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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 1

— Episode 9

"Vixen's Nightmare"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

SS Blue Horizon PA1261

Captain’s Journal  

The Blue Horizon and my crew are on our way home, back toward the rest of the Planetary Alignment following a long voyage to Sillon. Despite our initial fears of the demise of the planet, Sillon was right where it was supposed to be, quite unharmed; the supernova that threatened it was in a different star system altogether.

Despite the relative good health and order of the place, it brought about changes to my crew with the loss of Ivy Sparks. Her marriage to Roland on the outbound flight resulted in kittens and with a generous job offer from Master Tristan of the Dragon Loft, she and her husband elected to stay on Sillon to raise their kits there. I hated to lose her after serving together for seven years, but I agreed that an interstellar freighter was no place to have a family with infants onboard.

On the voyage to the distant world, Sparky took Maximillian under her tutelage and taught him how to prepare meals and run a kitchen. The boy had prior experience in kitchens on Quet, but he never had to run the show on his own before. He’s done well to prepare meals for everyone, but while he has never complained, he looks a bit stressed to me under his new responsibilities.

Along for the ride back to the Planetary Alignment as a paying customer to our next destination of Kantus, is the popular fusion rock band, Dragon, Wolf & Tiger, otherwise known as DWT, whose own transport never arrived to take them home. The guitarist of the group, a tiger named Carsen Vetter has a practice of tutoring youngsters in music, has taken it upon himself to befriend Max. Between cooking duties and music lessons, my adopted nephew seems to have little time to himself. I’ve been meaning to take him aside and ask him about it, but have yet to find a good time to do so.

To help pay for our voyage back, the Silloni Regent hired us to haul a newly built relay satellite out to preset coordinates and deploy it for them. The satellite’s main function is to route communications between Sillon and the rest of the Planetary Alignment around the supernova disturbance of SDC-971. The deployment went smoothly and for the first time in nearly five months, signals resumed flowing between that planet and the PA worlds.

In a transmission we received of an INN broadcast several hours after leaving the satellite in place, we soon found out about a deadly virus raging in a small remote city on planet Hestra. Not only is Hestra the homeworld of my first officer, the town where the nasty virulent disease is spreading is where she grew up and her family still lives. The report gave her such a shock that she collapsed moments after hearing the news and is currently resting in her quarters under Renny’s watchful care.

Patch and Pockets are currently making repairs to the kitchen countertop she ripped from its wall mounts as she fell. Being from a heavy-gravity planet such as Hestra, Taro does well to keep control over her strength, but such was her shock that she left finger grooves in the twisted metal of the counter. I suggested putting her under sedation, but Taro wouldn’t have it. She promised to behave and has apologized for the damage in the galley, but she requested we let her monitor the INN broadcasts on her personal com terminal.

Patch complained about the stress I put on our old, tired engines after I’d ordered Tanis to up our speed to maximum so we could get back to the PA as soon as possible. Patch reminded me, however, that despite our top speed, we’re still nearly two months away from the nearest PA outpost and jeopardizing our Liquid Crystal core was not in our best interests. I gave in to his experience and had Tanis drop our speed back down, but not by much… just enough to take the strain off the engines and make our chief engineer a little less unhappy.

I have an uneasy feeling that the situation on Hestra will get worse before it gets any better, and that Taro is in for a long ride. Currently, Hestra is on the opposite side of the Planetary Alignment from where we’ll be coming in from, and we’ll still have to drop off our passengers on Kantus before we can go on to Hestra for her. 

Merlin Sinclair, Captain 

*** 

Samantha walked slowly along the curved corridor of the crew deck, hands clasped behind her back and her gaze on the carpet at her bare feet. She wore nothing more than a pair of denim cutoffs and an oversized cotton tee-shirt, and her fur was in disarray. She had tried sleeping, but the thoughts running through her mind would not let her rest so she had resorted to pacing the corridor quietly. Moss had scanned her a few of times on its rounds, but she had tried to ignore it, even if it did seem the small flying saucer buzzed by her faster than usual.

Their voyage through the cosmos seemed to go on and on forever and everyone was on edge. On the flight out to Sillon, Sam’s nerves had been frazzled from the uncertainty of the fate of her family. Now, on the voyage back to the Planetary Alignment, it was not her family that was in everyone’s mind, but Taro’s. The Border collie felt responsible for the Blue Horizon’s position, so far out into space that they could not make an emergency flight to Hestra, and she felt she had failed as Taro’s friend.

What could she do? There must be something she could do, even way out here. Samantha plodded along quietly on her fourth orbit around the corridor, chewing her bottom lip in worry. Pockets stepped out of his cabin and Sam bumped into him without seeming to see him.

“Hey, there, Sammy,” he said in a soft voice, “you okay?”

Samantha glanced up at his words and it was then the raccoon saw the moisture in her eyes. “No, Pockets,” she said to her friend, “I don’t think I am.”

“What is it?” he asked as he led her back into his room. Just as the door closed, Moss whizzed by at a higher rate of speed than before. Pockets cleared a pathway through bits of junk lying on the floor to the bed and the two of them sat down together.

“I can’t stop thinking about Taro’s family,” Samantha said after a moment of silence. “Her situation is similar to what I faced on our way to Sillon. I was worried about my adopted family and whether or not they were safe. I worried about it constantly and you know how distant I got from everyone. Taro’s going to go through the same thing, Pockets. We’re still two months away from Hestra, but the difference between our two situations is that I didn’t know what was ahead. With the INN reports, Taro will be hearing about what is going on as the news is released, but still not be able to get there any faster.”

“She’s glued to INN now,” Pockets agreed. “She hasn’t slept much the past couple of days since hearing Holly’s report and…”

“Holly!” Samantha exclaimed. “That’s it!”

“What is?”

The canine smiled and licked Pockets on the cheek. “Thanks, Jerad,” she said. Before the raccoon could respond, she was out the door and headed around the corridor.

Pockets touched the spot where she’d licked him and grinned foolishly. Whenever she called him by his real name, she was extremely happy, and the lick was a bonus. The mechanic sighed and fell back on his pillow. Samantha had never had a romantic interest in her partner in crime, but that did not mean he didn’t have feelings for her. He knew that she occasionally slept with Tanis, and everyone knew that she had warmed the Captain’s bed at times, but for Pockets she was just a dream. They spent many hours together off-duty, but the conversations never pointed toward themselves. He had often wondered what she was like, but a larger canine like Sammy rarely ever found romance in a short ‘coon like himself. 

*** 

“Samantha! It is been ages since we last heard from you!”

“Hello, Holly,” the collie said into the headset microphone of the bridge Com station. Patch sat in the center seat of the bridge on his watch shift, idly reading one of the captain’s mystery novels he had found on the floor. He tried to give the appearance of being immersed in the story, but his ears were straining to hear Sam’s half of the conversation.

“We received word that communications had resumed with Sillon a couple days ago, but no one knew if your ship was responsible.”

Samantha wished she could see the human’s face. She could practically hear the grinning over the headset and found herself smiling in response. “The Silloni government hired us to place a relay satellite on our way home, at coordinates where the signals could be routed around the SDC-971 interference. We did that two days ago, but were so shocked by your reports about Hestra that we forgot to check in with you. I even have some prepared statements to transmit to you concerning our journey.”

“The situation on Hestra is getting worse, Sam. Much worse,” the news anchor told her in a quiet whisper over the connection. “The spread of the disease is more terrible than what I’ve made it out to be in my reports. The Hestran government wants us to soften our reports in order to prevent panic and a rush on the town by friends and relatives outside the area.”

“I was afraid of that,” Samantha said after a hard swallow.

“There have already been over eight hundred cases of the sickness officially reported to the authorities.”

Eight hundred! Holly, your newscasts only said less than twenty cases have been reported!”

“Now you understand why Hestran officials want to keep panic to a minimum. My producers are upset and want to broadcast the truth, but in this situation, I think Hestra’s request should be honored.”

“Holly,” Samantha said after a hard swallow, “a relative of a family in Taquit is on board the Blue Horizon. Her family’s name is Nichols.”

“Looking now at my database… Yes, there are a couple of patients of the disease with that family name on a list an undercover correspondent transmitted to me. This is Taro’s family?”

“Oh, no…” Samantha breathed. “Yes, that’s her. What are the two names you have?”

“Let me see here… Reika Nichols…”

“That’s Taro’s mom!”

“…and Kamui Nichols.”

“That’s one of her brothers,” the Border collie said with a sickening feeling in her stomach. “Holly, I need you to do something very important for me.”

“I’m afraid I can’t get them out of Taquit for you,” Holly replied somberly. “The place has been quarantined and is locked up tighter than a…”

“No, that’s not what I had in mind,” Samantha said quickly. “The Blue Horizon is still too far from the Planetary Alignment to get a good transmission to Alexandrius and I need you to relay a message to the corporate headquarters of Holden Pharmaceutical, my father’s company.”

“Okay, I can do that much. What is it you want me to tell them?”

“From the quarantine and the news reports we’ve heard since we were able to connect back into StellarNet, this sounds like a high bio-level virus,” Samantha told her. “I need you to get in touch with Dr. Ron Williams at the Alexandrius Center of Disease Control in Alucara. He’s an otter with a large amount of experience in these matters. Have him take Dr. Tina Sperry and Dr. Alexis Hamby to help him lead a team into the area. They are the finest medical biologists in the Planetary Alignment. Tell them to get to Hestra, now!!

“The local military has already called in Lt. Alan McCarthy and Lt. Leann Silverberg. They’re medical disease specialists with the Hestran CDC. They’re rated for Bio-level 3, I believe.”

“Dr. Williams’ team is rated for Bio-level 4 and above. Better be sure to remind him that Hestra is a heavy-gravity planet, and they’ll need to take endosuits with them just so they can stand up to work in that environment.”

“Okay, I’ll get on it right away.”

“Thank you, Holly. I knew I could depend on you.”

“Anything else I can help you with?”

“Taro would welcome whatever information on the Hestran situation you can provide for us, even if it is only on your news broadcast.”

“Okay, I’ll give you special consideration, my friends, and make sure I get whatever information I can to you.” There was a pause and then Holly spoke again with a lighter tone. “I want to thank you, Sam, for staying in touch with me on your way out to Sillon. I won the Masanori Award for the coverage while you were away.”

“You’re welcome and congratulations, Holly, but you knew that Sillon was okay even as our last transmissions faded out when we neared SDC-971.”

“There were many thousands of people waiting each day to hear whatever morsel of information about Sillon you could transmit to us. If you had not made the trip, we might still not know that it was not the star near Sillon’s system that went supernova. We’re thankful that Sillon is okay, but we’re more thankful for you for giving us the confirmation we needed when our hopes were dim.”

Samantha did not know what to say. She did not feel like a hero, especially when their sheer distance kept them away from getting quickly to Hestra. “Thanks, Holly,” she said. “Now it is we who will be dependent on your broadcasts. We’re still a long way from the Planetary Alignment traffic to do anything ourselves, so your news is all we will have for a while.”

“I understand. Please tell Ms. Nichols that I will make sure to put out whatever news is available into my broadcasts, but as you’ve just found out, some of that information is being limited by the Hestran government, so I’ll be relying on personal contacts as well. General Koontz is in charge of the operations at Taquit and he hasn’t been too friendly with the media.”

“Thank you, Holly. This means a lot to us.”

“Okay, I’m signing off now to get in touch with your friends at the ACDC in Alucara.”

Samantha said a few more words of good-bye and then removed the headset from her ears. Patch did not attempt to hide his curiosity and looked at her directly.

“From what I could hear of your conversation,” he said in his country accent, “it seems to me that situation in Taro’s hometown is worse than the news seems to let on, am I right?”

Samantha nodded and frowned deeply. “You’re right, Patch,” she replied. “I’ll fill you in on the rest of the details later, but I have to go visit Taro right now.”

The raccoon grunted when she darted out of the room. “I’m always the last to know anything,” he grumbled to himself and opened up the novel again.

Sam had to stop short when she moved out into the corridor. Moss flew by rapidly and she wondered what the hurry was. She dismissed it when she neared Taro’s cabin. She tapped on the vixen’s door, but she got no answer. She knocked a little harder and called out for her.

“Taro,” she said, “it’s Sam. I really need to talk to you right now. It’s about your family on Hestra.”

The door opened and she saw the sleepy faces of Taro and Renny. Both were in shorts and tee-shirts that looked as if they had been slept in for a month. “What is it, Sam?” the red fox asked blearily.

“We need to sit down,” Samantha replied. The cheetah led them into the room, and just as the door closed, Moss whizzed by again with a high-pitched meow. Renny and Taro sat on the rumpled bed and pulled a blanket into their laps while the collie took the desk chair.

“I’ve just spoken with Holly Harken about the situation on Hestra,” Sam began, “and your family is involved.” She then told them everything the INN newscaster had told her and then tried to field their questions afterward. The stress of the past couple of days showed in Taro’s eyes, and at the end of the conversation, she finally did something she that had not yet allowed herself to do. She cried. 

*** 

Merlin came awake instantly at the fire alarm. The first thought that occurred to him as he jumped out of bed and threw on a pair of pants and a shirt was that Sparky had once again set the kitchen on fire. He was already out the door and racing down the hallway toward the galley before he remembered that the lynx was no longer on board. He slowed to a trot and shook his head with a frown. He had not bothered to call the bridge for the location of the fire, but he had already arrived at the galley door. He thumbed the control to open the panel and then peered inside.

Behind the kitchen counter, Max was busily preparing the crew meals and looked up in concern at the sounding alarm. The kitchen stove was electric, so there were no open flames here. Merlin nodded his head in greeting and went straight to the com terminal set into the wall near the counter. He pressed the call button and waited impatiently.

“This is Samantha,” the voice replied.

“Where’s the fire?” Merlin asked.

“Engineering!”

Merlin did not wait to reply and bounded back out into the corridor. He found the lift open and jumped inside. A moment later, he ran out into the hold that was empty save for a few pallets of band equipment cabled to the deck beneath plasteel webbing. He could see red and orange flickering from inside the door of the engine room and rushed to investigate.

When he stepped inside the door, he was met by searing heat and smoke. The automatic fire suppressant system was spraying white foamy powder over everything, but this particular fire did not seem to be responding to it. He pulled his shirt up over his nose and raised his other arm to ward off the heat from his eyes. He saw Patch lying on the floor of the large room beside a scorched control panel near the flames. A small shadow emerged rapidly from the smoke and the wolf was forced to duck as Moss zoomed out of the room and into the hold.

Durant arrived in the doorway just behind him and gasped. He and the captain ran to the downed raccoon and quickly dragged him out into the cargo bay. Merlin moved to the wall and shut the engine room door as Pockets emerged from the lift. Moss veered into the empty lift and the doors closed behind it, but the mechanic could hear a series of hard thumping from inside as the compartment rose to the upper levels.

Relieved that the second raccoon was not in the engine room, Merlin activated the emergency ventilation and purged the atmosphere of the flaming compartment out into space after the pressure door sealed shut. He clicked a nearby intercom switch and called to the bridge.

“Sam, shut down the engines, now!”

The collie didn’t bother to give acknowledgement as the deck plates abruptly ceased their eternal vibration. The LightDrive engines powered down quickly. Merlin dusted a combination of soot and powder from his face fur and thumbed the intercom again.

“Patch is down,” he said with a couple of coughs. “Get Tanis down here with an oxygen tank.”

 “Right away!” A moment later her voice came back. “He’s on his way, Captain. How bad is Patch?”

“Dunno yet. Stay tuned.” The wolf clicked off the intercom and moved to his crewmates. Patch moaned and coughed a little, but was still out of it. His brother wore a worried expression as he absently pet the chief engineer’s singed fur.

The intercom chirped and Merlin went back to the panel. “Yes?”

“Air pressure in the engine room is in the negative numbers, Merlin, but now rising on the way back to ship normal. Temperature is twenty-two degrees and also rising.”

“Thank you, Sam,” the wolf replied. “Remain on inertia until we can get the engines running again.”

“Aye, Captain.” 

*** 

Brand Arkram stepped in through the door to the galley, dressed in a pair of swim trunks and a tank-top shirt with the masked face of a cartoon wrestling super-hero on the front. His muscular, leathery skin glistened with perspiration in the room lights.

Max looked up at him from his duties with a smile. “Can I help you with something, sir?” the young canine asked.

Brand shifted his gaze around the kitchen equipment and then shook his head. “No,” the large dragon replied in a deep voice. “I thought I heard a fire alarm and came down to investigate.”

Max bit his bottom lip and put down the cleaver he held in his hand. “I heard it, too,” he answered as he wiped his hands on his apron. “Uncle Merlin came in here a bit ago and talked to Sam on the intercom. She said the fire was in engineering.”

“I thought the feel of the ship was quieter,” the dragon muttered. “I hope they got it put out or we might be stranded out here.”

Max’s eyes widened at the thought that had not occurred to him before. “I hope so, too,” he said.

Brand shook his head and then headed back toward the door. “Sorry to bother you, kid,” the drummer said. “See you later.”

“See you,” the canine answered with the shrug of his shoulders. 

*** 

Patch coughed, sputtered and managed to swear a blue streak in between as he pushed away the oxygen cup that Tanis had over his snout. He leaned over on his side and coughed a little more before he looked up into the eyes of his brother.

“Jerad, I swear I’m going to incinerate that wretched flobot of yours!” he growled.

“Patch, what happened?” Merlin asked as Tanis began wrapping the engineer’s burned hands in bandages.

The singed raccoon looked up at the captain and answered, “After my shift on the bridge, I came down here to take care of a couple things on my checklist. I was refilling the heat transfer unit with trilinax when Moss came into the engine room as if it was stuck in high speed. Trilinax is slightly volatile in the brief duration flowing from container to the transfer unit — Moss whizzed too close to a bulkhead, and I’m guessing it sparked when it bounced off the beam.” He held up his bandaged hands and lightly fingered the singed fur around his nose. The raccoon mask around his eyes was strangely absent of singe.

“The trilinax blew up in my face,” he growled. “I’m lucky I still have my fingers.”

Tanis made a cursory look into the engineer’s eyes. “How’s yer vision?” he asked.

“My eyes are okay, I guess” Patch answered. “I had on a pair of safety goggles, but I think they got blown off my face.”

“Moss has been zooming around the corridors all day,” Durant said.

“It almost took my head off a few moments ago,” Merlin added. He looked over at Tanis and said, “Take Patch up to the Infirmary to check him out properly. Pockets, as soon as the engine room’s atmosphere is back up to tolerable, I want you in there checking the systems. If the situation is well enough to restart the engines, tell Samantha on the bridge to get us back up to speed. Start repairs and cleanup on whatever was damaged in there. If the engine itself is out of commission, let me know ASAP.”

“I’ll get on it right away,” the raccoon said.

Merlin looked over to Durant. “Get the word out that if anyone finds Moss, they are to deactivate it by any means necessary. Until we find out what is causing its erratic behavior, I want it out of commission!”

“Aye, boss.” 

*** 

 “I regret to inform you that Reika Nichols died this morning from the virus,” Holly’s voice said somberly from the headset that Samantha wore. It was her watch on the bridge when the call came in and she felt her throat tighten up. “This thing is pretty nasty, Sam.”

“What about Taro’s little brother, Kamui?” she asked quietly.

“Sam, there’s no way to say this gently, but it is likely he’ll be dead before the day is over.”

“Oh, no…”

“Dr. Williams and his team arrived on Hestra yesterday and have been up to their noses into the situation. General Koontz wasn’t even going to let them into the quarantined area until Lt. Silverberg insisted he needed their help. Despite his or Lt. McCarthy’s efforts, they have not been able to contain it. This thing has spread throughout Taquit and they have not even discovered how it’s being transmitted yet.” Holly paused and coughed. “The people are starting to panic and Koontz is threatening a media blackout on top of that.”

“How are you finding out about all this?”

“INN sent a field correspondent to Hestra with the first news of the sickness, as a personal-interest story. Yariko Mansfield is putting her nose into everything to get as much information as possible before the General locks it all down. I’ve been holding back some of it during the newscasts on orders from my boss, but I’ve been giving you all the details.”

“Holly,” Sam said hesitantly, not sure she wanted to know what she was about to ask. “Tell me what you can about the virus.”

“How much detail do you really want?”

“All that you can tell me.”

“Of the eight hundred seventy-four confirmed cases of infection, the earliest twenty-three have already died from this sickness. More are reporting in to the tent city that has sprung up to hold all the sick and dying. All the hospitals are overrun with newly infected, with more cases being reported daily. Once the virus is contracted, death comes in about a week’s time, so that means unless they can find something quick, they’re about to have nearly nine hundred bodies on their hands. Your doctors are working around the clock to combat this thing, especially since they discovered what it is.”

“What is it?” Samantha asked with renewed hope. “Where did it come from?”

“They don’t know how it got started or where it is from, but they’re certain it’s a bio-safety Level Five virus. They’re calling it Taquit Fever. This thing is hot in the blood and it basically liquefies the internal organs. The body loses blood through the tiniest cut or scratch, even through violent coughing. I’ve been told that the victim maintains a high fever the last couple of days.”

“It is this liquefying that kills them?”

“Not entirely. The final moment comes when the body convulses so that the back, gluteal and leg muscles wrench backward, breaking the spine.”

“I think I’m going to be sick,” Samantha said weakly with a hand up to her throat. “Has there been any progress toward a cure?”

“Sam,” Holly reminded her, “your team has only been in there a day. All they’ve really been able to do is identify that this thing is very bad and certain death to anyone who contracts it.”

The door to the bridge opened then and Taro walked in with tear streaks in the fur of her cheeks. “Let me talk to her,” she said in a cracking voice.

“Holly, Taro is here and wants to speak with you.” Sam nodded to herself in response to something the newscaster said and then handed the headset to her crewmate.

The fox sized the fit of the headset over her large ears and then spoke into the microphone. “Holly,” she said quietly, “tell me about my mother. I was listening in from the com terminal in my quarters.”

There was a pause and then the human’s voice returned. “Ms. Nichols, I’m sorry you heard our conversation or I would have been more compassionate.” The vixen grunted noncommittally and her silence prompted Holly to continue. “I don’t really have much on your mother, I’m afraid. All I know is that she was in a coma throughout the night and then… passed away this morning.”

“What about Kamui?”

“He… he went into a coma earlier today.”

“I see…” Taro closed her eyes and bowed her head for a moment. When she opened her eyes again and started out into space through the forward windows, fresh tears spilled into her cheek fur. “What about the rest of my family?” she asked.

“Their names are not on the sick list, so I assume they’re all right. I can have Yariko try to get a message to them if you want.”

“Yes, I would like that. My father’s name is Cusco Nichols and he lives in the Norrah section of Taquit. Listen closely, and give my father this message exactly word for word: Oretik herdantes harah ne shräelon trinrojur.

“Oretik herdantes harah ne shräelon trinrojur,” Holly repeated. “I’ve recorded this so I don’t forget it. What does this mean?”

“Pa will know what it means.”

“Okay, I’ll see if I can get it in to your family.”

“Thank you, Holly. For everything.” Taro disconnected the circuit and removed the headset from her ears. She turned to look at Samantha, who pretended to be interested in an instrument panel. “Samantha,” she began, but when the Border collie looked over at her, the vixen’s throat tightened up.

Instead of words, she moved quickly to her friend and grabbed her in a fierce hug, though mindful not to crush her with her Hestran strength. Samantha returned her tight embrace and they both cried.

“Taro,” the collie said after a while, “I’m so sorry for dragging us all the way to Sillon. It’s all my fault that we couldn’t get there quick enough for your Mom... If we weren’t so far away…”

“Stop,” the fox said softly as she rubbed her eyes red. “You don’t have to apologize or feel like it’s your fault.” She wondered just how long her friend had been beating herself up for their present location. “How could you have known about this, Sam? How could anyone have known? 

*** 

Pockets studied a series of long dents in the metal wall of the lift compartment, running his fingers along the grooves. If Moss was flying out of control, it might have made such damage bouncing off the walls when it had entered the lift behind him from down below.

He departed the lift near his quarters, a dirty rag in one hand as he tried to rub powdery soot from his fur and coveralls. He’d managed to replace the damaged heat transfer unit in the engine room with a spare on hand with only a minimum of difficulty, though he did lose a spot of fur from his right elbow trying to get to a solitary fastener in an out-of-reach area. What took the longest was the cleanup of the fire soot and the grey-white fire suppressant powder that was all over the room and in the equipment. He suspected he would be finding the stuff inside tool chests, engineering manuals and his clothing for weeks to come. Had it not been for Renny’s volunteer help, he might still be there cleaning.

Merlin had ordered Patch to take it easy and stay out of engineering for several days to let his burns heal. Tanis had treated him well, but now it would take time before the raccoon would be ready to work again. The captain had expected Patch to complain about being taken off-duty, but surprisingly, the engineer only nodded his head and said something about catching up on some reading. In the meantime, his brother would watch over the engines and make sure everything was set to go.

Pockets called up to the bridge and told Merlin the ship was ready to resume its course. The captain was on his bridge watch and was all too glad to have the engines back in operation. They were on their way and returning toward top cruising speed within moments.

When he stepped out of the lift, he thought he’d heard a high-pitched whine, but it was gone by the time the panel closed behind him. When he neared his cabin door, he turned his head in time to see Moss coming around the curve of the corridor. It was traveling much faster than he had really designed the flobot to go, and its single eye lens flashed in alternating colors. It made a soft mewing noise in distress as it zoomed by him and disappeared once again out of sight.

Pockets acted quickly. He moved into his cabin, grabbed a pair of insulated gloves off his personal work table and donned them in a hurry. He stepped back out into the hallway just as the tiny flying saucer rounded the corridor again.

“Come to papa,” Pockets said quietly as he raised his gloved hands to snatch it out of the air. Moss tried to maneuver up and away from him, but the raccoon grabbed the leading edge of the unit and yanked down as hard as he could. However, the diminutive mechanic was not strong enough or heavy enough to counter the anti-gravity system he had designed and he was swept off his feet. The action surprised him and he cried out when it carried him along around the corridor.

EEEEYYYYEEEEE!” he yelled out.

Brand Arkram stepped out into the hallway from the galley where he and his band had been eating their supper and watched the masked critter desperately clinging to the flying disc.

eeeeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeee..........”

Carsen looked out at the noise from behind his drummer and started laughing. When Moss came around in its next orbit a moment later, they saw a forced, ‘I can handle it’ grin on Pockets’ face. Moss flew close to the ceiling and the dangling raccoon almost lost his grip. He swallowed hard, trying to think of a better way to stop his wild ride as his feet ran along the wall when he got too close.

“What’s going on?” Adam asked from inside the galley.

“Nothing to worry about,” Brand said with a wide grin. Carsen glanced up and had an involuntary shudder go through him. When a Ryuji dragon smiled widely, it was a disconcerting sight.

Brand stood up straight and the horns on his head bumped the ceiling panel. He rolled up the sleeve of his right arm, raised a fist near his head and waited. It was only seconds before the raccoon-laden saucer rounded the corridor. Moss registered the danger in the huge, looming figure and immediately dropped its altitude. Pockets’ knees bounced off the carpeted floor twice before it began to drag him along with it. He knew he should just let go, but now he found it difficult to release his death grip. By the time Moss reached the drummer, the friction on Pockets’ knees had started to wear through the fabric of his coveralls with great heat.

The flying menagerie zipped sideways to pass the dragon and Brand drove his fist down with surprising speed upon the top of the mobile sentry system. Pockets landed hard on the floor and bounced to a stop against the wall. Moss tumbled to his side, its top smashed in and the antenna-whiskers bent. The unit issued a weak mew and then its eye lens went dark. A small access panel popped open and several small parts littered the floor. Pockets opened his whirling eyes and glanced over at the crumpled heap. There was a scorched silver relay lying on the carpet beside it.

“So that’s where he hid it...” the raccoon muttered in a daze.

Carsen knelt down next to the mechanic and took his arms gently. “C’mon, Mr. Pockets,” he said with an amused smile as he pulled him up to his feet, “the ride is over.”

Pockets looked up at Brand and weakly gave him a thumbs-up sign. “Thank you,” he said hoarsely.

“Sorry about the damage,” the dragon replied, “but it looked like you needed help.”

“That’s okay... I can probably repair it.” He leaned over and picked up the silver relay that had fallen out and hefted it in his small hand. “Right now, I need to find out why it started going nuts, and I think I have a clue right here.” 

*** 

“The trees and mountains are not as tall as they are on other worlds,” Taro said quietly to her friend. “The heavy gravity of Hestra never let them form too high.”

Tanis nodded his head absently and gently stroked the fur between her eyes. They were fully clothed, but relaxed on the bed in her cabin with the lights turned down low. He sat with his back to the head wall and she lay on her back between his legs, her head resting in his lap and her eyes closed.

“Of course,” the vixen continued to talk of her home, “as a child, I never knew our world was heavy-gravity. To me it was normal, having grown up there. I laughed and played, jumped into puddles and climbed trees just like any other kid,” she said. “It wasn’t until I got to go off-world that I found out that most inhabited planets had a lower gravity that ours. I was the first of my family to see another world in person.”

“Ya know, in all the years we’ve known one another,” Tanis said in a soft voice, “I don’t think ya have ever told me about yer home.”

“I’ve always been a private person about home,” Taro replied. “Taquit is a small town and we didn’t have a lot of the niceties of a metropolitan city. The Nichols family was poor and Pa barely made enough money in the quarry to support the lot of us. That’s why I left,” she said. “My best friend’s family had the opportunity to move to Brandt while it was still a nice place to live, long before the Siilv deposits dried up. I talked them into letting me go along, lying that my family had given their permission. Naturally, when we got to Brandt, my family found out I was with them and threw a fit. After weeks of silence, Pa finally contacted me and made me promise I would do something with my life.”

The vixen opened her eyes and looked up at her friend. “Customer Liaison on a freighter is not necessarily what he had in mind, but the pay is more than he ever made and he says he’s proud of me. I’ve only been back home three times since then... the last was five years ago when my youngest brother Kamui was born.” Her eyes turned sad. “He’s known about his big sister, but has never really met me.”

“Try not to think about him right now,” Tanis whispered as he resumed stroking her brow softly. “Tell me more about yer world.”

Taro closed her eyes again. “Taquit is snuggled up in the curve of the Taq mountain range in the Arellanes prefecture,” she continued. “We lived in the shadow of Mt. Hayao. Framing the other side of Taquit is the Sachnesan Sea, a freshwater inland sea seven hundred miles across that fed a river that flowed through the middle of town. My siblings and I played in the water most of my life and spent many days and nights on the white sand beaches. As a youngster, I didn’t know that a mining town was poor and I didn’t really care until I got older.”

The vixen chuckled to herself. “I’m talking about home again...” She cleared her throat and rubbed her cheek on Tanis’ leg. “Two years before I left Taquit with my friend, I got to leave town with a group of friends and do some traveling around Hestra. Although low-level, most of the planet is mountainous, y’know,” she said. “We only have one real saltwater ocean, but it’s more of a gigantic river two thousand miles across that meanders around near the equator, dividing the planet into two large continents. There are other Fur species on Hestra, though foxes are the most prevalent.” She looked up at Tanis with a smile. “You would fit in nicely there... providing you could stand up under your own weight.”

Tanis chuckled, but otherwise didn’t say anything. Taro fell quiet for a few moments and her eyes began to moisten as her thoughts returned to her family. “Even though I left my family behind, I still love them.” She turned and rose up so she could lay her nose up against her friend’s chest. Tanis held her close and her tears trickled through his fur.

“I miss my momma,” she said barely above a whisper.

“I understand,” he comforted, his voice a low purr as he began to gently rock back and forth. “Yer friend… are ya two still talking?”

Taro allowed a small smile to flit across her lips, “Not really. She started a company of her own a few years ago and last I heard was doing very well.”

“On Brandt? Wow, she must be an incredible businesswoman.”

“You have no idea,” Taro replied. 

*** 

“Oretille herdantes Taro ne shräelon nissei,” Holly repeated for the second time. She wanted to make sure she got the foreign words correct. “This was the only response your father gave when I relayed your message to him via our field correspondent in Taquit. Do you know what it means?”

The tears flowed freely down the vixen’s cheeks and she had to swallow hard before she could speak into the headset microphone. She was getting so tired of crying lately and she had a feeling that this voyage would see more of her tears before it was over. She was used to being the strong one, not the tenderhearted image she had presented lately. She wiped the tears from her cheeks and finally answered the newscaster.

“Yes,” she replied, “I know what it means.”

“Please, Taro,” Holly said softly, “Please tell me what your exchange means.”

The vixen shook her head and was about to tell the human to mind her own business, but decided to give only the simplest of answers. “We were saying goodbye, Holly. In a very personal way.”

“Goodbye... Then you don’t think a cure can be...”

“No, Holly, we don’t,” Taro said a little roughly. “Listen to me, please. I know you could probably use this as a personal interest story on your broadcast, but as a friend, please... just let us have our peace.” The tears started flowing again. “My papa and I have said our goodbyes to one another. There is no more than that.” 

*** 

Two days later, a resonant beat pulsed from the Rec area, punctuated by a syncopated keyboard phrase. Below the odd mixture thumped a low growl of bass. Vetter was playing in the upper register to accompaniment from Brand while the keyboard system sang a programmed track. The two were merely sketching, taking the music in no specific direction. Brand played alongside the sharp bass-line simply for his own pleasure.

Taro watched the proceedings from a lounge chair at the starboard wall of the room, having been invited along by the tiger. The vixen needed to get away from her quarters, her job… she just needed her mind on something else right now. Surprisingly, the band had not played very often during the course of the journey. Mostly they had spent time pursuing their separate interests. Adam had explained that even though the trio was best friends, they got enough of music—and each other—while in the studio and on tour. She had witnessed a verbal scuffle between the keyboard player and the bassist more than once, and began to understand where that statement had come from. Between Vetter and Singlebet, a healthy dose of compromise was always involved in the direction that the music went. Arkram, to his credit, either stayed out of their way or crushed their egos when necessary. He was both benevolent dictator and referee when necessary.

 

“Ever since I drew my first breath – I had no one to call my own

It’s been a life of isolation, spending all of my time alone

I said I’d never feel again – I said I’d never cry

I said I’d never let nobody see all the emptiness inside

But I don’t know if it’s forever - And I don’t know if it’s tonight

But in the dark you’re shining like a star and I can follow that much light

Now the lonely road is not so long when you walk it with a friend

Now all because of you I’ve found – the strength to love again…”

 

Taro tried to focus on the lyrics, tried to imagine the woman Vetter was singing to. She kept thinking about Hestra and it would not go away. Her brother Kamui had died the day before and her older sister was now sick with the virus. She was all cried out. She had not heard anything from Holly since then. Either the newscaster had no more information, or she was giving the vixen time to grieve.  

*** 

“Hello, listeners, this is News Around the Alignment, and I’m Holly Harken of the Interstellar News Network. In a joyous sendoff from world officials, Earth has just launched its newest exploration vessel to probe the unknown reaches of space beyond the Planetary Alignment. The Zephyr left this morning on its maiden voyage out toward the Railon Star Cluster. I will give you more details of this historic flight later on in the newscast, but now I have late-breaking news from the Taquit Fever epidemic on Hestra.

“Dr. Ron Williams, working in conjunction with the Hestran Center of Disease Control, announced only minutes ago that the bio-safety Level Five virus which has already killed nearly a third of the Taquit population is,” she paused, reading over it again, “an engineered disease... Yes, folks, that’s right. The deadly Taquit Fever virus was created in a laboratory and deliberately let loose in a small mountain town. Hestran officials are now calling this a terrorist attack.

“In light of this new discovery, the government has also issued a statement that the numbers released to the media thus far have been guarded closely to prevent panic, but they are no longer able to maintain secrecy of this magnitude from the public. INN has received an official statement from Hestra that the death toll in Taquit now numbers... one thousand, seven hundred twenty one individuals of a community of roughly three thousand.”

Holly stared at the pages for a long moment before continuing.

“Colonel Jack Card and the 429th Battalion were called in two days ago to keep anyone from entering or leaving the infected hot zone. There have already been several people shot while trying to escape the quarantine area and the bodies of all the dead have been burned to keep the disease from spreading further.

“This is catastrophic, folks, of the like this reporter has not seen in a long, long time. It is apparent that someone engineered this deadly virus and purposefully infected this town. Taquit is a poor mining town with no wealth of riches or information. Industry is sparse here, so officials are baffled as to the reason this mountain population was sentenced to death.” 

*** 

The operation was called “Global Compassion.” Two pilots sat in a briefing room as a four-tier general, five senators and a host of other officers and lettered Furs explained the situation. Much information and elucidation, many catch phrases and aggrandizing clichés were pronounced, but in the end, the briefing came down to a simple order.

The pilots filed out of the briefing room and rode to the hangar, where a fueled GO0S3 bomber sat, waiting to taxi out to the runway. 

*** 

Taro Nichols fainted. She did not shriek or scream and yell or fly into a rage. She merely fainted. The shock was simply too much and she had to be carried from the recreation deck where the band had invited the whole crew up to watch the news.

It was later decided that her fainting had come at a good time, for just a few moments later Holly returned to the broadcast following a station break to reveal another late-breaking major announcement that had just been issued from the Hestran government.

The Taquit Fever virus was airborne, the worst possible method of spreading a high-level lethal virus and seasonal winds were expected within days. By the time INN had received the announcement and broadcast the news, the deed had already been accomplished. A Triton V fuel air bomb—the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the Hestran arsenal—was airdropped over the town. In less than three seconds, a fireball twenty miles in diameter engulfed Taquit. All the available oxygen in the immediate vicinity was ignited to the ferocity of a blowtorch and nothing, not even an underground shelter, survived the explosion.

Three thousand lives evaporated in an instant, including those who had miraculously not yet contracted the disease, along with the military personnel stationed to keep the area quarantined and the medical staff sent in to help them. The aerosol virus was almost certainly gone - along with everything, and everyone, in Taquit. 

*** 

Two hours had passed since INN’s fateful broadcast. Coverage on the situation continued, but there was nothing new to hear. Everything was repeated and analyzed over and over until Merlin finally shut off the vidscreen. The crew of the Blue Horizon was stunned and the vessel was almost a ghost-ship of quiet in the hours that followed. Eventually, the scattered crew slowly gathered again on the rec deck and the silence was broken only when Taro returned and reactivated the vidscreen without a word.

“Hello, listeners, this is News Around the Alignment, and I’m Holly Harken of the Interstellar News Network. It is unlikely that any world of the Planetary Alignment has yet to hear the terrible news of the finality of the Taquit Fever virus on Hestra. INN’s field correspondent, Yariko Mansfield is on Hestra, reporting live from the Arellanes prefecture. She is in a small town thirty miles to the south of where Taquit used to exist. She and her team have taken video images that we will broadcast unedited for you of the blast they were...”

In a lower corner of the screen, the INN field reporter broke in and broadcast an interruption. “This is Yariko Mansfield for INN. We have an emergency!”

Holly’s face contorted into annoyance for being interrupted and turned to look angrily at her own off-screen monitor. “Yariko, please wait until...”

“Open news channel 135.79, now!” Yariko demanded with eyes wide in fright. Viewers could see Holly’s own expression as she complied with the channel change. The view altered, and in place of the INN reporters, the feral green eyes of a grinning black jaguar filled the screen. Merlin jumped to his feet, his hackles raised.

“For those who do not yet know me,” the jaguar said in a smooth, but deeply accented voice, “I am Sagan. How do you like my handiwork?”  Video imagery appeared suddenly in a window that covered the top left quarter of the screen. Sagan shifted to one side to allow viewers to see both him and the images simultaneously. The area that had existed between the curve of the Taq Mountains and the Sachnesan Sea was as black as the feline’s slick fur. The view zoomed in to show close-up shots of the buildings, the machinery, and... what was left of thousands of charred bodies.

“What you have affectionately called Taquit Fever was a virus of my design. I am certain that others may claim credit for my works, so I’m transferring information about the genetic markers in the virus to you now.”

“It... was... SAGAN?” Taro yelled at the screen.

“My virus has no cure. No antidote. Nothing, aside of firebombing — as you have discovered — can stop it once it has begun.” The jaguar leaned closer to the camera. “Some have wondered why it was Taquit. To what purpose was this horror unleashed here? Taquit was chosen… merely as a test-bed. In my opinion, the only one that matters, this test was a success.”

Sagan pulled back away from the camera and stood up straight with his arms crossed. “I am not making any demands... yet. This is my weapon. I can... and I will... use it again, at a time and place of my choosing. When the time comes that I do have demands... you will listen to me... because you will know I that I will not hesitate to use my new weapon.”

Sagan laughed just once into the camera and the video zoomed in on his confident smile. He said nothing more, but crossed his arms and continued to stare into the camera, his eyes flashing dangerously and the lights from whatever studio he broadcasted from making the almost-imperceptible pattern spot shimmer. Scenes of destruction continued to play out in the video window open beside his image. INN regained control of the signal and the image of Sagan shrunk to a quarter of the screen and locked in frozen silence as the sobering pictures of Taquit were brought forward.

Taro stood up slowly, her fists shaking at her sides and a look of pure rage on her face. She stared at the grinning face of the black jaguar and screamed at the vidscreen, “Sagan’s taken everything from me! He murdered… Jiro... He’s murdered… my family and destroyed my home...” The vixen shook her right fist at the screen and vowed in a hissing voice, “Sagan... you are dead! If I ever get my hands on you, I will rip your head from your shoulders!”

In a fit of rage, she tried to charge the screen, but she tripped over Max and fell face-first onto the floor. Had she not tripped over the youth who had been on the carpet at her feet, she would have smashed her fists through the vidscreen at the image displayed there. Instead, she curled up in a ball on the floor where she had fallen, screaming her rage and anguish vehemently into the carpet.

Max backed away from her as quickly as he could, his eyes wide in fear. He was a first-hand witness to rage and knew his health could be in danger were he to remain close to such strong emotions, but surprisingly the vixen didn’t slash out at anything. He looked up at the vidscreen at the jaguar’s face that just would not go away and swallowed.

How could anyone be so cruel? 

*** 

In another part of space, Lennier Robbins watched as a myriad of expressions crossed his captain’s face. Natasha Khasho’s eyes fixed on the image of the ebony jaguar and she scowled as she listened to the report delivered in such smug malice and watched the scenes of destruction. Normally her entire bridge staff attended these meetings, but the boy Tim was still recovering from his daily physical therapy with Jazz.

She tapped off the vidscreen and looked up at the ceiling. The cougar sat silently with her, the thrum of the liquid crystal engines far away from wherever she was. Suddenly she snapped her eyes to look at Jape Devon across the table. “Talk.”

The lightly colored felinoid looked up from a small screen, shaking his head. “The signal is genuine – he delivered the virus,” Devon said. “Comparing the medical reports from Hestra to his transmission, the genetic marker is there, though difficult to find if you don’t know what you are looking for. Without the key, the marker would not show up on any genetic scans at all, so the odds are that he’s telling the truth.”

“What is it?” she growled, more statement than question.

“It is a complex chain of amino acids that are harmless until they come into contact with blood iron life forms. That’s… pretty advanced.” Devon pursed his lips. Natasha’s eyes sat like cold pearls beneath heavy brows. Sagan’s face sat on the shimmering vidscreen, that cold grin still on his face.

Jape Devon had another thought, one that he did not voice. There is no way that any normal Fur, human or even a computer could have done the necessary calculations for something like that. The Kastan knew it was unlikely that any but his own species was capable of actually executing the complexities of this virus, and he did not want to be suspect.

“He’s stolen our prototype Vault transport,” she snarled, “and maimed our boy.” A number of low, hateful growls ringed the table. Tim was favored by the crew, and his near-death had left them all simmering for revenge. “And now he’s killing my homeland.”

“Now it’s personal,” Robbins added, his voice casual in the oppressive gloom of the staff meeting. 

*** 

A day had passed and there had been no further news, and no more calls from Holly. With the recent events, it was likely the news correspondent had her hands full, but there was really no more reason to hear from her. Taro’s family and hometown were gone. Nothing else could be done about it.

Merlin had searched all over the ship for his first officer and no one had seen her. She had not been in her quarters, on the bridge, on the rec deck, nor anyone else’s cabin. When the lupine captain finally found her, she was inside a storage locker in the cargo hold, huddled between shock cushions meant for unstable packages. They might have found her sooner if Moss was still functioning, but as such the captain had searched for her himself. She whimpered when Merlin’s hand lamp shined in her eyes and he could see her matted face fur. He moved the light to the side and knelt down beside her.

“Taro,” Merlin said quietly, “I know we consider ourselves civilized, but the ancestors of both our species have a tradition that I think would be appropriate.” The vixen looked up at him through her tears and shook her head that she did not understand. Merlin reached out, took her hands in his own, and spoke one word. Taro nodded, put her arms around him, and pulled him into a heartfelt embrace.

“Yes,” she said finally into his ear. “That’s what I want to do...”  

*** 

The recreation deck was illuminated only by ten candles that had been taken from the ship’s stores. The musical band had cleaned up the room earlier for the occasion and it was ready for the observance. Only six individuals occupied the rec deck. Merlin, Samantha, Maximillian, Taro, Arktanis and Adam were the only participants of this particular ceremony. The non-canine types had gone to the lower decks to give them privacy.

The six sat on the floor in a loose circle with their eyes closed. No one said a word, as everyone got quiet and situated, and after a moment or two of silence, Merlin began.

He raised his nose to the air and began to sing in a low, throaty howl of his ancestors. There were no words to this song; it was only a voice to the stars to mourn the loss of loved ones. Within a moment, Samantha added her higher voice to the song, and it wavered a little as the emotion of what they were doing came out from her. Maximillian, though a stranger to the custom, understood the song and joined in a quieter voice. Adam was next, lending his tenor howl to the song, and Arktanis followed him in high, but smooth notes. Each participant continued to sing their song, and finally, with tears falling freely from her closed eyes, Taro lifted her head and howled her song of farewell to her family, friends and home. 

*** 

SS Blue Horizon PA1261

Captain’s Journal 

For the past five hours, INN has been scrolling a list of names of the three thousand forty-two known to have died in Taquit. I can only assume that the Spatial Police Force is in turmoil as they try to figure out what to do about Sagan’s crime. I have taken Taro off the duty-roster for now to let her grieve and she has taken the opportunity to spend more time with our passengers. Brand Arkram has agreed to help her work out her frustrations on the exercise mats on the recreation deck. He is possibly the only one on board who can withstand Taro’s Hestran-born strength and seems to enjoy the sessions with her.

We should be arriving in Kantus in another week, and we are glad to be back within the boundaries of the Planetary Alignment proper. It is unlikely we will be making another trip to Sillon anytime soon, but for the sake of all of us, I sincerely hope the next one will be less eventful. 

Merlin Sinclair, Captain 

*** 

In his private chamber, Sagan watched as a shimmering projection displayed on a small tabletop before him.

“I’m not impressed,” the sparkling visage purred. It was a man’s body and he could see the face easily. Sagan was the only one that he would speak to directly, unabashed to reveal his identity. “Taquit was not just a test site and you gave away entirely too much information about the virus.”

“What can they do?” Sagan growled, teeth glistening in a wide grin. “We are now the greatest threat to the Alignment and the so-called Pirate Queen has provided us with the means to travel from place to place as soon as we get the technology unscrambled.”

“Yes,” the mechanical voice intoned, “and you will deliver that technology to me. Now.”

The jaguar sat back in his seat. “Yes, but I have something else to take care of first.”

“You are taking an awful risk, Sagan,” the voice commanded.

“I doubt that it will be ten minutes’ work to destroy the Blue Horizon,” he chuckled.

“I was not talking about the Horizon,” came the cold reply, “I was talking about me.” Joining the projected image was a second figure, swathed in a long, white robe that concealed its face. “You remember Conn, do you not?”

Sagan blanched, gripping the armrest of his seat and averting his eyes. He felt his heart race, faster and harder, beating in his breast like a drum. Oh yes, he remembered Conn. The exotic alien had prosecuted the grueling torture the jaguar had undergone, tearing his mind apart in hellish conditioning program that had made him helplessly submissive, impotent to act against his master. He had watched as Conn had mangled his sister, burned his mother alive and emasculated his father. The master had sat beside him, comforting him while the viciousness played out before young Sagan’s eyes. All of his master’s trusted servants underwent the interminable anguish, the psychological rape that bound them to his service.

“Your initiation was hell,” the master snarled. “But that is a hell you will pray for if you defy me. Let them go about their business and deliver the compartmentalized Vault transport to me. Now.”

His mouth dry, his limbs weak, Sagan clenched his eyes shut. It was probably true, but the jaguar ground his teeth, allowing the burning ball of acid in his belly to become anger. His humiliation turned to hatred against the most convenient adversary, and in a dark, twisted part of his mind, Sagan found a target for all of his fear and outrage.

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