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BLUE HORIZON

"Live Cargo"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

Blue Horizon PA1138

Captain’s Diary 

It’s been a while since I last updated my diary. I just can’t seem to remember to pull it out to write down what’s been going on, but Merlin insists that I will be glad I did someday. I wonder if he now spends his evenings with Samantha in his study, reading back through old adventures. I probably could have asked when I spoke to her on the Com link last night, but I didn’t think of it at the time.

She and Merlin have finally settled into their married life. Sam says she missed the time with us on the Horizon at first, but her days are now being filled with other duties and responsibilities. There are frequently long periods of inactivity on board a freighter that takes weeks to reach its intended destination, but Samantha has found her schedule full with day to day living.

When she first left the ship, she filled her time searching for a new home. After they bought a house, she went shopping to fill it with furniture, accessories and other necessities, much as they had to do when Merlin stocked up the new Blue Horizon. Then came preparations for the wedding... the wedding itself... and then the honeymoon.

With all that behind her, she looked to other things to fill her time. There are so many things to do in Grandstorm and she seems to love every moment of her new life. However, she also went through a time of depression after things settled down and became so routine that boredom began to set in. Merlin recognized the signs quickly and put into motion a plan that he said had been in the back of his mind for a while. She needs to go back to work.

Samantha’s friend Alex Rogers is currently CEO of Holden Pharmaceutical, her father’s company, and is doing an admirable job in his position. Samantha has no intention of taking over that role, but Aaron Ohren recently announced his upcoming retirement from the Dennier branch office in Grandstorm, so things are currently underway for her to take over operations there. She has a bit of training to go through with Mr. Ohren, but there’s still some time before the effective date of his retirement.

Sam has never really liked the thought of an office job, which is why she signed onto the Blue Horizon in the first place all those years ago. In those early days, she’d taken a leave of absence from the family company so she could serve on board the Blue Horizon for a year in order to help Merlin’s fledgling business get off the ground, in addition to satisfying her sense of wanderlust.

After that time, she was to return to her place within Holden Pharmaceutical per an agreement with her Master Tristen, and she’d done so through teary farewells. Even though an office routine gave her much more to do than sitting around on a ship for weeks at a time, I think it was Merlin and the camaraderie of the crew she missed the most.

In the end, she left her father’s company again and returned to the Horizon, this time to stay. The first time was under the pretense that she’d gone to Sillon for family issues while she served on the ship under a false name, but when she returned, she’d done so with the company’s full knowledge, though amidst their consternation.

This time, however, it took some finagling for Master Tristen and Alex Rogers to let the board of directors agree to let her come back.  Samantha Holden still owned the controlling interest in her father’s company, but the wayward heir wasn’t as well-thought of anymore for abandoning her place as their figurehead.

She’s been humbled by the whole experience, but she’s better seasoned now with a greater sense of responsibility. She’s meticulous enough that I think she’ll find the office routine better to her liking this time.

As for myself, it’s taken me a while to settle into my role as captain of the Blue Horizon. There are times when I am unsure of myself as a leader, even if over the crew of a common freighter, but I have started to see the support that everyone has for me.

The past few weeks have been rather tough, but Jerry assures me that I picked up some sort of bacteria on Se’rei that was not affected by our standard inoculations. I seem to have been the only one to catch this thing, and it really hit me hard in the emotional area. I’m still not convinced that was completely to blame for my behavior, but I’m feeling much better now and have an acceptable control over my temper.

 Doc has isolated that bacteria in his lab and is working on a paper to present to the scientific community, but I’ve cautioned him against it, as it would reveal the presence of the lost Se’rei colony and bring into question our method of getting there. I’m not sure how he will finagle something like this, but he says he has it all in hand. I have made him promise to show me his material before he submits it anywhere, even to a colleague.

I still haven’t had the opportunity to tell Merlin of that little adventure. It’s not a tale I want to broadcast over a Com signal, and I’m not even sure that an encrypted channel would be secure enough for my comfort. I have written down the events so I won’t forget anything, and I’ve locked the document in my captain’s vault. Should the opportunity arise that I can get it to him, then I will. I am sure he would be very interested to know about our Particle Vault capability, but I don’t want anyone else to know about it.

Our current assignment has us on the way to Hestra, my homeworld. We left Fyn three hours ago with the hold full of miscellaneous import goods and we still have thirty-five hours left of the flight. Due to the higher gravity of the large planet, we won’t actually be landing on Hestra herself, but rather at Sharra Base located on its moon.

Vashon is a large enough natural satellite to hold a thin, pressurized atmosphere, but even that’s not enough to harbor sentient life on its own. The air pressure is low, but enough that a light pressure suit is all that’s needed to exist on the surface.

When Hestra joined the Planetary Alignment, Sharra Base was established on Vashon as a transfer station for ships, personnel and visitors not equipped to handle the heavier Hestran gravity. Made up of transparent, pressurized geodesic domes, Sharra has grown over the years to the size of a small city. Some members of the populace have businesses operating drop jumpers, the Hestran transfer vehicles to ferry cargo and personnel back and forth from the planet.

 For non-Hestran visitors who have a need to travel down to the planet, there are endosuits that may be worn to allow the visitors to stand up and move around on the surface. These consist of a wire outer skeleton that gives the body form and helps keep it standing or sitting straight under a heavy gravity, while also providing a medium of lower gravity within its net so internal organs are able to function.

 However, I understand the endosuits are not comfortable and are nearly impossible to sleep in, so visits to the surface must be made in short durations. A few low-gravity buildings have been constructed for individuals who have a need for longer stays (such as the one where I saw Dragon, Wolf & Tiger in concert), but there are plenty of hotels inside Sharra Base for people to stay.

Fortunately for my crew, we won’t be landing on Hestra herself, so the endosuits won’t be a necessity for them. We will unload our cargo in a pressurized hangar on Vashon, and then restock with export cargo bound for Alexandrius, which is only about thirty hours from Hestra in its orbit right now.

I don’t mind these one or two day deliveries within the Goldilocks Zone of the same system. It allows us to make up lost revenue in a short amount of time before we return to an interstellar schedule. 

--Capt. Taro Nichols    

*** 

It was quiet during Max’s watch. Due to a worrisome reading on the engineering computer, Taro had authorized Pockets to drop the ship out of spatial warp temporarily to run down what might be a potential problem. They continued on their course at sub-light speeds; they were still traveling at comparatively high velocities, just not over the speed of light.

To his relief, there had been no one to distract Max Sinclair from his studies during his watch. Due to a restrictive life on Quet and a transient lifestyle on board the Blue Horizon, Max had never had the opportunity for a formal education. Samantha had tutored him for three years and she felt that he had done well, but it seemed as if the more he learned about the universe, the more the German shepherd thirsted for knowledge.

Prompted by Doctor Bengoro, the tiger who had recently grafted a prosthetic in place of his missing finger for him, Max had looked into taking accredited online courses while he awaited the arrival of the Blue Horizon. The most promising appeared to be with a longstanding online degree program from Earth.

He knew that some higher-education programs required acceptance due to past educational experience to get in, but since he had no formal education, other avenues had to be pursued. The Phoenix system looked promising, so he had applied for the online testing in an effort to sign up.

He’d not yet told anyone on board of this educational pursuit, and the bridge watch alone-time had given him ample opportunity to finish the test without distraction.

The young mechanic smiled to himself as he prepared to submit his test responses. He keyed in the proper PA transmission code and then established data-connect with a feeling of satisfaction.

It only took a moment, but the document was away now without a chance for him to change his mind and retrieve it. Almost simultaneously, an incoming message chirped at him for attention.

He glanced at the intended recipient and was surprised to see that it was addressed to him, rather than someone else in the crew. The message originated from Pomen and he recognized the tracking code immediately. It was from his girlfriend, Wendy.

 

Dear Max,

My father told me of your visit to his clinic and of how well everything went for you. I am sorry that I was not able to get away to visit you, but I was studying for exams and was unable to make it home. Dad said you looked good and he enjoyed working with you.

Despite this, however, I am afraid I have some bad news for you. I am not sure how to tell you this, but… I have met someone. We met at the university a month ago and we have begun dating. He is another tiger with the same major as I, and we have many things in common.

I know you will take this hard, and I am sorry. I like you very, very much, but since you have no plans to move to Pomen to be with me, and I am working toward a medical degree that will take me places other than a cargo freighter, we both know that our long-distance relationship has no future.

It’s been fun, and I have enjoyed my blue-eyed friend, but I think it’s time we both moved on with our lives.

Take care, Max. Please do well in everything you set yourself to do.

Wendy

 

With a lump in his throat, Max lifted his new finger to the touch pad to delete the message, but decided to print out a hard copy instead. He picked up the letter and reread it several times.

How was he supposed to feel?  Before Wendy, he’d never had a girlfriend before, so the whole experience with her had been new. There was a knot in the pit of his stomach, and he began to pant as the room suddenly seemed extraordinarily hot. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be mad at Wendy - or sad that he had been rejected. What he did feel was confusion.

The door to the bridge slid aside and Jerry Somner entered the room. He held a thermal bottle in one hand and a stack of medical records in the other.

“Hello, Max,” he said with a casual smile. “I’m here to relieve you at the watch.”

The German shepherd folded his letter and put it into the pocket of his shirt. “Hi, Doc. Thanks. Nothing to report, all’s quiet.”

Jerry watched the young mechanic as he stood up and shuffled toward the door, his ears back and his tail low to the ground. “Is there something wrong?” the fox asked.

Max stopped before the door, but didn’t turn around. “I just got a letter from my… girlfriend,” he muttered. “She’s dating someone else now.”

Jerry sat down sideways in the center seat, his full attention on the German shepherd. “I’m sorry to hear that, Max,” he said in a quiet voice. “Long distance relationships are not easy to maintain.”

“Yeah…” Max muttered. He took a step toward the door, but then stopped again. Without looking up, he turned around and moved back to the Com station. He sat down with his hands between his knees and closed his eyes.  Jerry took a quick glance over the pilot terminal to make sure all was quiet, and then he returned his attention to the young adult after making a minor course correction.

“Max…” he started in a gentle voice.

“I… I already knew in my heart that something like this would happen,” Max suddenly said in a rush. “It was inev… uhm, inevitable. I knew it couldn’t last… but it still doesn’t feel very good.”

“It never does,” the fox replied. 

Max looked over at him, feeling morose. “Has this ever happened to you?” he asked.

Jerry nodded. “Twice,” he replied with a sigh. “The first was a vixen I’d grown up with as neighbors. She grew impatient waiting for me to finish my studies and married a mutual friend of ours.”

“Wow…” Max whispered.

“The other time was about twelve years ago. I was dating the sister of one of my coworkers, and everything went well for a couple years.”

“What happened?”

“She was a Flight Attendant on a PA cruise ship. We only saw one another every couple months, but we were nearly inseparable every time she came home. I thought we were getting serious, and I’d entertained plans of proposing to her.”  Jerry looked over at Max and swished his tail across the other side of the seat. “Then one day, I got a letter from her stating that she had married the ship’s Entertainment Director and was pregnant with their kits.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

“What did you do?”

Jerry raised an eyebrow and shrugged. “I moped around for a couple weeks, making myself and everyone around me miserable. It finally made me mad enough that I decided she wasn’t worth it.”  He smiled at his companion.  “I’m sure you’ve heard Renny talk about how I used to be a carouser.”

“Yeah, but you don’t seem like that kind of a guy to me.”

“True, I’m not that way now,” the physician said, “but after I got that message from her, I started going out with any vixen who’d flirt with me. Renny used to call me the Vixenator…”

Max laughed in spite of himself. “The Vixenator? Heh… that’s funny!” Jerry grinned, pleased that he was able to get a smile out of the young mechanic. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Max grew quiet again and then put a hand in the pocket with the letter. “How should I respond to her, Jerry?”

“What’s your first thought about responding?”

“I dunno… I’m not sure I even want to write back to her. It seems pointless to reply.”

“There’s your answer. Go with your instincts. If she said everything there was to say in her letter, there’s no need to respond. I know you liked her, but if she’s lost interest in you, there’s no need to pursue her. Let her go and find someone else on your own… find several someones, if you need to.”

“I don’t know if I can do that,” Max said shyly. “I don’t have a lot of experience. I… I don’t think I could be a… a Maxinator.”

Jerry saw a glint of sudden mischief in the German shepherd’s eyes. He laughed out loud and reached for the thermal bottle on the floor at his feet.  “Max, you don’t have to become a carouser, and I’m not suggesting that you do.  All I am saying is that you can go ahead and mope about Wendy if you want to. You’re entitled, but please don’t think that’ll be the end of your relationships. You’re young and have a whole galaxy of women to —”

The astrogation computer suddenly gave off a warning blip for attention. Jerry swung around in his seat to face the controls and Max stood up to look over his shoulder.

“That’s odd. We’re off course,” the fox reported.  He released the autopilot and corrected their heading slightly with the guidance shifts before he reengaged the automatic system. “Nothing looks amiss,” he muttered after checking the system.

Max returned to his seat and sighed. “I appreciate your suggestions,” he said, “but I don’t think I can just shrug it off so easily.  I liked Wendy… a lot!”

“Wasn’t she a tiger or some kind of feline?”

“Yeah, she’s a tiger,” Max replied. “So’s the guy she’s dating.”

Jerry nodded. “Max, I’m sure the two of you had a great time together, but she’s young and it’s natural for a female to keep an eye out for potential male of her own species to have kittens with. The two of you would never have had any natural kids of your own.”

“Yeah, that’s because I’ve been—”

“No,” Jerry interrupted quickly, “it’s because you two don’t share the same genetic background. The plumbing may fit, but your seed and her eggs could never ignite the proper code to create life. There will never be a half canine, half feline mix – not naturally, anyway.”

“I know, but…” Max clamped his lips shut and stared down at his shoes.

Jerry sat back in the seat and crossed his arms. “Listen, Max, it won’t be easy, but feel free to talk to one or two of your shipmates about it. Closing up into yourself won’t be good for you. Your friends may not have the answers you need, but sometimes it helps just to talk to someone who cares. There are others who have been through similar situations.”

Max kept staring at his feet. “I’m not sure if I —”

The astrogation computer blipped again for attention and they both looked up in unison.

“Here, take over the center station, Max.”

The German shepherd did as told while the red fox moved to the navigation console. “What’s causing us go keep going off course?” Max asked, grateful to have a distraction away from their conversation. “I had to adjust it three times before you came in, but they were all really minor corrections.”

“I’m not sure… Checking to see if any of the maneuvering thrusters are kicking in by mistake… No… Nothing is malfunctioning.”  Jerry tapped controls on the screen before him, a frown increasing across his muzzle. “This is very odd. I instructed the astrogation computer to make automatic minor adjustments to our course and it’s suddenly gone completely active.”

Even as he spoke, the system blipped for attention. “This time, it’s telling us it needs a course correction that’s more than minor.” He looked up at the vidscreen window, peering out into the stars. “Something’s pulling us off course, but I don’t think even Hestra’s gravity would have affected the ship this far out. There must be another cause.”

“Is there anything on the long range sensors?” Max suggested.  Jerry immediately shifted his attention to the appropriate control panel as the astrogation computer blipped again.

“Uh oh…” the fox muttered.  “I’ve found the cause.”

“What is it?”

“That!” Jerry looked up at the starboard vidscreen panel and put up the view from the long-distance starboard cameras. They were bearing down on a huge asteroid just slightly off their course, and its size and proximity were enough for its mass to generate ample gravity to pull the freighter toward it with increasing strength and speed. The sensors placed its size at nearly eighty kilometers in diameter, although its shape was not exactly rounded. Lorelei would have said it resembled a gigantic potato from Earth. Even with auto-correction by the astrogation computer, they began to feel a slight shudder in the deck plates beneath their feet.

Mesmerized, Max and Jerry stared at the massive rock as it grew larger and larger, until the long-range collision and proximity alarms suddenly went off. Still in the pilot seat, Max acted quickly and grabbed the guidance shifts. They refused to move in his grip until he remembered to shut off the autopiloting system. The instant it was released, the ship lost its auto-correcting ability and began to nose over toward the slowly tumbling asteroid.

With their current velocity, it would only take a matter of moments to reach the rocky bulk. “Max!” Jerry exclaimed. “Get us out of here!”  He would have taken the controls himself, but there was no time to switch places with the increasing gravitational pull. The Blue Horizon wanted desperately to go meet the interstellar Goliath.

The young German shepherd fought to pull the freighter away from the rock, but the closer they flew toward the asteroid, the stronger the gravity became.

The intercom chirped and Jerry reached for the nearest control as the ship’s faulty inertial dampers began to slip. He stumbled against the nearest chair and sat down quickly.

“This is the bridge,” he gasped into the intercom microphone.

“What’s going on up there?” Taro’s voice asked in a rush. “More pirates?”

“Asteroid!  Big one!” was all Jerry managed to say. The spatial rock loomed larger in the vidscreen as Max struggled to force the guidance shifts away from it.

“Max!” Jerry exclaimed. “Instead of trying to pull us away from it, increase our speed by one-third and skim in closer to it. If we’re lucky, a combination of our speed and its gravity will slingshot us past the asteroid before it has a chance to pull us down.”

The young mechanic’s eyes went wider. “Are you sure?” he croaked.

“Trust me!” said the fox. “I’d do it myself if I was in your seat.”

Max bit his bottom lip and flattened his ears. “I’m not sure…”

“Do it!” Jerry shouted irritably. He had to reduce the magnification on the vidscreen to keep it from filling up the view.

Max jumped at the fox’s command and pushed up the ship’s velocity as ordered. The difference in the asteroid was significant, as it grew larger extremely quick. The canine pilot braced himself as he altered their course in closer to the massive rock.

Jerry felt himself tightly gripping the armrests of his seat. The pockmarked gray surface of the stellar boulder stood out in stark relief from the distant sun’s illumination. “Max…” he whispered, “we’re getting awfully close!”

“That’s what you told me to do!” the mechanic retorted through clenched teeth. Without waiting for further instruction, he increased their speed further and suddenly felt the guidance shifts lose a bit of their struggle. He suddenly understood what Jerry wanted and eased the controls ever so slightly.

Pockets stumbled in through the bridge door and nearly went to his knees when he saw the vidscreen. Instead, he backed up against the nearby wall and swallowed hard.

“Wha... wha… wha…” was all he managed to say.

A moment later, Taro burst in the room, nearly tripping over the raccoon. She stumbled around him and darted to the Com station seat while staring up at the asteroid. She buckled herself in and reached for the armrests before she realized she was in the seat she had broken on their previous voyage.

The Blue Horizon hurled closer, but the space rock was suddenly sheering sideways across the starboard vidscreen panel. Multiple finger-like outcroppings appeared to jut out at them as they sped by and Max had to maneuver the freighter down to avoid their touch.

Then, just as suddenly, the asteroid was behind them. Not convinced they were out of danger, Max maintained their current speed to put distance between them and the rock.

Jerry managed to pry his fingers loose from the armrest and tap the control to reverse the angle on one of the vidscreen panels.  The asteroid still filled up the view, but it was slowly receding behind them.

“What happened?” Taro asked, breaking the silence. She looked over at Pockets as he slid down the wall to a sitting position.

Jerry answered, detailing everything that happened from the time the astrogation computer gave its first warning blip. Max remained at his post, saying nothing, but continually watched the instruments before him. The adrenaline would wear off in a moment, and he would then be glad his watch was over. He was already panting.

When Jerry finished, he gestured toward the young mechanic and said, “I’m glad to know that Max has what it takes to stay in control in an emergency like this. I don’t think I could have gotten us out of there any better than he did.”

“Thanks… thank you, Max!” Pockets finally spoke.

Taro unbuckled her harness and moved to the German shepherd’s side. “Yes, Max,” she said. “Thank you. I’m really proud of you.”

The young pilot closed his eyes for a moment and then looked up at her. “Does it still count if I tell you I was scared?” he asked in a small voice.

Jerry chuckled. “Max, we were all scared!”

“You were entitled to be afraid,” Taro assured him, “but you held yourself together even though you were frightened. That’s why I’m proud of you, Max.”

“Thank you,” the youth replied. “C-can I make a request, though?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

Max looked over at Jerry, feeling a little lightheaded. “May I go to my cabin now?  My watch is over and I think I’m going to be sick…”

“Here, Max,” Pockets said with a hand on his friend’s arm. “Come with me. I’ll make sure you get back to your room.”

Jerry gestured toward the door with a casual wave of his hand. “Go rest. You deserve it.”

Grateful, Max locked the controls down with the autopilot and then slid out of the seat to stand up next to Pockets.

“How soon can we reengage the LightDrive?” Taro asked with a glance up at the vidscreen. “I’d like to get out of the reach of those space rocks as soon as possible.”

“Anytime,” Pockets replied. “I was on my up here to do it myself when the floor tried to go out from under me.”

“All right, we can take it from here,” the vulpine captain said. Once Pockets and Max were out the door, Jerry looked down at the navigation console and he began tapping commands into the astrogation computer.

“What are you doing?” Taro asked. She glanced back up to the rear view screen and felt a shudder at the thought of how close they had been to that behemoth.

“I’m recalculating our heading to put us back on course to Hestra,” the male fox replied. “I’m not as quick as Renny is doing this, so I may be distracted for a few minutes.”

“Are you okay?” Taro asked.

The physician glanced up at her with a wan smile. “I’m still coming down from the adrenaline, but yeah, I’ll be okay if you want to go.”

“Call me if you need anything,” the captain replied.

The intercom suddenly chirped and Jerry gestured toward the Com station. “Can you field that for me while I do these calculations?” he asked.

“Yeah, I have a feeling there may be several calls. Do your ciphering. I’ll handle the crew inquiries.”

“Thanks.”    

*** 

“Do you feel that?” Justy asked.

Standing next to the koala on the recreation deck in front of the large vidscreen window, Lorelei tilted her head to the left as she tried to listen hard. Justy smirked as she said, “I don’t hear anything.”

“Feel, Lori, not hear. Do you feel that?”

The bunny tilted her head to the right. “Nope,” she said. “I still don’t hear anything.”

“Give it up, Justy,” Amanda said with a chuckle from across the room. “I don’t think she’s feeling much right now. I caught a whiff of incense from her room a bit ago. I’m not sure what she’s been burning in there, but it was rather strong.”

“Are you sure it was incense?” Justy asked with a shake of his head. He scratched one of his large round ears and left the rabbit standing in front of the forward window. He joined the coyote on the couch and sat cross-legged up on the cushions. When Amanda didn’t reply, he gave her a nod.  “There it is again. Did you just feel that?” he asked.

“I’m not sure what you’re referring to,” Amanda answered.

“It’s a slight shifting of the deck plates, almost as if we are sliding a little to the port as we fly through space.”

Amanda looked surprised. “Just how would you feel that without some frame of visual reference?”

“I dunno... Just a sensation, I guess. I’ve gotten so used to the way the ship feels beneath my toes that I guess it’s just a subtle inclination. I do have a bit of heaviness in my stomach, so maybe that means something.”

“I didn’t know you were psychic,” the coyote deadpanned.

“I’m not,” Justy replied before he realized she was teasing him. She gave him a wide canine grin with a wink, causing him to laugh. “Okay, I guess that means you didn’t feel it either!

“Nope,” she teased. “I didn’t hear a thing.”

“All hands, all hands,” Taro’s voice emanated from the overhead intercom. “We have just passed into the Hestran gravity curtain, so you may feel a little heavier until we can compensate with the Horizon’s deck plates and readjust our current heading. Hestra should be visible on your monitors as a bright star in the lower left if you have the view angle facing directly forward. It will grow in magnitude over the next hour as we approach Hestran orbit to match up with Sharra Base. Depending upon Vashon traffic, we should be landing in about two hours, so be ready for cargo detail in light pressure suits at that time.”

“Wow, you are psychic!” Amanda seemed impressed. “You felt the Hestran gravity before Taro could announce it!”

Justy grinned and wiggled his ears independently. “Pockets says I must get good reception on these things. Perhaps he’s right!”

“Aw, that’s mean…” the coyote said with a mock pout.  Justy chuckled with a shrug of his shoulders, secretly pleased that Amanda seemed to be coming out of her shell. Ever since she had joined the crew, the business coordinator had preferred to stay quiet and always in the background, but lately she appeared more relaxed and a little more open. He wasn’t sure what might have changed for her, other than simply getting more used to the crew, but he was glad for whatever it may be. The two of them had joined the crew at the same time and he felt a certain kinship with her because of it.

“No worries,” he replied. “He may be right!”

Amanda snickered and stretched with a yawn, her pink tongue curling in on itself. She closed her eyes with a smile and kicked her shoes off onto the carpet next to the couch.

“You seem to be in a good mood,” Lorelei lilted as she plopped down on the couch between the coyote and koala. She leaned closer to the female and grinned. “What’s up?”

“I’ve lost weight!” Amanda exclaimed.

“Yay!” Lori replied. “What size are you down to?”

“I don’t want to burst your bubble,” Justy commented, “but you’re about to gain it all back.”

“What?” Amanda and Lori said in unison, both of them gifting the koala with a glare.

Justy couldn’t keep the smirk off his face. “We’re all going to gain weight as we get closer to Hestra!” he said with a laugh.

“Oh, you!”  the coyote gasped with a grin.  “That doesn’t count!”

“You’re evil!” Lori added with a poke to the koala’s middle. Justy grinned as both females took turns swatting and poking him.    

*** 

Hestra loomed great in the forward vidscreen, a large world where colony life had flourished despite its heavier gravity. It was a mountainous planet with hardy vegetation covering most of the surface like a lush carpet, and its single ocean measuring some thirty-two hundred kilometers across meandered like a continuous giant river near the equator. The landscape was dotted with myriads of freshwater lakes, with whirls of cloud formations across its skies.

Early vulpine settlers to the planet nearly perished from the gravity, but those who somehow managed to survive lived on with an equally hardy determination to make the lush world their own. The mortality rate was high in the beginning, but the children that survived became stronger, their physiology becoming denser as they grew more accustomed to the environment. Generations later, the Hestrans were considered the muscle men of the Planetary Alignment, but their population numbers were still small compared to the other colony worlds. 

One such Hestran stood on the bridge of the ship at her command, silently reminiscing about her childhood. The vixen had lost her family and hometown to a terrorist attack several years earlier, but oddly enough, she felt at ease and was not concerned with the past. For the first time in weeks, she was confident, felt sure of herself and was in control of her emotions.

“We’re now in lunar orbit, Captain,” Jerry reported automatically. Although he was also a red fox, the pilot was not Hestran. “It will take us approximately twenty minutes to catch up to Sharra Base on Vashon in this orbit from our insertion point.”

“Very good,” Taro replied. She looked at her two bridge companions and asked, “How are you guys doing?”

Renny held up his hand and let the others see the subtle trembling of his fingers. “Although the Horizon’s deck plates are compensating for the Hestran gravity, I’m still shaking a little,” he said.

“There’s not much I can do for you, medically,” Jerry told him. “You might want to put on an endosuit if it gets too bad.”

Taro reached over to her friend and put a gentle hand on his shoulder.  “Do you want to sit out while we unload the cargo?”

Renny raised an eyebrow. “I said I was shaking a little, not weak as a kitten,” he scoffed. “I’ll survive and do my duty to the cargo, thank you.”

“Glad to hear it,” Jerry replied with a smile. “I didn’t want to carry your load for you, anyway!”

Taro moved to the Com station and picked up her headset with a chuckle. She keyed in a registry code and thumbed the call control.  “Sharra Base, this is the Blue Horizon, PA one-one-three-eight. We are now on lunar approach.”

“Blue Horizon, this is Sharra Base,” instantly replied a nasal voice. “We have you on approach in lunar traffic, estimated time of arrival seventeen minutes. You will be directed to dome twenty-three in through air hatch seven, where you will hover in a null-gravity field until the hatch is pressurized. You will then proceed into the dome where you will be guided to landing pad DC. Please make sure your bay doors are oriented toward the drop jumpers stationed at your pad when you set down. The dock master will greet you upon your arrival and arrange to transfer cargo directly into the jumpers with your load master.  Welcome to Vashon.”

Blue Horizon acknowledges instructions,” Taro replied. “Thank you for the welcome.”    

*** 

Fifteen minutes later, the blue elliptical saucer descended toward the southern pole of the moon. Unlike many planetary satellites, Vashon was not a dead body. Although its pressure was light and no sentient creatures had ever developed there, the moon did have its own ecosystem of vegetation and atmosphere. There were no oceans or lakes, for its water reserves were underground, but nearly the entire surface was covered by flowers, grasses and shrubs. There were no real trees to speak of, but the population had been experimenting with transplanted Hestran trees inside the domed Sharra Base.

Renny continued to pass on navigational data to Jerry as he piloted the freighter down toward a directional beacon. “We’re on final approach to dome twenty-three,” the red fox reported.

“There’s hatch seven,” Taro replied and gestured to the vidscreen with a claw tip, She paused to listen to a message over her headset. “We’ve been invited to enter.”

Jerry dropped their altitude until they were only a few meters above a field of long pale grasses and then moved forward in through a set of huge bay doors in the side of the translucent geodesic dome. The Blue Horizon was nearly four stories tall, but the massive airlock they flew in through could easily hold a vessel three times her size.

On the facing wall before them inside the bay was a control tower window with several figures inside.  A trio of red lights flashed rapidly when the Horizon was in the center of the chamber; Jerry stopped all forward movement of the vessel. A null field surrounded the freighter so hovering thrusters were not needed to maintain its altitude above the floor. The airlock doors traveled quickly behind them, shutting out the low pressure atmosphere in a matter of seconds.

It took longer to pressurize the chamber, but it was so efficiently done that it was only a few moments before internal doors were opened for them with an alternating set of green and blue lights to signal them to continue.

Jerry eased the maneuvering controls forward, following a directional set of chaser lights embedded in the flooring below them. They moved through a long corridor of landing pads that were occupied by other cargo carriers of the Planetary Alignment. Most contained Okami, Sakura, Prairie Dog and Carico-class freighters, all common designs, but others held the smaller, heavy-duty drop jumpers that would be transporting incoming cargo down to the planet.

The directional markers presently indicated an empty pad beside a pair of bright red drop jumpers. “Landing pad DC,” Taro read aloud from a large sign affixed to the side of the building.

“We’re home, dear,” Renny lilted with a smile.

Jerry said nothing as he positioned the Horizon over the landing pad and then rotated its axis to line up their cargo bay with the twin jumpers. The freighter set down gently and then the bridge crew began to shut down the flight systems.

“All hand, all hands,” Taro broadcast over the ship-wide intercom, “Report for cargo duty. Expected light-pressure suits won’t be needed after all, so you can all work in your shirt sleeves. Hop to, folks.”

Jerry stood up and stretched his legs. “How long is shore leave this time, boss-lady?” he asked. “I’ve never been here before and might need a little time to explore.”

“You can have the standard three days,” Taro replied with a smile, motioning her companions to follow her out into the corridor. “However, you may get bored before it’s time to leave. Sharra Base may not contain enough entertainment to occupy your attention for more than a day or so, unless you’re a female who loves to shop!”

Jerry exchanged looks with Renny. “Uh oh... I think we’ve been had,” the physician said.

“Leave it to a lady captain to find a shopping mall to deliver our goods,” Renny quipped. He expected to get swatted for the remark, but Taro merely turned around and walked backward into the lift, her tongue sticking out at them. Jerry shook his head in amusement and entered the lift with the cheetah beside him.    

*** 

Damien blew his nose on a handkerchief and felt his eyes water. Within moments of opening the cargo bay door, his sinuses had started to clog. The mastiff had no allergies that he was aware of, but something in the air at Sharra Base didn’t agree with him rather quickly. He tried to ignore it while he worked, but now that the cargo had all been unloaded into the pad-side drop jumpers, he could feel a headache coming on.

Everyone else had scattered in twos and threes for shore leave, but suddenly he didn’t feel like roaming around in an atmosphere hostile to his senses. He clutched his handkerchief and headed for the nearest lift after the ship’s bay door had been closed and secured.

When the lift door opened, Pockets stood inside wearing a bright blue and yellow flowered shirt with a travel bag slung over his shoulder. The raccoon looked out at him with wide eyes.

“Are you okay?” he asked. “You don’t look well.”

Damien sneezed into his handkerchief and peered down at the engineer with bloodshot eyes. “I think I’m allergig to somthin here.”

“I think Doc’s already gone,” Pockets replied. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

The mastiff narrowed his eyes as he fought back another sneeze. “Ah thot you din’t wan’ to have anything t’do with me.”

Pockets frowned and lowered his ears. “Yeah, about that...” he said in a quiet voice.  “I’m sorry for what I said and how I acted. You didn’t deserve that. I’m the one who got in trouble, but I took out my frustrations on you.”

Despite his clogged sinuses, Damien’s expression softened. He put his free hand on the raccoon’s shoulder and said, “Apology aggepted, Poggets.”

Pockets smiled up at the load master and put a small hand on top of Damien’s. “Thanks,” he said. “I’ve felt bad about what happened ever since, and I would like things to be okay between us.”

“Thaggs. Be too.”

“Now… can I get you anything?”

The mastiff nodded as he stepped into the lift beside the raccoon. “Hep me find somthin in Sig Bay for mah zinuzes?”

“Sure, let’s go up and see what we can find.”    

*** 

“Wow, that was a great movie!” Max exclaimed as he, Justy, Lorelei and Amanda walked out of a Sharra Base theatre.

“What was your favorite part?” Lori asked as she hooked a hand around the young mechanic’s arm. The German shepherd’s friends had taken him out in an effort to get his mind off of Wendy, and for the moment, the tactic had worked. “I liked it when Darnell showed up at the last minute to save Fumiko! The way they looked at one another was so saucy!”

Max grinned at her. “I liked the destruction of the Sereton super-fortress!  The effects made it look real and the sound system made you feel like you were there!”

The coyote beside him laughed. “That’s just like a guy!” Amanda said. “Did anything but the explosions interest you?”

“Of course they did,” Max defended himself with a grin, “but Lori wanted to know what my favorite part was.  My favorite was the explosions!”

“Of course!” Amanda replied.

“Of course!” Lori echoed. She looked over at Justy and tilted her head. “What was your favorite part of the movie?” she asked him.

Justy dipped another hand in his popcorn bucket and contemplated the snack for a moment. “I liked the bedroom scene,” he muttered before eating the handful.

“Justy, there wasn’t a bedroom scene in this movie…” Amanda said with a raised eyebrow.

“Yes there was,” Justy countered. “It was on while you were out at the concession stand getting a refill on your soda.”

The coyote female’s eyes flashed to Lorelei in a panic. “I missed the bedroom scene?” she asked. “Ah, no! The line at the stand was too long! What did I miss? I want details!”

“It was hot and juicy,” Justy told her. “It was graphic frontal for all three characters that involved…”

“All three!”

“…several milk bottles, a lawn chair and a tuning fork,” Justy continued.

“Heavens! I’m not sure I want to know what they did with those? Yes! Yes, I do! What happened?  How?  Who was it?”

Lorelei was laughing at the coyote’s distress as she stared at the koala. The doe put a hand on her shoulder and shook her head. “Justy’s pulling your tail, Mandy! There was no such scene.”

Amanda stopped in her tracks, making her companions look back at her. “There wasn’t? Really?” Justy and Max laughed at her and she suddenly felt foolish. “Justy….”

The koala cackled aloud and had to trot ahead to avoid getting swatted. “Nyah, nyah!” he said back to her. Amanda heaved a sigh and gave Justy a look to let him know she would get him back for teasing her, but it only made him laugh again.

A local alarm suddenly sounded, causing them and others around them to clasp hands to their ears. When everyone looked up, all the public vidscreens stationed around the base avenues lit up with a red sign stating the words “Attention - Emergency Announcement” written in Standard.

A male red fox in a tailored gray suit suddenly appeared at a news desk with the globe of Hestra as a backdrop behind him. Other pedestrians in the area gathered around the Blue Horizon crewmates to watch the screen.

“This is an emergency worldwide announcement carried on all Hestran bands. To repeat, this is an emergency worldwide announcement carried on all Hestran bands.  It was confirmed just minutes ago that an asteroid previously monitored passing harmlessly through the Centaurus star system was sighted by an incoming cargo vessel, its path apparently altered by the Hestran gravity well. What originally was only of casual interest to backyard astronomers has suddenly turned into a deadly threat. Trajectory analysis projects that the seventy-nine kilometer rock is on a parabolic course into Hestran orbit that is predicted to intersect with the planet within nine hours.” 

Gasps from the gathered crowd were almost in unison, and frightened conversations suddenly broke out. Someone yelled “Quiet!” and the hushed congregation returned its attention once more to the public vidscreen. Max swallowed hard, remembering their earlier close encounter with the subject asteroid. Taro must have made a report to the local administration.

“Authorities explain that planetary long-range sensors have been offline, undergoing upgrades for the past week, and were unavailable for detection of the asteroid’s altered trajectory. Once operational, the extended range for spatial objects such as this would have been nearly tripled in sensitivity, but little use does this do for Hestra now, as there is now no time to effect plans to deflect such a huge object.”

“Does that mean it’s going to hit Hestra?” someone behind Max asked in a voice full of emotion.

“Dunno,” someone else replied. “They only said it was coming within our orbit.”

“Hush!” said a third voice.

Max’s ears swiveled to and fro to hear the comments, but like the rest of the crowd, he realized that the news reporter was still speaking.

“...further calculations will have to be made to determine its full effect on Hestra. Even should the rock not strike the planet, its sheer size will likely affect the tides and possibly cause a few quakes. The Hestran Emergency Response Authority is currently in session with planetary scientists to determine a possible course of action. Stay tuned to local broadcasts for further instructions. Whatever it is we are to do in the face of this crisis will have to be executed quickly to minimize disruption.”

“A disruption?” Justy muttered hoarsely. “What do they think this is, a simple local disturbance?” An advertisement for a new Prime-class freighter suddenly dominated the screen, prompting the crowd to disperse.

“Do you think that Taro will—?” Amanda’s DataCom chirped before she could finish her thought. She thumbed the call switch and lifted it up to her face. “This is Amanda,” she said.

“Mandy?  This is Taro. I need the crew to assemble at the ship immediately. I don’t know if you’ve heard the news, but we have an emergency on our hands. Shore leave has been canceled.”

“Yeah, we just saw it on a public vidscreen,” the coyote replied as the others gathered around her.

“We? Who’s with you? I haven’t gotten in touch with everyone yet, only you, Renny and Doc so far.”

“Lori, Justy and Max are here with me. We just got out of a media theatre.”

“Good, that’s four of you with one call. Please return to the Horizon as quickly as you can.”

“Yes ma’am. We’re on our way.”

“Taro, out.”

“Does that answer your question what Taro will—?” Justy asked with a smirk as they made their way through the thickening crowd in the entertainment district.

“Yes, but this is no time to be smarmy,” Amanda rebuked. “This is serious!”

“Yeah, this is serious!” Lori echoed.

Justy exchanged amused looks with Max and then shrugged with a big grin. “I agree this is serious, but I can still be smarmy if I want to!” Both females snorted in unison, which only served to give Justy the giggles.

Max shook his head. “Come on, folks. Let’s get going.”

Lori slipped an arm around Max’s waist and gave him a nod. “Yes sir, Former Captain’s Nephew, sir!” she said crisply.  Amanda turned her back on the koala and then took up a position on the German shepherd’s other side, taking his free arm. Justy maintained his smile as he followed along behind them.

It took twenty minutes for them to make their way back to the Blue Horizon. By the time they stepped in through the main hatch, everyone else was already present in the cargo bay. Damien sat on an empty crate looking sleepy, miserable and had a handkerchief up against the end of his nose while Jerry looked him over with a pen light.

“Any further news?” Justy asked.

“Actually, yes,” Taro replied when she had everyone’s attention.  “I just got word through the dock master that trajectory analysis has determined that Vashon’s orbit around Hestra may put us in the asteroid’s path. They are guessing that it will hit the moon rather than the planet. Either way, it will be a disaster. Evacuations are encouraged to begin as soon as possible.”

Pockets looked up suddenly and trotted to the airlock. “Looks like the news just hit,” he called back. “People are running for their ships!” Indeed, they could all hear upraised voices in alarm and panic out in the hangar.

“How long before we have authorization to launch?” Renny asked. “We passed a lot of parked ships on the way in.”

Taro started as if the thought had not occurred to her. “We’d better get up to the bridge and prepare for liftoff,” she said. “We haven’t even reloaded our air reserves and food stores yet, and we’ll need to have the Com system open for official authorization.”

There was a roar from outside the hatch and Pockets looked back inside. “Another ship is taking off,” he reported. “I’d wager it’s without permission.”

The crew moved forward and filed out on the ramp beside the raccoon. A green and gold Prairie Dog-class freighter lifted off a nearby landing pad. One of its multiple cargo bay doors was still open and they could see crew members inside scrambling to keep their footing. They were trying to get the door closed even as the rectangular vessel rotated in mid-air to nose toward the distant dome hatch.

“I don’t like the looks of this,” Jerry muttered as the ship moved away faster than was usually allowed inside the structure.

“Right,” agreed Taro. “Everyone inside and prepare for launch. We may have to lift off in a hurry, so do what you need to do quickly.”

Following her lead, everyone moved back inside and headed for the lift. Max and Pockets raced for the engine room, apprehension clearly in their minds.    

*** 

At a complete surprise to everyone on the bridge, Taro growled impatiently. Although the situation was grim, Renny looked back at her with a small look of amusement, quietly reflecting that Taro was probably unaware she had taken up Merlin’s old habit. She’d never growled low in her throat even when she had been afflicted following their stay on Se’rei. Perhaps growling was an attribute that all starship captains eventually acquired — stresses of command and all that.

Outside the forward windows, the hangar was clogged with traffic. Freighters of all colors, shapes and sizes vied for position to get their ship out through the airlock. Due to the rapid congestion, the Blue Horizon hadn’t even made it off its landing pad yet. The engines were primed and ready, but only on standby as they awaited their turn.

Not for the first time, Taro looked up at the geodesic dome above them, fervently wishing they’d been able to set down on an outside pad as usual. The building was only slightly pressurized; they could have easily used light suits to unload their cargo. Had that been the case, they would have already launched away from the Hestran satellite.

Time was running out for the Vashon moon and Taro wanted to be as far away as possible when the strike came. The Hestran government was preparing to launch a military warhead at the asteroid, but due to its size and nearness, the effectiveness of the action was in question. World leaders quarreled and bickered over where the fault lay in the disaster, and it was unlikely to be resolved even after the catastrophe.

Taro had no love of politics and wanted only to leave in time to make it to safety. She growled again and fidgeted with impatience.    

*** 

“I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” Amanda whispered. She, Justy and Lorelei were belted into cushioned foldout launch chairs on the recreation deck. The vidscreen on the far wall was tuned to a local broadcast, although its sound was muted so they could listen for Taro’s launch announcements. Justy could watch in silence no more, so he turned on the volume while keeping an ear out for anything from the bridge.

The broadcast showed panic. People of all species were running to and fro, children, luggage and prized possessions gripped tightly in their arms as they rushed to find escape. In the midst of the pandemonium were others who used the situation to smash shop windows and loot anything in sight. Older couples who had settled on Vashon during its original establishment refused to leave their home and all their possessions, even knowing they would likely perish with it all. Local religious centers saw packed congregations and scam artists hawked good-luck charms in the streets. Among the population were those who scoffed at the impending doom, blaming the government for scaring the public with such nonsense, and those who refused to leave their homes open to looters and vandalism. The regional law enforcement was stretched thin as those still on the job attempted to quell riots and stop a sudden rash of panicked killing, including those who tried to defend their homes.

Outside one of the Sharra Base domes, a small group in light pressure suits had gathered around a series of telescopes to watch the incoming asteroid, which was now visible even to the naked eye.

A steady stream of freighters, cruisers and drop jumpers cycled through the massive warehouse airlocks, and some smaller vessels had doubled up through them in an attempt to speed up the evacuation. The Blue Horizon, however, was too large a vessel to attempt a quick getaway. They were stuck in a traffic jam, but the asteroid would wait for no one.

The trio on the recreation deck watched in horror as the on-scene reporter suddenly went down under a hail of large rocks thrown by laughing members of a local gang organization. The news camera operator tried to make a run for it, but the brave individual was run down by the mob and beaten in front of the camera.

“Turn it off!” Lorelei wailed.  “Please!”

Justy thumbed the remote without a word and transformed the vidscreen back over to clear, forward-facing windows. Amanda closed her eyes and rested her head back against the launch cushion while Lori sobbed quietly beside her. Justy rubbed his eyes and wondered if they would make it out in time.     

*** 

Down in the engine room, Pockets moved from gauge to gauge for the hundredth time, making sure all settings were correct and power was available so they could launch immediately. Max was strapped into his launch chair, quietly watching the raccoon pace back and forth.

“Don’t you think you should be belted in?” he asked his partner. The chief engineer thrust his hands into his namesake pockets and looked over at him with a frown.

“I should be,” he admitted, “but I can’t sit still!”

“The inertial dampers still aren’t working right,” the German shepherd reminded him. “If we take off while you’re pacing the floor, I’ll need Jerry down here to help me scrape you off the back wall.”

Pockets looked at the young mechanic in annoyance, but he knew he was right. He padded over to his chair and started to get into his harness.

“What’s that?” Max suddenly asked. Pockets looked up and saw the canine’s ears perked up and his head tilted to the side. He strained his hearing and suddenly heard a muted thumping from the direction of the cargo bay.

Both of them unbelted and ran out into the empty hold. They saw Damien run toward the main hatch and it was then they realized that someone was pounding on the outside door.

The mastiff activated an external camera and he saw a crowd of locals gathered at their airlock. There was no audio, but he could see them yelling in a panic and pounding on the hatch.

Damien thumbed the intercom and a moment later, there was a signal chirp.

“This is Taro. Make it quick, we’re about ready to move.”

“Captain, there’s a crowd outside our main airlock, pounding on the door to get in!” The medication the doctor had given him had begun to clear up his sinuses, so he was able to breathe well enough to be understood when he spoke.

On the bridge, Renny activated the right-hand vidscreen to match the image picked up by Damien’s external camera.

“What do we do?” the cheetah asked. “If we launch with them standing there, they’ll be blasted by the thrusters!”

“Are they looters or are they trying to escape?” Jerry asked with a frown. “Crowds are gathering at other ships, too.”

Taro studied the scene in a brief instant and shook her head. “I don’t see anger in their faces,” she said. “They’re afraid for their lives and are looking for any chance to get away.” Unbidden, memories of the devastation of her hometown during the Taquit Fever terrorist attack came back to Taro. The people there had been unable to escape their doom, with no way to escape. She made a quick decision and thumbed the intercom.

“Damien, open the airlock,” she said. “Let in as many people as will come on board and have them sit on the floor of the cargo deck. We’ll try to make our launch as smooth as we can, and then return them when the danger has passed.”

“Aye, Captain!”

Damien closed the connection and then tapped out a sequence on the control panel before him. He turned to Pocket and Max and said, “You two better get back to the engine room and lock the door. Panicked crowds can get ugly and the bridge may need you in an instant.”

“Right!” Pockets replied. He and Max trotted back to their domain and shut the door behind them just as the airlock completed cycling.

Damien opened both the inner and outer hatch doors and called out in a loud voice, “Inside quickly!”  There were a few cheers from the crowd outside and the mastiff also heard sobs of relief. As people of all kinds poured into the hold, Damien shouted out instructions. “Please move as far inside as you can and sit on the floor. Our inertial dampers are not working well and you will need to be as low to the floor as you can when we take off!”  He had to repeat this every moment or so as others scrambled to get inside the freighter.

It became noisy inside as everyone attempted to get situated, and a few arguments broke out as some fought for their own piece of flooring. Nearly the entire throng of evacuees was inside the vessel when a crowd trying to get inside another ship noticed the open airlock and surged toward the Blue Horizon en masse.

Moments later, Damien was finally able to close and seal the hatches before he signaled the bridge. “Captain, we’re secure again. The floor of the hold is three-quarters full of frightened people and I’ve cycled pressurization.”

“Acknowledged. Prepare for launch.”

Damien skirted around the crowd toward his office and was about to call for everyone’s attention when a Dalmatian tugged on his shirt sleeve.

“Are we going to get out of here in time?” the guy asked. “That rock is going to be here any minute!”

“We’re going to get out of here as soon as we can, sir,” the load master replied.  He stepped up on a tethered crate of freight tie-downs near his office and held up both hands.  “May I have your attention, please?” he said in a loud voice.  He had to repeat himself over the crowd noise twice before it was quiet enough to continue.

“Listen folks,” he said as his eyes swept the assembly, “my captain has informed me that we should be launching at any moment. This is an emergency situation and we will do all we can to get you out of the danger zone, but we’ll need the cooperation of everyone.”

“This is all your fault for not alerting us sooner!” someone shouted. There were a few echoes of agreement until Damien called back at the jackal who had spoken out.

“Sir, this ship does not belong to your local government and we are not an appointed rescue vessel. This is a commercial freighter trapped up in the same situation with the lot of you. We could have easily just left you standing on the tarmac to face the asteroid on your own, but our captain chose to give you the opportunity to escape with us.” Damien swept his gaze across the crowd once more. “We’ll try to accommodate you as best we can, but you will have to be patient. We’re in this just as much as you are.”

“Why aren’t we moving? You’ve got the hatch shut and now we’re just waiting?” called a woman in the back.

“We are awaiting our turn to leave, ma’am,” Damien replied. “You saw the hangar out there – we can’t all leave at the same time. There are a number of ships in front of us.”

“Is there any other way out of this building?” someone else asked.

“Not for a starship, sir.”

“Why don’t we just blast through the dome?”

“Yeah, it’s only glassteel under a metal frame!”

“That metal frame is what’s keeping us from going through it. It’s stout enough to puncture our hull,” Damien replied in exasperation. “Listen! We’re getting out of here as soon as we can. Please, just bear with us!”    

*** 

“The control tower reports that it will be another thirty-five minutes before we can leave our launch pad just to get in line,” Taro said in irritation. She dropped the headset onto the console and moved to the forward windows. She leaned on the counter beside Renny and heaved another sigh.  “They also report that the asteroid is within an hour of striking Vashon, its velocity increasing as gets drawn further into Hestra’s gravity well.”

“This is not good,” Jerry muttered. “This is not good at all.”

Renny flattened his ears against his head. “At this rate, we won’t make it out of the building by the time that thing hits.”

Suddenly a loud roar penetrated the bridge from the outside. The larger Carico-class freighter on the pad next to them suddenly lifted off the ground, its thrusters stirring up dust and other debris.

“Did the Leroux just get clearance to leave?” Renny asked.

“I don’t think so,” Taro replied as she glanced down at the landing pad and saw several bodies sprawled on the thruster-heated concrete. When she looked up, the rectangular vessel continued to rise toward the dome, far above the airlock corridor. The ship gained altitude and picked up speed.

“It’s going to go through!” Jerry exclaimed.

Before anyone else had a chance to comment, the blunt nose of the Leroux struck the geodesic grid with such a force that the entire structure shook violently. Pressurized glassteel panels shattered and fell to the ground below while the metal framework buckled and the air within escaped out into the thin Vashon atmosphere. The ship’s thrusters brightened with increased power and it pushed through the grid at an angle.

The action was not without its consequences. Steel girders from the dome framework penetrated the freighter’s hull near its stern as it passed through the ragged opening it had made. More of the grid peeled outward with the ship, but it began to hold fast.

The Leroux sheered suddenly toward the port, its thrusters now pushing against a different direction. The vessel spun out of control, and everyone watched in horror as it nosed back toward the base of the dome in an inevitable crash.

Even while glass and other debris continued to rain down upon the ship, Taro spun around and barked an order to Jerry. “That hole’s big enough for the Horizon!” she said through clenched teeth. “Launch immediately!”

Keyed up for the past hour, Jerry jumped at the command and ignited their thrusters instantly. Before anyone had a chance to brace themselves against the launch, the Blue Horizon rose quickly toward the breech in the dome.

Taro lost her footing on the tilting deck and tumbled over a chair. Renny tried to snare her leg, but he grasped empty air; Taro slid along the floor and slammed into a control panel. She clung to the counter supports and held on tight.    

*** 

Damien’s body strained against his launch harness as the Horizon shot upward. Mindful of their living cargo, Jerry tried to take the freighter straight up, but the wind shears borne of equalizing air pressure between the internal atmosphere and that of the outside buffed the elliptical saucer. The floor tilted crazily, and although the gravity deck plates were on, the faulty inertia dampers could not keep things in place.

 Evacuees piled up together amidst cries and screams as they slid across and over one another with little to hang onto. Those who were near the freight tie-down rings recessed into the floor tried to hang on tightly, but other bodies tumbling into them knocked them loose to slide into others.

Cries of fear, panic and pain filled the air amidst the roar of the ventral thrusters. Damien was unaware of the situation outside that prompted such a rough launch and quietly cursed Jerry’s piloting skills. There was nothing Damien could do for their unwitting passengers, but watch and hope their flight would smooth out quickly.    

*** 

The Blue Horizon passed through the torn opening in the dome ceiling with only meters to spare on all sides, the landing gear having retracted only seconds earlier. A concussion fireball from the Leroux’s destruction took out a large section of the building’s support base, and the structure quickly began to collapse upon the ships and people still inside.

Jerry saw none of this with his attention riveted to his instruments. He pushed the vertical thrusters for all they could give him, since he was unable to tilt the nose upward and use the main engines to drive them up out of the atmosphere.

Air resistance decreased quickly and suddenly they were away from the doomed satellite. Hestra loomed large to their starboard and the planet’s gravity began to tug at the ship’s mass.  Free of Vashon’s influence, Jerry gently nosed the ship’s leading edge forward and engaged the main drive. The Blue Horizon shot away from the moon’s southern pole and he aimed for deep space below the galactic plane without a heading.

“Renny,” Taro gasped from the back of the command center.

“Are you okay?” the cheetah asked as he struggled out of his harness. He knelt down beside the vixen and helped her into a nearby seat.

Taro coughed and rubbed her ribs. “I’ll live,” she said at last.  “Jerry, alter heading and take us toward the asteroid.”

“Toward the asteroid!” Renny and Jerry exclaimed in unison.

“We’ll circumvent it, using its mass gravity to slingshot us away from the area just as Max did on the way in. We’ll avoid collateral damage from expelled debris when that thing hits Vashon!”

Renny exchanged looks with the pilot and both knew the captain was right. They needed to be as far from the strike zone as possible, and they could use the incoming rock to increase their speed to do it.

“May I request that either you or Renny take over the flight controls,” Jerry said with a frown. “That was a lousy take-off, and I would assume there are some injured passengers in the hold.”

“You did the best you could under the conditions,” Taro told him, “but you’re right. You should grab your med kit and get down there. Take Mandy with you, and have Lori and Justy prepare water and paper cups for our guests. I would imagine we have a bunch of frightened people on board, so try to deal with them as well as you can.”

“Right, we’ll get on it right away.”    

*** 

It had seemed like an eternity, but the flooring beneath the evacuees finally calmed down when the ship left the thin Vashon atmosphere. Jumbled and stunned, groans and cries began to permeate the air as everyone tried to disentangle themselves from one another.

“My leg is broken!” someone cried out.

Damien thumbed the intercom control.  “Bridge,” came Taro’s immediate response.

“Send Jerry down to the cargo hold,” the mastiff said in a rush. “We’ve got some injuries from the launch.”

“Doc and Mandy are already on their way.”

“Okay, thanks.” Damien made his way the aft end of the hold and found a ferret with a twisted leg threaded through one of the immovable cargo tie-down rings embedded in the floor. The fellow looked up at him with tears streaming down his cheek fur.

“Our doctor’s on the way,” he told the ferret in a soothing voice as he knelt down next to him. He was examining the leg and wondering if he should attempt to pull it free of the tie-down when he felt a small hand on his shoulder.

“Mister, I can’t find my brother,” a young bobcat said to him. Damien turned to look at the small feline and he felt a sudden catch in his throat.  He had to force down the chill that shivered down his spine and then glanced around. He saw passengers clutching arms, legs and heads as they began to take inventory of their aches and pains.

“Is that him over there?” he asked hoarsely. The little bobcat followed his pointing finger to see a younger male bobcat with his back up against the cargo bay door clutching a plushie that resembled himself.

“Yes!” the girl exclaimed. “Thanks, mister!”  To his relief, she bounded away toward her brother just as a door opened across the hold.  Jerry and Amanda dashed out of the lift toward the nearest injured individual and the fox started treatment right away. Damien waved to the coyote and called her over.

Amanda knelt next to him and took the ferret’s hand as she made a cursory examination of the twisted leg. “The doctor is here and will be with you shortly if you can hang on, sir,” she said in a calm voice.

“It hurts!” the ferret cried.

“Is there anything you can give him for the pain?” Damien asked as he appeared to have made a decision.

The coyote shook her head. “Jerry didn’t give me anything to dispense,” she answered apologetically. “I’m not a nurse, and I think he has different meds for different species.”

“Do you have a pencil?”

The non sequitur took Amanda by surprise, but she nodded and pulled two of them from the pocket of her pink blouse. She held them out to him, but Damien shook his head.  “It’s for him to bite on,” he explained. 

The ferret’s eyes grew wide. “What are you going to do?” he croaked.

The mastiff looked at him in what he hoped was a compassionate look and said, “Before your leg can be treated, the bone must be re-set as quickly as it can. I’m afraid this is going to hurt.”

Amanda pursed her lips. “Have you done this before?”

“Yes.”

The coyote nodded and then offered a pencil to the ferret. The guy looked like he might pass out from the pain at any moment, but he opened his mouth obediently. He took the pencil between his teeth and clenched his eyes shut as Damien reached for his leg.    

*** 

Taro wrapped her arms around herself as she and Renny stared at the aft view on the vidscreen. The cheetah gripped the guidance shifts nervously, wishing it was his arms that were around the vixen as they watched the killer approach her homeworld.

A message chirped from the Com station and Taro moved quickly to read it. She studied the readout a moment and then picked up her headset microphone. She thumbed the ship-wide intercom and then gave Renny a quick glance.

“May I have your attention, please?” Taro’s voice echoed from the ship-wide intercom system. “We have just received a news feed from the Hestran emergency broadcast system. It has been determined that the incoming asteroid will miss Hestra, but Vashon is coming around the planet in its orbit and it will hit the asteroid almost head-on. Estimated time of impact is in ten minutes.”

Taro shut off the intercom and could almost hear the cries of anguish from their passengers. Most of the Blue Horizon’s crew could watch the event dispassionately from the onboard vidscreens, but Taro’s emotions were in turmoil as she helplessly watched the existence of her world’s satellite draw to a close.     

*** 

The asteroid filled the Vashon sky as a science vessel from Earth launched to escape. The SS Michael Faraday had waited until the last possible moment to record sensor readings of the gravitational stresses of the moon caught between the influences of Hestra and the asteroid.  It was insane to stay that long when remote sensors could have recorded data instead, but Dr. Barrowman’s enthusiasm for being there could not be sated that way.

The Faraday cleared the satellite’s orbit, its sensors still recording as it safely headed out into space. A moment later, the space rock struck the moon head-on.

Untapped resources of quartz, opal and siris inside the satellite struck equally volatile elements in the asteroid, causing a chain reaction that ignited both in a celestial detonation more powerful than all the Hestran defense weapons combined.  A bright flash of released energy burned out sensitive camera lenses trained on the event as megatons of material were blasted out into space. A shock wave circled the moon and expanded outward, destroying orbiting satellites and slow moving vessels.

The bridge crew of the Faraday thought they’d put plenty of distance away from the collateral damage, but they’d underestimated the devastating effects of the collision. Measurements taken of observed shockwaves had occurred in the thick Hestran atmosphere where they were retarded.  In the vacuum of space, however, the unimpeded shock wave surged across empty void and caught up the ship before it could activate its LightDrive system. The aft engine pods buckled and split apart under the impact, sparking and igniting the fuel cells into an intense fireball that expanded through the rest of the fuselage, flaring brilliantly before snuffing out in the vacuum. The explosion was but a flicker of light compared to the lunar firestorm.

The Blue Horizon’s vidscreen circuitry flashed from an overload of sensor information and anyone looking at them was blinded for several seconds. The effect was only temporary, and when their retinas finally cleared, Renny and Taro looked up through watering eyes to the forward glassteel windows.

The atmosphere of Vashon instantly thickened, permeated with an immense dust cloud that completely obscured the surface from view. Tons of debris that hadn’t achieved escape velocity rained back down upon the satellite in the form of superheated boulders, rocks and pellets that left burning streaks across the clouded sky.

Renny tried to speak, but discovered his voice had fled. He was amazed that the moon hadn’t split apart from the impact, but he could only imagine the size of the crater that lay beneath the dusty atmosphere. He could see Taro shaking visibly in her strapped harness at the Com station, and had he not been occupied at the ship’s controls, he’d have gone to her and given what comfort he could.

It would be a while yet before news would be released on the aftermath of the impact. Considering the Horizon’s narrow escape from Sharra Base, he knew that Vashon had not been completely evacuated before the collision. Shock waves through the core of the moon would have shaken apart all structures on or beneath the surface, and it was unlikely there would be many survivors.    

*** 

“…the effects have had repercussions even on the planet. Early data shows the impact has altered Vashon’s orbit somewhat, which in turn has affected tidal forces throughout Hestra. Ground quakes have occurred throughout many regions around the world, and although the asteroid struck Vashon, the danger has not yet passed for Hestra herself. Fragments of the moon and the asteroid have penetrated the planet’s atmosphere and some regions have experienced a rain of fire from above. It may be some time before the total effects of the incident are fully known.”

A brown bear looked up from bandaging his mate’s wrist with a torn bit of shirt and sighed at the audio news signal that had been piped down to the cargo hold. Although the Blue Horizon’s doctor was going through the crowd with the help of his crewmates, it might take a while for them to get to his friends.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” asked a voice.  The bear looked up at a white rabbit wearing sandals and a long gray tee shirt with the Blue Horizon’s name and logo across the front. She gave him a friendly smile, but appeared to be just as weary as the rest of them.

“We could use some water,” he replied in a low voice. “If your doctor has any anti-inflammatory medication, I think my mate could use some for her wrist.”

“I’ll get you some water,” Lorelei replied, “but I have some natural herbs I can mix in with it that will work to reduce your lady-friend’s swelling.”

“Whatever you have…”

After the bunny moved away, the female black bear looked up at her mate with moisture-rimmed eyes. “What are we going to do, Rhone?” she asked. “We just lost everything! Our apartment, our ship and all our belongings!  We have nothing, not even our insurance information! What are we going to do?”

“I don’t know, Tress, I don’t know. If I hadn’t already taken apart the drive circuit in the ship, we could have launched in plenty of time to get away.”

“Where’s this ship taking us?” Tress suddenly asked. “How long are we going to sit here on the cold floor? There’s no place else we can go!”

Rhone looked at his mate with a frown and then looked away. “We should be lucky they let us on board, instead of leaving us to die.”

Tress buried her face in his chest fur and let the tears fall freely. “Is this lucky? It might have been better to die,” she whimpered bitterly.    

*** 

Taro sat down at the Com station, her legs unsteady as she listened to the Hestran dispatcher on the vidscreen give her details on the situation. It seemed like she spent more time on the bridge lately than any time in memory and she wondered if she should simply take over all watches until she could no longer stand. For now, she was alert to every trickle of information that came through the channels.

Much of Vashon had been successfully evacuated before the asteroid struck, but it was estimated that nearly three hundred were unable to leave in time. There were reports from some who had escaped that others had remained on Vashon who simply didn’t believe they were in danger and stayed in their homes to wait out the emergency. There could be survivors, but it was doubtful.

“I am not sure what we can do to help,” the vixen told the fennec dispatcher on the center bridge vidscreen. “We let a number of evacuees catch a ride with us in our cargo hold and I will try to get you a tally of how many we have. Perhaps this will help drop the reported numbers of those still missing. However, I’m not sure we have room to go back and pick up more.”

“We appreciate your willingness to help others in need, Captain, but we are not asking you to return to Vashon. We have established a tent city near the capitol that has been relatively free of seismic activity where you can land and deposit your evacuees. Medical teams are standing by to help those who may be injured, and we have counselors to assist any who may need psychological help from this disaster.”

“I’m afraid there’s a problem with your plan, Mr. Rifkin,” Taro replied. “Most of my passengers are not Hestran, and unless you have a truckload of endosuits to equip them for the high gravity once we land, they won’t be able to disembark.”

The desert fox looked back at her in alarm. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he muttered. “There are already three other ships like yours on their way down with evacuees from the moon. We’ll have to recall them right away. Excuse me, Captain.”

“Rifkin, wait!” Taro exclaimed. The dispatcher looked back at her, his expression one of stress.

“Make it quick, please,” he pleaded.

“My ship is merely a freighter and is not equipped to handle the amount of people we have on board. We had not yet re-stocked our supplies, so I don’t have sufficient air, food or water to hold us all for long.”

“I’m sorry, Captain. I will have to get back to you on that. Please stand by.”

The signal contact dropped and the vidscreen circuitry returned the panel to its transparent window view. Taro bit her bottom lip and closed the channel on the station beside her. Her first impulse was to pound on the counter in frustration, but she nixed the thought before it had time to make it past her mind.

Instead, she tapped out a command on the Com station and found a local news broadcast to pipe on the overhead speakers. She wished she could see the video images of a StellarNet channel, but the bridge was not equipped for such signals. It was something that Renny had often campaigned to get in the command center.

Taro pursed her lips at the thought and made a quick decision. She signaled the engine room and it was only a moment later when the intercom chirped back at her.

“Engineering.”

“Max, would you send Pockets up to the bridge with his tool bag?”

“Aye, Captain. Anything I can do for you?”

“Just let him know that I need him to route StellarNet up to the bridge so I can keep tabs on things going on with Hestra and Vashon.”

“Okie dokie. I’ll send him up as soon as I can find him.”

“Thanks, Max.”    

*** 

“Did I just hear one of you say that you don’t have enough oxygen for us all?” asked a bull moose. He stood with his feet planted apart and his question had been voiced loud enough to carry. Max and Damien exchanged a brief look as a crowd collected around the door to Engineering. The faces around them were worried, and some were angry.

Damien raised a hand for attention, but it didn’t appear to quiet the gathering much. “May I have your attention, please?” he said loudly.

“You’ve got our attention,” the bull said sarcastically. “We’re just not sure we want to hear anything else you have to say!”

“Sir, if you will let me—”

“We’re going to suffocate! What more can you possibly say?”

“Sir,” Damien said to the moose, “you aren’t helping the situation.”

“Not helping!” the bull shouted. “We all just lost everything, and now you’re telling us we may die anyway?”

“I don’t want to die!” exclaimed a feline in the crowd.

“We said nothing of the sort!” Damien roared. “You heard part of a conversation and took it upon yourself to—”

The moose grabbed the mastiff’s shirt and there was an audible rip in the fabric. Max backed into the engine room and thumbed the bridge call pad as Damien fastened his meaty fingers around the moose’s wrists.

“Let go and shut up!” Damien growled, tightening his grip on the fellow’s arms.

A Mainoran lion stepped in between them and tried to force them apart. The moose looked at him darkly. “Stay out of this, Wiltz!”

“Calm down, my friend. Let this guy try to explain away his words,” the lion said. “If it’s true you only heard part of the conversation, I want to know what it was he really said that included running out of oxygen.”

The moose released Damien’s collar and snorted into his face. “If anything happens to us while we are on your ship, you will hear from my lawyers, Thomlinson, Gosselin and Young!”

“Kieran, I said ‘calm down’,” Wiltz stated firmly. “You’re using up more oxygen by shouting,” The bull opened his mouth again, but then shut it with a snap of his teeth. The lion looked at Damien and nodded. “Can you explain?” he asked.

The mastiff glanced around at the angry and frightened faces around him and tried to choose his words carefully. The wrong expression could incite further panic. “Like the rest of you,” he began, “we were unprepared for the emergency. Our ship had only recently landed and we had not yet re-supplied our vessel for launch. Yes, supplies are low, but while you are with us, you are welcome to all the resources we have on board: food, water and anything else we can provide.”

“What about oxygen?” asked a young bobcat. “Are we going to suffocate?”

“Our generated air is recycled and may get a little stale, but while we don’t have enough to make another long voyage, our captain is currently on the Com with the Hestran emergency committee to get you folks some proper care as soon as possible.”

“How long is that gonna take?” a gray mouse wanted to know. “Some of us were injured in the escape from Vashon. Your doctor and nurse are treating everyone, but I doubt they’ll get to all of us before something sets up wrong.”

“Are we going to run out of air before help can arrive from Hestra?” asked the bobcat again. “Mr. Kieran said he heard you say you didn’t have enough!”

“My engineer was concerned about our carbon dioxide filters having trouble with so many sets of lungs on board,” Damien admitted, “but this should not be a concern if Hestra dispatches rescue ships to take you to an emergency center.”

Where can they take us?” cried a spaniel female. “I’m not Hestran! I won’t be able to stand up on the surface!”

“We can’t go back to the moon!” said another. “What’s going to happen to us?”

“We’re going to run out of air before we can get anywhere safe!”

Damien looked helplessly as the situation took on more panicked questions and exclamations. “Our captain is working on that!” he offered, but knew that it would appease no one now.  The bull moose’s eyes were getting bloodshot and the tension was mounting in his face as word of their dilemma spread throughout the evacuees.

“What are you gonna do about this?” Kieran demanded of the mastiff.

Damien backed into the Engineering doorway and said, “We are going to continue doing what we can for you, sir.”

With that, he shut the door on the crowd and locked it. He leaned back against the wall and then glanced over at Max.

“Pockets said to do what we can,” Max told him. “He said that Taro’s been in touch with Hestra, but until someone comes up with a plan, we’re stuck with these people.”

The load master tilted his head back and rubbed his eyes. “I know they’ve been through a lot, but I just wish they’d understand that we’re not the enemy. We helped them escape death and are still trying to keep them alive.”

Although the door to Engineering was closed, they could hear elevated voices from the other side. Damien looked over at the young mechanic and heaved a sigh. “I think we’d better stay in here a while, Max. They’re frightened and upset, but wait until they realize that there’s only one latrine on this deck. Then we’ll really have a riot on our hands.”    

*** 

The raccoon crawled out from beneath the bridge Com station and tapped the call-receive control from on his knees. “This is Chief Engineer Porter of the SS Blue Horizon,” he said. “How may I help you?”

“Blue Horizon, this is Hestra Spatial Control. May I speak with your captain, please?” requested a weary-looking fennec fox.

“Sure, hold just a moment.”  Pockets put the incoming call on standby and then paged the captain to the bridge. Almost immediately, the intercom chirped.

“This is Taro.”

“Captain, HSC wants to chat with you.”

“On my way.”

The vixen and her first officer walked in through the door seconds later. They had been in the captain’s office in the next compartment. Pockets crawled back under the counter to continue his work while Taro took the call. Renny took a seat quietly and looked up at the vidscreen.

“Hello, Rifkin,” she said, recognizing him from their earlier conversation.

“Captain,” the desert fox said with a quick nod, “an empty Merriam Cruise Liner from Alexandrius has been dispatched and should arrive in approximately twenty-nine hours to collect the civilians from yours and other ships that helped get the evacuees off Vashon. The SS Soundchaser will be better equipped to harbor the large number of folk that aren’t physically able to be ferried down to the surface.”

“That is good news,” the vixen replied. “However, my supply officer took an inventory since our last conversation and determined that our supplies will completely run out in approximately fifteen hours. Our atmosphere generators and reclamation units are running on full, but with nearly sixty pair of lungs on board, breathable air will be running stale and very thin by the time Soundchaser arrives.”

“I’m sorry, but that’s the closest ship we could call upon to help you. All vessels planetside are currently tied up with surface emergency operations in the tidal quake and meteorite impact zones.”

“In that case, I think it best that we launch toward Alexandrius immediately to close the distance between the Blue Horizon and the Soundchaser to reduce our wait time.”

Renny nodded at her words and made a quick calculation on the astrogation computer. “At top speeds, it will take us roughly thirteen hours to meet up with the cruise ship,” he said aloud.

Taro looked up at Rifkin. “That should get us there with a couple hours to spare. Once we’ve transferred our passengers to the Soundchaser, we will continue on to Alexandrius with our limited supplies. Is there any chance the cruise ship can replenish our air reserves before we disconnect?”

“I will get in contact with the captain of the Soundchaser and see that you are supplied with enough air, food and water to get you to Alexandrius. I can’t thank you enough for your help in this disaster, Captain Nichols. The supplies they give you will be charged to the Hestran Emergency Response Authority.”

“Thank you, Rifkin. We’ll be on our way presently.”

“Good luck to you, Captain Nichols.”

Taro turned immediately to the cheetah. “Plot an immediate course to Alexandrius and launch as soon as you can at best possible speeds. We can coordinate our trajectory with the Soundchaser as we get nearer so we can find a suitable rendezvous point.  Justy, Lori and the others will ration out the food and water from our stores to our passengers. Hopefully that will keep them calm until we can get them over to the Soundchaser.”

“Don’t forget to save some of those rations for your lowly crew,” Renny said with a frown.

“Don’t worry, dear. You won’t go hungry for long. Pockets, you should stop what you’re doing now and get down to the engine room. I want you and Max to make sure all systems are running smoothly while we stress the engines to full capacity.”

The engineer backed out from the counter access area. “I’m almost finished,” he said. “Gimmee ten more minutes and I’ll have the feed routed up here. Max can watch the engine diagnostics in the meantime.”

“Okay, finish what you’re doing and then get down there,” Taro agreed.

Pockets glanced around the room as if to make sure it was only just the three of them, and then he spoke again in a low voice. “You know, we could use the Vault drive to get the evacuees to the Soundchaser a lot quicker. Then we could continue on to Alexandrius on our own without having to deplete all our stores of food, water and air.”  He looked up hopefully at the vixen.

Renny and Taro exchanged dubious looks and then the captain shook her head. “No, I’m adamant against using the Vault in public, and there’s no way we could keep something like that from our passengers, the Soundchaser or Hestran command. I haven’t even told Merlin about it yet! Besides, you know how unreliable it is with our navigation equipment. We could wind up even farther away from help than we are now without meaning to.”

“Yeah, but I thought I would mention it,” Pockets said with a shrug before he ducked back under the counter.

Renny redirected the right-hand vidscreen panel to an aft view and looked back at the planetary body receding in the distance. “What about Hestra?” he asked quietly.

Taro looked up with a frown and felt a shudder go through her. “We will have to leave Hestra to her fate. Planned or not, the well-being of our passengers is our biggest priority.”    

*** 

“There, Madsen, that’s almost got it,” the bull moose muttered. He and a young brown bear each had a pry bar they’d found in an equipment locker and had them wedged into the split of the elevator lift door. The two panels were warped with ragged edges where the pair had worked on it for some time, but the door was finally starting to give.

“This is ridiculous, Kieran,” grumbled the bear. “There’s only one latrine we can find down here, and they shut off the power to the lift to keep us from using their facilities on the upper decks.”

“I don’t know who these people think they are,” said the moose. “Cargo haulers are nothing more than truckers in space. They ain’t any more uppity than the rest of us. If they have what we need up there, we ought to have access! We have nothing now.”

“Probably afraid we’ll steal stuff from their cabins.”

There was a sudden pop and the lift door panels separated. “Great, that’s got it!” exclaimed the moose. He and the bear dropped their pry bars noisily and then pulled the panels open as far as they would go.

Kieran moved into the tubular room and looked up. He grinned and used his fist to pop up an access panel in the roof next to the light. “Give me a boost,” he said to his companion. “I’ll bet there’s an emergency ladder up in the shaft.”

“You won’t find a ladder, but you will find live power conduits that will give you a nasty jolt as soon as you get your hands on them,” Damien said. Kieran and Madsen both jumped, turning in unison.

“For your own safety, I suggest you leave the elevator.” The load master held both pry bars in his hands. One was down at his side and the other was resting casually over his shoulder, but when the moose took a step toward him, both bars came up in front of him in a ready stance. Kieran stopped and snorted in anger.

“You can’t do this to us!” he shouted. “We aren’t your prisoners!”

“Sir, you will be off our ship in six more hours when we meet up with a cruise ship from Alexandrius,” Damien said evenly, trying to remain diplomatic. “Try to stay out of trouble until then and then you’ll never have to see our ship again.”

The moose took another step toward him. “Why, I ought to—”

“That won’t improve your situation, I assure you.”

Kieran made a quick glance at his companion, but the bear showed no signs of joining him in a fight.  The moose weighed his chances of running his antlers into the mastiff, but then thought better of it when he considered the pry bars in the cur’s hands.

“Six hours won’t come soon enough,” Kieran grumbled as he finally moved out of the lift. He slipped past the mastiff haughtily and then disappeared into the crowd that had gathered outside the elevator. Madsen stepped up to the load master and sighed with a frown.

“You’ll have to excuse him,” the bear said in a low voice. “His family lived on Quet until over-mining ruined its atmosphere, and then they moved to Brandt. They did well there until the Siilv deposits ran out and ruined the economy, so they packed up and moved to Mainor. He was off-world when you-know-what happened to that place, but his family didn’t make it.  Now he’s just lost his business on Vashon and everything left that he owned.”  The bear licked his lips and shook his head.  “I don’t think I want to be living on the next planet Mr. Good-Luck happens to settle down on.”

“Yeesh,” Damien muttered. The crowd around them started to disperse, so he turned toward the bear and spoke in a low voice. “Listen, I was just coming to tell you that my captain agreed to allow folks in limited quantities on the upper decks for use of the latrines in our unoccupied cabins. We can take a few up at a time.”

“Limited quantities? Why the escort?”

“The easiest way to put it is that’s where we live. You’re welcome to use the unoccupied facilities, but you don’t have freedom to invade our homes, disaster or no.”

“Yeah, okay, I can live with that explanation,” said the bear. “So, can we go up now? I could do with a shower.”

Damien raised an eyebrow and shook his head. “No, you and your buddy just ruined the lift doors, and it sounded like you snapped an actuator arm. You are going to help me repair them first or no one will be going up there.”    

*** 

Renny rubbed his eyes as he rounded the curved corridor to his cabin. He was just as tired and weary as the crew and their impromptu passengers. Taro had granted him an hour to rest and clean up, but he’d need to be back on the bridge thereafter.  Jerry and Amanda were still going through the crowd, treating what hurts they could, while Pockets and Max nursed the Horizon’s engines to give them everything they could. Lori, Justy and Damien were busy escorting folks up and down the lift to the spare cabins, so that just left he and Taro to manage the bridge.

As he neared the door to his quarters, he felt a tug on the tip of his tail.  He turned around and found a young cheetah girl looking up at him with wide, golden eyes. He quickly looked both ways up the corridor, but saw no one else.

“Hello, there,” he said to the youngster. She couldn’t have been more than three or four summers old. She wore a single beige garment that draped across her skinny shoulders and hung to her knees, and there were two colorful bangles on the wrist of the hand that held his tail.

“Uhm, hi,” she replied in a small, squeaky voice.

“What is your name?”

“Sandilee.”

Renny smiled at her and knelt down to look at her at her own level. “You’re a cutie. Where are your folks?”

“Dunno,” she said with a shrug.

“Can you tell me your full name?”

“Sandilee,” she repeated.

“Sandilee what?”

“I dunno,” she said.

“Okay then, I’ll see if I can help you find them,” the navigator replied. “Did they come up here with you?”

“No,” Sandilee said.

“Did you come up here with someone else to go to the bathroom?”

“No.”

“Hmm, okay. Let’s take the elevator back down and see if we can find who you belong to.”

“I don’t wanna go back down there.”

“Why not?”

“It makes me afraid.  I’m not afraid with you.”

Renny pursed his lips.  “Well, Sandilee, I need to get you back to your folks. It will make them afraid if you are gone too long.”

“They aren’t there,” the girl said. “I can’t find them. Can I stay with you?”

The navigator reached out and lightly ran a finger under her chin. The girl smiled and looked up at him hopefully, but Renny slowly shook his head. “Come on,” he said. “I will help you find your family.”    

*** 

Taro looked up from the INN broadcast on the StellarNet feed she was watching when Renny walked back through the door. It had been an hour since she had sent him out for rest, but the navigator didn’t look rested. In fact, he still wore the same clothes he had on when he left.  She frowned at his weary expression and motioned him to sit down at the Com station.

“Couldn’t rest?” she asked.

Renny heaved a sigh and rubbed his eyes.  “I didn’t get a chance to,” he answered. “I found a young cheetah girl wandering the corridor out there and spent the past hour trying to reunite her with her family.”

“That was sweet of you,” the vixen told him. “I’m sure she’s happy to be back with them. If you want to go back to your cabin, I can spare you another hour.”

“I couldn’t find her family,” Renny said. “She and I are the only cheetahs on board and I couldn’t find anyone else who might have been taking care of her.”

Taro looked troubled. “That’s a big crowd down there,” she said. “Maybe you just missed them.”

“I stood on a crate, called for everyone’s attention, and then held her up for everyone to see. No one claimed her when I asked, but one guy heckled me for trying to pawn off my own child to anyone who would take her.”

Taro snickered, but then sobered up quickly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t be amused at this kitten’s plight. Do you think her family might have been up using the facilities up here while you were down on the cargo deck with her?  You did say you found her up here, right?”

“That was the first place I looked, but neither Justy nor Lorelei have seen any other cheetahs on board with the evacuees.” Taro crossed her arms and looked down at the floor, her thoughts working overtime. Renny glanced out the vidscreen window and added, “I’m wondering if she got separated from her family on Vashon and got swept away into our hold when the crowd surged on board.”

The vixen looked up and absently toyed with a feather dangling from a clip in the fur near her left ear. “I’ll contact HERA and see if anyone has reported a lost cheetah kitten. Perhaps her family got out on another ship.”

“Hera? Isn’t that one of the Terran gods?”

“The Hestran Emergency Response Authority, silly. It was formed after the Taquit Fever incident. They’re collecting the names of those who escaped, and I’ve had Jerry and Mandy getting the names of our passengers for them.”

“Hopefully they can find Sandilee’s folks,” Renny mused. “I’ve tried asking her about her family, but she’s young enough that she hasn’t yet learned much about her family beyond her folks and siblings. She can’t even tell me what planet her family’s from, or if she has any relatives elsewhere.”

“I don’t want to think about it,” Taro said, “but we also have to consider the possibility that her family didn’t make it out of Sharra Base alive. You remember how we got out of there? They could have been in one of the other ships trapped under the dome when the Leroux crashed and the building collapsed.”

“I hope to Hera that someone there can help her. She’s too young to lose her family.”

“Where is she now?”

Renny rubbed his eyes again. “I left her with Lori. She said she’d watch over her until the Soundchaser can take her.”

Taro moved over to her friend and gently rubbed his shoulders from behind his chair. “Why don’t you go get your lost hour?” she said. “Once you’ve had a bit of rest, you can relieve me so I can do the same.”

“Thanks. I’m so tired right now that I can barely stay on my feet. At least a short nap should recharge me a bit.”

“Go then,” the vixen ordered. “Try not to pick up any more lost children on the way to your cabin this time.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”    

*** 

Blue Horizon, this is the SS Soundchaser,” said a uniformed lynx from the left-hand vidscreen. “We have you on our long-range sensors. Please stand down from current velocity and then report your coordinates so we don’t overshoot your position. Captain Ransdell welcomes your passengers at the behest of the Hestran government.”

“Thank you, Soundchaser,” Taro replied with a weary smile, “I’m Captain Nichols. We’re dropping out of spatial velocity now. Our supplies are almost exhausted and our atmospheric reclamation units are over-taxed, so we’re very glad to see you.”

“Very glad,” Renny repeated with a grateful expression.

“The Hestran government thanks you for your help. Once we are in position, we will extend a gravity deck walkway to your main hatch. As soon as your passengers have been transferred to this vessel, we have been authorized to grant you food, water and air to speed you on the remainder of your journey to Alexandrius.”

“Thank you, Soundchaser,” Taro repeated. “We have slowed to sub-light velocity and will be solely on inertia within ten minutes. At that time, we will fire thrusters to stop all momentum. What orientation do you need us so we can align our hatches?”

The lynx’s ears dropped back for only a second, but Renny caught it in the Soundchaser’s communication officer’s voice. “The Soundchaser is equipped with extended walkways on both port and starboard.” He almost sounded miffed that his ship would only be equipped with one walkway.

Taro quietly dismissed the feline’s look of indignation and replied, “In that case, you should approach with us on your port side.”

“Acknowledged. We will await your final coordinates, Captain. Soundchaser, out.”

“That’s a Paladin class ship,” Renny remarked once the connection dropped. “Just because it’s five times the size of the Horizon doesn’t mean they—”

“Drop it,” Taro snapped irritably. “Once we can get these people into better conditions, we’ll be on our way. When we get to Alexandrius, I’m going to authorize a full week of shore leave so we can all rest up from this madness.”

Renny flinched at her rebuke and just shook his head. “What are we going to do about our next assignment?” he asked. “Won’t an extended break hurt our schedule?”

The vixen waved a hand toward the aft end of the bridge. “The cargo we were to take from Vashon to Alexandrius was probably pulverized into dust by that asteroid, Renny. We don’t have anything to deliver.”

“Right.”

The cheetah fell silent and gave focus to his job, wishing it was Jerry sitting in the pilot seat instead of him. Several minutes later, the Blue Horizon was stationary in space and he calculated their present coordinates. Taro reestablished contact with the larger vessel and got an immediate response.

Blue Horizon, we have just received your coordinates. You may prepare your passengers to disembark.”

“Acknowledged.”  She tapped a command on her console and then spoke into her headset for a ship-wide broadcast.    

*** 

“May I have your attention, please? This is the captain speaking.”

A family of multicolored cottontail rabbits looked up from their huddle in the middle of the cargo deck at the announcement. The doe looked up at her mate and began trembling. “More bad news?” she asked. “I don’t think my heart can take much more.”

“I have some good news for you, folks. The SS Soundchaser, a cruise ship from Alexandrius is now on final approach to our position to take you on board their vessel. The Hestran government has hired this vessel to take care of you and others like you who survived the Vashon collision. They will be sufficiently set up to handle all your needs and are here to welcome you aboard.”

Voices began to rise in discussion at Taro’s words, but others strained to hear the rest of the announcement. “The Soundchaser will be docking with us momentarily. All passengers will need to be ready by the main hatch and will disembark quietly in single file. Once aboard the Soundchaser, you will be assigned cabins for the remainder of your journey and their medical staff will see to your injuries. This is Captain Nichols, wishing you a safe journey.”

Damien moved quickly around the perimeter of the cargo deck to the main hatch. He had to push through a congregation of bodies who were already starting to gather at the airlock with excited voices. When he got to the control panel, he looked up and felt the hackles on the back of his neck stand up. The first one in line was the moose, Kieran.

The load master cleared his throat and looked at the press of bodies around him.  “I need everyone to form a line, please!  Everyone will be get their chance to go across, so there’s no need to hurry. The Soundchaser has enough room, food and medical supplies for all of you, and we won’t be leaving until everyone has been transferred across. So now, please form a line!”

He turned his back on the crowd as a great number of them either began grumbling and complaining about losing a close spot near the door. Kieran didn’t budge, making sure that everyone lined up behind him.

Damien activated a small monitor on a panel next to the airlock and a camera mounted flush with the outside of the hatch showed the hull of another ship sliding past. He began pressurizing the airlock as the other vessel slowed.

The intercom chirped on the cargo deck. There was a com terminal next to his console, so he thumbed a pad as he kept his eyes on the monitor. “This is Damien. I’m at the hatch.”

“The Soundchaser has signaled that they are in position. Make preparations to receive boarders.”

“Already pressurizing,” he said.

“I’ll be down there in a moment,” Taro said. The connection was terminated and Damien could see a hard-walled tunnel extending toward them. This was not one of the inflatable, flexible tunnels used on smaller ships like the Blue Horizon, but had solid sides and was equipped with gravity deck plates for efficient movement.  A moment later, its soft-seal end came in contact with the freighter’s hull. Through the airlock’s thick glassteel window, Damien could see an amber caution light flashing as the tunnel was pressurized by its parent ship.

“Hurry it up!” complained a voice behind him.

Damien turned to see the bull moose leaning over his shoulder just as there was a muted beep from the control panel.  “Gladly,” he replied, punching a large red button beneath the pressure gauge. The outer door locks released, and when the sensors confirmed full pressure, Damien toggled another switch; the inside hatch locks released with a thunk. He stepped back and had to push Kieran aside to let the thick door slid to the right on tracks.

Without waiting to see if anyone was in the hatch, the moose shoved his way past the load master into the walkway tunnel. The crowd surged in behind him, clogging the hatch even as Damien tried shouting for order. He was knocked to the side for his trouble, and then the mastiff decided to just let the tide take its course.

As he expected, the walkway filled up with people, but the hatch on the other side had not yet opened. Kieran was shoved up against the other ship by the crowd behind him. He would have tried punching people to get them to back up, but they were pressed in too tightly.

A loudspeaker suddenly blared in the walkway. “Back away from the hatch, people. We can’t open it with you up against it!”

“Back off!” Kieran shouted. “Get off me!”

It took several moments before the crowd could ease up enough for the moose to step away from the door. Inner door locks inside the hatch released with heavy clunks and then the panel pushed outward to slide sideways, nearly taking off one of the moose’s antlers.

Before another announcement could be made, the crowd surged into the Soundchaser without bothering to get proper instructions for boarding from the cruise director.

Damien watched the evacuees flow past him, glad to be rid of them. This was not an experience he would soon wish to repeat.    

*** 

Two hours later, the Blue Horizon was on its way to Alexandrius. The Soundchaser had replenished their oxygen supply and granted them a day’s supply of prepared gourmet food for the entire crew. Unfortunately, everyone was so exhausted from the ordeal that no one wanted to do anything about it. Lori promised to put out the food in the galley for anyone who wanted it, but she was going to spend some time in the tub in her quarters, soaking and relaxing.

Taro thought that was a good idea and suggested everyone take a rest period, but she would man the bridge herself for now. She settled into the pilot’s center seat with the autopilot engaged and a stack of old printed magazines from the Soundchaser at her side. She wanted a break from the disaster and decided to avoid the news channels for a while.

Now that the engines were operating at a lower velocity, Pockets retired to his cabin to rest his eyes, but Max and Renny went up to the recreation deck to put on a movie to relax with. Justy went to his bed to sleep, citing he wouldn’t emerge from his cocoon until he had sprouted colorful wings.

Damien wanted to rest as well, but agitation kept him on his feet. He had a push broom in his hands, sweeping up the litter that the crowd had left behind. The evacuees had been on board for less than a day, but the deck looked as if they had camped there for a week. He found several spots near the sides where someone had gotten sick on the floor and he felt he couldn’t rest until that had been cleaned up as well.

All that was to be expected after such a crowd, especially after the ordeal they’d all had to go through. However, his patience ran out and he let his anger get the best of him when he found several equipment lockers where the contents had been scattered out onto the deck and the locker itself had been used as a latrine – by several people, from the looks of it.

He cursed and threw a few tools across the hold, but once he’d vented his anger, he dutifully cleaned up the mess and retrieved the tools. It took him three hours to disinfect all the messes he could find, and then he headed up to his cabin to clean himself. He felt disgustingly filthy and wanted nothing more than a bath and then a meal.    

*** 

Taro looked up at the clear vidscreen windows and worried her lower lip for a moment. She’d browsed through the magazines that had been given to her by the Soundchaser’s steward, but the disaster wouldn’t leave her mind.

She finally gave in to the temptation and put up the StellarNet feed Pockets had installed. She keyed in the channel for INN and steeled herself to what she knew she’d see. Holly Harken was there, fulfilling her usual role informing the Planetary Alignment of the situation at hand. The Terran woman was still young, but aging gracefully and still the most well-known news anchor on PA-wide broadcasts. Her face was grim as she reported what the Hestran Emergency Response Authority had released to her.

Vashon’s orbit had already begun to stabilize, and the tidal ground quakes on Hestra had subsided. Early estimates figured in a death toll of nearly one hundred thirty thousand across Hestra, and four hundred fifty on Vashon. The moon’s atmosphere would likely be clouded for some time, and its reflected light on the planet had increased several-fold. Infrared and other sensors that penetrated the cloud layer confirmed that the satellite had great cracks across its surface in chasms fathoms deep.

Taro sighed and muted the sound. She watched images of the devastation silently for several minutes and then she looked up at a thought.  The vixen moved to the Com station and called up a bookmarked call code.  She keyed it in and waited for the response. The wait was brief. She received an error stating that the code was either invalid or inaccessible.

Taro was not surprised. She was certain that communication lines on Hestra would likely either be down or so busily jammed that she couldn’t get through to her father’s cousin, Dr. Rhineheart. She desperately hoped that Leslie was okay. It had been she who’d aided in Taro’s surgeries and recovery after the hand-to-hand combat with the pirate Sagan. Taro had been unaware that any of her relatives had survived the Taquit Fever disaster, another disastrous situation engineered by the dread pirate. Her entire immediate family had perished to that horrible virus. If anything happened to Leslie through this disaster, Taro would be totally alone in the universe.

The vulpine captain resisted the urge to get emotional. She had no proof that Leslie had been in any danger, so until the communication lines opened, she would have faith that her father’s cousin was okay.

Taro watched a little more of the news and then switched it off. She yawned widely, her pink tongue curling in over itself, and she was still drawing in air when Damien walked into the room.

“Looks like you could use a rest period,” the mastiff said. He had a thick book tucked under one arm with a sand-colored ribbon hanging from the middle of its thousand pages, a heavy novel with a cloth cover and its title printed in bold script down its spine.

“I can barely keep my eyes open,” Taro agreed, “but I think I can hang in here for the rest of the journey.

Damien gave her a knowing smile and shook his head. He stuck his face up close to hers, almost touching nose to nose with her. “I am relieving you of duty,” he said in a light tone. “Go to bed. That’s an order.”

The vixen leaned back away from him and looked at him in amusement. It was the first time she’d seen him so light-hearted, especially after a hard assignment. She sniffed lightly but didn’t smell any liquor on his breath. In fact, he smelled clean. “Who gave you the authority to give orders to your superior officer?” she asked lightly.

“I did,” he said with a straight face.  “Now, go get some rest. I’ll watch over the brood from here while you take a turn with a pillow.”

Taro rested her chin on a fist and looked at him wearily. “I think you’re just as delirious as I feel,” she told him with a smile. “I’d dock your pay for insubordination, but I’m too tired. Carry on, then, mate. I’m going to bed.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

Taro gave the controls a quick glance before she stood up and stretched. “Thanks, Damien. I appreciate the hard work you and everyone else gave on this voyage.”

“You’re welcome. Now, scoot. I want to get back to my book and you’re using up my valuable reading time!”

Taro chuckled with pat a on his shoulder.  “All yours, my friend. You have the watch.”    

*** 

Taro stepped into her dark cabin and stopped just inside the door. Peace and quiet. Finally, some time to herself. She heaved a heavy sigh, smiled to herself and then closed the door panel behind her.

As she made her way through the dark to the bedroom in the back, she remembered how small the cabins were on the original Blue Horizon, so many years ago, it felt like. The entire cabin could have fit inside the front room of her current quarters, a one-room affair with a small bed, a closet, a desk with a small terminal to the computer and Com system, a built-in bookcase and a small latrine with a connecting shower stall.

The vixen stopped inside the door of her bedroom and looked across the queen-size bed. It looked inviting and she started to remove her blouse, but then she stopped.  She was tired, but she didn’t want to be alone.

She had no plans to play, but she suddenly wanted to cuddle up next to Renny on his mattress. She needed someone beside her while she slept. It would help to relax her and ease her dreams that would likely be focused on Hestra and Vashon.

The red fox left her cabin and padded quietly to Renny’s door. She tapped on it lightly, but there was no answer. It was possible he was already asleep, so she let herself in and crept toward his bedroom.

She didn’t turn on the lights, but a small blue nightlight from the bathroom gave her enough light to see her way to the bed and the lump under the covers. She sat on the side of the bed to remove her shoes and listened to the slow, rhythmic breathing. She tilted her head to the side with a frown, realizing it was not Renny’s familiar breathing she heard.

Taro’s first thought was that it might be Lorelei or Amanda in his bed. Although Taro and Renny shared a relationship, it was long understood that it was not exclusive. She stood up to leave, but then a small voice stopped her cold.

“Mommy?”

The vixen swallowed the lump in her throat and felt the furs at the back of her neck stand out. “What is it, dear?” she tried to whisper reassuringly.

“Can I have a cup of water?”

“Just a moment, kitling.”  Taro moved quickly into the bathroom and ran some water into a small paper cup, trying desperately to keep her hands from shaking. She returned to the bed a moment later with the water, but the child had already drifted back to sleep.  Taro set the cup on the nightstand, tucked the covers around the kitten’s shoulders and then quickly departed the cheetah’s cabin.

Just as she stepped out into the corridor, Renny came out of the elevator lift with a cup of coffee and a piece of pie on a paper plate. He saw her and flashed a wide smile. “Hey, foxy,” he said. Taro walked over to him and resisted the urge to slap him. Her eyebrows came together in anger and Renny suddenly felt shiver run up and down his spine. “What’s the matter?” he asked cautiously.

“I just found your kitten,” Taro said coldly. “Did you think you could hide her from me?”

Renny’s large eyes grew wider. “What are you — wait… Sandilee – that lost cub? Where?”

The vixen narrowed her eyes. “Do you think I’m stupid?”

“No,” Renny said quickly, his temperature rising, “but I’m confused. Start over and tell me what the blazes you’re talking about.”

Taro snorted irritably. She was too tired to engage in an argument, so she grabbed his wrist, nearly spilling his coffee, and pulled him back to his cabin.  Renny managed to convince her to let him set his coffee and pie on a table just inside the door, and then allowed himself to be led back to his bedroom.  When they got into the room, Taro pointed toward the bed.

Renny’s heart skipped a beat and he shook off Taro’s grip from his wrist. He moved quickly into the bathroom to turn on a small light and then looked over at the bed. A small, fuzzy head with tiny round ears and spotted fur lay upon his favorite pillow. “Oh, my…” he replied with a gulp.

He turned back to Taro and looked back at her with a shocked expression. “How long has she been in here?” he muttered in a whisper.

“You tell me!

“Taro, I’m asking you!”

The vixen blinked. “You didn’t know she was in here?”

“No, this is the first I’ve seen her since trying to help her find her folks. Then again, this is the first time I’ve even been back in my quarters since I left her with Lorelei.”

“You’re kidding, right? Where have you been since the Soundchaser left?”

Renny pointed a thumb at the ceiling.  “Up watching a movie with Max,” he replied. “You know that helps me to relax when I’m bushed. Ask him, he’ll tell you I’ve been there.”

Taro grabbed his wrist again and pulled him back out into the front room. “That kitten can’t be here, Renny!” she said in a rush. “She’s supposed to be on her way back to Hestra to find her family!”

“Should we turn around and go after that ship?” the navigator asked.

Taro swallowed and sat down on his couch. “No, uhm, I don’t think…” She fell silent and the cheetah sat down next to her. “We can’t. The Soundchaser only gave us enough supplies to get us back to Alexandrius. We have to go on as planned or we won’t make it anywhere else.”

“Do you think Lori put her in here?” Renny asked. “She was just as tired as everyone else and might have forgotten about her when that cruise ship got here.”

“It’s possible,” Taro replied with her head in her hands. “Listen, it looks like we have an obligation to get her to the proper authorities when we get to Alexandrius. Perhaps they can get her passage back to Hestra.”

“Listen,” Renny said as he slipped an arm around her shoulder, “I didn’t know that she was in my quarters, and I didn’t hide her from you. I would have grabbed you as soon as I’d found her in here, myself.”

“Yeah, I realize that now,” the vixen muttered wearily, leaning over to rest her head upon his shoulder. “I’m going back to my bed and try to get some sleep. I’m too exhausted to think about this right now.”

“I’ll go with you,” Renny said. “My bed’s occupied.”

Taro gave him a tired smirk. “Come on, then,” she replied. “Just no playing around. I really need to sleep.”

“Yes, ma’am, one sleep-only rest period coming right up!”    

*** 

The world of Alexandrius appeared as a blue crescent in the forward windows, but only one of its two moons could be seen on a backdrop of glittering stars. Clouds swirled like ribbons across the planet’s visible surface and a portion of its oceans glittered even from the distance of spatial orbit.

Jerry sat in the pilot seat, with Taro stationed at the Com terminal and Renny at navigation.

“Adjusting ship’s time to Delorme standard clocks,” Taro announced over the intercom. “Local time is nineteen oh-seven.” It was standard procedure to set themselves to whatever world and time zone they were about to spend much time in and would remain as standard ship’s time until their next planetfall. The ship’s systems would reflect the change instantaneously with her reset.

The red fox received a signal in her headset and nodded to herself at the information scrolling across her station screen. “This is the Blue Horizon,” she stated into her microphone, “Planetary Alignment registry number PA1138. We’re coming in on standard approach for landing at the Garrison Spaceport in Delorme.” She listened a second and then answered, “Any available pad, please. We have just arrived from Hestra. No cargo. Yes, thank you.” She received the transmitted coordinates on her screen and as she listened, her fingers glided across her panel to transfer the data to Renny’s terminal. The cheetah set about programming the information into the main computer as Taro finalized their approach from the Alexandrius Defense Authority.

“ADA has given us authorization for landing, Jerry,” she announced.

“Good,” the physician replied. “Renny?”

“Transferring navigational trajectory to your panel now.”

“All hands, all hands,” Taro announced on ship-wide speakers, “landing sequence has begun. Strap yourselves in.” 

When the cargo vessel finally emerged beneath the cloud layer over the city below, the vixen turned back to her board. “Equalizing our internal air pressure with that of the city,” Taro intoned automatically. “Full atmosphere transfer to replenish our depleted reserves will commence in two minutes.”

“I hope the filters are working properly,” Jerry remarked. “We don’t want any smog on board.”

“Agreed,” Renny said.

Taro engaged a few switches and then spoke over the ship-wide intercom, “Artificial gravity has now been disabled. In another ten minutes, we’ll be on the ground with full engine shutdown. I want to meet everyone on the cargo deck after we’ve landed. Damien, don’t open the airlock or bay doors yet. I am granting everyone five days of shore leave to get this experience out of your system, but I need to explain our situation to everyone before we disembark, so wait for me in the hold.”

Renny gazed out the windows when the vixen closed the intercom, glad to be almost back on the ground. They were moving beneath the spaceport traffic and on approach to a small gray building simply marked with a pad number. The Blue Horizon stopped forward movement above a concrete landing pad and began dropping slowly.

Jerry lowered the landing gear and set the ship gently onto the pad with the slightest of bumps. He began shutting down systems on his panel and Renny did likewise. Within moments, only the necessary systems on board were still operational.

The male fox got out of his harness and glanced at movement on a nearby monitor. “Captain, I think you should see this,” he said. He tapped a control and put the image on the left-hand vidscreen panel.

Taro and Renny looked up to see a crowd of news reporters converging on the Horizon’s airlock hatch.  “Uh, oh, what’s going on now?” Renny asked.

Taro frowned. “We’re the first ship out of the Hestran disaster zone to arrive,” she explained. “I was contacted about an hour ago with requests from INN and several local news channels to interview us as eye witnesses to the catastrophe.”

“And?” Renny asked.

“I agreed,” Taro replied. “That’s what I wanted to tell everyone before we scattered. I also agreed to turn over our video recordings of the asteroid collision exclusively to INN due to our past relationship with Holly Harken.”

“Do we have to be interviewed?” Jerry asked. “I’m not afraid of a little on-air exposure for the business, but I really don’t feel like getting grilled by the media. You know they won’t just ask simple questions. By the time they’re through with us, they’ll twist our words around and make it sound like we caused the disaster!”

“I thought about that, but I also want to use this to our advantage,” Taro said. “HERA has turned up nothing so far on Sandilee’s family, so I am going to try to steer the focus of the questions directed to me onto her. If we can get her picture and name broadcast PA-wide, it will increase our chances of finding someone to claim her.”

“Yeah, but what about the rest of us?” Renny asked.

Taro gave him a smile. “Give them your charm and just tell them what happened. We will be hounded until we give in and give them something, so we may as well just get it over. I will explain this to everyone once we get down to the hold.”

“You replenished our air supply already, right?” Jerry asked.

Taro glanced at the engineering console. “The pumps just finished, yes,” she replied.

“How about we take off again and go somewhere else where there aren’t any reporters? Some place out in the country would do nicely.”

“Nice try, Doc. Now, let’s go.”    

*** 

Taro faced the small Com unit in her hotel room and tried to keep the frustration out of her expressions. It was so hard to keep her ears upright while listening to the Hestran Secretary to the Ambassador.

“I am sorry, Captain, but there’s nothing I can do for her,” said an elegant Irish Setter. “HERA operations are completely tied to the situation on Hestra and there’s been no time to do any research on the child survivor. Without a family name, there’s little for us to go on, but the ambassador believes it was wise of you to work the girl’s plight into your INN interview. We can only hope this will serve to gain a response from the child’s family, but for now this may be her only chance.”

“I understand, Ms. Trevre. Who should I turn her over to in the meantime until she is claimed?”

The canine on the screen shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “You have a mixed crew on your ship, Captain? I believe you have one or two felines, yes?”

Taro flicked an ear at the odd question, but nodded. “My first officer is a cheetah, but what does this—?”

“Captain, although the metropolis of Delorme boasts of a large population, there are actually very few felines in the area. After I received your query, I looked into local shelters for underage children. However, there are none that are equipped to properly care for a young kitten. Since you do have a feline among you, and a cheetah at that, it’s the ambassador’s belief that you will be better suited to protect the child until such time as when her family may be located.”

“I beg your pardon,” Taro said as she allowed her ears to fall back to show her distress. “Do you really think a freighter is the proper place to keep a child?” she asked. “I do have a cheetah on board, but neither he nor anyone else on my crew has had experience caring for a child so young. Besides this, it would be more appropriate if the girl stayed on Alexandrius. My ship flies all over the Planetary Alignment. If her family is found quickly, they’ll likely still be in the Centaurus system and want her back as soon as possible. Our delivery schedule will be taking us away from this area; it may be months to a year before we’re back this way!”

“Yes, Captain, we understand your concerns, but—”

“Her best chances would be to have her transported to the feline population of Fyn for proper care until her family claims her.”

“Yes, Captain, that would be preferable, but that option is currently not open to us right now. I have been authorized to provide a stipend to your business account to cover the child’s care in your custody, funded by the Hestran Emergency Response Authority. The Blue Horizon is not unknown to us and the ambassador vouches for your crew’s reliability in this situation. Please rest assured that we won’t simply leave her in your care indefinitely, but this office will continue to do all we can to locate the kitten’s family.”

Taro heaved a heavy sigh, caring not if the Secretary to the Ambassador noticed.  “Please believe me, Captain,” the canine said in a soft voice, “If there was another option, we would take it, but you have proven yourselves to be trustworthy and compassionate. Please take care of Miss Sandilee, Captain. We will have her funds set up by tomorrow morning and then we will contact you periodically to check on her well-being until her case is resolved.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Taro responded numbly.

“Good evening, Captain.”

“Good evening, Ms. Trevre.”

The vixen shut off the Com unit and sat back in the small desk chair, her tail through the slotted opening in the back and twitching in agitation. She hated to be backed into a corner, but there seemed to be nothing she could do about it. The child had fallen into their laps and it was up to them to take care of her.

Taro looked over at the small bed beside her. The hotel didn’t have a suite containing more than one small bed, so she and Renny had rented separate rooms next to one another for their stay in Delorme. Max and Justy had taken other rooms in the same hotel, while the rest of the crew scattered on the wind for their shore leave. Despite her orders to cooperate, Damien had hidden himself from the reporters when they’d converged on the crew, and then had disappeared into the city as soon as he could get away. She didn’t fault him for his actions and decided just to forget it. She would have hidden from the media herself if she felt she could have gotten away with it.

She moved to the bed and stretched out on its firm mattress, burying her face in both pillows provided to her. She drifted off within moments, but it didn’t seem as if she had been asleep long when there was a knock on her door.

The fox crawled to her feet and unfastened the lock. Renny stood in the doorway with Sandilee beside him, holding his hand. She held an ice cream cone in her other small hand and licked at it slowly as if savoring its taste.

“Hi, come on in,” Taro said. The cheetah pair moved into the room and Sandilee immediately found a spot in the middle of the floor to sit and finish her cone. Renny took a seat in the desk chair while Taro locked the door and returned to the bed.

“Thank you for taking her out while I called the Embassy,” Taro said quietly.

“Sandy didn’t give me any trouble,” Renny said. “I pushed her on a swing in the park, let her play in the tall grass of that field next door, and then bought her the ice cream.”

“Sandy?” Taro asked with amusement.

“It’s easier than Sandilee.”

“An’ I like it!” the kitten squeaked between licks. Taro chuckled and then looked over at her friend.

“How did it go?” he asked in a whisper. The vixen shook her head and then glanced over at the kitten.

“The Ambassador believes we can take care of her better than they can,” she replied quietly. She didn’t want to give him the details of her argument in front of the youngster, so she kept it simple. “They’re paying a stipend for her needs out of the emergency funds, but will continue to look for her family in the meantime.”

“Why do they think we can do a better job?” Renny asked.

Taro gave him a little smirk. “Mostly because of you,” she said. “They think you make a good daddy.”

“I make a better friend,” Renny countered quickly. “Don’t they have foster care facilities at all?”

Taro hushed him to keep his voice down. “They do,” she answered, “but apparently none who can take a feline.”

Renny sat back and looked down at the young cheetah that had started crunching on the waffle cone. He remembered back to when Merlin had taken it upon himself to be an uncle to Max, but Renny had no plans to adopt the youngster. He could be a big brother until she could return to her real family.

“Are you up to this assignment?” Taro asked.

Renny looked alarmed. “I can help look after her, if that’s what you mean. I expect the whole crew to lend support.”

The vixen chuckled again. “Yes, that’s what I meant, but since she’s taken to you, I expect she’ll be staying with you in your quarters.”

The navigator leaned in close to the fox. “We have spare cabins,” he reminded her in a whisper.

“Yes, but she’s too young to stay by herself. Make a bed for her on your couch, if you must, but she needs someone close by. You two are related by species, if not by blood, and right now she needs you.”

Renny shrugged his shoulders in acceptance. “Okay, I’ll look after her as if she were my own sister. I think Sophie would like that.”

Taro nodded. “Yes, I think she would. Now, how about we all go shopping? Sandy’s going to need more than one outfit, and HERA is paying for it.”

“Are we goin’ shoppin’?” Sandilee asked as she licked off the remaining cream from her fingers.

“Yes, kitling, just for you,” Taro said with a smile. The youngster grinned up at her, and then held out her hands to Renny to carry her.

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