BLUE HORIZON 1261
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Although his consciousness drifted upward through untroubled dreams, Durant felt a dull vibration accompanied by muted sound. It took a moment of silent ethereal swimming before the ursine accountant realized that someone was shaking him. A Herculean effort was required to open his eyes, and when he did, the brightness of the cabin light almost hurt.
He threw an arm up and over across his eyes, bumping someone's hand in the process, and then he felt fingers on his shoulder.
"Durant! Wake up!" someone said to him again.
The grizzly rubbed a large hand over his face and shook his head groggily. "Whutizzit?" he mumbled, keeping his eyes closed against the onslaught of illumination.
"He acts as if he's drugged," said another voice. "Was he taking any medications?"
There was a chuckle. "I think it's a natural drug," said the first voice. "He's trying to hibernate in this cold."
"Wouldn't it be better to just let him sleep then? He's more equipped to handle the cold than the rest of us are."
"Probably, but I doubt he was preparing for winter by storing up extra body fat. He'd starve to death before he woke up on his own."
"That might mean something if he was going to be in here for several months."
"Bears aren't supposed to be skinny. He'd use up what fat reserves he has now before we reach Kantus."
There was another shake on the bear's shoulder and Durant finally shook his head to clear away the fog. "What? What's going on?" he complained, his mind a little more alert. He squinted between his fingers and saw Merlin and Samantha's faces hovering over him.
"Durant, I need you awake," Merlin said gently. "We have a situation and I need your help."
"Jus' ten more minutes…" the cargo master mumbled.
"No, sorry, I need you to wake up, my friend."
Merlin lightly patted the bear's face until the grizzly growled beneath his breath and then heaved a heavy sigh. Durant forced his eyes open and then struggled to sit up. Merlin and Samantha helped him get upright, and then he blinked several times to focus upon them.
"Okay, okay, I'm up," he said with a frown. "What's the matter? Have we been boarded by pirates?"
Merlin shook his head. "No pirates, but we still have a dangerous situation." Now that he had the ursine accountant's attention, he related the events that led up to the current situation.
Durant finally nodded in agreement. "Thanks for waking me, boss," he said after clearing his throat. "I probably would have slept through the rest of the voyage with the temperatures this low, and you're right in that I don't have enough fat reserves built up." He lifted up his pajama top to expose his belly and then he patted it lightly. "I'm a big fellow," he admitted, "but not big enough to survive hibernation."
Samantha gave him a smile and then stretched out a finger to tickle his navel. "Do you think you can stay awake now?" she asked.
Durant snickered, nodding with a grin. "Now that I'm awake, sure," he replied, "but I may need help waking up again the next time I lay down to sleep if it's still this cold."
"I think that can be arranged," Merlin told him. "Do you need some coffee? Ivy has some brewing in the galley now."
The cinnamon furred grizzly stood up to his full height and stretched with a drawn-out yawn, brushing the ceiling with splayed fingers. "I'll get dressed and then will head down to my office after I've had a cup or two of Ivy's coffee."
"Okay, we'll leave you to dress," Merlin replied, but when he turned to go, he hesitated long enough to add, "Thanks, Durant."
"Sure thing, boss."
Jasper pulled off his work gloves, blew warm breath over them for several moments, and then put them back on. Thanks to the Blue Horizon's cargo, the raccoon wore several layers of clothing beneath his coveralls and was mostly warm, but unfortunately for him and his brother, there were no winter gloves listed on the manifest that would fit their small hands.
The chief mechanic looked over the side of an antigrav scaffold at the top of the primary Liquid Crystal LightDrive engine pod below. He and Jerad were threading a section of one-inch diameter pipe through an access panel in the upper bulkhead of the engine room. Prior tests of the pipe joints satisfactorily withstood the necessary pressure for the trilinax, so they were hoping their plan of rerouting a section of the heat transfer liquid through a makeshift radiator on the crew deck would be successful. Jasper could only wonder what his sibling had originally planned to use it for, but he was glad they had it now.
"Okay, hand me the next section," Jerad requested, holding out an open palm behind him. He stood upon a small stool on the platform, his head and shoulders up inside the access panel. The chief engineer continued staring down into the depths below them, lost in his thoughts. Jerad shook his hand, waiting for another length of pipe, but when he didn't get one, he tried again. "Jasper, hand me the next section, please." Still there was no response from his brother, so the raccoon sighed loudly and exclaimed in a louder voice, "For crying out loud, Patch! Wake up!"
Hearing his old nickname, Jasper blinked himself back to the present and felt sheepish for woolgathering. "Uh, right," he mumbled embarrassed. He handed a four-foot length of pipe to his sibling, silently wishing he could light up a cigar. It had been a long time since he had stopped smoking for any length of time, but Jasper knew the dangers of lighting up in an oxygen-rich, compressed atmosphere. He hadn't remembered to pack a nicotine suppressant for the journey, and the withdrawal made him edgy and absentminded. It was going to be a long voyage indeed.
Jiro shivered, peering into his closet for the tenth time. He already wore both of the only shirts he owned and his fur itched from being compressed against his skin. Due to this, and feeling that Merlin's reluctance on getting into the cargo was a sound rationale in hindsight, the cougar had refrained from dipping into the freight himself. However, as the temperature continued to drop inside the freighter, he was quickly regretting that decision.
Wrapping the blanket from his bed tighter around his shoulders, the navigator turned around and walked out of his quarters, plowing hard into a short lynx making quiet pirouettes in the corridor.
Ivy twirled around and stumbled into the cougar, but Jiro caught her in his arms before she could fall to the floor. She looked up into his surprised, but grinning face, and smiled up at him.
"Uhm, excuse me," she said in embarrassment.
Jiro cleared his throat and made sure she was upright and steady on her feet before he released her. "I'm fine," he said. "Are you okay?"
Ivy gathered a borrowed garment around her and tried to affect a short bow toward him. "Yes, I am okay," she replied. "I was just amazed at how such light clothing could feel so warm."
It was only then that the cougar actually noticed what she was wearing. As with the others, she appeared a little thicker than usual due to multiple layers, but each of these layers appeared to be made of a thinner material. The outermost layer shimmered in the corridor lights, a bright blue material decorated with stylistic dragons that hung to her ankles.
"What is that you're wearing?" he asked curiously.
"Durant said it was called a kimono, and is made of something called silk. Although we are shipping it from Alexandrius, he said it was actually from Earth." She untied a wide sash around her middle and opened it to reveal a similar garment of a different material beneath. "This one is called a yukata that's made from cotton, also from Earth, and I have another one just like it underneath. They were designed for humans; the material wasn't meant to be worn over fur, so it's actually warmer, though it's light enough that it doesn't mash my little tail very much – except when I sit down."
Jiro watched as she wrapped the garment and its sash back around her middle, and another shiver went through him. "Maybe I should see if he has more of them," he mused, and then he added, "It certainly looks good on you."
Ivy glanced up at him shyly and gave him a grateful smile. "Thank you, Jiro. That was nice of you to say that."
The cougar raised an eyebrow and moved in closer to her. He slipped an arm around her shoulders and said, "I meant it. That style suits you." He ran his fingers over the slick material and nodded. "It feels nice to the touch, too."
Ivy lingered under the warmth of his arm, but then she pushed him away with a fingertip. "I have to start supper," she said. "Durant's still down there, if you want a few more layers on you. I think he's closing up shop at 1600 hours so he can come back up here for a while."
Jiro nodded. "Despite the extra layers, I would imagine it's still warmer on this deck than the Hold."
"Yes, it is," Ivy agreed. "I'm making Alexandrian beef stew tonight, so that should help warm us up a bit."
The navigator licked his lips. "Mmm, I'm already looking forward to it."
"I'll see you later," the lynx said with a smile. Jiro gave her a small wave and then headed for the lift. Ivy walked around the curved corridor to the galley and then opened the door. The lights were already on, and she looked around until she heard something shuffle on the other side of the long dining table.
"Is someone there?" she asked hesitantly.
"Hi, Sparky, it's just me," replied the captain's voice. Ivy peered around the table and saw the gray wolf on his belly beside an open panel in the wall near the floor, one arm thrust into the opening.
"What's going on?" she asked curiously.
Without looking up from his task, Merlin replied, "I'm helping Patch and Pockets with the heating pipes. The access conduit they're pushing it through is coming out here."
The lynx leaned upon the table, watching his tail swish back and forth as he reached deep inside the hole in the wall. "Are they going to build their radiator in here?" she asked.
"No," he grunted. "We're going to route it out into the corridor where there's more room for the crew, but it should help keep this compartment warm as well."
"Ah, okay," Ivy replied, envisioning the crew sleeping in a pile on the floor out in the hallway. "Do you need anything before I start supper?"
"I could use fingers about six inches longer, if you have any in your cupboards."
"No, sorry. Nothing like that," the lynx replied with a chuckle. "I'd loan you some chopsticks, but I doubt you could grab anything like a pipe with them."
"In that case, no. Go on with your task."
"Aye, aye, Captain, sir!"
Merlin peered over his shoulder at her, and although she couldn't see his nose and mouth, his eyes clearly showed amusement at her response. Something bumped the tip of his fingers from below, so he returned his attention to his work.
Durant took another sip from a coffee cup and then shook his head from side to side. He preferred the pick-me-up drink with cream and just a hint of honey, but today he was drinking it bitter-black to get its strongest effects. Despite being up and moving about, the grizzly was still lethargic and had to fight the urge to doze. In order to keep his mind clear, he went over his handwritten manifest again, line by line.
When Merlin had informed him of their problem and their plan, he was adamantly against getting into their cargo, but the captain had made it a direct order for the sake of an emergency. As cargo master, Durant was determined to keep their cargo safe, secure and free from pilferage, but the current situation made all that difficult at best.
With the help of Jerad and Jasper, he had rigged a perimeter alarm around the entire cargo stack, and then he set a personal passcode upon it so that he alone could get into the containers without alerting the entire vessel of unauthorized entry. He kept a handwritten notebook in his pocket listing each article of clothing borrowed from the cargo, who had it, which crate it came from, and notes for the proper cleaning of the item. He had everyone's promises that the garments would be properly cleaned and returned prior to landing at their destination.
So far, there had been articles of clothing to fit each and every one of them, but if something had specific cleaning requirements that they wouldn't be able to do on the freighter, he would forbid it to be used. No one had complained at his strictness, neither had anyone balked at the items he had picked out for them. It appeared that everyone was simply glad to have the extra layers to help them all keep warm.
There were only three on board who hadn't borrowed from the cargo, Merlin, Jiro and Connie. Jiro and Connie seemed to be content with what they had, and the captain didn't seem to be as affected by the cold as much as the others were, choosing only one extra layer of garments from his own closet.
Just as the ursine accountant finished going over the manifest one last time, he looked up when someone darkened his door. "Hello, Jiro," he said, reaching for a thermos to refill his cup.
"H-Hi, Ddddurrrant," the navigator replied. "Th-this deck is cccolder than it isssss on the otherssss…"
"Yes, that it is," the bear replied. "You want a cup of coffee?"
"Y-yess, thanks!" Jiro replied gratefully. Durant opened a drawer of his desk for an extra drinking cup and quietly filled it with the black, aromatic liquid from his coffeemaker. He handed the cup to the first officer, who took it with shaking hands. The cougar sipped at it for a moment, enjoying the warmth it spread down his throat, as well as providing heat for his hands.
Finally, he looked up at the bear, who was watching him quietly. "Durant," he began in hesitation, the warmth helping to quell the shivers, "I have a confession to make, one that I really don't wish to get back to Merlin."
The grizzly raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"Yeah…" Jiro took another sip to give him a moment to choose his words. Then, with an audible sigh, he pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders and said, "For the first time since Furs started wearing more clothing than what's necessary for modesty, I have to concede that I need more clothes than sandals and a pair of thin pants."
In the short time that Durant had come to know Jiro Brannon, he knew that the cougar must be a lot colder than he appeared for him to make such a concession. He had seen Merlin and Samantha tease Jiro on numerous occasions about his reluctance to wear anything more than necessary, but the navigator had always stood rock solid on his convictions… until now.
Simultaneously amused and impressed by Jiro's resolve, Durant set his cup down and then picked up his manifest. He stood up, and in a voice of understanding said, "Come on, then. Let's see what we can find to fit you."
Samantha snuggled up to her pillow, trying to find a comfortable spot on a floor pallet made of folded blankets. She was used to a padded cushion, and although the flooring had its own padding, neither it nor her pallet was as comfy as the mattress of her bed.
The corridor lights had been dimmed lower than usual to allow the gathered crew the opportunity for a normal "night shift" for sleeping. As Ivy had envisioned earlier, once the ship's mechanics had completed the improvised radiator and turned on the flow of trilinax, the hallway of the crew deck began to heat up within hours. Once operational, Jasper had announced that it could take several days before all the cabins on the deck might warm up sufficiently for short sleeves, so for nighttime rest, the crew would sleep on pallets on the floor of the corridor.
Samantha looked over at the makeshift radiator and had to suppress a chuckle at the image. The thing was no more than a grid of five vertical pipes in four-foot lengths, connected on both ends to a double set of pipes running through the galley door and into an access hole in a bulkhead. If she understood their explanation well enough, the pressurized liquid within didn't do anything more than transfer hot trilinax away from the ship's engines through the pipes, radiating heat on this deck, and then back to a standard system of larger pipes between the double-hulls of the ship, where it cooled before returning to the engine system to repeat the process. The whole thing shook and shimmied with the bottlenecked internal flow, but thankfully, it was quiet.
The Border collie closed her eyes and tried to relax enough to drift off to sleep. The others had already slipped into slumber and Durant's deep breathing beside her was comforting. It might take the whole crew to wake him again, but at least he wasn't snoring as loudly as Jasper was.
Samantha covered her ears with the pillow that was supposed to be under her head, and gave out a little whimper at her frustration in getting comfortable. Almost at once, she heard someone move and she opened an eye to look. Jerad was up on one elbow, reaching for his brother with his free hand. The raccoon gently pushed his sibling's shoulder until the chief engineer rolled over in his sleep, and then he settled back down on his own pallet.
Samantha sighed in relief and then repositioned her pillow, turning onto her side facing the bear. Perhaps she would be able to sleep after all, if only she could get comfortable. She closed her eyes for a long moment, and then she felt someone stir behind her. She tried to suppress another sigh at being disturbed, so she willed herself to relax.
The last one to settle in for the night, Merlin knelt down on his own pallet. With a weary sigh, he stretched out on the blanket beneath him and then pulled another over him. The chill in the air despite the radiator a short distance away didn't bother the wolf, but something seemed missing, lying there on the floor.
He propped himself up on one elbow, thankful that his arm and shoulder were no longer sore, and gazed around the dim light at his crew. Directly in front of him was Samantha, lying on her side facing away from him.
He watched the quiet canine breathe for a moment and then made a quick decision when he saw her tremble with a small shiver. He got up on his knees, repositioned the blankets of his pallet, and then lay back down upon them. Now closer to the Border collie, Merlin snuggled up close to her back and gently put an arm over her.
Samantha's eyes opened, but when she recognized the familiar scent of her longtime friend and felt his warmth beside her, she smiled contentedly and lightly grasped the fingers resting upon her middle.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.