BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 2
— Episode 17
SS Blue Horizon PA1138
The Blue Horizon landed in Woodward a little over an hour ago at the Municipal Airport. This city doesn’t have a standard spaceport, as we’re the first starship to actually land here, but there was a large section of tarmac not in use where they directed us to set down. Compared to the other aircraft there, the Blue Horizon looks like a four-story building sitting out there. The closest actual city engineered to handle vessels like ours is the Burns Flat Spaceport, seventy-five miles to the south of Woodward.
We drew quite a crowd to the landing area from the locals, and surprised a number of them when they discovered my entire crew was made up of aliens. There are still a lot of xenophobes among the population of Earth, but so far we haven’t had a problem with anyone here in this town. We get a lot of stares and some of the bolder children want to “pet” our fur, but mostly we’ve been left alone. Oddly enough, my usual sense of unease around humans has been quiet, perhaps due to my recent experience with Mark Littlefeather, as well as the fact that no one here has demanded anything of me… yet.
Misty Paltier, the owner of Misty’s Toybox chain of interspecies intimate clothing stores, was understanding of the delay in her cargo on board the Hidalgo Sun but promised future business to the Blue Horizon for getting her overdue merchandise to her warehouse in place of the other ship. She promptly hired us to make a delivery for her from Paris to the other side of the planet to the Great Plains of the North American continent. Our large cargo hold was practically empty as we delivered a measly twelve boxes of women’s lingerie to one of her properties in Woodward, but she paid standard fare for site-to-site same-world delivery, so I’m not one to complain. If I find out that Pockets has filched anything from this cargo, I’m going to suggest counseling.
I don’t know what there is to do in a small city like Woodward, but high-speed transports can take my crew wherever they wish from here during our typical three day shore leave. As for myself, I’m planning to take in the fresh air, just relaxing at a local hotel and make extensive use of the swimming pool. If Max is willing, I’d like to teach him to swim and this would be a good opportunity for it.
I understand Tanis has a friend who’s currently practicing medicine here in Woodward; that fennec seems to know people everywhere. He said they served together during their residency on Nalirra, but whereas Tanis was drafted into his first term with the military a semester shy of getting his full degree, his friend has gone on to practice medicine for short periods of time on various worlds. His skills in anthrobiology have come in handy on more than one occasion, but his current locale is this unlikely small plains town where he’s the only non-human in a population of fifteen thousand.
Despite the area’s moniker, the weather looks rather calm. It’s hot here, and there are thunderheads off in the distance toward the southwest, but there’s only a gentle breeze blowing and the sun is shining down on us. I’ve seen my share of violent storms on Dennier near my hometown, but Renny’s not looking forward to being in a place with a nickname like Tornado Alley, mild weather or not. Regular thunderstorms don’t bother me – I really do love them – but I can’t forget the tornado outburst that nearly leveled Grandstorm when I was a cub. Those things scare me.
I got word from Rezo that the Hidalgo Sun is in the repair depot and will be grounded for a while. As he feared, the repairs the depot wants to make are extensive and the projected bill is going to be more than he can afford right now. However, Mars Colony has agreed to employ his entire crew for the duration in miscellaneous jobs to help defray the costs. Extra help on Mars is always coveted by the locals and bartering work for work is common.
After our stay in Woodward, we’re to fly to a city called Tucson to pick up our next cargo and then we’ll be on our way to Argeia. My crew seems excited at the prospect of visiting that world for our next delivery. Not much is known about the place other than what has been in a few travel vids that have circulated around the PA. Xenophobes almost to a fault, outsiders typically have not been welcome to the so-called white planet in the past, so this delivery could turn out a few surprises.
All of the current members of the PA were originally colonies of the Earth, but Argeia is a bona-fide alien world that developed completely on its own; its indigenous sentients belong to a felinoid race called Kastans, otherwise known as the Kai. One of Taro’s old contacts was approached by the government of Argeia, which has only recently considered trade negotiations with the Planetary Alignment.
Somebody recommended us and the Kastans followed up to hire our services. We’ve already received payment for the upcoming voyage, and it is a generous amount, too – much more than is our standard price for delivery to a new location.
Merlin Sinclair, Captain
The Barnyard Inn was a rustic establishment on the edge of town. It was made of brick and wood, a replica of the style common to the area two centuries earlier and usually popular with out-of-town guests. At the moment, however, only a family of three was booked in for a couple of days besides the crew of the Blue Horizon, but they had gone out for the day to see the local attractions, such as they are.
It would have been easier and less expensive had Merlin’s crew decided to use their own beds in the ship, but after weeks on board no one cared to see their rooms again for a while. A change of scenery was always nice, and while the canned, recycled air on the ship kept them alive, nothing could compare to the fresh air of a planet, no matter where it may be — with the possible exception of the mildly-toxic atmosphere of Quet, of course.
Almost at once, Pockets, Lorelei and Durant had taken to walking toward the center of town at a leisurely pace. Tanis was anxious to see his colleague and Cindy had volunteered to go with him to the other side of town. They hired a bright yellow taxi and disappeared down the road in the warm summer sun of the late afternoon.
Inside the lobby of the antique-decorated Inn, Renny stood before a wallboard of pamphlets showcasing local attractions while he chewed absently on a plastic straw he had gotten with his soda. He picked up a few with colorful pictures that looked interesting, especially one profiling a local commercial cavern tour. He carried those he had selected and ambled toward the back patio where Merlin, Samantha and Max were splashing around in an aquamarine pool. The cheetah was a decent swimmer when he had to be, but he disliked getting wet more than necessary and found a sun-warmed deck chair more to his liking. He settled down into it and began to relax, but he considered taking a run later; his foot seemed to be fully healed and he hadn’t had any twinges in weeks.
Max, on the other hand, had never learned to swim. There was neither a reason nor a place on Quet for him to try it, so he stayed in the shallow end of the pool or crept along the sidelines with a tight grip on the outer tiles. He had agreed to let Merlin and Samantha teach him how to swim, but he wanted to be acclimated to the water first. He remembered the beach on Pomen and let his mind drift to his walk along the sandy shore with the cute little tigress he had met there. He and Wendy continued to write to one another with promises to meet whenever possible, and he always looked forward to her letters – even if several of his crew mates teased him about having a girlfriend.
Samantha crawled up onto Merlin’s shoulders in the pool, laughing and giggling as the wolf stumbled on the sloped bottom and got a mouthful of chemically-enriched water. Merlin gasped and sputtered as he managed to lift her – and his nose – above the waterline. He grinned mischievously and pushed her backward. She landed with a splash that soaked a laughing Max, and just managed to miss the feline navigator with a wave that fell short of his chair. Renny jumped up with a yelp and moved his chair further back away from the edge of the pool while the others laughed.
“What’s the matter, Ren-Ren?” Sam asked in a lilting voice. “Afraid of getting your precious fur wet?”
“Jumping into a large puddle of water’s not my idea of relaxing,” Renny replied with a smirk. “I can keep myself clean without immersing myself.”
Max sniffed at the matted fur on his arms with a frown. “It doesn’t feel all that clean to me,” he said. “The water smells funny and leaves my fur sticky whenever I get out.”
“That’s the chlorine,” a new voice said. “It’s what keeps bacteria and other nasty things from growing in the water.” Everyone looked up at the thin elderly innkeeper who had just come out onto the pool deck with a tray of lemonade-filled glasses. He wore a straw hat with a wide brim to shield his balding head from the sun and was dressed in a white shirt and pair of tan shorts. His sandals clopped on the tile as he approached a small table beneath a wide umbrella and set his tray on it with a smile.
Mr. Harris had never been off of the Earth before – he had never even been more than a few hundred miles from his birthplace of Woodward, at that. He had seen pictures of Furs in magazines and vids, but until Merlin Sinclair’s ship had set down a few hours earlier, the only one he had ever seen in person was that vulpine doctor on the other side of town, and then only from a distance. Some humans avoided Furs as being too different, but Mr. Harris was fascinated by them and tried to find any excuse to be nearby.
Likewise, Merlin had found Mr. Harris to be a nice fellow and didn’t mind his presence, feeling this elderly widower presented no threat. Renny barely paid the man any special attention. Nearly an equal number of Humans and Furs lived together in harmony on his homeworld, so being around them felt as natural to him here as it did on Kantus.
“I brought you some lemonade,” Mr. Harris said with a friendly smile. He took off his hat and mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. “I thought you might be thirsty out here in the sun.”
“Thank you, Mr. Harris,” Samantha replied with a smile of her own. She climbed up the pool ladder and reached for a towel. The human’s eyes grew wide and he turned his head quickly with a mumbled “You’re welcome.”
It took Sam a moment to realize that the man had not expected her to be swimming in the pool without a swimsuit. Her natural black and white fur hid her nether regions well enough, but the cold water had an effect on her chest that made it specifically noticeable to the human male. Samantha felt pity for the man and covered herself with her towel. She walked over to him and said in a quiet voice, “Please forgive me, Mr. Harris,” she said. “I forgot where I was.”
The man swallowed for a moment and then looked aside at her hesitantly. When he noticed she was covered, he sighed and gave her a smile. “I’m sure that’s natural where you come from, my dear,” he said, “but I’m just not used to seeing it.” He swallowed again and added in a quiet voice, “You’re welcome here at my place, but for the sake of my other guests, would you please wear something while you’re in the pool?”
Samantha nodded with a smile as she picked up a glass of lemonade. “I’ll get a bathing suit in town today. I promise we will follow your rules, Mr. Harris.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I think I’ll go back inside now before your companions get out of the water, too.”
Renny looked up at the Border collie with a wide grin after the human had gone back inside. “You’re scaring the locals, Pooch,” he said. She made a face at him and then took a drink of her lemonade through a large straw. It was tart, but tasted good.
Merlin and Max walked up beside her. “What was he bothered about?” the wolf asked as he daubed the corner of a towel into his left ear.
Samantha looked down and grinned widely. “We’re embarrassing our host by not wearing anything in the pool.”
Merlin followed her gaze and then shrugged. “Ah, I forgot they don’t like that.” He looked over at Max, who was already wearing a pair of red swim trunks.
“We wore them at the beach on Pomen,” Max explained. “I thought I was supposed to wear them in the water here, too.”
Merlin nodded at the canine as he consciously covered his crotch with his bushy tail. “Looks like you were right, kiddo,” he said. “A lot of the worlds in the Planetary Alignment have picked up the habit of wearing swim clothing to cover their privates, though you’ll still find a lot of places where people don’t wear clothing at all, preferring their own fur for covering.”
“Well, I was going to drink my lemonade and get back into the pool,” Samantha said, “but since I don’t have a swimsuit, I think I’ll just go up to my shower to wash out the chlorine. I’ll put on shorts and a tank top later so I can sit out here in the sun and not embarrass Mr. Harris.” She looked over at the wolf and lightly grabbed the edge of his tail with a smile. “You need to get some shorts on too, mister.”
“Arktanis TeVann!” a short red fox in a white smock exclaimed in amusement when Tanis stepped out of the taxi and paid the driver in local currency. “I never thought I’d see the day when you would show up at my clinic!” Tanis grinned widely and pulled his friend into a brief embrace as Cindy slid out of the taxi beside them.
“It’s good to see ya again!” Tanis said. He turned to the mouse and put an arm around her waist. “This is Cindy Allport, one of my crewmates,” he said to the fox. Then he looked at his companion and said, “Cindy, this is my friend, Doctor Marvin Tronnor.”
“Honored to meet you, Ms. Allport,” the physician said. Cindy winked at the doctor as he took her hand and licked it lightly across the knuckles.
“Oh, he’s a smoothie,” she giggled with a grin at Tanis. “Nice to meet you, too, Dr. Tronnor.”
The red fox led them inside his clinic, a small white building with a flower garden in the front adorned with bird feeders and a bird bath. Inside was a cozy waiting room with soft chairs, couches and a vidscreen in one corner with the sound muted that showed a local weatherman in front of a wind chart. They moved through the room into his private office in the back, which looked even cozier than the waiting room. A desk stood in a back, covered in papers and spreadsheets in front of a computer tablet that was currently off. The opposite corner of the room contained an L-shaped couch with plants hanging over it from the ceiling and a gentle warm breeze wafted through wispy white curtains framing an open window. Through another doorway was a soft four-poster bed. It was likely he lived in the back room of his clinic. The three of them sat on the couch, a fox sitting on each side of the mouse.
“So how did you wind up on my doorstep?” the doctor asked. “I was surprised when I got your message stating that you would be here.”
Tanis shrugged his shoulders. “We were hired to make a delivery for one of the stores here in town,” he said. “When I heard it was Woodward we were coming to, I remembered this was yer last known location.” He leaned back against the cushions and yawned in the warm room. “It was just luck that I was able to contact ya.”
“How’s your business here, Dr. Tronnor?” Cindy asked.
“You can call me Marvin – please,” the doctor said with a smile. Then he looked around the room and replied, “I originally set up my practice here because there aren’t any other Furs here. I’d attended a medical school in England to study human biology and they said I had learned well quickly. However…” he said with a sigh, “most folks in Woodward don’t think of me as a practicing physician, but more of a veterinarian. They think I’m here to be a doctor for their pets. I’ve tried to explain this time and again, but it rarely sinks in.”
Cindy frowned, but Marvin continued with a smile. “I don’t mind, really. I’ve made good friends with some of the folk who’ve brought me their animals and some of them have even started letting me treat them as well.” He pointed to his medical degree and other certificates framed on the wall. “After all, I am a licensed physician. It’s taken a while, but a number of them are starting to warm up to having a fox as their family doctor.”
He grinned as he leaned forward and lowered his voice in a conspiratorial manner. “The kids love having a furry doctor and parents have told me that their children tend to behave better when they’re with me.” Cindy giggled, not from his words, but from the hand he had just placed on her knee.
Marvin looked at Tanis and fell back into regular conversational tones, but didn’t remove his hand. “Speaking of children, do you still perform magic tricks for kids?”
Tanis nodded. “Any time we’re near a park where children congregate, I always take a few tricks up my sleeves. It’s always fun to see their little smiles as I wow them with my brilliance.”
Marvin nodded and casually gestured toward the door with his free hand. “Crystal Park is just down the street a few blocks,” he said. “Lots of oak and willow trees shading the grounds and there’s usually quite a crowd of little ones scurrying all over the place at this time of day.”
Tanis noticed his friend’s hand on Cindy’s knee and took the hint with a smile. Cindy looked at him innocently, but he could see the ‘get lost, I want to visit with your friend’ look in her eyes. He stood up casually and stretched.
“Well,” he said, “if ya don’t mind me abandoning ya for a while, I’m going to go see the kiddies.” He grinned and gave them both a knowing wink. “I’ll be back later, Dr. Marvin.”
Durant heard a gasp behind him and he twitched an ear in response, but otherwise kept his attention on his task. He flipped through the publication titles in the boxes in front of him and browsed in search of something that would catch his interest.
The grizzly bear was currently inside a local comic shop and he received nothing but stares from the customers. Most of them were under the age of twenty and the clerk behind the counter was barely above that himself. Like most everyone else in town, they had heard about the flying saucer with an alien crew that had landed at the airport.
A comic shop was probably the last place any of them would have thought one of the aliens would visit, and it was odd to see a seven-foot tall grizzly bear wearing clothes and browsing through comic books. A boy of fourteen with runaway dark hair stood in a corner of the room and pushed his round-rimmed glasses up on his nose, staring in awe. Another boy with fiery red hair grabbed him by the arm and pulled him past the ursine customer, bolting out the front door.
Durant tried to appear oblivious to the reactions his presence caused, but the continued whispers and stares were beginning to irritate him. He picked up a handful of titles he’d set aside and made his way to the checkout register. He set them on the counter and smiled at the clerk.
“I will take these, please,” he said casually.
The man behind the counter swallowed, but took the books with a forced smile. He hesitated when Durant handed him an interstellar credicard, but when he noticed the card was of a common type that would automatically make adjustments for local currency, he took it with a sigh of relief and rang up the sale.
A moment later, Durant left the building and wondered where he should go next. He knew it wasn’t so much that he was a Fur that bothered people, as was his sheer size. He’d had similar experiences in three stores already. He knew someone like him was uncommon in this place and didn’t fault them for their surprise, but he had grown weary of it already.
With a sigh and a glance upward at a darkening sky, Durant headed back to the Blue Horizon. At least there he could find sanctuary.
Tanis kept an eye on the overhead clouds and tried not to frown when he heard the distant rumbling of thunder. He currently sat on a park bench near a sandy area full of children. Most were gathered around him in open mouth awe as he juggled three apples that had fallen from a nearby tree. He had spent the past hour at the park, where young children had followed the furry man around and he had performed a few magic tricks for them. A few parents had rushed up in concern when they saw their youngsters near the alien, but after watching him suspiciously for a while most had relaxed and stood nearby as he entertained the kids.
Arktanis TeVann had always loved children. He knew that someday he would like to settle down somewhere with a nice vixen and have a few of his own, but until such a time ever presented itself, he was content to enjoy the offspring of others.
Earlier, as he had was about to show his interested fans a disappearing coin trick, a blond-headed boy of five had crawled up onto the bench beside him and began to pet the fur between the large ears on the top of his head with a grin. He turned and looked at the youngster with a smile, and with that a full score of children moved forward to run their little hands and fingers through the fur on his head, tail, arms and even one daring youngster had lifted his shirt to see if his back was covered in fur as well.
The tan desert fox became the favorite point of interest on the playground for the next hour. He showed them a few more tricks, had a little chase with some, and then told them a few stories his mum had taught him with he was just a kit himself.
A strong wind with moisture in the air had begun to steadily pick up, so the parents and babysitters began to gather up their youngsters. A clean cut man in his late twenties walked up to Tanis with a smile as he grasped hands with his six year old daughter.
“Thank you for entertaining our kids, mister,” the man told him. “I don’t know when Alicia’s had so much fun out here at the park. Here’s something for you.” He tried to hand Tanis a few dollars, but the fox shook his head with a grin.
“I appreciate the offer,” Tanis replied, “but hearing their laughter and seeing their smiles is payment enough.”
“Well, okay,” the man said with a knowing smile. “I can understand that.” He pocketed the currency and then reached out to the fox without hesitation to shake his hand. “Thanks again. The kids do like you.” He looked up at another roll of thunder and glanced to the dark clouds. “However, I think you’d better find shelter soon. The weather forecaster said we were in a severe thunderstorm warning right now and it’s going to start raining soon.”
“The Inn where I’m staying is on the other side of town,” Tanis mused.
“There’s a shopping mall not far from here,” the man said as he pointed down the street. “Go up three blocks to Baker Street, turn left and you’ll see the mall a half block in that direction.”
“Thank you,” the tan fox replied.
The breeze wafted Tanis’ large ears a bit as the man and his daughter walked up the street toward their house and he gave a little wave to the girl who looked back at him. He glanced up at the clouds and then moved out to find the mall.
Bricker’s Hardware was a small store, but Pockets felt he was in tool heaven. The selection of hand tools was impressive, especially those in configurations he had never seen before or had not seen in years. He picked up one particularly nasty-looking weapon of a tool and immediately thought of a spot in between the Horizon’s double hulls where it should work better than anything he already possessed. He picked up four of them for good measure and dropped them into a shopping basket that was already so laden with tools that his small stature had a hard time maneuvering it down the narrow aisle.
Lorelei had no use for the kind of hand tools Pockets drooled over, but she was no less excited at the variety of cooking spices that Mr. Bricker had in his store. She already had a handful of incense sticks in her basket, in addition to several colorful Southwest-style blankets. She giggled delightfully at the aroma of a spice container she opened and knew she just had to have that one after taking a quick taste from the tip of her finger.
Pockets and Lorelei approached the checkout counter a short while later and exchanged grins at one another’s shopping basket. The white rabbit looked up at the dark haired man behind the counter and presented her credicard. He smiled pleasantly and took it as he began to ring up her selections. A small vidscreen was on the wall behind him and the local weather forecaster was going on about the approaching storm.
“We need to hire a taxi to take all this stuff back to the ship,” Pockets told his companion.
“Yeah,” Lori replied, “then we can do more shopping!”
The man behind the counter smiled. “I can call one up for you,” he offered. “My brother drives one.”
Lori grinned widely. “That would be great! Thank you.”
Cindy closed her eyes as the wind blew along the side verandah of the clinic and felt little pricks of sand from the air. She and Dr. Marvin were resting lazily in a porch swing, their conversation having reached a lull. The air had grown oppressive with winds that couldn’t seem to make up their minds to blow hard or not at all.
The mouse opened her eyes at the sound of voices and saw several people trotting down the street in apparent concern. She watched them until they rounded the corner and then looked over at her newfound friend.
“Wanna go back inside and snuggle some more?” she asked the red fox at her side with a wiggle of her small nose. When he looked back at her, however, he wasn’t smiling.
“I think we’d better go in and look at the weather report,” he said seriously.
Cindy looked out across the yard at the dark clouds between the trees and frowned. “I’m not afraid of storms,” she said, “but you should see our ship’s navigator, Renny. He gets real –”
“You might be afraid of this one,” Marvin interrupted with a shake of his head. “We’ve been getting weather reports all day about the potential this one is building up to, and it could get ugly.” He stood and offered her a hand up. When she took it and stood at his side, he led her inside to the back room of the clinic. The grey mouse took a last glance outside before he shut the door and then picked up the vidscreen remote from the night stand.
Renny stood up from his deck chair and frowned at the approaching storm clouds that talked in continual rumbling. He could see lightning flashes within the towering clouds and the occasional ground-to-sky strike. The very air had taken on a greenish tinge and the horizon beneath it was getting harder to see in the darkness of the evening.
Samantha looked up at him with amusement. “What’s the matter, Ren-Ren? Are you afraid of a widdle storm?” She couldn’t resist the temptation to needle him about his fear of bad weather. The two of them had been trading good-natured insults all afternoon, but this time Renny wasn’t smiling.
Renny turned and looked at her with wide eyes and the black stripes in his fur beneath them made the cheetah’s expression all the more forlorn. A crack of lightning sounded suddenly and Samantha could see Renny shake in resonance with its reverberating echoes. She knew it was time to cut the jokes. He was really nervous.
Merlin and Max paid no attention to the navigator. The gusting winds threatened to blow the pieces off of their game board, but neither felt like abandoning their close match just yet. Max had a good mind for games and was giving the captain a run for his effort.
Renny set his jaw firmly after a moment and sat back down. “I’ll be all right,” he said between clenched teeth. “I can do this.” He almost jumped out of his skin, however, when Merlin’s DataCom beeped.
The wolf picked up the DC unit from the table beside him and thumbed the Receive button without looking up from his game. Max had just taken two more of his pieces.
“This is Merlin,” he mumbled into the small device. He looked up at the sky as he listened to the call and then nodded in agreement. He suddenly realized the caller couldn’t see his action and then answered, “That’s a good idea, Durant. Go ahead.” He clicked off the unit and set it down again to get back to his game.
“What was that about?” Samantha asked him.
The wolf answered without looking up. “Durant’s back at the ship. He wants to activate the Horizon’s spatial shields to protect the onboard systems from local lightning.” As if to punctuate his words, a tendril arc lit up the sky with a resounding Crack! Renny jumped out of his chair and ran inside the Inn without another word.
“That cloud looks funny,” Lorelei said strangely. Pockets looked up to where she pointed and frowned at a section of the thunderclouds that hung lower than the rest and almost appeared to be slowly turning. The whole sky was now overcast with heavy clouds and a part of it even looked a little green. Something in the wind didn’t feel right, but he didn’t know much about Terran weather patterns so he didn’t voice his concern. They were crossing a large mall parking lot toward a collection of stores so they could be inside if it should start to rain.
Lorelei wrapped her arms around herself. “It’s getting chilly,” she said, “and my ears are popping.”
Pockets grinned suddenly and wrapped a small arm around her waist. “Here,” he said, “let me help you get warm.”
The rabbit giggled and put an arm around him as well, the weather momentarily forgotten. Seconds after they reached the glass doors of the mall and had gone inside, rain began to fall.
Dr. Marvin stood by the window and looked out into the rain. It had started lightly, but was now falling hard in big drops. Cindy stood next to him, the sounds of the vidscreen in the background. They had watched an earlier weather report warning of the approaching storm, but the physician beside her had grown distant and the look in his eyes worried her.
“What’s the matter?” Cindy asked him timidly. “These thunderstorms are common here, aren’t they?” She looked back out the window. “My family used to live on the West Coast for a while and heard about them all the time,” she said, “but we didn’t live where we had this kind of weather.”
“Thunderstorms are common here, yes,” Marvin replied, “but this one’s giving me a bad feeling. The radar images on the vidscreen are showing a bit of a rotation in the clouds — never a good sign in this part of the world. When the cool air from Canada flows down the Rockies and collides with the warm air coming up from the Gulf, it can make a deadly mix.” He glanced over at her after a moment with an upraised eyebrow. “You just said you’re from Earth?” he asked in curiosity. “Where did you live?”
Cindy grinned at him, thankful to have his attention again. “Santa Barbara, California,” she replied. “They don’t seem to mind Furs out there. We lived up on the mesa. My father was on a—”
A crack of lightning and another new sound interrupted her words. Ice chunks the size of marbles began falling from the clouds and made a deafening din on the metal awning over the veranda outside. Cindy looked at the doctor with wide eyes, her heart creeping up into her throat.
Samantha shut the patio door behind her. She and Merlin made it inside just as the rain began; Max had gone inside earlier to check on Renny after he had beaten Merlin at their board game. Mr. Harris walked into the room a moment later and stopped beside the canine to look out the window.
“It’s going to be a gully-washer,” he mumbled as the wind tossed two of the deck chairs into the pool. He looked at the Border collie beside him and nodded “It’s a good thing the Harpers got back in time. They’ll be down for supper soon, if you and your friends would like to do the same.”
“We are getting hungry,” Sam admitted to the man. “I can’t wait to try your food.”
“Annabelle is one of the best cooks in town,” the elderly man said with a nod of his head. “I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in her supper, even if you are from outer space.” He gave her a smile to let her know he was only teasing, and Samantha chuckled at his expression.
She leaned in closer and said in a conspiratorial manner, “I hope Annabelle has a lot of food back there. My cheetah friend has quite an appetite.”
There was a delighted glint in Mr. Harris’ eye when he replied. “I don’t think she has any gazelle meat in her freezer, and there aren’t any in these parts for him to take down on the run.”
Samantha snickered. She liked this man immensely. “Well, he’ll have to suffice on –”
Lightning struck a communications pole in the field next to the Inn and charred splinters swirled around in the strong wind before raining to the ground. More thundering sounded nearby in reply to the electrical tantrum, and it began to hail. In the front room of the Inn, Renny let out a cry and stood up rigid from the wicker seat he had been huddled in. There was another flash and he ran up the stairs with wide eyes. The canine started after his friend.
“Max!” Merlin said sharply. The young mechanic stopped halfway up the staircase and looked back down at him. “I think he needs to be left alone,” the wolf told him.
Max looked as if he was going to protest, but after a furtive glance back upstairs when he heard the cheetah’s door slam, he slowly made his way back to ground level.
A brown-haired boy of five opened up a door at the top of the stairs and looked down at the canines with wide eyes. “Hey, Mom!” he said excitedly back inside the room, “There’s dog-people here! Can I go down and pet ‘em?”
“Tommy!” said a hushed voice, “That’s rude!” A woman peeked out the door and looked down the stairs with a frown. “You can go down there, but be nice.”
Merlin lowered his head, growling lowly to himself and Samantha just sighed. Distracted from his shipmate’s fears, Max laughed and grinned at the boy as he took the stairs two at a time.
“Hi!” little Tommy said to Maximillian when he got to the ground floor. The German shepherd smiled and looked at him steadily with his ice-blue eyes.
“Hello,” Max replied. He sat down on one of the steps so that he looked eye-to-eye with Tommy and then tilted his head forward with a smile.
The boy recognized the gesture and reached forward to pet the top of Max’s head gently. He laughed to himself and patted his head again.
Max looked up at the boy’s parents coming down the staircase. He stood up and let them pass. The woman grabbed her boy and held him to her and the man stopped to look at Max.
“Please forgive him,” he said. “He doesn’t know –”
“It’s okay, I don’t mind,” Max told him with a smile. “He’s done nothing wrong.”
“Thank you,” the woman said. “We don’t mean to be a bother.” Thunder boomed and rattled the windows as the rain and hail slowed and then stopped.
Mr. Harris walked over to them and shook the man’s hand. “Mr. Harper, you’ve just met Max Sinclair. The wolf over there is his uncle, Merlin Sinclair, and the lovely lass over by the patio window is Samantha Holden.” He turned to his other guests and said, “This is Jim and Mary Harper, and their son Tommy.”
Jim Harper walked over to Samantha. “Holden?” he asked. “Are you kin to the Holdens on Alexandrius, by chance? Holden Pharmaceutical?”
Sam smiled. “That’s right,” she said. “I —”
At that time, a plump red-headed woman in an apron came out of the kitchen and tapped on a glass with a spoon for attention. Everyone looked at her and she smiled. “Hello, folks,” she said. “I’m your hostess, Annabelle. If you will look over our menus and give me your dining preferences, I can get started on your suppers.”
“Look, there’s Tanis,” Pockets said to Lorelei. They were in the food court on the lower level of the city’s only large shopping mall, sitting in a booth with the remnants of their meal on plastic trays. Lorelei had finished off a nice salad, while Pockets had indulged himself in seafood. They waved toward their friend, who saw them and walked over to their table.
“Fancy seeing you two here,” he said with a smile. Lorelei pulled her shopping bags out of a chair and the desert fox sat down with them.
“Looks like ya’ve been spending yer credits,” he said. “The locals must love ya.”
“The locals think we’re strange,” Pockets said dryly, “but they don’t refuse our money.”
“Yeah, well, I had a wonderful afternoon in the park with –”
The lights in the mall flickered briefly and then went out. There were raised voices in alarm all over the complex and a few cries of fear. A few cigarette lighters flicked on here and there as people tried to see where they were.
“Hmm, well this is fun,” Tanis said above the din of voices from the crowd around them.
Someone bumped into Lorelei’s chair and stumbled into her lap with a grunt.
“Oh!” Lori exclaimed.
“Sorry, miss,” a young male voice replied as he pulled himself back up.
“That’s okay, I–” she started to say, but her voice cut off suddenly. They could hear someone shuffle away in the darkness and Pockets cleared his throat in concern.
“You okay?” the raccoon asked. It was often hard to stop Lorelei when she was talking, as she could sometimes be a chatterbox, so her sudden mid-sentence silence piqued his interest.
“Uhm, yeah,” she replied with a giggle.
“What just happened?”
“Ohhhh, nothing...” Lori answered with another giggle.
“So... what do we do now?” Tanis asked as a few candles in the food establishments began lighting up. The power was still out and the air was beginning to get stuffy without the air circulation system running.
The roof of the mall was made of painted glass, and while the lightning flashes outside did little to penetrate the darkness within, they could hear the panes rattling with the rumble of deep thunder. Tanis looked up instinctively, even if he couldn’t see much of anything.
“I was in an electronic shop earlier,” he said. “Weather reports on the local station were warning viewers about the potential danger of this storm. He said something about a wall cloud and recommended taking shelter.”
“What’s a wall cloud?” Pockets mused. Tanis only shrugged in the dim light.
“Since we’re nice and dry,” Lorelei said, “I guess we have good shelter here.”
“If we were on the Horizon,” Pockets replied, “I’d head straight for the backup generator. I don’t know if this place even has one, and I wouldn’t even know where to look. I think it’s best if we just keep our seats. The local engineer should have power back up soon.” His companions could hear tools clunking together in the darkness, and suddenly their vision was momentarily blinded by the bright light of a small flashlight torch the raccoon had pulled out of his largest pocket.
He smiled at them in the beam and asked, “Don’t I just light up your life?”
Mr. Harper looked up from the dining table to the windows. Even in the light of the candles that Annabelle had lit against the sudden power loss, he could see forceful winds making the window panes bulge inward. A pigeon had slammed into the patio door earlier, but the stunned bird had already been swept away by the wind. Renny sat opposite him at the table, his hand tight around his glass of water. His crewmates had coaxed him out of his room to eat, but the raging storm continued to frighten him.
“Mr. Harris...” Jim Harper said, “that can’t be a good sign.” The innkeeper followed the man’s gaze to the flexing window panes and he swallowed hard. The rain had begun again and was pelting the straining glass with large drops.
“Everyone,” Mr. Harris said in a loud voice, “this storm’s gotten serious – it looks like we may have a – “
The tiny speaker of a small radio came to life as Annabelle turned on a battery operated unit. Everyone in the room became quiet as they listened to the excited voice emanating from the radio.
“–touched down just outside the city limits just moments ago, taking out a power station and a mobile home park! The debris cloud appears to be rope-like in appearance, but from my vantage point it appears to be growing even as I watch! I advise all citizens of Woodward to get to a shelter immediately. If you don’t have one, get to the lowest level of your house or building and move to the center part of the structure, like a closet or bathtub, and cover yourself up with blankets and pillows. Stay away from all windows, especially on the south and western sides of the house. If you are caught outside, get to a drainage ditch or other depression, but don’t attempt to get into a vehicle and outrun the tornado. Highway overpasses are too dangerous to use as shelter and should be avoided at all costs. If you—”
The windows suddenly exploded inward, showering everyone with tiny square blocks of glass. Had the windows not been made of safety glass, everyone at the table might have been shredded. As it was, there were only superficial cuts all around, but furious winds were blowing more rain and debris inside through the empty window frame.
“I have a storm shelter out in the yard, just past the pool!” Mr. Harris shouted to be heard above the roar. Everyone scrambled for the doorway, but Merlin had to grab Renny’s collar to forcibly pull him up off the floor toward the raging storm outside; it required Samantha on his other side pulling on an arm to get the cheetah to his feet. Jim picked up his son and grabbed his wife’s hand.
As they darted outside into the torrential rain, Merlin’s eyes grew wide. He heard a sound that brought back terrible memories and he swallowed hard. A deep roar, like the moan of a bull-fiddle filled their ears. As they made their way across the wet tile by the pool, Mr. Harris chanced a look behind them. No one could hear him gasp, but Annabelle saw the expression on his face. She turned to see what he had seen and a cry escaped her lips.
A dark funnel of cloud and debris was bearing down on them, sucking away the very air around them into its swelling mass and blowing out the remnants of houses and other structures it had already devoured. The funnel had formed into a pronounced stove-pipe shape and had to be nearly a half-mile in width.
“Run!” Annabelle screamed, “Run!”
Mr. Harper raced across the muddy grass yard to a faded blue dome that jutted out of the earth. He grasped the thick handle set into its curved surface with his free hand and twisted it, and even above the twister’s roar they could all hear the rusted metal screech in protest. He handed Tommy to his wife and grabbed the handle with both hands before it released and allowed him to swing the door aside. He pulled Mary and Tommy to him and then guided them down concrete steps into a musty dark opening.
Mr. Harris stumbled in the wind, but Merlin rushed forward to keep him upright. Annabelle ran on ahead to the shelter as the captain helped the elderly Innkeeper onward.
Samantha slipped on slick grass in the yard behind them and fell face-first into mud. She rose up on trembling arms, and in a disgusted voice muttered to herself, “Someone always trips in the movies when running from danger. I can’t believe it was me!”
Renny had gained enough of a presence of mind as debris flew past them to give her a hand up. They’d turned back toward the shelter when a sharp crack and a sudden cry of pain came from behind them. Samantha kept running, having not heard the voice, but Renny looked back and saw Max lying on the ground. The front of the youth’s shirt was torn across the chest and a large board flipped away from him in the wind.
Seeing the youth lying on his back on the ground amidst the slashing torrents of wind and rain, Renny felt a surge of emotion greater than his inherent fear of the storm. As Max fought to lift himself from the ground, forcing himself up despite the stinging pain across his chest, their eyes made contact and the cheetah felt himself emboldened. Renny streaked back across the distance between them and dropped to his knees beside the youth in the muddy grass.
“R-Renny...” Max gasped.
“Let’s go!” the cheetah said, as much to himself as the youth before him, and helped him to his feet. Renny supported his weight and had to struggle to continue standing against the wind. It was hard to keep his feet on the ground – he felt as if the wind were trying to pick him up – but he put his head down and they resumed their struggle toward the shelter.
The navigator looked up to get his bearings and saw several more boards flying directly at him. With more instinct than conscious thought, Renny dropped backward, pulled Max to the ground and then rolled over on top of the boy just as three thick planks tumbled through the space they had just vacated. The motion had been quick, but Renny was sure he had seen large rusty nails protruding from the boards that could have done serious damage.
Once again, Renny got to his feet as Max clung to him with his eyes tightly closed. The cheetah made his way toward the shelter, where Merlin stood outside by the door, yelling something at him to coax him onward. The pair started for a moment as a flurry of white flashed before them. The cheetah paused as he recognized a white bird fluttering helplessly in the wind before them, and a moment later the bird exploded in a blast of feathers as a baseball smashed wildly into its body as though hurled by a champion pitcher. Nonplussed, Renny and Max got to the shelter and Merlin motioned them downward. The captain followed them into the hole, pulled the heavy metal door behind him with a clang, and quickly shoved the thick bolt to lock the panel into place.
The wolf moved down into the cramped shelter where everyone huddled close together as the storm raged overhead. Renny panted for breath and leaned against the wall as Samantha took a look at Max. Even in the darkness of the shelter, Samantha could see the whites of Merlin’s eyes as she tended to Max’s injury. Now that they were safely underground and out of immediate danger, her friend would start to remember – and remembering might prove to be just as disastrous.
The Blue Horizon rocked from side to side. That in itself would not cause the load master concern during a normal voyage, for areas of turbulence in nebulae and the upper atmospheres of the planets were commonplace, but with the ship sitting inert on the ground Durant looked up in alarm. Even within the Horizon’s thick shell, he could hear things hitting the protective energy shield surrounding the ship.
He set his comic book aside and jumped up from the bed. He trotted from the cabin to the bridge, and when he stopped beside the center seat, his eyes went wide with what he saw through the forward windows.
A tornado nearly three quarters of a mile in diameter occupied the middle of the darkened town. Despite the power loss of the main electrical plant, he could see power flashes sparking all across the city as the twister hit other sources of energy and disposed of them. It would have been difficult to see the funnel cloud in the evening darkness were it not for the explosions ripping around the base of the thing.
The grizzly bear turned on the bridge systems and selected the infrared filter for the forward display. The tornado, the overhead storm clouds and the city beneath all stood out in eerie green detail. He swallowed at the path of devastation he could see and increased the magnification of his field of view. He sat down hard in the center seat. There was nothing he could do to prevent the continued destruction of Woodward – all he could do was watch in horror as the tornado pressed onward, propelled by its own tremendous force.
Cindy could hardly breathe beneath the pillows and blankets that she and Marvin had pulled into the small supply closet with them. It was the only room of relative safety in the clinic, located at the center of the structure. Sounds of breaking glass and splintering wood sounded loudly outside the buffeting door and there was no mistaking the feeling that the building was being ripped apart around them. The small closet swayed and packages of tongue depressors, bandages, pill bottles and other items showered them from the upper shelves.
The mouse and fox both cried out when a metal pole suddenly pierced the door panel and drove furiously into the wall at the back of the closet with a bang! Cindy’s eyes were wide and a shudder passed through her. The pole had penetrated the closet directly between her and Marvin, with only a couple of inches to spare between their cheekbones.
There was a teeth-grating sound of shearing metal as something gave away in the wind and Cindy screamed when the whole closet was knocked over onto its side, adding it to other debris in the rubble.
He could feel himself shaking and could do nothing to stop himself. The storm itself had not frightened Merlin like it had Renny, but the raging tornado that had just passed over them brought back the terror of a day years ago in his youth. He hadn’t known the blinding fear was buried in his mind, but the memories came back too vividly amidst the roaring winds above their shelter.
Eight year old Merlin Sinclair was shoved into the deep bathing pool of the family home with his younger brother Lucas, and pillows and blankets were piled in with them. The young wolf had never seen their father so scared and so determined in all his short life. There was no room for Christopher Sinclair to get into the pool alongside them, so he lay on top of his sons and held onto a small mattress with one hand and the faucet with his other as violent winds drove lethal debris through the shattered windows of the house.
The walls shook from the approaching tornado, one of several that hit Grandstorm that day, and things fell out of the bathroom cabinets in crashes that were barely heard over the din. The thick branch of a tree drove through the wall mere inches above the quivering mattress, its edges still sharp despite having just been thrust through several layers of stone, wood and plastic.
Lucas was crying, but there was nothing that could be done to quiet the five-year old. Merlin was on the verge of tears himself, but drew comfort in the sturdy form of his father above him. The house creaked and groaned and the wind drove rain, mud and debris into the house through the hole in the wall that widened as material was constantly ripped away. A section of the roof separated from its joists and disappeared into the roiling, dark afternoon sky, and the mattress was suddenly torn from Christopher’s grasp.
Winds buffeted the black wolf and he snarled at the storm as he held onto the thick plumbing that was all that kept him from flying. He could feel some of the pillows sucked out from beneath him and Merlin’s arms grasped tightly to his legs. It was hard to breathe as the very air seemed to be swept away in the maelstrom. Something on the outside smashed into the side of the house and the wall caved in on top of the bathing pool.
Less than a mile away, Diane Sinclair and her daughter Shannon had abandoned the family vehicle after it had flipped over into a drainage ditch. They ran for their lives as the debris from a housing area that had just been destroyed by the tornado pelted them mercilessly. Diane had picked up Shannon from her tutor just before the twister touched down in a park a block away and she had vainly tried to outrun the howling funnel cloud.
The mother and daughter ran to a highway overpass. Diane thought that the narrow spaces near the girder supports might shelter them from the wind and debris, and she saw that several others were already huddled up as close inside the structure as they could fit. She pulled her fifteen year old daughter up the embankment and pushed her up inside the girders as the tornado crossed the field directly toward them. The child wrapped all four limbs around and through the girders, clinging desperately to sanctuary.
Diane clung to the girders above her and tried to wedge herself in over the top of her daughter to give her protection. Debris pelted her and felt as if hundreds of needles were piercing the skin beneath her fur. Her right leg had gone numb and she stole a glance into the wind that sandblasted her eyes with grit and noted with horror that a ten-inch shard of glass was embedded into her calf just below the knee. She knew better than to try to pull it out in such conditions and felt faint from the sight, so she closed her eyes tightly. The squall grew stronger and the small area beneath the overpass funneled the winds that strengthened already violent gusts. Diane suddenly knew they’d all made a mistake trying to shelter in a place that would only make the winds worse.
Shannon screamed something into her ear, but she couldn’t make out what it was above the roar of noise. She felt her grip weaken on the girders and she looked up into her frightened daughter’s eyes to realize that stronger forces were pulling herself away. Shannon cried out to her mother as she tried to reach out to grasp hands with her, but the suction was too great and Diane disappeared into the dark whirling mass of the debris cloud. It was only the child’s right leg jammed through an opening in the girder that prevented her from being pulled out with her mother.
Back at the Sinclair home, young Merlin and Lucas felt as they were being smothered beneath the weight of their father and the remnants of the bathroom wall as the howling winds continued to take the house apart around them. The children cried out in sustained panic and the lupine captain of an interstellar freighter howled his terror along with such memories.
Merlin didn’t feel Samantha’s arms around his waist, holding him tight in the cramped quarters. All he could see was the silent face of his father later placed upon a bloody hospital gurney after they had been dug out of the rubble by a police officer following the storm. They were reunited with their sister the next morning, but their mother remained missing for days afterward; she was later found buried under rubble two hundred yards from the overpass where Shannon and only one other had survived.
The tornado had leveled a majority of the city of Grandstorm on Dennier on that day. Afterward, young Shannon, Merlin and Lucas were sent to live with their mother’s parents on Alexandrius, and it was there Merlin eventually met with Samantha Holden, a young Border collie who had been sent from Sillon to the school where he attended.
Samantha held her head against his and spoke quiet words into his ears, trying to ignore Tommy’s wailing behind her. Max clung to her leg with his eyes tightly closed, and Renny was balled up against the ground in a nearby corner in a fair catatonic state.
Then the sounds of the violence beyond the thick cellar door decreased almost suddenly and those huddled together breathed in relief that they had somehow made it through the worst of the storm that raged on away across town.
Pockets was clowning around with his flashlight when the wall on the opposite side of the food court suddenly collapsed inward with a roar. Dust, debris, water and glass exploded out over the consumers and a howling, gale-force wind began to blow everything around them furiously. Parts of the ceiling fell into the mall. The winds grew stronger and more of the outside wall collapsed as the churning continued to grow. Chunks of concrete, steel, glass and bricks from the upper level of the mall began hitting the floor around them and everyone dove for whatever cover they could find.
The Blue Horizon crew members scrambled beneath their metal lunch table just as a large iron beam fell down over them. One edge crashed onto the floor near Pockets and pulverized the concrete, but the other caught the short wall of plants they were sitting next to and, although partially crushed, supported it enough to keep from killing them all. The tornado continued to churn through the middle of the mall and after what seemed an eternity, the whirling maelstrom moved on to devour the surrounding neighborhood, leaving the remnants of the shopping center in ruin.
Lorelei swallowed hard and coughed at the dust she inhaled. She tried to raise her head, but bumped it on something in the darkness. She could see nothing and felt something lying across her lap. She moved a hand over the soft lump and decided it was Pockets judging from the clink of tools in the pockets she felt. He was out cold. She could feel his breath on her hand but he didn’t seem to be laboring, so she left him alone.
“Tanis?” she asked timidly. She heard a groan and felt movement behind her.
“Tanis is dead,” the desert fox’s voice wavered as Lori repositioned herself over to him. Pockets’ head slipped off her lap and hit the floor with a thunk!
“Yip!” the raccoon squeaked as the jolt woke him. Lorelei reached out and pulled him back to her lap. She coughed several more times and heard other voices out in the darkness within the sound of rain. The wind still blew through the open mall, but had lessened in intensity.
“What happened?” Tanis asked as he tried to sit up. Like the rabbit, he bumped his head on something above them and grunted as he rubbed the back of his skull. There was a strange smell in the air and he coughed when it burned his lungs.
“Something hit the mall,” Lorelei replied. She tried to sort out the memories, but everything had happened so fast. She’d never experienced anything like it before and didn’t know what else to say.
“Was it a bomb?” Pockets moaned. No sooner had the words left his mouth than an explosion ripped the air and pushed it violently above them. The ruins were lit from the fire of the blast from a ruptured gas line from one of the food court kitchens. Shrapnel and searing heat filled the air around them as the fireball expanded upward, but then retracted in the wind and rain. Fortunately for them, they were shielded from a mountain of debris and were relatively untouched by the explosion, but others had not been so lucky. Shrieks of pain and screams of anguish filled the darkness, and there was more yelling as other survivors tried to put out the multiple fires before more were hurt.
As a result from the flames that had started at places around them, Lorelei could see out through the rubble across the destruction. Her head grew light when she realized that the end of the mall with the food court where they huddled was all that was left of the mile-long shopping center still standing. She could also see fragments of bloody bodies crushed beneath sections of the upper level that had collapsed, mere feet away from them.
“We have to get out of here,” Tanis said hoarsely, “away from the building before more of it collapses on top of us.” He pointed to the remains of the upper level above them and they could see pipes, wires and other things hanging from the unstable, crumbling precipice.
Durant looked down at the armrests of the Horizon’s center seat. He had gripped them so hard while helplessly watching the tornado rip through town that he had bent them down and inward. The impressions of his fingers were also mashed into the padding. He released the armrests and rubbed the fingers of both hands absently as his attention went back to the vidscreens.
The right-hand screen was magnified and tracking on the tornado itself with sensors providing data on wind speed, direction, barometric pressure and a projected pathway. The other two screens were focused on different areas of the town. Normally, he would not be able to see parts of town for the buildings in the way, but the tornado had carved a swath right through the small city that left his vantage point open.
It took him a moment to realize that the tornado, while still growing in size and strength, was moving out away from the opposite edge of town and headed toward the northeast for open prairie. The ruins of Woodward were being left behind.
Durant felt only slightly more relieved until a thought occurred to him. He looked up at the image and data of the tornado and it showed no signs of dissipating. He moved to another station and tied in the ship’s computer with the local info net. He called up a topography map of the area and overlaid the data from the tornado’s path across it. The grizzly frowned deeply. If the twister kept its current trajectory, it would continue on through prairie occupied by the occasional farmhouse, but it was headed toward a popular recreational park of hot springs and a couple of small towns just beyond.
If he didn’t do something quick, Durant felt as if there would be more deaths from this monster before the destruction ended. With the power down throughout the city, it was likely that he had the only functional communication equipment available. As quickly as he could, he called up contact data from the info net and then moved to the Com station to warn the authorities of those places in the tornado’s path. After that was taken care of, he would put out a call for help to surrounding cities to provide emergency assistance for Woodward, if they weren’t already on their way.
It took the combined efforts of Renny and Jim Harper to force the door to the storm cellar open. Shredded wood, bricks and tree limbs lay across the faded blue dome, but they were finally able to push the heavy metal panel aside after a lot of struggling.
Jim was the first one up the steps and out onto the soggy ground above, and the cheetah noted the man’s surprised expression as he looked around. Jim glanced back down at the expectant faces below and shook his head. “There’s nothing left,” he said, “but the twister’s gone.”
One by one, the survivors emerged from the dank shelter into an emptiness that was overwhelming. The wind still blew, but it was only a whisper of what it had been earlier. Lightning flashes continued to illuminated the sky, but thankfully no more rain fell on their position.
Annabelle and Mr. Harris were the last to step outside. The two of them clung together and both wept openly when they turned toward the Inn. The two-story building, well over one hundred fifty years old, had been swept away entirely; the foundation had been wiped clean of everything except a few twisted water pipes that spewed through crimps and splits.
Splinters of wood, glass, insulation and other debris littered the ground, but for all the destruction, the area was cleaner than what they would have expected. The tornado had moved directly over the building and had taken everything with it.
Merlin stood beside Samantha, feeling calm but quite embarrassed over his behavior in the shelter. He was captain and should have remained strong in the midst of the storm, but his courage had failed him. Max was aching and rubbing his chest, but he didn’t think anything had been broken. Fortunately for him, the board had hit him with the flat side and had only knocked him to the wet ground. He stood beside Renny, who seemed to have regained his composure as well. The storm still thundered and pounded around them, but the emergency of the situation had calmed him – it had given him a purpose. The cheetah was in complete awe at the sheer power of a storm and what it could do, but although he was okay now, it was unlikely he would ever be comfortable around such weather phenomenon.
There were sounds of voices crying out from all directions as people emerged from other shelters and searched for missing people or pets. Sirens wailed in the distance and it reminded Samantha of something. She walked to where Mr. Harris mourned the loss of his home and livelihood and put a gentle hand on his shoulder. He looked up at her with wet tears and he brushed them from his eyes angrily as if embarrassed to carry on in such a manner. Samantha gave him a moment to compose himself, and when he finally looked as if he had steadied himself, she asked a question that was on her mind.
“Mr. Harris,” she began. She cocked her head to the side and listened to the emergency vehicles down the street. “Doesn’t Woodward have warning sirens for this kind of weather?” she asked. “I never heard anything sound off.”
The elderly gentleman shook his head sadly and shrugged his shoulders. “We do have a warning siren,” he replied, “but the system broke down with last winter’s hard freeze. The city didn’t have the extra funds in the budget to have it repaired, so I suppose nothing was ever done about it.”
Samantha looked angrily out across the demolished neighborhood around them. “I wonder how many lives might have been saved had they fixed it.”
Merlin saw something fluttering in the grass at his feet. It was just a bit of debris, but he stooped to pick it up anyway. It was a stiff piece of torn paper with a date and a few names scribbled on it. He turned it over and saw that it was part of a photograph of a human family of four. Two young boys with bright, mischievous eyes sat on the wooden steps of a garden deck between a lovely woman with wavy brown hair and her husband, a handsome man in glasses with graying hair and a mustache. He walked over to Annabelle and handed the photo to her.
She examined it, but shook her head. “I don’t know who they are,” she remarked. The wolf looked at the portrait again and noted how happy the family appeared. He wondered who they were, and whether or not his possession of the picture meant that someone in it was hurt.
Cindy felt someone pull at her eyelid and suddenly there was a piercing light. She raised a hand to shield her face and heard a sigh of relief.
“She’s coming around,” said a relieved voice.
“She doesn’t look hurt too bad,” said another. “Are you sure you are all right?”
Marvin’s voice answered, “I have bumps and bruises, but I’ll be okay.”
“Okay, Dr. Tronnor, we’re going to keep looking for other survivors, then.”
“Thank you, Dale. I’ll see if I can salvage a few First Aid supplies and join you.”
Cynthya Allport blinked her eyes a few times and tried to sit up as footsteps led away. Marvin’s hand supported her shoulder and helped her into a sitting position. He looked at her in concern and she immediately noticed small cuts on one side of his muzzle and an ear.
“How do you feel,” he asked her.
Cindy closed her eyes a moment and took stock of the aches and pains she felt. Fortunately, everything seemed to be minor. She looked back up into his green eyes and gave him a little nod.
“I’ve felt better,” she said, “but I don’t think there’s anything broken. I do have a headache the size of my ship...”
“Yeah, me too,” Marvin said with a smirk, “and I don’t even know how big your ship is.”
The grey mouse looked around in the flashlight glare. They were on a soggy blanket in what looked like a war zone. They were apparently in the front yard of the fox’s clinic, although the building lay mostly over on its side in a pile. The night sky was lit up in the distance by lightning, but the winds had died down and rain no longer fell. There was a faint odor of gas, but it was getting weaker, and she could hear sirens a few blocks away.
“How did we get out?” she asked her friend.
“My next door neighbor found us,” the doctor replied as he shined his flashlight over her cuts and bruises, feeling of her arms and legs to make sure there were no hidden injuries. “He’s one of the few that’s let me treat him and his family. He and I usually take daily walks together every morning before I open up the clinic.”
The red fox stood up and offered Cindy a hand. “Let’s see if you can stand,” he said to the mouse. She nodded, took hold of his hand, and then got to her feet. She was a little shaky on her legs, but she remained standing.
“Now that you’re upright, how do you feel?” he asked her.
“I have a bit of a cramp in my left leg,” she replied as she massaged the sore spot.
“When they pulled the debris off of us,” Marvin said, “you were laying on top of that leg.”
“It doesn’t feel broken. I think I’m okay.” She moved closer and then embraced him for a moment.
“So long as you’re okay,” he said, pulling away to look into her eyes, “I’m afraid duty calls for the physician. I have another flashlight torch here – can you help me dig through the rubble for First Aid supplies?” He looked around at the devastated neighborhood with a frown. “There’s going to be a lot of hurt people and I have a feeling it’s going to be a long night.”
“Here’s another one, Michael,” Pockets said glumly. He and a red-haired man in his thirties began picking up pieces of debris off of another body. When the man moved a chunk of wood and plaster, he choked and began to cry.
He looked up at Pockets in the dim light produced by an emergency electric lantern and wiped his eyes for the fortieth time since they had started working together. “This is the husband of the woman we found a few minutes ago,” he said. “His name was Sean Brennen. Our boys played ball together every summer.”
Pockets looked down at the deceased man and shook his head. The man’s throat had been crushed from fallen debris and his bright blue eyes were open in shock. He put a hand on Michael’s shoulder.
“If you want to take a break, I can go look for others,” he said.
“No,” Michael said as he wiped his eyes again. “I’ll be okay. I want to lay him next to his wife and then I need to look for their son.”
Not far from where Pockets and Michael worked, Lorelei tended to a couple of teenage girls. One had her arm in a makeshift splint, tied up in a sling made from her blouse, and the other had a wrap around her forehead made from one leg of her pants. Both had bruises and scrapes on their faces and arms. Lorelei had located a bottled water dispenser and was giving drinks in crumpled paper cups to the survivors she found.
The first girl had maintained her composure despite her injuries, but her companion had wept almost continually since she had been uncovered in the debris. It was only now that she had stopped bawling. The appearance of the humanoid white rabbit had taken her attention and Lorelei had been so sweet and caring toward her. The sniffling girl was petting the ultra-soft fur of Lori’s arm, and the action seemed to calm her.
Tanis found that being a Fur in an emergency situation on Earth was not necessarily a benefit. He was a medic and was helping out as much as he could, but there were some individuals so in shock that the sight of him was just too frightening for him to help. He provided assistance where he could, but felt powerless when his help was refused, no matter his skill in medicine. Changing tactics, Tanis moved off into darker areas to help those who couldn’t see him well in the stormy evening.
Morning arrived at last. All remnants of the storm clouds had vanished and a clear blue sky was calm. Birds were chirping and the temperature was pleasant.
Durant stood on top of the Blue Horizon, having climbed out through an emergency hatch in the ceiling of the recreation deck. He had just finished cleaning blood and other stains from the floor of the cargo bay and he needed fresh air in his lungs. He also wanted to see the city with his own eyes. From this vantage point, he could see the mile-wide damage path that cut diagonally across Woodward in a southwest-to-northeasterly direction. The area resembled a junkyard of downed poles, wires, bricks, planks, twisted metal and glass. He had never been in a war zone before, but Durant had seen images of battle destruction on news programs; what he saw that morning resembled such photos.
Fires had broken out during the night and there were plumes of dark smoke still smoldering throughout the city. Hundreds of houses and businesses had been destroyed. Some that had been in the immediate pathway of the tornado somehow still stood, evidence of the unpredictable nature of the winds associated with the twister, while others beside them had been reduced to complete rubble.
Various members of the crew had reported in to him through the night via their DataCom units and everyone had been accounted for and still breathing. None of them had sustained serious injuries, but he was the only one who had not had an up close and personal experience with the storm.
The majority of them had stayed up through the night to help the injured and look for survivors, so most were now on board the ship in their cabins, exhausted and asleep. Earlier in the morning hours, Merlin had volunteered the Blue Horizon to transport the worst injuries to a hospital in Elk City, the closest large city to the south, as the Woodward Hospital and Health Center was full and overcrowded.
With an exhausted and shaken crew, the Blue Horizon had made four round trips between the cities and Durant hoped they had been in time to save the lives of those they had transported. He had monitored the local broadcasts all morning and the death toll was still counting. The vid and radio warnings had done well to prepare the city for the potential of the approaching severe weather, but without functional storm sirens, the loss of life was higher than it should have been.
Although the town was still reeling from the previous night’s havoc, Samantha had already initiated a sizable, anonymous donation to the city of Woodward that was earmarked specifically for an advanced tornado warning siren system. While emergency and cleanup crews were continuing to comb the area for other survivors – and bodies – an order was already being processed for the equipment, delivery and installation of the warning system to be put in as soon as power was restored to the parts of the city still standing. Although tornadoes can form during any month of the year, the season of greatest potential still had several weeks left, so getting the warning system in place even before the town could begin rebuilding was a priority.
The other outlying places that had been in the twister’s path had been amply warned and the destruction had not been as great. The tornado had turned in a graceful arc toward the North after it left Woodward in its wake and it was tracked for another half hour before it finally lost its power, dissipating in the middle of empty ranch land. Reports had it pegged as an EF5 tornado on the Enhanced Fujita scale, topping out with wind speeds in excess of two hundred seventy miles per hour.
Durant took a large breath of air and then turned back toward the hatch. Like everyone else, he needed rest. They would be departing Woodward later in the evening if they were no longer needed and would take the rest of their shore leave in Tucson before their next delivery.
As the accountant approached the emergency airlock to descend back into the ship, a white dove fluttered down and landed on the upraised hatch. Durant smiled as the bird cooed at him a moment before flying away again. The Terrans symbolized peace in the appearance of a white dove. Perhaps Woodward would find some of that peace in the aftermath of the storm.
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Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.