ready to pick up, but the shop is across town from the spaceport. Depending upon traffic, it may take an hour and half to get there and back.”
Taro frowned and looked at her watch. “We’re scheduled to launch at fourteen hundred hours, local time. That gives you roughly two hours to get there and back.”
“You will wait for me if we get stuck in traffic, won’t you?” Amanda asked hopefully.
Chuckling, the vixen put a hand on the coyote’s shoulder. “We aren’t going anywhere without you, Mandy, even if we have to miss our launch window and reschedule take-off. Just don’t dawdle.”
“Hopefully, I’ll be back before that happens.”
“Well, you’re off to a good start. Here comes your cab.”
Amanda trotted off toward a green and yellow vehicle that pulled up next to the delivery trucks, but before Taro could join her crew to help with the cargo, she saw her passengers approach from the lift. She gave them a pleasant smile.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hi, Captain,” Tarjon answered. He wore a simple white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, a pair of denim jeans and boots. Mina had on a blue skirt with a matching halter-top and sandals.
“We’ll be launching in two hours,” Taro said, “but if you want to get some fresh air and wander around the spaceport, you’re welcome to do so until then. Just don’t be late getting back.”
Mina grinned. “The fresh air and the sunshine out here is nice,” she replied, “but I think I’m going to check out the trinket shops in the spaceport. It shouldn’t take me two hours to see what’s there.” She looked up at her companion. “You coming along?” she asked.
Tarjon shook his head. “No, if the captain says it’s okay, I’d like to help with the cargo.”
“Suit yourself, Frosty,” the Siberian husky said. She gave Taro a wave and then walked toward the terminal building.
“You don’t have to help us load rugs,” Taro said to the wolf. “I pay my crew to do that for me.”
“I’m not asking for payment,” Tarjon replied with a toothy grin. “I just want something to do while we’re waiting around.”
The red vixen nodded her understanding and pulled a pair of work gloves from her back pocket. “I doubt mine will fit you, so follow me to the storage closet and we’ll see if we have some you can wear.”
“Thanks, Captain. I appreciate you letting me help.”
“You’re welcome. Just don’t get hurt, okay? Your flight insurance doesn’t cover this.”
Tarjon grinned at her. “Y’know, you bring up our insurance coverage just about every time I ask if I can do something,” he observed.
“We’re liable to keep you safe as we transport you from one location to another,” Taro explained. “I just don’t want to see either you or Mina hurt from misconduct, whether by yourselves or one of my crew.”
“Yeah, I understand,” the wolf responded with a wide grin. “I’m just giving you a hard time about it.”
Taro raised an eyebrow and gave him a smirk as she opened a storage locker. She pulled out a large pair of worn gloves that had to have been Durant’s. She handed them to Frost. “Here, these should fit. Now, get to work!”
Tarjon laughed and gave her a salute with the gloves. “Yes, ma’am!”
“The Blue Horizon has been authorized for immediate launch,” Taro announced.
Jerry checked the readouts of the pilot’s console and unconsciously nodded to himself. Energy buildup was at one hundred percent and he was about to fire the thrusters when there came an urgent knock on the bridge door.
“Hold it,” Taro said in alarm. Jerry stayed his finger over the green-lit control as the vixen unstrapped herself from the Com station. Renny bit his bottom lip as Taro tossed her headset to him and then moved quickly to the door. When she opened the panel, she looked up into Tarjon’s smiling face.
“Mister Frost!” the vixen said in surprise, “Please get back to your cabin and get strapped in. We need to launch right now!”
“May I watch the launch from up here?” he asked quickly. “I won’t be in the way.”
“Passengers aren’t allowed on the bridge,” Renny called from the center seat.
“You heard the announcement a moment ago to get strapped in!” Jerry added.
“I’m a pilot, too,” offered the wolf. “I thought that if—”
“The control tower is demanding to know why we haven’t launched,” Renny announced.
Taro growled beneath her breath and pulled Tarjon into the room forcibly. “Sit down and strap in!” she said angrily. She jumped for her own seat, strapped in and then said to Jerry, “Punch it!”
The doctor fired the thrusters and then moved his hands quickly over the controls. The Blue Horizon rose quickly from the spaceport and then the elliptical flying saucer nosed up through the overhead clouds.
Once the freighter had reached orbit, Renny handed the Com headset back to Taro and began his calculations for their journey to Pomen. Without looking at their passenger, Taro touched a pad on the engineering console next to her and then spoke into her headset mike on ship-wide broadcast. “The ship’s artificial gravity has automatically enabled and is reading normal. Once we have broken orbit and are beyond all planetary traffic, the LightDrive engines will be engaged for cruising speed, but mobility is now safe. You may now shed your harnesses and move about.”
She disconnected the circuit and then turned to look icily at the wolf. Knowing what was coming, Tarjon looked embarrassed and gave the vixen a small smile.
“Mister Frost,” Taro hissed, “this bridge is off-limits to you at all times, especially during launch and landings! If I find you in here again, I am going to fine you five hundred credits and then have you locked in your cabin for the duration of our flight! What you did was incredibly dangerous and stupid! Had we launched while you were standing there at the door, I’m sure our doctor here would now be treating you for injuries.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry,” Tarjon said in a small voice while he unbuckled his harness. “I just wanted to —”
“Get off my bridge!” Taro shouted. Frost bolted for the door and quickly departed. After the panel closed, Taro glanced down at her hands and muttered a curse.
“What is it?” Jerry asked as he and Renny looked over at her. Without another word, the Hestran vixen lifted her hands and let them see the mangled arm rests of her seat.
Jerry raised an eyebrow and Renny politely went back to his calculations. Taro sighed and tried to straighten an armrest, but its metal base was fractured. This was something she would have to report in with the home office for funding approval to get the chair replaced. Merlin wouldn’t be happy.
The intercom chirped and the vixen tapped the control with a hard-placed finger. “This is Taro,” she said tersely.
“Captain, would you please meet me in my office?” Damien asked. Jerry frowned at the tone of the mastiff’s voice and returned his attention to the instruments in front of him just as Renny fed the navigational data to his panel.
“I’ll be down in a moment,” Taro replied. “What’s up?”
“I just caught Pockets trying to pilfer one of the smaller Tanthean rugs from our cargo.”
There was a sharp snap when one of the mangled armrests of Taro’s chair broke off completely in her hand. Renny winced as the vulpine captain raised the piece in the air, but then she changed her mind about throwing it into a wall.
“I’ll be right there,” she said through clenched teeth. She disconnected the circuit, stood up, dropped the armrest in her chair, and then stormed off the bridge.
The cheetah glanced over at Jerry and said, “Coordinates have been transferred to your station. I’ll check back with you in a bit to see if you need anything.” The male fox only nodded his acknowledgement.
A few moments later, Taro and Renny stepped in through the door of the mastiff’s small office. Pockets sat meekly on a chair in the corner, nervously swinging his legs. Damien rested on the corner of his desk. Rolled up on the desktop beside him was an ornate rug in shades of brown, beige and burgundy. The hand-woven detail was intricate and tassels of Tanthean silk adorned its edges.
Taro only made a cursory glance at the rug before boring her eyes into Pockets’. She resisted the urge to scream at him. Instead, she crossed her arms and simply waited for him to explain himself. Renny was unable to keep quiet, however.
“Pockets…” he began, “are you insane?” The raccoon shrank further into the corner, but said nothing in his defense. “This cargo belongs to a friend of King Aris!”
Damien looked over at Taro. “He was out there just as soon as you gave the okay to move around,” he said. “I guess he thought no one would notice him getting a small rug with everyone distracted from the launch.”
“How did you catch him?” Renny asked.
“I used one of your previous load master’s tricks and set up a perimeter alarm as soon as the bay doors were closed and we began pressurization. I thought it would be a good idea with an expensive cargo and three passengers on board the ship. I didn’t suspect I’d catch our own engineer.”
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” Renny asked the raccoon. Pockets shook his head quietly and looked down at his feet.
Taro rubbed her eyes and then let out a long, drawn out breath. In a voice that was calmer than she felt, she looked at the raccoon and said, “Pockets, I am docking your pay for this voyage. Everyone else may have looked the other way when you occasionally filched things from the cargo, but I won’t tolerate it. You may have forgotten, but were it not for King Aris’ friendship, we wouldn’t even have this freighter!”
Pockets pulled his feet up into the chair and wrapped his arms around his knees. He rested his forehead on them, but said nothing.
“You are also denied shore leave when we get to Pomen,” Taro continued tersely. That got the raccoon’s attention. He looked up at her and opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out. Taro put her hands on her hips and concluded by saying, “This is the only warning you’re going to get, Jerad Porter. You’ve been with us from the beginning, but the next time you’re caught stealing from our clients, Merlin will be holding interviews for your job!”
Renny looked surprised and exchanged glances with Damien. He could smell Taro’s anger radiating outward like heat waves and was sure that Pockets could too. The vulpine captain glared at the engineer for a few heartbeats and then quickly left the small office.
Renny sighed quietly and then crouched down so that he could look the raccoon in the eye. “Pockets, I’m not going to rake you over the coals beyond what Taro already did,” he said quietly, “but I think you should take her at her word. You’ve known her longer than I have, so keep that in mind the next time you take interest in our cargo. We’ve already lost several clients lately. If the Tanthean king decides we can’t be trusted with his cargo, we’ll never get another customer once that news got out.”
Pockets looked up at the cheetah with moisture in his eyes. He began to shake a little, but he was only able to speak a single word. “Sorry…” he whispered.
Renny nodded and put a hand on his small friend’s shoulder. “I think that’s all Taro wanted to hear from you. I just wish you’d been able to tell it to her yourself.”
Taro stormed into her cabin, skirted around the furniture on her way to the back room, and then collapsed on her bed in frustration. It seemed as if she was continually losing her temper lately, and it was getting to her.
Was it her, or did they just seem to have a string of bad luck lately?
She lay on her back and lifted up her hands in front of her face. She unclenched her fists and simply looked at her hands. Every Hestran knew when they went off-world that they would have to control their anger due to their inherent strength born of a heavy-gravity planet. Although she didn’t look it, Taro was stronger than most everyone she ever met while out among the worlds of the Planetary Alignment.
Normally, she didn’t have trouble maintaining a reign on her anger, but lately it seemed she was out of control. She was afraid that if she didn’t do something about it soon, she might actually hurt someone; perhaps it was the weight of responsibility that was piling up on her.
She had seen Merlin lose his temper on occasion, but overall he’d handled his responsibilities with seeming ease. How had he done it? she wondered to herself.
The vixen closed her eyes and rested her hands on the bed beside her, willing her heart rate to decrease with breathing exercises she remembered from somewhere. After a while, she calmed down and rolled over onto her stomach, gathering up a fluffy pillow in her arms. Perhaps a nap would help her relax.
She closed her eyes and lay there for a long while, but her mind was simply too active for sleep. With an audible sigh, she sat up next to the headboard and looked around the room. On the nightstand next to her, she snatched up a well-worn paperback copy of How to Control Your Anger. She didn’t think it had helped her thus far, but it wouldn’t hurt to give it another read.
She heard a knock on the external door of her cabin and she closed the book in her lap wearily. Now what? she wondered. She heard the door panel open and then heard Jerry call out her name.
She got up and went out to the front room. “What can I do for you, Doc?” she asked in a tired voice. “I’m not really up for a visit right now.”
The male red fox studied her for a moment with his hands in the pockets of his white lab smock. “Captain, would you allow me to give you a brief examination?” he asked quietly.
Taro heaved a heavy sigh. “Why?”
“Because your first officer has asked me to take a look at you.” He pointed toward the book still in the vixen’s hand. “He’s not the only one who’s taken notice of your temper lately. I’ve heard several of the crew mention it in conversation.”
Taro’s expression grew dark and she opened her mouth to make a caustic remark, then thought better of it with a shake of her head. “I suppose I have been on edge lately,” she admitted. She sat down on the couch, set the book on a cushion beside her, and looked up at him with a tired expression. “Go ahead and examine me, Doc. Maybe you can do something for me that this book can’t.”
Jerry gave her a quiet nod and pulled a small med-kit from his pocket.
Max Sinclair looked up into the cloudy evening sky in anticipation. There were numerous sets of running lights over the spaceport and he wondered which ones might belong to the Blue Horizon. The German shepherd took a drink from a cup on his table near the terminal window, and then looked over at the lion sitting across from him.
“Are you making any progress?” he asked his companion.
The male lion shook his head as he kept his attention on the tiny instruments in his large hands. He was working on the slateboard datapak that Max took with him everywhere he went, but it had developed problems on this trip.
“Almost,” the lion replied after a moment. “I think the core values are almost shot, though. If you can afford it, you should upgrade to a S’leen model. This C’maat edition is a luxury item, but it’s obsolete and I don’t think many folks use them anymore.”
Max frowned. “How hard would it be to transfer the data from it to a new one?” he asked.
The lion looked up when the slateboard beeped at him. He reattached the back panel and answered, “Not hard at all, providing you can keep this one running long enough for the transference. For now, however, it’s working.”
“Don’t mention it, Max. I enjoy working on old computer systems.”
“Blue Horizon, PA registry one-one-three-eight, now landing on pad one-two,” a subtle voice announced over the terminal intercom.
“That’s my ship!” Max said with a grin.
The lion handed the slateboard to him and gave him a smile. “Lucky you,” he said, taking a quick lap from a cup of tea. “I have another two hours to wait for my ride.”
Max stood up, put the slateboard into his carry-on luggage, and then held out a hand to his companion. “How much do I owe you for repairing my C’maat?”
“Not a thing. It gave me something to do while we were waiting.”
“Thanks!” Max replied as they shook hands. “If there’s anything I can help you with, just contact me via the Blue Horizon.”
“Tell your boss that if he needs any upgrades or tech work done on your company systems, my services are open to negotiation. I put my contact info on your slateboard.”
“I will.” Max looked out the window and saw the blue freighter land gently on a brightly-lit launch pad. “Time to go. Take care of yourself.”
“You too. Bye, Max.”
The German shepherd gathered up his bags and headed for the terminal ramp. He trotted down the steps to ground-level, and then started out across the tarmac. He heard footsteps behind him so he glanced over his shoulder to see a human couple following him, a man and his pregnant mate.
“Excuse me,” the woman said when she saw his eyes dart quickly to her protruding belly.
“Are you going to that ship?” she asked with a thick accent.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m a mechanic on her crew.”
“Is that the Blauer Horizont?” asked the male.
“Yes, sir,” Max replied with a cordial smile. “They’ve just arrived from Kantus.”
“Thank you,” said the man. “My father is supposed to be a passenger on your ship. We’re here to take him home with us.”
“Come with me,” Max told them. “We’ll see who disembarks in a moment.” No sooner had he spoken than the large cargo bay door began to open on its port side and a ramp began to extend to the tarmac.
“There you are!” Damien called down to the young German shepherd with a grin. “I was about to report you to the captain as AWOL!”
“All hands!” Taro’s voice broadcast over the cargo bay intercom speakers, “All hands report to the hold to unload cargo. Passengers will please check out with Amanda at the main hatch before you disembark. Thank you for flying with Blue Horizon Space Available.”
Max turned toward the humans. “Your father should out in a few minutes,” he told them.
“Thank you, sir,” the man replied. Max hefted his bags and then trotted up the ramp to Damien at the bay door controls.
“Well,” said the mastiff. “Let me see it.”
Max grinned widely and then held up his left hand. Damien examined the middle finger and even gave it a good-natured tug.
“It looks and feels real,” he said. “It matches your skin and fur coloring.”
“Doctor Bengoro did a good job,” Max said proudly. “I like it!”
“Can you feel anything with it?”
The shepherd shook his head, but his ice blue eyes still shined. “No, it’s still a prosthetic just made to look like a real finger. I had to go through a week of physical therapy to learn how to pick up things with that hand all over again.” He wiggled it to show that it could operate normally. “It was weird at first, since I’d gotten used to nothing being there in the middle and had compensated for it. It feels natural now, even if there’s no sense of touch in it.”
Damien gave him a warm smile, tapped the new finger with one of his own, and said, “Just don’t lose this one!”
“Not a chance!” Max replied as he extended the finger by itself. “I can’t wait to show it to the others.”
The mastiff reached up and took hold of the young mechanic’s hand, gently folding the digit back down. “Don’t stick your middle finger out like that,” he said quietly so the pair of individuals waiting nearby wouldn’t hear. “It’s considered a rude gesture in some places, especially to humans.”
“Oh, yeah... I forgot.”
Tarjon shook hands with the Blue Horizon’s captain as the three of them departed the lift onto the cargo deck. He gave her a wide smile. “I apologize for being a pain in the trip, but Mina and I appreciated the chance to fly with you.”
Taro returned the grip. “Apology accepted, Mr. Frost. I’ve been a little irritable, myself, so it’s not all your fault. Doctor Jerry thinks I might have picked up something from our previous stop that our inoculations didn’t cover.”
“Is it contagious?” Mina asked in concern with a hand to her throat. Taro gave the husky a smile and shook her head.
“He doesn’t think so, but it might not be a bad idea if you have a physician look you over before you head out into deep space for any length of time. How are you feeling?”
Mina looked up, twitched an ear and then shrugged. “I feel like I always do,” she replied.
Tarjon put an arm around her and said into her ear, “Yup, that sounds like you’re still infected with whatever it is you’ve always had.”
Mina grinned and swatted his hand from her shoulder. “I guess I’m okay, captain,” she said. “I’ve been on board with you for nearly a month. If it was catching, I’m sure I would have gotten it before now.”
Taro nodded and asked, “What are your plans now?” They walked toward Amanda near the open bay door with their luggage. The rest of the crew had already begun transferring their cargo into an armored truck sent by the Pomen prince. Ursine guards watched the loading with serious scrutiny and Pockets’ demeanor was noticeably subdued by their presence.
“Now we go sign for our new ship and make sure they made all the right modifications,” Mina replied, adjusting the straps of her overalls. “I’ve already ordered a stock of supplies for the new ship, so once it’s been delivered and put away, we can head over to Fyn to get the rest of our crew.”
Taro nodded when they got to the ramp. She saw a human couple greet Mr. Desmond with grins, tears and hugs, and she couldn’t help but smile. Lehigh had been afraid that his son’s wife wouldn’t like him, but it appeared they were off together on a good start.
She looked back up at Mina and held out a hand to her. “I wish the two of you the best of luck,” she said. “Our next assignment will also be on Fyn, so perhaps we’ll see one another again.”
Tarjon rubbed his hands together and looked out across the spaceport tarmac. He stretched out his arm and pointed toward another landing pad several slots over. “I think that’s her, right there!”
Taro and Mina followed his gaze. A white vessel with gold paint trim gleamed in the nighttime flood lights. It was a sleek, flying wing starship of the compact Myotis class, built for stellar speed, atmospheric aerodynamics and the latest advancements in astrogation technology. It could hold a crew of ten comfortably and up to twenty if everyone doubled up in its cabins. The Myotis cruiser line had been in operation for years and boasted fine construction and repeat customers.
“Nice!” Taro said in appreciation.
“Thanks, Captain,” the wolf replied. “However, I’m itching to get my paws on her, so we’ll bid you safe journey and be on our way.”
“Safe journeys to you two as well.”
Tarjon met with Amanda to check out, and then a moment later he picked up his luggage with Mina following him down the ramp across the tarmac.
As they walked, the Siberian husky looked up at her companion with a smile. “You’re grinning like a happy puppy!” she teased.
“And why not?” he replied with a laugh. “You know what it’s like to want something for years? I’m looking forward to this!”
“Yes, Frosty. I know what it’s like to want someone for years.” Tarjon raised an eyebrow at her comment, but then she batted her eyes at him with hands clasped over her heart. He couldn’t help but laugh.
“C’mon, mechanic!” he said. “Pick up the pace and double-time it!”
The Blue Horizon lifted off from Pomen three days later, its hold filled to capacity containing three separate paid shipments to various locations on Fyn. Considering the loss of clients in recent weeks, Taro was happy to have this trio of assignments at the same time to make up for dwindling company funds. Cindy and Keri had worked overtime to secure the deliveries, making sure they were all paid in advance. The mail quota was heavier than usual, so the hold was packed with only a narrow walkway dividing each customer’s goods, and a path around the entire perimeter of the cargo bay.
Damien was making a final inspection of the cargo before he was to report to the bridge for his watch. As he came around the bay near engineering on his way back to the lift, he saw the raccoon watching him from the doorway.
“What’s going on, Pockets?” the mastiff asked suspiciously.
The raccoon held up both hands with an annoyed expression. “Don’t worry, mister load master,” he replied, “I’m not going to steal anything!”
“Then how come you’re out here?”
“I was cleaning the actuator on one of the landing claws and needed some fresh air. The recycler is now filtering the fumes out of the engineering compartment. You’re welcome to go in there and sample the air with a deep breath, if you don’t believe my story.”
Damien frowned at the raccoon’s attitude. “Listen, Pockets. There’s no need to get this way with me. I was—”
“Save it. I know you were only doing your job. Just don’t expect me to thank you for it.” Pockets turned his back on the load master when a small blip sounded from the room behind him.
“Did you do this with Durant?”
Pockets stopped in his tracks, spun around and shook a finger at the larger male. “Durant was my friend. Don’t ever compare yourself to him!” Before Damien could utter a response, the engineer retreated into his lair.
The mastiff stared after him for a long moment, and then turned to go report to the bridge.
Justy yawned widely, his small pink tongue curling up as he stretched. It had been quiet during his watch, and he had just finished the book he had brought with him, with another hour still left until his relief showed up.
He set the slateboard on the floor beside the center seat and stared out into space. Stellar distances were so vast that even at LightDrive speeds, the vista of stars appeared unmoving unless someone stared at them for long periods. Justy blinked to refresh his eyes, and one of the stars to the starboard suddenly appeared to be keeping pace with them.
He watched in interest as the star grew larger in size and stellar magnitude. He thought he might be witnessing a sun going into a rare nova and leaned forward on the console with a smile forming across his face.
The object continued to grow, however, and he jumped in his seat when sensors bleeped at him in alarm. The koala shook his head as he realized that it was another vessel approaching from the starboard, its speed closely matching their own.
He hit the intercom pad on his panel and a sleepy voice issued from the speaker. “This is Taro… what is it?”
“Sorry to bother you, Captain,” Justy exclaimed, “but we have another ship coming up alongside of us.”
“Who is it?”
Justy moved to another station and called up the sensor log. “Its transponder identifies it as the Frostbite, PA99473.”
“Frostbite? I don’t know that one. Has her captain tried to hail us?”
“No, ma’am. Do you think it’s a pirate ship?”
There was a moment of silence. “I wouldn’t rule out that possibility. See if you can raise them, but be on the alert for any trickery. I’ll be right there.”
“Aye.” The koala closed the connection and then dialed up the other vessel’s registry code. “Frostbite, this is the SS Blue Horizon. What can we help you with?”
“Blue Horizon,” said a familiar voice, “this is Captain Frost. If I’m not mistaken, is this Justy I’m speaking to?”
The koala grinned when Taro and Renny walked in through the door, both in robes and looking disheveled. “Yes, this is Justy,” he said into the headset microphone in his hand. “Good to hear from you, Tarjon. We didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”
“My ship had already been supplied when we got to it, so we were given clearance to launch about an hour after you. We’re on our way to Fyn to pick up the rest of my crew and thought we’d accompany you there, if that’s okay with your captain.”
Taro gave Justy a nod and then yawned widely; she tugged on Renny’s arm back toward the door. The pair departed without a single word.
“Taro’s asleep right now, Captain, but I don’t think having you along will be a problem,” Justy replied. “Are you sure we won’t be holding your faster ship back too much?”
There was a laugh from the connection. “Yeah, I’m sure we could outrun you, but you folks are good people and we’d like the company.”
“That’s great! Listen… if Mina doesn’t mind, I’d like the chance to match her at another game of chess while we’re in flying in tandem. I have an online board that she could connect into with your computer.”
“You know she’ll whoop your tail again, Justy.”
“Hey, she didn’t beat me every game! Besides, I got a lot of practice playing chess with her while you were with us. I think I can give her an even run for her efforts!”
“She just said that you’ll be sorry you tangled with her, but yes, she accepts your online challenge. Personally, I agree that you’ll be sorry you wanted her— Ow! Don’t hit, Mina!”
Justy grinned widely as there were sounds of a scuffle for a moment over the open connection.
“Sorry about that, Justy,” Mina’s voice said over the speaker. “CAPTAIN Frost has gone back to the galley to prepare my breakfast. You and I are now alone together to wreak havoc across the chess board. You ready?”
“I’m calling up the program now. You can connect using our transponder ID and the activation code, Chaturanga.”
“Chaturanga, eh? That’s appropriate... Got it and connecting in now. Better have some bandages ready for your tail!”
Renny drummed his fingers on the guidance shifts before him and wondered idly why he hadn’t brought a book with him to the bridge for his watch. He’d relieved Justy two hours earlier and had already grown bored. When Merlin was captain, the cheetah had often suggested having a StellarNet feed routed to a screen on the bridge, but the idea was always nixed since the pilot needed to be alert for any emergency. Those so-called emergencies were extremely rare, so the first officer wondered if he might sweet-talk Taro into having Pockets rig up the connection anyway. It would help pass the time even if all he had to watch on StellarNet was INN broadcasts.
Standing up from the seat, he decided to do some exercises. He didn’t have a floor mat, but the bridge wasn’t large enough for a full set of calisthenics anyway. Despite this, he dropped to the floor and began a routine of push-ups.
The door opened later just as he finished with a set of rigorous sit-ups, and Lorelei walked in with a tray of food in her hands.
“Have you worked up an appetite?” she asked with a teasing lilt to her voice. Renny looked up at her with a grin and licked his lips.
“You know me so well,” he said as he got up and took the tray from her. “Thank y—” The sensors bleeped suddenly in alarm and Renny heaved a big sigh. He handed the tray back to the rabbit and shut off the klaxon. “Looks like the Frostbite has gotten too close to our… no, wait a minute, that’s not Tarjon’s ship!”
Renny jumped into the pilot seat, buckled his flight harness and then slammed his palm down on the autopilot emergency release. He grabbed the guidance shifts, keeping his eyes trained on the instrumentation before him, and said over his shoulder, “You’d better get strapped in, Lori!”
The white doe set the food tray on the floor and then took the nearest seat at the environmental station. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
Proximity alarms suddenly blared out and the starboard vidscreen came to life with a digital representation of the Blue Horizon at its center. The Frostbite was ahead of them by several thousand kilometers, but another vessel was bearing down on them from the port side at a speed too great to be a casual approach. A quick check of the com reading gave news that the cheetah dreaded.
“Their transponder isn’t transponding! It’s gotta be pirates!”
Renny was in a sudden dilemma. He couldn’t get to the armament panel without leaving the pilot’s seat. “Lori! Can you get to the weapons console? We need to defend ourselves!” He knew the bunny was the peaceful type, but she had exhibited her flawless skills with a handgun that time back on Fyn when the Basilisk crew had tortured Merlin. Perhaps she was just as precise with the ship’s weaponry.
Lorelei was scared, but she knew what was at stake and unbuckled herself to move to the station at the front of the bridge. Renny cursed beneath his breath when another warning klaxon blared out and warning lights bathed the bridge in red. A spray of greenish-white energy spread out toward them from the oncoming ship, and he had to spin the Horizon over on one axis in order to avoid damage. From the angle of the shot, Renny knew they were trying to disable his engines.
He increased their velocity in an effort to outmaneuver their opponent. Unfortunately, the fully loaded freighter was no match for the speed and agility of the marauder’s smaller design. It resembled nothing more than a fat, blunt-nosed cylinder, but it could maneuver faster than the larger cargo vessel.
Taro’s quarters suddenly lurched to the side with a jolt hard enough to launch her out of the shower, a bottle of shampoo hitting the deck beside her. The vixen tumbled to the floor in a heap, slid across the tile to the side of the lavatory. She fought to regain her footing and equilibrium, and had to cling to the counter in order to stand. The room shuddered with a low growl as another heavy jolt rocked the ship again.
From the other room she heard Lori’s voice from the intercom, “Captain, come to bridge! We’re under attack!”
She struggled to her feet when another blast rocked the ship. It sent her stumbling against a wall as she propelled herself out of the door and toward the hallway.
On the bridge, Renny’s fingers gripped the guidance shifts as he fought to evade the pirate vessel. He whipped it starboard while pushing up their speed for escape. The Horizon banked sharply as angry fingers of energy slashed out at the sluggish freighter, only to sail right back into the barrage of green fire. It was like trying to escape through an electrified fence.
Taro stumbled in through the bridge door just as the Com station lit up with intercom requests from just about everyone on board. The towel-clad vixen somehow managed to get into the Com chair and buckle up the harness.
She glanced up at the active vidscreen before she realized that some of the ethereal display came from her ship. She looked down at Lorelei at the weapons console and noted in wonder the ease in which the bunny operated their armaments against their attackers. Unfortunately, Renny was concentrating so intently on avoiding enemy fire that Lori’s chances of actually hitting the pirates was practically hopeless with the erratic flight of the Blue Horizon.
Taro turned quickly to her station and hit the ship-wide intercom as she glanced up at the active vidscreen.
“All hands, hang on!” she broadcast to everyone. “Looks like we’ve got pirates after our cargo. I’m not sure we can outrun their weapons for long, so be alert for armed boarders. If we can just—”
The attacking vessel suddenly veered off in a move that surprised both Renny and Lori at their controls. It almost looked as if the ship was trying to avoid collision. Then without warning, a white flying wing appeared directly between the freighter and its attackers, its thrusters on full braking as it whipped around to follow the pirates.
“It’s Frosty!” Lorelei exclaimed happily. She clapped her hands and bounced in her seat beneath the safety harness.
Mixed streamers of blue and green fire were exchanged between the Frostbite and the pirate vessel as they sped off into the void, but Renny saw none of it. He recalculated their course and resumed their heading toward Fyn with as much speed as the blue saucer could manage.
For several moments, it felt odd that the deck plates beneath their feet were no longer tilting and shaking crazily. Although they seemed to be out of danger for the moment, all three on the bridge maintained a watchful vigil.
Finally, Taro released her breath and looked over at her companions. “Good work, you two,” she said with a relieved smile. Cheetah and bunny exchanged quick glances.
“I couldn’t hit them,” Lori admitted with a frown. “Everything was too crazy!”
Renny shook his head too. “All I did was buy us a few minutes,” he replied. “If Tarjon hadn’t shown up, we would have been disabled and boarded.” He looked up at the screen, but saw no sign of the either vessel out among the stars. “That could still happen, y’know.”
Taro nodded, understanding their frustration, but still she gave each of them a warm smile. “Possibly,” she admitted, “but at least they wouldn’t have taken us without a fight. Good work, you two,” she repeated.
“I hope Mina and Frosty are okay,” Lorelei said in a quiet voice.
The intercom chirped and Taro would have leapt from her seat had she not been strapped in. She chuckled nervously and connected the call to the overhead speaker. “This is the bridge,” she said.
“Captain! Are we okay?” came a strained voice.
“For the moment, Max. Mr. Frost showed up to chase away the pirates, but we still don’t know how well they might be doing. Are you okay? The floor plates were shaking awfully hard during the attack.”
“Yeah, I’m okay, but we may find things scattered all over the ship. The backup inertia dampers for sudden jolts like this have been faulty lately and we haven’t had the extra parts to repair them.”
“Why haven’t we bought the parts we need?” Renny asked.
“Pockets requested the funding from the home office for the parts, but since we’ve lost several clients lately, Ms. Winters has to find some other area in the budget to cut in order to pay for the parts we need. For a starship, those components aren’t cheap.”
Lori wrinkled her small nose. “I liked it better when we had money.”
Taro nodded in agreement. “I think several blasts might have gotten through our stellar shields during the attack. You and Pockets should start checking the ship for damage.”
Taro made another glance at the vidscreen and then unbuckled her harness. “I’m going to go check on everyone else,” she said. “Lori, would you stay up here in case Renny needs anything?”
“Yes, ma’am, I will.”
“Thank you. Renny, should we need to—” The sensors bleeped again in alarm; Taro sat down quickly to buckle herself back in as Renny prepared to take evasive action. Before the vixen could get the harness fastened, a voice hailed them over the circuit she had left open.
Taro visibly deflated in relief. “Ahoy, Frostbite! We’re so glad to see you! Are you two okay?” She transferred the conversation to the port vidscreen and the wolf’s grinning face peered out at them.
“Yeah, Mina and I are fine,” Tarjon replied. “We got to test out our new ship and modifications, and she passed wonderfully. Sorry we couldn’t get back here in time to save you from the attack. Are you guys all right in there?”
The Frostbite took up a position starboard aft of the Blue Horizon and made a lazy circuit over and above the freighter. Renny surmised that they were looking over the Horizon’s external damage.
“We’re shaken up, but still assessing condition of the ship. What happened with the other vessel? Do you think they’ll be back?”
A quiet chuckle came across the speaker. “Don’t worry about the Peg. We sent her running and then disabled its engines when we figured she had enough inertia to get her closer to Fynian traffic to be picked up by the local authorities, whom we’ve contacted.”
“Peg?” Lori asked.
“It’s a common nickname for that ship design,” Tarjon said with a laugh. “They’re small and cheap, but roomy with a decent little cargo hold. They also have interstellar range.”
Taro rubbed her eyes and suddenly remembered that she only wore a towel and had half-dried shampoo all through her fur. She figured she must look a fright, but it was too late to try to look presentable now. She looked up at the screen and asked, “Are you sure the Peg won’t be coming back for us?”
“Not to worry, Captain. Mina and I will watch over you until we get to Fyn. The rest of my crew will be disappointed they missed the excitement, but now we’ll have a tale to tell them.”
“Thank you, Captain Frost,” Taro said with a smile. “I appreciate your assistance and am grateful that you were here with us.”
“You’re welcome. Now why don’t you go tend to your people? You do look like you could use a shower, though.”
Taro chuckled with a shake of her head. “That’s where I was when the excitement began.”
Four hours later, Mina sat down in a comfortable chair on the bridge of the Frostbite, sliding her tail into the slotted seat back. She handed a cup of coffee to her companion and gave him a smile. “So, are you satisfied with the way she handles?” she asked.
Tarjon took a lap from his cup and then nodded. “Yeah, I enjoyed that little workout. Our little ship performed really well, and I think she’ll do nicely,” he said, “but I want you and Decade to see what you can do to tweak our speed when we have everyone on board.”
Mina smirked. “That’ll make him happy. You know how much he likes to improve upon any system he gets his paws onto!”
“You know… we still have a few hours before we get to Fyn. We’re all alone… with no distractions…” The husky leaned forward seductively and rolled a shoulder toward him. Frost swallowed, but shook his head. He opened his mouth to reply, but then a control panel twittered.
Tarjon looked up with a raised eyebrow. “What in thunder does that sound mean?” he muttered. The ship was still so new he was not familiar with all the sounds the vessel might make.
Mina laughed at him. “We have an interstellar call, Frosty.” She reached across a panel and thumbed a glowing blue touch pad. “This is Chief Engineer Ferris of the SS Frostbite, PA Registry 99473,” she said to a hidden microphone. “What can I help you with?”
There was a slight pause before the speaker’s voice came across the circuit. “Chief Ferris, my name is Merlin Sinclair, president of Blue Horizon Freight Transfer. May I speak with your captain, please?”
Mina toggled a switch and transferred the conversation to the large vidscreen window over them. Tarjon looked up at the image of a gray and white wolf dressed in a dark blue dress shirt.
“Cousin Merle, hello,” he said with a smile.
“Hello, Tarjon,” said the other wolf. “It’s been a long time.”
“It’s been a long time since we’ve talked, but not that long since I’ve seen you.”
Merlin twitched an ear. “When was that?” he asked. “Was it on the Sagittarian Arrow on the flight from Tanthe to Crescentis? That’s the last commercial flight I took.”
Frost chuckled. “No, it was not on a commercial flight, but I’m hesitant to give you the name of the ship over an open channel.”
Merlin pursed his lip. “Well, the only other ship I’ve been on beside my own was the Lady of Dreams. Her captain transported us to Argeia to deliver the Cold Fire virus inoculation during the Siilv War.”
“As the humans would say, Bingo.”
Merlin’s amber eyes went wide in surprise. “You were there?”
“I was on the bridge at the helm.”
“I didn’t see you… Why didn’t you say anything?”
Tarjon grinned and spread out his arms. “Merle, you knew you were in the company of pirates. As with all those considered pirates, I was keeping a low profile while guests were on board.”
Merlin nodded. He remembered hearing something similar from Tristan’s daughter, Laura Jazz, after she’d been rescued from the destruction of Natasha’s great vessel.
“Well, that’s in the past now,” he replied. “I may not have exactly been close friends with your former captain, but she did help us twice when we needed it. I’m sorry she was lost.”
“Yes, she will be missed.”
Merlin nodded and then he brightened up. “Speaking of pirates, the reason I called is to thank you properly for the defense you provided for my flagship. Captain Nichols told me all about your heroics. I appreciate what you did.”
“You’re welcome, cousin. If there’s ever a time when you need my assistance, I’d consider it a favor if you would call on me. The Frostbite and her crew are for hire for any job needed, and for family I make special consideration. You and I always got along well when we spent our summers all over the countryside outside of Grandstorm.”
“Likewise, Tarjon. Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you.”
“I will. Thanks for calling, Merlin. I’ll be sure to stay in touch.”
Not a light was on in her bedroom, but Taro’s wet eyes were still open as she gazed up at the ceiling. Her throat was tight, having just cried herself out. Her emotions had been running out of control, but she couldn’t help for thinking that the cause was more than something she may have caught on the bunny planet. After all, she hadn’t spent that much time out in the open air of that world, and it seemed to have affected only her. Perhaps there was more wrong with her.
Was she cut out to command the Blue Horizon? Did she really have what it takes to lead the others, even if it was only for a common stellar freighter? The command decisions and crew reprimands made life tougher with her responsibilities, and lately they were really gnawing at her.
Taro felt the doubts rise up again in the pit of her stomach, churning as if she had eaten something bad. She turned over onto her side and wiped the moisture from her cheek fur, even as she felt as if she might cry again.
No! she thought to herself. I’m not going to give in to this fear! I can do this... Merlin says I can, and I know I can... I think...
She felt her throat tighten up and there was new moisture in her eyes. She forced it back, and burying her pride, realized she couldn’t face this alone. She needed help. Taro made herself sit up on the bed and scoot back so she could lean against the headboard. With some hesitation, she reached out in the darkness for the intercom control on her nightstand.
“This is the bridge,” said a bored voice.
“Renny, this is Taro...” she said, trying to make her voice sound casual.
“I... need you. Please come to my quarters.”
“Uh, I’m on watch, you know that.”
“Have someone relieve you. I need you... please.”
There was a momentary silence, and then he replied, “Okay, but I don’t think it’s appropriate that you drag me from bridge duty to ruffle the covers...”
Taro’s eyes went wide. “Renny....” she said with a little crack in her voice, “It’s not that, but I do need you. Please?”
The last was not an order and the cheetah on the bridge suddenly realized that it was a plea. He was suddenly filled with dread. “Sure, I’ll get Max up here and then I’ll be right there.”
“Thank you,” Taro said quietly. She closed the connection, wiped new moisture from her eyes, and then dried her hands on the hem of her nightshirt.
To get through this personal crisis, she needed the arms of her favorite cheetah around her. If she had to endure this emotional rollercoaster, she knew she could face it better if she weren’t alone. She would share her doubts and fears with him, and whether or not he had any answers, it would be enough that he was with her through it.
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Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.