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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 4

— Episode 39

"Lullaby"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

“Miracles do happen.”

Shannon Wallace turned to look at her sister-in-law with a raised eyebrow. “What was that?” she asked with a chuckle.  She and Samantha were resting in the afternoon shade with cups of cool water. The small round gazebo they occupied was under a large, fruit-laden virrin tree in the back yard of the Sinclair home; its wide summer leaves flapped gently against one another in the breezes that flowed in off the Arvallian Sea. Shannon wore a pale yellow sun dress over her predominantly tan fur. Samantha, largely pregnant with several canine-lupine pups, wore a simple maternity nightgown of powder blue with a pale red blanket wrapped around her shoulders.

The Border collie lapped from her cup and gave her mate’s sister a smile. “Miracles do happen,” she repeated. “Considering the injuries I received during my fight with the Kastan assassin during the Siilv War, Merlin and I were never sure I’d be able to have puppies.”

“Yes, I remember,” Shannon replied quietly. “Your wounds were pretty severe.”

Samantha looked out through the black iron fence surrounding their property and gazed across the sea. Fishing trawlers moved in the distance and the sound of lapping waves was calming. The faraway look in her eyes, however, had nothing to do with the environment. She briefly relived a memory and then turned to the wolf.

“Beyond Merlin, I’ve never told this to anyone, but I was pregnant then.”

“You were?”  Shannon’s face registered complete surprise.

Samantha nodded and then closed her eyes. “I didn’t know it at the time, but the Kastans have an uncanny ability to sense what they call a person’s lifeprint. The assassin I fought informed me of my pregnancy in the midst of battle. At first, I suspected it was just an attempt to distract me, but afterward I discovered it was true… and that I’d lost it due to my injuries.”  She rubbed her tummy with a frown.  “It…” she repeated. “I never knew how many there might have been…”

Shannon reached out and put a gentle hand on her friend’s arm. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. Then, hesitantly, she asked, “Who was the father?”

Samantha’s eyes crinkled into a smile and she looked over at her. “It was Merlin,” she replied with a chuckle. “The accommodations on Argeia were intoxicating and it had been a long time since we’d spent any close time together.  It was like no other place we’ve ever been to before. We couldn’t help ourselves.”

The female wolf laughed aloud. “It sounds like you helped yourselves after all!”

Samantha giggled uncharacteristically and pulled the blanket up over her face. “Yes, I suppose we did!” she squeaked. She uncovered her nose and laughed, but then her expression faded. She stared back out to sea for a moment before she said, “I wrestled with the loss for some weeks before I told Merlin about it.”

“Why wait for so long?”

“I wasn’t sure how he’d take the news.”

Shannon leaned forward. “How did he take it?”

The Border collie looked over at her with a soft smile. “He tried to propose, but I stopped him before the words left his lips.”

Shannon’s eyes grew wider. “Why didn’t you let him?”

“If he wanted me for his mate, I didn’t want it to be prompted by an unplanned pregnancy that was lost. That wouldn’t have been for the right reason. I told him that we’d keep it our secret for a while. I knew that if he really wanted me, the proper time would come for him to propose when he was ready and there were no other pressures for him to ask.”  Samantha’s eyes sparkled when she added, “I knew he’d eventually come around to my way of thinking.”

Shannon chuckled. “It took him long enough,” she replied. “You two have known one another for what… half your lives together?”

“True, but we’ve had that long friendship to use as the foundation for our marriage. Too many other couples barely know one another before they get married, and too often those marriages fail because they later find out what one another is really like.  Merlin and I have few surprises left to discover about one another’s pasts. We have only new horizons to look forward to together.”

“Speaking of horizons,” Shannon said, “are you ready for a whole houseful of guests? The Blue Horizon should be here this evening.”

The Border collie gave a small jump and her eyes widened. She put both hands on her swollen belly and gave her sister-in-law a smirk. “I think someone in here just reacted to that name.”

“You mean Blue Horizon?”

Samantha jumped again. “Yeah,” she snickered.

Blue Horizon!”

Sam jumped yet again. “Stop doing that!” she whined.

Shannon grinned impishly. “That one will likely be a future captain of the…” —Sam narrowed her eyes, daring her to say it— “…ship. Any idea which one it might have been?”

The collie shook her floppy ears. “There are five of them in there, Shannon. It could have been any one of them. I just hope he or she didn’t kick one of their siblings. It wouldn’t do to have one of my pups start out their first day with a bloody nose!”

The female wolf shook her head. “Miracles do happen,” she admitted. “Not only were you able to conceive after your terrible injuries, but you had to go and out-do me and Bill by making one more than we did!”

Samantha snickered and then gestured toward her chest. “Yeah, but I hadn’t remembered that this would happen,” she said in amusement. “I’m used to the top two, but when the other four started filling up, I had to change my wardrobe!”

“Get used to it for a while. It’s common for wolves to have anywhere from one to six puppies, so with five of them, you’re going to need all the help your body can give you when it’s feeding time!” They both laughed and relaxed in their soft lawn chairs.

“My doctor said they all appear to be healthy and so do I,” Samantha said. “She feels there’s nothing to be concerned about, but I’m glad you’ll be there to play midwife for me.”

“I’m honored,” Shannon replied with a show bow. “It’s about time you and Merlin gave my children some cousins.”

“Selfish! Is that all you care about?” Sam retorted, causing the wolf to laugh again. The two women had become closer since she and Merlin had settled in on Dennier, and although they were related only by marriage, they were becoming the best of friends.

Shannon and Samantha fell quiet and gazed out to sea again when a private boat came into view near the coastline. After several long moments, Samantha spoke in a whisper.

“My pups will arrive soon. I can feel it.”      

*** 

A long passenger van floated along Totter’s Lane parallel with the Arvallian Sea. The running lights of a fishing boat trying to get in to port before the storm arrived were visible a short distance from the shore. The sun had set, and although the tall cumulonimbus clouds were no longer easy to see in the darkness, flashes of lightning within them occasionally highlighted their location. Low rumbles moved across the choppy water as area winds picked up, flowing into the storm. Inside the van, riding beside the driver, Renny Thornton kept his eyes fixed upon the distant flashes of light.

“Don’t worry,” said the wolf at the controls of the vehicle, “we’re almost to the house and we’ll be inside long before it rains.”

“Yeah…” the cheetah murmured.

Taro leaned forward from her seat behind the driver and placed a hand on her navigator’s arm. “You okay?”

Renny turned to look at her with a look of amusement. “Yeah, I’m fine. I’m just hoping Merlin’s house is stronger than the inn where we stayed on Earth.”

There was a chuckle from the driver. “Within a city named Grandstorm, you should know that we build our structures to withstand great forces of wind and rain,” Merlin said.

“That’s what they said about the homes built in Tornado Alley,” Renny rebuffed.

“True, but the Barnyard Inn was over a hundred years old,” Max piped up from the back of the van. “It wasn’t built to stand up to the tornado that hit Woodward that day.”

“There isn’t much that will stand up to three hundred mile per hour winds,” Jerry added, “no matter how it was built. That’s nearly twice the sustained wind speeds of most hurricanes.”

“We’ve had our share of those, too,” Merlin said. “However, the storm that’s coming isn’t breathing the conditions for either, so we’ll just have a lot of wind, rain and lightning tonight. It’ll be bumpy, but we won’t be in any real danger. Our house is on a rise above the sea level, so there shouldn’t be any flooding to worry about, and yes, Renny, the construction of the house and barn will withstand what we’re facing.”

“You have a barn?” Justy asked with interest. “Are you raising your own food stock?”

Merlin chuckled. “No, the barn is for the vehicles and yard tools. The house didn’t come with a conventional garage, so everything is parked in a detached out building, although we have an underground tunnel linking the buildings together.”

“Do you have many trees on your property?” Amanda asked as she tried vainly to see the terrain of the countryside through the van windows.

“We have two large virrin fruit trees out front and one in the back, but there’s also a mix of other trees out in the back. We’re almost there, so you can see the place for yourself.”

Normally a chatterbox, Lorelei had remained quiet since they had left the spaceport. She was unusually bothered by the arrest of Damien Legrand. Although none of them had known him for more than a few months, he’d always seemed like a good guy to her, even if his drinking was excessive. That he had hit and run over two children in a school zone and fled was more than she was willing to accept.  Despite her eager anticipation over the impending birth of Samantha’s pups, Lori’s ears drooped as she stared out into the darkness.

A row of lights caught her attention through a tall iron gate, and she realized the vehicle was slowing.  Merlin guided the long van along a curved drive to the front of a two-story house of white rocks and red brick. He set it down on runners, shut off the engine and then looked back at his friends.

“We’d best get your luggage inside the foyer before the rain starts,” he said with a smile. “Our place is large enough for everyone, and I made sure that your rooms and beds upstairs were ready for you.  Once you’re all inside, I’ll put the van in the barn and then will come back to give you the tour.”

“Boss, I know it’s late,” Justy said, “but do you think we could get something to eat?”

Opening the driver side door, Merlin gave him a smile over his shoulder. “You’re in luck!” he said. “Sam and my sister should have supper about ready for you.”

At the mention of food, Renny perked up. “Aside of Sam’s pregnancy, that’s the best news I’ve heard all night!”

Moments later, Taro and her crew stood in the entry hall of the house while Merlin took the van around the back. The interior of the house had been thoroughly cleaned in anticipation of the arrival of the guests. None of the polished wood trim on the walls, the wooden beams in the high vaulted ceilings or the green plants that decorated tables and counters showed a speck of dust. The multi-hued stone tile of the foyer gave way to a tightly-woven tan carpet, and although the furniture of the front room was nice, it was not extravagant.  An oil painting of a younger Merlin and Samantha held a lighted place over the fireplace mantle, the signature of Jiro Brannon unobtrusive in a lower corner.

“Welcome to our home!” Samantha said pleasantly. She stepped out into the front room around the furniture and held out her arms toward them. The Border collie’s footsteps were slow but sure, as she carried the weight of her puppies within her. She wore a powder blue maternity dress with a beige shawl across her shoulders.

Taro grinned widely and moved in to give her a gentle hug. “Wow,” she said with delighted eyes, “you look great!”  She stroked her friend’s cheek fur and chuckled. “Your fur is so soft!”

Lorelei and Amanda moved in toward Samantha, while the guys hung back a step, most of them not quite sure how to approach the pregnant mother. Sam would have none of it, though, and after an initial greeting and hugs by the females, she moved toward the males and latched onto her friends one by one, starting with Pockets.

The raccoon hesitated, looking unsure. “What’s the matter?” Sam asked.

“I’m afraid I might hurt them.”

“They’ll be fine, Jerad. Just a light hug will do.”

Pockets smiled and tried to wrap her arms around her, but his short arms barely encircled her girth.  Sam laughed and hugged him warmly.

“Oh, it’s so great to see each of you!” she said with bright eyes, moving to each of the others. “I’ve missed you all!”  She turned to Justy and Jerry at last and grinned. “I don’t know you guys as well as the others,” she said, “but you’re family too.  Here, let me hug you.”

Justy felt a little uncomfortable with the embrace, but the vulpine doctor smiled at her and wrapped his arms gently around the collie’s shoulders. “You’re looking well,” he told her.

“I’m feeling good,” she said, “although tired. Now that the hugs have been passed out, I need to sit.”

“Sit, doggie, sit!” Renny quipped with a wide grin. 

Sam gave him a smirk. “Yeah, c’mon, kitty cat!” She then gestured them all further into the front room. She took her place in a simple gliding rocking chair and wrapped the shawl around her.

The front door opened and Merlin came inside. He walked quietly to his mate’s side and gave her a brief nuzzle. “Where are the others?” he asked.

“Others?” Taro asked. “Who else is coming?”

Samantha shook her head, but looked up at her lupine mate. “They’re still in the study, looking at the ultrasound pictures.” Heavy footsteps sounded behind her and all eyes went to the newcomer.

“Guinevere and Shannon will be here in a moment to meet the guests,” replied a deep voice.  Merlin looked up at the black Silloni unicorn dressed in a sharp charcoal suit tailored to his physique.

“For those who’ve not met him,” he said, “this is Master Tristan, former Regent of Sillon, and Samantha’s adopted father.” Tristan gave the group a short bow while Merlin introduced each of them to him.

“This is Jerry Somner, Justin Mandolin and Amanda Black,” he said as he indicated each one. You have already met Taro Nichols, Renny Thornton, Jerad Porter, Max Sinclair and Lori Easter.” Justy looked up at the huge equine male, his mouth open in sheer awe of the bipedal unicorn.

“I am charmed to meet you all,” Tristan replied in the rich tones of an orator. He turned at a sound and then gestured to a white Silloni female beside him. “This is my wife, Guinevere.”

“Good evening,” Gwen said with a smile and a short nod of her head.  She was only a foot shorter than her mate was, but she still towered over everyone else in the room. “Thank you all for coming in honor of our daughter’s birthing.” Her voice sounded melodious and held the timbre of an operatic singer.

Amanda gently nudged Justy and the koala suddenly remembered his manners.  He bowed slightly from the waist and said, “We’re honored to honor your… daughter?”

Guinevere smiled. “Yes, Mr. Mandolin, Samantha is our adopted daughter. We took her in after her parents were lost in an accident when she was a pup. Although we are of different species, the puppies she and Merlin have created together will be our legal grandchildren.”

“Wow,” Amanda said quietly.  She looked over at the grey wolf and couldn’t help but share in Merlin’s contagious grin. “Congratulations to you all,” she said with a large smile. “We only found out about the pregnancy this evening.”

“Yes, we tried to keep it a secret,” said yet another voice with a chuckle, “but wagging tongues at the office almost gave it away.” A tan wolf stepped out from behind the Silloni pair and she held out a hand toward Amanda. “Hello, I am Shannon Wallace, Merlin’s sister.”

“Pleased to meet you!” the coyote replied.

“It looks like you’ve got a full house,” Taro said to Merlin. “Are you sure you have room for us all?”

“Plenty of room,” the wolf assured her. “Shannon, Bill and their cubs only live a mile from here, just down the shore, actually.”

“Where’s Bill?” Pockets asked, finally finding his voice.

“He’s at home with the children,” Shannon answered. “He will be here shortly with them after they have had their supper.”

With the introductions out of the way, the group started to mingle. At what must have seemed an unspoken signal, all five women swarmed over to Samantha, while the guys gravitated to Merlin and Tristan.

Pockets held back a moment, his thoughts whirling, but then he courteously asked to speak with Tristan alone. They removed to the other side of the room and then Tristan took a seat in a large wing-back chair so he could converse with the short raccoon face to face.

“What service may I be of you, Master Porter?” the Silloni asked.

Pockets hooked his thumbs under the belt loops of his dark green trousers. “It’s good to see you again, sir,” he began. “Have you been on Dennier since the wedding?”

Tristan smiled, but shook his head. “No, we arrived yesterday morning.”

Pockets raised an eyebrow. “It’s a three-month journey between here and Sillon, but it hasn’t been six months since we saw you at the wedding. I figured you had to have been here the whole time.”

Tristan’s large brown eyes sparkled. “Following the wedding, we returned directly to Sillon,” he said, “but along the way, we received word of the impending birth. We refreshed our supplies upon our arrival on Sillon and then made a return trip.”

The raccoon studied him silently, running the explanation over in his mind. Something in the story didn’t sound right. The gestation period for canine types was only around nine weeks, so the turnaround time for Tristan’s party would have made it impossible for the person sitting before him to be there now.

Tristan could see the wheels turning in the engineer’s mind, but he only gave Pockets a smile. A radical thought seized the raccoon, but the front door to the house suddenly opened with a bang, interrupting their conversation. Four young wolf pups burst into the room followed by an adult black wolf in a light grey suit.

Bill Wallace quietly closed the door behind him as his children spread out in through the gathered adults. “Hello, everyone,” he said wearily. It was evident that keeping up with four energetic youngsters had taken its toll on him today. When one of the children saw Pockets, he squealed and ran straight for the raccoon.

“Pocky! Pocky!” little Jaran exclaimed.  Jacob and Marissa followed suit when they spotted him, and all three of them started jumping up and down in front of the engineer.

Pockets grinned widely, gave them a group hug, and then asked in a loud voice, “Who wants candy?”

The fourth cub came running over and joined the bouncing pups in their energetic responses.  “Me!”  “Candy!”  “Yay!”  “I do!”

The raccoon walked over to his overnight bag, and from a side pocket, he pulled out several large straws of flavored sugar that he had brought along from Earth just for them.  He whipped out a pocket knife, snipped a crimped end off each of the straws, and then passed them out to the youngsters.

The kids cheered, each of them gave the raccoon a peck on the cheek, and then they ran off excitedly with their confectionary treasure. Bill stepped over to him and put a hand on the engineer’s shoulder.  The engineer looked up into the disapproving face of the black wolf.

“Pockets, did you have to give them sugar this late in the evening? They’ll be bouncing off the walls all night.”

The raccoon’s face fell.  “Oops,” he said with a frown.

Bill shook his head wearily, but gave Pockets a chuckle. “You can help me round them up and take them out into the back yard where they can run off their newfound energy.”

“What about the rain?” Renny asked as he joined them.

“The air’s gotten cooler, but the weather announcer said the expected storm has stalled. I think we can let the kids outside for a little while anyway.”

The cheetah looked relieved. “Maybe the storm will turn and go elsewhere up the coast.”

“I could use some fresh air, myself,” Amanda said from across the room. There were other similar sentiments, so the children and several of the adults moved out to chairs on a polished wooden deck behind the house. Samantha begged off, however, citing the need for a cushy chair to rest in, but Bill and Renny offered to move a chair for her out onto the deck.

Not wishing to be separated from her guests just yet, Sam accepted and then watched the guys move her heavy cushioned chair out through the back door. Once set up next to a waist-high wooden railing beneath the branches of a large tree, Gwen, Shannon and Taro attended her with glasses of lemonade and animated conversation.

Pockets, Justy, Max and Lori ran around the yard with the children for a bit, but then Merlin flagged the engineer back up to the deck.  The raccoon brushed bits of grass from his Polynesian-style shirt and gulped for breath as he clomped up the wooden steps.

“Have a seat before you fall over,” Merlin said with a grin.

“I don’t have the energy I used to have for running around like that,” Pockets gasped as he dropped into a canvas beach chair beside their ship’s doctor.

“You’re what?  Only thirty-six years old?” Jerry asked.

“No comments from the peanut gallery,” the raccoon wheezed. “When you’re as out of shape as I am, thirty-six feels like forty-six!”

“I’ve been trying to tell you for weeks that you need more exercise.”

“Yeah, yeah…”  Pockets gave the fox a grin and then looked over at Merlin when he took a seat beside him. The wolf carried a slateboard and a small box, the latter of which he held out toward him.

“This came for you about a week ago, addressed in care of the home office,” Merlin explained.

Pockets took the package and looked at the return address. It was from the offices of the Okami Corporation of Dennier, the builders of the very freighters that Blue Horizon Freight Transfer used as its fleet.  His eyes lit up and he grinned at his boss delightedly.

“What is it?” Jerry asked curiously.

Pockets cut through the seal on the package with a claw tip and opened it slowly. Inside was a single data crystal packed in form-fitting foam padding.  He picked it up, its slender faceted surfaces reflecting the room lights, and looked over at Merlin.

“May I borrow your slateboard?” he asked. “I left mine in my quarters.”

The wolf smiled and handed him the one he’d brought with him. He hadn’t known what the package had contained, but had the slateboard datapak with him for other reasons.

Pockets plugged the crystal into the unit’s receptacle and then tapped the screen to open the contents.  A cover page came up first and his eyes moved quickly over the text. When he looked up a moment later, he had to swallow hard before answering Jerry’s question.

“Months ago, I submitted design drawings and technical notes on Moss to the PA Patent Office on Alexandrius. At the same time, I sent the designs for the flobot, notes for computer integration, security protocols and its functional history to Okami Corp. here on Dennier, noting that the patent was pending.”  He swallowed again as he looked around at several others who had gathered nearby to hear his words. “It… it’s all been accepted by Okami for Moss to be made standard equipment on all future Okami-class freighters, with installation kits to be made available for current and older model ships that can be purchased separately…”

“Wow, that’s great!” Justy said with a clap of his hands.

“It sure is,” Lori added.

“Don’t they already have flobots on some ships?” Tristan asked. “I seem to recall reading about them.”

“As far as I know, they only have them in the Firebird Fleet,” Pockets replied, “Patch showed me an article about them in one of his trade magazines, and those bots are highly specialized for exploration. The Fleet hadn’t launched yet at that time, but after reading what was planned for the new vessels, I thought I could make one of my own to fit the needs of an ordinary ship. Beyond that they are both floating robots, there’s really very little in common between them. Moss and its software was of my own design.”

“Did they send you a contract?” Taro asked.

Pockets flipped through the document amidst copies of his drawings and technical notes and stopped at one. “Yes, here it is,” he said. He glanced over it quickly and then his eyes bugged out when he saw the payment figures stated there before him.

“May I see it?” Bill asked.  He often examined legal documents in his line of work.

Pockets nodded, handed the slateboard over to the financial advisor without hesitation, and watched the black wolf’s face intently as he looked over the language of the document.

“What does it say?” Max asked quietly, kneeling next to the engineer’s side. Before Pockets could reply, Bill looked down at him with a nod.

“I can help you go over it in more detail to make sure everything is tight and legal before you apply your thumbprint to sign,” he offered, “but upon first glance, I think you’re going to get some nice returns on your little invention.”

“Wow…” was all Pockets could say.  He was flabbergasted as he took the slateboard from the wolf and stared at the numbers again.  Not daring to speak, he merely passed around the document for the others to see.

Wow, is right!” Amanda commented. “What are you going to do with all that money, Pockets?”

The raccoon sat quietly for a moment as he thought over her question. “First, I’m going to pay off all my debts, and then I’m going to pay off Jasper’s debts too.” When the slateboard came back to him, he closed the document and then pulled out the crystal.  He handed the datapak back to Merlin and then reverently placed the data crystal back into its small box.

“I’ve missed my brother,” he said, “and it’s because of his debts that he’s no longer serving on board the Horizon. I know this won’t bring him back, but he won’t be able to use that as an excuse to be grumpy anymore.”  He said the last with a grin.

“Well, it looks like Durant’s wish will never come true,” Samantha said with a chuckle from her nearby chair. “He never did like Moss but it appears that little pie pan is here to stay.”

“Yeah, just think,” Max added. “Moss will soon be invading ships all across the Planetary Alignment!”      

*** 

Not long after the excitement of Pockets’ news, everyone moved back inside the house. The storm that had stalled over the sea appeared to have caught its second wind and it was once again advancing toward Grandstorm. Jerry and Max helped Merlin stow the patio furniture in the barn while Bill and Renny wrestled Samantha’s chair back inside the house.  The wind picked up, growing cooler, but the rain had not yet reached the shore.

Once everyone resettled inside the house, Shannon took the Suga-Stix from her children to pitiful wails of indignation. She promised to give the candy back to them tomorrow, but neither she nor her mate wanted their pups to have any further fuel. The kids were already into everything, and every time one of them had to be scolded, it was done with a sidelong glance toward the raccoon who had foolishly given them what Lorelei jokingly called drugs for kids.

Shannon disappeared into another room for several minutes before she came back out wiping her hands on a dish towel.  “For those of you who might be hungry,” she said, “we’ve prepared something for you to eat.”

Although the farthest from the dining room, Renny made it through the crowd swiftly and was already seated by the time the others arrived at the table.  The cheetah wore a wide grin as the others started teasing him as “Vacuum Lips” and he took the kidding as something he was used to.

Later after they’d all been fed and the dining table cleared, Taro approached Samantha’s chair and looked at the group that had filtered back into the front room. Conversations were in full swing as everyone apparently had some tale to relate, and the din was getting so loud it was hard to chat. The vixen studied her friend and saw the fatigue in her eyes, so she knelt down next to her and placed gentle fingertips on her arm.

“Should we go to a quieter room?” she said in a voice just loud enough for the collie to hear.  Sam looked at her in gratitude and nodded without trying to reply over the noise.  Taro took her by the arm and helped her up, but when the two of them started to leave the room, Merlin was instantly at his mate’s side.

“What’s wrong?” he asked with a mixture of dread and anticipation. “Is it time?”

Samantha chuckled, but it was Taro who answered. “Nothing’s wrong, and no, it’s not yet time.  Sam just needs a quiet room from the crowd for a while.”

“What do I need to do?”

Sam patted his cheek. “Go back to your friends, my Love,” she said with warm eyes. “Taro and I are just going to visit for a while. I will let you know if there are any developments.”

Merlin looked unconvinced, but he finally nodded. He stood rooted to his spot, wringing his hands together, ears back and tail down, while the women retired to a back room.  Renny startled him with a good-natured slap on the back.

“Cheer up,” the cheetah said with a casual wave toward one of the wolf’s nephews. The kid was currently digging in the base of a potted plant, scattering soil on the carpet. “You’ll have several of those of your own running around here before you know it!”

“You’ve got to keep me occupied,” Merlin said with a frown, “or the anticipation is gonna kill me.”

“You want to get out of the house for a while? You can show me a local club, if you want.”

The grey wolf pursed his lips. “No, I don’t want to leave the premises. Sure as I do, something will happen.”

“Well, in that case, let’s sit back down. I can tell you about a little cheetah kitten I know. Taro or Shannon will alert us if you’re needed.”      

*** 

Taro followed Samantha down a carpeted hallway, its walls adorned with framed photographs of friends and family members from both sides of the Sinclair household. She paused in mid-step at an old group portrait of the original crew of the Blue Horizon taken just prior to their maiden voyage together.

Merlin and Samantha stood side-by-side. They had dated casually prior to the business startup, but they were not yet an exclusive couple. Merlin was striking a stance with crossed arms attempting to look like the serious captain, but the glint in his eyes belied his pose. Samantha’s face beheld amusement, although she looked directly into the camera.

Jiro Brannon appeared relaxed, the bare-chested cougar ever the follower of his lupine best friend. Not yet a couple, Taro stood beside him looking so much younger than she felt now. Standing just behind her and to the side was Durant, the older grizzly bear who was “everyone’s elder brother”.  Taro felt moisture rim her eyes as she realized that the photo framed her between two dear friends who were no longer with them.

Little Sparky sat on a cushioned stool in the front of the group, dressed in a pale yellow dress with a kitchen apron adorned with a smiling kitty; this was before the lynx had developed a fondness for Asian-style garments. Standing beside her were the raccoon bookends, Patch and Pockets Porter, both of them in their usual green work coveralls. Patch’s ever-present cigar was lit with a curl of grey smoke, and Pockets held a rather large wrench across two small hands.

Taro frowned when her eyes fell upon the final member of their crew, a short red-headed human woman who had signed on as their medical officer on false pretenses that later endangered one of them on their first voyage together. It was largely because of her that Merlin rarely trusted humans, and Taro was puzzled that he would allow the portrait to hang on the wall of his home.

Samantha looked back at her friend and noticed the photograph she studied. “That seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?” she asked softly.

Taro nodded and refocused her eyes on Jiro’s smile. “Yeah,” she answered slowly. “Sometimes I wish we could go back to those times.”

The collie nodded, but then rested a hand on her swollen belly. “Those were simpler times,” she agreed, “but that would mean I wouldn’t have my family.”

The vixen looked over at her and nodded with a renewed smile. “Yes, of course. I’m sorry, but I still miss Jiro at times.”

“Taro, there’s no need to apologize,” Sam chided gently. “Jiro was a great guy.”  Laughter rang out from the front room, so they continued toward the back.  The canine led her friend to a room with a modified door. It was lower than normal and looked as if it were designed for a smaller person.

“Are you going in there?” Taro asked when Samantha ducked her head to enter.

Sam chuckled and her eyes crinkled with amusement. “It’s an old canine instinct for a mother dog to prepare a birthing den to have her pups in.  It’s a little close quarters, but there’s still plenty of room for me, my pups and a midwife.”

Taro shook her head with a grin. “You didn’t leave Merlin much room out here in the hallway to pace when it’s time.”

Sam looked behind her and chuckled. “You know, we never thought of that.”

“Too late to change things now.”

Samantha grinned at her and then ducked into the small room.  The full-sized bed was equipped with a low plush mattress to make the mother as comfortable as possible, as well as a pair of stirrups on a frame that were currently folded down out of the way. The sheets were pale blue with tiny white flowers and a row of small heated cribs lined the far wall. The ceiling was low and the indirect lighting was dim to allow the illusion of an earthen den. Even the walls were lined with dark wood paneling. On the near side of the bed was a table already set up with a pitcher of iced water that had been recently refreshed by Shannon, along with towels and a black bag of medical instruments should the need arise. A short roller chair with a cushion and a low, slotted seat back provided the only place to sit down in the small room.

Taro helped Samantha onto the bed and then relaxed in the chair as her friend adjusted a pillow behind her back so she could sit upright.  When they finally got situated, the vixen looked over at her friend.

“How are you feeling?” she asked. “Are you close?”

“I’ve not yet lost my water, but I’m sure that could happen at any time. For now, I’m fine, just a little tired. I think Merlin is more nervous than I am, but I’m glad you and the others are here to help distract him.”

“After all we’ve experienced lately,” Taro said after a brief sigh, “we could use the distraction, too.”

“Yeah, I heard what you and the others went through.  Wow, that can’t have been easy to handle.”

The vixen smiled. “You have no idea,” she replied, “but I have a good crew – well, most of ‘em, but I couldn’t do anything for Damien’s situation. Even in the midst of the crisis, he was a benefit to the crew, I suppose.”

“Damien? What happened with him?” Samantha asked. “Why isn’t he here with you?”

A frown crossed Taro’s face and she described his attitude since coming on board, covering most everything up to his arrest by the Spatial Police Force.  “He was supposed to be one of us,” she finished, “but he would never open up to anyone. We never knew why he was so secretive, right up until the SPF took him away. We’ve heard nothing of him since then. When I’ve inquired, the SPF have politely told me that we should no longer be concerned with him. That’s not right, even if I understand their reasoning.”

“It’s not easy being captain, is it?” Sam asked, patting the vixen lightly on the arm.

“Not always, but it does have its rewards.”

“Has Merlin told you about the ship?”

Taro shook her head. “No, we’ve not had much time to talk about the damages since we landed. Max tried to show him the repairs, but he didn’t seem interested.  I suppose Merlin was more concerned getting us all here quickly in case you went into labor.”

Samantha chuckled. “No, I didn’t mean the damages. There doesn’t seem to be a need in repairing the ship now that…”  She trailed off and raised an eyebrow at Taro’s puzzled expression.  “No, I don’t think he has told you,”

“Told me what? Why isn’t there a need to repair the Horizon?”

Sam studied her for a moment and then shook her head gently. “No, that should be Merlin’s job, not mine.  Besides, that would take the fun out of the recall.”

“I don’t understand,” Taro muttered. “I thought the recall was due to your pups.”

“Well, that was part of it, yeah. We did think it was appropriate that you were here for this. The rest of the news will have to come from Merlin.”

“Okay, now I’m nervous. If we’re not going to repair the ship, then our earlier fears must be true – you’re going to lay us off since we lost all those delivery contracts!”

Samantha looked surprised and firmly gripped Taro’s arm. “No, you are not losing your jobs, Taro.  Trust me!”

“But—”

“Trust me,” she repeated. The Border collie closed her eyes and leaned back against her pillow. “Go talk to Merlin, Taro. Right now. He needs to explain what’s happened before you have a stroke, and I am in need of rest.”

The vixen parted her lips to speak, but Samantha merely pointed toward the door without even opening her eyes. With a feeling of foreboding, Taro ducked out of the small room and headed back to the front of the house.       

*** 

The grey wolf was at the center of attention, reading aloud from a message he had just received on his slateboard.

“…and due to your invaluable contributions to the House of Aris, a trust fund will be set up for each of your children immediately upon notification of the births and the naming. Congratulations on your new family.  With greatest admiration, King Adion Aris, Monarch of Tanthe.”

“Wow…” Pockets said.

The wolf dropped the slateboard to his lap and looked embarrassed. “If King Aris thought he owed me a debt, I think it was long paid off with all that he’s done for us since. I need to let him know he doesn’t have to do this.”

“Never underestimate the appreciation of a ruler toward those who have helped his House,” Tristan replied. “Accept the gift with grace, son, not for yourself, but for your children.”

“After what happened between Samantha and Tinara at our wedding reception, I’m surprised the Aris family even gives me a passing thought anymore.”

“Samantha embarrassed the princess,” Shannon remarked. “It is unlikely she related that bit of information back to her family to keep the focus off her herself, especially with what prompted the confrontation in the first place.”

“Yeah, the King probably knows nothing about it,” Justy added.

Guinevere noticed Taro’s return. “How is Samantha, my dear?” she asked.  All eyes went directly to the vixen.

Taro tried to hide the apprehension she felt and gave everyone a smile. “She’s tired, but resting,” she answered. “There’s no change in her condition.”

“Her condition?” Jerry replied with a grin. “You make it sound like she has a disease!”  Everyone laughed, including Taro, glad to have the attention diverted for the moment.

“Well, her abdomen is swollen!” Renny said lively. “Perhaps she needs one of Lori’s herbal remedies to reduce the swelling!”

“Oh, wouldn’t Samantha like that!” Amanda quipped.

Lorelei laughed with everyone else, until she realized the implications of the coyote’s remark.  “Hey!” she retorted with a frown.

The conversations around them became animated with laughter, so Taro chose the moment to pull Merlin to the side while everyone else was distracted.

“May I talk to you in private?” she whispered into his ear. At his look of excitement, she added, “It’s not about Sam or the pups. I need to talk to you about the ship – in private.”

Merlin understood and gave her a nod. The two of them started toward the back door, but Max decided to join them.  The grey wolf turned to the young mechanic with a look of apology. “Would you excuse us,” he said. “The captain needs to speak with her boss for a moment.”

“Uh, sure,” the German shepherd said. While he returned to his seat, Merlin led Taro out to the back deck. Muted flashes of lightning illuminated the clouds above them, but there was no rain. The wind had picked up a bit, but as yet, it was tolerable.

When the wolf descended the steps to the grassy yard, Taro followed him meekly out past the large barn to a gazebo nestled beneath a large tree. Merlin motioned her to sit on a wooden bench built into the inside perimeter of the small structure, and then sat beside her.

Taro gave him a worried look. “What’s going on with the Blue Horizon?” she asked. “Sam told me I needed to talk to you about it.”      

*** 

Conversations in the main room of the house eventually grew quiet in consideration of the expectant mother elsewhere in the Sinclair home, prompted by Shannon’s gentle admonishment. Max, Lori and Amanda were down on the floor with Bill’s pups, quietly showing them creative things to do with a set of blocks that Samantha kept in her house just for them.

Tristan and Guinevere sat quietly apart while the others tried to keep themselves occupied as they waited. Pockets put away the Okami contract that he had been studying on Merlin’s slateboard once again, and sauntered over to the immense black Silloni.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said with a slight bow to Gwen, and then to Tristan, “May I ask you something?”

The unicorn stallion gave the raccoon a friendly smile and answered in a deep voice. “Something bothering you, son?”

“Yes, sir. I can’t seem to wrap my brain around the fact that you’re here – today - when you should still be a couple months distant out in space. Could you please enlighten me how this can be?”

“I do not believe it has started raining yet,” Guinevere mused, tilting her head slightly to listen toward a nearby window.

Tristan took up her cue and nodded toward her.  “If my lovely wife will excuse us, let us take a walk outside, Master Porter.”

“Of course,” Gwen replied.

“Uh, sure,” Pockets replied.  Being the smallest person on board the Blue Horizon, he was used to everyone else towering over him, but beside the massive form of Tristan, he felt positively miniscule. The Silloni stood up beside him and motioned Pockets to follow him to the front door.   Renny looked up curiously, but since they didn’t appear to be in distress or in a hurry, he returned his attention to the printed magazine in his lap.

Out on the front porch, Tristan motioned to a pair of rustic iron benches beneath a large tree in the yard.  Once they had settled in, Pockets looked expectantly toward the large unicorn.

Tristan leaned forward, resting elbows on his knees and focused his deep brown eyes upon the raccoon. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of the others,” he said, “but to the engineer of the Blue Horizon who discovered the key to decrypting priceless data, I will divulge the information you wish to know. However, I must insist that you keep what I tell you in strict confidence.”  Pockets swallowed with a nod, but kept his tongue.

“Thanks to your discovery,” Tristan began, “a team of engineers and scientists on Silloni began poring over the data detailing Natasha Khasho’s technology.  Despite that she was branded a pirate, the genius of she and her people cannot be denied. There were plans to many inventions created under her guidance that would be a boon to the Planetary Alignment, while there were others which would be of interest to only a few. Be that as it may, the crowning jewel of her technology is the Particle Vault system that was often of interest to public fancy.”

“She gave me encrypted plans for a small version for use on a vessel the size of the Horizon,” Pockets replied with the crook of a smile, “but I wasn’t able to decipher them until I stumbled across the Rosetta key.” He was unsure how much of his experimentation he should reveal to the Silloni Master, so he said nothing about the working system currently integrated into his ship’s engine.

Tristan nodded. “With the data at hand, our current Regent, Master Ritchka, prompted me to assemble a team to develop the technology into a prototype hybrid LightDrive and Particle Vault system. Unfortunately, time was short and we had to begin our voyage here to Dennier to make it in time for our Samantha’s wedding. Rigorous development on the new system continued in my absence and a deep space probe was used for initial testing, although it met with some mishaps. When the system was stabilized and coupled with a high-tech astrogation computer, two prototype production models were completed just prior to our return home.”

Pockets held his breath, instinctively riveted to his seat. “The smaller of the two systems,” Tristan continued, “was installed into a standard Hoshi-class cruiser, a type common to Sillon. I met with Master Ritchka in conference about it for several days when I received word of Samantha’s pregnancy. Although a couple of short test runs had been made within our star system, it had not yet been tested at greater distances. I volunteered to command two small crews to make Vault jumps within the Planetary Alignment in a series of tests.  As with all new propulsion systems, there is always a risk, but we felt confident that Captain Khasho’s technology could be combined with standard LightDrive systems. If our flights were deemed successful, the Regent would consider production of the LightDrive/Particle Vault system into Silloni-made starships that could be sold throughout the PA.”

Pockets grinned widely. “Who better to release Natasha’s secret technology to the public than the Silloni, who are so far from the rest of the Planetary Alignment that research into making faster long-distance travel possible would be expected?”

“That is essentially correct. Of course, word of the technology’s origin would have to be kept a close secret. To the galaxy at large, there are no connections between Captain Khasho and Sillon, so this will be viewed as the result of independent research, not the exploitation of lost knowledge. To this end, we are calling it the Hyld, a Hyper-LightDrive system.”

“So that’s how you were able to make the return voyage from Sillon to Dennier so quickly,” Pockets said excitedly. “Did you have any problems with braking in time?” he asked. “We overshot our destination when our own tests with Natasha’s Vault technology proved a little…”  he trailed off at the expression on Tristan’s face.

Oops…   Realizing that the unicorn had trusted him with a Silloni state secret, Pockets now felt obligated to relate his own story of experimentation in return. He had to think fast, however, as he was still sworn not to divulge the existence of Se’rei and its inhabitants, but he could tell Tristan about the test of his home-made Particle Vault system.       

*** 

Taro looked at Merlin with pleading eyes and dutifully waited for him to begin. The grey wolf knew the internal struggle his longtime friend must be feeling, but he wasn’t quite ready to jump into the heart of the matter head first. Instead, he put his arms up on the railing behind him and tried to appear relaxed.

“You seem to have had a plate full of adventures lately,” he said in a casual tone.

“Yeah, but no more than usual for the Blue Horizon,” Taro replied, feeling anything but relaxed herself. “Why is it that a common freighter such as ours always seems to attract attention? Why couldn’t our business be mundane?”

Merlin laughed. “That’s because our crews have been anything but mundane, Taro. You’ve seen the characters we’ve always had on board. Have we ever had anyone in the crew that could be called ordinary?”

Taro was unable to keep a smirk from tugging at the corners of her mouth. It wasn’t long ago that she felt Amanda Black was as ordinary as they come and Merlin’s comment recalled that sentiment. She couldn’t bring herself to voice that personal opinion, however.

“Still,” he continued, taking her silence as a negative, “you have to admit that we’ve had a good bunch since the beginning.”

Taro tilted her head. “Are you including Connie Davies?” she asked, remembering the crew portrait inside the house.  The wolf’s ears laid back at the mention of the human’s name, but the dark look in his eyes was there only an instant and vanished just as quickly.

“Connie was an exception,” he said in a flat tone. “I learned from my experience with her and counted that as a lesson in trust. You can never be sure of anyone’s background.”

“Don’t I know it,” Taro muttered. “Imagine my shock when I discovered that Damien was on the run for the deaths of two children.”

Merlin nodded. “Connie was the only really bad egg I had in my first crew, so perhaps Damien was yours.  Everyone else you hire from here on out should be just as eccentric as the rest of us!”

The vixen gave him a smirk. She didn’t realize it, but she was beginning to relax a little from their conversation. “Yeah, well that’s going to have to be one of my next priorities. While the Horizon is being repaired,” she said with a sidelong glance at him, “I’ll need to hire a new load master to fill the vacancy.”

“So the fiasco with Damien is not duplicated, I’m going to have the SPF do extensive background checks on all applicants,” Merlin replied, purposely ignoring her attempts to fish for information on repairs to the ship. “I want to know the next person we hire for the company is clean.”

Merlin looked up at a flash in the clouds and then listened for the rolling thunder that rumbled a heartbeat later. A few sprinkles of rain began to patter the top of the gazebo, so Merlin stood up and motioned for Taro to follow him. The wolf darted out into the light rain, weaving back and forth across the grass.

“Quick! Between the drops!” he quipped with a grin. Taro followed him, trotting across the lawn to the large barn up near the house; he tapped in a passcode set into the side door and opened it. They darted inside, barely wet from the raindrops, just as the sky opened up. Merlin shut the door on the sudden downpour and flicked on the overhead lights.

Taro looked out into the barn and whistled at the sight before her. A sleek personal star cruiser with gleaming red and black paint occupied most of the large building. The Starwolf-class vessel was small enough that it could be flown across the planet and land without a spaceport launching pad, yet it also had long-range capabilities for interplanetary travel. It could sleep up to three, but only required a single operator to fly it. Its sleek sport design was of a type popular across the Planetary Alignment, and its atmospheric wings were currently retracted within the fuselage for storage. Taro knew he had purchased it as a company ship, but this was the first time she had seen it.  The name Christopher Watson was painted in a stylized script beneath the bridge window panels across the nose, its registry number below it.

Parked beside the cruiser was the long passenger van that Merlin had rented to pick up her crew from the spaceport. Next to the van were two smaller air cars that Taro guessed were Merlin and Samantha’s personal transports. Along the side wall next to a small motorboat laden with fishing poles was a riding lawn mower and a tool board equipped with numerous yard instruments. Near the door they had entered through was a large workbench fully stocked with hand and power tools.

“This way,” Merlin told her.  She followed the wolf under the tail of the Starwolf to a small cubicle in a back corner next to shelves of assorted odds and ends. Inside the enclosed cubicle were three chairs, a computer desk and a cot. Merlin sat behind the desk and Taro dropped into a chair in the corner after first removing some maintenance manuals.

“Is this the doghouse where Samantha sends you when you’ve been bad?” Taro teased.

Merlin grinned. “No, but I may use it as an escape as the pups grow and I need a moment of peace. Bill has something similar at his place that he uses for that purpose.”

Taro chuckled, but then looked up at a sound. The storm outside moved in full force; winds shook the building and the lights flickered briefly when a loud crack was instantly followed by a rattling boom. A bolt of lightning had struck something just outside the structure, causing the vixen’s ears to flatten back against her head.

She looked back at Merlin’s wide eyes that looked comical above a silly grin. “What?” she asked with a lopsided smile.

“I love these storms,” the wolf admitted, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if Renny was clinging to the ceiling rafters about now!”

“You’re mean!” Taro rebuked with a grin of her own.  The storm raged on, but the barn had been constructed to withstand the frequent gales that blew in off the sea. Merlin merely winked at her and kicked his boots off onto a rug beneath his desk.

The pair of them sat for several moments, doing nothing more than listening to the wind, rain and thunder. After a while, Taro grew used to the storm and visibly relaxed. She wasn’t frightened by the tempest, but she held a healthy respect for what a storm of this violence was capable of doing. It might be a while before they could brave the weather to get back to the main house, so she settled in to her chair and looked over at the wolf. 

It was the first time she had been alone with her former captain in what seemed like ages, and a memory jumped to the forefront of her mind. “Since we’re alone and away from potential ears,” she said to him, “I just remembered there was something I needed to tell you in private, for your ears only.”

Merlin merely looked at her curiously and gestured that she should continue. “Do you remember Rex Concolar, that cougar we took on as a passenger to Kantus not long ago?”

The wolf twitched an ear and nodded. “He’s contacted the home office at least once a week since then, wanting to know if you’ve found his lottery ticket yet. At first, he was angry and belligerent, accusing us of stealing his millions, but then he became apologetic after hiring a private investigator to check into our company finances. When we had no sudden rise in income, and the lottery office had no takers to claim the prize, he finally decided we hadn’t cashed it in. Please tell me you found his ticket.”

“No such luck,” Taro told him. “Sorry.”

“Okay, so what else should I know about him if you needed to talk to me in private?”

The vixen shook her head, causing the blue-tipped white feather by her right ear to flutter beside her. “Nothing about him, but I wanted to give you some details about that particular voyage.”

“Go ahead.”

Hesitantly, she told him about Pockets and Justy’s experimental Particle Vault system, how the engineer had implored her to let him test it, and her own weakness to grant him permission. Merlin listened quietly, neither voicing comments nor displaying body language to display his thoughts. Encouraged that he didn’t appear upset, Taro went on to describe over-shooting their goal and winding up far beyond the accepted boundaries of the Planetary Alignment.

He seemed genuinely intrigued with the lapin race on Se’rei and the fortuitous meeting with Calissa, but when Taro related the assistance that Captain Khasho’s former engineer gave with the Vault system, he suddenly started to fidget. Taro finished up her tale and folded her hands in her lap, silently awaiting a reprimand.

Merlin leaned forward and rested his elbows on the desk. “Why didn’t you tell me about this before?” he asked. “That was some time ago.”

“I was paranoid,” Taro replied. “I was afraid of releasing that kind of information over an open channel that could easily be intercepted. The whole PA has been searching for Natasha’s secrets. If word got out that we had a working Vault unit on our ship, who knows what kind of attention would be drawn to us.” The vixen wrung her hands and took a slow, deep breath. “Besides, I promised Calissa that I wouldn’t tell anyone about the existence of Se’rei, with or without news of the Vault. I’m sure that once word of another lost colony of Earth got back to the scientific communities of the PA, it would be swarmed over with explorers and exploiters.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Merlin agreed. “They’ll be discovered, eventually, but there’s no need to speed up the process.”

“Despite our problems, Pockets is convinced his Vault system is usable, but we would need to upgrade our astro-navigation computer to a more sensitive unit in order for it to be of any real use. The cost of repairs to the Blue Horizon fairly eliminates any possibility of that, so I’m afraid he’ll have to forget about it for now.  I don’t even want to think about the legal ramifications, either. Every world in the PA would demand we turn over Natasha’s technology to them.”

“I’m impressed that you’ve thought all this through so thoroughly,” Merlin told her. “You have a good head on your shoulders, Taro. I think you’ve made a fine captain.”

The vixen beamed at his praise. “Thank you, Merlin,” she said with a tight throat. “Coming from you, that means a lot to me. I – I don’t think I’ve really done that great of a job, through.”

“Nonsense. No command is easy, even for a mere freighter,” Merlin assured her with a friendly smile. “Space presents so many variables that you can never predict what’s going to happen from one day to the next, so you must always be on the alert. I’ll say it again, because I believe it.  You have done a fine job, Taro.”

“Thank you.”

Another close lightning strike boomed and reverberated off the sides of the building; the wind and hard rain didn’t sound as if either would let up any time soon. To give herself time to swallow the personal embarrassment at Merlin’s praise, Taro got up to her feet and peered from the cubicle out into the barn.

Behind her, the grey wolf mulled over his thoughts, but his eyes never left the vixen. She held herself well, even relaxed against the door frame looking out away from their conversation. Many things had happened behind the scenes at the home office that she was unaware of, and he felt the lull in their conversation might be a good time to reveal them.

“Taro,” he said in a calm voice. He had spoken quietly, but loud enough to be heard over the din of the storm outside.  The vixen looked over her shoulder at him, and he motioned back toward the chair she had occupied.

She sat down, but before Merlin had a chance to say anything more, she held his gaze and said, “I know you’ve been occupied with the birth of your pups, but I think we need to make plans to get the Horizon repaired and back in business as soon as possible. We don’t want to lose any more clients by our—”

Merlin shook his head. “Taro, I don’t know how to tell you this other than outright, but I don’t intend to have your ship repaired.”

“What?” Taro exclaimed.

“I’m going to decommission her, probably early next week. Now, before you—”

“Merlin,” Taro gasped with wide eyes, “this Horizon is only three years old! Surely the jobs we lost didn’t amount to the cost of our ship?”

“Taro…”

“I knew we were getting canned!” she spat in anger.

“Taro, calm down,” Merlin said patiently. “That’s not the end of the story.”

The Hestran fox snorted, crossed her arms, and then glared at the wolf. It was a confrontational stare that would normally have garnered Merlin’s wrath, but her emotions were in such a state of flux that she tensed her Hestran muscles and silently dared the wolf to come at her for it.

Instead, Merlin relaxed back in his chair and looked at her with compassion and spoke in a gentle tone. “Just as my original ship was damaged and replaced by another, so is yours, Captain.”

That took the vixen off guard. She wasn’t sure she’d heard him correctly. “What did you say?”

“That’s right, your ship is being replaced by a shiny new freighter.”

Taro blinked rapidly and swallowed. “But… the new Okami models aren’t due to be released for another couple years,” she said. “I remember Patch once saying each new model is produced every five years.”

Knowing he finally had her attention, the wolf explained. “The new ship is not an Okami freighter, but a —”

“Is it one of the new Prime-class cargo haulers from Earth?” Taro interrupted. She had seen the ads on the StellarNet channels, as well as in some magazines, but had not really given them much thought. What she did remember of them, however, the ads seemed to be promising the advancement of interstellar travel with a new type of LightDrive engine.

Merlin shook his head, but smiled at her renewed interest. “No, this is a brand new design from Sillon, a Kirin-class freighter. This one resulted from the cooperative efforts of Silloni and Ryujin engineers, and Tristan has delivered it here to us.”

“You’re… deviating from the Okami line?” Taro asked, quietly surprised.

“They’ve served us well, but times change under certain conditions.”

Taro thought it over for a moment. “Isn’t a kirin some kind of unicorn-dragon mix from mythology?”

Merlin grinned. “Yes, I think so. Since the Silloni resemble unicorns and the Ryujin as dragons, that would be fitting, wouldn’t it?”

“How long has this new design been on the market?”

The wolf sat up and then leaned forward. “Here’s where it gets interesting, Taro. The new freighter is the prototype of the new Kirin-class of freighter. You’ll be flying the first one built, but that’s not all.  Tristan’s original plan was for Blue Horizon Freight Transfer to test it for the Silloni government as an additional ship in our fleet. However, since the damage to the Horizon is so extensive, the new vessel is going to replace her.  You see, Taro – no one will be losing his or her job.”

“This…  is the reason for the recall?” the vixen asked. “You must have been planning this for some time.”

“Months, actually,” Merlin admitted.  “The design has been in development for the past couple years, but recent advancements in technology altered its final configuration and Tristan’s people were most anxious that we be the ones to test it for them.”

“Why? Is it because of Samantha’s ties to Master Tristan?”

“Partially, but the Silloni representative said it’s primarily because of our help a few years ago when that star between here and there went nova, cutting them off from the rest of the PA. They were never in any danger from it, but they’ve never forgotten our proactive endeavor to check in on them when the rest of the Alignment had written them off.”

Taro sat back in her seat, amazed at the turn of events. Merlin hadn’t brought his slateboard out with them, but he opened a folder on the desk and pulled out several large photographs. He spread them out on the desktop in front of the vixen. “The Kirin holds roughly the same amount of cargo as your Okami, but as you can see, it’s no longer a flying saucer. It’s longer, more slender, though not as tall as the former ship.”

Taro studied the pictures. The vessel was royal blue with a pair of double white stripes running along its sides from bow to stern. Instead of one large cargo bay door, there were two of them side by side on the port side of the ship. It had two airlock hatches, one on the port and the other on the starboard. Something like this would have eliminated a lot of headache on our last voyage, she thought to herself. Thick polarized glassteel windows dotted the upper deck on both sides.

The photos didn’t depict the interior of the vessel, but from first glance, she guessed there were only two decks, rather than the three of their Okami. The aft section flared out slightly over the engine compartment, but none of the photos focused on the actual propulsion nodules from the rear. Beneath the relatively flat underbelly were caterpillar treads decorating its trio of landing gear, and it was easy to see the rotating mechanism that could turn them for lateral movement once on the ground. The bridge was located above and just behind a softly rounded nose, and the ship’s name and registry number was painted just below the forward windows. 

Blue Horizon

PA28080 

Taro looked up at the wolf.  “I thought the name of the new ship was the Kirin.”

“It was originally, but now that’s only the name of the class of vessel. Since it is going to replace the Blue Horizon, I had it registered under the same name and the different vessel class required a new registry number. PA1138 is going to be retired just as soon as it is decommissioned.” Merlin grinned and added, “You didn’t think my company flagship should continue to be called the Blue Horizon?”

Taro chuckled. “No, I wasn’t thinking,” she replied. “You said that we would be testing the prototype for Sillon. How long is this test supposed to last?  Will we get to buy the ship from them after the testing is over, or will we need to turn it back over to them?”

“Testing period is for two years. I know that’s a long time to test a ship, but this one has a special engine system and they want to make sure all the bugs are worked out of it before it’s released to the public market.”

“What’s so special about the new engines?”

Merlin leaned forward onto the desk, his eyes practically glowing with excitement. “The ship has the latest Silloni LightDrive engines, but they’ve been specially modified into what they’re calling a ‘Hyld’ combination propulsion system.”

“Hilde?”

“H-Y-L-D: Hyper-LightDrive. It’s basically a Particle Vault and LightDrive combination.” The vixen’s eyes went wide, but Merlin continued. “The same decryption key Pockets used to decipher the plans Captain Khasho gave him for your home-made particle vault system on the Horizon was used by the Silloni to translate the crystals she stashed in the young mouse’s endosuit. I had Alex Rogers deliver the crystals to Tristan’s people for decryption, but they were unsuccessful cracking the code until Pockets stumbled upon the key.”

The wolf paused and tilted his head, listening to the unrelenting thunder outside. “Once they discovered what they had, the Silloni immediately began researching how they could use the technology. Although Captain Khasho originally developed the particle vault system, those of us in the know have sworn not to make any association to her with the public, so they’re calling it a Hyper-LightDrive instead. Since the Mytha star system is so far from the rest of the PA, no one should question such a world coming up with an interstellar propulsion system designed to travel faster than standard LightDrive technology. To the rest of the galaxy, it will be the Silloni who developed this system.”

“I can understand that,” Taro said with a nod. “When Pockets begged me to let him install his components, I lectured him on the ramifications if word got out that we had Natasha’s technology. If the general knowledge to public mentions nothing of her, it should be safer to release it to the masses with everyone thinking that someone else came up with a similar system as hers.”

“Not even Captain Khasho’s own people will be aware that she gave away her technology.”

Taro twitched an ear. “Wasn’t Master Tristan’s daughter a member of Natasha’s crew for a while? I’m sure she knows of the Hyld’s origin.”

Merlin shook his head. “Tristan told me that she is unaware of the data crystals delivered to him, and therefore doesn’t know the origin of this technology. He confessed that he purposely left her out of the loop due to her association with the Pirate Queen. After all, Laura did run away from home to join up with pirates. Although he’s happy she has returned, he doesn’t know how strongly her loyalty to Captain Khasho’s people might be. As far as she and her surviving crewmates are concerned, the Silloni has done research along similar lines as Natasha had.”

“What is she doing now?” Taro asked.

“She joined up with the Silloni Spatial Forces after spending some time as a counselor for disabled children. She wanted to go out into space before, but they wouldn’t hear of it. Fearing she might do it again, Tristan and Guinevere have given their blessing for her enlistment into the SSF.”

Rumbles of the storm continued, but the thunder seemed to be moving on. Hard rain now fell without so much wind, though it still sounded as if there was a water fall overhead. Merlin checked his watch and discovered they hadn’t been out in the barn as long as he thought they had.  He settled back into his chair and put his bare feet up on the desk.  Taro resisted the urge to reach out and tickle his toes briefly and settled on fingering her ornamental feather instead.

“The Silloni have built two versions of the Hyld for testing,” the wolf continued. “The smaller of the two was installed in a light cruiser common to Sillon that Tristan is now personally testing, and they are currently installing the same engine in another vessel to be tested by the Spatial Police Force. The larger version was installed into their new Kirin freighter prototype. The LightDrive part of the system by itself is faster than standard LD engines currently in use throughout the Planetary Alignment, and there are already plans to include them in all new Silloni-built spacecraft. Your ship, however, will be the only freighter in the galaxy equipped with a Hyper-LightDrive system.”

“How are we going to keep something like this a secret?” Taro asked. “Giving it a fancy new name isn’t going to shield what it can do from the rest of the PA once we start making fast trips around the cosmos.”

“There won’t be any need to be secretive,” Merlin replied. “Tristan will be releasing an article to select scientific journals concerning the Hyld system, with a cover story that since the Blue Horizon rushed to the planet Sillon’s aid when the rest of the PA had written them off, our company was selected to help Sillon test its new prototype over a two-year period. Until the testing period has been completed and all bugs are worked out of the system to ensure that it’s safe before releasing it commercially, there will be no further release of the technology beyond the three vessels. This is standard research and development into any new technology. The Kirin-class freighter itself had already been in development by the Silloni before Pockets discovered Captain Khasho’s information; it was just about ready to be released on the market with the new Silloni LightDrive engines anyway, and would have undergone a similar period of testing before being released to the public.”

“Merlin, all this sounds great, but you must know that we’ll be under close scrutiny by the rest of the Planetary Alignment for those two years,” Taro pointed out. “Everyone will want to get a closer look at the engine system and will likely try to come up with all kinds of ways to get inside. The scientific community will be drooling to see how it works, our competitors in shipping will be jealous of our ability to deliver goods faster than they can, and I’m sure that pirates and other dishonorable organizations will want to possess the technology for their own purposes. Are we going to be able to defend ourselves from everyone?”

“At my request, the Kirin is equipped with combat weaponry similar to what your ship has now. The engine room has an encrypted biometric door lock to prevent outsiders like Ms. Bennington from doing damage or trying to steal the technology, and any passengers will be limited strictly to the upper crew deck. All visitors will be forbidden without exception from entering the engine room, as will most of the crew.”

Taro furrowed her brow at that last statement but Merlin continued without noticing her expression. “Pockets and Max will have to enter the encryption with a bioscan of their hand each time they enter or exit the Hyld compartment. As commander and first officer, of course, you and Renny will also have your hand scans encrypted to enter, but I do not want anyone else entered into the biometrics, no matter how much you think the others can be trusted. This is simply a measure of extra security that I agreed to make on behalf of the Silloni government.”

Taro nodded with a frown. “This is sure to give our company an edge over our competitors. We’ll have to be on constant alert against sabotage or other attacks like the one that nearly cost us Renny’s life. What about the Hidalgo Sun and the Mooncrest?”

“The Kirin is the only Hyld-equipped freighter Sillon has produced, and until our two-year test period has expired, your sister ships will continue operating normally using standard LightDrive engines. Since we’re not making any PA-wide announcements that we’ve got this system, it may take a while before news of our capability is spread word-of-mouth to the public.”

“Won’t that work against us?” the vixen wanted to know. “As a business out to make a profit, aren’t we supposed to advertise our capability to get things delivered faster?”

Merlin smiled. “Normally, yes, but when the home office makes arrangements with our clients to deliver their goods, we’ll be stacking the jobs closer together instead of spreading them out in three-to-four week ship dates. Despite the lost jobs of late, we still have plenty of work. Once some of our customers realize just how quickly we can get their cargo delivered, I’m sure many of them will be repeat clients.”

For the first time since they started this conversation, Merlin frowned and released a heavy sigh. “Having the new Hyld system will likely increase the Blue Horizon’s workload exponentially. It takes twenty-four hours for the jump components to recharge, so there will be at least a one-day layover after every delivery.  However, this means you will likely have new cargo to deliver every two or three days. You’ll no longer have weeks of inactivity on the flight between systems. This will force your crew into cargo detail more often, and likely produce fatigue from the increased activity. Due to the recharge, you will have a day off after every delivery, but with the frequency of jobs, I think your crew should be granted a full week of downtime after every eight weeks of business. Additionally, you won’t have to re-supply the ship after every voyage. Once a month should be sufficient to get everything you need restocked during downtime.”

“Despite our new capabilities, I don’t know if everyone is going to be thrilled with the increased workload,” Taro mused. “Everyone, including myself, is used to having time to sit back and relax while we’re traveling between systems – time to work on personal projects, read, watch movies, and so on. I can already see Amanda stressed from trying to coordinate all the jobs packed so close together.”

Merlin thought about this for a moment and then nodded. “After we’ve informed your crew of the new ship and new workloads, we can grant each member of the Horizon the opportunity to either accept or turn down service on the new ship. If there are any who don’t think they can live up to the workload, their positions can be offered up to their counterparts on the Hidalgo Sun or Mooncrest. If there are any takers, then the personnel will simply have their assignments transferred between the crews. No one will lose his or her job from these decisions, unless someone willingly decides to resign due to the changes.”

“That sounds reasonable. May I make a suggestion?”

“Always.”

“While we are keeping the origin of the Hyld system from the rest of the PA, I think it would be prudent to do the same with everyone within our company. Granted that Pockets, Max, Renny and I will know, but there’s no need to tell anyone else that this was a result of Natasha’s lost technology. Let them all believe it’s a Silloni invention. That way, if anyone does resign, there won’t be any danger of the secret leaking out when they leave. It would also curb the potential of someone blabbing about what we have and where we got it during shore leave.”

“That’s a good idea. The less who know about it, the greater will be our chances of keeping a lid on this,” Merlin agreed. “Who knows, after the testing is done and Silloni Hyld ships become commonplace throughout the Planetary Alignment, then the system’s origins can be revealed.”

Taro nodded quietly, picking up the photographs again and studying the Kirin’s sleek design. “Well, maybe the next two years will give me what I asked for.”

“What’s that?”

“Mundane voyages,” the vixen said with a wry smile. “With such an increased workload like this, we won’t have time for any adventures along the way.”

Merlin chuckled. “Perhaps, but I wouldn’t count on it. Shipping freight across the galaxy should be mundane, but that never seems to be the case for the Blue Horizon. Besides, you’ll still have standard LightDrive capability that can be used without vault jumps. I’m sure some jobs will be accomplished between worlds within the same solar systems and won’t require the Hyld system at all.”

“What about the astro-navigation system?” Taro asked after a moment of thought. “The one on the Horizon wasn’t sensitive enough to brake in time, which is why we shot too far past Kantus on our test run.”

Merlin nodded. “The Silloni have already encountered this oversight during the initial test flights with unmanned probes. The Kirin has the highest sensitivity astrogation system they possess.  I don’t think you’ll be repeating that mistake with the new ship.”

The pair of them fell silent, and rain became the only noise in the barn hangar for several long minutes. After a time, Taro dropped the photos onto the desk and then stretched. Merlin checked his watch again and looked as if he wanted to head back to the house to check on his pregnant mate. However, the vixen had something else on her mind they needed to discuss before the distraction of puppy birth took over.

Merlin dropped his bare feet down onto the floor next to his boots and began to slip them on. “What about my load master?” Taro asked suddenly.  The wolf looked at her in veiled frustration for only a second before he released a boot and sat back in his seat.

“That will be tricky, given the sensitive nature of the new ship,” he muttered. “We’ll have to ask the SPF to do an extensive background investigation on anyone we might consider for the position.”

“Why don’t we offer the position right away to the load masters of our sister ships before we hire anyone else?” Taro suggested. “We can give them first choice, and if there’s a taker, then we can hire a new person for the crew that loses its person.”

Merlin thought about it for a moment. “The idea has merit,” he admitted, “but the load master for the Mooncrest is Armando Jensen. Although he’s kept his nose clean and has given me no further cause for trouble, I don’t want him on the Horizon.” He looked up at Taro and gestured toward the photos. “We can offer the position to Mark Littlefeather of the Hidalgo Sun, if you wish, but not Armando.”

Taro raised an eyebrow. “It doesn’t matter to me,” she said slowly, as if choosing her words carefully for the wolf, “but what about your mistrust of humans?”

Merlin surprised her with a lopsided smile. “Mark has always shown proper respect for his alpha and has been the exception in my dealings with his species. I trust him far more than I do my old competitor.”

“What if he declines? It will mean quite an increase in his workload.”

“We won’t hold it against him if he chooses not to transfer. We’ll then take applications for the job with an extensive security background check by the Spatial Police Force. Honestly, though… do you really think he might turn down the opportunity to crew on such a flagship?” Merlin asked with a continued smile. “I wouldn’t.”

The vixen relaxed visibly. “In that case, I’d gladly accept him as my new load master if he wants a job on a soon-to-be overworked ship.” She said the last with a smile.

“While we’re on the topic of new crew members,” Merlin said, “there is one more thing I forgot to mention. As part of the deal with the research and development of the Hyld, a Silloni engineer will join your crew for the first year.”

Taro frowned. “A watchdog, so to speak?”

“No, more of a specialist. Pockets will remain your chief engineer, but this new person will be your expert on the new ship and its engines. If something breaks down, you won’t be able to call the nearest shipyard for parts on a prototype, so you’ll have someone on board with knowledge of its construction. She will be a regular member of your crew, even helping with cargo detail along with everyone else.”

“She?” Taro repeated with interest.

“Her name is Suzuko. She’s a Silloni engineer who has been with the Kirin program since its inception and was also part of the team who attempted to unlock Natasha’s code before Pockets found the key. She has full knowledge of the Hyld’s origin and she was on board the first manned hyper-jumps for both ships. As you put the ship through a regular routine, she will be making reports on the ship’s performance. If there are problems, or even suggestions for improvements to make before the design goes into mass production, this will be the time to make them. Your crew will have full input rights for any aspect of the new ship, but please don’t let them get too nitpicky about every little thing.  Remember, you are testing the ship for someone else. It’s not your personal vessel, so Suzuko will need to keep a rein on Pockets’ personal need to experiment. The program engineers may welcome his insight, but if he has suggestions to make for major improvements, he will have to go through Silloni channels for permission before he can do them.”

“What happens to the ship after the two years are up?”

“Providing all goes well and the ship is still in operation at that time, we will turn the prototype back over to them, in return for the first three ships off the commercial line at half price. We can replace our entire fleet with the latest Kirin-class freighters that have been upgraded and equipped with the suggestions and recommendations your crew makes during the test period. “

“Wow!”

“Exactly,” Merlin replied with a nod, “but keep in mind that since this is a prototype, there are likely to be bugs and glitches in the system that you may have to deal with on a regular basis until Suzuko, Pockets and Max can get them all smoothed out.”

“Yes, that’s to be expected. You mentioned visitors,” the vixen reminded him. “Are we still going to take on space-available passengers?”

“Not at first,” Merlin told her, “although it may be necessary to ship some associated personnel with the cargo you deliver on occasion, as we’ve done in the past. We will try to keep those to a bare minimum, allowed only as needed. Space Available was designed to help bring in extra income, but since the Horizon will be taking on more and more customers, it won’t be necessary. After the incident with Ms. Bennington, I’m reluctant to let non-personnel on board, especially in a ship using a propulsion system that all our competitors would give their first-born to possess, but I know there will be some cases where it can’t be helped.”

“With this extra income,” Taro said, “would you authorize me to hire licensed guards to watch the ship during our downtimes? Once word starts to spread about our new capabilities, jealous competitors may attempt to sabotage us. The guards can keep the snoops and saboteurs out.”

“If you can hire from SPF-accredited security organizations, yes, I’ll approve it.” Merlin looked at his watch again. “Is there anything else you need to discuss in private?” he asked.

“I have more questions, but nothing that can’t be answered in front of the crew later,” Taro replied, noting his clock-watching.

Merlin reached for a boot. “In that case, I want to get back to the house and check on Samantha.”

“I hope you have an umbrella,” the vixen muttered, an ear tilted upward toward the continued sound of rain.

“No need. We have an underground tunnel between the barn and the house to keep us out of the weather.”

Taro grinned. “You’ve thought of everything, haven’t you?”

“It came with the house, actually.”

“Well then, let’s go check on Sam and Renny.”

“Renny?”

“To peel his claws out of the rafters after that storm.”

Merlin gave her a smirk as he stood up and tamped the toe of his boot on the ground. “Either that, or we’ll have to drag him out from beneath a bed, leaving scratches in the bare wood floor. Either way, I may have to charge the repairs of his claw marks in my woodwork against his pay!” The pair of them laughed at their friend’s expense and then the wolf led her out into the barn toward a set of steps that dropped below the foundation of the structure.      

*** 

The next morning arrived, calm and peaceful. The storm had passed in the night, leaving the land refreshed under a clear sky. A slight breeze wafted gently in from the sea, giving the air a salty tang and the temperature was pleasant.

Samantha opened her eyes with a quiet yawn, her pink tongue curling as she stretched lazily. She’d slept well through the night, despite the soreness of her lower back from carrying her pups. As yet, they had not made an entrance into the world, despite everyone’s predictions they would arrive during the storm.

The gentle sea breeze that spread out thin beige curtains over the king-size bed was cool and she pulled up a fluffy white comforter with blue and yellow flowers up to her chin. She turned and looked to her left, but Merlin wasn’t there beside her.  The clock showed it was still early, but he had a habit of getting up before she did every morning to jog along the coast for the exercise.

She closed her eyes again with a final stretch and then snuggled further down into the covers. No sooner had she done so, there was a light tapping at her door.

“Sam, are you awake?” asked a quiet voice.

“Yes, come on in,” the Border collie responded with a smile.  It pleased her to see her vulpine friend, glad she was able to be here during this special time.

Taro eased open the door with her elbow and brought in a bed tray with a glass of juice, a bowl of oatmeal, a small plate of buttered toast and a jar of red plum jam. “Shannon’s not here yet, so I decided to prepare a bit of breakfast for you,” she said with a smile.  She set the tray at the foot of the four-poster bed and then helped her friend into a sitting position with several pillows behind the collie’s back.

“Thank you.” Sam sat with the tray across her lap and picked up her teacup.

“How are you this morning?” Taro asked her.

“Tired, as always. I really thought they would arrive last night, but I had nary a kick from any of them.”

A smirk crossed Taro’s face. “Speaking of kicks, Shannon wanted me to give you a message.”

“What is it?” Samantha asked around a slice of toast.

“Blue Horizon!”

Sam’s eyes went wide and she gave a small lurch beneath the breakfast tray. One hand went immediately to her belly and then she narrowed her eyes at the vixen.

“It works!” Taro exclaimed in surprise.

“Stop that!” Samantha hissed. “I can’t believe she told you about that!”

Taro laughed aloud and sat in a nearby wing-back chair decorated in paisleys. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist trying it out.”

Samantha growled playfully. “If you have to mention your ship, just say ‘Horizon’ – that by itself doesn’t get my insides kicked!”

“Oh, all right,” the fox said with a grin. “Just trying to help kick start your day!”

“You’re horrible, Taro. As mischievous as he is, not even Merlin’s done that to me.”

“Does he know about it?”

Samantha smiled and shook her head. “Actually, no, but you’d better not tell him!”

“Why not? If we keep the one in there kicking, perhaps the others will get tired of him and induce their own labor to get out!”

“Don’t you dare,” the Border collie warned, raising her eyebrow at her friend and spreading jam over another slice of toast. “They’ll come out in their own good time.”

“Aw, you’re no fun.”

“I’m lots of fun!” Sam countered. “Just ask Merlin.”

Taro snickered and pointed toward the canine’s swollen belly. “I think we can all see that Merlin thinks you’re loads of fun!”

Sam’s eyes went wide. “I can’t believe you just said that!” she whispered. Taro only giggled in reply. The collie shook her head and took a bite of her toast. A moment later, she asked, “Speaking of my mate, where is he?”

“He’s playing leader to my crew once again,” Taro replied. “He got up early to take a jog, but Renny, Jerry, Mandy and Max wouldn’t let him go without them. They’re all in shorts, tee-shirts and sneakers, jogging right alongside him somewhere out on the road.”

“Good, I’m sure they can all use the exercise in the clean air. He does that every morning before preparing for work, so I’m glad he has the company today. How come you’re not out there with them?” Samantha asked. “Don’t you have a daily workout routine of your own?”

“I do, but this weekend I’m sticking close to your house.”

“Anyone else awake?”

“Tristan and Gwen are having coffee out on the back deck in the cool air and Pockets is out in the barn checking out a mechanical glitch in the Starwolf for Merlin. Lori and Justy are still in bed, I think, and I’m in here with you.”

“Did you talk to Merlin last night about the Horizon?”

Taro nodded. “Yeah, we had a nice long chat out in your barn while it was raining. He gave me the low-down on all that’s going on with the ships, giving me a stroke in the process; I’m fine, now that I have all the details. Renny and I took a hot soaking bath before bed last night and discussed it.”

“What was his reaction?”

“I think he’s more excited about it that I am,” Taro admitted. “He’s never really been content to just sit around during our three-to-four week voyages across the Planetary Alignment, so he’s looking forward to having more to do. He doesn’t have a problem with the secrecy surrounding the vault system and figures that even we will forget about its origins after a while of calling it Hyld. Unless Merlin mentions it to the others during their jog, we’ve not told anyone else of the new ship. I’m sure Pockets and Max would want to be out in it at this moment if we told them, but right now we’re here for you, so I’m not going to have my people scattered all over Grandstorm until you’ve popped out those biscuits.”

“My biscuits, eh?” Sam laughed. “I’ve been told that I have buns in the oven, so I guess that fits!”

“Even if you don’t go into labor for a while, I’m content to stick around and relax. If you get tired of me hanging around, just let me know and maybe I’ll go for a jog down the shore.”

“I appreciate you bringing me breakfast, Taro. If you’ll take the tray back to the kitchen, I think I’m going to waddle into the shower and then get dressed.”

“You need any assistance?”

“Nope, that I can do myself.”

“Okay then, I’ll see you later,” the vixen replied, reaching for the tray. “I should probably go check in on Pockets or he may have all the wiring out on the floor of the Starwolf!”

“Checking up on Pockets is always a good thing,” Samantha said with a laugh.       

*** 

Jerry looked up from the local printed newspaper he was reading, silently noting that Samantha had begun pacing the floor, her back arched to hold the weight of her unborn children. With nothing to do but wait, most of the crew had grown bored and gone outside in the yard to busy themselves with various activities to keep from fidgeting. The expectant mother appeared to be restless as well. As he studied her, he watched Lorelei approach from the kitchen and say something quietly to her. Samantha shook her head slowly and resumed her pacing, leaving the bunny with a frown.

Lori returned to the kitchen where she and Shannon were preparing lunch for everyone. Jerry watched the canine pace for another moment before he returned his attention to the article he had been reading.

“Are you okay?” Amanda asked.  Jerry looked up and saw Samantha leaning against the back of the couch behind the coyote.

“Sorry,” Samantha said. “It’s hot in here and I guess I got a little lightheaded.”

Jerry frowned. The house was comfortably air conditioned, even a little cool to his nose, and the ceiling fans had been on for hours to circulate the air.  Sam picked up a paper magazine from a lamp table and fanned herself with it.

“Maybe you should sit down for a while,” Amanda suggested.

Samantha gave her a smile, but shook her head. “No, I’m too restless to sit still right now,” she said. “I think I’ll be better if I’m moving around.”  She walked around the furniture to a thermostat on a wall and checked its readings. She frowned and tapped the control to lower the temperature further.

Jerry heard her mutter to herself about the inefficiency of their cooling unit as she resumed her pacing. The fox followed her back and forth across the room, his orange eyes tracking her across the top of his paper.

He was about to return his attention to the article once more when he saw her falter and sit down heavily in a large wingback chair. He was up and across the room to her side before Amanda had noted her action.

Samantha looked up at him with watery eyes when he bent over to have a look at her. She was panting and holding her stomach lightly.

“What is it?” he asked quietly. Amanda crouched down beside him.

“I feel nauseated,” the Border collie replied, “and really hot.”

Jerry nodded to himself and took her pulse automatically. “Mandy, would you get Shannon, please?”

“Shouldn’t I get Merlin?” the coyote asked.

“Shannon,” he repeated patiently. Amanda trotted across the room and disappeared into the kitchen.

“I don’t feel well, Doc,” Samantha said. “What’s wrong with me?”

Jerry gave her a gentle smile. “You have five foreign bodies within you that may soon want out for some fresh air,” he said in a soothing voice.  She smiled back at him weakly, but only panted in reply.

“What is it?” Shannon asked a moment later. She wiped her hands nervously on a kitchen apron, Lori behind her mimicking her actions unconsciously.

“Is she sick?” the lapin doe asked.

“She’s going to be just fine,” the doctor answered and glanced over at Shannon.  “I think you should turn the kitchen duties over to Lorelei. Sam is going to need a midwife now.”

“She’s gonna have her puppies?” Lori asked excitedly.

“Not yet, but soon. I think we should get Sam back to her bed where Shannon can watch over her. She’s hot and nauseated, and I think I have something in my med kit to calm her stomach.”

“There’s no need, Jerry,” Shannon replied, putting a gentle hand on her sister-in-law’s shoulder. “I have everything she needs to calm down and ride this out already prepared in Samantha’s birthing den.”

The fox gave her a nod. “In that case, let’s help her to her room, and then you can take care of her from there.”

Although she knew the reason, Samantha was still slightly annoyed that she couldn’t get back up from the chair by herself. Her legs felt weak and the room had begun to wobble – or was that her that was wobbling? Shannon and Jerry helped her to her feet and she felt herself shuffled slowly down the narrow hallway.

Her sister-in-law opened a door and then turned back toward Jerry. “There’s not enough room for the three of us in there, so I can help Sam inside from here.”

“All yours,” the physician replied without argument. “Have fun, you two.”

Shannon chuckled. Sam would have scowled at him for his remark, but another wave of dizziness washed over her.  With Shannon’s help, she took two steps toward the bed and then stopped to catch her breath. The birthing den had trapped a nice pocket of cold air and felt better than the front room, but she was still hot.

Shannon turned to close the panel behind them, but just as she grabbed the door handle, she heard something wet splashing on the tiled floor behind her. She turned and looked back at Samantha, whose eyes were as wide and round as the shape she made with her mouth.

“Come on, dear,” she said to the expectant mother. “Shed your nightgown so I can get you cleaned up and into bed.  It begins.”    

*** 

Although there had been no plans to do so, Taro’s crew had been slowly congregating on the wooden deck behind the Sinclair house.   The afternoon sun was hidden above the shade of a large tree beside the deck and the temperature was pleasant with gentle breezes from the nearby sea. Lorelei kept everyone supplied with glasses of tea, soda, water, virrinade or coffee, merrily serving her friends.

Merlin and Bill were pacing the floors inside the house, while Tristan and Guinevere calmly kept them company in the front room. Jerry’s help had been politely turned down by Shannon, so he was outside with his shipmates. With Samantha so near to giving birth, no one wanted to be away from the house.  Not even Bill’s children could provide much distraction for the gathered crew, so the pups played together out on the lawn, happily chasing one another around the trees, the barn and through the gazebo throwing fallen virrin fruit at one another, while the adults fidgeted collectively.

Taro had been talking privately with Renny in low voices, but the others soon realized that the conversation had nothing to do with either Samantha or their intimate history.  Renny’s eyes were too wide, his tail twitching and his arms gesturing just a bit too much for comfort’s sake.

“Okay, are you two gonna let us in on the big secret?” Pockets finally grumbled, rocking back and forth in a wooden glide chair. His legs were too short to push off from the ground, so he had one foot up on the deck guard rail.

Taro looked up and noticed that all eyes were upon her and her first officer. She glanced back at Renny, who gave her an imperceptible nod. She reached a quick decision and stood up to lean back against the railing. Her ornamental blue-tipped white feather fluttered beside her and she reached up absently to still its motion.

“I suppose this is as good a time as any to give you all the news,” she said. “I had hoped to wait until after the pups were born so nothing would distract you, but I think a distraction is what we all need right now.”

“Uh oh, here it comes…” Justy said with a gulp. Amanda put a nervous hand on his arm, dreading the news just as Taro had dreaded it with Merlin the night before.

The vixen looked over at her chief engineer. “Pockets, do you remember your little experiment with Natasha’s Vault system?”

The raccoon stopped rocking. “Uh, yeah…?”

“I want you, Max and Justy to go out to the ship tomorrow and dismantle it.”

Huh?”

“Get everything out, including Calissa’s black box, and return the engine room to its original state. We need to—”

“I know you don’t trust it,” the engineer grumbled, “but I assure you I can make it work with a new astrogation computer I just got my paws on.”

“Please don’t interrupt me just yet,” Taro said patiently. “I have more to say.” She gave him a compassionate look, knowing she hadn’t started out as well as she had wanted. She was never good at dragging out a mystery, so she decided to tell them outright.

Okay, here it is. Merlin is replacing our damaged ship with a new freighter from Sillon,” she said to looks of surprise. “The new one—”

“Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to have ours repaired?” Jerry asked suddenly.

“No interruptions,” Taro reminded him with a smile. The doctor sat back with a furrowed brow. “I’ll answer any questions you may have after you hear what I have to say. For now, please just listen.”

There were annoyed and fearful faces looking back at her, so she set her jaw and began.  “The Silloni have developed a new Hyper-LightDrive propulsion system that works along similar lines of the Vault and they have produced two prototypes for testing. Master Tristan is testing a small personal cruiser equipped with the new system.”  Pockets nodded, having already heard about the Silloni test from the unicorn himself, with a promise of silence. However, he was unaware of what Taro was to say next.

“The second prototype is a larger unit and was installed into a new freighter class that was already being prepared for the market. Due to the help we provided to Sillon a few years back, Blue Horizon Freight Transfer has been chosen to test the new freighter equipped with the Hyper-LightDrive system.” Several mouths opened in excitement, but Taro held up a finger to quell their expected comments and questions just a bit longer.

Spurred on by their own enthusiasm, the vixen went on to tell them about the new ship and their two-year testing phase. The only thing she kept from them was the origin of the new Hyld system, as she had agreed with Merlin. Everyone was riveted to her words and faces brightened with each new thing she told them about the new Blue Horizon.    

*** 

Merlin was a nervous wreck. The fur of his face and the top of his head was all in disarray from running fidgety hands over his head for the past three hours. His eyes were red and his feet were tired from pacing around the house. Bill was in better shape, having only just been anxious, but both wolves felt worn out from the long wait. Although no less in anticipation for the news, Tristan and Gwen had gone out to the rustic iron benches under the tree in the front yard to get some fresh air. Every time Shannon came out of the birthing den, both lupine males would rush to greet her for the news. However, she would only grant each of them impatient looks as she rushed to the kitchen for ice, water or other items.

Merlin unbuttoned his shirt completely and pulled the shirttail from his trousers. He paced absently around the room, narrowly missing the furniture with each revolution. He heard a door open and looked expectantly toward the hall. When Shannon emerged from the shadows, there was a different expression on her face. Merlin felt a lump in his throat as he tried to read the stoic look in her eyes.

Unable to maintain the façade any longer, Shannon let a wide grin spread across her face.  “Congratulations, Merlin.  You have two daughters and three sons!”

The new father had to stop himself from howling for joy, but he reached out for his sister’s hands with a sudden worried look. “Samantha?” he asked hesitantly.

“She’s fine and so are all the puppies,” Shannon replied with a nod to his concern. “There were a few worrisome moments during the birthing, but everything turned out okay. Everyone’s been cleaned up and ready to see you now.”

“You mean I can —”

“Yes, brother!” she laughed. “You can go in now!”

Merlin bolted down the hall and Bill tried to follow, but Shannon held him back. “Whoa, there,” she said with a chuckle. “Let the father see his new pack first. You can see them in a minute.”

“Yeah, okay,” Bill replied and gave his mate an excited hug. He pulled back, brushed a hand over his face to calm himself, and then looked at her with bright eyes. “Have they chosen names?”

The tan wolf led him to the couch and then sat down beside him wearily. “Sam says they have, but she wouldn’t tell me what they were.”

“Why?”

“They agreed that Merlin will be the one to decide which male name goes with each of his sons, and she would do the same with their daughters. Moreover, due to the presence of Tristan and Guinevere, Sam wanted Merlin to announce each of them in a Silloni naming ceremony as each puppy is brought out for the official grandparents to see. I thought it was a good idea and didn’t press her for the names.”

“Speaking of the grandparents,” Bill said, “they’re out in front of the house. You go give them the news; I’ll tell everyone out back.”

“That’s a good idea.” Before she let him get up, however, she wrapped her arms around his neck and nuzzled him affectionately.    

*** 

Merlin reached the low door of the birthing den and tentatively opened the panel into the small dark room. Samantha looked up wearily from the bed, but when she saw who it was, her expression softened. She lay on her side facing his direction and beckoned him near.

“See what we made, my love?” she whispered.

The wolf moved forward silently, afraid to disturb the five tiny pups suckling at their first meal. He sank to his knees beside the bed and rested his chin on top of his hands on the mattress. There was moisture in his eyes and a smile on his face that threatened to split his jaw in two.  He swallowed as he studied them all, and then he looked back up at his mate.

“You did a fine job,” he whispered to her, stretching out a hand to clasp her fingers gently. “They’re beautiful.  You’re beautiful!”

“Thank you. I can’t get up, so you’ll have to come here so I can kiss you.”

Merlin complied, giving his mate his undivided attention.  Moments later, he drew up the room’s solitary roller chair and sat beside her bed. He studied the tiny pups and could already see both canine and lupine physical characteristics in them. Hed never been a father before, and had never really spent much time around small children, but the instincts within him had come alive and he already felt protective of them and their mother.

One pup stopped feeding to catch its breath, so Merlin gently scooped up the tiny body and leaned forward to take in the small female’s scent. He gave her a small lick and then pulled her up against the chest fur through his open shirt. The pup whimpered briefly, but then sniffed at the new body warmth. Merlin stroked her back gently with a forefinger and swallowed at the depth of emotion in his chest. When she whimpered again for her lost breakfast, Merlin set her back down beside her mother.

For a long while, Merlin spoke quietly with his mate, and repeated his action with each pup that paused long enough it its feeding for him to pick it up to get acquainted.    

*** 

The guests had all gathered back inside the house in the front room, and when Merlin walked out to face them, no one could blame him for the unabashed look of pride on his face. He held up one hand with two fingers extended, and the other hand with three fingers displayed.

“Two girls, three boys,” he said proudly. “All are healthy, and so is their mother.” Pockets let out a sharp whistle, startling Lori into a fit of giggles, and Renny began a round of applause with a wide grin. Merlin allowed them to show their celebration, and when they had calmed down, he gestured toward the two Silloni unicorns occupying a matching pair of large wingback chairs.

“In honor of the official grandparents,” he said with a slight bow of respect toward them, “Samantha and I would like to follow a Silloni tradition with a Naming Ceremony.” The bright look in Guinevere’s eyes was filled with emotion, and Tristan’s chest swelled with pride. The large black equine may have once been Regent on his world, but he was still susceptible to certain private honors where family was concerned. Samantha’s family had meant a great deal to them, and the love for their adopted daughter was genuine.

Merlin turned toward the hallway behind him and made a brief gesture.  A moment later, Shannon appeared with a pale red blanket in her arms. In the folds of the blanket was a tiny puppy. The new father gently picked up the naked infant and then held it up for all to see. At this stage, the male child looked little different from a non-sentient puppy, but humanoid characteristics would continue to grow into well-defined limbs and features in the coming weeks, as it was with most all of the anthro-races that made up the Planetary Alignment.

The small male made no sound as he was presented to his guests. He was predominantly lupine in appearance with brown, grey and white fur, but the small ears were longer and rounder than the usual triangular ears, evident of his mother’s heritage. The tiny eyes would remain closed for nearly two weeks, so it would be a while yet before the color of his eyes could be determined. Merlin carried the infant over to the grandparents, held the bundle out toward them and said, “This young one will be known as Alexander Merle Sinclair.”

Keeping with the custom of their people, Tristan and Guinevere stood up from their seats and bowed forward so that their alicorns crossed over the top of the puppy.

“Alexander Merle,” they repeated together, “may your life be long, happy, full and prosperous.”

Amanda began to clap, but Taro stopped her with a light touch. With a smile of embarrassment, the coyote put her hands together in her lap with a look of apology toward the lupine father.

Merlin responded to the unicorns with a bow of his own as he licked the top of Alexander’s head. He smiled warmly, holding the infant up against his chest, and then he returned the puppy to Shannon’s arms.  His sister gave him a pleasant smile and then retraced her steps back down the hallway. Merlin refrained from looking back at his friends while he awaited her return.

Moments later, Shannon presented another bundle to her sibling. Merlin held up a small female with fur of red and brown, and although the product of a canine and lupine union, her ears and other features appeared distinctly lupine. She let out a soft whimper as her father presented her to her grandparents.

“This little girl will be known as Cassandra Diane Sinclair,” Merlin said quietly.

Tristan and Guinevere crossed their horns and responded, “Cassandra Diane, may your life be long, happy, full and prosperous.”

Merlin bowed, licked his daughter lightly on the head and then held Cassandra up against his chest. He turned, set her in Shannon’s arms, and then put his hands behind his back as he waited.

Like Alexander, the next puppy was predominantly lupine in appearance, but the young male had Samantha’s Border collie ears. His fur was an even mix of grey, black and white, and he wriggled around in Merlin’s hands. The pup’s father grinned as he held onto the squirmy child.

“This son of mine will be known as “Marcus Derek Sinclair.”

“Marcus Derek, may your life be long, happy, full and prosperous.”

Shannon brought out another female puppy. This little girl looked as if she were entirely Border collie, and with the pattern of her monochrome fur, she was a tiny version of her mother. When Merlin picked her up to show her off, the infant snuggled up close into her father’s hands and began sucking on a fingertip.

“This daughter of mine will be known as “Katherine Amy Sinclair.”

“Katherine Amy, may your life be long, happy, full and prosperous.”

Only when Merlin tried to give the puppy back to Shannon did little Katherine begin to whimper at being separated from her father. Lori let out a soft “awww” and there were a few chuckles in the group.  Shannon grinned as she gathered the little girl in the blanket, and then she disappeared back into the back room.

When Merlin held up his final offspring moments later, there was a couple of gasps from the guests. As much as Katherine resembled Samantha, this infant male looked like a miniature version of Merlin. His coloring, ears, fur pattern and even his facial eye mask bore a striking likeness to his father. While his siblings had remained passive in Merlin’s hands, this little guy sniffed the air and even attempted to get up on his front paws facing toward the larger wolf. Merlin smiled and touched noses with his son before presenting him to the grandparents.

“This one will be known as Ramius Christopher Sinclair,” Merlin said proudly.

“Ramius Christopher, may your life be long, happy, full and prosperous,” Tristan and Guinevere said together. Gwen’s voice cracked with emotion and Tristan put a strong arm around his mate’s shoulders.

Merlin returned little Ramius to Shannon’s blanket, and after she had disappeared into the darkened hallway, Tristan stepped up to the wolf and clasped hands with the new father.

“Congratulations, son,” the Silloni unicorn said with full, rich tones. “You and our Samantha have produced a fine litter that you can be proud of.

Merlin swallowed and looked up into the former Regent’s deep brown eyes. “Thank you, Master,” he replied with a chest unconsciously puffed up in pride.

Guinevere bent down to pull him into a warm embrace. She beamed at him with moist eyes and said, “I am so proud of you both. I know your little ones will be well-cared for with enriched lives.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” Merlin replied.

The room was intensely quiet when they parted, and everyone could hear Amanda’s whispered question to her captain. “May I clap now?”

Merlin laughed aloud and said with a nod, “Yes, please do. Samantha’s birthing den is soundproofed, so make as much noise as you wish!”

The coyote grinned widely and began clapping vigorously. The others joined in, and Renny let out a sharp whistle. Pockets, Max and Justy cheered in unison, and the others expressed their congratulations in different ways.

Renny, Taro and Jerry approached Merlin at the same time, but the cheetah managed to secure his friend’s hand first. “It looks like you’re the alpha of your own wolf pack now!” he said cheerfully.

“Congratulations, Merlin,” Jerry said with a smile. “You have a fine family of pups.”

Taro pushed both males aside and slipped her arms around Merlin’s neck. She gave him a quick peck on the side of his muzzle and then hugged him. “You’re a daddy now,” she said. “Treat those young’uns good, train them well, and you’ll have half the compliment of a new crew for a future generation for the Blue Horizon.”

“He can train up my children for the other half!” Bill Wallace piped up as he joined them. “They could use good jobs!”

“I figured they’d all grow up juggling numbers like their father,” Merlin quipped as he pried himself from Taro’s arms and gave his brother in law’s hand a good squeeze.

“Possibly, but you know children – they never seem to grow up to follow their parents’ wishes,” Bill replied. “Take me, for example. My folks wanted me to be a starship designer, but I can’t draw a straight line to save my life – even with a computer!”

“That’s true,” Shannon said from behind the group. “That’s why his sisters now the head of the design team for the Firebird Fleet on Alexandrius instead of him.”

“How is Samantha?” Taro asked. “Is she going to get to come out to revel in the adulation of the masses?”

“Sam’s tired and now sleeping,” Shannon replied. “The kids are tucked into a warming crib so she can get some rest, but I would imagine they’ll be ready for another feeding in a couple hours. Once she’s ready to come out to see the sun, Samantha will be ready to visit with you all. For now, she needs her rest.”

“May I speak with Merlin alone, please?” said Guinevere.  The group parted to allow the white Silloni mare access to the wolf.

“Of course, Ma’am,” Taro replied, hooking arms with Jerry and Renny. “C’mon, you two. It’ll be a while before Sam’s ready to see us, so let’s go back outside where we can talk about our new ship. We have pictures!

Merlin allowed himself to be led to a quiet corner of the room. Guinevere held both of his hands in hers and spoke in a gentle voice. “My dear Merlin,” she said, “Tristan and I have been Samantha’s legal guardians since she was a child, and although she grew to adulthood and went off to follow her own direction in life, we have always tried to be there for her in times of difficulty. Although the great distances have not often been helpful in her times of need, we have always done our best to make ourselves available to her.”

“Yes, Ma’am. Samantha has told me much of her life with you, and Im most grateful for your love and affection for one not born of your own blood,” Merlin replied quietly. “You were influential in her upbringing, and had she been raised by her biological parents, she might have grown up to be someone else who may have never come my way. I am indebted to you for her.”

Gwen nodded. “Thank you,” she said. “It is of those influences I wish to speak. We have no authority and make no demands to have any sway in the rearing of your young, but if you would permit us, Tristan and I would appreciate any opportunity you may grant us to take part in their lives.”

Merlin looked up at her in surprise. “Ma’am, I feel confident that I can speak on behalf of Samantha on this issue. It’s likely that a Dennieran upbringing may differ from the methods you used with your children, but we would be grateful for any benefits you can bring to the lives of our pups – not necessarily the wealth of currency, but in the wealth of your knowledge, experience and wisdom.” He gave her a smile and added, “Not to mention the wealth of your love and compassion.”

The mare’s eyes crinkled in delight. “Thank you, Merlin. May I make one small request of you?”

“Name it.”

“I know you hold Tristan and myself in high regard – this much our Samantha has told us, but we both would be pleased if you would drop titles of office or status when speaking to us. Please… use our names. We are family now.”

Merlin nodded with understanding. Hed once received a similar request from a Tanthean princess. “It may be a difficult habit for me to break, Guinevere, so I ask your patience until the practice becomes comfortable for me,” he said with a smile.

Gwen smiled at the use of her name. “Thank you, Merlin. Now, let us return to your guests. I imagine there are others who would like to pat you on the back.”

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