BLUE HORIZON 1261
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Merlin opened his eyes at a gentle shake of his shoulder. He looked up into the smiling face of a raccoon, and in his sleep-fogged mind, he was momentarily unable to distinguish which of the Porter brothers had wakened him. He rubbed his eyes and determined that Jasper would never grin like that.
"Yes, Pockets, what can I do for you?" he asked quietly, so as not to disturb the others sleeping in the corridor near the galley.
"Please come with me," the mechanic whispered, crooking a finger to punctuate his request.
Merlin yawned widely, laying his ears back and curling his pink tongue in over itself before he set his blanket aside, and then he got to his feet. Samantha looked up at him, but he gave her a casual wave to let her know she could go back to sleep. She nodded drowsily and shifted the pillow beneath her cheek before closing her eyes once again.
The wolf followed his mechanic wordlessly, trying to focus well enough to put one foot in front of the other. Jerad led him right into the lift, and once Merlin was inside, he punched the bottommost button.
A moment later, the raccoon led him out onto the cargo deck and then spun around to face him with his arms spread open wide. "Ta-da!" he said excitedly.
Merlin raised an eyebrow at him, and then started looking around, not sure what to expect. Nothing seemed out of place amongst the cargo crates they were carrying, the overhead lights looked just as they always had, and the raccoon stood before him in his typical pocket-plenty set of coveralls. The wolf brushed a hand across his eyes and snout and then looked down at the shorter male.
"Okay, Pockets, I give up," he said wearily. "What gives?"
Jerad grinned widely and then did another spin so that the captain could see him from all sides. "You don't see it, do you?" he asked with a snicker.
"What, did you lose weight or something?"
Jerad giggled. "Kinda," he replied.
Merlin let out a long breath and then crossed his arms. "Please don't tell me you woke me up from a nice dream to play guessing games with me…"
The raccoon looked a little disappointed, but then he shrugged and said, "Look at what I'm wearing, Captain."
"Yeah, it's your work coveralls. I don't think I've seen you wear anything else, besides all the layers of win… ter… clothes." Merlin's eyes widened when he finally got what his cheerful companion had been trying to get him to realize. The raccoon no longer wore borrowed clothing, and there was no chill to the air in what had been the freighter's coldest compartment.
"We have heat!" he exclaimed, now fully awake. He smiled in wonder at the mechanic and clapped a hand on the raccoon's shoulder. "How?" he asked. "I thought we didn't have any spare components!"
"No spares, and the primary conditioning unit was too badly corroded to be repaired with a hole right through its middle," Jerad confirmed with a nod.
Merlin gave the mechanic a crooked smile and then tightened his grip on raccoon's shoulder. "Are you going to come out and tell me what you did, or am I going to have to get Taro to tickle-torture you to talk?" he said with narrowed eyes.
Jerad snickered and hesitated, giving the appearance of thinking over that option. When the wolf squeezed just a bit harder, he dropped his shoulder and moved a step away from his captain with a satisfied grin.
"The heating unit couldn't be repaired," he explained, "but I was able to put together something in its place out of the stuff in my junk locker. I got the idea when I was gathering things for the radiator. It's kinda thrown together and makes a rude noise, so it'll need to be replaced when we get to Kantus, but it should keep us from freezing until we arrive. Do you want the technical details?"
"No, but I'm impressed anyway," Merlin told his mechanic in genuine admiration. Then he glanced around the area a moment before looking back down at his companion. "It should have taken several days at least to reheat this deck. How did you do that so fast?"
The raccoon grinned again. "I've had the fabricated heating unit running down here for two days."
"Two days! Why didn't you say something?"
Jerad shrugged. "Jasper warned me not to tell anyone, so no one would get their hopes up in the event it didn't work," he admitted. "I woke up three nights ago thinking about my idea and immediately went to work. It took me a full rotation to assemble it since Jasper wouldn't help me."
"What was his problem?"
"After looking at my scribbled schematic, he didn't think it would function."
Merlin took off his flight jacket, leaving his torso in a light blue tee shirt. "It feels comfortable in here," he said. "How soon before you can heat up the rest of the ship?"
Jerad put his hands in his pockets. "I opened up the valves to the upper decks about the time everyone was settling down to sleep. The upper levels will warm up faster than this cavernous deck, so the entire ship should have regulated climate conditions in a few hours."
Merlin gave the raccoon a sincere smile. "Thanks for your extra efforts, Jerad," he said. "I'll put a write-up about it in your personnel file so it will be flagged when it comes time for an evaluation."
"Wow! Thanks, boss!"
The captain stretched leisurely and brushed a hand across his face once more. "I think it's time I headed back to my pallet," he said after a yawn. "I'll be looking forward to sleeping in my bed tomorrow night."
"As will the rest of the crew," Jerad replied. "G'night, Captain."
The first officer left the confines of his cabin, clad only in a pair of shorts, although he was actually considering stripping down to just his fur.
"From one extreme to the other," the cougar muttered to himself, panting in the heat of the corridor. In addition to feeling overheated, his eyes were itchy and his muscles were aching, but despite the way that he felt, it was his turn at the bridge watch.
He approached the blue panel painted with a gold sailing ship's wheel and thumbed the control to open it. All the lights were off in the command center, leaving the compartment illuminated solely by the instrument panels. Soft music played from a console, but the navigator heard nothing else.
"Hello?" he asked quietly, reaching for the light control.
"I'm over here, Jiro," answered a voice.
The cougar tapped on the light to half-illumination and then saw the raccoon sitting at the engineering station, his bare feet up on the console, leaning back in a chair with eyes closed and hands behind his head. Jasper opened one eye and peered over at him.
"Is there something I can help you with?" he asked.
Jiro waved a casual hand through the air. "I'm here to relieve you of the watch," he replied.
"Is it time already?" the raccoon asked, glancing quickly at an old techwatch. "It doesn't seem like I've been in here that long." He switched off the music he had playing on the bridge computer and then stood up with a stretch.
The cougar shook his head wearily. "You mean you didn't mind the five hour shift?"
Jasper looked over at him. "Had I been on personal time, I probably would have done the same things I did in here, so I suppose it really didn't matter." He titled his head to the side for a moment, taking a closer look at the navigator in the half light. "Jiro, you don't look so good," he remarked.
The first officer shook his head. "Not feeling well either," the cougar replied with a frown. "I haven't felt like myself for several hours; I'm becoming someone else by the minute."
The chief engineer idly scratched his chin. "Maybe you should go see Connie," he suggested.
Jiro gave him a tired smile. "Can't. It's my turn to watch Merle's bridge to make sure it doesn't go anywhere."
Jasper gifted him with a rare look of compassion. "Go see Connie. I'm good up here for a time yet. If it looks like you might be a while, you can send someone else to relieve me at the watch."
"Are you sure?"
"Yah, I'm sure. Go on to see the nurse. I'll inform the captain where you've gone."
The cougar nodded. "Thanks, Patch. I appreciate it."
"You're welcome. Now go, while you're still mobile."
Jiro sighed and turned to leave. "I'm gone," he said. When he walked back out into the corridor, he heard Jasper's music start up again.
Conveniently, the ship's sickbay was next compartment over from to the bridge, in a location mirroring the captain's office on the other side. As luck would have it, Connie was inside, making an inventory list of the medical equipment on a personal slateboard. She wore a matched set of pink hospital scrubs and white sneakers, with her fiery red hair bundled up in a long braid down her back.
"Hi, what can I do for you?" the nurse asked, setting the slateboard onto a counter.
"Not feeling good," the cougar mumbled, sitting down wearily on a padded roller stool. "Hot one moment, cold the next, shaking and aching all over. Itching eyes. Dizzy, queasy and out of breath. I was feeling a little better a few minutes ago, but I think I've hit a wall."
Connie frowned and approached him with uncertainty. She put the back of a hand up to his forehead and could feel the warmth of his skin radiating through his fur. "How long have you felt this way?" she asked, turning toward a cabinet. She pulled out a sealed plastic tube, broke the seal, and then extracted a thin glass tube filled with mercury and marked off in degrees.
"About seven hours," Jiro replied. He looked dubiously at the tube she extended toward him. "What is that?" he asked.
Connie looked at him oddly. "It's a thermometer," the nurse replied. "I want to take your temperature. Open up."
Jiro dutifully turned his head to present her with an ear. The nurse frowned and shook her head. "Open up your mouth, silly. This goes under your tongue," she said.
The cougar looked at her with an odd look of his own. "I've never heard of such a thing," he said. "Is the ear thermometer broken?"
The human woman frowned and stared at him for a moment before she set the glass tube on the counter, picking up her slateboard instead. She thumbed through several menus of the inventory and found something she hadn't gotten to on the list. She read the location silently and the turned to a different cabinet. This one had various medical instruments strapped to the interior of the cabinet. She read the labels and then pulled open the strap of one. The item looked like a small pistol with a tapered barrel.
Jiro watched her patiently as she studied the device, and he was wondering if she had ever used one before. Finally, she switched on the device and tapped a control.
"Okay, here we go," she said, bringing it over to him.
Jiro's frown deepened. "You forgot the sterilized end cap."
Connie gave him a frustrated look and then grabbed the end of the gun. She struggled to pull off the end, but the metal was not made to separate.
The first officer began to doubt what he had read on the woman's background. Despite how he felt, Jiro got off the stool, walked to a cabinet drawer and opened it. From inside, he pulled out a plastic case filled with small wrapped cones. He removed the wrapping from one and then placed it on the end of the device that Connie held. Without waiting for her reaction, he plucked the unit from her hand, tapped a button on its handle grip, and then quietly placed it deep inside his left ear. The nurse watched him mutely until the thermometer gave a quiet blip a moment later.
Jiro pulled the unit from his ear and then handed it to her without a word. Connie took the device and then her eyes widened when she read the number.
"You have a 37.8° temperature!" she gasped. "That's 101.1° Fahrenheit!"
The cougar sighed. Why was she bothered by this? His normal temperature was 36.5° Celsius, so he was barely running a little hot; not even enough for a fever, even.
Connie set down the thermometer on the counter and then walked to another cabinet. She pulled a plastic bottle from a strap on the inside of the door, opened the cap, and then tapped out two red capsules onto her palm. She replaced the cap and container and then turned to a small water faucet. She handed Jiro a paper cup with water and both pills.
"Take these and go get some rest," she told him. "I know we just got out of a deep freeze, but I think the change in temperatures hasn't been good to you. Drink plenty of fluids and keep yourself cool."
Weary and unwilling to give the doctor's knowledge further thought, the cougar nodded and swallowed both pills with the water. "Thanks, Connie," he said, closing his eyes a moment. When he turned to leave the sickbay, the door opened and Merlin stood just outside.
"How are you feeling?" the wolf asked. "Patch told me you weren't feeling well."
"I think he has a mild cold," Connie said from behind the feline. "With your permission, I'm sending him to bed for rest."
Merlin took a look at the condition of his friend and he nodded immediately. "Sure, go on to bed," he replied. "I'll relieve Patch and take up your shift on the watch."
"Thanks, Merle," the navigator muttered wearily, shuffling out into the corridor. Merlin gave Connie a nod and then moved toward the bridge next door.
Samantha rapped her knuckles once more on the cougar's door. "Jiro, it's Sam!" she called again. "Open up!"
"…unlocked…" she heard through the door. The Border collie thumbed the door control and the panel slide sideways into the wall. The lights were out in the small cabin, and when she stepped inside, a foul stench immediately accosted her senses.
"Jiro?" she asked tentatively. There was no reply, but then a heartbeat later she discovered why. There was no mistaking the sound of the cougar heaving into the lavatory. The door to the toilet was open and in the light coming in from the corridor, she saw him on his knees over the toilet trough, his thick tail limp on the floor beside his bare legs.
"Oh, Jiro!" Samantha said with emotion. She closed the outside door and then turned on the cabin lights to one-quarter illumination. She stepped around the feline's scattered clothes on the floor and then snagged a wash cloth from the small linen closet. She ran cold water from the faucet over the cloth and then folded it in half after wringing it out.
The navigator could do nothing to acknowledge her as another wave of nausea hit him. Samantha placed the cool wet cloth on the back of his neck and then put a light hand on his shoulder as he threw up again. The heaves reduced the military veteran to a mewling kitten who whimpered as soon as he had enough air back in his lungs to breathe. He coughed and finally pulled back a few inches from the trough, panting heavily.
Samantha took the washcloth from his neck and then gently used it to clean off his face. Jiro never opened his eyes, allowing her to attend him. The cloth was washed off, rinsed and had more cool water applied to it before the canine wrapped it around the back of his neck again.
She waited with him for several minutes, idly leaning against the bathroom counter without speaking. Jiro finally opened his eyes after a time, when he no longer panted for air. He looked up at her wearily, but couldn't muster up a smile for her help. He swallowed and finally forced enough air to speak one unnecessary word, "Sick…" he said.
Samantha squatted beside him, her tail down. "Do you need me to help you back to bed, or do you need to stay in here a while longer?"
The navigator thought it over and then nodded. "Bed," he rasped. Samantha took hold of his arm and pulled it over her shoulders. She helped him into an upright position, and then up on his feet, the whole process slow, but steady. The cougar shuffled his feet across the floor as his friend helped him get to the bed, and then Jiro curled up on his side facing the wall.
Samantha draped a thin sheet across his body and then pulled his desk chair over to sit down beside him. Both of them were quiet for several moments before Jiro pulled in some air to speak.
"Thanks for your help, Sam," he asked in a raspy whisper. "Did you need me for something?"
"While I was on watch, a call came in from Pomen," the canine answered quietly. "Your father called to let you know that you're going to be an uncle."
"Joni's going to have a cub?" Jiro asked without opening his eyes. "About time."
Samantha chuckled. "Actually, he said there were two cubs, a male and a female."
"Just like me n' Joni," Jiro mumbled.
"You're a twin?"
"Who was the first one out?"
"Congratulations, Uncle Jiro," Samantha said with a smile.
The cougar mumbled something, and then cleared his throat to try again. "She and her mate have been trying for years. I'm glad they succeeded."
Sam was about to make another comment, but then the navigator let out a long, drawn-out sigh. She put a hand on his arm and then patted it lightly. "I'll let you rest now," she told him quietly. "I'm sorry I bothered you. The news could have waited until you were feeling better." There was a noncommittal grunt from the feline, so she stood up to leave.
"Sam?" Jiro mumbled.
"Please send Merle in here. Feeling worse."
"I think you mean that you need Connie," the Border collie suggested.
"Oh, okay. I'll go hunt him down now. Do you want me to get Connie too?"
"All right. Just Merlin."
"Thanks, Sam… for everything."
"You're welcome, Jiro. You rest and I'll get the captain."
When Merlin left Jiro's cabin an hour later, his face was set in stone. The wolf walked around the curved corridor and then stopped with both hands on his hips beside the white door marked with a caduceus. He stared at the two entwined serpents in the symbol for a moment, preparing himself to go inside.
He reached out for the control button to open the door to the sickbay, but the panel slide aside before he made contact. Connie almost walked into him, her attention focused on the slateboard in her hands.
"Oh! Excuse me, Captain!" she said with an embarrassed smile.
"Hello, Ms. Davies," the wolf said formally. Connie looked up into his eyes, instantly alerted to his formal tone.
"Sir?" she asked tentatively.
The nurse frowned and backed into the sickbay, switching the light back on as she turned toward the counter. She set the slateboard next to a jar of sterile swabs and then faced him, hands clasped together in front of her. Merlin shut the door behind them and then thumbed the lock so they wouldn't be interrupted.
When he looked around at her, his eyes were narrow and the amber of his irises seemed to stir, as if moved by tiny winds. His triangular ears were up and so was the tail that swished behind him in apparent agitation. He didn't know what to do with his hands, so he crossed them over the chest of his beige shirt.
"Have I done something wrong, sir?" the red-haired woman asked in a small voice.
"I just came from Jiro's cabin," the lupine commander said with an even tone. "I went to check in on him, and although his throat is sore from so much sickness, he told me of a disturbing observation." Connie swallowed, but didn't respond, allowing the wolf to continue.
Merlin licked his lips without breaking eye contact with the woman. "First things, first," he said. "Give me your diagnosis on Jiro's illness."
"Uh, sure. He appears to have caught a mild cold," she said in simple terms, repeating what she had told him earlier.
"And what have you done for him?"
"I took his temperature and noted it was quite elevated, so I gave him a couple of capsules to reduce his fever, with instructions on rest and to stay hydrated."
"What was in the capsules?"
Connie's brow furrowed at this line of questioning. "Pilocarpine hydrochloride. It's a common drug."
Merlin sighed. "Pick up your slateboard and take a look at the effects of pilocarpine hydrochloride on anthropuma concolor physiology," he commanded.
The nurse's frown deepened, but she did as told. It took her a moment to bring up the data, and when she cross-referenced it to Jiro's physiological background, she drew in a sudden intake of air. She looked up at the wolf in surprise and saw the thoughts clearly in his golden eyes.
"Ohmigosh!" she exclaimed. "This could kill him in repeated doses!"
"Why did you poison my first officer?" the captain asked her pointedly.
Connie's mouth dropped open. "I didn't… uh, I mean, it… it was n-not intentional, s-sir!" she suddenly stammered.
"Intentional or not, answer the question."
"I have dispensed pilocarpine hydrochloride to my patients before, Captain," she replied, the flush of her skin now only a few shades lighter than her hair color. "It's a common medication for reducing fevers."
"In humans, Ms. Davies. In humans."
Connie looked down at her hands. "Yes, Captain. In humans. I didn't… know… that it was lethal to cougars."
Merlin nodded. "Please refresh my memory. What did I ask you at your job interview that is appropriate to this situation?"
Caught! The nurse cleared her throat, but continued staring at the hands she was now wringing together. "You asked me if I had experience with the physiologies of Furs," she mumbled.
"And your response?"
"I think I said that it would be pointless to apply if that wasn't the case…"
"Now… answer me truthfully, Ms. Davies. How much actual experience have you had treating Furs?”
Connie looked miserable and wiped sweaty palms on her pink hospital scrubs. "I… I worked part-time in a veterinary office for two years to help pay my tuition going to college," she replied in a near-whisper. "I only treated our customers' pet dogs and cats."
Merlin stared at her for a long minute before he dropped his arms and then passed a hand across his eyes. "Pets…" he muttered. "I will never understand the human practice of keeping other beings as pets in their homes."
"They're non-sapient," Connie said in sudden animation, defending her race. "We take these affectionate animals into our homes to love, cherish and provide a good life for them. They enrich our lives, and studies have proven that those who have pets are often healthier and live longer!"
The captain raised a hand. "Okay, okay," he said with a growl underlining his voice. "That's not the issue here anyway. You lied to me, Ms. Davies, and as a result, you have endangered someone's life." Connie had no rebuttal, so she returned her gaze to her hands. "Jiro told me that you were unfamiliar with a simple ear thermometer and that you wanted him to use a glass tube thermometer instead, something known to be a breakage risk in the jaws of a Fur. If you worked in a veterinary clinic, surely you didn't use those on the cats and dogs you treated."
The nurse let out a gasp and suddenly wiped moisture from her eyes. She gave him a brief, tearful look and then sat down heavily on a padded roller stool next to the counter, burying her face in her hands.
Merlin raised an eyebrow, a sudden suspicion gnawing at him. "You just lied to me again, didn't you?" he asked with the same growl in his throat. "You never even worked in a veterinary clinic."
"I did, but only at the front desk," Connie confessed hoarsely, not bothering to look back at him. "I never even touched the animals."
The wolf sighed aloud and tried to relax the grip of his balled fists. He reached out tentatively and then placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, willing himself not to clutch it in frustration.
"Why?" he asked in a non-threatening tone. "What was the purpose in lying to me?"
The red-haired human woman looked up at his touch, shocked that he wasn't shouting at her. She wiped her eyes again and swallowed the lump in her throat. "I was desperate to leave Alexandrius," she answered in a raspy voice. She cleared her throat and added, "I wanted to get out into space… and like you said yourself, I didn't think we'd really need anything more than a First Aid kit traveling from place to place. I didn't count on anyone getting sick. I only thought of how unlikely injuries would be."
"What did you think of that when Patch came to you right after our first launch with an injury?"
She shrugged. "Actually, I didn't think anything about it. Treating a sprain for a raccoon limb is virtually the same as a human."
"Did you prescribe anything to him?"
"Just an anti-inflammatory medication."
"Did you look up his physiology before doing so?"
Connie looked down again. "No, sir."
"Fortunately for him, that one worked as you intended."
There was a moment where neither of them spoke, but then the woman looked up at him. "Captain, I apologize. I confess that I have never treated anyone but human beings, and I didn't think through my plan beyond getting the job. Durant told me that we're still several days away from Kantus. Is Jiro going to make it there?"
"That will be up to you," Merlin said without malice. "That's your job, whether or not you are experienced in the task."
"I don't understand."
Merlin gestured toward the medical offer's desk at the back of the sickbay. "Your task now is to make a connection to the Pomen medical library. The best furmen doctors are on Pomen and they're free with their knowledge to the rest of the Planetary Alignment. I want you to research Jiro's symptoms and cross-reference it with a Mainoran listing somewhere to combat whatever it is he has." He rubbed his chin and looked down at her. "It will be up to you for the duration of this voyage to take care of him. You are not to administer any medication to him without clearing it through me first, and you are to spend waking available moment researching his condition."
"Every waking moment?" Connie repeated.
The wolf nodded. "For lying to get your job, you are forbidden recreation until you can find a way to help Jiro. Since he is your number one priority, I will even excuse you from bridge watch. Once he's back on his feet, then I would recommend that you start making yourself familiar on how to treat the rest of us for when those times come up."
Connie's eyes grew wide. "You…. You aren't going to fire me?" she asked in a whisper.
Merlin shook his head, but retained his serious manner. "You wanted to be here, and I need a medical officer. Just do your job, even if you have to teach yourself how to do that job."
The woman looked up at him in gratitude. She knew this was unlikely to be his final word on the subject, but for now, she had some research to begin.
"Yes, sir," she replied. "I'll get started right away."
"Very good. Let me know what you find out when you identify Jiro's illness and come up with a treatment. For now, we will keep him resting and try not to do anything else to aggravate the condition."
Taro Nichols put away the communications headset and then rubbed her eyes. She'd been parked in front of the com station for the past two hours and she felt stiff and sore. Not for the first time, she wished her cabin was equipped with a bath tub to sit in and let stresses soak away.
The vixen stood up, stretched and then picked up her old and battered slateboard from the console. She brushed a few shed hairs from her tan blouse and matching pants and then walked two slow laps around the small bridge to stretch her legs. She glanced idly out the front windows at the minus-four magnitude star almost directly ahead of the blue flying saucer before she returned to the com station.
She reached for the intercom button, but the bridge door slid aside. Merlin stepped into the room, leaving the door open behind him. "Captain, I was just about to page you," the vixen said with a smile.
The wolf tilted his head slightly to the left. "Oh?" he replied. "I'm here to relieve you at the watch."
Taro sat down at the com station as Merlin slid his tail into the slotted back of the pilot seat. "Thanks," said the fox. "I could use a break, but I wasn't idle with my time. I have some news for you."
"I hope it's good news," Merlin admitted honestly. "I don't think I can handle more bad news today."
It was Taro's turn to tilt her head. "More bad news?" she asked.
Merlin waved his hand briefly through the air. "Forget I said anything. What do you have for me?"
"Well, it took about an hour of cajoling on my part, but I was able to talk Sydney Micranite into giving us another chance," she replied brightly.
Merlin's eyes widened. "Really?
"Yes, but to get them back, I had to agree to our standard fee, waiving the double fee they originally offered."
The wolf absently scratched the fur at the base of his neck. "I supposed that's preferable to losing them altogether," he agreed. "I'm still disappointed that we lost that opportunity, but if it will put us back into good standing with Sydney and counter the possibility of bad word of mouth, it's worth it."
"That's what I was hoping you would say," she replied. "I had to juggle delivery schedules with the other three job assignments we had lined up; it offset everything by three weeks, but I managed to work it out with each of them in such a way that we didn't lose any further jobs or fees."
With an expression of great relief, Merlin stood up and moved two steps across the room to her; he surprised her with a close hug and a sudden kiss of thanks on the cheek.
They both heard someone at the door, and when they turned to look, Samantha was looking in at them, the expression on her face unreadable.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.