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BLUE HORIZON 1261

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 20
Apparition

 

"It's only a sprain," the nurse told her patient. "No broken bones from what I can see from the x-ray. You're very fortunate it's only a torn ligament."

Jasper held his left hand up close to his chest, his other over it protectively. "I don't know about fortunate," he said with a frown, "but I'm glad it isn't broken."

Connie walked over to a cabinet, and then pulled out a clean towel and a white packet bearing a green cross upon its wrapping. "I'm going to put a cold compress on it," she said, "and I want you to come back every four hours for a fresh one to keep it cooled down; I want you to keep it elevated, above the level of your heart. I'm also going to give you an anti-inflammatory medication to further help reduce the swelling."

"You aren't going to wrap it up in a bandage?" he asked curiously.

The red-haired woman shook her head, causing her ponytail to sway. To the raccoon, he thought her bound-up hair resembled a long, wagging tail, but only attached to the back of her head rather than to her rear. It was an odd visualization.

"Not until some of the swelling has gone down," she replied, popping the white pack between her hands. "We'll let the cold and the meds work on that first, and then we'll bind it up." She kneaded the internal chemicals of the compress together and then folded it up in the towel. Jasper winced when she wrapped it gently around his wrist and then secured it with two thin elastic straps.

Turning back to the counter, Connie opened another cabinet and pulled out a small bottle of green capsules. She dumped one out onto her palm and then filled a small cup with water from the Infirmary sink.  She handed both to the engineer, which he took quietly.

When she helped him down off the roller stool, she gestured toward the door and said, "I know we just took off, but I want you to get some rest now. Let your brother monitor the engine room and go to your cabin. If you use that hand, it's only going to delay bringing down the swelling."

Jasper sighed and nodded quietly. "Yes ma'am," he replied. He'd sustained enough pains and injuries over the years to know that rest was always recommended with a sprained limb.

"I will let the captain and your brother know you're on limited duty," the nurse told him, opening the door for him. "How long will depend upon how well you treat your wrist."

"Thanks," replied the raccoon. She gave him a nod of acknowledgement and then he headed for his cabin. 

* * * 

Merlin stepped off the lift on the cargo deck and momentarily gazed out at the cargo containers lashed to the flooring. Durant was on the far side checking the straps post launch and didn't see him. The captain left the bear to his work and followed the curved aisle around the perimeter of the hold to the engine room.

He passed through the open pressure door and took a brief look into the engineer's office, but it was vacant. The wolf smiled to himself, impressed that the raccoons were likely elbows-deep in the machinery already to fix the errant thrusters. He walked further into the engine room along the main aisle, but neither saw nor heard either of the mechanics.

"Jasper?" he called out.  There was no reply but the deep rumble of the Liquid Crystal LightDrive system.  "Jerad?" 

Still no reply. Thinking that they must be out of hearing range having crawled inside an access corridor somewhere, Merlin continued looking for them. He called out several times, but to no response. When he reached the aft end of the compartment, he leaned back against a bulkhead and rubbed his sore shoulder, wondering where they were. 

* * * 

Jiro adjusted his controls and prepared to take the Blue Horizon up and out of orbit. Taro had just relayed ADA Control's acknowledgement on the completion of their single revolution. A traffic corridor was open and the cougar altered their flight path to take it away from the planet below.

The intercom chirped and Taro reached out absently to tap the answer key. "Bridge," she answered.

"Taro!" exclaimed Jerad's country voice, pitched just a little higher than normal. "TaroTaroTaroThere'saghostinthegalleythere'saghostinthegalleyourshipishauntedandwe'vegottogoback!"

Jiro blinked and chanced a look over his shoulder at the vixen. A look of great puzzlement was on both their faces.

"Jerad, calm down!" Taro ordered, "What's going on – I can't understand you!"

"TellMerlintoturntheshiparoundandgobacktoAlexandriusthere'saghostinthegalleyandIthinkit'sgottenIvy!"

"Stop it!" Taro commanded. "Catch your breath and tell me again, but slower."

The raccoon audibly gulped air and then he tried again. His voice was still strained, but he managed to say, "We've got a ghost in the galley!" He took another deep breath. "I think it's got Ivy!" (gasp) "Turn the ship around!" (gasp) "Go back to Alucara!"

"A ghost?" Taro and Jiro repeated in unison.

Although intrigued with the unexpected conversation, Jiro needed to concentrate on the stellar traffic around Alexandrius, so he tried to tune out the agitated raccoon's voice.

"It's a ghost, Taro!" Jerad exclaimed.

"Tell me what you saw," the vixen replied patiently. Before the raccoon could respond, the intercom chirped again. "Hold on, Jerad," she said, before she switched the circuit. "Bridge," she said.

"Taro," replied Merlin's voice, "I'm down here in the engine room, but can't seem to find either of our mechanics."

"Jerad's outside the galley, swearing he's seen a ghost in the galley, but I don't know where Jasper is."

"Did you just say… a ghost?"

"Yeah… He's on another intercom line right now and was just ranting about turning the ship around to go back to Alucara."

"Okay, this is nuts. Jiro is to stay on course, but tell Jerad I'll meet him outside the galley."

"Aye, sir."

Merlin shut off his end of the connection, so the vixen switched back to the previous line. "Jerad, you still there?"

"Still here, but I don't know for how long!" the raccoon replied.

"Merlin's on his way there now," Taro reported. "Stay put."

"I'm watching the door to the galley, but I haven't seen it seep out yet. If it does, I'm going to dig down through the floor in two seconds flat!" 

* * * 

"Explain to me why you left the engine room unattended right after launch."

The short raccoon looked up when his captain walked around the curve of the corridor. He was huddled near the floor against the wall, his arms wrapped around his knees, and he had been staring unblinking at the galley door. He ran a hand across his eyes and stood up, visibly shaken.

"Jasper's down there, diagnosing the thruster problem. I came up to—"

"The engine room is deserted, Jerad. I was just down there."

"Jasper's not there?"

Merlin fixed him with a scowl. "No and neither are you. We've just launched and there's already work for you to do. Why did I hire you guys?"

The raccoon laid his ears back and lowered his chin. "Before we can fix a problem, we've got to find out what's wrong," he explained in a quiet voice. "Jasper was doing a diagnostic on the thruster control system when I came up here to help Ivy." 

"Even if you didn't have a faulty thruster to repair, you should have been checking all systems to make sure this ship isn't leaking air and that the engines are functioning properly. There are plenty of others to help Ivy if she needed it."

Jerad's eyes suddenly bulged out as he remembered. "Ivy! I think it got her!"

The wolf blinked, caught off guard by the non sequitur. "What?"

Jerad pointed at the nearby door. "Merlin, there's a ghost in there!  I saw it with my own eyes!  The ship is haunted and I think it's gotten Ivy! We need to go back to Alucara and get an exorcist!"

"We're not turning around," Merlin stated flatly. "Just describe—"

"It was a free floating apparition!"

"Hey guys, what's going on?" Both males turned to see Samantha coming out of her nearby cabin.

"That's what I'm trying to find out," Merlin growled in frustration. He crossed his arms and swished his tail in agitation. "Okay, Porter – tell me what you saw."

The raccoon swallowed and tried to will his heart to calm down, all the while keeping an eye on the galley door. "Ivy was planning to put together a celebratory meal for the crew after our first launch. Once we got up to orbit, I thought I would come up to give her a hand, since Jasper was already taking care of the thruster diagnostics." He pointed toward the closed panel. "When I opened the door, there was a pale, floating apparition looking back at me!"

"You saw a ghost?" Samantha asked with a sudden grin.

"Yes!  I swear it!  I didn't see Ivy, so it must have gotten her!"

"What did this… apparition look like?" Merlin asked.

Jerad grabbed the wolf by the wrist. "Like a ghost! C'mon! We've got to go back to Alucara!"

The captain snared the mechanic's arm in a tight grip with his free hand and pried it loose. "This is nonsense," he said in a darker tone. Freed from the raccoon's grip, he stormed over to the galley door and thumbed the button on the wall beside it. Samantha accompanied him, but Jerad maintained his position across the corridor.

The door slide sideways within the wall, and Merlin and Samantha looked into a dark room. Floating without any means of support over the long galley table was a nebulous, indistinct patch of white. Samantha grabbed the wolf's arm, but Merlin merely frowned. The pale patch hovered in place, undulating silently, but it made no move to attack them, although it did appear as if an offset pair of dark eyes peered back at them.

Jerad peeked in around them, saw the ghostly apparition and let out a terrified wail. Forgetting the others, he ran up the corridor as quickly as his short legs would carry him, sounding like a junk truck on a bumpy road with all the tools in his pockets. He darted into his cabin and shut the door with his heart in his throat.

Fueled by the raccoon's superstitions, it took Merlin a moment to realize what he was looking at, but when a three-pronged fork floated lazily through the middle of the patch, he chuckled in realization.

"Wha—?" started Samantha. The fork surprised her too, and then she noted that other kitchen utensils and some beans floated elsewhere throughout the room. Merlin suddenly laughed in relief and cast an amused glance back up the corridor in the direction the mechanic had run.

"The gravity's out!" Samantha said with a grin. To prove her point, the canine stepped into the galley and suddenly she was weightless. She reached out toward the nebulous white patch and gently waved her hand through it. She did a slow pirouette in place and then held out the hand toward her captain.

"It's flour," she explained with bright eyes.

"Is there something wrong?" said a new voice.

Merlin looked behind him and saw the short lynx. Although they had only just left the spaceport, she was dressed in a light cotton robe in yellow with tiny blue flowers; she was also barefoot and had a hand resting gently across her stomach.

"The gravity deck plates don't seem to be working in there," the captain answered. "Are you okay?"

Ivy shook her head, but that action seemed to bother her. "It's been a long while since my last launch," she explained as Samantha swam back to the door and then stepped out into the gravity well of the corridor. "I got a little queasy when we took off," Ivy continued, looking embarrassed. "I, uh, threw up on myself…"

Merlin reached out and brushed the fur behind her closest ear gently. "Are you going to be okay?"

She leaned into his touch. "Yeah, I'm not actually sick," she replied, "just feeling the after-effects of the launch. I'll be fine in a few minutes."

"If your tummy is unsettled," Samantha said, "you'd better not go in there. The zero-gee won't do you any favors."

Ivy stepped closer to the door and peered inside. As standard with all starships, her dishes, cookware and foodstuffs were secured in their cabinets, but apparently something came loose during the departure from Alucara. She recognized various kinds of utensils, as well as her fine cooking flour and a few coffee beans floating around the room.

She looked back at the wolf staring in over her head. "Permission to rest a bit before I do cleanup?" she asked.

"Sure, let your stomach settle. I'll get Jerad to clean this up while you're resting, though."

"Thanks, but why him?"

Samantha snickered, but Merlin merely sighed. "He came in here looking for you and saw the floating flour," the wolf replied. "He thought it was a ghost and ran off terrified to his quarters."

"I'd heard he was superstitious, but that was ridiculous," Samantha observed. She looked at Ivy with a grin and added, "This gives me something to tease him about!"

"Well, he gets to clean it up for deserting his post," Merlin growled. Shutting the door to keep anything from floating out and dropping to the hallway carpet, he turned and walked to the mechanic's cabin. He knocked on the door, but there was no answer.

"Jerad, open up!"

"Not until we get an exorcist!" came back the muffle voice.

Merlin leaned against the door frame and shook his head. "The ghost is gone, Jerad," he said to the door. "It's been exorcized already."

"What? I don't believe you!"

"Get out here, Porter. I have a job for you."

"No!"

Captain of the Blue Horizon and the employer of his crew, Merlin thumbed the button to the cabin and opened it without knocking further. Inside, Jerad was huddled up against the wall at the head of his bunk, his pillow grasped tightly in one arm and a small object gripped in the other. He looked up in surprise, but didn't move until Merlin stormed in and grabbed the raccoon's coveralls by the collar. The wolf hoisted him up off the bed and then practically dragged the mechanic out of the cabin into the hallway.

Jerad stumbled, but kept his feet when the wolf released him. The captain towered over him, his ears back, tail up and his teeth bared at him. "While you are under contract, don't you ever directly refuse an order I give you!" he hissed through his teeth.

"Y-yess-sssir!" the raccoon stammered, cowering before the penetrating glare of the alpha wolf's amber eyes.

Merlin stared him down until Jerad turned away his gaze, and then he relaxed the tight grip of his fists. He forced himself to calm down to speak in a normal voice. "Now listen. There was no ghost in the galley…"

"You saw it!" Jerad exclaimed, rubbing his fingers over a flat sphere of plastic. Inside was a preserved four-leaf clover from a past visit to Earth.

Merlin clamped his hand over the raccoon's snout. "Shut up and listen to me," he growled. He didn't release the mechanic, but pointed back down the corridor with his free hand. "The gravity deck plates in the galley aren’t working, Jerad. What you saw was some of Ivy's cooking flour in the absence of artificial gravity."

"Ffflrr?" he mumbled through the wolf's fingers.

Merlin released him and nodded. "Flour," he repeated, "with a few coffee beans and some utensils."

The raccoon seemed to deflate. "Flour…" he said again. The captain led him back to the galley, where both Ivy and Samantha looked at him in amusement. Jerad saw their expressions and felt foolish, but when he looked in through the door, he swallowed with difficulty.

Samantha reached in past him and thumbed on the light switch. The short mechanic studied the sight before him and then turned back to the others. When he realized that Ivy stood beside him, he felt instant relief that nothing had gotten her as he had supposed.

"It's only flour," he reported with a silly expression on his face. "What's everyone so upset about?"

Samantha snickered and Merlin simply shook his head in relief. He took a step forward and put a hand on the raccoon's shoulder. "Ivy didn't handle the launch well and her stomach's a little touchy," he explained. "I'm going to send her back to her cabin to let it settle, but in the meantime, your task is to fix the circuit to the gravity deck plates in here."

With a new purpose to occupy him, Jerad nodded and looked back at the wolf. "Those are easy to repair," he said, "but down on the surface of the planet, Jasper and I were unaware they weren't working in this compartment. I'll get on it right away."

"Before you do that," Samantha interjected, "it might be best if we clean up the stuff that's floating around, or it will be quite a mess when the gravity is restored."  Almost as if to prove her point, a spoon floated out to the doorway, crossed over into the corridor, and then dropped to the carpet where it bounced up against the raccoon's boot.

Jerad bent over and picked it up. "Good point," he said with a frown, clearly not wanting to tackle that particular job.

"I'll go get a couple handvacs and help you," the Border collie told him.

The mechanic looked up in gratitude. "Thank you, Sam!" he said with grin.

Merlin gave a nod of approval when the canine looked over at him, and then she headed back round the curved corridor to the laundry room where the vacuum units were stored. The captain put a hand gently on the lynx's shoulder. "C'mon," he said. "Go rest for a half hour or so. They'll take care of things here."

"Thanks, Merlin, but I don't want to waste too much time. It was after 1930 hours when we finished loading the ship, the photo op at 2030, and then the launch at 2100. Some of us haven't eaten since lunch time and I'm sure we have some hungry crewmates on board."

The captain nodded and put a hand on his own stomach. "Yeah, I'm one of them," he said with a gentle smile. "Okay, just rest up until Jerad and Samantha have finished, and then you can put something together. I would recommend something light instead of a big meal, however. We're still operating on the Alucara time zone and it's rather late at night. Our shipboard clocks will gradually adjust to the time zone of our destination on Kantus so that by the time we get there, our bodies will have adjusted to that time as well."

"That's one of the benefits of a long voyage," Jerad added. "Just think of the confusion our bodies would be in if we had instant trips across the Planetary Alignment."

"Exactly," replied the wolf. "Either Sam or Jerad will come to get you when they're finished."

"Aye, sir," said the lynx.

Merlin looked over at Jerad and frowned. "While you're cleaning up, I need to see if I can find Jasper," he mused. "I walked all through the engine room, calling for you guys, and didn't get a response."

"Maybe the diagnostics told him where the problem was and he went to fix it," Ivy suggested.

Jerad shrugged. "That's probably what happened." He rubbed his wrist where the captain had gripped him earlier and then suddenly looked down at it with sudden remembrance. He looked up and said, "Hey, he might have gone to see Connie about his wrist," he said. "He jammed it when the ship was lurching around before he could get the thruster shut off."

The wolf nodded. "Okay, I'll check with her first.  Ivy, go rest. Jerad, you—"

"Captain!" Samantha's voice called out.  He and both his companions looked back to see the Border collie emerge around the curve of the corridor. She held two hand vacuum units, one in each hand, but she looked bothered.

"What's wrong?" the wolf asked.

"The gravity deck plates in the laundry room are out too!"  She held up the vacs and added, "I had to swim through all kinds of junk to get to the equipment locker inside."

Jerad frowned, remembering the flour. "Is there laundry detergent floating about too?"

Samantha shook her head. "Fortunately, nothing like that, just everything else. We've been using the laundry compartment as a catch-all during our cleanup efforts over the past couple weeks and I guess we just forgot to secure that room before we launched.  I almost got a screwdriver in the ear crossing the room."

Merlin sighed. "Okay, you and Jerad get started on the galley. I'll go see Connie about Jasper and then grab her to help me clean the laundry compartment. If Jasper's able to get around okay—"

"He only injured his wrist, not his legs," Jerad supplied.

"—then I'll put him to work checking systems to make sure we really are space-worthy before we get too far from Alexandrius. That thruster control will be his first priority. I imagine Jiro's already taken us out of orbit by now, so the quicker we know we're in good shape, the better. Once you are finished with cleaning up the galley, Jerad, I want you to get those deck circuits working in these two compartments; make sure there aren't any other rooms similarly affected too."

"Aye sir, right away."

Merlin left the three to their assignments and walked toward the Infirmary, consciously aware that he was able to move normally across the floor of the corridor, his feet coming in contact with the carpet with each step rather than swimming in freefall. It was all too easy to get complacent about life in space with the conveniences of technology. It wasn't necessary to wear pressure suits and float along passageways by handrail as it was in the days of space travel before artificial gravity generators were developed.

Despite that it sometimes failed, as it had now, Merlin was thankful for the technology that allowed him to walk normally in his shirt sleeves while in a vessel traveling the sea of stars.

NEXT CHAPTER

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