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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 4

— Episode 40

"New Contracts"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

Jerad Porter paced the yard behind Merlin and Samantha’s house, his small hands jammed into two of his namesake pockets and his feet making tracks in the now-dry grass along the tall iron fence. He was happy for Merlin and Samantha on the birth of their children, but now that the event had finally taken place, the engineer was most anxious to see their new ship. He had been with the Blue Horizon since Merlin had originally set up the business a decade earlier, and although hed become intimately familiar with each vessel to carry the name, he was not particularly attached to the specific machine. From what Taro had told them of the new Kirin class freighter, he was anxious to see it and start to familiarize himself with its new systems.

He and his brother had been servicing Okami class freighters built on Dennier for nearly fourteen years, and while he knew those systems through and through, he was ready for something new. He and Jasper had often experimented with existing systems to improve performance, but with the prototype of a ship, everything was new. There would be plenty of opportunities to test and improve upon the freighter before it even went on the market, so he was now in the enviable position to mold and shape the vessel to his whims.

It bothered him little that there would be a Silloni engineer assigned to them for their first year. He would still be Chief engineer, and would tap the new person’s knowledge of fledgling technology. It would also be nice to have another individual on board with whom he could hold coherent technical conversations. Max had learned much in his short time, but he was still inexperienced and was lacking in practical knowledge. The young mechanic could learn a lot more with another engineer on board to guide him.

Pockets had enjoyed working on the H-model Okami version of the Blue Horizon, but as far as he was concerned, it was now an old and damaged tool to be replaced. Ironically, his new contract with Okami Corp for his Moss designs would limit the flobot for use only on Okami freighters. Yet another tool, Pockets would miss having Moss on board the new ship, so he might have to come up with a different flobot design to work with the Silloni security systems. That was a challenge he was more than ready to face.

Anxious to get started familiarizing himself with the new vessel, Pockets had been to Merlin and Taro twice, entreating them to let he and Max go see the new ship. However, the new father was still too distracted with his family that he would do nothing more than tell Pockets to be patient. They would all go out to see the Kirin the first thing on the morrow. Pockets even tried to convince the wolf to divulge the location of the new ship, but Merlin refused to tell him where it was parked.

The raccoon continued his pacing, but then looked up at the sound of footsteps in the grass. Renny wore a smirk on his face, but Pockets was in no mood to hear about anything else that Merlin may have discovered about his children. However, Jerad was not the grumpy sibling of the Porters, so he greeted the cheetah with a look of amusement.

“What’s tickling your fuzz?” he asked.

Renny chuckled and shook his head.  “You, Justy, Lori and Max have all worn down Merlin’s patience,” he said. Pockets’ eyes lit up with hope. “He still doesn’t want to leave his new family just yet,” Renny continued, “so he has asked Master Tristen to take us all out to see the new ship. He’s already given the security codes to Taro so we can leave as soon as everyone’s in the van.”

Pockets tried to split his face with a wide grin. “What are we waiting for?” he asked, taking a few steps toward the house. “I’ll race ya to the van!”

Renny raised an eyebrow at the raccoon’s challenge to race a cheetah, but he gave the engineer a grin and nodded his chin. “I’ll give you a head start,” he said, getting down into a sprinter’s stance.    

*** 

Renny guided the passenger van along the marked lanes toward the spaceport tarmac, following Tristan’s open-air vehicle at a safe distance. Talk had been animated on the drive from the Sinclair home on Totter’s Lane, but now voices were hushed as they drew nearer their anticipated destination.

“Is this a joke?” Pockets asked, hanging onto the back of Taro’s front seat. “Master Tristan’s taking us back to our ship!” Indeed, their familiar Okami H-model freighter rested on its landing gear directly ahead of them, the patches over its battle scars still an ugly blemish.

Taro grinned at the raccoon over her shoulder and shook her head. “No joke, Pockets.  Merlin had landing pad eighteen reserved for us when we came in to Grandstorm. The Kirin is on pad seventeen and Tristan’s cruiser, the Kokoro, is on pad sixteen.” She pointed past their vessel, where they could just see the softly pointed nose of another ship beyond. “We landed right next to our new ship!”

“I hope the Horizon isn’t jealous,” Max said from somewhere in the back, “sitting next to her replacement.”

Keeping up with the mechanic’s analogy, Justy replied, “Nah, Max, she’s ready for retirement. She’s got several million miles of travel on her bones and she’s so damaged that repairs will never be made.”

“Well, that’s only partially true,” Jerry countered. “I heard Merlin and Bill discuss selling the old ship to a local vocational technical school that uses decommissioned ships like this for their trainee mechanics to work on. It won’t go for a top-credit price, but with its structural damage, it would be difficult to sell it otherwise.”

“At least it won’t be in a junk heap,” Amanda added.

“Like the last one,” Max murmured sadly.

“The Horizon deserves better than that, Amanda added.

“When do we get to move in?” Lori asked. “At least we won’t have far to take our stuff.”

“Tonight we’re just here to visit and look around,” Taro answered. “The call-sign transfer of the Blue Horizon name cannot take place until the old ship has been officially decommissioned tomorrow afternoon, and until that happens, we can’t set up shop. Merlin’s already made arrangements to have local officials on hand to do their officiating.”

Renny followed Tristan’s vehicle around their freighter and soon the new ship came into view. Taro locked her eyes onto the vessel she had seen only in the photographs she had passed around to her crew, and saw instantly that the pictures didn’t do it justice.

“Wow, would you look at that!” Justy exclaimed. Although not as tall as the Okami freighter, the Kirin was longer and more slender, a fact accentuated by a pair of double white stripes that ran the length of its sides from bow to stern just beneath a row of polarized glassteel windows. The vessel’s base color was royal blue and the early evening sunlight hit it just right for it to glisten. The Kirin rested on triangularly spaced landing gear, each a set of caterpillar treads that sat low beneath the relatively flat underbelly. There were aerodynamic nubs at the bottom of the structure beneath a pair of cargo bay doors that likely housed loading ramps not yet extended.

Renny pulled up beside Tristan’s parked vehicle on the vessel’s port side near the primary hatch. They knew from the photographs that another airlock hatch occupied a similar position on the starboard side of the fuselage. Taro and her crew piled out of the van as soon as the cheetah set it onto the ground and shut off the engine.

Pockets started to run for the hatch, but then checked himself and stopped.

“What’s the matter?” Max asked from his side.

The raccoon turned to him with a grin. “I just want to take it all in before I touch her,” he said. “Take a look there, Max. You see where the aft section flares out slightly? That’s over the propulsion nodules and will be our domain. C’mon, let’s go look at her rear!”

Taro watched the mechanics trot away and gave Jerry a smile. “Did you see the sparkle in his eyes?” she asked.

“Yeah, they were practically glowing,” the doctor replied with a laugh. He glanced toward the softly rounded nose of the craft and saw the ship’s name and registry number painted on the underside of the curvature. The photos had shown the same name and number below the bridge windows, but that was on the upper surface. It made sense that it would be repeated below for landing crews on the ground to identify the vessel when coming in.

“Come on, Taro!” Lorelei called to her from the extended ramp below the airlock hatch. Justy and Amanda stood with her, and all acted as if they were awaiting permission to open holiday gifts. “Unlock it so we can go inside!” the bunny whined.

“Alright, I’m coming,” Taro said. She looked around for her first officer and saw Renny quietly conversing with Tristan beside the van.

As the captain approached the airlock, Jerry silently studied the walkway ramp. It appeared that while in flight, it would swing up into a recessed trough around the airlock and fit flush into the fuselage to maintain the vessel’s aerodynamic profile. Likewise, he noted, the dual cargo bay doors fit flush with the sleek surface. They were currently closed, but he idly wondered what method they used to retract when open.

“Move aside, Lori,” Taro told the white-furred doe. “I need to be right where you’re standing.”  Lorelei scooted to the side, bumping into Justy and nearly knocking him off the ramp.

Taro slid open another flush panel that revealed a key slot and ten-digit number pad above it. The vixen retrieved a small plastic card from within the envelope she had carried from the van and studied the security passcode. She tapped the numerical sequence on the key pad and was rewarded with an active green diode.

Standing beside the airlock, they could hear the internal mechanism cycle a moment before the panel pulled in several inches and then slid to the right within the hull. Just inside was the pressurization chamber, large enough to hold four suited people, if needed. Since the ship was on land in a friendly environment, the internal airlock door was already open. In flight, both panels would be closed and sealed against external climates.

Justy rushed through first and found a control panel just inside. Overhead light panels came on, but instead of standing inside the cargo bay, they found themselves in a wide corridor with walls of azure. A glassteel window on their right looked out into the hold, but the connecting pressure door was farther up the passage. That entrance was also equipped with a locking number pad, an extra measure that would keep potential passengers from getting into whatever cargo they might be carrying.

Rather than looking into it, however, the group followed the passage across the breadth of the vessel, bypassing several intersecting doors; at the other end, they walked directly into an airlock to the outside.

“Did we get turned around?” Lori asked. “We’re right back where we started!”

“How?” said Justy. We walked in a straight line.

“This is the starboard airlock,” Taro reminded them. “This ship has two of them, one on each side.”

“I think one of the doors we passed back there must have been the lift,” Amanda suggested, hooking a thumb over her shoulder.

“What about the others?” Justy asked.

“Probably storage closets for pressure suits, equipment or access to internal systems,” Jerry replied.

About face,” Taro said. She headed back the way they came, and after a moment, they saw Renny standing inside the open door of a large elevator lift located exactly halfway between both airlocks.

“What did you find?” he asked.

“Just the back door,” Justy replied. He moved past the cheetah into the lift and made room for the others who filed in behind him.

Jerry activated the control and the elevator took them up quickly. When the single door panel slid aside, they stepped out onto earth tone flooring. Automated lights in recessed panels came on immediately and illuminated a short corridor that led away to both port and starboard sides of the ship, much like the hallway they had just left behind on the first level. Instead of concluding in an airlock, however, the ends of the passage made right angle turns toward the aft areas of the vessel in parallel hallways that mirrored one another.  Lori looked down the long starboard corridor and saw a row of door panels on both sides of the passage. Amanda went to the end of the port corridor and saw much of the same thing.

Due to his being the shortest individual in the present group, Justy noted that all the doorways and corridors seemed higher than usual. He had no doubt that it was due to the ship having been designed by larger Silloni unicorn and Ryuji dragon engineers.

“Here’s the bridge,” Renny said. Everyone turned to look at the cheetah. The lift had opened up next door to the command center and they had completely missed seeing the gold-painted panel beside them.

“I’m going exploring,” Justy said with a wave. He disappeared down the portside corridor with Lori in tow, while Jerry and Amanda wandered off down the starboard hallway. 

Taro looked at Renny and smiled. “That leaves you and me, Luv, she said brightly.

The navigator gave her a smirk and then a quick lick on the cheek before he turned toward the interior of the bridge.

“Want to see if the door has a lock on it?” he asked slyly. Taro laughed and gently pushed him into the room. The lights here didn’t come on automatically, so the vixen fumbled around a moment before finding the touch pad beside the door. The illumination was not bright, giving just enough light to read instruments labeled in Standard.

The bridge was an oval shaped room, with a large curving glassteel window occupying the forward wall. There were stations right up front, with the other stations arranged in a semi-circle behind them. Upon closer examination, Renny discovered that the left forward console was designated for astrogation, while the one next to it was marked as the helm, though the ship could be piloted from either station due to switchable touch screens.

The room was not overly large and instrumentation covered most of the walls and low ceiling. Taro guessed that once powered up, the room would have plenty of light from backlit dials and control touch pads.

Renny sat down in the primary pilot seat and slid his tail through the slotted chair back. He had to adjust the seat to his anatomy since its last occupant must have had a larger butt than his, and then he looked over the console before him. He was relieved to find a standard set of guidance shifts with swivel handles that would control all three axis, four foot pedals on the floor and several other levers mounted on both sides of seat. The console itself was equipped with indicators and controls for all aspects of flight, for interstellar and atmospheric travel. He looked at the low ceiling above him and saw controls for the Hyld system within easy reach.

Mommy, may I take it out for a test drive, please?” the cheetah quipped with a smile. Taro pursed her lips and shook her head with a mock stern look. “Not today, Junior,” she replied, walking toward two door panels at the back of the room.

One opened up into a small lavatory, and the other into a small room with a desk built into the wall with two recessed cabinets. Taro assumed it was designed to be the captain’s office, but she noted there was no door out into the hallway. Whoever came to see the captain while she was in there would have to come in through the back of the bridge compartment to see her. It was not a problem, just a noted difference.

“Why don’t we go check out the cabins and see what the beds are like?”

Renny raised his eyebrows over a grin. “Feeling frisky already?”

“No, silly, but I do want to see the rooms. As fearless leader, I get to pick out mine first.”

“That’s not fair! What if I wanted the room you choose?”

Taro smiled at him. “In that case, you might have to just share it with me.”

“Yeah, I thought so. You are feeling frisky!”

The vixen laughed and grabbed his wrist. “C’mon, Ren-Ren, let’s go see what we have.”     

*** 

“Well, the Infirmary was rather generic,” Jerry muttered, stepping out into the corridor with his coyote companion. He shut off the light and closed the door behind them.

“It’s larger than the one on the Horizon,” Amanda assured him. “You should be pleased with that.”

“Yes, but there’s too much automation in there,” the fox replied. “I can alter the place to my liking, though. At least there’s a good-sized cabinet built into the wall that should hold all our paper records from the boxes in my quarters, anyway.”

“Speaking of quarters, I want to see what our new cabins look like here,” Amanda said. She turned around, walking backward along the hallway, looking up at the doctor with a smile.

“What are you so cheery about?” Jerry asked.

“Samantha had her puppies, Silly! That should make anyone cheery. Why are you so grumpy today?” Amanda countered with a grin.

The fox stopped at a random cabin door without answering and thumbed the control. The panel slid aside and he reached in to turn on the lights. Amanda walked back to him and hooked an arm through one of his. He raised an eyebrow at her and then led her inside.

Amanda and Jerry stopped just inside the door, both of them wearing sudden frowns. The cabin was considerably smaller than the ones they had on the Okami freighter. The bed was little larger than a twin, tucked into an alcove in the wall, with storage above and below it. Across from the bed was a dresser, also built into the wall, with six drawers below the counter and a moderate size vidscreen mounted above it.. Next to the dresser was a closet large enough to walk into. However, once it was filled with clothing, there would barely be room to turn around in it. A full-length mirror occupied the inside panel of the closet door. Beside the wall at one end of the bed was a cushioned chair before a built-in desk that was equipped with a monitor and touchpad keyboard. At the other end of the room was another door that led to a small lavatory with a multi-species pedestal toilet, a counter with a sink and a large shower. There was no bathtub for soaking, something that Amanda loved using in her current cabin on board the Horizon.

In all, the entire cabin was no larger than a single-occupancy hotel room. It was a nice room, just smaller than what they were used to.

“I don’t believe this,” Jerry muttered. “They want us to spend all our time in here when we’re not on duty?”

Amanda had to check her own disappointment before responding. “Well,” she said quietly, “Taro did say that with the new engine system we wouldn’t be spending weeks at a time out in space between worlds.  I guess the engineers didn’t feel we needed much room if we weren’t going to be in them as much.”

The doctor looked over at her and nodded. He let out a long sigh and sat down on the edge of the bed. “I guess that makes sense,” he said, “but I don’t think I like it.” He poked at the mattress to test its firmness and added, “It may be faster, but I think we should be glad that Merlin didn’t have to buy this ship.”

Both Jerry and Amanda had joined the crew of the Blue Horizon long after Merlin had acquired the current H-model Okami freighter. Unlike the other, long-time members of the crew, they’d never stayed in the smaller cabins of the original G-model vessel the business had started out with. In comparison, the crew quarters of the Kirin-class freighter were a little bigger than those on that original freighter, but considerably smaller than the one they currently used.

“It’s a prototype,” Amanda reminded him. “One of our tasks will be to make suggestions and recommendations for improvements to the company for future models. I vote we propose larger cabins as a design change.”    

*** 

“It’s not as big as our quarters on the Horizon,” Justy said as he stretched out on the bed of a cabin he and Lori had ducked into, “but I like it!”

The white doe stretched out on the mattress next to him. “Why?” she asked. “I admit it’s cozy, but it’s a lot smaller than what we have now.”

Justy grinned and began to pet the soft fur of the arm she draped across him. “I always thought the Horizon’s cabins were too large for my tastes,” he replied. “I’ve stayed in some cabins in a luxury liner that were smaller than this, but a larger room is harder to keep clean.”

“Yeah, well, you don’t have as much stuff as the rest of us,” Lori agreed. “Your cabin is always so sparse and looks almost empty. Why is that?”

“I’m still trying to figure out why most of you keep as much stuff as you do!” the koala countered with a smile. “I have only what I need, with a few things that I fancy, but there’s no need to keep loads of stuff that you may only use or even look at once in a long while.”

The bunny’s blue eyes sparkled with her smile. “Those bits of things and stuff are pieces of memory, Justy. I can pick up my trinkets and associate good times with each one of them. They help me remember those times, when I might otherwise forget them.”

“Did you see all the clutter and junk that was all over Damien’s cabin when we cleaned it?” the koala asked. “If that stuff was reminders of good memories, I don’t even what to think about what he might consider bad times.”

Lori rested her chin on his shoulder with a frown. “Well,” she mused sadly, “he probably didn’t have many good things to remember. In his case, I suppose his stuff was just clutter that he never bothered to throw away.” She fell quiet for several moments and then moisture began to rim her eyes when she remembered the reason hed been so closed off from everyone.

Justy reached up and wiped away a tear from her cheek fur with a finger, and then he used it to tickle the end of her pink nose. “Don’t think about it, Lori. We have a new ship, so let’s go explore it some more!”

Her expression softened and she leaned in to give him a gentle nuzzle before crawling back off the bed. “Okay,” she said with a little smile. “I want to see the galley.”     

*** 

Renny opened a door in the corridor and took a peek in at the air and water reclamation units inside. So far, they had found the laundry room, empty storage closets, system lockers and the ship’s computer mainframe. Fourteen cabins also lined the passage, seven in each corridor.

The navigator shut the door and looked at Taro. “There’s so much equipment in there, a couple wouldn’t have enough room to hide out and get frisky!”

The vixen shook her head in amusement, but didn’t bother with a reply. Theyd reached the end of the starboard corridor without meeting anyone else, so they turned the corner and found two doors, each across the hall from one another.

One door was adorned with the PA-universal symbol for eating: a vertical fork, knife and a spoon arranged side by side and crossed by a pair of horizontal chopsticks. That would be the galley, so they turned to the remaining door to see what was inside.

Aside from the cargo deck seen through the glassteel window when they had first come on board, the recreation room was the largest compartment they had found so far. A large window dominated the far wall and was looking aft of the ship between the round flared edges of engine pods. This particular view overlooked the spaceport toward the Arvallian Sea.

The floor was covered in dark earth-tone carpet, the walls were a blue so pale that was almost white, and there were two skylight windows in the ceiling between light panels. Two curving sofas resided in front of the window that contained near-invisible circuitry for vidscreen display. The room was relatively empty of recreational equipment, but they had plenty on board the Okami with which to fill it.

“Not bad,” Renny commented. “Since our cabins are smaller, I can see myself spending more of my free time in here.”

“You probably won’t need your exercise equipment, though, Taro said, pulling him back out into the corridor.  “You’re going to get plenty of exercise moving cargo every two or three days.”

“Maybe, but I’m not leaving my equipment behind!”

Taro thumbed the control to enter the galley, but before the door opened, they could hear voices raised in heated argument. The panel slid aside and they saw Jerry leaning over a long dining table toward a flustered Justy. Lori sat beside the koala and Amanda was opposite her beside the fox, both of them looking apprehensive.

“—can be repaired!” Jerry shouted at the computer tech. “He can just hire another—” His words trailed off when everyone looked up at the captain and her first officer.

“What’s going on, guys?” Taro asked with a twitch of her whiskers. Renny took up a station just behind her to the left as the door panel shut behind his tail.

“I like the ship,” Justy said, hooking a thumb up at the doctor. “He doesn’t.”

Jerry sat down, but looked up at the captain. “May I ask you a question?”

Taro appeared as if she were going to say something, but then changed her mind and simply replied, “Ask.”

“During the test of this ship, does Merlin actually own it?

“No, it belongs to the Silloni. We’re only testing it for them.”

“If Mister Tristan had not handed Merlin a new ship, would he have spent the money to have the Blue Horizon repaired?”

Probably.”

The male fox looked over at Justy and said, “There you have it.”

“What is this between you two?” Renny wanted to know. He sat down at the end of the galley table and leaned back against the wall behind him.

“I think Merlin should have our ship repaired and leave us on it,” Jerry answered. “There’s no need for him to sell it to a bunch of trainee mechanics. With his plans for the increased workload, he should make plenty of money during those two years to pay another crew to test it, plus have plenty to reimburse the repairs to the Horizon for us.”

“I doubt Merlin will change his mind about this ship,” Taro replied. “He and Master Tristan have been planning this for months.”

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Jerry retorted irritably. “He can go ahead and test this ship, just don’t knock us out of our own ship to do it! He’ll have enough extra credits to pay another bunch to crew it for him.”

“It’s my turn to ask you a question,” Taro said, leaning against the wall beside the door. Jerry looked uncertain, but he gave his captain a nod. “Why are you so adamant against upgrading to a new ship?”

The male fox opened his mouth to speak, shut it again, and then gave the question some thought for a moment before giving an answer. “It’s not the upgrade that concerns me,” he said slowly. “Upgrades are fine, but that’s fine for equipment. As a doctor, I don’t think everyone in this crew will be up to the workload that will be forced upon them.” He gestured to those around him. “Look at them and think about it. Neither Justy, Lori, Amanda, nor even Pockets are built to do a lot of lifting.” Justy opened his mouth to speak up, but Jerry cut him off with an impatient wave of his hand.

“They do fine when they have to move cargo once every three weeks, but now the plan is to load and unload the ship every two or three days.  You can forget them going on shore leave during the day it takes the new engine to recharge. They’ll be too exhausted in their tiny, cramped cabins to move after the first several days. Renny, Max and I are probably in better shape that we could do it only a few days more than them before we would join them in exhaustion. Taro, you could outlast any of us, but you’re the captain and you sure aren’t going to move the cargo by yourself.”

“Those are valid concerns,” Renny said, “but —”

“As cargo movers, we’re a soft lot,” Jerry interrupted. “Myself included. Let Merlin hire a physically fit crew with an athletic trainer to do the kind of workload he intends with this ship. The science of the faster engine is great, but I don’t think he’s thought through the physical repercussions of its application in freight transfer.”

“The rest of us aren’t afraid of hard work, despite our sizes,” Justy grumbled.  “I think you just prefer lying around for three or more weeks at a time to get your pay!” The koala was usually an easy-going guy, but the fox’s ill mood was rubbing off on him.

Jerry took a swipe at him angrily, but Taro reached out quickly and snared his wrist before he could connect. “Calm down,” she said darkly. “Both of you.”

“He started it!” Justy complained.

I’m going to finish it!” Taro snapped. “Listen, all of you. As Renny said, Doc has some valid concerns. The testing of a prototype system means more than just testing the equipment. It also means testing the way we do things. If something doesn’t work out, we make suggestions to change the way procedures are done so others to follow can benefit from it.”

The vixen released the doctor’s wrist and moved to stood behind him, putting her hands on his shoulders. “You and I can talk with Merlin and discuss your concerns with him. It’s very possible that moving cargo every two or three days is only a preliminary arrangement at this early stage in the testing, and once hes aware of your thoughts, he’ll probably be willing to work with you on a schedule that would be more feasible.” She began to knead his shoulders gently. It startled him at first, but he didn’t attempt to stop her ministrations.

“You’ve never really worked with Merlin himself,” she told him as everyone else remained quiet, “but he was my captain for almost ten years before he left the ship in my care. He always allowed his crew to come to him with their concerns, and he always listened. If it was something he could change and felt would be a benefit, he never had a problem doing it. Let’s talk to him in a civil manner, and you’ll see how attentive he can be to your concerns.”

“You think he will accept my idea to repair the Horizon and keep it in service?” Jerry asked in surprisingly normal tones.

“You never know, he might. On the other hand, the structural damage to our ship may prove too expensive to repair. Even without the agreement with Sillon, he still may have needed to buy another ship to replace the Horizon to stay in business. In any case, Merlin may heed your advice about the workload on the Kirin and loosen it up so that the crew doesn’t have too many jobs so close together to cause fatigue.”

He might even come up with a third option,” Renny added.

Jerry closed his eyes and felt tense muscles relax under Taro’s massage. “In the meantime,” the vixen said with a glance over at Justy, “control your tempers if you don’t like what someone else has to say. That’s all I’m going to say on that matter. If I have to bring it up again, some heads will roll.  Now… this new ship will have both pros and cons, but try not to nit-pick it to death. We’re going to have it for two years, so there’s no need to try to find all its faults right off. Come to either me or Renny with your comments, and in turn, we’ll present them to Merlin and Master Tristan.”

She looked around the room, but no one else appeared to have anything more to say at the moment. “Okay, she said with a look at her watch, “go ahead and look around some more if you want – I know that I do. We’ll meet down at the van in an hour and then we’ll head back to Merlin and Samantha’s house for supper.”

The door to the galley suddenly slid open. Pockets burst in to the room, followed more slowly by Max and Tristan. “Wow, have you guys seen the ship?” the raccoon exclaimed gleefully. “This is gonna be great!    

*** 

Mid-morning of the next day, Merlin casually sat down at the Kirin’s pilot station and motioned for Taro to take another seat. He examined the console in front of him for a moment and then spied what he was looking for. A video box appeared in the middle of the forward window, displayed by its near-invisible internal circuitry. The image on the vidscreen showed a view of the cargo deck, where the dual bay doors were open to let in the late morning sunshine while Master Tristen and a younger pinto-patterned Silloni woman led a small group of PASS journalists on a casual tour of both Hyld-equipped vessels theyd brought to Dennier.

Local representatives of the Planetary Alignment Scientific Society had been invited to examine the Kokoro and Kirin as part of the Silloni spokesman’s public announcement on the Hyper-LightDrive’s existence.

The bridge speakers picked up Tristan’s rich tones explaining that through their intention to develop a faster system to bridge the distance between the Mytha star system and the rest of the PA, a breakthrough technology shared with Sillon’s sister world Ryu provided the solution to the problem. He went on to explain that only the two prototypes had been constructed, but if successful after a two-year testing period, the Hyld engine systems could be mass-produced for sale to the rest of the Planetary Alignment.

“Due to their immeasurable help to Sillon when star SDC-971 exploded and disrupted communications,” Tristan told them, “our government has selected Blue Horizon Freight Transfer of Dennier to test the freighter design of our Hyld system. Testing will begin— yes?”

He nodded toward a yellow Labrador whod raised a hand for attention. “Thank you, sir,” she said. “Are you aware that word has been circulating that Blue Horizon is not a reliable freight transfer company? Is it wise to trust this technological miracle to such a business?”

Merlin sat up straight in his chair, flattening his ears against his head. On the screen, Tristan nodded and clasped his hands together behind his back. “I have heard this and we have looked into it,” he replied, “but there has been no evidence to support such an accusation that likely originated with a competitor. Following the Siilv War, the captain of the Blue Horizon practiced sound business tactics and kept his company above the rough waters of economic instability. They did well enough that extra ships had to be added to their small fleet to handle the business coming their way. Other freightliners were not so fortunate and no doubt envious, so I would suggest the foundationless rumors began there.” The look of confidence on the unicorn’s face betrayed no second thoughts.

Blue Horizon Freight Transfer has the full support of both the Silloni and Ryujin governments, the latter of which has been actively sought for membership into the Planetary Alignment.  Our choice of test crew is not open for negotiation, so let us move on to the more important issues for which you were invited here to report. Testing will begin within a week’s time, as soon as the crew has acquired sufficient instruction on the new vessel’s operation.  Now, for the technical aspects of the Hyld system, I wish to introduce you to this lovely engineer who will join the Blue Horizon’s crew for its first year of testing.”

Merlin muted the sound and swiveled his seat to face his flagship captain. “Well,” he said quietly, “the secret’s now out of the bag. Granted, the information was given to a technical science group rather than released through multimedia news channels, but I’m sure INN and others will eventually find out about it.”

“Something of this nature will be too important to the Planetary Alignment for this to stay quiet for long,” Taro agreed. “When the news does break, I hope you and the Home Office are prepared for the flood of folks demanding to know more about the new system.” The vixen absently toyed with the ornamental feather hanging from the disk clipped to the fur behind her left ear. “Personally, I wouldn’t have even told the scientific community about it until the testing was well underway, or even completed. That way we could have continued to operate our business without having to deal with newshounds or idiots who might want to take the ship from us.”

Merlin nodded. “That was my original suggestion to Master Tristan as well, but he seems to feel the dangers will be at a minimum and that the scientists have a right to know about such a breakthrough, even though they have no intention of stating where the technology originated.”

Taro looked at him in hesitation. “Have you had the chance to think about the concerns we brought to you last night?” she asked.

“Yes,” the wolf replied. “I agree with your doctor about the workload. Although we have the means to move a lot of freight in a short period of time, that doesn’t mean we have to fill our workload as full as it can be.  However, once these ships are available to the public, you know that some captains will put their people and their schedules to the limit to bring in as many credits as possible.”

“Yes, but that won’t be for at least another two years,” Taro countered. “While we’re testing the new ship and procedures, there’s no reason to push the crew to their limits right away, is there?”

Merlin shook his head. “No, there is no reason for that,” he agreed. “As soon as the home office was open this morning, I instructed Cindy to start altering the delivery schedule per Jerry’s recommendations. She and Keri should be working on that right now.”

“That’s good to know. What about the other request?”

The wolf grew quiet for a moment, but then shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. The structural damage to the Horizon is too great to keep her in service. While we were all at my house awaiting the birth of the pups this weekend, there were engineers from Okami Corp. out here looking at the damage for me.”

“What?” Taro exclaimed. “You had people on board my ship without telling me about it?”

“That’s right,” Merlin replied in a stern voice. “I had already anticipated the argument you and Jerry gave me last night after supper, so I wanted an unbiased engineering inspection of the damage to your ship without interference. I had Stuart Sloan accompany them into the ship, but they were not allowed on the upper decks.”

Taro crossed her arms and looked at him defiantly, but then turned away when she couldn’t maintain contact with his piercing gaze. When she didn’t say anything, the wolf continued.

“The Oubliette did more damage than you realize,” he told her. “That solvent melted a hole through both of your hulls, right across a major structural rib, and when the substance finally played out, the immediate area around it crystallized and became brittle. Yes, you were able to affix a patch over the hole to allow you to pressurize that deck, but when you dropped out of orbit to land, normal gravitational and atmospheric stresses of aerodynamic flight further strained the fatigued structure. The engineers believe that the major load-bearing rib fractured like a dry stick close to the moment you landed. Had you been in the air much longer, the ship might have come apart on you to disastrous results.”

“Renny and Jerry both remarked that the landing felt different this time,” Taro admitted.

“Being experienced with how the ship flies and how it feels during a landing, I’m sure they noticed something that major.”

Taro leaned forward, trying to make sense of the technical explanation he had given her. “When that bomb took out the Hidalgo Sun’s airlock and cargo bay door, they had more damage than what we got, but yet they were able to repair the damage to get their ship back in business!”

“Taro, youre only looking at the external evidence of the damage. That bomb didn’t do the same thing to the Hidalgo Sun as what Bennington’s associates did to the Blue Horizon. That structural rib cannot be simply patched like a cracked bulkhead or replaced with a spare in stock.  The ship is built around the keel and ribs. It’s not a replaceable part; the metal fatigue has become so great that I’m not sure I would even trust a short flight from this spaceport to a junk yard!  If you don’t believe me, let’s take a walk over there and you can see the final structural splintering with your own eyes. It’s quite frightening.

The vixen swallowed hard as the realization finally sunk in with understanding. The death of her first ship was just as final as Merlin’s first one had been. Slowly, she shook her head and dropped her hands into her lap.

I believe you,” she admitted. “What about buying another Okami to replace her?  Surely the insurance from the damage would pay for a good part of the cost. That’s what you would have done anyway, right?”

Merlin looked at her compassionately and leaned forward in his chair. “Taro, you know as well as I that if the test of the Kirin is successful, I will be replacing my entire fleet with these ships. It’s true that I probably would have purchased another Okami to replace the Horizon under normal circumstances, but with the present situation, you know I’m not going to spend that kind of money for a ship I know will be replaced. The need simply isn’t there.”

Merlin sat up and rubbed the back of his neck for a moment. “We already have a replacement for your damaged ship, Taro. You are still in command — if you want to be.”

She looked up at him in surprise. “You were thinking of replacing me?” she asked hoarsely.

“Not at all. I think you’ve done a fine job, but you don’t seem like you are really interested in this ship. I know Doc isn’t interested, and I’m afraid we may have to make some personnel transfers as you and I discussed a couple days ago.”

Taro released a long sigh. “I’m sorry, Merlin,” she said. “Yes, I’m interested in remaining captain of the Horizon, no matter what class of vessel she may be.”

“Very good,” the wolf said with a smile. “There’s no one else I would rather have in command of this sparkler.”

“Sparkler?”

Merlin chuckled. “The ship is sparkling new – thus, a sparkler.”

Taro snickered and felt more at ease than she had since the conversation with her crew in the galley the night before. She stretched languidly and then wiped the back of her hands across her eyes.

“I would hate to lose Doc from my crew,” she finally said after a moment, “but I won’t try to make him stay against his wishes.”

“After Master Tristan has finished with his presentation to the PASS representatives, we’ll need to assemble your crew. We will give them all the details on why I’m not repairing the Horizon or buying another, and then we can talk to them about their service on the new ship. I’ll get on the Com to the captains of the Hidalgo Sun and the Mooncrest tomorrow after we talk with your people. Neither Rezo nor Corwin knows about the Kirin, so I’ll need to give them the details I gave you the other night, minus the connection to Natasha. Probably best if I do it in a conference call so I don’t have to say it all more than one more time.  I’d like you to be there, since it’s your crew mates you’ll be discussing in the end.”

“Yeah, okay. Even if none of my crew chooses to leave, I still have to extend the offer of transfer to Mark Littlefeather as cargo load master, but I don’t want to do it until his captain knows what’s going on.”

The door to the bridge suddenly opened and Master Tristan looked in at them. “Please excuse us, Captain,” he said warmly. “I would like to show your command center to our guests.”

“Of course, please do,” Taro said with a smile. She stepped forward to extend a hand toward the first of the visitors. “Welcome aboard the Kirin, soon to be recommissioned as the Blue Horizon. I am Captain Nichols.”

Merlin got to his feet and moved quietly aside to let others come into the small room. He was pleased that Taro had finally come to understand the situation, but they still had the daunting task to face her crew.     

*** 

Just outside Engineering, Pockets held his palm up to a biometric scanner set into the wall beside the door. A small diode beneath scan glass blinked from red to amber, but otherwise didn’t do anything. The raccoon looked aside to his partner and shrugged.

“Maybe there’s no power to it yet,” Max suggested.

“I don’t think that’s it,” Pockets replied.  He withdrew his hand and tried again. “Still nothing.  You try it.”

Max put his palm up to the scanner, but he had no more luck than the chief engineer did. “Maybe we can’t get in until the ship has been formally commissioned,” he said.

“It was working for Master Tristan’s crew who flew it here. There must be a trick to it.”

“Has your chief engineer initialized it with the security passcode?” asked another voice.  Max and Pockets looked around sharply. Neither of them had heard the lithe Silloni woman come up behind them. She smiled at them calmly, secretly amused that she had surprised them; despite walking on hooves, she was light on her feet.

“Hello,” she said in a light voice, picking a spot of lint from the front of her crème-colored blouse. “We have not yet been introduced. I am Suzuko.” She was not as tall as Tristan or Guinevere; although her alicorn towered above her by nearly a foot, she was no taller than either Taro or Renny. She wore a delicate gold chain from her neck and it glittered lightly in the corridor lights when she moved toward them. The paint patterns across her body that were exposed gave her a mixture of the common and of the exotic.

The raccoon smiled up at her. “Suzuko, hello! My name is Jerad Porter, but everyone calls me Pockets.  I’m the chief engineer. This is Max Sinclair, my partner mechanic.”

“Hi,” the German Shepherd said quickly.

“Sinclair?” repeated the woman. “I thought Mr. Sinclair’s family line was lupine.”

Max gave her a wide grin. “I’m his adopted nephew,” he told her.

“Ah, I see,” she said. She looked at Pockets. “You said you were the chief engineer? You should have the security passcode for engineering. Otherwise, I cannot let you inside.”

The raccoon nodded. No one was allowed in engineering without authorization anymore and she was adhering to the policy. Anyone could say he was authorized, but without the codes, entry was not permitted.  He dug into a chest pocket and withdrew a small envelope that Master Tristan had given him.

“I’m sorry,” he told her. “We’re not yet familiar with this new design. I wasn’t sure what to do to get set up.”

Suzuko gave him a warm smile. “That’s why I’m here. I am to be assigned to your crew for the first year of testing. May I have your passcodes, please?  I will show you how to set up the biometric scanner to recognize your prints.”

Pockets remembered policy, too. He shook his head and said, “Thanks, but if you’ll just instruct me on what to do, I’ll hang onto the passcode.”

Suzuko nodded. “Very good, Mr. Porter. Had you given me the passcode, I would have marked it as a violation of our security agreement.”

Max furrowed his brow.  “Are we to be tested as well as the ship?” he asked guardedly. “I’m not sure everyone will like having a snitch on board.”

The unicorn chuckled, but shook her head. “No, Mr. Sinclair, that’s not why I’m here. However, due to the sensitivity of this new system, we must take our security very seriously. Foremost, I am an engineer and will be an actual member of your crew. I don’t have any authority over your chain of command, but if I see any major violations, please understand that I am under obligation to report them.”

“I see,” said Pockets quietly. “I have my passcode. What do I need to do to get us into the system?”

Suzuko stepped up next to him and tapped a blank section of the wall panel just beneath the scanner. A hidden alphanumeric keypad flipped out at a forty-five degree angle and Pockets grinned when it clicked into place.

“Type in your sixteen digit passcode and then press the white tab.” Pockets pulled a small beige card from the envelope and studied it for a moment before he tapped in the alphanumeric sequence. He tapped the white tab and then the red diode beneath the scan glass changed to amber.

“Place one palm on the scanner. Now with your other hand, hit the white tab twice.”  Pockets did as instructed. He expected the glass to glow, hear a hum or something, but there was no visible activity with the scanner. Only the tiny diode beneath it changed its color to blue.

“Okay, youre now in the system, Mr. Porter,” Suzuko said.  “Has Mr. Sinclair been authorized for access to the engine room?”

Pockets nodded and stepped back. “Yes, this is his work station.”

“Mr. Sinclair, please place a hand on the scanner.”  Max quietly did as he was told, still somewhat unsure of her purpose for being there. The diode turned red as soon as his hand came in contact with the scanner glass. Pockets worked the keypad, and a moment later, the diode changed once again to blue.

“The captain and her first officer will need to be added in the same manner, but for now you will need to input the passcode once again to close out the sequence.”

Pockets did as instructed and then tucked the beige card back into its envelope. “Now what?” he asked.

Suzuko tapped the bottom of the keypad and then it flipped back into place, the panel fitting flush with the wall. “Now, when you need to enter the engine room, simply place your palm upon the scanner. It will detect your presence and automatically check to make sure you are in the system. There is an identical scanner on the other side of the door. Likewise, you will not be able to leave the compartment without the scanner.”

“What if there’s a power failure?” Max asked. “How do we get out if the scanner’s not working?

Now that the security system has recognized you, I can tell you this. There’s an emergency exit inside that I will show you, but you must not reveal its existence to anyone else on the crew,” Suzuko answered with a sudden smile that crinkled the corners of her large brown eyes. “It isn’t even on the schematics.”

“We could have used an emergency exit on our last voyage,” Max replied. “I really don’t want to have to go through that again.”

Pockets reached up and placed his palm face down on the scanner.  As before, there was no visible activity other than the tiny diode changing color. This time it turned green and the pressure door slid aside smoothly. “Nice,” the raccoon said with a grin.

Suzuko walked in through the door and Pockets followed her inside. Max hesitated for just a heartbeat before he walked into the new engine room. The panel slid shut behind him, almost trapping his tail against the door jamb, but he managed to jump out of the way just before it sealed.  He sighed quietly, resolving to learn to get through that door more quickly.    

*** 

Taro’s crew was to meet in the Rec Room of the new ship for a staff meeting she had called, but it wasn’t for another hour.  Plenty of time, Pockets thought to himself.  He walked quietly up and down the aisles of Engineering with a small black box tucked under one arm, making sure he was alone. He and Max had just met with engineers from Okami Corp. concerning the damage to the Horizon at Merlin’s insistence, and the raccoon had been in full agreement of their final assessment.

With his excitement over the capabilities of the new Kirin freighter, Pockets felt no remorse over the loss of their old vessel. Although he had long been intimately familiar with the Okami design, he was thrilled to have an entirely new ship to discover.

Max was over on the Blue Horizon, boxing up his personal effects to get ready for the eventual move to his new cabin. Technically, they could not transfer operations to the new vessel until the two ships were processed through their commissions later that day, but Suzuko had gone with Tristan back to the Sinclair home and Pockets wanted to use the time alone to make a small modification.

When he and Max had taken their initial tour through the engine room led by the Silloni pinto, he had taken a close inspection of the Hyld system that was modeled after Natasha’s Particle Vault system. He was impressed by what he saw, but saw nothing that resembled the safety box that Calissa had constructed and installed onto the Blue Horizon while they were on Se’rei.

According to Calissa, traveling by Vault had its share of dangers, only some of which she had warned him about, and then only hinting at some that she said were rare occurrences. The component appeared to have only two outward color diodes, and as long as the green light was on, she had said the Vault was safe to use.

However, if it should ever show red at any time, under no circumstances were they to use the Vault. She wouldn’t elaborate, only telling him it was for their protection; it was not a rule they should ever bend. Both lights would go dark after a Vault jump discharged the unit. Only when it was safe to use again, the green diode would illuminate.

Although the unit was in a molecularly-sealed box, Calissa had shown him that it only had to be installed near the Vault’s primary components. When he’d pressed her for more details, all she would divulge was that the small unit monitored for specific spatial signatures. Beyond that, she would not say.  It was apparent she’d believed that they would have only used the home-built Vault system on the Horizon for emergencies, never dreaming it would become part of the heart of a new ship.

He could install the unit with common tools he typically carried on his person when in his coveralls, and it would only take five minutes. Nothing special required.    

*** 

Lorelei Easter stood dutifully at a serving cart shed brought up with her from the Horizon, handing out drinks to her crewmates as they entered the Kirin’s Rec Room. The brightness of her rainbow tie-dyed tee shirt stood out vibrantly in the sunlight that streamed into the room from the window and the overhead skylights.

Amanda requested a glass of virrinade and the bunny filled a frosted glass from a chilled pitcher of the local fruit drink. The coyote took her glass to one of the long curved couches and sat down between Renny and Doctor Somner. Jerry looked sullen, but Renny was all smiles as he chatted quietly with a female unicorn seated on his other side.

Amanda didn’t recognize the Silloni pinto, but admired the way she held herself. Her hair was predominantly white, and from what Amanda could see, her right shoulder and arm were chocolate brown, as was her mane and tail. She wore loose tan slacks shaped for her digitigrade anatomy and a bright yellow blouse. Her alicorn was pearly white with a hint of iridescent sheen, but Amanda thought that last might simply be an application of Silloni makeup to accent the beauty of her horn, since it had been applied to her hooves to match. The woman looked to be in her late twenties and she had an easy laugh toward something Renny had said to her.

In contrast, the coyote looked over at Jerry, who stared out the clear window before them. He seemed lost in thought, but the expression on his face and in his orange eyes reflected some inner turmoil. She felt saddened that her friend was in such a mood concerning their situation, but with things being as they were, she didn’t think there was any real alternative.

The coyote had a small sense of foreboding about the meeting that Taro had called of her crew. It could be something as simple as direction to begin stocking the new ship, but with Merlin’s presence at the gathering, she suspected it was something more.  The grey wolf stood over in a corner with the captain, whispering quietly with occasion glances back toward the congregating crew. Amanda shook her head and tried to shake off the feeling. Perhaps it was just the jitters at having to transfer to another vessel when she hadn’t even been on the other one for much more than a few months.

Pockets was the last to show up, and after he and Lori took the last spots on the other couch, Merlin and Taro walked over to the group. The vixen stood in front of the large window, dressed smartly in a pair of black slacks and a mint green blouse, while Merlin activated a control that polarized the glass completely so there would be no outside distractions.

“I hope you are comfortable,” Taro told her people. “Merlin and I will need your full attention, but if anyone needs a break, just ask. First of all, let me tell you all that Merlin and I are in agreement over what we are going to discuss. We have had some long talks, and now its time to let you know what we’ve come up with.”  She looked at each of them before her for a moment before she added, “Let me remind you that this is a discussion, and any responses you may have are to be kept civil, as what is decided here today may affect your futures.”

Amanda swallowed hard at the captain’s last statement. Perhaps the feeling of foreboding was not inaccurate after all.

“The first topic I want to bring up is a suggestion brought up at our last meeting concerning replacement of the Blue Horizon with another Okami freighter.” Jerry locked eyes with Taro, but otherwise kept his facial expression neutral. “While we were gathered at the Sinclair home this weekend, Merlin had the damage to the Horizon inspected by engineers brought in from Okami Corp. After a thorough examination, it was determined that the damage to a primary structural rib is not reparable. We all knew this might be the case, but now we have official confirmation. If you are interested, I can give you the details on the extent of the damage later. Pockets has already confirmed their findings, so there’s no doubt about the extent of the damages. But, our old ship will never fly again in its condition, and the tech school that will assume ownership may have to have it manually transported by a heavy-lifter.”

There were nods around the room, but Jerry remained impassive. “However…” Taro continued, “It has been decided that with the likely replacement of all the current ships in our company with these Kirin-class freighters after our testing period has ended, there is no reason to spend the credits to replace the Horizon with another Okami model for such a short duration. Due to Sillon’s trust in us to test their new vessel, we have a replacement.”

Jerry set his jaw firmly and Taro could see his neck muscles tighten up as he slowly crossed his arms. The vixen sighed inwardly and forced herself to break his penetrating stare to look around at the others.

“Nevertheless,” she said, “Merlin agrees that the proposed workload imposed upon us with the new ship’s capabilities was too ambitious and he has been working with the Home Office to relax it a bit to give us all a little more recoup time between jobs.  We will still be making more shipments than we are used to, but we will no longer have three or four weeks of downtime between worlds. At first, we will be making one shipment a week until we get used to the physical demands of the new schedule. If we feel we can decrease the time between shipments later, I promise we will make the decision together – it will not be forced upon you.”

Taro looked over her shoulder at Merlin, who stood with his back to the wall beside the large window. He gave her a subtle nod to let her know he was still there to back her up, and then she faced her silent people once more. She was surprised that no one had tried to interrupt her, but was grateful for their full attention.

“Now, several of you have come to me in private with your concerns about transferring our operations to the Kirin, and I have taken your feelings to heart, so this brings us to an announcement that is going to require a personal decision by each of you.”

“Uh oh,” Justy muttered beneath his breath. In the quiet of the room, however, everyone heard him.

“As we have been reminded, there are those among us who may not be as physically suited for extensive cargo moving as others. If… there are any of you who do not think you are up to the task with our new workload, Merlin has agreed to let—”

“Let us go?” Lori exclaimed with a deep frown.

Taro looked at the bunny with shake of her head. “Merlin has agreed to let you transfer to either of our other ships, providing one of your counterparts will agree to swap with you and come over to this crew.” Most of the eyes looking back at her reflected the surprise she knew they would feel. The vulpine doctor was no exception; his expression was of complete surprise. This was not an announcement he had anticipated.

“No one will lose his or her job, unless even this arrangement is not satisfactory,” Taro said over the conversations that had started. “I know this is not a welcome thought, but if you wish to transfer to another ship, but none of your counterparts want to swap out with you, you will be left with the choice of staying here — or resigning your employment with us altogether.” That stopped discussions and drew the focus back upon her.

“If it comes to that, you will not be penalized for breaking contract, but we will provide you with references for your next employer. At the moment, we have not informed the captains of the Hidalgo Sun or Mooncrest of our contract with Sillon, so there are none on those vessels who yet know anything about this ship. Once word gets out to them, however, I am sure there will be those within their crews who would be envious of the opportunity you folks have here. Keep in mind that if you do choose to swap out, it is extremely likely that the vessel you transfer to will also be replaced by another Kirin freighter in two years. However, I am sure we will have the shipping schedule shaped into something workable by that time and perhaps the new ship will not be so daunting then.

“The choice is yours, but since we are on a timetable, I’m afraid that I will need your decision whether to swap or stay no later than 0900 tomorrow morning. That only gives you overnight to think about it, but Merlin is going to have a conference call with Captains Corwin and Kegawa tomorrow to give them the details of our Silloni contract. He will need to know if there are any swaps to be offered to their crews so he can set open discussions with those individuals immediately.” A hand was raised. “Yes, Pockets?”

“Count me in,” the raccoon said with a smile. “I’m staying!”

“No surprise, there,” Renny said with a chuckle.

“Well, no surprise here either,” Max piped up with a grin. “I’m staying too!”

Taro raised her voice. “Before anyone else gives me an immediate response one way or the other,” she said over beginning discussions, “I want you to think it over tonight. Even if you are sure of your decision right now, think about it. Tell me tomorrow morning – in private. I will get up early in the morning and will set up out in the gazebo in Merlin’s back yard. Your current contracts were for the old ship, so I will have new contracts for the two-year duration testing the new ship. Now, as with your previous contracts, you will be paid per voyage. This means that if you choose to serve with us on the new ship… and we make more frequent voyages…”

“More credits for everybody!” Pockets said excitedly.

“That’s right,” Taro continued, “but even if you are staying on board, you will still need to come out to me in the gazebo to sign your new contract.” She looked out over the group, but purposely didn’t lock eyes with anyone. “Now listen to me, folks – this is very important. If you fail to sign your contract or fail to inform me of your intention to swap with another crew by 0900, I will mark you down as needing references to take to another employer.”

“Hey Max,” Justy said with an impish grin, “if you want to move up the chain of command to Chief Engineer, now’s your chance to slip Pockets a Mickey Finn tonight so he oversleeps!” Some of the tension in the room dissipated with shared laughter. The raccoon pulled a rubber band from a shirt pocket and snapped Justy’s arm with it. “Ow!”

Pockets pulled out another rubber band and aimed it at his partner. “You stay away from my drink, Max!” he growled playfully.

The German shepherd raised his hands as if he were being held up by an outlaw. “You’d better go to bed thirsty,” he warned him with a smirk.

Renny and Taro exchange amused looks with one another as Merlin chuckled behind the vulpine captain.  Taro shook her head with a smile and clapped her hands a few times. When she finally held everyone’s attention, she put her hands behind her back.

“Okay, now that we’re on the subject of personnel, I have two announcements to make,” she said.  “As you have probably noticed, we have a newcomer among us.  As part of our two-year contract, a Silloni engineer will join our crew for the first year as an advisor with the new ship and Hyld system. She is not here to spy on us, but is an expert on all things Kirin. She will be working with Pockets and Max during all our tests and every day usages to help us over any rough areas. Once we get underway, if you have suggestions or recommendations on how the ship may need to be improved or altered before they are mass-produced for the public, she’s the one to go to. This is Suzuko, everyone. She will be a regular member of our crew and will join us in all things as one of us, including cargo detail. Please introduce yourselves to her as you get the chance; get to know one another.”

“Hi, Suzuko, I’m Lori!” the lapin doe said cheerily with a finger wave.

The unicorn waved back with a smile. “Hello, Lori,” she replied.

“Later, she said!” Renny quipped.

“Moving right along,” Taro continued. “In addition to all this, were still in need of a cargo load master, so when we contact Captain Kegawa tomorrow, Im going to offer the position to Mark Littlefeather at Merlin’s recommendation.”

There were looks of surprise. Most of the crew was aware of the wolf’s trust issues with humans, but Merlin merely smiled back at their looks of wonder. “He’s the best one for the job,” he assured them, “and was my first choice for Mr. Legrand’s replacement.”

Taro winced inwardly. She hadn’t wanted to mention the mastiff’s name, and the expressions on several faces confirmed that theyd suddenly recalled the reason for needing a new cargo load master. Merlin caught it too and cleared his throat.

“Listen, folks,” he said. “Many of you attempted to help your crewmate through his unnamed troubles while he was with you, but his difficulties started before you ever met him. Whether or not he is guilty will be settled by a court of law, but there’s nothing more you can do but try to remember him well. Now… I trust Mr. Littlefeather, and if he accepts the position, he will be one of you. Most of you already know Mark and he’s already a part of the company. If he agrees to the transfer, Master Tristan has agreed to rendezvous with the Hidalgo Sun in the Kokoro to bring Mark back to us. I’ll then try to have a replacement hired and waiting for Captain Kegawa at his next stop. Likewise, if any of you make the decision, Tristan will transport all other personnel swaps for us.”

Taro motioned the wolf to stand beside her in front of her crew.  She looked at her watch and said, “If any of you have questions, you can come up to either of us tonight and you can be assured to get an honest answer. However, I need everyone to gather outside the cargo ramp of the old ship in about thirty minutes for a ceremony with local officials to decommission the old ship. Once that has taken place, Merlin will process the paperwork to transfer the name and operational status to this ship.  You are all now free for the next half hour.”    

*** 

Despite his verbal assurances to everyone that the Blue Horizon was only a worn or broken tool to be traded in for a new one, Pockets wiped his eyes when the Dennieran official declared the H-model Okami vessel decommissioned. PA1138 was now permanently retired.  The oval-shaped flying saucer with dual paint that had been their home for the past three years was no longer the Blue Horizon. For official purposes, it was now a nameless broken hulk that would soon be swarming with a new generation of students who would cut their engineering teeth on it. 

The SS Blue Horizon was now officially a Kirin-class Silloni freighter with the Planetary Alignment registry number PA28080.

In attendance was Captain Taro Nichols and her crew, Merlin Sinclair, president of Blue Horizon Freight Transfer, Master Tristen and the seven crewmembers who had traveled with him from Sillon on both the Kokoro and the Kirin, as well as three local officials from the PA Registry office to sign and stamp the final paperwork.

Afterward, Taro had a few quiet words with her crew while Merlin and Tristan took care of a few minor details with the officials.

“Okay, folks, you’re free to do whatever you wish the rest of the evening,” she said with a quick glance toward a sun that would soon descend in the distance. “The new Blue Horizon is officially in service, so feel free to spend time aboard her or the other ship. You can move some of your stuff if you wish, but you are not required to do so until Wednesday. At that time, we will begin a concerted push to transfer everything that is not part of the old ship over to the new one, with our first official liftoff next Saturday.

“For now, however, I want all of you to give serious thought to your contracts on whether you will continue serving on the Blue Horizon, transfer to the Hidalgo Sun or Mooncrest, or tender separation.  Merlin said he would be here with the van for another two hours, so you can have a ride back to his place with him up until then.  As for me, I’m taking a cab back to his place to visit with Samantha and the pups as soon as we’re done here.”

“I’ll ride back with you,” Renny said. “I’ll see plenty of both ships when we start to move everything over. Besides, I’m ready for supper.”

“You’re always ready for supper,” Pockets said with a grin. “As for me, though, I’m gonna hang around for a while.”

Like the raccoon, most of the others decided to hang around the ships for a while longer. Some wanted to get started boxing up their personal effects, while a couple others wanted the time to give Taro’s proposals the serious thought they deserved.

Due to his previous reaction, everyone already knew what Jerry’s thoughts were on the matter, but now that they could all disperse, he seemed more relaxed and at ease.

When Taro and Renny hailed a cab for a ride back to the Sinclair home, the doctor joined them. “I’ll split the cost with you,” he said with a smile. When they looked at him curiously, Jerry shrugged and said, “If I don’t get in on supper now, Renny won’t leave anything for me to eat later!”

Taro laughed and wondered if she had misjudged the male fox. He and the cheetah had long been friends and for the first time in a long while, he acted in a lighthearted manner.

You’ll have to get inside the door ahead of me,” Renny said with a dig to the doctor’s ribs while Taro gave the destination address to the driver.

“Yes, I know… Just make sure my fingers are out of the way when you get started!” Jerry quipped.

The cab pulled out into traffic and the trio spent the entire journey back to Totter’s Lane in relaxed conversation. None of them brought up the evening’s serious topics, but instead bantered back and forth to keep the mood light.

When they were alone inside the engine room of the old vessel with the door closed behind them, Max put a hand on Pockets’ arm.  “What are we going to do about that new navigation system you filched?” he asked.

The masked raccoon frowned and looked around as if he was afraid someone else was in the compartment with them.  “Let’s keep that quiet,” he admonished.  “I’m already taking care of it.”

“What did you do?” Max asked.

“I can’t return it, now, can I?”

“I suppose not, but what…?”

“I’m sure I can find a buyer for it,” Pockets replied. “I have contacts just about everywhere and I think I can get a premium price for it.”

“Pockets,” Max said with a deep frown. “What do you need the money for?  With your Moss contract, you’ll have all the credits you can handle!”

The engineer gave his partner a stern look and said, “Just forget all about that navigation system. We won’t need it on the new ship since it’s probably not as good, but I can’t let it go to the vo-tech students. I’ll take care of it myself.”

The German shepherd snorted and then let out a long sigh. “Okay,” he said. “I sure hope you know what you’re doing.”

“I always do.  C’mon, lets grab a few things and take them over to the new ship.”   

*** 

Max stumbled as he whipped his tail out of the way of the new engine room door and fell over onto the carpet.  Pockets chuckled and looked back at him. “Having a problem with gravity?” the raccoon asked.

The German shepherd looked up at him and Suzuko with a grimace. “I must be,” he replied, getting to his feet. He dusted off his blue jeans and then looked at the unicorn. “Is there a way to slow down the speed of that door?” he asked. “It nearly takes my tail off every time I go through it!”

The woman nodded. “Yes, it can be adjusted. I don’t think it was originally designed for three people to go through it at once, and since you usually bring up the rear, you’re the one it tries to close on.”

“If we could adjust it right away, I won’t be so anxious every time I come through it.”

“Sure, just let me get my tools,” she replied.

Pockets looked up at her and put his hands into two of the namesakes in the green coveralls he now wore. “What do you need?” he asked with a grin. “I probably have the tool already.”

Suzuko smiled. “Do you have a number three Kistler driver in there?”

The raccoon’s eyes lit up and he rummaged around in his left pocket a moment before holding up a double-pronged instrument. “Here ya go,” he told her.

The unicorn pinto studied him a moment in amusement and then took the tool. “Thank you,” she said.

Moments later, Max sauntered back through the door, an eye on his tail, but the closure time of the panel was more hesitant. “Yes, much better,” he admitted. Suzuko handed the tool back to Pockets and then led them deeper into the engine room.

“If you guys are willing, I’d like to show you a—” the unicorn hesitated when she saw a small black box mounted to the side of a Hyld system monitor. She knew the systems on this new ship better than anyone did and the box was foreign to her. “What…” she said with a furrowed brow, “…is this?” she asked, walking over to it.

The raccoon studied her for a moment. “You said you were aware of the origins of your new Hyld system?”

Suzuko nodded, secure that they could not be overheard in the engine room. “The system was gleaned from Captain Khasho’s encrypted data that you unlocked for us.”

What I am about to tell you is confidential, but I think you should know since it is related,” Pockets told her. “During a recent voyage but prior to our recent calamity, we tested a homemade Vault system on the Blue Horizon constructed from plans Natasha gave me several years ago in exchange for information. We had a mishap, winding up beyond the established Rim of the Planetary Alignment near a previously unknown planet.” Suzuko’s eyes widened with interest. “We detected a landing beacon and followed it down to make repairs to damage caused by a misinterpretation of the plans, and also to replenish our oxygen. There, we found one of Natasha’s former engineers whod made a home with the local residents. She helped us make our repairs and then built this little box for us.”

“What is it?” Suzuko asked again.

“Calissa said that—”

“Calissa Thalia?” the unicorn asked in surprise. “Was she a brown rabbit?”

“Uh, yeah, with lop ears,” Pockets replied. “Do you know her?”

“Calissa Thalia was a prominent lapin engineer from Mainor who disappeared about eight years ago. This is the first I’ve heard about her since the PA-wide search for her was called off.”

Pockets grinned. “She didn’t tell me her personal history, other than she had been a member of Captain Natasha’s engineering team for a few years,” he said. “When she learned of our homemade Vault unit, she asked to see the plans we used. She helped correctly translate something Id gotten wrong, and then said that Vault travel had some dangers involved that required monitoring.”

“What sort of dangers?”

“She didn’t explain, although I did ask her. She said I probably wouldn’t have believed her, but she insisted on constructing this monitoring device for us.  She said that as long as the diode was green, we could use the Vault system, but if it ever showed red, she warned us not to use it.”

“Yeah, she stressed that several times,” Max added. “She said it was a rule we should never ignore.”

“The diodes will go dark after a jump discharge, but one would light up again with a full charge,” Pockets said.

Suzuko frowned and looked again at the box.  Outwardly, it was simple. There were the two color diodes and then a small bundle of three wires that exited a small hole in the side. “You said this was a monitor. What does it monitor?”

“She wouldn’t tell me,” Pockets admitted with a sigh. “The box is shielded with micranite and is molecularly welded, so I haven’t been able to see what’s inside. I didn’t want to risk breaking what she built for us, so I’ve just left it hooked up as she intended.  When I saw that your Hyld system didn’t have a monitor like this, I decided to hook it up for our safety. It may be nothing more than a warning system, but if we’re going to be making vault… er, hyper jumps on a regular basis, it couldn’t hurt to have the safeguard.”

“If you don’t know what it does, how did you know what to hook it up to?”

“It just needs power and grounding. Otherwise, it’s all self-contained and is hooked to nothing else, but it needs to be near the vault components. Whatever it monitors, it does it internally on its own.”

The Silloni pinto fell quiet and mulled over what shed just been told. Finally, she looked over the guys and said, “President Sinclair warned me that you liked to experiment with the engines, Mr. Porter. You know, our agreement to let you test our prototype does not allow you to make personal modifications to the system, so I’m afraid we’ll have to disconnect the box.”

“Yes, it’s true I like to experiment,” the raccoon admitted, “but that’s not what this is.  It’s a safeguard put in place by someone who helped develop Natasha’s system! Calissa knew the dangers and wanted to protect us from them.”

“Dangers that she would not name,” the unicorn reminded him. “Don’t you think it’s suspicious that a member of a pirate crew would attach a mysterious box in your engine room?  What if it’s a tracking device so Captain Khasho’s allies can find you and plunder your cargo? – or worse, an explosive device to disable us?”

Pockets’ eyes narrowed. “I knew Natasha personally,” he said defensively. “She never attacked private cargo ships or military vessels unless she was provoked into it. They only boarded tax ships that were extorting from the needy to the greedy, and they always left their crews alive and unharmed as possible! There would be no reason to track our ship, especially since our vault system was gifted to us – a gift that she wouldn’t hand out to just anyone!”

“Be that as it may, installing it without authorization on this ship is a security violation.”

The raccoon spread his arms wide in exasperation. “What is it with you and your stubbornness to improve the systems of your ship? Isn’t that what a prototype is for – to improve upon the base design before it goes public?”

“I didn’t say improvements couldn’t be made,” Suzuko rebuffed. “I said you were not allowed to make changes without authorization!”

“So authorize it!”

“I can’t do that, not on my own!”

Pockets stamped a foot and snorted at her. “You want authorization? I’m taking this directly to Master Tristen! He’ll understand!” Without waiting for a response, the raccoon turned on his heel and stormed out of the engine room.    

*** 

“Unruffle your fur, Master Porter,” the large black unicorn said calmly to the raccoon. “I will listen to your argument, but at a much slower pace where I may understand your words.”

Tristan and Pockets were on opposite sides of a round table in the galley of the other Hyld-equipped vessel, the Kokoro. The former Regent was dressed in a slate grey suit of sartorial perfection designed for his physique, with a muted red tie for a spot of color. Seated, he was in contrast to the standing raccoon’s rumpled and worn green coveralls that were adorned with multiple pockets, some of which had been sewn on haphazardly by the engineer himself.

The raccoon was out of breath, but he forced himself to calm down. He began again, detailing his conversation with Suzuko and recalling the Blue Horizon’s prior voyage to Se’rei to the Silloni master. As long as Pockets was coherent, Tristan listened quietly without interruption until his small visitor was finished.

“When you told me of your journey to Se’rei on the night of your arrival,” the unicorn said at last, “why did you not tell me of this addition to your self-made Particle Vault system?”

“In all truth, I’d forgotten about it,” Pockets replied, scooting up on the large chair beside him. “Outside of you, Taro, Renny, Max and now Suzuko, no one else is aware of the monitoring device Calissa Thalia built for us. Sir, I know that we aren’t supposed to be allowed to modify the new ship without authorization, but this really can’t be counted as a modification. I didn’t alter anything. All I did was connect three wires for power and grounding to an otherwise self-contained unit; plugging in a fur dryer in my cabin amounts to the same thing!”

Tristan held up a hand and nodded to his guest. “Yes, I would have to agree with you, Master Porter. However, I also understand Suzuko’s hesitation to plug in a pirate’s alien device that’s purpose is hazy, at best.”

“Sir, Calissa was on Natasha’s original design team when they came up with the Vault system!” Pockets reminded him. “I admit there’s the possibility for ulterior motives as Suzuko pointed out, but I trust Calissa’s intention for building the monitor to keep us safe. She could have easily kept her mouth shut and let us face the dangers on our own without a clue.

The unicorn clasped his hands together on top of the table and then closed his eyes. Pockets watched him for several long silent moments, almost afraid to say anything more. He knew as well as anyone else that sometimes saying too much could ruin his case. After bit, he began to fidget and swung his feet back and forth under the large chair he sat upon.

Tristen opened his large brown eyes and stared off into a memory without focusing on his guest. “I am curious about the dangers involved that Ms. Thalia referred to,” he said in a calmly accented voice. “After we received the key to unlock Captain Khasho’s encryption, we immediately built a small Particle Vault engine system for testing. It was installed into a remote controlled space probe and then sent off into deep space out away from the Planetary Alignment for safety reasons. It didn’t come back to us right away, and we thought it lost, but that was before we knew of its twenty-four hour recharge time. It returned to orbit over Sillon the next day. When we studied the probe’s recorded data, we discovered that it had traveled the distance of nearly two hundred light-years and back. It emerged within a day’s flight at normal LightDrive speeds from a red dwarf star, so we were understandably excited about returning to investigate.

“We designed that test engine in a modular frame, so it was pulled out of the probe and reinstalled into a small, one-person craft equipped with an armada of scientific sensors, recorders and personal supplies. One of our colleagues, a prominent scientist as well as a skilled pilot, volunteered to go back to the red dwarf to study it up close.  The ship was programmed to automatically return within a week in the event the pilot was incapacitated in some way, but it never returned.”

Tristan looked down at Pockets. The raccoon’s attention was riveted to his words. “We did more testing with and without a pilot,” he continued, “but we never lost another test vessel. Without proof, we could only conjecture that either that first test engine malfunctioned or the navigational computer was not sensitive enough and we shot him directly into the heart of the red dwarf.  We may never know what happened to our associate, but with what you tell me of Ms. Thalia’s warning, I am now wondering if one of those unnamed dangers was the cause of that initial failure.”

Tristan stood up and began to pace. Pockets felt tiny next to the huge equine male and kept his seat. “I think it might be prudent to take your little black box back to Sillon for further study,” the unicorn said. “If traveling by vault or hyper jump presents hidden dangers, we may need to look into this more closely before setting up ships like this and yours for long-term testing.”

Pockets opened his mouth to comment, but the unicorn sighed and shook his head. “We have already announced the testing period to several scientific journals,” he remembered aloud. “If we halt the test before its really begun, this is going to throw the shadow of doubt across the potential of the system.”

Pockets tried again to speak, but Tristan continued. “My team and I have flown our two ships on several flights without any indication that we have been in any danger without the black box.” The raccoon held up his hand, but the unicorn didn’t notice. “However, I am hesitant to continue without an acceptable safety margin.” Pockets began waving his hand back and forth, and the movement finally caught Tristan’s eye.  “Yes?” he responded.

“May I make a suggestion, sir?” Pockets asked.

“By all means.”

“Sir, for something with this kind of potential for safety or hazard, why don’t we ask Merlin to make the new Blue Horizon’s first journey a covert return back to Se’rei?  Suzuko and I could talk with Calissa about the black box and explain our intention to incorporate it into a public transport as a safety feature. She may be hesitant to help us in a commercial venture like this, but in exchange for the information, we will do what we can to keep the existence of Se’rei from the rest of the Planetary Alignment. Perhaps Sillon could claim Se’rei as its territory and quarantine that star system if or when the Hyld engine is commercialized.”

Tristan studied the raccoon for a moment before he nodded. “That might work. If Ms. Thalia is willing to draw up technical plans of the monitoring device, and explain what those dangers might be, I can offer up a treaty to her world with Master Ritchka’s authority to shield their existence from others, or whatever other compensation she might name.”

“If we act quickly, Merlin can alter our initial shipping schedule long enough for us to confer with Calissa and give her time to draw up the plans to show us how to construct the black box, if she’s amiable to sharing her knowledge.”

Tristan placed a hand palm down on the table. “I will inform Suzuko that the monitoring device will need to stay in place so that you may make a safe return to Se’rei and back. I’m afraid she may not be pleased that I have sided with you on this decision, but she knows that I have full authority over the Hyld project and will abide by it. Had we not lost our colleague mysteriously in the initial manned flight, I may not have given in to your argument, but in this instance, the safety of future Hyld-equipped vessels may depend upon your return to Se’rei.”    

*** 

Right after Pockets had stormed out of the engine room, Max apologized to Suzuko and excused himself. He was unwilling to listen to further bickering between the two of them, so he departed the ship and hailed a cab to return to his Uncle Merlin’s home.

Shannon Wallace was surprised to see him on the front step when she answered the door chime. “Come on in, Max,” she invited after a brief hesitation.

“Is everything okay?” the German shepherd asked of her concern.

“Yes, everythings fine,” the tan wolf answered. “I’m just not used to seeing you alone without one of your shipmates. I thought you would come back with Pockets later on this evening.”

Max gave her a wan smile and shrugged his shoulders. “I’m tired and just wanted to come back,” he said.

“Okay, return question,” Shannon said as they crossed the front room toward the kitchen. “Is everything okay with you?”

“Yeah, I’m okay,” he said, plunging his hands into the pockets of his jeans, “but Pockets and the new mare have been arguing. I understand what both of them are saying, but didn’t feel like being in the middle of it.”

“What are they arguing about?” Renny asked. Max looked up and saw the cheetah at the dining table with a large piece of pie on a paper plate before him.

He took a seat opposite the navigator, crossed his arms upon the tabletop, and then put his chin down on them.  He was unsure how much he should say in front of Shannon, so he decided to keep it vague. “Modifications to the engine room,” he stated in tired voice.

“Hmph, it sure didn’t take long for Pockets to start looking to see what he could upgrade or change,” Renny replied with a shake of his head. “We haven’t even lifted off on our maiden voyage yet and already he’s butting heads with another engineer.”

“Something like that,” Max agreed.

“Are you hungry?” Shannon asked.

The German shepherd thought about it for a moment, but then shook his head. “Not very much,” he replied. “I just need something else to think about besides the new ship.”

Renny took a sip from his soda straw and then stood up. He leaned across the table and put a hand on the young canine’s forehead. “Hmm, you feel okay,” he cheetah said with the hint of a smile, “but it can’t be normal for an engineer’s mechanic to want to think about something other than a new ship!”

“Ha ha,” Max responded with a smirk.

“If you want a distraction,” Shannon said while she covered a dish to keep the flies from it, “I have an idea for you.”

“What’s that?” Max asked with interest. Renny sat down again and resumed eating.

“Follow me.”  The German shepherd got up from his chair and followed the tan wolf from the kitchen. She led him down a dim hallway to a closed door. She tapped on it lightly with a claw. Samantha’s voice answered in a quiet voice.

“Yes?”

Shannon opened the door and stuck her nose into the opening. “I have someone here who would like to see his adopted relatives.”

There was a light chuckle. “Please show him in.”

The wolf waved Max into the room and then shut the door behind him on her way out. The German shepherd stood beside an oak chest of drawers in the master bedroom of the house. The room was dimly lit by three aromatic candles that smelled of lilacs.

“Hello, Max,” Samantha said lightly. “Come on in and sit beside me.”

The young mechanic unconsciously wiped both hands on his light blue tee shirt and nodded. He approached a large king-size, four-posted bed with a thick set of mattresses. A fluffy comforter with a subtle floral pattern covered the bed and its primary occupant.

Samantha Sinclair lay on her side in the middle of the bed, her bare-fur shoulders slightly exposed above the comforter. She had a freshly-cut red flower clipped to the fur behind her left ear and the smile upon her face was pleasant and warm.

Max sat down in a chair beside the bed and put his hands in his lap. “How are you doing?” he asked nervously. “Are your puppies okay?”

“See for yourself,” Samantha replied. She raised an arm beneath the comforter and drew it aside. Sleeping beside her on the mattress were five small bodies in a row whose tiny sides moved rhythmically in their slumber.

Max swallowed and averted his eyes when he realized that Samantha wore nothing but her fur beneath the cover. She didn’t seem embarrassed, however, and seemed proud to show off her children to him. Max leaned forward with a growing smile on his face as he focused his attention on the infant pups. Although he knew that the women of The Wild Star occasionally gave birth, he rarely ever got to see them, and never this close.

“They’re so small,” he whispered, looking up at her with bright eyes.

“Yes, but they will grow considerably in the weeks to come,” Sam replied. “When they have grown a bit, I would like you to come visit them as often as you can so they can get to know the man their father adopted as his nephew.”

“I would like that very much,” Max answered. “How soon before I may hold one of them?”

“If you are gentle, you can pick one up now.

“Uhm, are you sure?”

“Just be gentle and don’t be concerned if one or more of them wake up. They are not very active the first day or so, and will get plenty of sleep if you let them.”

Hesitant at first, the German shepherd reached out toward one of the pups on the end and tenderly scooped up the small body that filled two hands. He pulled his hands back towards him without lifting them much above the comforter and then leaned in closer to inspect the child. Already the infant’s limbs seemed longer than they had been during the naming ceremony and he marveled at its continued growth.

“Which one is this?” he asked of the reddish-furred body that began to squirm a bit in his hands.

“That is Cassandra,” Samantha replied quietly. “Merlin has already started calling her Cassie.”

“Cassandra,” Max repeated in a whisper. With a quick glance at the mother, he pulled his hands up to his chest so that the little female rested up against his shirt. Cassie let out a soft whimper and then began to sniff the air at him. She whimpered again and then one of the other pups whimpered in response.

Max looked apologetic and then carefully returned the little girl to her place beside her mother. “There you go,” he whispered. “Safe and sound with your momma.” He looked up at Samantha and gave her a bright smile. “Thank you,” he said. “She’s beautiful, just like you.”

Sam let out a happy sigh and reached out to stroke the fur behind Max’s right ear. “Thank you, Max. You’re sweet. I am glad you could be here with us now. I hope you get the chance to experience this yourself someday.”

The young canine raised an eyebrow at her and sat back slowly in his chair. “You know that will never happen,” he said with a look of regret. “I couldn’t father a child any more than I could give birth to one.

Samantha stifled a chuckle at his comment and shook her head. “Max, just because you can’t create one, doesn’t mean you have to love one any less. You may have the opportunity to adopt a child someday, just as Merlin adopted you and gave you a home.”

Max nodded and grew quiet, lost in thought. Finally, Samantha drew the covers back over her children to keep them warm, though leaving enough of an opening for fresh air. After a time, the young mechanic looked up at her. “May I ask you a personal question?”

“What is it you wish to know?”

“When Uncle Merlin adopted me, how come he adopted me as his nephew, instead of his son?”

“That is something we’ve never discussed,” Sam replied honestly, “so I really don’t know. However, I can only guess that it was because at that time, he didn’t have a proper mate so you would also have a mother. You were already nearing adulthood, so perhaps he thought an uncle would be more appropriate of a relationship. Do you feel like you were unloved?”

Max looked at her in surprise. “Never!” he said, louder than he intended. Mindful of the pups, he swallowed and lowered his voice back to a whisper. “Uncle Merlin has been good to me. After he allowed me to stay on board, he spent a good deal of time with me and seemed to always make sure I knew that I was welcome. He hugged me when I went to him with problems that I could only talk to him about, and he let me know when I did something that pleased him.”

“What kind of problems did you have that you needed his advice?” Sam asked curiously. “You always seemed a happy kid – except when you thought I gave you too much homework in your tutoring.”

“After I left Quet, I had a lot of emotional baggage to go through, and it wasn’t always easy,” he admitted. “I sometimes still have nightmares of what Mr. Tagon did when he got angry.”

“I’m sorry, Max. I didn’t know.”

He looked up at her with a wan smile and shrugged his shoulders. “As a slave, I was never really allowed to go talk to anyone about my personal problems, so I learned to bottle it up and keep it to myself.”

“That’s not healthy!”

“That’s what Cindy used to tell me during our counseling sessions,” he said. “I… I think I told her things that I’ve never told anyone else, but she helped me through some real pain.”

“I’m glad you had someone to talk to.”

“Me too, but I think Uncle Merlin was a bigger help over time. He kept me laughing, gave me encouragement, and even lent an ear when I had a personal dilemma.”

Samantha raised her eyebrows. “What was that?”

Max looked embarrassed and he looked away, suddenly wishing he hadn’t said anything more. “I… I had a… uhm… a crush on someone in the crew,” he admitted hoarsely.

“I’ll bet it was Sparky,” Sam said with a smile. “She was cute and really liked you.”

“N-no, it was not Sparky.”

Sam tilted her head. “Taro?”

“Nope.”

“Cindy? Lori?

He shook his head to both names, dreading the direction of the conversation.

“No? But, that just leaves

Max looked up at her as the realization sunk in for her.

“Uh huh.”  He swallowed hard and wanted to crawl beneath the bed for his confession.

Samantha looked at him in wonder, suddenly recalling the quick kiss hed given her that time when the Blue Horizon was shot out of orbit over Crescentis and they were just about to plunge into the watery planet’s atmosphere.

“I’m flattered, Max,” she told him sweetly. “Please don’t feel embarrassed to tell me this. You and I spent a great deal of time together in your studies, and I became quite fond of you too.”

“Thanks, but that’s not really the same,” he muttered, still feeling the heat on his cheeks beneath his fur.

“No, I don’t suppose it was,” Sam admitted. “However, were now family and I still love you very much, Max.”

Why do you say I’m family?” the young mechanic asked. “You now have five children of your own fur and blood. I’m only a bystander.”

“You are part of my family,” Samantha stressed. “Listen, Max, in some cultures throughout the Planetary Alignment, someone who is adopted into a family has stronger rights than someone with a blood birthright. A natural child can be disowned by a family, but not so with an adopted child. Merlin adopted you, and now I’m married to Merlin. You are one of our rightful heirs and don’t ever forget that.” Sam gave him a smile and added, “Not only are you an heir to the Sinclair estate, but you’re also an heir to the Holden estate. You’ve already been written into our wills. How about that?”

“I don’t care anything about being an heir to some estate,” Max said, looking across the room, anywhere but at her. “All I care about is being part of a family…”

“Max, I will say it again. You are very much a part of my family. Would you feel better about it if I filed official paperwork adopting you directly? I could even suggest that Merlin and I alter your adoption as a son, rather than a nephew – then you would be an older sibling to these five little ones.”

A grin suddenly spread across Max’s face. He started to speak, but his voice cracked and he started again. “Th-thank you,” he said. “That means more to me than you can ever know, but you’ve convinced me. There’s no need to change my adoption status. I’m okay with being your nephew. Besides, I’ve been calling Merlin my uncle for so long that it would be hard to change now anyway. I just needed to know where I stand, now that your pups have come along.”

“As soon as I’m back on my feet,” Samantha said with moist eyes, “I’m going to give you the warmest, motherly hug I can muster!”

“I’ll look forward to it,” Max replied with grin. “Thank you.”    

*** 

Taro was up at the crack of dawn. By the time she had showered, dried her fur, dressed and headed downstairs to the kitchen for a toasted muffin and a cup of coffee, Merlin had already returned from his morning jog and had set up a small card table and two lawn chairs out in the gazebo for her. She carried a slateboard tucked under one arm, while she balanced a small plate with her butter and muffin on top of a coffee cup with the other.

She met Merlin halfway across the yard, the morning dew clinging to her sandaled feet and the tip of her fluffy tail. “Good morning,” she said with a smile.

“Good morning,” the wolf replied. “Here, let me take that for you.” He took her coffee and plate and walked back with her to the gazebo. “Are you up for this?”

Taro stepped up into the wooden structure and set the slateboard on the table. “Probably not, but it’s one of the evils of command, I’m sure you know.”

“Don’t I know it! I always dreaded times like this.” He waited a moment, absently smoothing out the wrinkles in his black jogging shorts and shirt while she set up her things. When she sat down behind the table in a lawn chair and faced him, he took the opposite chair.

“Would you prefer I was here with you for support during the proceedings?” he asked.

The vixen shook her head with a smile while she spread a pat of fresh butter over her muffin. “Thanks, but I’ll be okay. I only have to collect the signatures of those who are going to stay as my crew, or at least the decisions of those who would transfer.” The two of them were alone in the yard, but she lowered her voice and leaned toward Merlin across the table.

“If Jerry is going to transfer, he may have a difficult time,” she whispered. “I doubt Carmen Burgess will want to come over here from the Hidalgo Sun since she was involved with Durant and this was his crew. Alicia Tangle is the medic on the Mooncrest and I’m pretty sure I’ve heard she has an exclusive relationship there that she won’t want to leave. Other than that, I don’t know that much about her. She’s not that big, and may not want the added workload that Jerry wants us all to avoid anyway.”

“I’ve visited with Alicia a few times,” Merlin whispered back, “and she’s a nice gal. She has an open personality and has a good medical bedside manner, so I wouldn’t discount her if it comes down to this. That relationship you mentioned isn’t too stable right now, so that might not be a factor. I would not dismiss Doctor Burgess either. Durant’s scent won’t be all over your new ship, and that’s what bothered her about the old Horizon. Besides, it’s been long enough that she could probably handle it anyway.” The wolf sat back and gestured back to the house. “However, Jerry has yet to make his decision, but if he does, try to keep his feelings in mind when you get his answer.”

“Yeah, that’s all true,” said the vulpine captain after a lap of coffee. “I just wish he were a little more flexible.”

Merlin looked at his watch. “You have roughly two and a half hours until your oh-nine-hundred deadline. Is there anything I can do to help you get ready?”

Taro took a bite of her muffin and shook her head. “Not that I can think of,” she replied a moment later. “You might check in on me in a while just to make sure I still have a crew. I might need someone’s shoulder to cry on.”

The wolf smiled. “I think you’ll do better than you think.  Your first two customers are already on their way out and they’ve already publicly announced their decisions.”

Taro looked up to see both Pockets and Max trudging across the wet lawn toward the gazebo. She straightened her pale yellow blouse and brushed muffin crumbs from her dark grey slacks.

“I didn’t expect anyone out here for another hour,” she whispered to the wolf. “I thought Id have time to gather my thoughts and my wits about me before dealing with anyone.”

“I will check in on you after I’ve cleaned up and have had breakfast,” Merlin told her. “Good luck!”

“Thanks.”

Merlin looked over at Pockets when he hopped up both steps into the gazebo. “Morning, boss – bosses!” the raccoon said cheerily.

“Good morning, Pockets,” Merlin replied. “Max, however, you still look asleep!” Indeed, the German shepherd was still in his sleeping shorts and tank top, and his fur had not been groomed.

Max yawned in reply and then nodded. “I just want to sign my contract and then go back to bed,” he said. “…didn’t want to miss the deadline…”

“I had to drag him out of his bed by the tail,” Pockets said with a grin.

“I had a bad night,” the young mechanic muttered. Merlin looked at him in concern, but the short raccoon turned toward Taro, rubbing his small hands together.

“Good morning, Pockets,” Taro said with a smile. “You too, Max.”

“Gimmee your slateboard so I can put my thumb on it!” the engineer demanded. “You may be captain of the crew, but the new ship is mine!”

“That’s an interesting theory,” Merlin told him with a grin. The smile faded when the young canine beside him didn’t seem amused by his partner’s antics. He was about to inquire, but Max noticed the look and simply shook his head.  Merlin nodded and finally said, “I’ll see you guys later. I need to clean up.”

“See ya,” Max said with another yawn.

Taro looked over at the German shepherd and gestured toward the house. “Max, can you go wait up on the deck until Pockets and I are through?” she asked. “I want to talk to each of you in private before any of you sign anything, and this may take a few minutes.”

“Sure,” the young mechanic said, “but I may be asleep in a lawn chair by the time you’re ready for me.” He headed back out across the grass, unconsciously stepping in Merlin’s tracks back to the house.    

*** 

An hour later, Amanda tentatively approached the gazebo. The morning was still cool and there was a gentle salty breeze coming in off the sea. The coyote wore a pair of black slacks and a lavender blouse with the buttons fastened up to the ruff at her throat. She seemed nervous, but wanted to look professional.

“Come on up,” Taro invited calmly. “Have a seat.”  Amanda slid her tail through the slotted back of the vacant lawn chair and sat down with her hands together in her lap. “Would you like some coffee?” Taro asked her, reaching for a thermal bottle at her feet.

“No thank you, ma’am,” the coyote said in a voice barely above a whisper.

Taro caught her mood, but pretended not to notice as she refilled her own cup. The vixen took a lap of her drink and then set the cup aside. “How are you this morning?” she asked.

A smile briefly crossed Amanda’s face, but then was gone just as quickly. “I’m not sure,” she said. “I didn’t sleep much last night.”

Taro sighed inwardly and canted her head slightly. “Is it about the contract,” she asked quietly, “or is it something else?”

The coyote looked down at her hands. “It’s the contract, ma’am,” she replied.

“I see. What can I do for you to make this easier?”

Amanda looked up and swallowed. She was never one for confrontation, but she knew she had to work through this. In her job as the ship’s business coordinator, she had no problem hammering out the details of their shipments with their clients. She did her job well, but when it came to personal issues, she was often timid.

“Please don’t think ill of me, ma’am,” she forced herself to say, “but I don’t think I’m up to the physical demands of the new workload. One… uhm, one of the reasons I originally applied with you was that that I knew that cargo moving would only be a small part of what I did as a member of your crew.”

Taro gave her a look of compassion. “That’s okay, Mandy. I understand your reasons for leaving us and I assure you that I won’t hold it against you. Some people just aren’t cut out for the amount of physical exercise it takes to work on a freighter.”

The coyote shook her head and gave the fox a little smile. “Actually, I’m not leaving,” she said.

Taro looked at her in surprise. “Huh?” she asked before she even realized she had spoken.

“Well, I was – originally. I seriously considered swapping out with someone on one of the other ships, until I realized who did my job for those crews.”

“You’ve already contacted them?”

“No, ma’am, but I looked up the crew rosters for both ships. The business coordinator for the Hidalgo Sun is Sean Jones. Hes also the ship’s first officer, so I know he wouldn’t downgrade from his position to swap with me. I found a similar setup on the Mooncrest.  Captain Corwin is the coordinator for his own ship, so I can’t swap out with him either.”

“I didn’t know that,” Taro admitted, “but it doesn’t surprise me. I was Merlin’s first officer when he was captain of the Blue Horizon, and I was also the business coordinator, although we called it customer liaison at the time.”

“Exactly,” Amanda replied, dropping her gaze back to her hands. “I… I really don’t want to lose my job, ma’am, so I have decided to stay on with your crew – if you’ll still have me.”

Taro smiled, though the coyote wasn’t looking at her. She opened a folder on her slateboard and pulled up a document. She handed it to the coyote and said, “Here you go, Mandy. I’m glad you’ve decided to stay. If the workload gets too strenuous for you, we’ll try to work out something. Your primary job is my business coordinator, and as someone who used to hold that position myself, I can honestly say you’ve done a good job.”

“Really?” Amanda looked up with moist eyes. “Thank you, ma’am.”  She wiped at her eyes and then made her thumbprint in the appropriate box to sign the document. “I will try to hold up my end of my other duties as well, but it may be difficult at first.” She swallowed and then gave her captain a wide grin. “Besides, I can use the extra credits in my new pay to help my brother with his tuition.”     

*** 

Justy met Taro’s gaze easily and settled back in his chair. “I have to admit that I was unsure about staying on with the new workload, but then I realized a couple things.” He held up two fingers and waggled them.

“What’s that?”

“First off, I did sign up for a cargo ship and I knew beforehand that I would be moving cargo, but it’s not like I knew what your shipping schedule was going to be like before I applied. For all I could guess, we might have made a bunch of on-planet deliveries without making it far out into space, and I could have been moving freight every other day in such a case!”

Taro returned his smile. “Yes, that could have happened. What was your second thought?”

The koala leaned forward and rested an elbow on the small table. “If I quit or ran away to another ship, Id be validating Jerry’s argument!” The twinkle in his eye was mischievous, and he couldn’t help but give her a wink.

Taro laughed aloud and felt the tension melt from her shoulders. “Well, we can’t have you giving him that satisfaction now, can we?”

“I’ll sign my new contract now,” Justy said, retaining his smirk. “I may be small, but I’ll keep up my end of the workload.”

The vixen handed him the slateboard with his contract document open on the screen. “I thought you and Doc got along okay,” she said. “When did things change, or have I just been blind to it all this time?”

Justy signed the document with his thumbprint without bothering to look it over, trusting her implicitly. “Oh, there’s been no real bother between us,” he admitted. “He has his creative moments, but overall he doesn’t loosen up as much as I do and sometimes he seems annoyed with my free spirit. I try not to be annoying, but sometimes I can’t help being in a good mood!”

Taro took the slateboard back from him. “Well, I’m glad you’re such a nice guy, Justin,” she said. “I’m sure it helps with the morale of the others, so I hope you don’t change anytime soon.”

Justy grinned at the formal use of his name and he presented her with a sharp salute. “Aye, aye, Captain! You can depend upon me.”

“Thanks,” Taro replied with another laugh. “Now… since you’ve fulfilled your obligation for this morning, there’s something you need to do.”

“What’s that?”

“I need you to get with Master Tristan and have him introduce you to one of his people, a palomino named Stoyan.”

“Stoyan, okay.”

“He knows the Silloni computer systems very well and you should get in some training with him on the new ship between now and Saturday when we take off. I understand that their file system command structure is a little different than what the rest of the PA uses, so it would be in your best interest to pick his knowledge while you have him available to you.”

“That’s a good idea,” Justy nodded. “I’m familiar with seven different Planetary Alignment operating systems, but I’ve never played with one from Sillon.”

Taro sat back and picked up her coffee cup. “Do you have any further questions?”

The koala shook his head. “Nope, I think we’re good.”

“Okay, then. I’ll transfer a copy of your signed contract to you later today for your records.

“Thanks. How many more are left to come out to talk to you?”

“Just one,” Taro said with a glance at her wristwatch. “He has only twenty-three minutes left until the deadline.”

“May I ask you a question,” Justy asked in a low voice. Taro nodded hesitantly. “Have we lost anyone yet?”

The vixen relaxed and shook her head. “Not yet. There were a couple like you who were hesitant at first, but in the end, everyone so far has signed the new contract.”

Justy bit his bottom lip. “I guess that tells me who the last guy is,” he said. Taro didn’t reply to his statement, but he could read the confirmation in her eyes.  “Well, I guess I’ll go grab some breakfast and then go find Stoyan.  Thanks again, Captain.”

“You’re welcome, Justy. Thanks for staying on.”    

*** 

Taro heard the sound of soft footsteps in the grass. She looked up from the notes she’d made on her slateboard and saw Jerry Somner standing just outside the gazebo. He wore a pair of black slacks, a matching black shirt, and was in his medical smock, the last of which he’d not worn since they had landed several days ago.

“Hello, Jerry,” she said in a voice that was calmer than the way she felt inside. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach when she looked at her watch. 08:58. The male fox stepped up into the gazebo, slid his tail into the chair’s slotted opening, and then looked straight into her eyes.

“Good morning, Captain,” he said courteously. He crossed one leg over the other and then rested his hands on top of his elevated knee. Taro was unable to read the expression in his eyes and had to force herself not to swallow hard in front of him. “Am I the last?” he asked.

“Yes, and you cut it rather close.”

“Sorry about that,” he told her. “Shannon’s away on a school field trip with one of her boys this morning and Samantha needed attention.”

“Is she okay?” Taro asked with sudden dread.

“She’s fine, just a little case of new-mother jitters, thinking she might not be giving her children enough milk. Her pups are looking healthy, but I looked them over for her peace of mind.” He nodded and added, “She has nothing to worry about. All five are still growing, as they should. Their fingers and toes are becoming more pronounced, and the length of their arms and legs are extending slowly. They should be at the desired stage of post-birth development within a week.”

“That’s good to know,” the vixen replied. She steeled herself inwardly and then put both hands calmly upon the table. “Well, I suppose it’s time,” she said in a quiet voice.

“Sure,” Jerry said with a smile. “May I see the contract, please?”

Taro started, and instantly felt embarrassed at her outward sign. “Uh, uhm… here.” She already had his pulled up on the screen of her slateboard when she handed it to him. While the doctor read over the entire document, Taro tried to will her heart to slow back down. Jerry seemed calm and relaxed, but the vixen felt as if he were just waiting for right amount of tension in the air to reach the proper snapping point.

Several long moments passed before the physician finally nodded and then signed his name on a line at the bottom of the page with the proper placement of his thumbprint. When he handed the slateboard back to Taro, he chuckled at the diameter of her eyes.

“Surprised you, did I?” he asked casually.

The vixen nodded mutely as she looked down at the contract to make sure he really had signed the document. She let out a long, audible sigh that she didn’t’ try to hide and then looked back over at him with a relieved smile.

“Yes, I guess you did,” she admitted. “May I ask what made you change your mind about staying with us?”

He rested his hands back on his knee, but didn’t break eye contact with her. “Taro,” he said calmly, “I never intended to leave the crew, despite all of my arguments. I was uneasy with the physical demands of the new workload, but just as you said, Merlin listened to my concerns and was willing to do something about them.”

He uncrossed his legs and leaned forward onto them, clasping his hands together. “I may not be as impressed with the layout of the new ship as the others, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it. My Infirmary is larger than the old one, and we have a decent recreational room, so if I don’t feel like locking myself up into the closet that is my cabin, I have other places on board I can be.”

Taro was appreciative of the cool breeze still coming in off the sea. She returned his smile and said, “Thank you,” with the hint of emotion in her voice. “I really didn’t want to lose you.”

“I’m glad to hear that, Captain. As the ship’s Doctor, I’ll be keeping a close eye on everyone’s well-being under the new conditions. If I have any concerns, I now know you’ll be willing to listen.”

The vixen nodded. “You know I will.  Are there any other concerns or questions I can help you with?”

Jerry thought for a moment, but then he shook his head. “No, I’m clear on what’s going on.  I know we’ll be moving everything from the old ship to the new one, but we’re running low on some medical supplies in the Infirmary. While I was taking care of Samantha, she told me that she would authorize a discount through her pharmaceutical company to get what we need in that area, so that will help us get my new Infirmary restocked. However, even with the discount and her influence, I still need to get your authorization for everything on my list to keep the business legal.”

“Sure, just let me see your list before you go shopping.”

“I will.”

“Okay, well, I guess that wraps up everything,” Taro said at last. “I’m out of coffee and you were the last one to sign. I’ll have a copy of your contract to you later today for your records.”

“Thank you, Captain.  If that’s all, then, I’m going to see if I can get a ride out to the ship to start packing for the big move.”

“I’ll see you later, Jerry.”

Taro watched him idly as he walked back toward the house, but then a sudden thought occurred to her. She looked at her watch and noted with some bit of embarrassment that the deadline had come and gone, but she had not yet signed the captain’s contract that Merlin had discussed with her the night before.

With a chuckle and a glance around to make sure nobody was watching her, Taro pulled up her own contract and put her print on it. She made sure the notes she’d scratched down were saved on the slateboard and then began to gather up everything to go see Merlin.    

*** 

The Kokoro took off late that afternoon, bound for high orbit before launching via Hyper-LightDrive to rendezvous with the Hidalgo Sun that was en route to Ganis from Crescentis. The conference call between Merlin and Taro with Captains Kegawa and Corwin had gone well enough, describing the non-repairable damage to the Blue Horizon, the offer of the Kirin for testing and an explanation of its capabilities.

However, when Taro told them of Damien’s arrest and of her need for a new cargo load master, Rezo Kegawa was less than pleased with her request for Mark Littlefeather to relocate to her ship; the human had been a member of his crew for several years and Rezo flatly refused the transfer, suggesting that Taro take Captain Corwin’s load master instead.

Abner was more open to the transfer, but Merlin stepped in and nixed the idea. The request had come from Taro, but Merlin backed her up with his desire to have Mark on board the new ship where security restrictions would be tighter.

Rezo argued and ranted for a long while, but in the end, Merlin overruled him with a warning of insubordination and ordered him to bring the human into the conversation. Fuming, the red panda called Mark to his bridge and then sat grumbling in the background while Merlin filled the cargo load master in on the situation. The formal offer was made, but Mark hesitated with furtive glances toward Rezo before accepting the transfer.

Merlin informed them all that Master Tristan would rendezvous with the Hidalgo Sun for Littlefeather, so he would have little time to pack up his personal belongings. The wolf assured Rezo that applications for his new cargo load master were already being tendered through a third-party business at their destination on Ganis and Mark’s replacement would be awaiting him upon landing.

That set off Rezo into another tirade since he wouldn’t even have a say in who Merlin might hire for his ship.  The wolf had to remind him again that the Sun’s timetable wouldn’t allow for an extended time of interviews, so they would be conducted ahead of time before he got there.  Rezo didn’t like it and was plenty vocal in his displeasure.  The conversation had ended with the president of the company giving his subordinate another warning.  If Rezo was intent upon challenging Merlin’s authority, he was welcome to accompany Mark back to Dennier on the Kokoro, but he would need to bring all his personal possessions with him.  The red panda finally backed down, though not at all gracefully.

Despite the upcoming increase in workload for Taro’s crew, everyone in her crew had signed two-year contracts for the testing period. After experiencing Rezo’s tantrums, however, Taro was glad that there were no further requests for personnel transfer between their ships.     

*** 

Renny’s DataCom chirped at his belt and he put down a box of free weights he’d just brought up to the new recreation room. With everyone on the crew scattered between the two vessels, they had all taken to carrying their DC units to stay connected.

“This is Renny,” he answered.

“Hey, Renny —Justy here. When you get a moment, could you meet me at the main airlock here inside the old ship? We’ve found something you should see.”

“I’ll be down there in a few minutes.”

“Thanks.”

After the cheetah properly stowed his burden, he made his way around the corridors to the lift, passing Lori and Mandy guiding an antigrav cart full of pots and pans toward the galley. Outside the ship, he looked up at the overcast sky with a hand shielding his eyes, wondering if it was going to rain again. He crossed the tarmac between the ships and then trotted up the ramp of the open cargo bay door of the decommissioned Okami freighter. He saw Justy and Max standing over two long boxes of olive green near the controls of the damaged airlock.

“Hey guys, what’s up?” he asked.

Justy looked up and scratched one of his large ears. “Hi. I finished moving everything from my quarters to the new ship yesterday afternoon,” he said, “so I’ve been down here since this morning, moving over things from this deck – tools, tie-downs, padding, etc. Taro said we were not to leave anything behind.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen you and Max carting over stuff.”

“Well, he and I finally made it over to this area and Max found these two crates sitting here.”

“Since we put the patch over the airlock on the outside,” the German shepherd explained, “none of us have had a reason to come over here until now.”

“Okay, so what’s in the boxes?”

“Dunno yet,” Justy replied. “We were afraid they might be bombs, left behind by those people who came on board, so we thought we’d report it to you first.  I think the captain has gone out shopping, so we called you.”

“Could be another bomb,” Renny muttered uncertainly, “but why hasn’t one of them gone off before now?”

“Maybe they’re triggered to explode when the top is opened,” Max theorized.

Renny studied the box with a furrowed brow. The plastic crates were approximately two feet wide and five feet long, about two feet thick. There were rope handles on each end and a pair of latches along one side keeping the top closed, though there were no locks.

“Why don’t you have Moss scan it?” he suggested. “That’s one of the functions that Pockets programmed into it for passenger luggage, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it was,” Max answered, “but he’s already shut it down and purged its special programming. He said he didn’t want some bright vo-tech student to reverse-engineer it before it gets implemented through his new contract with Okami Corp.”

Renny nodded quietly, still looking over the crates. The only printing he could see upon the containers was “BA” in stylized black letters near a bottom corner.  The letters seemed familiar, somehow.

Then his eyes lit up. “Binfurr Arms!” he exclaimed in sudden realization. The letters were stamped upon every Binfurr rifle and handgun they kept on board. Renny reached down toward the box closest to him and Justy suddenly ran for the open bay door.

“What are you doing?” the koala called back hoarsely when the navigator flipped open both latches. Max looked suddenly afraid, wondering if he should run too.

Renny lifted the lid of the container with a smile and threw back the lid. Max jumped when the top hit the adjacent box with a loud bang, but the cheetah reached in and pulled out an oversized pistol from a fitted foam block. It was a stunner gun, identical to the ones Mr. Binfurr’s people carried when they’d come to get his daughter, Sandilee. He looked at the power pack in the handle grip and noted that the gun held a full charge.

“Where did those come from?” Max wanted to know. Renny handed the gun to him and then picked up another.  The crate held five of the pistols and ten extra power packs.

“Mr. Binfurr told Taro that stunners like these are best for protection on a ship out in space,” the cheetah answered. “We have rifles and hand guns in our armory, but a solid bullet from one of those might pierce the hull or a window.” He looked up at the damaged airlock and nodded toward it. “You know the kind of danger that can be out in space.”

“Yeah, don’t I know it.”

Better a temporary shock to someone’s nervous system than a bullet through a vital organ, I think Binfurr said. These may be similar to what was used on us when Ariel’s friends came on board.”

Justy had slowly rejoined them and looked over at the firearms hesitantly. “Okay, now we know what’s in the crates,” he said, “why are they here? We’ve not had time to go gun shopping since we landed.”

Renny looked over at him with a grin. “I’ll wager that Mr. Binfurr had them left on our ship before he left. He apologized for what we went through, but was grateful to have his daughter back. He probably thought we could use them.”

“Wow,” Max said. He aimed it at the floor and sighted along its fat barrel, but knew better than to discharge it. He handed it to Justy, who only glanced at it before putting back into the crate.

“Come on, Max,” the koala said. “Let’s get these over to the new ship and add them to the armory closet.”

A klaxon sounded out on the tarmac, signaling the arrival of a vessel to one of the other landing pads. Out of curiosity, all three of the guys stepped outside to see what was coming in, and they were surprised to recognize the scarlet form of a Silloni cruiser descending from the sky. The Kokoro landed lightly on a triad of landing gear and the whine of its atmospheric engines immediately began to wind down.

“Okay, let’s get back to work,” Renny said. “No need to gawk at Master Tristan when he disembarks. You two grab that crate and I’ll see if Doc will help me with the other.”

“He just went up in the lift a moment ago,” Max grunted as he grabbed one end of a crate and lifted.    

*** 

When Mark Littlefeather emerged from the airlock of the Kokoro a few minutes later, his brown eyes displayed excitement, but otherwise he seemed calm and collected for someone whod just experienced his first hyper jump. He was dressed in a pair of brown leather boots, close-fitting blue jeans and a white, long-sleeved shirt; the collar was open to reveal a silver and turquoise medallion in the shape of the Blue Horizon company emblem; it rested upon the smooth dark skin of his chest. His jet black hair was cut to collar length, framing his Amerindian face.

The broad-backed man shifted the strap of a large duffel bag over his left shoulder and looked behind him into the vessel. He nodded to something said to him and then he walked across the tarmac toward the new Blue Horizon. Although the Kokoro had flown in over the top of the other vessel, hed been strapped into a seat in a cabin during the descent into the Dennieran atmosphere and had not seen the new ship from the air. This was his first view of his new home and he admired its sleek beauty as he slowly stepped toward it.

Taro was already walking toward him and greeted him as he neared the vessel. “It’s good to see you again,” she said with a smile. “You’re looking well.” The last time they had seen one another in person was at Durant’s funeral, and although the human had not known the grizzly that well, they had all mourned his loss as a fellow wingman and none had been in the best frame of mind for visiting.

“Thank you, I am,” he replied with a grin. “It is good to see you again too.” He had always felt that the vixen had an exotic beauty, and her curves fit her black slacks and pale lavender blouse well. When his eyes fell upon the blue-tipped white feather dangling at her left ear, his eyes sparkled behind his smile.

Taro extended a hand in greeting, which he took gratefully, and then he moved back a step, set down his duffel, and then presented her with a sharp salute.

“Mark Ski’rik Littlefeather, reporting for duty, Captain Nichols,” he said formally.

Taro smiled and returned the salute. “Welcome to the Blue Horizon, Mr. Littlefeather. I’m happy you could join us.”

“Thank you, Captain. The new ship is impressive, and I’ve not even seen the inside yet.”

“Well then, I think we have time for a brief tour before we put you to work,” the vixen said with a smile. “I just got back from a shopping trip and need to take up my packages anyway. I picked up all new linens for the beds, since they’re a different size than the ones on our old ship.”

 Mark hefted the strap of his duffel back over his shoulder and then gestured toward the ship with his free hand. “After you,” he said politely.

“Is that all you brought with you?”

“No,” he said. “I have three boxes of personal effects still on board Master Tristan’s ship, but they said I could get them later. They aren’t taking off again for several days, so I can retrieve them any time before then.”

“How long did the Kokoro stay in the vicinity of the Hidalgo Sun?” Taro asked while they walked up the ramp and in through the airlock hatch.

“Only about an hour, just long enough for the usual greetings and to get my things moved. The Kokoro got there so fast that my crewmates didn’t have time to throw me a goodbye party, so all I got was a few quick hugs and pats on the back.”

Taro stopped just inside the entry corridor and picked up several shopping bags full of linens. “The Hyld system takes twenty-four hours to recharge. How did you leave after only an hour?”

Mark laughed. “Rezo was still so upset that I was yanked from his crew that he demanded the Silloni ship just take me and go. He said they were delaying his delivery schedule and that he didn’t have their luxury of a super-engine to make up the time. Master Tristan did as he requested and once the Sun continued on its way, we headed back using standard LightDrive engines until the Hyld was recharged. It didn’t take off any of our flight time getting back, but it gave his crew something to do in the meantime, rather than just sitting in space.”

“You seem rather informed and comfortable with the new propulsion system,” Taro told him with a smile.

Mark’s easy grin resurfaced. “We had a day of travel to sit and talk,” he replied. “Master Tristan, Stoyan, Metra and the others all took time out to visit with me and tell me about my new ship, the Hyld system, and our contract to test it for them.”

“May I ask you a personal question?” Taro asked in a quiet voice.

“Fasten, and then zip,” Mark answered automatically.

“Huh? What are you… oh.”  Taro chuckled and shook her head. “No, my question is not that personal.”

Mark laughed. “Sure, ask your question.”

“When you were offered the position on my ship, you didn’t look very excited about it. Did you have any reservations about coming over here?”

Mark let out a sigh. “I was excited,” he replied. “Very much. However, Rezo was upset when he called me to the bridge, so I already knew that whatever reason I was there had not set well with him. I didn’t want to seem over-eager in his eyes. He can get quite vindictive when he doesn’t get his way on his own ship.”

“Wow, I didn’t know that about him.”

“Speaking candidly, ma’am, he puts on a good front for guests, but behind the scenes he’s a regular Captain Edwards.”

“Edwards?” Taro asked. “I don’t know him.”

Mark shook his head. “Edwards was the cruel captain of the HMS Pandora on Earth’s seas several centuries ago. Perhaps I should have compared Rezo to Captain Bligh of the HMS Bounty instead. People feared Bligh’s acidic tongue more than they did physical punishment. Rezo never abused us physically, but if you ever get him stirred up, he can strip you down to nothing with just his words. For several hours after you called, he did everything he could to me feel like a heel for accepting your offer. Personally, I’m glad to be out from under his command. He always found some way to coerce me into renewing my contracts when they came up, so I’ve served with him for quite a while.”

Taro grimaced. “Yeesh… why did you sign back up under him after he sold his old ship for scrap and then hired his crew back when Merlin brought him into the company?”

The human shrugged. “Like my crewmates, I needed the work. Had it only been for Rezo, there’s no way I would have come back, but with Merlin in charge, I hoped things would be better. At least the ship and the pay contract had improved, but lately it seems like Rezo gets a warning of insubordination from Merlin every time there’s a major decision made. Knowing what he’s said about Merlin behind his back, I’m frankly surprised Captain Kegawa hasn’t been fired already.”

 “Hm, nice.  Speaking of contracts, I have yours up in my cabin when you’re ready to sign.  No coercion, I promise.”

“Captain,” Mark said with raised eyebrows, “I can already tell that you’ll be easier to work for than he was, even under a heavier workload. I’ll gladly put my print on the document.”

“Very good. So, how was your first hyper jump?”

The human made a face and put a hand on his stomach. “Gut wrenching,” he answered. “Literally. It wasn’t pleasant, but Metra told me how to prepare for it. She said that in time, I would get so used to it that my body would react to it automatically, rather than me having to consciously prepare myself.”

“That’s good to know,” the vixen replied. “I’ve only been through it a couple times, and even with prior warning, it still wasn’t what I would call fun. It’s the only part of testing the new ship that I’m not looking forward to experiencing.”

They began walking but then Mark stopped again beside a thick glassteel window. He looked out into the cargo bay and nodded. “It looks larger,” he said, “but maybe that’s because it’s longer. It’s not as wide, though.”

“You want to see your office down here first?”

The human shook his head of dark hair. “No, I’d like to go up to my cabin and drop off my duffel. Without this hanging off my shoulder, I can enjoy the tour better.”

“A sound idea. This way.”    

*** 

A tall, metallic figure emerged from behind a large wall locker and stepped forward across the cargo bay. Renny and Jerry both turned to the sound of a warning klaxon and grinned. The white-gold figure strode quickly, despite its mass and apparent weight, down the ramp toward one of seven octagonal containers that had just been delivered by truck to the ship.

“Everybody step back, okay?” Taro said to the other crewmembers that were busily unlocking cargo straps.

The form stepped forward with heavy mechanical movements, and the scattered crew saw that it was actually Mark Littlefeather in one of the new augmented power loaders. The human gave Taro a friendly smile, extended one of the thick, robotic arms and spun the large pincer.

He motioned to the rest of his crew, and the brand new mechanical loader stepped toward the truck. Large pincers grasped the nearest crate, and the power loader lifted it effortlessly from the truck. He then turned and stepped back up the ramp to take their fresh food supplies into the freighter.

Renny grinned at Jerry, approving of the mechanized loader. “I’m glad Merlin authorized the purchase of new units for our increased workload.” The used models they’d purchased with the last ship had proven unreliable and it had caused Pockets to work on them all the time to keep them running.

“That’s just what the doctor ordered,” Jerry agreed. “Should I go get the other one and help out?”

The cheetah shook his head and gestured toward the loader with a smile. “No, let Mark play with his new toy. He’ll have all the crates loaded by the time you get the other one out anyway.”

In a relaxed moment of levity, Jerry stuck out his bottom lip. “Aw, daddy… I wanted to play with the toys toooo!”

“Later, son,” Renny quipped, “but only if you eat your vegetables.”    

*** 

Saturday morning eventually arrived. The weather was fair, spirits were high and the ship was fully stocked and prepared for their first voyage. As per Master Tristan’s suggestion, Merlin had set the Blue Horizon’s first flight to Se’rei to seek out Calissa Thalia’s knowledge on the monitoring device she had constructed for them on their first visit to the lapin community. Taro, Renny, Pockets and Suzuko had been given specific instructions on dealing with the former pirate engineer, and their hopes were high that she would help them for the sake of safety. Due to her friendship during their prior visit, Lori would act as a liaison to strike some kind of deal with Calissa for her help.

 For one month, the Home Office would route all shipping customers to the other two vessels in the small fleet, and then the Blue Horizon would need to be back in service.

In the event that Calissa would not help them, the Horizon’s black box would be confiscated upon their return to Dennier for Tristan’s people to study back on Sillon; all Hyld jumps would then be banned until a proper monitoring system could be reverse-engineered, and the Blue Horizon would use its new Silloni LightDrive system for deliveries in the meantime, which in of themselves were a little faster than what the rest of the Planetary Alignment used. It would be a blow to the planned test, but in the name of the associate they’d lost, Tristan was adamant about the safety of those who might use the new jump system.

At an hour before launch, everyone gathered in front of the bow of the Blue Horizon. The cargo bay doors were sealed, but a temporary awning had been set up over twenty-five folding chairs for an official send-off ceremony.

In attendance were the ten who made up Taro’s crew of the Blue Horizon, Tristan and his crew of six Silloni unicorns, Cindy, Keri, Penny and Tina from the Home Office, Bill and Shannon Wallace, and also Merlin and Samantha Sinclair. The children of Bill and Shannon were in school, and the Sinclair infants were in the care of a trusted friend so Samantha could attend.

When everyone had assembled and they were in their seats, Merlin stood up and moved to a spot in front of them. Although he would not be leaving with the ship, the grey wolf wore an outfit familiar with the crew. He was dressed in a beige mock-neck shirt with a loose collar, a pair of royal blue pants with gold vertical stripes on the outside seams, black jackboots, a brown flight jacket with the company logo on the right shoulder and over the left chest pocket, and a blue and white nautical cap that was perched on his head between his thick, triangular ears. He set a paper sack on the ground at his feet and then faced them all.

“My friends,” he said with a casual smile, “it is the end of an era. Ever since my friend Jiro and I first decided to go into the cargo hauling business with a used freighter a decade ago, the Blue Horizon has been an Okami-class vessel.  Due to a few mishaps along the way, our ship has been broken twice, but now thanks to Master Tristan and the Silloni government, the Blue Horizon rises yet again, but this time she’s a different species.”

He looked around at the faces focused on him. “The Kirin­-class freighter behind me is the latest in state-of-the-art Silloni technology, and although she is still in her prototypical testing phase, I think we can all be proud of what her potential can be in our career field. If the solar winds are with us, we can expect to be flying Kirin freighters for a long time to come. The next two years will determine if there are any improvements or changes to be implemented in the design before the ships are made available to the public, and the Blue Horizon’s crew will be instrumental in making this happen.”

Merlin smiled and put his hands into his pockets. “Samantha and I are the proud parents of five new lives, but our pack is much larger. Between the Blue Horizon, the Hidalgo Sun, the Mooncrest and our Home Office, we have forty individuals in the Sinclair family. I want to thank each and every one of you, whether you are in the crew of a ship, associates from Sillon, colleagues from the office, or actual blood relatives. This new ship now goes into service as a result of everyone’s participation.  May your journeys be smooth, your friendships are strong, and may the stars forever light your pathways.”

The grey wolf bent down and pulled a glass wine bottle from the sack at his feet. He walked over to the bow of the ship and then held the bottle up high. He winked at his wife, who looked as lovely as he had ever seen her, and then said in an elevated voice, “As captains have done for centuries, I now give you the SS Blue Horizon, PA28080!”

Merlin brought the bottle down hard against the hull. Its green glass shattered, splashing the wine juices across the forward curve of the vessel as the gathered crowd clapped in celebration.    

*** 

“Sir, I think you should see this.”

Victor Faltane, former black marketer and now current Representative of the Earth to the Planetary Alignment, looked up from a document on his desk toward an aid in a dark suit who had just stepped in through his office door. The swarthy man tapped on the large vidscreen on the wall of Faltane’s office and the narrator’s voice of a broadcast documentary issued from the room’s surround speakers.

“…from a joint venture between Sillon and the non-Alignment world Ryu. What began as merely an opportunity for these sister worlds to work together to pool their resources has been beneficial to both planets. When stellar distances…”

“You know my schedule, Kane,” said the man with pale blue eyes, cropped beard and styled blonde hair that lightly brushed the collar of his navy blue suit. “I don’t have time to watch a documentary on the channel of Science Discoveries.”

The aid, a broad-shouldered man of twenty-five brushed a hand across his flat-top haircut and nodded toward the screen. “You will want to watch this one, sir,” he said.

Faltane knew his people well enough to recognize the edge to the man’s voice. He set down the slateboard hed been holding and gave his full attention to the StellarNet program.

“Local Dennieran representatives of the Planetary Alignment Scientific Society were invited by Tristan of Sillon to examine two new prototype starships equipped with a combination propulsion system consisting of the latest Silloni LightDrive engines with a new technology developed into a Hyper Jump system. They are calling this engineering marvel a Hyper-LightDrive engine system, or a ‘Hyld Engine’ for short. Due to the extreme distances between Sillon and the rest of the Planetary Alignment for which it holds a membership, Silloni and Ryujin engineers have long worked together to  break the LightDrive barrier. It was announced early this week that two versions of the Hyld Engine have been constructed for testing, a small unit for personnel-size cruisers, and a larger unit for moving large transports. The smaller of the two was installed into a Hoshi-class staff cruiser, and Tristan, a former Silloni regent and owner of a plush vacation resort call the Dragon Loft, was appointed by Regent Master Ritchka to head the commercial development of the Hyld Engine.

“The larger unit was installed into a new class of freighter the Silloni had been already been developing for sale to the Planetary Alignment. These two prototype starships will undergo a two-year testing period before they are released to the general public for sale. Tristan’s personal team is testing the Hoshi-class staff cruiser, while a private shipping company has been chosen to test its new Kirin-class freighter. A third vessel equipped with the smaller of the Hyld engines will also be tested by the Spatial Police Force once construction of that vessel is completed.

Despite unsubstantiated rumors of unreliability, the combined governments of Sillon and Ryu have secured the help of Blue Horizon Freight Transfer of Dennier for testing in a real-world environment, although the launch date of its maiden flight is not yet…”

Faltane sputtered and cursed. He checked himself with a quick glance at Kane and then steeled himself to watch the rest of the broadcast. The documentary itself was dry, and it was unlikely to be viewed by anyone without a scientific interest in traffic throughout the Planetary Alignment, but it was the kind of thing that the opportunist in Victor Faltane frequently watched for.

A half-hour later, the show ended with a techno-soundtrack over the end credits. Faltane snapped his fingers sharply and then pointed toward the screen. “I want a copy of that broadcast available to me by tomorrow,” he said to his aid with a menacing look.

“Yes, sir. I’ll get on it right away.” Kane withdrew from the room and quietly shut the heavy oak door behind him.

Faltane growled beneath his breath and fought to maintain control of his temper. The development of his Prime-class freighters was intended to revolutionize shipping freight, and they had only recently gone on the market to the public. He understood every bit of technical jargon that had been used in the program to profile this Hyper-LightDrive engine system, and the stellar mechanics behind its theory sounded similar to the particle vault technology that Sagan had stolen from the pirate queen, Natasha Khasho – a system that his own engineers had thus far been unable to recreate for his own purposes. 

If the Silloni had perfected hyper travel on their own and have announced the possible distribution of its technology to the public on the outside of two years, it was unlikely Faltane would be able to sell many of the Prime ships.  Who would want to buy his expensive freighters when everyone could simply wait a couple years for vault-like capability?

To rub salt in the wound, one of the Silloni prototypes had been given to Merlin Sinclair, a Dennieran wolf who had unwittingly side-railed some of his plans already.  Despite Faltane’s recent covert efforts to steer customers away from Sinclair’s business, he was fairly certain that companies would compete for the Horizon’s services once it became known that they could now get their goods delivered faster than anyone else in the industry.

Faltane’s own attempts to reverse-engineer Natasha’s vault drive had not been successful. Despite having a working model of her technology, there were key elements in the way things worked that were simply beyond the capabilities of his engineers.  Theyd been able to construct a prototype that appeared promising, but after its third test flight, the ship simply vanished without a trace. It was unknown whether the ship encountered problems related to the vault or some other issue altogether, but a second prototype was built using the same technology.  It had vanished on its first flight.

Rather than pour billions more into a technology they didn’t fully understand that seemed determined to defeat them, Faltane had turned his R&D department over to the Prime starships instead. Gargantuan advances were made and a new type of LightDrive technology promised to revolutionize transportation – not only in simple freighters, but also for all interstellar transportation.

Faltane Industries of Earth stood to become the wealthiest concern in the Planetary Alignment, but now Sillon’s announcement could completely derail his efforts. Faltane was livid. Even if he thought to take out the Blue Horizon itself, the Silloni government still had the technology to build more.

The deceptively young-appearing human ground his teeth together. When he needed to be, Faltane could be cutthroat and use emotional blackmail in order to accomplish his goals. He could have his affiliates leak news of his company’s failed Vault prototype, attributing it to one of his sub-contractors for plausible deniability. His cronies could make a number of loud statements about “concern for public safety” and other bland, formless terms.  The Blue Horizon would have to demonstrate that they would not just disappear into the void with someone’s cargo or passengers using experimental technology. Lawsuits could be threatened, environmental concerns addressed, and plain old, outright lies could be spread throughout the media.

The man let out a guttural growl and drummed his fingers on the desktop. It was an ill wind when someone crossed Victor Faltane. One thing the human forgot, however, was that no matter how large and expansive his empire might be, there were larger predators in life. Some hunted for sport and fun, some hunted for food, but there were others that hunted for revenge.

The hunter on the veranda just outside Faltane’s office was of the latter variety.    

*** 

Samantha opened her eyes from a dreamless sleep. The lights were out, the curtains wafted gently in the cool sea air that came in through the open bedroom window and crickets chirred somewhere out in the yard. She could hear a gentle ting ting ting from the sailboat marina up the road and she felt calm and relaxed.

It was in the middle of the night, but she chose not to turn her head to see the glowing blue numbers of the clock on the nightstand to check the time. Without moving, she could mentally feel the presence of her five tiny children in the room, but she could sense there was someone else. The feeling didn’t come from Merlin’s side of the bed and she suddenly felt a small tang of fear.

The Border collie turned her head and saw a silhouette bent over the large crib that contained the pile of puppies all snuggled together. When her eyes adjusted to the moonlight coming through the window, she could see that it was her wolf gently stroking each pup’s small ears.

Merlin sensed her gaze and looked over at her with a loving smile. She could see the moisture reflected in his amber eyes, but knew the tears were not of sorrow, but of deep emotion.  He turned back to their young ones and continued bestowing affection upon them.

Samantha Sinclair sighed deeply and closed her eyes with a smile. All was right in their world.

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