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BLUE HORIZON 1261

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 21
Chilly Down

 

Nine days had passed since the Blue Horizon left Alexandrius. Once the gravity deck plates were repaired in two freshly-cleaned compartments, the days and hours passed into routine. The bridge systems were put on automatic with alerts programmed to signal both the captain and the chief engineer should anything come up, and Merlin made periodic checks on the Com system for any messages that might be directed at them when Taro was not at the console; the vixen made numerous calls to associates on each of the worlds of the Planetary Alignment, either lining up more jobs, or touching base to let them know of the vixen's new employment with Blue Horizon Freight.

At first, the individual members of the crew spent time apart in their individual cabins, reading books, listening to music or working with personal hobbies, but boredom set in and the recreation area of the third deck became a common gathering place to visit, play cards, exercise or just be lazy with others. Sam's Movie Time became a favored event every other day and Ivy even made popcorn that the Border collie had added to their food stores when they had stocked the ship.

Over the course of days, it became a common occurrence for most members of the crew to get the names of the raccoon brothers mixed up. Although they had differing personalities, their appearances were almost identical, even to matching irregularities in their fur patterns. Their voices were even similar in casual conversation, each with a country accent underlying their words. About the only things that physically set them apart were their garments and mannerisms. Jasper was often called Jerad by mistake, and likewise with Jerad being called Jasper.

More than once, if Samantha was talking with someone else and she happened to mention one or both of the brothers, she found herself referring to 'the one with all the pockets' or 'the one with the patches'. Without even realizing it, the others picked up on this and they could be heard using it in conversation as well.

One evening when the entire crew had gathered together in the galley for a meal, Samantha got confused between the two, so when she needed a bowl passed to her, she said, "Hey, pockets, pass the potatoes!"

Jerad stopped in mid-sentence in a conversation with Durant over their favorite confections and looked over at her with wide eyes. He picked up the bowl next to his plate and handed it to her with a grin. "Here ya go, Sammy!" he replied.

"Y'know, that's fitting," Jiro mumbled around a mouthful of meat. "It's easier to remember, since his pocket-full coveralls are all he wears!"

Jerad endured a bit of good-natured ribbing over the incident, and for several days anytime someone would see him in the galley, third deck or the corridors, they were prone to calling him Pockets.

When the mechanic walked into the galley for his breakfast one morning, Merlin, Samantha, Taro and Jiro were already seated at the long table. Taro looked as if she was barely awake, and the others were visiting quietly over the remnants of their breakfast dishes.

"G'morning, ya'll," Jerad said with a lazy smile.

"Good Morning, Pockets," Ivy said from the kitchen.

The others chuckled, but the raccoon simply pointed toward her with a grin and replied, "Good Morning back to you, Sparky!"

Samantha's eyes lit up and she looked back at the lynx mischievously. "Oh, Sparky," she said in delight, "may I have another cup of juice?"

Ivy narrowed stern eyes at her, but then she couldn't contain herself and laughed aloud. "Get it yourself, Sammy," she retorted. "I am going to take extra time to burn Pockets' breakfast this morning…"

"Uh oh!" Merlin said in mock surprise. "I'm glad I've already had my breakfast!" He looked over at this first officer and said, "You did inspect the fire-suppression system before we launched, right?"

Jiro nodded. "Yeah, and we might have to activate it to put out Pockets' breakfast!"

The raccoon sat down at the table, a grin on his face from cheek to cheek. He looked over at the lynx, putting his hands together in an act of apology and then bowed his head as if praying. "I sincerely apologize… Sparky," he said with a twinkle in his eye.

The short cook grinned at him and then shook her head. "This isn't the first time I've been called Sparky," she admitted, "but it's been a while."

Jerad put his hands up on the table and clasped them together. "When Jasper and I served on the Savage Clark, it was common for crew members to give one another nicknames."

"Savage Clark?" Jiro repeated.

"It was a Ganisan battleship, but we never really saw any action other than routing a few pirates from the spatial shipping lanes."

"That makes four on board with military experience," Taro said with half-lidded eyes. She rubbed them with a yawn that made her pink tongue curl up, and then took a drink of her coffee.

"Did you have a nickname with that crew?" Merlin asked.

The raccoon nodded and pointed to the band of black fur around his eyes. "They called me Bandit," he replied honestly. Then he rubbed his thumb and forefinger together and added, "I think it was primarily because I took credits from most of them playing cards."

"You cheat?" Jiro asked.

Jerad shook his head. "Nope, I'm just that good!"

"So he says," Ivy said with a grin.

"I think Pockets fits you better," the captain replied, reaching over to tap one of the mechanic's pockets. Something inside clinked together and the raccoon merely smiled in response.

"What about Jasper?" Samantha asked. "Did he have a nickname?"

"Yah, they either called him Patches or Patch," he answered. "He's so frugal with his money that he won't buy new coveralls when they get ripped. He just patches them up and continues to wear them."

"Patches and Pockets," Taro mused. "That works."

"Patch and Pockets," Jiro countered. "Patches sounds like the name of a Calico cat."

Merlin looked over at Samantha and gave her a look of longsuffering.  "See what you started," he told her. "Before long, we'll all have nicknames…"

"Sticks and stones will break my bones," Jiro intoned an old saying he had heard from somewhere, "but names will never hurt me!"

Jerad chuckled, but then shrugged his shoulders. "Call me Pockets if you wish," he said. "I've been responding to it the past few days anyway."

While they were taking, Jiro got to his feet and picked up his dishes. He took them to the kitchen, where Ivy accepted them from him with a smile. "Well folks," he said, heading for the door, "I have things to do. See you later."

Merlin looked up at him over his shoulder. "What does the slacker have that needs doing?"

Jiro grinned at him and gestured toward the white galley wall beside him. "I need to prepare this canvas for a masterpiece and then get started on it."

"Masterpiece?" Taro repeated.

"I don't like this large blank space, so I'm going to paint a mural on it," he explained. "I did a smaller version of it on canvas, but now it's time to go up on this wall."

"I don't remember you asking permission to do this," Merlin said with a frown.

"May I have permission to do this?" Jiro asked with a wide smile.

The wolf looked at the white expanse; he had seen his partner's artistic ability and should have no cause for concern.  "What… do you intend to paint?"

"Remember that painting of the Blue Horizon in flight that I gave you to hang in your quarters?" the navigator replied. "That was a test image of what I want to put up in here."

Merlin flicked an ear. He really liked the canvas painting the cougar had gifted him, and it was currently affixed to the wall above his bunk. "Sure, go ahead," he said after a moment. "Just try not to ruin everyone's meals with the paint fumes."

Jiro nodded. "No problem," he answered. "I picked up a set of paints commonly used on luxury liners for that very reason. These take a little longer to dry, but there's no noxious smell with them." With the wolf's approval, he gave a small hand wave to those in the galley and then stepped out into the corridor.

Heading back to his cabin, the cougar saw Jasper step outside his quarters and shut the door behind him. Jiro gave him a courteous smile and said, "G'morning, Patch," but he didn't see the raccoon's look of surprise before he disappeared through his doorway.

Jasper stood rooted in the corridor for a moment and then mumbled a few choice words about his brother's blabbing beneath his breath. As he headed for the lift to take it down to the engine room, however, he let a small smile cross his lips, pleasantly comfortable having his old nickname used again. 

* * * 

Leo Durant's right ear flicked briefly before his black eyes opened lethargically. The only illumination in the darkened bedroom emitted from a dim green nightlight stared back at him passively, but when he gently exhaled, the pale glow was enough to highlight his breath. His eyes half-lidded, he stared curiously at the puff of visible air for a long moment before closing them again. With nothing more than starlight coming through his cabin window, he was unaware of the time, having forgotten to bring along an alarm clock on the voyage, but somehow he knew that it must be in the wee hours of the ship-time morning.

The cinnamon-furred grizzly felt peacefully calm and agreed with himself that more sleep was what the doctor ordered. Closing his eyes, the cargo master drifted back into dreamless slumber, feeling completely relaxed. 

* * * 

The ship's nurse awoke at nearly the same instant as the ursine accountant, but her reaction to seeing her breath fog the air before her sleepy eyes was anything but calm and peaceful. A shiver reverberated through her and she huddled deeper beneath the thin sheet that covered the bed. When she had turned in for the night, the human woman had just emerged from a luxurious hot shower and had stripped the bed of all but the sheets to sleep in cool slumber. She had donned only a thin cotton nightgown, but now she shivered beneath the top sheet, curled up fetal to keep her body heat in close.

When her teeth began to chatter, she moaned in frustration and snaked an arm out of the pocket of warmth to feel around on the floor for her blanket. It was out of reach, bunched up on the carpet at the foot of the bed and the furless physician was reluctant to expose her bare skin to the cold night air.

However, when the shivering and chattering continued, she grumbled low in her throat and crawled beneath the sheet toward the other end of the bed. Her fingers finally snagged the thin blanket and she worked quickly to draw the new layer across the lump of her body that had returned to its original warm spot.

The blanket provided only a modicum of warmth, but Connie was thankful for that extra bit of fabric. Unfortunately, the additional layer didn't provide much insulation and the cold in the room sapped further heat from her body in only a short time.

Teeth chattering, the human sat up in bed, gathered the sheet and blanket around her tightly, and then stood up. She was thankful the floor was carpeted, but she immediately searched the dark for her slippers. She found them just under the bed and then shuffled to the light switch. She thumbed it on to half-power and then moved to the computer desk, where she sat down on a padded chair.

She checked the room settings on the monitor and noted that the humidity was low and that the current temperature was only ten degrees Celsius. Connie did a quick mental calculation and determined that the room temperature was around fifty degrees Fahrenheit, but as she studied the readout, the number dropped again slightly. Frowning, she tapped the controls to alter the climate conditions in her room, but there was no noticeable change in the numbers after several long minutes.

Grumbling about the inefficient insulation of her room, Connie moved to her closet and dressed quickly. Moments later, she left her cabin and stepped out into the corridor. The lights were dimmed to simulate early morning hours on the vessel, but after several steps, the woman realized that it was no warmer here than it was in her quarters. Something was wrong, she mused.

Reading the name tags that Samantha had made up for the cabin doors, the nurse quickly found the chief engineer's quarters and rapped her knuckles on it several times.  Dressed in flannel pajamas, slippers and a thick Turkish robe, she was still unable to suppress the shivers that hit her while she waited. When there was no response, she knocked again, knowing that she would be waking him from sleep.

When she finally heard movement in the room, there was a sudden muffled curse; she correctly guessed that the raccoon's quarters were just as cold. A moment later, the door opened and Jasper was wrapped up in the blanket from his bed.

"Connie?" he asked groggily, his breath fogging the air between them.

"Sorry to wake you, but something's wrong with the heat on this deck," she told him. "I didn't know who else to tell."

"You came to the right place," the engineer mumbled sleepily. Then he tilted his head. "You said the heat was out on this deck. Is it working on the others?"

The woman shook her head, clutching her robe about her tightly. "Sorry, I haven't checked, but my room's just as cold as this hallway."

"I'll get dressed, grab my brother and then find out what's going on," the raccoon replied.

"Thanks, Jasper," Connie told him with a grateful smile. She knew he wasn't happy to have been bothered in the middle of the night, but as it was his job to keep the ship's systems in operation, he was the one to take care of it. The raccoon disappeared back inside and closed the door behind him.

Unwilling to go back to a cold bed, Connie headed for the galley to make herself a cup of hot cocoa. 

* * * 

Wrapped up in a blanket that was too thin for the chilly air, Jiro listened while Jasper gave him and the captain a report on the ship's heating system.

"Only a s-small portion of the heat from the engines is used for climate control," the engineer explained with fogged breath and a shiver, gesturing with a small hand encased in thin work gloves. "The rest of the heat is typically transferred to cooling ducts between the double hulls of the s-ship using a liquid refined on Mainor called trilinax, which is then recy—"

"Are you s-saying this trilling axe s-sucked up all the heat out of the air?" Jiro asked.

"No," replied the raccoon, frowning at the interruption, "but the trilinax is s-slightly volatile and corrosive if exposed to too much oxygen, s-so it is kept in a closed, compressed s-system. We found where a conduit has been leaking trilinax onto the primary conditioning unit. Jerad was able to patch the leak, but there isss now a corroded hole burned in through the s-ship's heating s-system."

"This is why it's so cold?" Merlin asked quietly. Although he hadn't grown a thick winter undercoat in years due to temperate ships and climates, he was still better suited to handle the cooler temperatures than most of his crewmates. He had only added a simple flight jacket over his shirt, whereas the others were bundled up in the sheets and blankets from their beds.

"Y-yess," Jasper replied with another shiver. "With no generated heat, the cold of s-space is bleeding in through our insulation. From the looks of the corrosion, the heater has been inoperative for the past five or s-six days, but it has taken this long for the outside temperatures to seep in through the hulls." 

The lupine captain nodded in understanding. "Can you repair the heating unit?" he asked, glancing at the temperature reading on his desktop computer terminal. The temperature had dropped to three degrees Celsius.

"No, there was too m-much damage, and that's not s-something we carry as spares."

Jiro took off his gloves to blow heated, misty breath into his hands and then flexed his fingers. "You s-said that the trilling s-stuff transfers away most of the heat," he said. "C-can we use s-some of that heat for ourselves?"

The raccoon nodded. "Jerad's down there now trying to s-see if he can safely limit the flow of trilinax through the transfer tubes s-so we can retain more heat, but…"  He trailed off when Taro entered the captain's office wrapped up in her own blanket, leaving the door open behind her.

Without a word, the vixen moved between Merlin and Jiro and pulled both of them toward her to share in their personal heat. The cougar opened his blanket enough to draw her inside, and she looked at him thankfully.

Merlin looked back at the engineer. "But?" he asked, prompting Jasper to continue.

"But… the Liquid Crystal core of the engine can't operate above a c-certain temperature. Limiting the transfer of heat from the engines could cause a s-shutdown if its limits are reached."

"Can the trilinax be re-routed?" Merlin asked. "Instead of cooling it down between the hulls, would it be possible to route it up here and let the excess heat keep us above freezing on this deck?"

Jasper thought about it for a moment and then nodded. "Jerad may have enough extra tubing in the junk he keeps in the s-storage lockers in the hold to put together a radiator of s-sorts."

"Will the tubing handle the compression of the heat transfer s-system you said it operates under?" Jiro wanted to know. "We need a heat radiator of s-some kind, but not if a volatile liquid leaks out onto this deck!"

"We'll have to test them first," Jasper replied. "Even if this works, it may take days for the temperatures to warm up enough for s-standard s-shirt s-sleeves."

"Just keep us from freezing to death," Merlin told him. "We may all have to huddle up together on the recreation deck in the meantime."

"Better to s-stay on this deck," Taro said, speaking for the first time since her arrival. "The decks above and below us will act as extra ins-sulation from the external cold."

"That's a good idea," Jasper agreed.

"How do we s-stay warm in the meantime?" Jiro asked.

Taro put her nose into one of the cougar's small ears and whispered something to him that made his eyes grow wide. The vixen merely giggled at his embarrassed expression and snuggled up closer to him under the blanket.

"Put on more layers," suggested a new voice. 

The small group in the wolf's office turned to look at the speaker standing just outside the open door. Connie Davies looked as if she were forty pounds heavier. Even her feet looked like thick sausages beneath her socks.

"What happened to you?" Jasper gasped.

The nurse smiled and looked down at her garments. "I'm wearing about half of my closet," she explained. When the four of them looked at her incredulously, she shrugged her shoulders, something not very noticeable in her current state. "I don't have fur like you guys do! I have to dress in multiple layers to stay warm."

Having recovered from the vixen's private comment, the ship's first officer let out an amused chuckle, but then his eyes lit up with a sudden thought. "You know, I think s-she has the right idea!" he exclaimed.

"What do you mean?" Merlin asked.

"We have s-seventy-eight crates full of clothing down in the hold!"

"Good idea," the captain agreed, "but those are off-limits."

"Why?"

"They belong to our client," the wolf stressed. "We can't just take what we want from the cargoes we carry!"

"What about for emergencies?" Taro asked.

"No," Merlin replied sternly. "We'll all have to do like Connie and dress in layers from our own closets."

Jiro looked at his partner with a deep frown. "My closet is pretty bare," he complained. "I don't think I have the extra layers to put on like s-she does."

Despite the situation, Merlin couldn't help but smile. "I'm not surprised," he said, crossing his arms, "since you dislike wearing clothes so much!" Jiro opened his mouth to reply, but then shut it again without a response; the wolf was right.

"Keep your blanket handy," the captain told him. Then he looked down at what looked like a raccoon in a cocoon with a frown. "How soon do you think it will be before you get a radiator built?"

Jasper warmed his nose with his breath reflected by the close blanket. "First we have to see if we have enough conduits to reach through an access hole from the engine room up to here, and then we have to determine if the sections will handle the necessary pressure."

"And if they do?" Taro prompted.

"It will take me and Jerad s-several hours to assemble everything, longer with f-frozen fingers."

"Will extra hands speed up the process," Merlin asked, "or will they just get in the way?"

"If the conduits check out, extra hands will help when we s-start laying the lines," the engineer replied.

"Okay, get started on it right away, and then let me know when you need the extra hands."

"Y-yessssir," Jasper responded, rubbing small his hands together vigorously to create friction. He looked over at Jiro and wondered aloud, "Do you know if any of those crates contain winter gloves?"

"Stay out of the cargo!" Merlin warned. "I'm serious, folks. Nobody but Durant is allowed to touch those crates."

"Does that mean that he can pass out the winter wear?" Taro mumbled from beneath Jiro's blanket.

Merlin crossed his arms. "If one article of clothing is taken from the cargo, the thief will pay—"

"I have the credits in my account!" Jiro retorted in jest, his teeth chattering for effect. "I'll t-take three b-boxes!"

The captain growled. "Let me put it another way," he stated in all seriousness. "A single filched garment will cost that person his or her job." Everyone in the room looked at him incredulously.

"B-better unemployed than f-frozen dead," Jasper replied with a note of defiance in his shaky voice. A dark look crossed the captain's face, but before he could respond, Jasper gestured toward the climate conditions on the computer; the temperature had dropped another degree. "At the rate we're l-losing heat, it may be t-too late to warm up the s-ship by the time we get the radiator built!"

Merlin closed his eyes in an anger of frustration, counting slowly to give himself a moment to control his temper. When he opened them again, four pairs of eyes were watching him expectantly.

"All right!" he said at last with a growl deep in his throat. "I'll allow us to borrow from the cargo for this emergency, but I'm putting Durant in charge of the clothing. I will have him make up a personal manifest of every piece of clothing taken from the Hold, so that we can get everything cleaned and put back in their original crates before we land. No one is to take anything without his knowledge, and everything goes back within their original packaging and labels. I won't have our first customer file a complaint of theft or damaged goods against us."

"That s-sounds workable," Jiro replied quickly. "Thank you."

"Yes, thank you," Taro agreed.

Merlin stared hard at the raccoon before him, and the piercing directness of his eyes made the engineer turn his head to look away. "Thank you, Captain," Jasper said at last.

"Stay warm as best you can in the meantime," the wolf said to them all, turning to leave. "I'll track down Durant to explain the plan to him, but do not touch those crates until he's ready." He nodded to his chief engineer. "Get on the tubes and a radiator as quick as you can. As you have reminded us all, we may not have much time to get it together."

"Right away," Jasper acknowledged immediately.

When Merlin left through the door, Connie stepped aside to let him pass. The wolf said nothing to her, but the look he bestowed upon her gave the woman the distinct impression that he blamed her comments for a near-mutiny.

NEXT CHAPTER

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