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BLUE HORIZON

"Catnap"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

“Hello, Amanda.  How are you today?”

The coyote smiled up at the right-hand vidscreen. She had a pillow in her lap and her slateboard on top of the pillow while sitting in the pilot’s seat. “Couldn’t be better, Cindy. I’m the only one currently on board; everyone else is gallivanting around the countryside while we wait for our next assignment. I assume that’s why you are calling, so I’m glad I was here.”

“It’s awful what happened at Hestra, but Merlin’s proud of you guys for your help with those evacuees.”

“Yeah, we did what we could, but it got ugly before it got better. Everyone’s glad to have a bit of time off after our next delivery was summarily canceled by an asteroid, but frankly I’m ready to get back to work.”

“In that case, I’m here to grant your wish!”

“You’re smiling awfully wide, Cindiloo. Did we get a juicy assignment that pays double?”

The gray mouse on the screen snickered. “I’m sworn to secrecy to divulge specific details, but on Merlin’s orders, the Blue Horizon has been recalled to Dennier. You won’t be flying home empty, though. We lined up a three-fold delivery that will fill your cargo deck. You’ll be carrying high-tech electronics for JR Lane Astrogation, six communication satellites for Loxley DataStream, as well as a last-minute passenger addition who will ride with you to Grandstorm to meet her business partner. All will converge on the Blue Horizon tomorrow morning, so you’ll need to schedule a flight plan with the Alexandrius Defense Authority and then contact your crew. I’m uploading the mission file with all the details of your cargoes and passenger as we speak.”

Amanda nodded and put a finger under her chin. “All that sounds great, but my interest has been piqued by the real reason behind our flight to Dennier. A recall? That’s usually something rather serious, if you’re bringing us back to home base.  Did you recall our sisters too?”

“No, this really doesn’t concern the Hidalgo Sun or Mooncrest as directly as it does the Blue Horizon, so they’re still on schedule.” Cindy Allport giggled again and put a hand over her mouth. “Only the flagship is being recalled.”

Amanda narrowed her eyes.  “C’mon, give!  What’s this about?”

“Nope, can’t tell you. It’s something you’ll have to find out for yourselves once you get here.”

“Cindy!  Dennier is four weeks away from Alexandrius!  I’m gonna die of curiosity before we get there!”

“Heh… quit your whining. I’m not going to tell you.  Not even Captain Nichols will know what this is about, so all you need to do is focus on your mission deliveries.”

“We’re getting fired, aren’t we? It’s because of all those jobs we lost.”

Cindy looked surprised. “Huh uh – nobody’s losing their jobs. This is going to be a good surprise, not something awful. Would I be giggling if that was the case?”

Amanda pouted. “Why’d you even mention it, then?” she grumbled. “You could have told me about the assignment and just left off the part about the recall.”

“Sorry, I just wanted to give you something to look forward to at the end of the flight.”

The coyote swished her tail through the slotted opening in the back of the chair and switched tactics. She gave the mouse a smile with wide eyes and clasped hands. “I promise I’ll look forward to it if you tell me what it is…”

“Nope, not a chance.”

“Brat!”

“Did you just call me a rat?  I’m a mouse, I’ll have you know!”

“Same thing, as far as I’m concerned!” Amanda stuck out her tongue.

“Nyah, nyah. Keep the recall to yourself, if you want. Just give the mission file to Taro when you’ve called her back to the ship. I won’t keep you any longer. You’ll need to contact your crew immediately.”

“You’re mean,” Amanda muttered with the back of her hand up to her forehead. “You’re going to cause me mental anguish for the next month. I might not be able to survive!”

“It’ll be worth it, I promise!”

“It better be. I won’t ever talk to you again if it’s not!”

Cindy laughed. “Then I have nothing to worry about.  Bye, then.  See you in four weeks.”

“Bye.”    

*** 

“Blue Risen!”

Renny looked down at the young cheetah holding his hand. “Yes, Sandy, that’s the Blue Horizon, our home.”

The four-year-old who had recently become his charge released his hand and ran to the airlock ramp, waiting for him to open the door. She trotted up to it and slapped lightly on the painted door panel, grinning back at him, Taro and Lorelei.

“She’s such a cutie,” the white rabbit whispered. “That outfit you bought looks good on her.” The youngster wore a dark blue jumper that was loose over her fur, with yellow butterflies across the front and a matching blue ribbon at the end of her tail.

Renny strode up the ramp with a shopping bag of their purchases and gave the young girl’s head fur a tousle before punching in the security entry code in a recessed panel.  With no pressurized air to cycle, the doors split apart diagonally and the chamber light of the airlock came on. Sandy darted inside and began running around the empty cargo hold with her arms outspread like airplane wings.

“Looks like we beat Damien back,” Renny said to the ladies when they stepped inside.

The vixen turned to a panel beside the airlock and keyed in a long-memorized sequence. The massive bay door began to rise up and outward. “May as well let in some fresh air,” she said. “Lori, would you go pull out the work gloves?”

“I’ll get them,” the doe replied with a light hop. She chased after the small cheetah girl and followed her around with outspread arms a moment before she continued on to the equipment locker on the far side of the chamber. Sandy enjoyed the attention and followed the bunny to see what she was doing.

“I’m going to gather up our little bird and set her in front of a video in my cabin,” Renny said. “Once I’ve gotten her set down with water and a snack, I’ll lock the door to keep her inside and then I’ll be back down to help with the cargo.”

Taro nodded and glanced at her watch. “The first truck should be here in about twenty minutes,” she said. “Would you stop by my desk on your way back and grab my slateboard? I need to send Lori out on a supply run. She knows what foodstuffs we need, but Justy left me a list of the other shipboard supplies we needed before he left for shore leave.”

“Sure.”  The navigator walked across the deck while the bay doors completed their opening cycle. “Lori,” he said to the rabbit, “Taro needs you to make up a grocery list to stock up the galley before we launch. Do you think you can get everything within two hours?”

The bunny looked up at him with a handful of work gloves and flashed him a pleasant smile. “I already have a list in my quarters of what we need,” she replied.

Renny nodded his approval. “You’re fast!” he said.

Lori laughed and gave him a wink. “Of course I’m fast. I’m a rabbit!”

The navigator looked at her with a grin and said, “Anytime you want to see if you’re faster than a cheetah, just let me know.”

Lorelei laughed aloud and touched the tip of his nose with a finger at arm’s length. “Your legs must really be feeling better if you’re willing to race,” she said. She then leaned in and whispered something in his ear that made the end of his tail twitch.

Renny cleared his throat and looked down at Sandilee. “C’mon, kitten,” he said. Lori gathered up the rest of the work gloves with a mischievous smile. “Let’s go.”

“Where we goin’?” she asked, scratching an ear.

“We’re going up to our cabin,” he said, trying to ignore the look the rabbit was giving him. Renny reached inside the shopping bag and pulled out a vid package. On its cover in primary colors was a children’s show butterfly character sniffing a flower next to a sparkling lake. The title emblazoned across its sky read: Happy Bug and the Rainbow Song of Sillon. “Want to watch this?”

Sandy’s eyes lit up over a wide grin. “Yeah!” she exclaimed. All other thoughts evaporated as she reached up for the video. Renny handed it to her and led her to the lift.

“Bye, Sandy!” Lori lilted.  The small cheetah waved absently, her focus now on the vid package.

When they got up into their quarters, Renny quickly got her situated in front of the video player so he could put away her new belongings and set up her bed on the couch. He went up to the galley, grabbed some water and few snacks for her, and then came back to pause her show. When she looked up at him in surprise, he squatted down next to her.

“I need to go back down and help the others do some work, so I need you to stay in here for a while,” he told her. “Can you do that for me?”

“Don’ go!” she said in sudden distress.

Renny brushed a finger lightly under her chin with a gentle smile. “Don’t worry, kitten. Happy Bug will keep you company and I won’t be gone long.” Sandilee put out her bottom lip and looked forlorn. The adult cheetah sighed and shook his head. “Do this for me,” he said, “and I’ll let you sit on my lap on the bridge when we fly up into the sky.”

Sandy’s distress disappeared and her eyes grew wider. “Promise!” she said.

Renny put his hand over his heart and said with a wink, “I promise.”

“Okay,” the appeased youngster said.

Renny pulled out a coloring book and box of wax markers from the shopping bag. He set them on the floor beside her and replied, “Good girl. I’ll be back in later to get you.”

“Okay,” she repeated. Renny resumed her program and stood up. The kitten’s attention instantly refocused on the screen, so the navigator gave the room a quick glance and then shut the door behind him.

He started to head directly to the lift, but then snapped his fingers sharply as his memory kicked in. He walked into the captain’s office and spied her favorite slateboard resting on one corner of the wooden desk. As he picked it up, he noted that she’d left her monitor on to the news feed. He reached out to shut it off, but then recognized the cruise liner on the report.

He took up a position on the corner of the desk, turned up the volume, and listened to the local broadcast for a moment.

“The SS Soundchaser has just arrived in the capitol city with its load of refugees from the Hestra-Vashon disaster. Dispatched several days ago, the empty cruise ship’s function in this emergency was to collect evacuees of the Vashon moon from various smaller vessels that helped get the populace out of the danger zone. The first response of the Hestran government was to set up a tent city on the parent planet for these folk, but then it was discovered that nearly ninety percent of the evacuees were non-Hestran, and therefore wouldn’t be able to stand up on the surface of the heavy-gravity world.

“The Merriam Cruise Line graciously offered the use of one of their liners for the emergency, the SS Soundchaser, which was currently in port in Alucara. The Vashon refugees will be granted temporary housing in Alucara set up just for—”

Renny switched off the monitor and headed back down to the cargo deck. When he stepped out of the lift, he saw two trucks backed up to the loading ramp, each bearing the silhouette of a rabbit and the words “JR Lane Astrogation” painted upon their sides. Several of the Blue Horizon crew was already moving crates from the trucks up into the hold, with Damien directing for proper weight load placement.

Taro was chatting with the truck drivers, both male red foxes who had taken it upon themselves to be friendly with the shapely vixen. Renny frowned as he stopped next to her with the slateboard.

“Here you go, Honey,” he said, putting emphasis on the last word for the benefit of the truck drivers. Both vulpine drivers instantly looked uncomfortable when the navigator leaned in and placed a quick lick on the side of her muzzle.

Taro raised an amused eyebrow at him and replied, “Thank you, Luv.”  She glanced at the foxes and said, “Excuse me, guys. I need to take care of this.”  Both murmured something and ambled back to their trucks to stand in the shade.

“Feeling jealous, lover?” she whispered impishly to the cheetah.

Renny gave her a crooked smile and shook his head. “Flirt all you want,” he said. “I’m still the one who gets to travel with you.”

Taro laughed and gave him a quick hug. “Too true,” she said.

“Listen, there’s something I need to discuss with you,” Renny told her while they walked back toward the hold. “I saw a local news broadcast while I was up on the crew deck. The Soundchaser just arrived in Alucara with all the evacuees collected around Hestra.”

The captain nodded. “That’s good to know,” she said as she gestured to Lorelei that she’d just transferred Justy’s supply list over to the bunny’s slateboard. “They’ll get good care from the Alexandrians.”

“You went to the Hestran Ambassador on Sandy’s behalf when we couldn’t turn around and take her back to the Soundchaser, where she should have gone. Now that all the evacuees are now here on Alexandrius, shouldn’t she go join them until her family can be found? There were other felines among those we had on board the Horizon. Perhaps some of them can take care of her.”

Taro looked at him for a moment. “I thought you liked Sandy,” she said.

“I do, but that’s not the issue,” Renny replied defensively. “As you told the Ambassador, we’ll be launching halfway across the Planetary Alignment once we leave here, and may not be back this way for some time. It would be better if she were here local when her family comes to get her.”

“Yes, I agree that would be best,” the vixen answered, “but we’ve already made an agreement with the Ambassador. I doubt she would be pleased if we bothered her with this again.”

Lorelei bounced up to them, bumped fists playfully with both the cheetah and vixen, and then bounded away. “I’ll be back as quickly as I can,” she said.

“Don’t be late!” Taro called after her. The bunny headed to the spaceport terminal building, where a busy line of local cabs waited for fares. The captain looked at her watch and then back to Renny’s forlorn face.  “Okay, I’ll go call the Ambassador again, now that the Soundchaser has arrived. However, even if she agrees, there may not be time for her to arrange a transport for our little friend. We’re on a tight schedule to make our launch window and Sandy can’t wait for a cab or other transport by herself if we run out of time.”

Renny nodded. “I accept that you’ll give it a shot,” he said. “I do like Sandy, but she does need to go back to her family, wherever they may be.”

“Agreed.”  Taro pantomimed handing something to the cheetah and said, “Don’t whip the galley slaves too hard, taskmaster.”

Renny swung an imaginary whip into the air and made a crack! noise with his lips.  Taro laughed aloud and then headed toward the lift.    

*** 

Max looked up from his work as a shapely Cocker Spaniel walked up to him. She was dressed in calf-high boots, a mini-skirt that barely covered her tail and a narrow halter-top, all the same golden-blond shade as her fur. There was a matching fringed purse in her slender hands and a wheeled suitcase beside her. He looked up into her chocolate brown eyes and was instantly lost in her wide smile.

“Hello, Max,” she said in a high, bubbly voice, “is this the Blue Horizon?”

“Uhm, uh, yeah,” the German shepherd replied thickly. “Yes, it is.”

“Oh, good!” she replied with a bit of a bounce. “I’m supposed to be your passenger to Grandstorm. My name is Ariel Bennington.”

The German shepherd blinked away the fog that had suddenly wrapped around his brain and he gave her a big smile. “Ariel, hi!. How did you know my name is Max?” She reached out and lightly tapped the name tag attached to his shirt with a grin.  “Oh, yeah,” he replied.

“Can you check me?” she asked.

Max quickly glanced over her form and then forced his eyes back up to her face. She was only a few years older than he was, but she definitely had his interest. “Excuse me?” he asked hoarsely.

She giggled and held out a printed ticket. “Can you check me onto your ship, please?” she asked. “I would like to put my things on board.”

“Uh, sure,” he said absently. When Pockets set small crate on the floor beside him, the mechanic remembered his place. “Actually, if you speak to that coyote over there,” Max said as he gestured toward the airlock hatch, “Amanda will get you checked in and taken to your quarters.”

Ariel nodded with a bop of her head and then made a cursory glance at Max’s shoulders. He was no longer the skinny boy he’d been when he first came on board; his shoulders were broad and his physique was shaping nicely from his workouts with Renny and Damien on the exercise mats.

“What do you do on this ship, Max?” the woman replied.

“I’m a mechanic in the engine room,” he replied, automatically pointing to the engineering symbol on his sleeve displaying a crossed wrench and a screwdriver.

Ariel’s eyes lit up. “You help make the ship go fast?” she asked.

“Yeah, something like that,” Max answered.

The Cocker Spaniel moved in closer and then turned away just enough so that she looked at him over her bare shoulder. “Could you give me a tour later?” she asked. “I’d really like to see where you work.”

Pockets set another crate next to Max and cleared his throat. The young mechanic grinned at the woman and said, “Sure, we can do that after we’ve taken off. However, my partner needs my help loading the ship.  Amanda will see you to your cabin.”

“Thank you, Blue Eyes,” Ariel with a friendly wave. “I’m looking forward to seeing more of you later!”

Max returned her wave with a waggle of his fingers and then watched her bop across the tarmac toward the coyote, her floppy ears and tail swaying with the wiggle in her walk.  Pockets gave him a nudge in the side and clicked his tongue.

“What?” Max asked, startled.

“You’re stirring up the dust with that wagging tail of yours, partner.”

“Huh?”

The raccoon laughed aloud at him. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about finding another girlfriend,” Pockets said in a low voice. “She was checking you out as much as you were of her!”

Max grinned at his friend and shook his head. “Hush!” he scolded. “She might hear you!”

“She probably did,” Renny said dryly. Max and Pockets whirled around to see the first officer standing behind them looking stern. Both mechanics dropped the conversation and went back to work without saying anything more. When Renny walked away, he had to hide the smile that spread across his face.  He liked Max and felt sorry for his broken heart, but as Jerry had tried to tell him, he would get over his breakup with Wendy. It would take time and maybe a different female form to push him onward.

“Renny,” Justy said as he trotted up beside him, “Have you seen the captain? A truck with the satellites for Loxley DataStream just arrived.”

“Thanks. I’ll get Damien to sign for them.”    

*** 

Sandy’s eyes were wide with wonder and delight as the Blue Horizon launched from the Garrison Spaceport. The middle vidscreen showed their forward path, while the left-hand screen showed their departure angle. As promised, the cheetah kitten was strapped into Renny’s lap behind his flight harness so she could see their launch. Normally this would not be a good idea with the stresses of launch, but Jerry had promised a smooth take-off now that Pockets and Max had successfully repaired the faulty inertia compensators with parts they’d purchased on the company account while in Delorme.

Likewise, Taro’s seat at the Com station had been repaired and the vixen calmly sat with her elbows on the new armrests. She smiled at the kitten’s enthralled expressions and then looked over at her pilot. Jerry appeared to be struggling with the guidance shifts and his lips were pressed together tight.

“Something the matter, Doc?” she asked in a quiet voice so as not to alarm the youngster.

The edge of the male fox’s lips curled up slightly. “The controls are little sluggish, probably due to a full hold. The launch thrusters just aren’t used to the weight of the satellites we’re carrying.”

“Are we going to have trouble making orbit?”

“No, but it may take a little longer to get there.”

As predicted, the extra weight added nearly ten minutes to orbital entry. It may not have seemed like much time to the rest of the crew, but it took more thruster fuel to gain the altitude.

Taro touched a pad on the engineering console next to her and then spoke into her headset mike on ship-wide broadcast. “The ship’s artificial gravity has automatically enabled and is reading normal. Once we are beyond planetary traffic, the LightDrive engines will be engaged for our run to Dennier. Mobility is now safe; you may shed your harnesses and move about.”

Sandy’s little eyes shifted from the view looking aft toward the forward vista of stars. She looked back and shared a wide grin with Renny. The navigator never tired of the stars and was pleased to share the sight with the youngster.

After several moments, however, the forward view remained unchanging. Without a stationary frame of reference, it appeared to the kitten that they had stopped moving, although they were increasing velocity to incredible speeds. Bored, she looked back to the aft view and saw the blue-green world shrinking on the monitor. She stared at it for a long while, but as they traveled farther away, there were no more wonders to see.

Sandy started to squirm on Renny’s lap, so the navigator unbuckled his harness and set her on the floor. Taro reached out for the child’s hand with a smile. “Renny needs to do some work now,” she said. “Let’s go see if Lori can find us a snack.”

“Okay,” the kitten replied with an exaggerated nod of her small head. Renny was already deep into his astrogation calculations by the time they walked out the door.    

*** 

No sooner had Taro’s announcement come over the intercom that Ariel Bennington was out of the flight harness in her cabin. She stowed it into its recessed wall receptacle just as Amanda had instructed, and then she moved to the back room to study her reflection in the mirror. She fluffed up the fur around her large, floppy ears and then checked to make sure her skimpy outfit was presentable. She briefly considered spritzing a bit of perfume into her fur, but instead decided her own natural scent would be sufficient.

She checked her reflection once again, made a cheerful bounce on the tips of her toes, and wagged her tail with a happy smile. She was ready.

Ariel peered out the cabin door into the corridor, but saw no one else about. Pleased, she darted to the lift with her small purse and thumbed the call. A moment later, she stepped into the elevator and tapped the “1” pad just as a short koala stepped out into the hall.

Justy tried to stop her so he could catch a ride up to the recreation deck, but the panels closed before he could get there. He shrugged his shoulders and stretched, waiting for the lift to return.

When the elevator reached the cargo deck, Ariel stepped out into the cold chamber. Although pressurized and insulated, the Hold was always difficult to keep warm while the ship was in space simply due to its volume. The Cocker Spaniel’s fur was not thick and she felt a shiver as she stared up at the large satellites tethered in cradles at the center of the deck. Octagonal crates surrounded each of the satellites for proper weight distribution, and they were secure to the deck beneath sturdy freight nets. There was a three-meter wide aisle around the perimeter of the chamber and she looked each direction, wondering which to take.

It had been a while since the shapely canine had last been on board an Okami freighter, but this model was a new design to her. Simply on a hunch, she turned to her left and began walking along the aisle.

Several moments later, she passed by a compartment that looked out into the Hold behind a thick sheet of glassteel. Inside, there was a large, paper-strewn desk with laden book shelves lining the walls and a small kitchenette on one end of the room that was littered with paper coffee cups and paper plates. Sitting behind the desk was a broad-shouldered mastiff in a white shirt with long, billowed sleeves. The office pressure door was currently open.

Her sandal bumped into a metal chain lying on the floor up against the wall and the mastiff looked up at her through the window. He stood up and moved around the desk to the doorway.

“Excuse me, miss,” Damien said in a deep voice, “but passengers are not allowed on this deck.”

Ariel looked up at him with wide, innocent eyes. “Why not?” she asked.

The mastiff leaned against the door frame. “We’re carrying cargo for other customers that needs to remain untouched, and also because it’s dangerous for you to be wandering around alone down here.”  He tapped the chain on the floor with the toe of his boot. “Things like this can trip you up and your flight insurance doesn’t cover you in areas that are forbidden to non-crew personnel.”

“Oh,” she replied with a crestfallen expression. “That cute German shepherd said he would show me where he worked after we launched.”

Damien sighed inwardly, wondering if Max would need a chaperon now that the young mechanic was inviting women into his out-of-the-way work area.

“Just a minute,” he said after a moment. From the ethereal look the girl was giving him, Damien wondered just how much dust might be upstairs in that attic. He moved to a control panel beneath the window and tapped a control. A moment later, there was a sharp chirp that echoed into the upper rafters of the cargo deck.

“You have reached the mightily impressive engine room to the flagship of the Sinclair fleet,” drawled Pockets’ country voice. “How may I be of service?”

Damien simultaneously raised an eyebrow and the edge of his lips. “I have a young lady here who claims that your partner promised her a tour of engineering,” he said with amusement.

“Oh, he did, did he?” Then in a voice that was slightly removed from the microphone, “Max! Your date’s here!”

Damien flashed a quick look at the Cocker Spaniel, but the girl only beamed back a wide grin at him with a gentle wag of her tail. He chuckled and shrugged briefly.

“The young stud is on his way,” Pockets said with a laugh, apparently not caring if the girl heard him.

Somewhere out around the perimeter of the cargo deck, Damien and Ariel heard booted feet stepping quickly around the aisle. Maximilian emerged from the shadows with an embarrassed look on his face.

“Hi, Ariel,” he said shyly.

“Hello, Max,” replied the spaniel. She moved closer to him and then very gently licked the side of his muzzle. Damien chose to return to his desk at that moment, and Max was unsure if he liked being left to the female. He gave her a crooked smile and then offered his arm to her, as he had seen Merlin do countless times with Samantha.

“Did you handle the launch okay?” Max asked as he led her back toward the engine room.

“Yes, it was okay,” she replied. “The launch chair was a little stiff, and my rear could use a massage, but otherwise it was just fine. I was lonely up there all by myself, though.” She snuggled up to the German shepherd and Max suddenly found it difficult to swallow.

They approached the pressure door into engineering and met up with Pockets. Ariel’s eyes grew wide and she bent over to rub the raccoon’s ears. “Aww, how adorable!” she cooed. Max’s eyes went to the back of her short skirt while Pockets looked up into the girl’s smiling face.

“Yes, I am!” he said with a grin. “You must be Ariel.”

She blinked and looked back at him in delight. “You know my name!” she squealed.

“Yeah, well, Max couldn’t stop talking about you while we waited for lift-off!”

Max bristled. “Pockets!” he hissed indignantly. Since the canine mechanic had grown up a bit during his stay with the Blue Horizon crew, the raccoon had taken to teasing the boy that he had taken on to be his partner.

“If you two will excuse me,” Pockets said, “Lorelei called us to supper. I told her you two would be busy for a while,” he said with a waggle of eyebrows, “so she said she’d keep your food warm until you came up to claim it.”

Max scowled at the engineer and hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Shoo!” he said. “We’ll be up there in a bit.”

“Bye, mister Pocketo,” Ariel said with wriggling fingers. “We’ll see you later!”

“Good bye for now,” Pockets said.  He scurried past Max, narrowly missing the swat that had been aimed at him. After the raccoon had gone, the German shepherd slowly turned to face his guest. He put an arm across the back of his neck and grinned at her sheepishly.

“So…” he started. “What would you like to see first?”

The Cocker Spaniel looked at him coyly and said in a quiet voice, “Impress me and show me everything you’ve got. I want to see it all.”    

*** 

“After all the jobs we lost, I’m glad to have a full cargo hold again,” Justy said before he scooped up a forkful of eucalyptus salad.

“It feels like we’re making up the lost revenue with multiple loads,” Renny agreed as he fed a half spoonful of tuna to the small cheetah beside him, “but I wonder if Merlin ever found out why all those folks were dropping out on us.”

Taro took a drink of green tea and pushed an empty plate away from her. “I haven’t had much opportunity to talk with him lately,” she said, “but I intend to have a long discussion with him about our Vault capabilities when I can speak with him privately. Since all three deliveries of our current assignment are to be shipped to Grandstorm, it’s a lucky coincidence that we get to return to headquarters.”

“Luck had nothing to do with it,” Amanda murmured absently as she cut her meal into smaller portions. “Since we’ve been recalled, I can only wonder—” The coyote realized what she was saying and suddenly clamped a hand over her mouth, drawing everyone’s attention.

“Recall?” Justy asked with a sharp look at their captain.

“What do you mean, we’ve been recalled?” Damien asked.

Taro appeared just as puzzled as the rest of them. She looked at the coyote with a furrowed brow. “Mandy, you’re the one who told me about our assignments,” the vixen said in a quiet voice. “I don’t remember you saying anything about a recall.” Amanda’s eyes betrayed her fear, but she didn’t remover her hand from her mouth.

“This isn’t looking good,” Pockets muttered. He wiped his hands on his coveralls and put them on the edge of the table. “Are we in trouble?” Lorelei sat next to him in stunned silence.

Amanda put her hands in her lap and nervously wrung them together. “I-I don’t know why we are being recalled,” she said quietly, making everyone strain to hear her. “Cindy acted like she wanted to tell me, but said that Merlin had forbidden her to give us any details.”

“Mandy, you aren’t making sense,” Renny replied. “Start over.”

The coyote nodded, took a deep breath, and then looked around the gathered crew. “When Cindy called to give us our assignment,” she explained, “she was acting strange, as if she had a big secret. I asked her why she was acting like that, and she said that she was sworn not to give out any details, but that the Blue Horizon was being recalled to Dennier. I begged her to explain, but she wouldn’t say anything more about it. I asked her if the other ships were being recalled too, but she said this only concerned us and that we would find out what was going on once we arrived.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this?” Taro asked in annoyance.

“I called Cindy mean-spirited, but she told me that not even you were to know why we’re being recalled. I was told it would be best if I didn’t mention it to anyone else so we could focus on our assignment.”

“I’ll bet we’re getting canned,” Justy said dejectedly. Everybody looked at him in surprise and he stared back at them indignantly. “What?” he exclaimed. “You were probably thinking it too!”

“I said the same thing,” Amanda continued. “I thought it might be because we lost those clients and were being punished for losing the revenue, but she denies that anyone’s jobs are in danger.”

“Then what is this all about and why all the hush-hush?” Pockets wanted to know.

“She wouldn’t tell me,” Amanda replied, “and that is all I know about it – honest!”

“Why didn’t you tell me about this?” Taro asked again. “Even if you didn’t know details, I think this is something important enough that your captain should know about!”

“I’m sorry,” Amanda replied with a lump in her throat. “I don’t know why Cindy told me what she did if Merlin had forbidden her to say anything!”

“It sounds like Cindy has a big mouth,” Pockets said dryly. “If it’s such a secret, she shouldn’t have said anything to you at all.”

The vixen set her tea cup on the table and got to her feet. “I’ll get to the bottom of this, folks. I’m going to talk to Merlin directly.”  Without another word, she walked defiantly toward the elevator lift.    

*** 

“What does this do, Max?” Ariel asked. She clung to one of his arms and had her body pressed up against him as she trailed her fingers along a panel full of indicators and controls.

The German shepherd had difficulty focusing with the girl pressing in on him so much. He was sharply conscious of their points of contact and he swallowed uncomfortably. She was apparently unaware of her effect on him.

“Th-that’s for liquid crystal fuel regulation,” he replied. “We have to keep the inflow of energy balanced to get the most efficiency for engine output. If any of the settings are out of synchronization, we’d lose speed rapidly and fall back to sub-light velocities.”

“That’s bad, huh?” Ariel asked with a bop of her chin against his shoulder.

“It’s certainly not good,” Max said with a smile. “If it gets too far out of balance, we could wind up with a ruined feedloop module. Now, if you want to see something really interesting, look over here,”

The German shepherd went on with a mouthful of technical jargon, but Ariel looked back at the fuel regulation panel with sharp interest. Her eyes took on a focused expression until her host asked her a question. She returned her attention to him instantly with wide eyes of innocence and fluttered her eye lashes at him.

“I’m sorry, Max,” she said with a giggle. ‘I was daydreaming.”

“That’s okay,” the young mechanic responded with a smile. “I’ve learned so much from Pockets the past few years that I’m afraid I can spout out technical babble almost as much as he can! I apologize for boring you with all this.”

“Not at all,” the Cocker Spaniel replied with encouragement. “This is all so interesting, but I admit that I don’t understand everything you’ve explained.”

“Is there something else I can show you that would be of more interest?” Max asked.

The female canine’s eyes narrowed and the corners of her mouth curled up. “Yes, show me your cabin, Max,” she said in a whisper. “I want to see your bed.”

“Y-you want to see where I s-sleep?” The German shepherd swallowed, suddenly feeling the girl’s hand at the base of his tail. “I, uh,”

“Don’t be embarrassed, Max,” she cooed in his ear. “I like you, a lot! Don’t you like me?”

“Uh, yeah, I d-do,” he stammered, “but I don’t know if…”

“Let’s go, Max,” she whispered. “It’ll be okay.”  She led him by the hand out of the engine room, but suddenly stopped just outside the door. “Oops,” she said. “I left my purse in there. Be right back!” 

Max fidgeted, waiting courteously for her to return. Although he was sure he could read her intentions correctly, he wasn’t certain he could meet her expectations.  A moment later, she bopped out to his side with her purse in hand, and then threaded an arm through his.

“Lead me on, Max,” she said with a giggle.     

*** 

“No, Taro, I can’t tell you anything more.”

The vulpine captain scowled up at the brown mouse on the right-hand vidscreen. “Keri, I want to know what’s going on, and I want to know right now! Get Merlin on the line.”

“Taro, everyone’s gone home for the evening. The only ones here are me and the night guard, Bob, and I’ll be leaving in about ten minutes. Bob doesn’t know the answers to your questions, Taro, so there’s no one else you can talk to tonight.”

“Will Merlin be there tomorrow?” Taro asked irritably.

“No, I believe he and Samantha have an appointment together,” the mouse replied.

Taro’s expression softened and she leaned on the forward console. “Please, Keri, tell me what’s going on. My crew is afraid for their jobs and I need assurances.”

“Listen,” the mouse said sternly, “what you want to know is information that has been classified SECRET by our boss, Merlin. We have been forbidden to divulge any information on the matter, especially over a Com line. Cindy should have never mentioned it!”

Taro’s ears twitched and she nodded with a sigh. “Okay, if it’s that sensitive, we’ll wait until we get to Grandstorm to get our new orders.”

“I can neither confirm nor deny whatever it is you are thinking, Taro, but it will be better to simply wait until you arrive to find out what all this is about.”

“I don’t like all this secrecy,” the vixen muttered, “but I’ll refrain from asking further. All I can say is we’ll be on edge the rest of our voyage wondering what’s up.”

“It’s better if you just try not to think about it,” Keri said with a nod, “but I assure you that it will be worth the wait. However, it’s time for me to go. I have a date tonight and I still need time to get ready.”

“A date?” Taro asked, the focus of her attention diverted. “With whom?”

Keri grinned widely. “His name is Jomo, but I don’t have time to tell you more. See you later, Taro!”

“Good night, Keri. Have fun tonight.”

The communication circuit closed and Taro sat down in the chair at navigation. She glanced over at Jerry, who stared back at her from the pilot’s center seat, and shook her head. “I just don’t get it,” she said. “Merlin’s never been this secretive with the crew before.”

Jerry thought for a moment and then glanced briefly up at the vidscreen where Keri’s visage had been. “Since our purpose at Grandstorm is classified a secret and everyone is forbidden to talk about it, it’s possible we may have been contracted to take on a government cargo to haul somewhere covertly,” he guessed. “That could pay really well.”

Taro’s eyes widened in surprise. “I hadn’t thought of that,” she replied. “That would explain why we can’t get straight answers out of anyone. It would be foolish to discuss it on an open com channel.”

“It makes sense,” Jerry said. “Either they don’t want anyone listening in to find out, or they don’t want anyone on board finding out.”

“Who would they want to keep information from on this flight?”

“Well, we do have a passenger on board.”

Taro snickered. “Yes, but I think she’s cut from the same cloth as Lorelei. She doesn’t seem all that intelligent.”

Jerry smiled. “I don’t think she’s all that innocent. From what Pockets has said, that little spaniel has her cross hairs on Max.”

“Poor Max, that girl has no clue to his past. She won’t get a full performance out of that show.”

Jerry looked at her with a tilt to his head. “Max may be shooting blanks, but he can still perform if he wants to.”

Taro looked surprised. “Huh? I thought he couldn’t…. I mean, he was neutered as a pup!”

Jerry shook his head. “I dare say you’ve not had a close inspection,” he said. “Max was sterilized when he was young, but he still has all his equipment. He’s young and hasn’t had many opportunities for experience, but he would have if he had stayed on Quet.”

“What do you mean?”

“Since you were only a crew mate at the time he came on board, I don’t suppose Max ever gave you his full story,” the male fox replied, “but as his doctor and a male friend, he’s told me all about his childhood.”

“Aren’t you breaking the doctor-patient confidentiality by telling me this?”

“No, because there were others present when he told me,” Jerry replied. “Besides, as his captain, you may need to know anyway, in case you ever run across his former owner again.”

Taro studied him for a moment and thought it over. “All I really know is that he worked on Quet in a restaurant as a kitchen slave,” she admitted. “His father was a visiting space pilot and his mother was a working girl who owed money to the owner of another pleasure house. When she got pregnant, her master made her go through the birth and then sell the child to settle her debts. When he was old enough, Max’s owner had him neutered since he would be working among all the females at the establishment.”

“All that’s mostly true,” the doctor replied, “but the rat wasn’t protecting his girls from Max by having him sterilized. When he bought the puppy, Tagon intended to add Max to his business when old enough, so he had him sterilized to protect future clients.”

“Wait… Max was going to be a male prostitute?”

“That was the plan. The establishment also catered to female clients and Max would have brought in extra revenue to the business. I doubt he would have taken the pup merely to be a slave, since he purchased him before Max would be old enough for that. Even as a pup, Tagon could probably tell that a blue-eyed German shepherd male would be an exotic draw to his female clients.”

Taro looked perplexed. “Okay, I can understand all that,” she said, “but he told us he’d been neutered when he first joined us here on the Horizon. That’s not the same thing as being sterilized.”

“How old was Max when he came on board?”

“Fourteen or fifteen. I don’t remember exactly.”

“Right, and a fourteen or fifteen-year-old probably doesn’t have much of an idea what being neutered means. He probably heard it from one of the ladies of the house and thought that meant him – either that or that’s what Tagon told his girls to keep their paws off him until he was old enough to start learning the business. At any rate, until you guys came along, it was in Max’s future to spend his life pleasuring others for money – something that’s as legal and widely practiced on Quet as slavery.”

Taro leaned back in her chair and put her hands behind her head. “Did he tell you about Merlin’s deception that freed him from that place?

“Yes.”

“Do you agree with what he did? Merlin practically stole him from his rightful owner to keep him with us.”

It was Jerry’s turn to look perplexed. “I don’t intend to argue in generalities, Taro, but let’s look specifically at Max’s situation. Yes, Tagon legally owned him and was in his full rights to raise the boy into the business as he wished. However, he frequently beat the child, kept him in deplorable conditions and even starved him. It’s possible that Tagon had no prior experience raising a child and let his anger get away with him when dealing out punishment. However, the more Tagon overly punished Max, the more the kid rebelled, so it was likely the rat changed his mind about him; otherwise, he would have done everything in his power to make sure the boy grew up safe, strong and handsome for the ladies to fawn over when older.”

“That might explain why he let Max go so easily,” Taro mused. “Sure, he put up a fuss, but I don’t think he really tried all that hard to get him back.”

Jerry gestured with a hand. “Do I agree with what Merlin did? Speaking in generalities, I would say ‘no’ – but in Max’s situation, I think it was better that he came to live here than stay on Quet where he may have died from mistreatment. The owner willingly offered to sell the boy’s contract to Merlin, so that was a legal transaction by Quetian law. There might have been deception involved on how Max wound up on board the Horizon, but Merlin didn’t steal him from anyone.”

Taro fell silent again, but then a moment later a smile crossed her face. Jerry saw it and twitched an ear. “You find this amusing?” he asked.

“Not that,” the vixen replied. “It just occurred to me that Lori might have tried to bed Max when he became of age, if he hadn’t told everyone he had been neutered. As with most bunnies, she’s free with her affections and will play with any willing male, but she never thought he would be able to perform. Even though he’s now an adult, she’s left him alone.”

Jerry shared her smile. “I’m sure she could teach him all he might have learned at the Wild Star if she knew his real physical condition.  Are you sure that she never worked at a pleasure house?”

“No,” Taro laughed, “I’m not sure, but we’ll just have to take her at her word that she’s just a typical bunny.”    

*** 

Justy hummed to himself on the quiet bridge and flipped through an old printed magazine. The Blue Horizon was approaching the Van Conner nebula, an area of space filled with gaseous hazes of blues and greens. Their current course would take them just beyond the edge of it on their starboard side, and although the area contained large traces of chorterium gas that would diffuse their sensors, it was otherwise harmless.

Kicking back in his seat, the koala flipped on the new StellarNet connection that had been routed to the bridge. He bypassed the INN news broadcast to a movie channel, and although the show was already in progress, Justy didn’t care. He came in during an action scene and immediately riveted his attention to the screen while he idly munched on a eucalyptus leaf.    

*** 

“What’s going on?”

“The enemy’s found us and is attacking!”

“WHAT?”

“Two of them entered the entrance tunnel by cutting through the side airlock, and now they’re trying to breach the inner airlock.  The remainder of their forces are blasting down from above, trying to break through the hardened roof.” 

“Get everyone moving!  We’ve got to get out—­­­reach the ship!”

 

A warning chirp from the engineering console interrupted Justy’s enjoyment of the movie. The koala muted the entertainment channel, stood up, and then moved to see what needed his attention. He expected it was probably a warning that the sensors had lost a signal, but that was to be expected in this nebular region. Instead, he saw that the ship was losing speed, falling rapidly to sub-light velocities.

He checked the flight settings, but everything appeared to be correct. The ship should be flying at standard cruising speed. Unable to ascertain the cause of their falloff, he punched up the intercom for the engine room.

Justy waited for a reply, but there didn’t seem to be anyone down there. He frowned and signaled Pockets’ quarters. A moment later, the intercom chirped.

“Yeah?” drawled the raccoon’s drowsy voice. “I was nappin’.”

“Pockets, this is Justy. We just had a major drop in the engine output and I can’t find the cause for it up here on the bridge. Max isn’t down in the engine room either.”

“How bad is the drop?”

“With our current decrease, we’ll be solely on inertia in a few minutes.”

“Yikes!” Pockets’ voice came alive. “I’m heading down to engineering!” he said quickly.  Before he had a chance to close the channel, the entire ship began to shudder beneath their feet, and then there came a roar through the deck plates that could be felt as much as they could all hear it. “That’s not good!” Pockets exclaimed. The roar stopped abruptly and then the ship shuddered once more before it too ceased.

Justy swallowed and looked up at the vidscreen. The usual, slight telltale ‘smear’ of starlight that denoted FTL speeds was gone. The stars he could see through the nebula gases were sharply in focus, although there was no visual frame of reference to see how much they had slowed.

The intercom suddenly chirped several times in rapid succession. He tapped the control to open the first connection. “Bridge,” he said.

“Justy, what’s going on up there?” Renny’s voice asked. The koala could hear frightened whimpers from the cheetah’s young friend in the background.

“Something’s happened to the engines,” Justy reported. “Dunno what yet.”

“Let me get Sandy calmed down, and then I’ll be up there.”

“Okay.” Justy tapped the next connection. “Bridge.”

“What took you so long to reply?” Taro exclaimed.

“Renny called the same time you did,” he explained. “Something’s happened to the engines. Dunno what yet.”

“I’ll be right there as soon as I get dressed.”

“Okay.” Justy sighed and tapped the next connection. “Bridge.”

“Justy,” Jerry started.

“Something’s happened to the engines. Dunno what yet,” the koala repeated.

“You need any help up there?”

“No, but Pockets may need help in the engine room.”

“Where’s Max?”

“No idea,” Justy replied with a shrug he knew the fox could not see. “I suppose he’s with his lady friend.”

“This is a heck of a time to be away from the engines!”

“The last time I checked, I don’t think Max was clairvoyant,” Justy said with a chuckle.

Jerry started to retort, then stopped himself and said, “Right,” before he closed the connection. The short koala stuck the tip of his tongue out between his lips and held his finger poised over the intercom answer pad as if he was a snake about to strike, awaiting the next call from someone to ask about their situation.  Right on cue, there was another chirp.    

*** 

Ariel opened Max’s cabin door only a crack and peered out into the corridor with one brown eyeball. The German shepherd had just left her alone to report in to Pockets to help assess the problem with the engines.

She saw Renny leave his quarters and then trot around the curve in the passageway, followed by Taro a moment later wearing a set of medical scrubs and toweling the fur of her head dry with a large multicolored towel.

When the corridor was empty, the Cocker Spaniel opened her door and slipped out into the hallway. She glanced around sharply focused, her innocent and bouncy demeanor gone, and she walked quickly to the door Renny had just departed. She tried the panel, found it unlocked, and let herself inside.

The floor inside the cabin was covered in toys, coloring books, crayons and other oddments. Sitting in the middle of it all, on the carpet in front of a long coffee table was the small cheetah kitten wearing a mint green jumper. Sandilee looked up with a crayon in hand and stiffened when she saw the canine woman.

Up until that moment, neither the little cheetah nor the spaniel had been together in the same room on the Blue Horizon, yet there was instant recognition between them.

“I knew I’d find you, brat!” Ariel said with a smile that was anything but friendly.

A ridge of fur on the back of Sandy’s neck stood up and she suddenly scrambled beneath the coffee table. Ariel rushed forward and dropped her knees, breaking several crayons. She snared the kitten’s scrawny tail and tried to pull her out, but Sandy dug her claws into the carpet and began to yowl.

“I don’t have time for this,” Ariel snarled. “Come out of there!” She yanked hard on the spotted tail and then grabbed one of the small ankles, making the cat screech louder. Ariel pulled harder and the pain to her tail was frightening, but Sandy’s claws were firmly embedded in the carpet. Ariel knocked the coffee table aside angrily with an elbow and then gathered the kitten up roughly in her arms.

“No!” Sandy screeched. “Lemego!” She took a scared swipe at the spaniel and her tiny claws raked thin furrows across Ariel’s snout. The canine cursed and dropped the kitten to the floor to grab at her nose with one hand, but retained a grip on the kitten’s wrist with the other.

Angered, Ariel reared back to slap the child when the cabin door opened. Renny reacted swiftly, instantly launching himself at the Cocker Spaniel with a feline shriek that set the dog’s teeth on edge. She tried to twist out of the way, but Renny bowled her over and all three landed hard against the couch. Ariel’s grip on the kitten released only when Renny bared his teeth and went for her throat.

As cheerful and bouncy as the passenger had appeared when she had first come on board, Ariel Bennington was none of that now. She jammed the point of her elbow into the adult cheetah’s side while simultaneously slamming her open palm against his throat. Renny dropped to the carpet with a gurgle as the spaniel scrambled away from him.

Sandy darted around the couch and swiftly ran toward the back room, but Ariel was onto her instantly. The kitten shrieked and tried to use her claws again, but the canine woman pinned her little arms to her side and held her tight.

“You aren’t getting away from me again!” Ariel spat. When she turned around, Renny was there. He was having trouble swallowing, but his anger made him desperate. He slapped her hard across the snout, and then grabbed her wrists in a tight grip before she could react.

Sandy dropped to the floor and scrambled away as Ariel reeled back against a bookcase. Books, curios and photographs rained down upon her, but she wasn’t down yet. She raised her knee swiftly toward his crotch, but Renny had anticipated this and twisted enough that her knee hit his hip bone instead. Undaunted, Ariel growled fiercely and lunged back at the navigator, her jaws going for his throat.

Renny got an arm up in front of him and her teeth sank deep into his left forearm. He hissed in pain, but then the Cocker Spaniel’s head rocked suddenly to the side, taking his arm with her. Both fell over onto the carpet, but Ariel’s eyes rolled back and she stopped struggling.

“Are you okay?” Jerry asked. Renny looked up sharply with wild eyes, but shook it off quickly when he saw the remnants of a shattered clay vase in the fox’s hand. The cheetah grimaced and nodded toward his bleeding arm.

“Glad you could stop by for a visit,” Renny said hoarsely as he extricated his arm from the unconscious woman’s mouth. “I didn’t like that vase, anyway.” Jerry knelt down to check his injuries, but Renny waved him off, cradling the arm close to his chest. “Do something with her, in case she wakes up,” he suggested.

Jerry nodded and whipped off the belt from his trousers. “What happened?” he asked, swiftly strapping the woman’s arms together behind her back. “I heard the commotion from the corridor.”

Renny sat back and struggled out of his burgundy tee shirt. “I came back to check on Sandy,” he said between breaths as he wrapped the cloth around his injured arm. “I found this idiot going berserk, trying to hit her, so I jumped in without asking questions.”

“Yes, I see,” the physician said as he unplugged a small lamp table, snapped the power cord from its base, and then used the wire to bind the spaniel’s ankles together. “I don’t understand it, though. Ms. Bennington didn’t seem like the type who would want to hurt anyone.” He knelt close to examine the back of her head where he’d struck her with the vase. There was a bit of blood beneath her fur, but the cut was only superficial. She would have a tender lump as a gift when she awoke.

Renny got up to his feet and leaned up against the back of the couch, rubbing his bruised hip. “It had to have been an act,” he said with a scowl. “She’s not as innocent as she appeared. Little Miss Bubbly here knows how to fight.” He started looking around the room, but didn’t see the kitten. “Sandy?” he called in a raspy voice. There was no reply, but he assumed she was hiding somewhere in terror and was unlikely to answer right away. “Sandy, kitten. Where are you?”

Jerry got to his feet and moved to the navigator’s desk while the cheetah started looking under furniture. The fox thumbed the intercom and the return signal chirped almost instantly.

“Bridge,” Taro’s voice said.

“Captain, we’ve just had an incident in Renny’s quarters,” the doctor replied. “Our passenger was trying to hurt the kitten and got into a row about it with Renny.”

“What? Are you talking about Ms. Bennington?”

Jerry gave her a brief rundown of what he had seen and what the navigator had told him, while Renny got down on his knees beside his bed in the back room. There was nothing but dust balls and a couple of missing socks under there, so he slowly looked around the room.

“Sandilee, little kitten,” he called softly. “It’s okay, you can come out now. The bad doggie won’t hurt you anymore.”

He still couldn’t see her, but he did hear a small chirp from the closet. He moved closer and saw the tip of her tail wrapped tightly around her butt underneath his old duffel bag. “C’mon, little one,” he said gently. “Renny’s here for you.”

There was a rustle from the closet and then a tiny spotted form launched out at him, landing up against his chest. She clung to him and buried her face in his chest fur as he wrapped his good arm around her. She shivered and shook, and then started bawling.

The navigator picked her up gently and carried her into the front room. The first thing he saw was Taro hefting the conscious Cocker Spaniel bodily from the floor. Renny turned his back to them so the sobbing kitten wouldn’t have to look at the canine. He moved quickly to the door and said, “I’m taking her topside,” before he disappeared out into the corridor.

Taro deposited Ariel roughly into a chair and then she and Jerry stood over her. “What’s the meaning of this insanity?” the captain shouted at her. “She’s just a kitten!

The canine woman looked up at her in defiance and then spat out several choice words about the vixen’s ancestry in several languages. Taro’s eyes widened and drew back in surprise. The spaniel’s reactions didn’t match the personality she had earlier presented to them all. The captain’s eyes narrowed and Jerry wondered if he would have to stop her from jumping their captive for a sound thrashing for her tirade. He need not have worried. Taro was in better control of her temper and merely crossed her arms to give their passenger a calculating stare.

“This doesn’t make sense,” Jerry said with dark eyes at the canine. “Do you have a hatred against children, or felines in general?”

Ariel snorted and added his ancestral history to her repertoire. The doctor scowled and looked at his captain. “May I have permission to infect her with something nasty from Sickbay?” he asked through clenched teeth.

“If she doesn’t start answering questions,” Taro replied, “I might be tempted to let you.” She held up her fist in front of the canine’s nose. “Hurting a child is a serious offense, especially on board my ship! We might just have to return the favor. Now, start talking!”    

*** 

Justy jumped in his seat when the bridge sensors bleeped at him in alarm. The koala willed his heartbeat to slow back down as he peered up through the forward windows. He recognized the shape of a Tandem-class, long-range cruiser as it pulled up alongside the port side of the stationary Blue Horizon. Lit up and painted in a stylized script across the white cruiser’s bow was the name, Oubliette.

He was about to call for the captain, but the com station blipped when the other vessel hailed them. He shuffled to the panel and tapped the appropriate command. “This is the cargo freighter, Blue Horizon,” he said. “Our engines are down. Are you here to help us?”

A hoarse, voice-only response came back across the bridge speakers. “Blue Horizon, we know you are transporting a cheetah kitten and we demand that you hand her over to us right away.”

Justy blinked in surprise. “Excuse me?” he replied.

“Playing ignorant isn’t going to work,” the gruff voice said impatiently. “We saw your broadcast stating that Sandilee Binfurr was traveling with you, and our operative on board your vessel has confirmed it. We want both at your primary airlock within ten minutes or we will be forced to come and get her ourselves.”

“Your operative? Wait, I don’t think—”

“That’s right. Don’t think. We can do this peacefully or forcibly. Take your pick. You wanted to find someone to take her. We’re here to help.”

“If you’re here to help, you could have simply asked,” Justy replied with an empty hand-gesture toward the clear vidscreen.

“In that case, we’re asking you to have them at your airlock immediately,” the voice replied in thick sarcasm. “Your time is running out. We’ll come over for them with pressure suits as soon as we have an indication they’re there.”

The circuit was disconnected and Justy frowned up at the other ship through the windows. He knew nothing about the trouble with Ariel or the kitten. Taro had left without an explanation; he assumed she’d gone to check on the engine trouble. He tapped a control, but it was a moment before he got a response.

“Make it quick,” Pockets replied in a harried voice. “We’re rather busy at the moment.”

“Is the captain down there?”

“Haven’t seen her.”

“Okay, thanks.” 

Justy didn’t know where she might have gone, so he locked down the bridge controls to go looking for her. He checked the captain’s office in the compartment next door, but it was empty. Just as he passed Renny’s quarters on the way to Taro’s cabin, he heard muffled shouting coming from behind the door. He recognized the vixen’s voice and hesitated about intruding. He knew that she and the cheetah often dallied together and wondered if they might be having a lover’s spat. Then he remembered why he needed her and steeled himself against possible embarrassment at intruding. This was more important.

Justy tried the door and found it unlocked. He knocked and then opened the panel without waiting for a response; he stopped immediately just inside, stunned to see their passenger strapped to a chair with several belts, with Taro and Jerry standing over her. All three turned angry gazes back toward the short koala.

“Not now!” Taro growled at the computer tech.

Justy lost his voice for a moment, but then he cleared his throat. He pointed back out the door behind him and said in a rush, “A ship just pulled alongside demanding we turn over Renny’s kitten and some operative on board!”

Taro turned back to the canine and snatched up a handful of her blouse. She hefted Ariel and her chair up so the women were nose-to-nose to one another. “What. Is. This?” she demanded in clipped tones.

Ariel gave her a smug smile. “That would be the Oubliette,” she remarked. “They have come for me and the kitten.”

“Yeah, that’s the name of the ship,” Justy supplied. “They said we have ten minutes to get her,” he pointed at the Cocker Spaniel, “and Sandilee to the airlock.”

Ariel grunted. “You’d better do as my companions say. They aren’t blessed with a lot of patience.”

The vulpine captain tightened her grip on Ariel’s blouse and they could all hear fabric start to tear. “Why are you people after Sandilee?”

“What’s it to you?” Ariel retorted. “In your interview, you were practically begging someone to come and take the little brat so you wouldn’t have to bother with her.”

“You’re far from her family species,” Jerry said dryly. “What makes you think we’re going to just give her away to anyone?”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Taro said with another twist of her grip. Ariel felt some of her fur pinch and pull in the vixen’s grasp.

“Ow, you’re hurting me!” she hissed.

“You mean to tell me that it’s okay for you to hurt a defenseless kitten, but it’s not okay for me to hurt you?” Taro said in a suddenly calm voice. She indicated the scratch marks on the canine’s snout and added, “Semi-defenseless kitten, from the looks of your nose. Now, why are you here?”

Ariel grimaced. “I came on board to determine if the child really was on your ship, and if so, disable the engines so my people can come to get us. That’s it.”

“Why do you want Sandy so badly?”

“You don’t need to know,” Ariel replied evenly. “Just hand us over to my friends and you won’t have to worry about the kid any more. She’ll be in safe hands.”

“Somehow, I really doubt that,” Jerry muttered.    

*** 

Two figures in silver pressure suits hovered near the Horizon’s airlock, each with a simple magnet-on-a-tether keeping them in place near the freighter’s hull; the first one had an extra tether attached to a fat metal case. The second had a cable attached to his helmet with the other end in his hand up against the hatch door.

“I’m detecting no one anywhere near the airlock. I don’t hear any movement in there.”

“Stubborn idiots. They aren’t making this easy for any of us. Okay, this is on their own heads. Do it.”

The other figure let the listening device float beside him, and then opened a pouch on his leg to pull out a small domed object with a solitary covered switch. He affixed the flat end of the item against the outer rim of the hatch, flipped up the switch cover, and then pressed the button beneath.

Both figures moved their tethers and retreated a safe distance from the hatch with small jets affixed to their backpack units. Two compartments on bottom of the small dome opened and a pair of vacuum-activated chemicals combined into a clear gelatinous blob against the hull. The result was instantaneous. A metal-melting compound started to make quick work of the thick pressure door, burning the material with a brilliant light in the spatial darkness.

A sizeable section of the hatch swiftly melted away in super-hot globular clusters, along with a portion of the surrounding structural frame. When the breach punctured the internal secondary hull, warning klaxons went off inside the vessel, but outside the ship, the two figures watched as a sudden rush of air spewed out and crystallized. The Horizon’s bulk began to drift a bit from the powerful thrust of escaping air.

The chemical process continued despite the presence of a pressurized atmosphere, widening the hole considerably, but soon the elements began to play out. The suited figures watched passively, knowing from experience not to approach the damaged hull section until the chemicals were totally depleted and rendered inert even in the cold of space.  Jagged oxygen crystals, bits of molten metal, as well as frozen flotsam and jetsam from the cargo hold were all ejected at a high velocity out away from the moving freighter, but any of it could present a danger to the pressure suits if any lingered in the area.

One of the figures checked a timepiece mounted to the wrist of his suit and nodded. “Okay, that should do it. Get Matreh and Dinco out here with their stunners. We may have to search the entire ship for Ariel and the brat. Terson and I are going in.”

“Copy that, Piers. Be careful and try to get out as quickly as you can.”

Piers grabbed the floating suitcase while Terson uncoupled their tether magnets and put away his listening cable. A moment later, they jetted slowly toward the large opening in the side of the Blue Horizon’s hull.    

*** 

When the klaxons sounded at the hull breach, all pressure doors on the affected deck closed instantly, and then automatic shutters slid over them to seal the rest of the compartments from deadly decompressive vacuum. Max and Pockets were in the engineering room trying to diagnose the disabled engines. Without knowing specifically what had happened, it was taking time to locate the problem before they could even begin repairs.

They were totally unaware of the events on the upper decks, and knew nothing of the external assault until klaxon alarms went off; the pressure door to the engine room slammed noisily into place, sealing itself immediately with the external shutters. Max banged his head in surprise against the top of his access tunnel.

“What was that?” he called out to his partner amidst the loud alarms.

“Hull breach!” Pockets exclaimed. The short raccoon ran to the sealed door and saw the negative pressure on the indicator next to it. Fear crossed his masked face as he ran back to a diagnostic console that was currently littered with engine schematics.

Max backed out of the crawlway and pressed his hands over his ears against the noisy din. He saw Pockets rushing back and forth between control stations and marveled at the speed at which the short raccoon worked. The klaxon suddenly silenced, but Max’s sensitive ears were still ringing.

“What happened?” he asked. “Did we get struck by a meteorite?”

“Dunno,” Pockets replied distractedly. “Indicators show a vacuum in the cargo deck, but nowhere else. There’s no pressure outside that door.”

Max swallowed nervously. “I hope no one was out there.”

“Yeah, me too,” the raccoon replied.

“Are we going to be all right in here?”

“We should be,” Pockets answered, looking around them. “This compartment has its own air supply and kitchenette, so we won’t suffocate or go hungry. However, we’re sealed in here by ourselves. Our pressure suits are in the lockers right outside our door… yeah, currently in a vacuum.”

“Can someone bring the pressure suits to us?”

“Just how do you expect them to get to us?” he asked tersely, looking up at his partner. When he saw the canine’s surprised expression, he apologized and put a hand on the young mechanic’s arm. “I’m sorry, Max. You’ve been a good student and have learned a lot,” he said, “so sometimes I take it for granted you know as much as I do about space ships. The answer to your question is ‘No’.  All the suits are in lockers in the hold, to be put on before going out the airlock if necessary. Right now, everyone else is just as trapped on the upper decks as we are down here. There are manual controls to open the pressure doors, but without air or pressure in the hold, that would be suicide.”

The raccoon leaned back against the wall and passed a hand over his face. “Even if we get the engines working again, I’m not sure how the Horizon could land anywhere with a hole in our heat shield-protected hull. We can’t even go check out the damage to see how bad it is or find out what happened. The breach could be huge, or as small as a marble. Either way, the result is the same.”

He stopped for a moment and licked his lips. “Moss!” he said suddenly, darting to a computer terminal on his desk. Max followed him to see what the engineer had in mind.

Pockets called up the mobile sentry system’s interface. A tinny “Meow?” issued from the computer speakers when the connection was made, and an image from the flying saucer’s camera appeared on the monitor.

“Yes!” the raccoon whispered.    

*** 

Terson and Piers stood before the lift door and studied the pressure shutters that covered it. The door itself looked as if it had been forced with a pry bar at some point in the past, but the puckered metal ends didn’t look as if the damage would keep it from opening.

Having some knowledge of Okami freighters, Piers opened a panel beside the elevator that revealed several toggle switches and a manual crank. He tripped the first toggle and the emergency shutters retreated into their receptacle above the door. He flipped the second toggle and then an amber diode lit up as the elevator shaft depressurized. When the light turned red, he reached for the crank and began to turn it counter-clockwise. The cogs had been unused for so long that the wheel was stiff, but he managed to move it with two hands. The lift door began to open. As luck would have it, the elevator cage was on their level.

When the door was wide enough, the two figures stepped inside. Terson opened another panel inside the elevator and thumbed an internal power switch. As a precaution against the vacuum, power to the lift had been shut off to prevent anyone from the upper decks taking it down to the hold. The overhead lamp lit up and then the lift doors closed stiffly in the cold spatial air. A second switch repressurized the compartment before movement could be initiated.    

*** 

“What are you doing?” Max asked quietly, feeling chastised by Pockets’ earlier rebuke.

“Just before the klaxons went off, I thought I’d seen Moss float through the door out into the hold. I don’t know how it kept from getting sucked out through the breach, but I’m glad to see it still operating.”

“Where is he?”

Pockets looked at the young mechanic with amusement. “He?”

Max shrugged. “I’ve always thought of Moss as male,” he explained. “I know Moss is only a device and has no gender, but I’ve often found myself talking to him when I needed someone to talk to about my problems.”

The raccoon looked hurt. “You can always talk to me, Max,” he said quietly. “I’ll never spread anything you tell me to anyone else.”

The canine looked down at his feet. “Yeah, I know, but sometimes…. sometimes I just need to talk about embarrassing stuff that I could never say even to you, Pockets.”

An impish smile crept across the engineer’s face. He couldn’t resist teasing his partner whenever he had the chance, even in the midst of an emergency. “If you tell Moss your deepest secrets, then it’s fortunate that you and I are such good friends!”

“Huh?  Why?”

Pockets’ smile grew wider. “You are aware that Moss records everything it monitors, right?  Guess who has sole access to all those recordings?”

The German shepherd’s ears flattened. “You’ve been listening to my private conversations with Moss about Wendy?” he croaked.

“Maybe I have, and maybe I haven’t.”

Max’s pupils dilated quickly and his mouth went dry. He opened his mouth to say something, but all that came out was a quiet whimper.

The raccoon could barely keep from laughing, but he took pity on the young mechanic. “Relax, Max,” he said in amusement. “I haven’t listened in on your private secrets.  Until now, I wasn’t even aware you were talking to it. Moss only keeps its recordings in the system for twenty hours and then they are overwritten with new recordings on a continuous loop. Unless you’ve had any private talks with our little flying saucer in the last day, I don’t have a way to go back in and peek at them.”

Max looked doubtful. “Twenty hours, you say?” he asked hoarsely.

“That’s right. I rarely even look at its data unless it signals me for an emergency anyway, so I didn’t think it needed to keep more than twenty hours at a time.”  The canine still didn’t look completely convinced, but Pockets chuckled. “Trust me,” he said. “Even though I enjoy teasing you, I don’t really care about digging up dirt on my partners. Your secrets are safe with Moss. They’d be safe with me, too, if you ever told me any.”

The raccoon turned back to his controls when Max didn’t reply. “Anyhoo, let’s find out what Moss sees out in the hold. We’ll report our findings to the captain once we have something to tell her.”    

*** 

Amanda stepped out of her cabin, buttoning the front of her blouse with only her claw tips. She rubbed her eyes and looked around, but the only person she saw was Lorelei. The rabbit padded up to her with a worried expression and placed a hand on the coyote’s arm.

“What was that noise?” the doe asked. The alarms had left her sensitive ears ringing and her own voice sounded muffled to her.

“I think our hull’s been punctured somewhere,” Amanda replied. “I was taking a nap when the alarm sounded.” She looked around the corridor, wondering where everyone else was. “I’ll check with the bridge,” she said. “Maybe I can find out what happened there.”

“I’m going with you,” the bunny said in a quiet voice. “I don’t like this.”

Just as they started for the command center, the elevator lift door opened. Amanda automatically turned toward it, but stopped short when she saw two figures in gray pressure suits with elongated helmets step out toward them. She assumed it was a couple of their crewmates behind those mirrored faceplates, but one of them raised a small device toward them and pressed the switch.

There was no visual discharge of the device, but Amanda dropped to the carpet with a thud. Lori landed beside her, her thin arms splayed out beside her.

“Piers, where are you?” said a voice in the helmet speakers of both suited individuals.

“We’re up on the crew deck, Matreh,” Piers replied. “We just stunned two of them, so watch yourselves when you come up. Terson and I will check the crew cabins. You and Dinco go on to the top level and look up there for them.”

“Understood.”    

*** 

“I can’t raise anyone on the bridge,” Pockets said in a worried voice. “The bridge is never left unmanned! Never, ever!

“Maybe they’re trying to get to us,” Max suggested.

Pockets shook his head and thumbed the ship-wide intercom. He hated using it, as he really disliked the sound of his own voice on the overhead speakers, but there was a need for it. “Captain, please contact engineering. Captain, contact engineering, please.” There was a pregnant pause before the local intercom chirped. Pockets tapped the control. “Engine Room,” he said.

“Sorry, Pockets,” came Justy’s strained voice. “The captain is rather busy at the moment. You guys okay down there? We’ve heard more loud noises while you two have been doing whatever it is you’ve been doing to the engines; you even had us all worried when you set off that alarm!”

“Justy, the alarms sounded because we’ve had a hull breach in the cargo bay, and not because of anything that we have done!”

“Hull breach! Ohmigosh!”

“Please get Taro-”

“I’m here, Pockets,” the vixen’s voice said anxiously. “What was that you said about a breach?”

“Yeah, we’ve got a great gaping hole in through the airlock and surrounding structure of both hulls,” he reported. “Max and I are okay, but the emergency systems have sealed us in Engineering.”

“A hole!”

Before he could explain further, Pockets heard another voice across the intercom speaking in a haughty voice. “I told you they’d come if you didn’t hand us over!”

“That sounded like Ariel!” Max whispered into the raccoon’s ear.

“How do you know there’s a hole in the cargo bay if you can’t go out there?” Justy asked.

“Moss is in the hold. We can see the damage through its camera signal. The damaged area looks like it was… melted through from the outside.”

“Did you see anyone?” Taro asked. “We may have been boarded!”

“No, but I directed Moss to recon the damage out through the hole and there is another ship alongside of us. Captain, what’s going on?”

“I don’t have all the details yet, but our passenger was a plant on board to disable our engines so she and her friends could kidnap Sandy.”

“Kidnap Sandy!” Max exclaimed. He was already distressed that the friendly young canine woman was in some kind of trouble, and this last news made his head swim. He leaned back against a bulkhead and slid down the wall to the floor.

“Have you seen Damien?” Taro asked in a concerned tone. “I think he might have been down in his office earlier, working on the accounts.”

Pockets and Max exchanged sudden looks. “Uh, no,” the engineer replied hesitantly. “Moss hasn’t detected anyone on this deck but us.”

“I’ll bet he got sucked out the hole!” Ariel called.

“Quiet!” Jerry’s voice exclaimed.

“Pockets, Taro said, “would you send Moss over to Damien’s office and see if you can visually spot him through his office window? Maybe he’s sealed in like you are.”

“Aye, captain,” Pockets answered mutely. He moved back to the mobile sentry system’s control, but a sudden noise from the intercom made him and Max both look up toward the overhead speaker. There was a sudden shout, a crash, and then Ariel began yelling loudly in a language the raccoon didn’t understand. That was followed by another bang and the sound of a frantic struggle.    

*** 

“That sounded like Ariel’s voice,” Terson whispered.

“Yeah, I think she said someone got sucked out the hole we made, Piers growled. “No matter, they were warned and had their chance to cooperate. Get ready.”

Both figures stood by the cabin door where they’d heard their associate’s voice. Each held their stunners ready and Terson set the fat metal case he’d been carrying on the floor beside the wall. Piers held a hand above the door control and then nodded to his companion.

Terson unfastened his faceplate and then raised a hand to his canine mouth as he shouted out a pre-arranged call-sign through the door in a little-known Alexandrian language. Piers punched the door control and the two of them jumped inside. Terson knocked over a floor lamp beside the door and it fell to the deck with a crash, causing Justy to jump backward into a bookcase.

Ariel began shouting instructions to her associates in the same language, even as Taro and Jerry leaped toward the intruders. Piers tried to fire his stunner at the male fox, but the doctor twisted out of the way when he saw his weapon and scooped up one of Sandy’s toys from the carpet. He hurled it at Piers, but it failed to connect with the stunner in time. Jerry received a quick blast from the weapon and he tumbled over on top of the coffee table.

Terson shot Justy with his stunner and then turned it on the vixen. Taro swung for the weapon and successfully knocked it from his hand, bouncing it across the room, but then Piers fired upon her. Taro’s Hestran physiology resisted the stun beam for a moment, and she managed to throw a punch at Terson before she fell. The canine intruder’s head rocked back from a blow to the head that made his helmet rattle; he sat down hard.

Piers knelt down beside his partner. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“St-still seeing sparks,” Terson replied, “but I’ll be okay.”

“Untie me!” Ariel demanded. “My right arm’s going to sleep!”

Piers moved toward the Cocker Spaniel while Terson went out into the corridor to retrieve the fat metal case.  He set it on the coffee table beside Jerry’s unconscious form and then sat down on the couch to let his head clear.

Freed from the restraints, Ariel massaged her arm for a moment before she unlocked the case and opened it. Inside was a thin pressure suit and helmet. She set the helmet aside and then picked up the suit designed for her lithe form. Without hesitating in front of the others, she shed her sparse clothing completely, dropping them all to her feet, and then began to slip into the form-fitting suit.

“The brat was in here, but the adult cheetah took her out to another compartment,” she reported quickly. “He’s gotten protective of her, so be careful.”

“Matreh and Dinco are already heading up to the top level,” Piers replied, “but we’ll start searching the other cabins on this deck.”

Terson got to his feet. He was still a little unsteady from the blow to the helmet, but he followed Piers out into the corridor.

Ariel took out a compact air recycling unit from the bottom of the case. She slung it around onto her back and began fastening the straps across her chest. While she was preoccupied, she didn’t notice Taro get up onto her hands and knees, shaking her head from the effects of the stunner. The vixen felt woozy and nauseated, but knew exactly where she was. She heard the Cocker Spaniel grumbling to herself about a hose fitting and turned toward her.

Ariel snapped the connector into place and then reached for her helmet. A black-furred hand closed around her arm and spun her around dizzily, but the canine struck out instinctively and caught Taro across the snout.

Not to be taken down again, the vulpine captain reeled and snared Ariel around the waist. She twisted around to pull them both off-balance and the female combatants stumbled over one another. They fell entangled to the floor and Taro’s knee came down hard on the back of Ariel’s ankle. There was an audible snap and the canine cried out in genuine pain. She curled up and clawed at her ankle, but Taro got to her feet and pulled the whimpering spaniel up with her.

She deposited Ariel into the chair and grabbed the belts off the floor while the canine sobbed, no longer interested in anything but her ankle. Taro strapped her to the chair again, and then grabbed the woman’s ears to make her look her in the eyes.

“You aren’t going anywhere with your friends,” the vixen hissed at her. To prove her point, Taro grabbed a handful of the pressure suit fabric and pulled the metal fibers apart between her fingers. At the tearing of her clothes, Ariel’s wet eyes darkened, but then they widened at the realization that even if she were to get free, she could no longer follow her companions out through the vacuum of space to their ship.

Taro turned her back on her and knelt down next to Jerry, brushing her blue-tipped white feather ornament away from her face. Aside of a small cut on his cheek, he appeared unharmed, just sleeping off the stunner ray.  She next went to Justy and rolled him over onto his back. He snored softly and also appeared unharmed.

Ariel began to bawl from the pain in her ankle, but Taro left her in the cabin and moved out into the corridor. She immediately spotted Lorelei and Amanda and rushed to their sides. Fortunately, they were also unharmed, just stunned. She didn’t know how long the effects would keep them out, so she moved them out of the way near the wall.

She heard a noise from Max’s nearby cabin, so she crept stealthily closer to the intruders’ location.    

*** 

It took a while, but Renny had finally gotten the kitten settled down. He had stroked the soft fur behind her ears, talked gently in a soothing voice, promising to protect her from all harm, and reminded her how pretty she was. She remained snuggled up to him with small shakes, but eventually she calmed down into an exhausted sleep.

Unfortunately, the navigator’s bladder was in need of relieving, so he gently pulled her small arms free of his sides and lifted her onto a soft couch cushion. She mewed once in complaint, but he assured her in a soothing tone that she was okay, and then she curled up in a small, fuzzy ball.

Renny got up slowly so not to disturb her, and then padded quietly to the head. Just as he closed the door behind him, the lift arrived and its panels opened.

Two figures in silver pressure suits stepped out onto the deck, each holding a stunner pistol out in front of them. One carried a fat metal case similar to the one that had held Ariel’s suit. They peered around the room through elongated mirrored helmets and spied their quarry on the couch, amazed that the kitten had been left alone.

“I’ll grab the brat and hold her, Matreh,” said one in an under-modulated voice across the other’s tinny helmet speaker. “You get her into her little suit.”

“Right.”

Renny had just refastened the tail flap on the back of his trousers when he heard Sandy’s frightened screech. A ridge of fur on the back of his neck stood up as he bolted out the door, expecting another fight with the Cocker Spaniel, but drew up short when he saw two silver-suited figures struggling to stuff the kitten into a another small pressure suit. Both had their hands full with the suit and the youngster, but Renny instantly recognized the presence of the stunner guns in holsters at their hips.

He launched himself and landed in the midst of them, knocking the trio to the carpet. Thinking quickly, he snatched up Sandy and bolted back to the head, favoring his bitten arm. Before the intruders could get back to their feet, the cheetah thrust the kitten into the restroom and locked her inside.

From within a panel beside the head, Renny pulled out one of Merlin’s rapiers from a tethered rack. The navigator might not have been a champion fencer, but he’d learned from the Dennieran wolf well enough that he was confident enough in his skill.

Dinco fired his stunner at the cheetah, but Renny had anticipated the action and ran toward him in a zigzag pattern, swinging the thin blade. He caught the pistol with the tip of the blade and flung the weapon across the room.

Matreh couldn’t fire for hitting his partner, so he shouted instructions to Dinco in the same Alexandrian language their companions had used earlier. The two of them rushed the cheetah, planning to pin him to the galley counter, but Renny thwarted their efforts by whipping the rapier back and forth toward the fabric of their pressure suits.

Both intruders realized the folly of their action and darted away from the angry navigator. Although he only held a blunt-ended practice sword, a single tear in their suits would prevent them from getting back to the Oubliette. With his partner now clear of the line of fire, Matreh fired off his stunner at the cheetah.

Again, Renny anticipated the move and rolled over onto the floor behind a recliner. He came to rest beside a couple of weight-lifting dumbbells that hadn’t been stowed away. He dropped the rapier to the carpet beside him and snatched up both weights.

He rose up quickly and hurled one at Matreh. It struck the intruder’s forearm in a glancing blow and the stunner dropped to the deck. Before anyone had a chance to scramble for the weapon, Renny threw the other weight, catching Dinco flat across the chest, knocking him backward.

The cheetah picked up the rapier and started for the now-defenseless kidnappers. Realizing they’d failed, Matreh and Dinco got up and bolted for the elevator, one barely able to breathe while the other cradled his bruised arm.

Renny reached the lift just as the doors closed. He leaned against the wall, his narrow chest heaving. He could call the lift back up to go after them, but he didn’t want to leave Sandy unprotected.

Suddenly thinking of her, he moved back to the head and called out to her. “Sandy, they’re gone, little one. Are you okay?”

There was no reply, but Renny wasn’t worried. He knew she’d likely be hiding beneath the small sink, curled up and shaking in fear. He was concerned for the mental trauma the young kitten would probably experience, so he moved quickly to the galley and opened a drawer of utensils. In the back was a small brass key that he picked up deftly before moving back to the locked door of the head. He kept an eye on the lift to make sure the intruders didn’t regroup and come back to try again.

He didn’t know who the suited figures might be or where they had come from, being unaware of the hull breach and the situation on the lower decks, but like the Cocker Spaniel, they had tried to abduct the young kitten for reasons unknown. Whatever their purpose might be, it was plain to see that it was not in Sandy’s best interest, so Renny strengthened his resolve to protect the youngster at any cost.    

*** 

When Matreh and Dinco reached the crew deck, they stumbled out of the lift and looked back into the compartment as if expecting the adult cheetah to come out after them. Their attention was drawn to a commotion inside a nearby cabin and they recognized Terson’s voice in the fray. They moved quickly to an open doorway and peered inside to see a female red fox struggling with both of their partners.

Taro had her arms wrapped across Terson’s lower rib cage while Piers was up on her back trying to strangle her with an arm around her neck. Mindful of his bruised arm, Matreh grabbed an ornate vase full of Terran cattails. He tossed the dried plants aside and then brought it down upon the distracted vixen’s head. Still weakened by the stunner, Taro collapsed and they all fell to the floor in a heap.

“Gahh,” Terson gasped as he rolled over off of the vixen. He looked up, saw the mirrored helmet above him and nodded. “Thanks,” he wheezed.

Piers helped his friend up and then looked at Dinco. “Where’s the brat?”

“She’s up on their play deck. We couldn’t get her. There’s an armed cheetah guarding her.”

“We barely got out of there!” Matreh added. “He had a blade and tried to rip our suits.”

Piers looked annoyed as he readjusted his helmet. “We’ll all go up and get her. He can’t stop all four of us!”

“He’s got our stunners,” Dinco said. “Both of them.”

“We can’t all fit in the lift, and he’ll be waiting for us to come back,” Matreh added.

Piers’ look of annoyance became anger. They left Taro lying on the floor of Max’s cabin and went out into the corridor. Terson looked around and grabbed Piers’ arm. He pointed to Amanda, who was on her hands and knees, shaking the cobwebs from her head. “Look. That one’s waking up.”

A door opened further up the corridor and a male fox stumbled out of Renny’s cabin. He was woozy, but when he saw the four suited figures, an expression of anger crossed his face.

“Let’s cut our losses and get out of here,” Matreh exclaimed. “We’ve lost our surprise!”

“Where’s Ariel?” Dinco asked.

Piers shut his helmet faceplate angrily. “Forget her. Everybody back to the ship!”

“But—”

“Now!”

Dinco let his exasperation show, but Piers wouldn’t have it. He pushed his partner toward the elevator. Despite the close quarters, all four of them did pile into the lift. It took precious time to cycle the shaft’s air handlers back to a vacuum, but the doors would not open for them until the environment matched the compartment outside.

 They rushed around the cargo back toward the hole in the airlock while Piers transmitted orders to their pilot on the Oubliette to prepare for immediate departure.

Dinco muttered obscenities in his helmet and then spied a control panel set into the wall. He turned a key set into a knob and punched several buttons angrily. An amber flashing light activated overhead and the canine intruder turned to look up toward the ceiling. One of the Blue Horizon’s overhead cargo cranes released a large cabled hook, its brakes disabled. The heavy-duty iron hook descended rapidly and smashed half a dozen crates of delicate electronics, narrowly missing one of the satellites.

Dinco snarled and made a rude gesture toward the mess, and then turned on his heel to follow his companions out through the hull breach. Minutes later, all four of them were safely inside their vessel as the Oubliette sped off into the nebula, leaving both Ariel and Sandilee behind.    

*** 

Justy walked groggily back onto the bridge. Almost absently, he checked the automated systems and found things just as he had left them. There was no sign of the other vessel, but the long-range sensors were unable to pick up anything due to the nebular region. At the captain’s order, he recorded an automated distress signal that included the ship’s name, registry and a brief explanation of their damage. With that task accomplished, he sat down in the pilot’s center seat and fired the aft thrusters to give them some movement; with the main engines offline, they were going nowhere with any amount of speed, but at least they would be moving. They were now dependent upon the help of another vessel along spatial traffic lanes.     

*** 

Ariel lay on her back on a bed in Sickbay while Jerry treated her broken ankle. She was sedated for the pain, but the Cocker Spaniel was despondent about being left behind and the failure of her mission. With nowhere to go and no hope for rescue, the fight had gone out of the canine woman. She lay there passively, talking to no one. Taro intended to interrogate her further once the doctor was finished with his treatment, but for now she was out checking on the well-being of the others who had been stunned.

Pockets and Max had been busy trying to find the problem with the engines, but they still hadn’t pinpointed the cause. From Taro’s report, they knew that Ariel was responsible for disabling their engines, but it had to have been something she could do quickly. She hadn’t been alone in the engine room long enough to do anything elaborate. Contrary to what they had feared at first, there had been no bomb or explosion, but components had been seriously damaged as a result of whatever she had done.

There had been no sign of Damien anywhere in his office or the cargo bay, and while no one was keen on voicing what was on everyone’s mind, it was feared that he had died when the hull had been punctured. If he hadn’t been sucked outside with the escaping air, it was likely they would later find his body wedged in amongst the cargo crates when they were able to return.

Taro walked into Damien’s quarters dejectedly and turned on the lights. It was the first time she’d been in his cabin since he had joined the crew; until now, there had never been a reason. She stared at the unkempt front room littered with randomly discarded books, magazines and clothing. The remnants of meals on plates were stacked on the coffee table. Damien didn’t always join the rest of the crew at mealtimes, and it appeared that he even neglected to take Lorelei’s dishes back up to the galley.

She stepped around the clutter on the floor, wondering how someone could live like this. She was no neat-freak herself, but she did keep her cabin picked up well enough that she would never be embarrassed if she received visitors. Moving to the bedroom, she peered in around the corner and turned on the light, but the unmade bed was unoccupied. The room was just as much in disarray as the front and she felt reluctant to enter. The only reason she’d come into his quarters this time was to give herself confirmation that he was not inside.  He had not answered the intercom from any compartment on the freighter, nor had he responded to knocks and calls through his door.

On the nightstand beside the bed were several empty liquor bottles. She felt her stomach knot up at the amount of them, but had to remind herself that she hadn’t forbidden him to drink in his quarters, only when on duty. On a hunch, she knelt down on the floor and looked beneath his bed, hoping that he may have fallen off in a drunken stupor and rolled under. All she found was more clutter and more empty bottles. There wasn’t enough room under there for the mastiff anyway.

The vixen stood up, heaved an audible sigh and turned to go. When she did, a faint sound came to her that she hadn’t noticed before - running water. Daring not to let her hopes get too high, she looked up at the bathroom door and noted that it was closed.

She set her jaw as she strode over to it, grasped the handle and then opened the door. Water was running in the shower, but she heard no movement of anyone inside. She pulled back a brown plastic curtain decorated with river reeds and found Damien lying face down on top of his hands and knees in the tub, the cold shower water hitting his bare back just above his tail.

Taro resisted the urge to call out his name, but instead knelt down beside the tub. She turned off the water and then put a hand on the mastiff’s back. The skin beneath his fur was cold to the touch and she held her breath as she moved her fingers up to his neck to feel for a pulse. The canine groaned, but didn’t move his face from his hands.

“Damien,” Taro said gently. He didn’t respond to her voice, so she tried again louder. “Damien!”  The load master groaned again, but otherwise made no effort to move or respond.

The vixen walked back out to the front room and tagged the intercom to Sickbay. The signal chirped and Jerry responded with a distracted “Yes?”

“Doc, this is Taro. I found Damien in his cabin. He’s lying on his face in the bathtub. He’s alive, but not responsive. Please get over here quickly.”

“On my way,” Jerry responded in an alert voice.

Taro moved back into the bathroom and pulled several large towels out of his linen closet. She was reluctant to move Damien for fear of causing him further injury if he was hurt, but she could try to warm him up a bit by rubbing his fur with the towels.  Her emotions were in flux. She was disheartened to see him in this condition, but she was also glad to know he had not been on the cargo deck when the hull was punctured. What had happened to him, however, remained unclear for the moment.    

*** 

“Are there any access tunnels from Engineering to the upper decks?” Taro asked. She sat unclothed in front of the desk terminal of her quarters, grooming her fur with a thick brush after a shower.

“Well, yes and no,” Pockets’ country accent replied. “There are plenty of vacuum-sealed power conduits running from the engine room up to all compartments, but there’s nothing large enough for either Max or myself to crawl through to get topside – no matter how flexible I might be. There aren’t any emergency passageways between the decks — a design flaw that I intend to report to the Okami Corporation, to be sure, but at the moment the two of us are stuck down here until we can put a pressurized atmosphere in the cargo hold. I can control Moss from here, but since it’s nothing more than floating camera and sensor package, all it can do is look around. It has no claws, arms or other means to make repairs for us.”

“I see. We’ve been doing a little brainstorming to try to find a way to get you guys out of there, but so far that’s all we’ve been able to come up with for you. Justy reminded us that we have an emergency hatch on top of the ship through the recreation deck, but even if we depressurized the deck to open the hatch, we still have no pressure suits up here to go out to get to you.”

“Yeah, do you think we should skin the guy who decided to stow all the pressure suits in one convenient place in a cargo bay locker?” Pockets asked dryly. He’d been kicking himself all day for being so efficient in that decision. If they made it out of this situation, he resolved to stow at least one pressure suit on each of the three decks.

Taro sighed and put down her brush. She could hear the fatigue in the raccoon’s voice. “How are you two doing down there?”

“We have water, sodas and snacks in our kitchenette, but nothing that would make an actual meal. The water closet is working and we have cots to sleep on. We’ve gotten on each other’s nerves a bit, but otherwise we’re fine. However, we’re still weeks away from Dennier even if the engines were working.”

“Any progress on that?”

“Well, we’ve found the damaged components, but don’t have the necessary parts to replace what’s broken. You want details?”

Taro smiled. “The technical details would probably be over my head,” she said. “Any idea what caused the problem?”

“The best we can figure is that the fuel regulation settings were all out of whack. Max gave Ariel a tour of the place earlier and remembers her asking him about that system. He said he didn’t think anything of it at the time, but he was playing tour guide and explained its purpose to her.  It’s something she could have done quickly and easily, so that would be my guess. With the settings out of calibration, three components overheated with the imbalance. One swelled up so tight that we can’t get it out without a cutting torch, and the other two developed structural fractures. Coolant leaked out of one onto a wiring bundle that’s now fused together.”

The vixen frowned and picked up an ornamental disc that trailed a blue-tipped white feather. She clipped it to the fur behind her left ear. She hesitated to make the next suggestion, but since it was an emergency, she felt like she had no choice.

“What about your Vault drive?” she asked.

There was an amused chuckle over the line. “Of course, now you give us permission to use it… The Vault drive is a wonderful piece of astro-engineering, but it is not an independent system. It works with our standard LightDrive engine, and with that out of commission, it won’t be of any use to us.”

If you had the components, how long would it take to get us operational?” Taro asked.

“With the exception of the one part we need the torch to get out, we’ve already removed the other ruined components and are in the process of cleaning up the vacant spots. With the right parts, we could be up and running in a day if we had Justy down here to help, and then it would be just a matter of minutes to have the Vault prepped for operation.”

“No, forget the Vault for now. I was only going to authorize its use if it was possible to use it in place of the LightDrive.”

“You know, Taro,” Pockets said in a suggestive voice, “If we put the Vault into operation for normal use, pirates would never catch us, and groups like this last bunch couldn’t even track us on our runs. We wouldn’t have to worry about stuff like this ever happening again!”

“That’s a valid argument, Pockets, but we’ve already discussed the implications on what would happen if word got out. Besides that, I’m still distrustful of that system. Even if we were able to use it now, what would happen if we overshot our destination again and find ourselves stranded even farther away from help than we are now? We can’t count on another Se’rei being available to land on for help.”

Pockets huffed in frustration and didn’t care if Taro heard him across the com line. His nerves were on edge and he was getting awfully tired of the same argument. “Listen,” he said, “if I upgrade the Horizon’s navigation system myself, would you give the Vault a try? We really need that system.”

The vulpine captain closed her eyes and massaged the bridge of her nose.  Upgrading to a more sensitive navigation system would be out of the company’s operating budget, so it was probably safe to assume that it was out of her chief engineer’s personal finances as well.

“Sure, why not? Merlin would probably agree to your logic, Pockets,” she said wearily to pacify him. “I’ll tell him about it the first chance we get to meet in person.”

“Thank you, captain,” the raccoon replied in an appeased tone. Then, in a concerned voice, “How is Damien?”

Taro kept the line open, but she began to move around the room to get dressed now that her fur was fully dry. “He’s resting in Sickbay. I didn’t feel his quarters were such a good place to recover, but I’m not going to clean up the place for him. He can do that himself once he’s mobile again.”

“Has Doc found out what happened to him?”

“Partially,” Taro called across the room as she slipped on a white blouse. “He’d been drinking and woke up with a hangover, so he got into the shower to clear his head. While he was in there, we figure the intruders found him while looking for Sandy and hit him with a stunner. He collapsed in the shower and lay there until we found him, although he hadn’t had time to process all the alcohol out of his system. He doesn’t remember a thing, so I’ve ordered him to sleep it off. Once he’s fully sober, I’ll have a talk with him.”

“Ouch. I know what those ‘talks’ are like…”

“I’m about to gather everyone onto the rec deck so we can all hash all this out with our passenger. You want to listen in over the intercom or let you guys alone to work?”

“Tune us in,” Pockets replied. “We could use a break from the work, even if we can’t change the local scenery.”

“Actually, a break sounds like a good idea. I think I’ll give everyone a two-hour rest period before we do this. Everyone’s nerves are frazzled and it will be better if we confront Ariel with clear heads.”

“If that’s the order of the day, I think Max and I are going to curl up on cots down here too. There’s really nothing more we can do to fix things at the moment.”

“I’ll give you a wakeup call in a couple hours.”    

*** 

It was a room full of touchy nerves. With the exception of Pockets and Max, who were still trapped in the engine room, the entire crew was there. When Taro brought in the Cocker Spaniel, Sandy burrowed under the cushions of the couch, so Renny gathered her up in his arms and took her to the bridge without a word. Someone needed to monitor the Com station in the event their distress signal was answered, anyway. The navigator had become extra-protective of the cheetah kitten and did everything he could to shield the child from further trauma.

If the sight of the Cocker Spaniel bothered her, Renny would simply remove her from the area. Some of the crew thought the cheetah should make the kitten confront the canine woman, but Renny argued that she was too young for that to be of much help. No matter the argument either way, Renny had been appointed her guardian, and guard her he would.

Taro set Ariel down in a chair placed in the middle of the room, her leg out in front of her in a straight-leg splincast. The couch, recliners and galley chairs were arranged in a circle around her and everyone present surrounded her talking in low voices between themselves. Damien was still in confusion about all he missed, but he still wasn’t feeling well and intended only to listen quietly to the proceedings.

Taro had no real plan for the gathering, but she wanted answers. Everyone grew quiet when she got up and began to pace back and forth in front of their passenger with arms crossed. In an even voice, devoid of anger or other emotion, she simply asked, “Why are you after Sandy?”  Ariel said nothing, keeping her expression just as neutral. “For what purpose could you have in abducting this child?”  No answer.  Taro cast a glance around to the others, and although she wasn’t telepathic, everyone seemed to understand what she wanted.

Jerry gestured toward the Cocker Spaniel. “What’s so important about her?” he asked. “She’s only four years old.” Ariel looked at him, but kept her mouth shut. She didn’t appear angry or even resistant. She simply didn’t answer.

“You’ve been watching her,” Amanda stated. “You were sent to make sure she was really here. Why?”

Nothing.

“You wanted her enough to play me for a fool and then damage our ship!” Max’s angry voice issued from the intercom. “If you and your friends were only after the kid, why did you have to damage our ship the way you did? Someone could have been killed and you would have been responsible!” A look of regret crossed Ariel’s features, but still she didn’t say anything.

“Sandy is too young to understand, and you’re hurting her mind!” Lorelei added. “How do you think she’s going to grow up with this?”

Ariel only looked down at her feet.

“Why are you doing this?” Justy pleaded. “Just tell us why…”

“Answer the questions,” Taro said quietly. Ariel glanced up at her with a sudden look of defiance, but remained quiet. Taro nodded.  “Okay, I didn’t want to resort to this, but you have left us with little choice.  Doc?”

Jerry pulled a capped needle syringe from the pocket of his lab coat and got to his feet. Ariel’s eyes widened and Lorelei gasped. “What’s that?” the rabbit asked. She was no friend to chemical medications, but knew that the physician had to be prepared for most emergencies and had a well-stocked lockup of pharmaceuticals.

The vulpine doctor held up the syringe in front of the canine woman. “Have you ever heard of silphium?” he asked. Ariel swallowed hard and shook her head. Lorelei, however, tilted her head to the side and was about to say something when the doctor turned and shushed her. Taro moved behind Ariel and gently took her arms to hold her in place. Jerry knelt down beside the canine and parted the fur of her forearm with two fingers.

“Silphium is a powerful truth serum,” he explained. Lorelei cleared her throat and started to say something again, but the doctor turned to glare at her. The rabbit closed her mouth and sat back with a puzzled look. Jerry continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted. “It puts the patient’s mind into a dulled, malleable state that prevents her from remembering that she needs to lie to questions put to her.” Ariel suddenly looked afraid and stared at the drop of clear liquid oozing from the tip of the sharp needle.

Taro asked over the canine woman’s shoulder, “Are there any side effects?”

Jerry nodded with a solemn expression. “Just one,” he replied. “Silphium has a gray history of sometimes destroying brain cells in the higher cognitive functions. It’s only a fifty-fifty chance that she’ll come out of it with her intelligence intact, but if we get the information we want, she may never know it.” Ariel’s pupils dilated greatly at that news and she began to pant as the room seemed to spin around her.

Justy sat up, a horrified expression on his face. “Is that ethical?” he asked in a strained voice. “I thought you doctors were supposed to be against harming a patient!”

“That is our creed,” Jerry admitted, “but I am also under the command of our captain. I was instructed to give our passenger a dose of silphium if she refused to answer our questions.”

“Ariel Bennington’s actions have endangered us all,” Taro added with an edge to her voice. “Our distress signal may not be picked up in time. We may drift too far out of traditional shipping lanes for help to arrive in time.”

“Don’t do it!” Amanda pleaded. Lorelei’s puzzlement became amusement as she listened to the reactions around her. She had to hold a hand over her mouth to keep from giggling aloud. Amanda turned to glare at her in disbelief that the doe could be so heartless.

“Do it!” Max’s voice called from the intercom, uncharacteristic anger dripping from his words. “I want to know why she did this to us all!”

“Captain?” Jerry asked.

Taro leaned closer to the Cocker Spaniel’s ear. “Her companions left her behind and she knows we won’t just let her go even if we do get rescued, so I don’t think we have anything to lose,” she said coldly. “We can hand what’s left of her over to the authorities. I’m sure they can find a nice quiet corner of a sanitarium to park her until mealtimes. Go ahead, Doctor.”

Jerry nodded with a grim expression and Ariel suddenly shouted in his face, “Don’t!” she shrieked. “Don’t!” Her eyes welled up with tears, but the male red fox pressed the tip of the needle up to the skin between his fingers. On the couch, Amanda clutched a pillow to her chest and began to gnaw on a corner tassel.

Jerry let the tip of the needle barely prick her skin and Ariel shrieked again. “No!” she screamed. “I’ll talk!  I’ll tell you want you want to know!”

“That’s right, you will,” Taro said. “Continue, Doctor.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Ariel started bawling. So did Amanda.

“Hold it, Doc. I think she’s really changed her mind,” Taro said. Ariel bobbed her head up and down frantically and the physician finally withdrew the syringe to a safe distance. He didn’t put it away, however. He held it within her sight should she change her mind.

“I’ll talk… I’ll talk…” the Cocker Spaniel whimpered. Taro released the canine’s arms and then she took a seat in the circle.

It took a moment for her to compose herself and wipe her eyes on the fur of her arms. When Ariel spoke a moment later, she folded her hands together in her lap and stared down at them.

“Since you never found her family,” she began, “I assume you don’t know who she is. The kitten you are protecting is Sandilee Binfurr, the only daughter of the Binfurr clan of Fyn.”

“Binfurr? Don’t they make firearms?” Taro asked.

Ariel nodded. “Three years ago, Binfurr financially ruined my family and several others,” she said quietly. “We began plotting shortly afterward and have been watching their daily routine for patterns ever since. Last week, we put our plan in motion and kidnapped Sandilee from her nanny while they were shopping. Several of my friends took her to Vashon to hide out until the ransom was paid, but then that asteroid messed up our plans.”

“It messed up everybody’s plans,” Justy muttered.

“The kid got separated from our friends during the evacuation. Somehow she ended up on your ship while the others got swept away onto another.” She looked up and glanced briefly at the koala who had spoken. “The ship my friends got on didn’t make it off the moon in time.”

She sighed and leaned against the back of her chair, looking over at Taro. “We thought the kid was lost with them until we saw the interview where you showed her to the cameras, asking for help identifying her family. We knew we had to act fast. If we saw your broadcast, then it was likely that someone in the Binfurr clan probably did too. It became a race to get me on board before you left. If I discovered that you still had the kid, then I was to find a way to disable the ship so my friends could come and get us before Binfurr sent their own ship out after you.”

“Sandy’s family is on their way now?” Lori asked.

“Probably. That’s why my friends didn’t hang around. We failed in our attempt to get the kitten back, so they had to get out before someone else got here.”

“That means we’ll be rescued!” Justy said with a smile.

“Ariel,” Max said tersely, “why the bouncy, seductive act when you first came on board?”

“In case any of you had seen the local news about the kidnapping, I needed to make sure none of you would be suspicious of a last-minute passenger.” She looked embarrassed and then looked back down at her hands. “I saw the mechanic’s crest on your shirt, Max, so I knew you worked on the engines that I would need to disable. When I bought a ticket on your ship, your dispatcher gave me your rules, and one of them stated that passengers were not allowed on the engine and cargo deck. You’re close to my age and a canine like me, so I figured it would be simple to sweet-talk you into getting a tour of your engines, even if it wasn’t really allowed.”

“Then… then why did we… uh, y’know?”

Ariel smiled a little. “I found out what I needed to know about the engines. After that, I was on my own until my friends arrived, so I saw no harm in having a little fun with an attractive male.”  Max cleared his throat uncomfortably, but said nothing more.

Lorelei looked at Ariel. “How much fun could you have with Max?” she asked. “He’s been neutered.” Nearly everyone stared at the rabbit’s audacity to say something like that publicly.

Ariel looked back at the bunny in amusement. “Are you sure? If he was, I couldn’t tell. Everything was there and in working order.”

Max cleared his throat again and suddenly his crewmates looked all around them, anywhere but at one another. “Lori,” the young mechanic said quietly, “I was sterilized, not neutered.”

“But… you told us all that you were neutered,” the rabbit reminded him.

“I was a kid when I told you that, and I didn’t know the difference at the time. I’ve learned more about myself since then.”

Taro stood up and waved a hand toward the bunny. “Lori, this is neither the time nor the place for this topic.”  Lorelei sat back on the couch, a strange expression on her face as she considered what she’d just discovered. She suddenly started to laugh.

“What’s gotten into you?” Amanda asked her. “I don’t think it’s funny to embarrass Max!”

The lapin cook snickered and glanced over at Jerry. “Sorry, Max, but actually, it’s appropriate and ironic at the same time.”

“Why is that?” Damien asked; it was the first thing he had said since the interrogation had begun.

Lori giggled. “The silphium that Doc was going to inject her with isn’t a truth serum,” she said. “It’s an herbal contraceptive!”

“What?” Ariel exclaimed. She looked at Jerry in shock. He gave her a satisfied smile and capped the needle. 

“I’ve been had…” the Cocker Spaniel muttered. There were chuckles at her crestfallen expression, but Taro waved her arms for silence.

“Well, we got what we were after,” she said. “If what she says is true, we should expect a representative from the Binfurr family before long. If we’re lucky, they’ll be able to get us safely off the Blue Horizon and allow us to ride with them back to Fyn. We’ll have to abandon the ship for now, but I’m sure Merlin can arrange with someone to get out here to tow it to a safe port where it can be repaired.”

“If pirates don’t find it first and strip it of our cargo,” Pockets grumbled. “We can’t just leave the Horizon behind!”

“We may not have a choice,” Taro said. “I doubt that Binfurr will have a spare airlock on board to loan us. Without it, it’s pointless to stay on board. However, we haven’t been rescued yet, so we still have to rely on someone picking up our distress signal in time.”

“Are we done here?” Damien asked wearily. “I need to go lie down again.”

Taro nodded. “Yes, we’re done for now.” She turned to Ariel. “You will be confined to your quarters with the door locked. Lori will provide you with food at mealtimes, but will have an armed escort with her. Any attempts to escape or hurt any of us, and you will be sedated for the rest of your time with us. Understand?”

The Cocker Spaniel nodded. “Understood,” she muttered.    

*** 

“That was some good acting there, partner!” Pockets said with a grin. “We all thought you were so angry you were going to crawl through the Com system to get at her!”

Max turned to the raccoon and raised an eyebrow. “Who said I was acting?” he replied in a stony voice. The smile evaporated from Pockets’ face and he stared at the German shepherd in disbelief.

“Uh, uhm…. Max?” he said. “I know what she did was bad, but… but don’t you think you might be taking this just a little too…”

“Gotcha!” the canine mechanic said with a face lit up in a wide grin.

Pockets’ expression froze for a moment before he remembered to blink. “Huh? You… you mean you didn’t really…”

Max laughed and took a bow. “As you said, I was acting! May I have my award now?”

The chief engineer sat down hard against the back of his chair. “You scared me!” he admitted, putting a hand up over his heart. “Why did you do that to poor Pockets?”

“You’re always teasing me,” Max replied. “I just thought it was a good time for a little payback!”

Pockets looked at him sideways for a moment before letting a smirk cross his face. “Okay, touché. You won that round, Maxie.”

 “Yeah, I did, didn’t I? Besides, Taro asked me to play it up ahead of time.” The German shepherd grinned widely, but then after a moment, it faded from his face.

“What’s the matter?”

Max rubbed a hand over his face. “I still can’t believe what she did,” he muttered.

“Now, don’t get that way,” his partner replied. “You’re a great guy and she was attracted to you.”

The canine shook his head and gestured toward the LightDrive component systems outside the engineer’s office. “No, I meant what she did to the Horizon. Couldn’t she have slowed us down without doing major damage to the engine? I don’t condone her mission, but if all she wanted was Sandy, she didn’t have to hurt the rest of us like this.”

Pockets raised an eyebrow. “You’re not upset that she used you to get to the engine room?”

“Of course not, that would be silly.”

Silly? That’s certainly not a reply I expected.”

“I’m not happy that her goal was to sabotage the engine, but why should I be upset that she gave me some personal attention?” the young mechanic asked. “After getting dumped by Wendy, I’m not ready for another relationship, but I think I needed the notice of cute girl, even for a short while. You tell me, Pockets — who used who?”

The raccoon shook his head in amusement. Max had grown up.    

*** 

Renny brushed a finger across the top of Sandy’s fuzzy head as she slept. He’d made a pallet for her on the floor of the bridge using blankets from his quarters and now she slept peacefully with the tip of her tail curled up against her nose.

He’d never grown up around other children younger than himself, and he had never really seen himself as a fatherly type, but since he had taken on the role of the kitten’s protector, he was enjoying his time with the youngster. Her innocence and wide-eyed wonder at everything around them continually amazed him, and her naïve take on life was amusing. She seemed to have an endless supply of questions, asking him about everything she saw, and never seemed daunted when Renny failed to explain the answers in a manner for someone as young as her to understand.

She made him laugh, and it pleased him that he could make her giggle as well. Sometimes it took a tender tickle, but other times all it took was a goofy look or funny-phrased answer to her questions. She snuggled up to him often and purred contently when he stroked the fur along her back.

Renny was unsure if he felt like he was acting as either a father or a big brother to the kitten, but however it was that she felt about him, he knew he wouldn’t hesitate to put himself in harm’s way to protect her. She’d been threatened twice in the past few hours and he would not tolerate it to happen again.

He watched her sleep for a few moments before he stood up and moved to the pilot’s center seat. Having the kitten around had given him some new things to think about during the quiet times. Sandy had only been with them a few days, but Renny discovered that he liked having someone to care for and protect.

He had always enjoyed a free lifestyle, and although he and Taro maintained something of a relationship, it was unlikely they would ever be married. With these new thoughts, the cheetah afforded himself a smile. Even if he and the vixen tried a species-mixed marriage, there would never be any natural cubs or kits in their family. Adoption was possible, and sad as it may be, there would always be orphan children who needed the love and attention of an adult.

He glanced back down at the kitten and wondered how anyone could willingly harm a life so innocent.

Short-range sensors suddenly chirped for his attention. The navigator pulled up the information on the left-hand vidscreen and felt the fur between his shoulder blades stand at attention.  The Oubliette had returned.

The cheetah reacted instantly. Not bothering to hail them, he primed the freighter’s unconventional weaponry and locked it onto the incoming ship. He would have to be quick, as he could not operate the weapons and the maneuvering thrusters simultaneously from different stations. Renny fired the shock thread emitters, sending out a precise ripple of energy. However, the incoming ship was not yet in range for a weapon designed for close combat and the Oubliette only received a bumpy ride.

Cursing beneath his breath, the cheetah punched up the pulse cannons and fired off a shot. This had better results, blowing off a section of the other ship’s angular flight surface. It was not enough to cripple the space vessel, but it would hamper its ability to maneuver within a planetary atmosphere. His target had been the ship’s midsection, but without his ability to spin the Horizon on its axis, his aim had been off. With his hands full on the weapons control, he couldn’t even call someone to the bridge to pilot for him.

The commander of the Oubliette apparently recognized his handicap, for the vessel stayed out of range and maintained a position out of his line-of-sight to fire. The sensors showed him exactly where the ship was stationed, but he was unable to bring the cannons to bear upon it again. It was not unlike a mosquito one could hear in the night over a bed, but couldn’t see to swat it.

He was puzzled, however, because the Oubliette never fired upon the freighter. It merely harried the ship, annoying its navigator. Jerry suddenly burst in through the door behind him. “I heard the weapons fire. What can I do to help?” he asked in a rush.

“Orient the Horizon with the thrusters so I can get off a shot at them.”

“Aye!”

With only maneuvering thrusters at their command, all they could do was spin around to point their weapons. It was enough, however. Several close grazes convinced the Oubliette to depart for deeper space at a high velocity. It completely disappeared from the sensors just as Taro walked in through the door.

The vixen knelt down next to Sandy, who was now sitting up and rubbing her little eyes with her paws. “What happened?” she asked no one in particular. Sandy held up her arms to the captain and Taro picked her up obediently.

“Ariel’s friends came back,” Renny replied. His attention was riveted to the sensors, awaiting the Oubliette to return for another round. His eyes popped wide, however, when a return signal came from the opposite direction. He had no idea how the ship could have circled them so fast, but he primed the pulse cannons for another fight.

The com station chirped, so Taro carried the kitten with her to answer. Like Renny, she expected the Oubliette to demand the release of their passengers, but all three adults on the bridge received a surprise. A Siamese cat wearing a pressed gray uniform stared out at them with bright blue eyes from the center vidscreen.

Blue Horizon, stand down your weapons for assistance,” she said. “This is the SPF Cruiser Aldantia in answer to your distress signal.  I repeat, stand down your weapons. The hostile has launched into spatial warp and is no longer a threat.”

Taro gave Sandy a smile and thumbed the reply as Renny obediently shut down his array. “This is Captain Taro Nichols of the Blue Horizon. Thank you for coming, Aldantia. We’re glad you could make it to our little party.”

“Our sister ship, SPF Garroway is in pursuit of your attacker. I am Spatial Police Officer Celia Sashay.  What is your condition, Captain?”

Taro gave the feline a quick rundown on their troubles, the cat nodding and taking notes on a slateboard, but never interrupting the explanation. Taro covered everything from the escape of Vashon to their present situation. “We have Ariel Bennington locked up in one of our cabins,” she finished. Then she indicated the kitten in her arms. “Sandilee Binfurr is well. If you can help us, I am sure her family would like to know of her whereabouts.”

“We have been in contact with child’s family. The Chitraka was already en route and should arrive in a couple hours. Mr. Binfurr will be most anxious to see his daughter again. Captain, will you allow us to couple with your vessel for a personal meeting?”

“That would be great, but as I mentioned, our airlock is damaged beyond repair. We have no way to receive you.”

The Siamese smiled and her eyelids appeared quite slanted with the expression. “We are prepared for this emergency,” she said. “A modified walkway will be extended to cover the opening in your hull and we have enough reserves to pressurize your hold. This will allow your engineers to leave the engine room and then we can move freely between our two vessels. When the Garroway returns, she will stand watch over us while our ships are connected.”

“That sounds like a good plan,” Taro replied. “Feel free to begin at any time.”

“Operation will begin immediately. See you soon, Captain.”    

*** 

The procedure took two hours to get the walkway in place and the cargo bay pressurized. The second SPF cruiser arrived before Pockets and Max were freed from engineering, but the Garroway maintained a discreet distance to ward off any further attacks.

SPO Sashay introduced herself and four other SPF officers to Taro while Jerry gave the mechanics a quick physical check before he released them to the upper decks. Max and Pockets both headed to their respective showers to clean up before going up to a full meal that Lorelei had prepared for them.

With the exception of Damien, who remained in his cabin, the rest of the Blue Horizon crew had gathered on the recreation deck to meet their rescuers. Sashay and her partners took all their statements, and although both Renny and Jerry insisted that Sandilee was in good health, one of the officers looked her over and talked quietly with the kitten for a short time.

In the end, the officer complimented Renny on his care of the youngster. Despite the traumatic events she had experienced, the child was in good spirits. The real test came when two of the officers escorted Ariel up to the deck and Sandy saw her again for the first time since the attempted abduction. 

The kitten stiffened up at first, but when the Cocker Spaniel didn’t do anything threatening, she relaxed and sat down on the carpeted floor to retrieve a crayon from under the couch so she could color on a scrap piece of paper.

SPO Wagner approached Taro and looked up at her with a small slateboard in his hands. “Captain, before we go any further, we will need a decision from you,” the silver fox told her.

“Sure, what I do I need to do?” the vixen replied.

“Well, the damage to your hatch and double hulls is more than what we can repair and make functional, but there are three options open to you. One, we can transfer your crew and passengers to the Aldantia and then transport you to Joplin to the SPF Headquarters, where another transport can be arranged to take you on to Dennier. Two, you can board the Garroway for a return to Alexandrius. Either way, you will have to abandon the Blue Horizon until such time as when your company can send a tow transport or a fully equipped repair team out to it. We can set up a transmission denying salvage rights to anyone who may happen across it in the meantime, but we can’t guarantee that pirates won’t simply ignore the warning and take what they want from your ship. We’re still at the edge of the Van Conner Nebula, which is a known hunting ground for pirates. Frankly, I’m surprised you haven’t been accosted by any of them since you sent out a distress. Like a wounded animal, I’m sure others will come sniffing for you soon enough. Anyway, we can offer you transport if you wish.”

Taro frowned. “I’m not sure I really care for either option if it means abandoning our ship to all-comers,” she said, “but it’s something we’ve already discussed. What was the third possibility?”

“Even if we had a spare airlock to replace with yours, there is still major structural damage outside the hatch area. The best we can offer is to seal you and your crew inside, and then you can make your way to whatever port you desire. We can help you repair your engines to get you mobile, then vacuweld thick metal plates over the damaged area as an external patch. Once sealed, you can then pressurize your cargo chamber and be on your way. It will allow you to make an atmospheric landing someplace where you can then make more permanent repairs, whether back on Alexandrius or continue on to your Dennieran destination. When you land, you’ll have to disembark through your cargo bay door, but at least the primary airlock will be sealed against the vacuum.”

Taro absently toyed with the feather hanging from her fur as she mulled over the choices. Finally, she nodded to the silver fox with a sigh. “I think the third option is our best scenario,” she said, “but my mechanics say they don’t have the parts necessary to replace the damaged components. I am assuming you think your engineers can help us return to flight if you’ve offered that option, so I’ll have Max and Pockets get with them as soon as they’ve had a chance to rest a bit from their meals.”

Wagner nodded and made a notation in his slateboard. “Very well, then,” he said. “SPF Officers Lawrence and Bruner will start accessing your damaged systems as soon as your folks are ready. They are among the best engineering mechanics in the Spatial Police Force.”

“Thank you, Officer,” Taro replied. “We really appreciate your willingness to help.” Wagner gave her a grateful smile and then wandered away to report in to his shipmates. Before Taro had a moment to turn around, another officer walked over to her.

“Captain?” said a tan coyote with eyes the color of burnished copper. “I’m SPO Bergey. I’ve been examining the damaged cargo in your hold. If I could talk to your load master and have a look at your manifest, I’ll do what I can to make sure a proper report is made to the owners of the cargo and all insurance parties involved.”

“My load master has been ill and out of commission through this whole affair, so he’s currently resting in his quarters,” Taro replied. “However, if we go talk to him, I’m sure he will be able to assist you in your duties.”

“Thank you, Captain. Lead the way.”

Taro and the Bergey quickly left the din of the recreation deck and quietly rode the elevator lift down to the crew deck. The coyote said nothing until they stopped in front of the cabin door and read the name plate. His eyes narrowed briefly.

“Is this the name of your crewmate?” he said with a suddenly cautious expression on his face. “Is he a mastiff?”

“Yes, on both accounts,” Taro replied, puzzled. “Do you know him?”

The coyote pulled up his DataCom unit and tapped a code. There was a blip and then he spoke quietly. “This is Bergey. I’m on the second level at the cabin door of Damien Legrand. Please assist me.”

“Legrand?” There was a noticeable pause. “We’re on our way.”

Taro twitched an ear and ran a hand through her head fur. “Officer, what’s going on?”

The coyote looked up at her. “How long have you known Mr. Legrand?” he asked.

The question took the vixen by surprise. “Only a few months,” she replied truthfully. “We hired him on Pomen after our previous load master passed away from a heart condition. Why?”

They heard the lift door around the corridor open and feet moved quickly in their direction. They couldn’t know where the cabin was located, but the deck was elliptical in a full circle, so it wouldn’t have mattered which direction they took.

Taro watched in sudden trepidation when the lion and the black bear pulled out their side arms, taking up positions on both sides of the cabin door. “Will someone give me an explanation before this goes any further?” she asked, stepping in front of the coyote. “We’ve had a lot of excitement lately and I don’t care to be in the dark.”

“Captain,” Bergey started with a worried expression, “A mastiff named Damien Legrand has been on the run for over a year in connection with the death of two children on Pomen.”

Taro’s eyes grew wide and her lips parted in disbelief. “M-murdered?” she asked.

“Evidence supports a hit and run. Legrand has an extended DUI record and it’s believed he may have been intoxicated when he sped through a school zone. Two ursine children died instantly and their mother had to be committed to a local institution from a mental breakdown. The father also sold much of their assets to tender a reward for his capture.”

“Oh God!” The vixen gasped. She put both hands up to her mouth and backed up against the cabin door.

“Please keep in mind that so far this is all circumstantial with evidence found on his vehicle. It will be up to a court to decide whether or not he is the one who ran down the children, but we have a standing warrant for his arrest.”

One of the other officers stepped forward, but didn’t touch her. “Captain,” the lion asked in a firm voice, “will you allow us to do our job, or are you going to block our way to him?”

Taro blinked and looked over at him with a tight throat. “What?  Uh, no… I won’t stop you,” she said as she moved away from the door.

“Captain,” Bergey said gently. “Will you call him out, please?”

The vixen nodded and composed herself. She knocked on the panel and spoke loudly. “Damien?  This is Taro. I need you out here, please.”

There was a hesitation, and then a muffled reply. “Coming.” When the door opened, the mastiff looked up with tired eyes. He had showered and put on clean clothes, but he still looked haggard. As soon as he saw the SPF officers, he swallowed and raised his arms in surrender.

“Then… it’s true?” Taro whispered with moist eyes.

Damien looked at her with a sorrowful expression and nodded before looking down at his feet. “I’m not sure what they told you,” he said quietly, “but they have been after me.”

“Damien Legrand,” SPO Bergey said in a firm voice as the other two pulled stout manacles from their belts and cuffed his arms behind him, “you are under arrest in connection with the hit and run deaths of Jomy and Karina Soljer. Will you come peacefully?”

“Yes,” the mastiff replied solemnly. “I’m through running.” He looked back over at the vixen and said, “Thank you for taking care of me, Taro, and thank you for caring.”

The vulpine captain put a hand on his arm. She didn’t know how to respond, so she leaned in and gave him a gentle peck on the cheek as moisture rimmed her eyes.

“Excuse us, ma’am,” Bergey said. The lion and the black bear led Damien away, back to the elevator lift. He would be taken over to the Aldantia and likely locked up in the brig with Ariel Bennington.

Shaken, Taro walked numbly to her cabin and shut the door behind her. She needed a few moments to compose herself before going back to her crew.    

*** 

“I am now transmitting the SPF report for Interstellar Insurance,” Taro said, bringing her report close to an end. “The officers have gone over the manifest, but the crane smashed several of the containers so bad that identifying individual parts is going to be next to impossible. We have swept up everything into a spare container, but it will be up to someone else to sift through them as needed. Fortunately for Loxley DataStream, none of the satellites were damaged, but we may have to replace the crane hook.”

The piercing amber eyes of Merlin Sinclair peered out of the monitor in the captain’s den, his expression one of longsuffering. Taro set her slateboard onto the desk and picked up a cup of water, awaiting his response.

The wolf was well-groomed, dressed in a pressed gray suit with a tie the color of his eyes. He hated wearing ties, but he’d be meeting shortly with local agents of JR Lane Astrogation and Interstellar Insurance and wanted to look professional.

“Have you talked with Damien since he was placed under arrest?” he asked quietly.

“No, I can’t get onto the Aldantia to see him,” Taro replied. “There’s an officer guarding the airlock to their vessel, and the rest of them are helping Pockets fabricate some kind of replacement for the damaged components. They don’t have actual Okami parts, so they are trying to come up with something that will work long enough to get us to Dennier.”

“We do a security background check with every new employee we hire. I don’t understand why Damien’s police records were never brought to our attention,” Merlin grumbled.

“We usually go through SPF channels for the security checks,” Taro reminded him, “but I think we used a local firm when Damien was hired.”

“You’re right. I think we did. Admittedly, none of us was thinking clearly after we lost Durant, especially since we were interviewing applicants for the job that was his.”

The vixen leaned forward on the desk and rested her chin on an arm. “He has shown signs of inner demons for a while. I talked with him a couple times, but he would never open up to what was bothering him. Now I know why. I asked Sashay if there was anything we could do to help him, but she told me that Damien’s problems are out of our hands. What was done happened before he came on board, that it doesn’t concern us. I understand that, but it seemed like a rude answer.”

“How is everyone handling it?”

Taro frowned and closed her eyes. “I’ve not told anyone yet. After they took him away, I went to my cabin to calm down a bit. Since no one else saw them take him away, he’s still resting in his quarters as far as everyone else knows. I figure they don’t need another worry at the moment. None of the SPF officers have mentioned it to my crew, so I assume they’re focusing on their current work to help us get up and running again.”

She sat back in her chair, kicked off her sandals, and put her feet up on the corner of her desk. “I know that Interstellar Insurance will help with some of it, Merlin, but you know it’s going to cost an arm, a leg and three toes to get the Blue Horizon back into service. Not only do the engine components need to be replaced with actual parts, and not only does the airlock hatch have to be replaced, but Pockets said that whatever they used on us did some major structural damage to both the internal and outer hulls. That’s going to put us out of commission for a long time, and we’ll probably lose more customers since we can’t stick to our current schedule.”

It was subtle, and quick, but Taro saw a brief expression flicker across the wolf’s face. Had she not been looking directly at him, she might have missed it, but Merlin acted as if nothing transpired. “Let me worry about all that,” he said in an even voice. “I’m sure we can weather this okay.”

Taro narrowed her eyes. “You’re not usually so calm talking about this kind of money. What’s going on?”

Merlin raised an eyebrow. “Everything is under control on this end,” he assured her. “However, I am starting to re-think my decision to allow passengers on board as Space Available. It’s brought in only small amount of extra revenue, and situations like yours might not have happened if Ms. Bennington hadn’t been on board.”

“I’m sure she and her partners would have tried another way to get Sandy from us,” Taro replied, allowing the conversation to be redirected away from her question. “I didn’t care for the idea at first, but now I’m okay with having passengers on board. We do have more cabins than personnel, so why not use them to bring in a little extra income?”

“Well, I’m still going to think about it. I’m not sure if it’s worth the bother to all three crews.” He fell silent for a moment and then snapped his fingers. “I just remembered… Have you been watching INN lately?”

Taro chuckled. “No, I’m afraid I haven’t. We’ve been a little busy for that luxury.”

“Interpost has undergone major restructuring and is back in business. After you land, Interpost will take possession of your final mail shipment. You’ll no longer be required to pick up and deliver a mail quota with each flight”

Taro nodded. “That’s just one less thing for us to be concerned about,” she said. “Good.”

“While I’m thinking of it, tell Renny we’re proud of his involvement with the kitten. I’m glad he was there for her.”

“He wasn’t happy with the assignment at first, but now I think he’ll be distraught when he has to give her up. He’s gotten quite fond of the kid.”

There was a soft ping from the timepiece on Merlin’s wrist. He glanced at it and frowned. “Whoops… Time for me to meet with Interstellar.”

“Have fun with your meeting.”

The wolf gave her a smirk. “Uh huh, I’m sure it’s something I will enjoy immensely… Keep me posted on your progress.”

“I will. Talk to you later, Merlin.” Taro terminated the signal and lapped up another drink from her cup. The intercom chirped and she reached for it automatically. “This is Taro.”

“Captain, we have a problem,” Amanda’s reported from the bridge.

“So what else is new?” the vixen replied with a wry smile. “What is it this time?”

“A long-range cruiser called Chitraka has just pulled up alongside us, Registry 80898. The captain has identified himself as Tisane Binfurr.”

“That would be Sandy’s father. The SPF said he was on his way. What’s the problem?”

“He wants to come aboard and get his daughter, but the Aldantia is still coupled with the Horizon. I tried to explain our situation to him that the SPF ship can’t pull away without decompressing the cargo deck, but he doesn’t seem to care.”

“Put him in contact with Sashay over on the Aldantia. Maybe she can explain it to him sufficiently. Until we can get the engines operational to LightDrive capability, we cannot uncouple the ships.”

“I don’t think he’ll listen, but I’ll refer him to the SPF as directed.”

“I understand his excitement about seeing Sandy again, but he’s going to have to wait.”

“Yes, ma’am.”    

*** 

“Hello, Captain. I am Tisane Binfurr. Sandilee is my daughter.”

Taro shook his hand and gave him a pleasant nod. The male cheetah was not much older than Renny, but he had the air about him of someone with money and power. He wore minimal clothing over his spotted fur, but it was considered expensive business attire on Fyn. He was also accompanied by three other male cheetahs with stony expressions.

“Welcome aboard, Mr. Binfurr,” she told him as she gestured toward the gaping hole in their hull. Fortunately for them all, the SPF walkway covered it over as protection against the void outside. “I’m sorry for the delay in getting you over here, but you can see our problem here. Fortunately, the Aldantia had a portside airlock that you could connect to in order to get over here.”

“Yes, I apologize for my impatience,” Binfurr replied, dropping his smile. “I’m sorry for the problems you have faced on my daughter’s behalf, but I’m appreciative that your people fought to protect her. I will be in touch with your company’s president to offer compensation as soon as we return to Fyn.”

“I am sure Mr. Sinclair will be grateful, but our insurance will cover part of the costs.”

Binfurr took Taro gently by the arm and led her a few steps away from his escort.  In a quieter voice he said, “Let me pay for the damage. I’m good with numbers and estimates, and from the report the SPF sent me, repairing your vessel will cost me far less than the ransom that was demanded on my kitten. I can also help if you will allow me to send some business your way. I was using TranStar to deliver our goods, but of late, they have been unreliable. I suppose that is inevitable when you use a company so large they no longer provide a personal touch for their clients.”

Taro nodded. “I have heard rumors that TranStar Shipping can be a little stiff with their customers, but I’ve never had direct dealings with them myself. We would appreciate any business you can direct our way, sir.”

Binfurr rubbed his hands together. “Consider it done. Now, may I see my daughter, please?”

The vixen led him past the smashed cargo containers around the perimeter of the hold and took him to the elevator lift. The stony escort followed a few steps behind. When Taro glanced back at them, Binfurr pursed his lips.

“Apologies for the armed escort, Captain, but after recent events, it’s a necessity.”

“Armed?” Taro repeated in shock. “How did you get weapons through a police ship?”

The cheetah grinned. “An armed escort for the armed escort,” he explained. “We have the necessary PA firearm licenses, so they let us through, but only with their own escort.”

“What kind of firearms?” Taro asked tentatively, punching the lift control for the third deck. “We have our own, but I’m always reluctant to bring them out while we’re in flight, no matter the reason. Too many things can happen with a tiny puncture through the hull from a wild shot.”

“I agree,” Binfurr said with a nod. “At the moment, we’re carrying stunners.”

Taro looked up in alarm. “That’s what the intruders used on us.”

“I hate to side with our enemies, but stunners are best for use in instances like what you went through,” the cheetah remarked. “Better a temporary shock to your nervous system than a bullet through a vital organ. Stunners also won’t pierce a pressurized hull by accident.  You need a stock of our stunners for your armory.”

The lift door opened and Binfurr stepped out onto the carpeted recreation deck. Renny stood near one of the room’s couches, quietly grooming Sandy’s fur with his good arm. The kitten sat on the cushion with her eyes closed and hands folded in her lap, purring contentedly.

Binfurr’s eyes crinkled in delight and his breath caught in his throat. He swallowed and then spoke the child’s name in voice barely above a whisper.  “Sandilee.”

The kitten’s eyes snapped open and she bounded off the couch before she had even seen his face. “Papa!” she exclaimed with an excited squeak. The kitten launched from the floor into her father’s arms. Binfurr’s eyes filled with moisture as he held his daughter close and rubbed his cheek against hers, both of them purring joyfully.

Taro moved to Renny’s side and put an arm around his shoulders. The navigator wore a wide grin, but it began to fade from his lips. He glanced over at her as she gave him a knowing smile. Even she could see how much he was going to miss the kitten, and she wasn’t even gone yet.

Carrying Sandilee in his arms, Binfurr walked over to Renny and held out his hand. “Mr. Thornton,” he said respectfully, “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” The cheetah males shook hands and the navigator gave him a nod.

“Mr. Binfurr.”

“Rinny!” the kitten said as she pointed a tiny finger at him. Renny reached out automatically and touched the tip of her finger with his own before he even realized he had done so.

“It looks like you two have gotten along well,” said the father. “I am thankful for the care and protection you have given my daughter. What can I do to repay your kindness?”

Renny’s throat tightened and he shook his head. “Nothing, sir. Having her around has been a treat. She was well-behaved and I do think I will… miss her.”

“Allow me to do something for you.”

Renny reached out and stroked the kitten’s cheek with a finger. She rubbed her chin on it with a smile and a fresh purr. “Just make sure she’s safe and happy,” he replied.  “Goodbye, Sandy-kitten.”

“Bye?” the youngster said, grasping his finger. “Don’ go!”

Renny smiled. “I’m not going anywhere, kitling. You’re going home with your papa.”

“Come with!”

Binfurr looked amused. “You are welcome to join us, Mr. Thornton,” he said. “It should not be difficult to find a place for someone with your skills within my company.”

There was no hesitation in the navigator’s reply. He shook his head with a smile and said, “Thank you, sir, but my skills are needed here on board the Horizon. I appreciate the offer.”

“Don’ want you to go…” Sandilee said with a pout. 

Renny snickered and gave her a little tickle, making the protruding lip pull in over a giggle. “Be a good girl, Sandy,” he said.

Binfurr tilted his head. “I’m not quite sure I recognize your accent. Where on Fyn are you from?”

Renny chuckled. “I’m from Kantus, actually,” he replied. “The Gatian Savannah, to be precise. My family has been there for several generations.”

“That’s interesting. If you are ever on Fyn, Mr. Thornton, you’re welcome at my estate at any time.”

“May I make a request, sir?” the navigator asked.

“Name it.”

“May I have permission to write to Sandilee on occasion? I would like to know that the experiences she has witnessed since she was taken from you have not caused her lasting trauma.”

“Of course. We will stay in touch. I am sure she would like to know that her protector is doing well.” The child’s father leaned in closer with a wry smile. “Protection means a lot to the Binfurr name, you know!”

“Yes, I guess it does,” Renny said with a laugh.

“Well, if you will excuse me, I want to get Sandilee safely back to the Chitraka.” Binfurr’s look became troubled as he added, “Then I want to have a long talk with Ms. Bennington. I understand there are grievances that caused this whole mess.”

“Of course,” Renny answered. He leaned in and rubbed noses with the kitten. “I will miss you, Sandy,” he said. “Be good for your papa.”

The youngster stuck out her bottom lip again and then wrapped her arms around her father. Binfurr shook hands with the navigator warmly and then did the same with Taro.

“Thank you again, Captain,” he said. “I bid you all a safe journey.”    

*** 

A day after the departure of the Chitraka, several of the Blue Horizon’s crew was in the galley eating lunch. Amanda had just put on some light music on the sound system and everyone was chatting idly when the lights went out and the music went dead. Red emergency lights in the ceiling flicked on, giving the surprised personnel an eerie glow.

“That can’t be good,” Justy muttered.

Taro wiped her hands on a napkin and got up to make her way to the intercom panel, but she only made three strides before the power came back on. The intercom chirped for attention before she reached it.

“This is the captain,” the vixen responded.

“Captain, this is SPO Wagner. Have you had any power interruptions up there?”

“Yes, just now. It only lasted a moment, though.”

“Good, that’s what we needed to hear. Wagner, out.”

“Wait!” Taro exclaimed into the microphone.

“Yes?”

“What’s going on? What was that?”

“The ship’s power has just been transferred through the replacement components. We should be ready for an engine start test in about thirty minutes.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Taro replied, “but will that be a good idea with our ships still coupled together?”

“There will be no forward movement, ma’am, but the chargers will need to be powered up to make sure our jury-rigged repairs are going to handle the power running through them.”

“Understood. Let us know if we need to do anything from the bridge.”

“Acknowledged. Wagner, out.”    

*** 

Pockets, Max and SPO Lawrence were in pressure suits inside the cargo bay as pumps removed the atmosphere from the deck. The engine startup had been successful and Lorelei had later prepared a celebration meal for the crews of both vessels.  A rest period followed to allow everyone the chance for a respite from fatigue, especially the engineers and mechanics. Several hours later, the second phase of the repair work began.  If the first has not been successful, there would have been no need for the second.

Pockets monitored the readings from a control panel just outside the engine room door, while Max and Lawrence stood by the damaged airlock.  The Aldantia had already sealed its primary hatch, and as soon as there was no pressure within the Horizon’s hold, the walkway would be retracted.

“That’s got it,” Pockets announced over his suit com signal. He shut off the vacuum pumps and set the safety switch.

“This is the Aldantia,” came back a reply that echoed in all three helmets. “Negative pressure confirmed. Retracting walkway. You may now open your cargo door.”

As soon as the cushioned seals of the walkway pulled away from the Horizon’s hull, Pockets activated the controls to open the large bay door. There was no need to let it fully extend up and outward, for all they required was enough room to pull out the large metal plates that had been transferred over from the Aldantia.

 Lawrence and Max each picked up a tethered magnet from the floor at their feet. The gravity plates continued to provide them with normal footsteps across the deck, but as soon as they reached the edge of the breach, Max balked before stepping outside the ship.

“Don’t worry, Max,” Lawrence assured the German shepherd. “Just make sure your magnet is attached to the hull before you step out of the ship. It’s strong enough you won’t float away from the ship.”

The young mechanic frowned as he peered over the edge of the airlock. There was nothing but stars below the toes of his boots. “My brain knows that isn’t ‘down’, but to my eyes, it still looks like a long way to fall,” he muttered.

Lawrence smiled inside his helmet at the canine’s hesitation. “Is this your first time weightless in a space suit?” he asked.

“I’ve been weightless here in the cargo bay doing maintenance on the overhead crane, and I’ve been in a space suit before, but that was inside another ship that had no air. I’ve never been outside in space with nothing under my feet, though.”

Lawrence flung his tether diagonally out the hole and felt it swing around to attach to the hull. Then he stepped out into space, feeling gravity’s weight disappear.  The lion turned slowly and faced his companion. “See?” he said. “No falling.”

Max chuckled nervously. “Okay, it’s my turn.” He moved one boot out away from the deck and felt the tug of gravity release it. He had the conditioned urge to step down, but there was no need, there being nothing for his foot to land on. He swallowed hard, and then instead of stepping out with the other foot, he closed his eyes and pushed off with his toes as Pockets had instructed him to do that day they worked on the crane pulley.

The German shepherd floated out away from the ship, but Lawrence suddenly latched onto his arm. “You forgot to deploy your tether,” the SPO informed him, taking hold of the magnet still in the canine mechanic’s hand. He flipped it toward the Horizon’s blue hull, where it picked up speed from attraction and hit the metal side hard without a bounce.

“Don’t ever do that again,” the lion scolded gently. “If you propelled yourself out here without a tether, you might keep going and never stop, long after your oxygen ran out. These suits aren’t equipped with thrusters.”

Max turned in his helmet to look at Lawrence with wide eyes. “I-I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I-uh, I-I didn’t think…”

“That’s right, and that’s what can kill you. Space is hostile – it’s a predator. We were never meant to be out here, Max, but we went beyond our natural abilities and came anyway. Since we broke the rules, Space will always try to kill us. Because of that, we must always be alert and we must always think. If you let your guard down while you are out here, you’ll never do anything again.

Max was shaken. Literally. He started shaking inside his suit and he swallowed hard. “I… I… I don’t think I can do this,” he said after a moment.

“I think you can,” Lawrence said with an encouraging smile. “Once you fear Space, then you will respect Space. Having that respect will make you alert. I believe you’re now more ready than you were before you stepped out here with me a moment ago. Do you remember how we went over one another’s pressure suits to make sure all seals were properly sealed, that our airlines were connected properly, and that there were no kinks or tears in the material?” Max nodded. “That’s what partners do for one another. It’s too easy to forget something on your own, even if you are thorough, so you should always have a partner help you double-check everything – including your tether. For today, you’re my partner, and we will rely on one another to get this job done.”

“Oh… okay,” Max replied. He’d been fine, and even a little excited about working with the SPO on the hull patch, until he had made an error that could have been potentially fatal. Now he was unsure of his abilities, and was not all that comfortable being outside of the ship, but feeling the light tug of the tether against his belt harness was reassuring. “Uh, sir?” he asked as he willed his heart to calm down. “Thank you.”

Lawrence smiled and put a hand on the canine mechanic’s shoulder. “You’re welcome, Max. That’s what partners do.”

“Lawrence?” said another voice in their earphones.

“I’m reading you, Sashay. Go ahead.”

“Wagner and Bruner are on their way out, but the com in Bruner’s helmet is intermittent.”

“Thanks for the heads-up. We may have to use hand signals like we did during the Firedog incident.”

“Understood.”

Lawrence turned back to Max. “You remember the plan?” he asked.

“Yeah, you and I will position each of the large metal plates over the ruined airlock and the hole, while Mr. Wagner and Mr. Bruner vacuweld them into place.”

“It sounds simple, but the mass of the plates may be difficult to wrangle. You ready?”

Max took a moment to consult his insides and found them stable. He gave the lion a nod inside his suit and replied, “Yessir. Let’s get started.”

“Excellent. Follow my lead and go slow.”    

*** 

From the small vidscreen in the engine room, Max and Pockets watched the twin SPF cruisers Aldantia and Garroway disappear from sight into deep space. Three metal panels had been welded into place over the external damage without an incident and then the engines had been tested on a brief trip that took them completely out of the Van Conner Nebula. Satisfied the jury-rigged engines would perform well enough to get them to Dennier, Taro thanked each of the Spatial Police Officers personally before they bid one another safe journeys.

Taro had promised her mechanics that they could rest and relax after it was determined the ship could run without constant monitoring. With both cruisers away to deliver their prisoners, she wanted the Blue Horizon on its way as quickly as possible.

Pockets switched off the vidscreen and then moved to the main control engineering console. He and Max prepped the LightDrive system and then the raccoon called up the bridge.

“This is Jerry,” said the fox’s voice.

“All systems are green. We can depart any time.”

“Thank you. Captain?”

Taro’s voice could be heard over the intercom. “Let’s go.” Twenty minutes later, the captain’s voice echoed in the engine room. “Everything looks normal up here,” she said. “Anything to report?”

“No problems,” Pockets replied. “Siilv energy transfer through the liquid crystal mix is normal. Output generation is down just a smidgeon, but it’s nothing that will hamper our flight.” He smirked at his partner. “I suspect it’s from some inferior parts that were recently installed. I wonder who did that.”

“Jerry says it was some goofus, but I don’t know who he might be talking about.  Okay, guys, that all sounds good.  Doc will take the first watch and keep an eye on the readings from up here. You boys are free to go rest. I imagine you’re sick of seeing the engine room for a while.”

“Aye to that,” the raccoon said with a smile. “I’m tired, but not really sleepy, so I may go up and watch one of the movies Sashay left with us.”

“I’ll watch one with you,” Max piped up. “I’ll even make the popcorn.”

“Deal!”

“Okay, guys. Have fun.” Taro closed the circuit as Pockets sat back in his chair and rubbed his eyes.

“Ready to go?” the young mechanic asked.

“Max…”

“Yeah?” The German shepherd looked back at his partner. The usually-chipper raccoon worried on his lower lip for a moment, studying his canine companion.  “What’s up?”

Pockets motioned for the young mechanic to join him in a small alcove at the back of the compartment. Something lay in the corner with a dark gray tarpaulin covering its bulk. The engineer pulled the tarp off onto the floor and then looked back at his friend.

“After we’ve had a chance to rest, I want your help installing something,” he said quietly.

Max looked at him oddly. “I thought we had all the engine parts back together,” he said. “What’s that?”

“This is a high-end navigation system,” the masked raccoon answered proudly. “I filched it from the cargo.”

“You did what?”

“Keep your voice down, Max. Taro told me we could start using the Vault drive if we had an astronomical navigation system that was sensitive enough to work with it, but that the company couldn’t afford it. I asked her that if I got one myself, would she allow us to use the drive and she said ‘Yes’.”

“Pockets…” Max said in disbelief, “I don’t think that’s what she had in mind!”

“Taro should know by now to be more specific,” the raccoon chuckled. “I never told her I could afford to buy one either, only that I could get one.”

“But not from our cargo!”

“Calm down, Max,” Pockets said with a sudden edge to his voice. “We could have used the Vault system twice for recent emergencies, but Taro didn’t trust our current astrogation system. She told me she still hasn’t even told Merlin about the Vault or what happened on Se’rei, so I took it upon myself to see we were not without the Vault again in the future.”

“But…”

“We may not use it for typical delivery flights, but for emergencies, I intend for it to be available to use without fear of ending up somewhere astray out in the cosmos.”

“Pockets, you can’t just steal something that expensive from our customer! What about the manifest!”

The raccoon grinned. “I’ve been fixing the manifest in Durant’s books long enough to know just how to make it look like a clerical error. I can do the same with Damien’s books, and since he’s still holed up in his quarters, this might be a good time for me to sneak in there and take care of it. In our favor, it should be a simple task to make it appear that this was one of the cases smashed by the intruders.”

“I can’t believe you, Pockets!” Max exclaimed. “This is… piracy! Are you no better than a pirate?”

“Listen to me, Max,” the engineer said darkly. “Our job on this ship is to keep her running and to keep her safe. If you’re going to be a mechanic on a starship, you are going to need to learn that sometimes you will do whatever is necessary to keep your friends and your cargo safe. I learned that a long time ago. I admit taking the Tanthean rug was a mistake, and I am sick and tired of apologizing for it, but something like this navigation system is a necessary step. Because of the actions of Ariel’s partners, Lane will be fully compensated for the loss by the insurance company. Had I not taken the equipment, it might have been damaged anyway. I took it from the very area where the other containers were smashed.”

“Did you know the intruders would damage the cargo?” Max asked with sudden wide eyes. It seemed inconceivable that his friend was in league with an intruder attack.

“No,” snorted the engineer, “but it worked into our favor anyway. As a friend once told me, ‘In confusion there is profit.’

“Pockets, how can you think like that?”

“Max, if we’d had the Vault drive when the Basilisk attacked us four years ago, we could have gotten away and my friend Jiro would still be alive. Likewise, Sagan would have never been able to board us to hurt Taro if we’ve had this system. That is worth stealing a bit of technology. When I weigh someone’s financial loss against the loss of an innocent person’s life, I always choose to protect the life.”

The young canine mechanic sighed and put a hand to his forehead. He understood what Pockets was trying to tell him. He had often stolen food and other things to stay alive when he was a slave on Quet, but since he’d become a part of the Blue Horizon’s crew, they had all tried to teach him a better life.

“Max, if you won’t help me protect our ship and intend to turn me in, Taro is going to fire me for taking this equipment; one day the Horizon is going to find itself in a situation where speed is needed to save someone’s life, and a standard LightDrive engine isn’t going to be fast enough. The distances are simply too great. Someone you care for is going to die and you will vow never to let that ever happen again. Because of pirates, we lost Jiro and we almost lost Taro. We could have easily lost someone this time – maybe even you or me. I don’t want to risk that again!”

“All right, all right!” Max exclaimed in exasperation. “You’ve convinced me. I still don’t like the way you went about it, but I’ll help you.”

“Good boy, Max. The Vault may seem like an unreliable luxury to some, but with a top-of-the-line navigation system, we’ll have it at our disposal when the next emergency arises.”

“Okay, but we’d better get it installed before Taro finds out about it and cans us both.”

“There’s plenty of time to do it before we get to Dennier,” Pockets replied as he recovered the crate. “Let’s go watch a movie.”     

*** 

The room was dark, save for a butterfly nightlight that glowed faintly on the wall. Renny Thornton sat on the carpeted floor of the front room, picking up broken bits of crayons, colored-on papers and scattered toys that Sandy had left behind.

The navigator had never considered himself the type who would ever have a family, but ever since the cheetah kitten had touched his life, he found himself thinking about it a great deal. As long as he remained on board the Blue Horizon, however, he didn’t see ever having another child to care for as a possibility. There were no other felines in the crew to start a family with, and it was unlikely he would be allowed to legally adopt unless he were part of a mated pair. Tsarina had often expressed a playful interest in having his kittens, but with the two of them being navigators on two separate vessels of Merlin’s fleet, it was unlikely they would ever get to serve on the same crew together.

Should he go back to Kantus and try to find a mate – or take up Binfurr’s offer to join his company on Fyn in hopes he would meet someone there?

No, he thought to himself with a smile. There’s no guarantee I would find anyone suitable, and I really don’t want to leave the Horizon anyway.

The cheetah got to his feet with Sandy’s things in his hands. He would store them away as souvenirs of her stay with him. Perhaps he would meet her again someday when she was older and return them as tokens of a shared moment in time.

The overhead intercom system chirped for attention and then Taro’s voice issued over the ship-wide broadcast.

“Attention, please. I need all personnel to gather on the recreation deck in fifteen minutes for a mandatory staff meeting. I repeat, all personnel to the recreation deck.”

Renny raised an eyebrow. As Taro’s first officer, he was usually privy to everything she had in mind for the crew, but of this, he knew nothing.  He put the crayons and other items into a drawer of his desk and then moved quickly to the bedroom to change into a fresh shirt.

When he stepped off the lift onto the recreation deck a few moments later, everyone was already present except for Damien and Jerry. Taro stood at the front of the room, leaning back against the large vidscreen window behind her. Everyone talked among themselves as they waited for the cheetah to find a seat.

With everyone settled, the captain held up a hand with a remote. “Okay, quiet down everyone,” she said in a loud voice. It took a moment until everyone’s attention was on her. “Are you listening, Doc?”

“You have my full attention and my left vidscreen is tied into the one up there. Everything’s quiet here on the bridge and we’re cruising normally.”

“What’s going on?” Justy asked.

“Something serious,” the vixen replied. “If you look around, you will notice that Damien is not among us.”

“Is he still sick?” Lori asked with a snicker. “He’s slept through this whole mess! That’s what he gets for using chemicals in his system. I have some herbal tea that’ll perk him right up.”

“Please,” Taro said in annoyance. “I have the floor and need to say this without further interruption.”

Lorelei’s ears drooped and she put her hands in her lap.  “Sorry.”

“Now,” the vixen started again, “let me start off by saying that I think Damien did an admirable job as load master.”

Did?” Pockets repeated.

“Shhhh!” Max hissed at him.

“Damien is no longer a member of our crew,” Taro continued. “He is now resting in a cell on the Aldantia next to Ms. Bennington’s.” Before there was a chance for more unwelcome comments, she clicked the remote in her hand and an image appeared on the vidscreen behind her.  It was an SPF wanted poster for Damien Legrand. The captain stepped to the side to allow everyone the opportunity to read it.

“Ohmigosh!” Amanda gasped in shock. “He killed two cubs!”

“That can’t be!” Justy exclaimed. “He was a good guy!”

“One of the SPOs recognized his name from this PA-wide alert,” Taro responded by gesturing toward the poster with the remote. “When three of them went to his cabin, he surrendered immediately without a fight. When confronted, all he would confirm is that he has been on the run.” More voices rose in comment, but the vixen shushed them with a wave of her hand. “He has been arrested and will be transferred back to the Pomen authorities after Ms. Bennington has been delivered to Fyn.”

“I guess that’s why he was always brooding,” Jerry said from the bridge.

“Are we in trouble for harboring a criminal?” Renny asked.

“The SPOs made no mention of that,” Taro answered. “I was told that his situation didn’t concern us, but you know that once the lawyers get involved, we may be drawn back into it. If this does happen, I am ordering you to be truthful with any investigation. Damien never talked about his past, so none of us knew why he was with us other than for the job on our crew. I have informed the home office of the situation, and Merlin agrees that the best thing for now is to let it go. We will deal with an investigation only if it comes back to us.”

The vixen shut off the image and then set the remote down on the control panel in front of the vidscreen. She leaned back against the counter, her hands behind her. “We’re still two and a half weeks away from Dennier. Once we land, I will assume Damien’s duties with Lane and Loxley when we transfer our cargo from the Horizon and until such time as I can hire someone to replace him.”

The room fell quiet for a few moments, everyone a little introspective about their now-former coworker. Justy held up a hand, hesitant about interrupting the silence. “Yes?” Taro responded with a nod.

“All this aside, has there been any word on the reason for our recall to Dennier?” the koala asked.

Taro shook her head. “None. No one at the home office is talking, but Doc and I are assuming we may have been given an assignment for some secret government delivery with a handsome payout. That would explain why no one would talk about it on an open channel, but again, we’re only guessing. Until we find out for sure, it’s probably a good idea not to worry about it. Merlin has assured me that we have nothing to be concerned about. However, before we can do anything, the Horizon will need extensive repairs to the hull, and that means we’ll have some downtime. Merlin’s already arranged for us all to stay at his and Samantha’s home in Grandstorm, so no one will be out anything by renting hotel rooms this time.”

“It’ll be good to see Uncle Merlin and Samantha again,” Max said with a smile.

“That it will,” Taro agreed. “Now… I need Justy, Mandy and Lori to help me clean up Damien’s cabin and box up his belongings. Although we have plenty of time, I really don’t want to wait to get this done. His rooms are a mess and it’s going to take a while to get everything cleaned up.”

“I’ll help, too,” Renny added. “I could use the busy-work right now.”

“Okay, that’s all I have,” Taro said.    

*** 

The northern shore of land appeared in the vidscreen and Renny looked at it with a smile. “There’s Grandstorm,” he said “This is one trip I’m glad to have over and done.”

The Blue Horizon had left orbit and descended upon Dennier over the Arvallian Sea after a harrowing time with nearly everyone on board concerned that the external patches over the hull would stand up to the heat of reentry. Fortunately for all, the descent had been uneventful.

There were thunderheads in the distance, a sight common over the area during this time of year. The blue flying saucer zoomed low over green choppy water toward the shore, but then Jerry raised their altitude back up to standard air traffic while Taro exchanged information with the spaceport control tower for a landing site.

The evening sun was just touching the western horizon beneath the clouds and the traffic near the seaside spaceport facility was heavy. The skyscraper spires of the city were lit up from internal offices and glittered in the evening as the ship approached Grandstorm. Commercial and private sea craft were scarce that evening and the boardwalk at the beaches was practically vacant of nighttime visitors as the city prepared for incoming storms.

“The control tower is directing us to pad eighteen,” Taro reported. “Merlin has it reserved for us and should be waiting there now. I’m equalizing our internal air pressure with that of the outside and will then begin atmosphere transfer.” Taro engaged a few switches, watched for confirmation of her commands, and then spoke over the ship-wide intercom, “Artificial gravity will be disabled in fifteen seconds. In another five minutes, we will be on the ground with full engine shutdown.”

The ship slowed even more and Renny glanced out the windows. They were moving beneath the spaceport traffic and on approach to a landing pad ringed with flashing green lights. The Blue Horizon stopped forward movement above the pad and began dropping slowly. Jerry flipped the toggle to lower the landing gear, and then a moment later they were on the ground. Even though they were no longer moving, the floor seemed to shift slightly beneath them.

Jerry and Renny looked up from their stations in unison.  “Did you feel that?” the cheetah asked.

“Yeah, I can’t say what it was, but something felt… different about that landing.”

Taro tapped in some commands at her console and activated the cameras beneath the ship. She cycled through them looking at the vessel’s underside, but nothing appeared out of place, including the landing gear.

She shut them off and then shrugged toward her bridge crew. “Maybe the landing pad wasn’t designed for a ship of our weight class and it settled beneath us.”

“Maybe so,” Jerry replied.

“I’ll report it to Merlin when I check in,” Taro said.

Back to work, the males started shutting down all but the necessary onboard systems, fully aware that it may be a while before they launched again. Taro enabled the intercom once more. “Landing complete. All hands to the cargo bay. Get your work gloves and prepare to unload our freight.”

The three of them left the bridge a moment later and headed for the elevator lift. “One of the good things about coming back to Grandstorm,” Taro said, “is that the home office has already taken care of all insurance matters. All we need do with the damaged items is load them onto the Lane trucks with the rest of their goods.”

“I’m almost happy the ship is damaged and needs to be repaired,” Jerry remarked as they stepped out of the lift at the bottom level.

“That’s an odd thing to say,” Renny replied. “Why?”

The vulpine physician stretched his arms and yawned widely. “After the disaster on Vashon, the unexpected passengers we picked up, and now the whole mess with the Oubliette, I think we all need a vacation!”

The large cargo bay door was already opening, Pockets having activated the controls in Damien’s absence.  The salty evening air flowed through the chamber and Taro inhaled deeply.

“Mmmm, I’ve missed the smell of the sea,” she mused with a little smile.

“After what nearly happened to us, I’m glad to be smelling air of any kind!” Renny quipped. Thunder rumbled in the distance and his joviality disappeared. “Although I could do without a storm.”

“Ah, it’s only a little rain,” Jerry teased. He was fully aware of his longtime friend’s feelings toward violent weather.

Renny raised an eyebrow at him. “There is a reason this place is called grand storm.  I probably won’t be getting any sleep tonight!”

Before they made their way around the perimeter of the cargo to the open door, they could hear Lorelei squealing in delight, and when they got to the ramp, they saw the white rabbit’s arms wrapped around a grinning gray wolf with a small crowd surrounding them both.

Merlin Sinclair peeled free of the happy doe and then rushed forward to welcome the captain of his flagship.  “Welcome home,” he said as he extended a hand toward her.

Taro grinned and hugged him instead. “Thanks, Merlin. We’re glad to be on the ground again!”

“I’ll take that hand,” Jerry said with a smile. 

The wolf shook his hand gratefully. “Good to see you again, Doctor,” he replied. “I appreciate you taking care of my crew.”

My crew!” Taro laughed. 

Renny bypassed the hand offered to him and grasped arms with Merlin instead. “You’re looking good,” the cheetah said with a grin, “despite being married to Samantha!”

“Hey!” the wolf retorted, “That’s why I’m looking so good!”

The others took their turn greeting the president of their little company and then Merlin walked over to the damaged airlock with an arm around Max’s shoulders. “It doesn’t look so bad from out here,” he said with a gesture toward the three aerodynamic patches welded to the hull.

“You should see it from the inside!” the German shepherd replied. “Want to see it?”

“Not right now,” Merlin replied as two large trucks pulled up. “You all have cargo to unload. I’ll have transportation arranged by the time you get everything offloaded, and then we can head out to the house, hopefully before it starts to rain.”

“How’s Samantha doing?” Lori asked.

Merlin grinned widely. “She’s just about ready,” he replied.

“Ready?” asked Amanda.

Merlin’s smile filled up his whole face. “You’re a little late getting here because of your problems, but we tried to schedule it so you would arrive in time. You just made it.”

“Just made it for what?” Renny asked wearily. “We’re too tired to play guessing games, Merlin.”

“Samantha’s pregnant,” the wolf announced proudly, “and she’s about ready to give birth to our pups. We wanted you here for the main event.”

The small crowd around him looked stunned for a moment, and then cheers and exclamations of congratulations filled the air.

NEXT EPISODE

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