BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 2
— Episode 18
Mystery of Walkabout"
SS Blue Horizon PA1138
The Blue Horizon is currently a week away Argeia, an old world containing the first truly alien race that humanity has encountered. The Furs of the other planets in the PA were all products of Terran genetic engineering that were sent out as colonies of the Earth three centuries ago, but the Kastans of Argeia developed completely on their own. Having them agree to join the Planetary Alignment after getting through the difficulties of the language barriers had made it all a challenging endeavor, but the recent successes has many excited.
Our flight from Earth is going smoothly, and since this is a new route for us, we’re passing through a section of space not yet frequented by PA interstellar travel.
I cannot help but think about what we went through back on Earth while in Woodward, but it’s been two and a half weeks and I think everyone is sleeping comfortably again. I find it highly unlikely that Samantha will tease Renny about his fear of storms anymore. We’ve all been through a lot, and although I feel embarrassed over my own behavior during the storm, I feel awfully fortunate that none of us were seriously injured. I’m glad it’s over, but the citizens of Woodward have a long recovery ahead of them.
I received a call from Captain Kegawa a few days ago. His ship has been cleared for return to service, though it passed the safety inspection only barely. I don’t know what use I could actually have for an aging ship like the Hidalgo Sun, but Rezo has promised his help should we ever need it.
I don’t really have much to report at this time. Although we are in a new region of space, the flight itself is routine and has been thankfully quiet. Samantha’s pulled out a load of movies she picked up in Tucson and the majority of them have actually been quite good. There have been a few stinkers in the bunch, but sometimes it’s impossible to know ahead of time what a show is going to be like. Most were made on Earth and have an all-human cast, but there’s been a few Sam found that were probably made elsewhere that have a predominantly Fur cast of characters. They’re all in various degrees of quality, but we should have plenty of movies to last us a few voyages.
Lorelei has become hooked on an old interstellar vid show lately. No matter who’s watching a show or movie on the vidscreen, she has announced to everyone that she must watch The Golden Chef Challenge, which originates from Alexandrius. I’ve only watched it with her once, but from what I could tell, the main objective was a fancy cook-off between famous or prestigious chefs from all over the PA. Each show unveils a new specific ingredient from anywhere in the PA that the chefs must incorporate into their meals, and this can sometimes border on the ludicrous. I don’t know much more about the show that this, but Lori nearly started a fight with Samantha last week when the show came on while Sam was in the middle of a movie. Samantha finally let the rabbit have the vidscreen since Lori’s show was broadcast live and Sam’s was a file she could always come back to.
Max has proven himself a fast learner in the engine room. Pockets praises him often for his efforts, and has even begun teaching him technical electronics. Max hasn’t quite gotten the hang of that yet, but he seems interested in learning new things.
I finished off the last novel of a mystery series I love yesterday and have no others to start in on, so I think I’ll turn in for the night. I should have stocked up while back on Earth; I could use a good mystery right now.
Merlin Sinclair, Captain
“Captain, please come to the bridge.”
“What is it, Sam?” the wolf asked wearily. He glanced at the digital clock on the far wall with groggy eyes. It was 03:45 hours.
“Twenty minutes ago the long-range scanners picked up what appears to be a large body of metal. The scans resemble a large ship.”
“Another Hidalgo Sun?”
“I don’t know. I can’t detect a beacon or any other transmissions from it.”
“Okay,” he replied with a yawn. “Alter our course to intercept.”
“Already on our way. We’ll arrive in about ten minutes.”
“I’ll be there after a visit to the head,” he muttered sleepily.
Several minutes later, Merlin strode onto the bridge rubbing his eyes with one hand, a cup of coffee in the other. He was dressed in a short Oriental robe that Sparky had given him before they had departed Sillon, one that had survived the crash on Crescentis. He yawned and wiped his eyes again. Samantha sat in the center seat, her hands on the guidance shifts as she fired maneuvering thrusters to bring the freighter softly to a stationary spot in space.
The center window had a clear view forward of the freighter, though nothing but stars could be seen. The left window’s circuitry displayed sensor readings, and on the right was a computer rendering of the huge vessel they approached. They could not see the ship in the darkness of space and had to rely solely on instrumentation.
The primary purpose of the long-range scans were for debris that might be in the flight path with the potential to pierce the protective shields around the ship without being able to deflect them; in this case, it appeared to be another vessel.
The most prominent feature of the ship they approached was the giant flying wing configuration of the living module. A grid of huge pipes and structural beams extended aft from the wing’s center nearly fifty meters and ended in a large pair of twin engine pods. The whole thing looked as if it were a stubby arrow piercing the void of space. There were no running lights or internal illumination, which made it difficult to see without the light of a nearby sun; dim and distant starlight was merely occluded instead of reflected. They approached the vessel from a higher vantage on the starboard and the sensors indicated that it was several times larger than the Blue Horizon.
“I’m getting weak power readings, but nothing else,” Sam told the wolf when he stopped at her side.
“Registry?” Merlin asked as he looked up at the screen.
“There’s no transmitting beacon encoded with the ship’s I.D. I’ve tried hailing the ship, flexing on all local frequencies, but there’s been no reply.”
“I don’t recognize the design,” Merlin said as he studied the huge arrow-shaped structure. He took a lap of his coffee and then set the cup on the station counter. “Any idea where it’s from?”
The Border collie shook her head and answered, “No, but I have the computer checking the configuration to see if the design itself is listed in a PA database.”
Merlin leaned on the back of her chair and rested his chin on the top of her head. “How far are we from it?” he asked in a mutter.
Sam checked her readings. “We’re holding at approximately two kilometers.”
“Bring us in closer,” Merlin said quietly. “About thirty meters… and drop us level with it.”
“That’s awfully close,” Sam replied with a frown.
Merlin looked at her sideways with a smile. “If we can find an accessible airlock for the tunnel,” he said, “we’ll need to get even closer.”
“Ahh,” the Border collie mumbled as she nudged the thrusters to move the ship gently forward.
Merlin looked up at the right screen as the computer finally displayed the results of its search. He twitched an ear as he digested the sparse information. “Goldenrod-class, a long-range explorer originating from Earth,” he said. Samantha was busy guiding the Horizon in closer and couldn’t look over at the readout. She merely nodded to acknowledge hearing him.
“We still don’t have an I.D. on the ship,” he said, “but now that I think about it, I believe it’s an early design that Earth was using when they developed the first version of LightDrive technology. Patch described one like that to me a couple years ago.”
“Look at the aft pods,” Sam said after a quick glance toward the screen. “The output section definitely looks like it’s equipped with LightDrive engines.”
The Blue Horizon eased up closer to the darkened ship and the collision alarms bleated loudly. The captain quickly reached across Samantha’s console and silenced the annoying sound. “We’ve got to get in closer,” he muttered.
“At least we know the alarm works,” Sam said with a lopsided smile. She glanced up at the sensor screen and spied an airlock near the forward apex of the flying wing. She tapped a control and then touched the screen with a claw tip right over the other vessel’s hatch. Thin red crosshairs appeared over the spot she’d touched and then she entered the distance into a keypad. She released the guidance shifts and they began to move almost imperceptibly on their own.
“We’re still seventy-five meters away. Auto alignment is now engaged to bring us in to fifteen meters on thrusters.”
The wolf nodded and moved quietly to the engineering station on the forward wall to look out through the windows at the derelict. The intercom chirped and Merlin moved back to the Com station.
“Bridge,” he said after tapping a touch pad.
“What’s going on up there?” Pockets’ excited voice came through the speaker. “I heard alarms!”
“The sensors picked up the mass of what looks to be a large derelict ship. I’m having Samantha move us in close so we can check it out. If there’s anyone on board, we’ll need to give them assistance. If not, we’ll claim salvage rights.”
“And did you bother to wake your engineer at this discovery? NoooOooo…”
Merlin smiled and winked back at Sam. “Okay, engineer, get your britches on and meet me down by Durant’s office. We don’t know if there’s any air in that ship, so we’ll have to use the suits.”
“Aye, Captain. Who are you sending over?”
“Just you and me for now.”
“I’ll have our suits prepped as soon as I can get down there.”
Freed from the controls while the computer handled the current maneuver, Samantha looked over at the captain. “Can’t we just send Moss over there to look around for us?” she asked.
Merlin shook his head. “That would be handy, but it wasn’t designed to work in a vacuum and it won’t operate outside the influence of the Horizon’s VIP computer system anyway. Pockets has talked about sealing it up and extending its range to fly outside the ship for things like this, but as far as I know, it doesn’t have that capability yet.”
By the time Merlin and Pockets were totally enclosed in their soft pressure suits, most of the crew was awake and watching with interest. Durant and Tanis were in the cargo bay with the pair, helping to make sure all connections and seals were secure. It was standard procedure to have someone double check each suit before going out into a potentially harmful void or atmosphere, especially since these suits were not specifically tailored to the current Horizon crew. Pockets had found one fairly close to his size, but he complained that the tail pouch was not roomy enough for his plume.
Renny, Max and Cindy crowded onto the bridge to watch through the windows. Since the derelict ship was dark and hard to see against the backdrop of stars, Samantha turned on the outside flood lamps and had the bridge lights down to minimum. The right-hand screen showed a sensor view of the ship.
In the cargo bay, Durant opened the thick inner door of the airlock and Merlin moved past him and into the small chamber. Patch crammed himself in beside the captain, a set of common tools hanging from a utility belt connected to his suit. Two suited bodies in pressurized suits in addition to the packs upon their backs barely fit in together. Once they were all in, Durant shut the door behind them and then began depressurization. Tanis stepped up to the tiny window in the hatch and peered inside as a loud hiss sounded from the mechanisms.
As it would take a moment for the airlock to reach zero pressure, the grizzly bear tapped a control screen with a claw tip and there was an immediate thunk somewhere between the double hulls of the ship.
“Zero pressure,” Durant reported when the panel beeped. “Extension tunnel released.”
“Aye to both,” Merlin’s voice replied over the intercom speaker. There was a metallic quality to his words, as if the modulation was slightly out of sequence. The outer airlock hatch split apart diagonally and the suited figures within floated out. Each grabbed hold onto the end of the tunnel that surrounded them.
“We’re moving out,” the wolf reported. Small jets of vapor issued from the packs upon their backs, activated by tiny controls within their suited gloves.
“Hey, look!” Pockets’ voice commented gleefully, “I’m a floatin’ fool!”
“He got the fool part right,” Tanis said to Durant with a grin.
It took time to guide the extension from one ship to the other, but once they reached their objective, they placed the end around the frame against the hull of the derelict.
Merlin tapped a small panel. The first control lit up the tunnel from within, and from the vantage point of the bridge, the tunnel glowed eerily, even in the flood lamps. The second control he tapped adhered the frame instantly to the other ship around the outer perimeter of its hatch, while a thin rubberized tube beneath it filled quickly with gel.
“Seal is secure,” Merlin reported. “Okay, Durant, go ahead and pressurize the tunnel to ship-normal. If there’s a pressurized atmosphere within that ship, we don’t want to destroy its integrity getting in.”
“And if there’s no air inside?” Durant asked.
“Then all we lose is the air inside the tunnel.”
Due to the volume inside the extension between the two vessels, it took several minutes to fill it to capacity. “Tunnel pressurized, boss,” Durant said into the terminal’s microphone moments later. The flexible sides of the tunnel looked like solid sheets of metal now that it had pressure.
“Captain?” Samantha said..
“We can see a large open window port in the bridge area of that ship.”
“Open?” Merlin asked.
“That means I’m glad I’m in a pressure suit,” Pockets replied.
“Probably blown out,” Samantha conjectured. “There’s no glass, metal or shield over the opening. We missed seeing it before.”
“Okay, thanks. The external hatchway controls on this end are inactive. Pockets is trying the manual release.” There was a quiet moment as everyone waited, and then Merlin spoke again. “There’s an identification label affixed to the hatch door,” he said, “but it’s not written in Standard.”
“Probably one of Earth’s local languages,” Pockets commented.
“Turn on your visor camera, Captain,” Cindy said into the microphone. “I might be able to read it.” The mouse shifted her attention to the left vidscreen, which had just come to life with an image from a tiny visor camera built into the top of the wolf’s helmet.
“Are you getting this?” Merlin’s metallic-sounding voice asked.
“Yes, Captain,” Cindy replied. “Give me a moment to study it.”
“The door seal just separated, but we haven’t lost any of our air,” Pockets announced. “That means at least the airlock itself is still pressurized.”
Samantha looked over at Cindy and saw the mouse nod her head. She mumbled something to herself, but the station microphone picked up her words. “It would be written in a stylized form of kanji…” she said.
“Can you read it?”
“Somewhat. It’s written in the language of the Japanese. The ship is either called the Walk Around, Back Walker, or the Back Hiker… or something like that. I’m a bit rusty reading these characters.”
“Isn’t that a Registry number?” Samantha asked, pointing to the identification label on the screen.
“Yes, I believe it is,” Cindy confirmed. “K… V… N… dash… 92… 012.”
“KVN-92012,” Samantha repeated. “That doesn’t sound like a standard Planetary Alignment registry number, but I’ll do a search on it anyway.”
“The hatch is opening,” Pockets said triumphantly. A slow creak came across the speakers with his voice. “Could use some lubricant. I don’t think it is been used in quite a while.”
“Good job, Pockets,” Merlin said. “Okay, folks, we’re going in. Durant, unless there’s a reason to move the ship, leave the tunnel in place for now.”
Durant and Tanis moved into the bear’s office and the load master keyed into his terminal. “Samantha,” he said into the intercom, “can you connect me to the signal from the captain’s visor camera?” The collie didn’t bother a verbal response, but Durant’s vidscreen came to life with the images of the other ship’s airlock.
Merlin floated into the small chamber and turned to face his engineer. Once they were both inside, it took both of them to pull the hatch shut. Pockets struggled with the manual latch, but managed to get it secured. Merlin tried the internal controls for the inside airlock hatch, but it was also non-functional. Once again they had to manipulate a manual release, but this time they didn’t have to struggle with it. The airlock hatch swung out into a dark corridor, and as soon as Merlin stepped out in it, his foot became heavy and clumped to the deck.
“The gravity deck plates are still working,” the wolf reported as he moved out of the way for Pockets to step into the passageway, “though they don’t feel up to full strength.”
“This must be how it felt to Taro to walk around our ship,” Pockets said quietly of their absent Hestran friend.
“Captain,” Samantha’s voice sounded in their helmet speakers, “I’ve found some information for the registry of this ship.”
“Go ahead,” Merlin said as he shut and secured the hatch. He turned and aimed his suit’s forward lights toward the floor. A thin layer of ice crystals covered everything, likely due to moisture in the air. There was trash and other items scattered beneath their feet. Pockets knelt down to examine some of the papers, but he couldn’t read the written characters so he set them back down where he found them.
They’d entered the ship in a moderate sized chamber. One wall was lined with pressure suit lockers, but when Pockets looked inside, they were all empty. There were information screens on the opposite wall, but all were dark and frosted over.
“Cindy was close with her translation,” Samantha said. “The name of the ship is the SS Walkabout, Terran Registry KVN-92012, Goldenrod-class, long-range exploration vessel. Her captain’s name is listed as Shin Amamori. Her last filed flight plan was from Kitakyushu, Japan on Earth to Newport, Kantus, but it never arrived at its destination. Listed as missing.”
“When was that?”
“Nearly a year ago.”
“Do you have a crew or passenger listing?”
“Yes, sir. It lists the captain, fourteen human crew members and ten passengers of varying Fur races.”
“That’s twenty-five bodies we might find…” Merlin muttered with a deep frown. “Does it give a flight mission?
“It was a mission of ‘firsts’. The SS Walkabout is a replica of the SS Goldenrod, the first Terran ship equipped with an early type of LightDrive engine. They were retracing the route originally taken when Earth sent its first furman settlers to Kantus, itself the first habitable planet chosen to begin a new colony. Goldenrod was successful in its voyage, but the Walkabout never made it.”
Merlin checked the readings of a hand scanner that was strapped to his left arm and grunted. “We have a good atmospheric mix with acceptable pressure in here, but the temperature is down to minus twelve Celsius. It should be breathable, but very cold.”
He turned to Pockets and turned the shorter raccoon around so that he faced away from him. “Let’s get these maneuvering packs off,” he suggested, reaching for a set of snap clasps. “We won’t need them inside the ship.”
“I’m with you, Captain,” the engineer replied. “Inside the ship’s gravity, this thing is heavy!”
After they’d helped one another shed their external packs and set them on the floor beside the hatch, the two of them walked the length of the dark room to a connecting hallway. The raccoon shined his lamps up and down the corridor and then pointed in one direction after studying markings near the ceiling. “The bridge should be this way, one level up,” he said. “I think we’re on the crew deck.”
“Want me to lead?” the wolf asked his superstitious friend.
Pockets shook his head inside his helmet and then realized Merlin couldn’t see the action. “No,” he replied confidently. “I’ll be all right.” He ambled down the dark passageway in the light gravity, his bobbing light creating strange shadows off of equipment panels along the walls and overhead pipes.
“Whatever you do,” Renny’s voice sounded in their speakers, “don’t go wandering after the ship’s pet!”
Pockets stopped cold in his tracks and clenched his gloves into fists. “Don’t do that to me!” he exclaimed, “I had nightmares for a week after watching that show.”
Merlin snorted. “I should have Samantha’s tail shaved for bringing that one on board.”
“I warned you all that it was a scary movie,” Sam retorted. “I didn’t make any of you watch it.”
Merlin gave Pockets a small push and the raccoon resumed walking down the corridor. They passed several doors marked in the same written characters, but continued past them. There would be time for checking them out later. If they were fortunate, there might be a flight recorder on the bridge of this old ship to tell them what happened. The passageway made an angled turn to the left.
The engineer stopped and examined long dark marks on the side of the corridor. “There’s blaster scorch marks on some of the walls,” Pockets said uneasily, brushing the fingertips of a glove across one. “I wonder if they had a mutiny.”
Merlin leaned close to a wall and held up his scanner toward a brownish stain on the carpeted floor. “Blood,” he said quietly. They continued along the corridor, finding more evidence of blaster fire. Pockets stopped a moment later at a standard airtight door on his right. “This should go up to the bridge,” he announced. An old-style gauge in the door made the engineer frown. “Air pressure behind this door is considerably low,” he said. He tried the manual release, but it was stiff. “Pressure on our side is making this tough.”
Merlin lent his strength on the circular wheel and it began to turn slowly. The rubberized seal around the hatch began to hiss as air from the corridor was sucked inside. By the time they got the panel opened completely, the pressure had equalized. Merlin shined his lamps into the opening at a set of metal steps leading upward. He wrapped his gloved fingers around a rail mounted to the wall and took the stairs slowly. Pockets moved in behind him and closed the hatch.
At the top of the steps was another hatch. This one had a thick glass window in a horizontal strip a foot long and four inches high, and Merlin leaned forward until the bubble of his helmet touched it gently. He peered into the next room, but he couldn’t make out much in the darkness beyond.
“I don’t see any instrument lights through the window,” he said. “Not that I really expected any.”
“How does the pressure read?” Pockets asked.
“Zero. Is the hatch behind us secure?”
“Are you at the bridge?” Durant’s voice asked.
“Just outside the airtight door,” Merlin replied. “We’re going in now.” He reached for the door wheel and hesitated. “I’m going to do this slowly and let the air in the stairwell escape gradually, so the hatch doesn’t explode outward.”
It took almost three minutes before Merlin could swing the door open onto the bridge. He and Pockets stepped quietly into the large room and the engineer gave a small whistle inside his helmet at what he saw.
“What is it?” Samantha asked. “We can see your head lamps moving around through the bridge windows.”
“Nearly everything in here is scorched,” Pockets answered. “It looks like they must have had a tremendous fire boil up through here.”
“Everything that wasn’t metal in the construction of the instrument panels are melted, though not completely through,” Merlin added. “They either extinguished it themselves, or the broken window sucked all the oxygen from the air before it spread to the rest of the ship.”
“The broken window, I would guess,” Pockets said. “The extinguishers are still in their mounts on the walls.”
“Any… bodies?” Tanis asked. “I can’t see any in yer video feed.”
“There’s nobody here,” the captain replied to the medic as he walked over to what was left of the captain’s chair. “Either everyone got out or anyone on the bridge was sucked out when the large window blew out.”
“Captain,” Pockets said quietly, “I can’t tell where the fire originated.”
Merlin looked around, shining his lamps over the whole room. Everything was scorched and partially melted, but nothing looked as if it had actually exploded. Even the overhead pipes were intact.
“What about a flame thrower?” Renny ventured to ask. “They used flame throwers on the monster in Sam’s movie.”
“Renny, would you shut up already about the movie?” Pockets said irritably. “This place is giving me the willies without your witty remarks.”
“I was being serious.”
“Something like a flame thrower might explain this, however,” Merlin said.
“Yeah, but a container of thermite will do the same thing,” the engineer retorted, “though the damage would be considerably more extensive.”
“Who’d be carrying thermite?” Sam asked in a bored tone. “That’s not a common item in a starship’s supply cabinet. Then again, neither is a flame thrower.”
Merlin shook his head inside his helmet and sighed softly. “A container of anything volatile would leave behind signs of an explosion. There is none here.”
“Well, I seriously doubt there are any slime-headed monsters prowling this ship,” Pockets huffed.
“Are you surrrre of that?” Renny’s chipper voice asked.
“Captain,” the raccoon asked dryly, “do I have permission to jettison Renny when we get back to the Horizon?”
“Sorry, but I need him on my crew,” Merlin replied with an unseen smile.
“What about the movie? Can I jettison that?”
“Sure, if you can wrestle it away from Samantha.”
“That movie’s mine!” the collie’s voice exclaimed.
Pockets decided to ignore the rest of the conversation as his thoughts sorted out what he saw. He couldn’t tell if the mess around them was entirely because of fire or some struggle. He walked across the bridge to a wall access panel and pulled gently on the twin handles. It came loose fairly easily and he set the cover on the ground at his feet. “Captain,” he said, “the circuits don’t look too bad.”
Merlin walked up behind him and peered into the recess in his lights. “Do you think you can restore power?” he asked.
“I dunno. That depends on the condition of the LC engines,” the engineer replied. “If they’re still generating, I could probably rig up something, but the fingers of these gloves are too large for delicate wiring work.”
Merlin walked over to the forward port to examine the remaining bit of thick glass in the window frame. “See if you can find a way to seal up this opening, Pockets,” he said. “If you can do that, we can pump up the air pressure and heating in here so you can work in your coveralls.”
“I can probably vacuweld a plate of sealed metal over the opening,” Pockets replied. “I do have scraps large enough.”
“Okay, go ahead and get to that. I’m going to make my way to the engine room and see if there’s any power down there.”
“Would you rather that I checked the engines?”
“No, your priority is to get this hole sealed up so we can work in here.”
The wolf turned and headed for the hatch. “Durant,” he said to the other ship, “get everyone suited up and get over here. I want to do a sweep of the place for the… crew.”
“Lovely…” Renny muttered.
“Ugh… Right away, Captain,” Durant replied.
“What about me?” Samantha asked.
“You’re still on bridge watch, Sam,” Merlin reminded her. “You stay put.”
“I didn’t want to look for bodies, anyway.”
“Just keep an eye on all the sensor readings. Let us know if there are changes in anything.”
“Cindy?” he asked.
“Still here, Captain.”
“I need you to work with Pockets. You can help him decipher labels on panels and diagrams.”
“I’ve never been in a pressure suit before,” the mouse replied. “Can I just wait until Pockets gets the ship pressurized again?”
“He’ll need to read labels to see which controls to use to get that process started,” Merlin answered with a frown. “Otherwise he might jettison one of the engine pods while I’m in it when he’s only just trying to turn on the heat. Durant will help you get suited up and instruct you on what to do.”
“Aye, sir,” Cindy said in a dejected voice.
“I’m going back to the Horizon for my vacuum welding equipment,” Pockets announced. Merlin didn’t bother to answer and opened the hatch to the stairwell. The engineer followed him down to the main corridor and reversed their earlier processes with the airtight doors.
Merlin walked slowly through a maze of corridors, disoriented and unsure of the route to the long tunnel to the engine pods. He couldn’t find any rhyme or reason to the layout of the vessel’s floor plan and felt sure he had gotten himself lost in this huge ship. He tried a few doors which usually led to crew cabins or storage closets. Everything was marked with that curious Terran writing and none of it was familiar to him. Why doesn’t a member of the Planetary Alignment label things on a starship in Standard, the accepted common language of the PA worlds? he thought to himself.
As his thoughts drifted back to his search, he came across a door equipped with an airlock. He smiled to himself, thinking he had found the way to the engine room, but it turned to a frown when he noticed the condition of the door. The control mechanism was scorched and the pressure wheel was bent, as if someone had tried to force their way inside. The panel was ajar slightly and Merlin cautiously eased it open. He shined his headlamps into the darkness and recognized the ship’s galley. Burned chairs and tables were overturned and there were more scorch marks across the floors and walls.
The wolf moved inside and worked his way through the room toward the kitchen. Only one chair was still standing upright at the kitchen counter. Food wrappers and other trash littered the floor. Dirty dishes filled the sink and out onto the adjacent counters. Out of curiosity, Merlin opened the large refrigerator door. A puff of cold vapor escaped out into the room and he peered inside. There didn’t seem to be much food inside, certainly not enough to sustain twenty-five individuals on the flight between Earth and Kantus. He closed the door with thoughts of wonder and he moved next to the dry-goods pantry. As with the refrigerator, there didn’t seem to be a great deal of food inside. Years of space flight experience told Merlin that the food stores he saw might sustain a single person for a week or two.
He shook his head and idly wondered at the competence of the ship’s supply officer. Realizing that he had spent too much time blindly wandering the corridors, the captain moved back out to the main hallway to look for the way to the engine room. With only his headlamps to provide illumination, it would be easy to miss clues to what happened.
Pockets stepped back away from the window and nodded to himself. He set his vacuum welding equipment on the remains of a bridge chair and lowered his chin onto a tiny lever within his helmet to speak into a condenser microphone near his lips
“Sam?” the engineer asked. “Has there been any word from the captain about the engine room?”
“No, Pockets,” the Border collie replied. “I’ve been watching his progress from his visor cameras. He’s on Com channel one, but he’s been quiet, looking around through various rooms he’s come across.”
“Where is he now?”
“I’m not sure, but it looks like he’s floating down a long, dark tunnel. He went through an airlock a few minutes ago.”
“Floating?” the raccoon mused. “He must be in the access leading back to the engine pods. I wouldn’t think they would bother with gravity deck plates along that route.”
“How’s the repair work coming?”
“I’ve just sealed up the window, Sam,” Pockets replied as he admired his handiwork. “If Cindy ever makes it up here to the bridge, she can help me identify the controls to bring up the air pressure – providing there’s power from the engines to work the controls.”
“Hold on, Pockets,” Samantha said suddenly. “Merlin’s on the line.”
There was a pause and a few static clicks in the engineer’s helmet speakers and then the captain’s voice came in clearly as Samantha patched in signals from the two channels together.
“I’ve reached the hatch to the engine room,” he said. “I can feel a low, pulsing vibration in the deck through my boots. Something’s still operating in there, so perhaps there’s hope for this crate.”
The raccoon nodded to himself at the news. “This is Pockets, Captain,” he said. “How’s the air back there?”
“There’s no ice crystals on anything, and my hand scanner shows… air pressure is ship-normal and the mixture seems to be good. Temperature is only thirty-eight, however. I’m halfway tempted to open my faceplate to test the freshness of the air, but I won’t be that careless just yet.”
“Not a good idea,” Sam’s voice said. “The air may not be that healthy once you get inside the engine room.”
“Put your helmet up against the hatch and tell me what you hear,” Pockets suggested.
There was a soft clunk in the speakers and then the captain replied, “I hear a low hum, the same pulsing I feel in my feet — and other sounds I can’t quite make out.”
Maximillian Sinclair opened a cabin door and peered in with a lump in his throat. The German shepherd youth was inexperienced in exploration and the stories he had heard of derelict ships had him unnerved and afraid of what he might find. His pressure suit fit him okay, but the cold, oxygen-nitrogen mixture inside the helmet was irritating his sinuses and giving him a headache. He also felt a little claustrophobic inside the suit, but he wasn’t about to let uncle Merlin know he couldn’t handle it. The captain’s opinion meant a lot to him and he always felt ecstatic whenever the wolf praised him for something.
He moved inside the crew cabin and shined his light across the furniture, making sure not to miss the floor as Durant had shown him. If there was anyone still on board the dark vessel, that’s where they would be. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on the point of view, no one had yet to find any sign of the original crew or passengers. The Walkabout appeared to be deserted.
What happened to them? Max wondered silently. He picked up a framed photo of a human’s family or friends from a low table. Did they leave, or were they taken by someone… or something?
He walked through the room to the head and as he turned the corner, his tail pouch brushed against a lamp and knocked it off its bedside table. It crashed to the floor and Max jumped with a frightened yelp. When he turned to look at the cause of the noise, Renny’s voice crackled in his helmet speaker.
“Max!” the cheetah nearly shouted in the headset. “What happened?”
“I’m okay,” the canine youth replied. “I just knocked a lamp off a table with my tail. It startled me.”
“Have you found… anything?” Lorelei asked.
“No bodies, if that’s what you mean,” Max answered.
“Yeah, that’s what I meant.”
“There’s lotsa stuff all over the floors. Looks like there was a lot of fighting.”
“That’s the impression I’m getting, too,” Tanis added to the conversation.
“I’m not joking this time,” Renny said, “but it really does look like someone used a flame-thrower.”
“Isn’t that dangerous in an oxygen-rich atmosphere?” Cindy asked.
“Yes, it is,” Durant’s voice answered. “Pockets? Any luck restoring power?”
“Not to the controls I really need,” the engineer replied. “Cindy’s helped me find the right circuits, but I’m afraid these things are fried beyond use.”
“Got anything on the Horizon we could use?”
“Not for this crate. The technology is similar, but not interchangeable.”
“I’ve noticed a pattern to the burn marks,” Tanis reported.
“Pattern?” Durant asked.
“Yeah… control panels, access panels, instrument panels, transfer conduits…”
“I see what you mean,” Renny said.
“I don’t get it.” Lori said. “Is that important?”
“It means that whoever did the damage wasn’t shooting randomly,” the desert fox replied. “It’s as if they were trying to knock out all power routes.”
The Com channel went quiet as everyone mulled over the implications, but after a moment Renny voiced a question.
“Do you think they were trying to cut off all power to the bridge?” he asked.
“Ohmigosh!” Max exclaimed in fright. “Ohmigosh! Ohmigosh!”
“What is it, Max?” Cindy asked. “Knock over something else?”
The canine youth tried to back out of the head, but his feet wouldn’t move. “I… f-f-found someone…” he stammered.
“Alive?” Tanis asked excitedly.
“No…” Max’s voice sounded like he was going to be sick.
Merlin opened the door to the engine room slowly. It swung out into the passageway and a dull orange light filtered out across him. He could instantly hear the power rumbling from the engines. The ship was stationary, but there was power aplenty inside.
He checked his scanner. “There’s a lot of interference in here for the scanner,” he mumbled. “The micranite shielding must be pretty thin.”
“Captain?” Pockets’ voice crackled in his helmet speakers interlaced with static.
“Yeah, Pockets? What do you have?”
“I found … flight recorder,” he replied. “The thing got … full blast of … scorched the inside of the bridge.”
“Do you think you can retrieve the data off of it?”
“It’s … mass of slag, Captain.”
Merlin was silent for a moment while he turned off his useless scanner and hung it from a loop strap on his utility belt. “Okay, Pockets. See what you can do with the other controls. I hope to see if I can route some power to you shortly.”
“Sam, have the others try to locate the captain’s quarters. There may be a written logbook somewhere. I’m not the only one to keep a journal. Ship’s captains have kept them for centuries.”
Merlin nodded silently and then moved into the orange light of the engine room. The walls were high and just about every square inch of them were covered in gauges, dials, switches, buttons and other displays. There was barely enough room for him to move in the narrow corridor in the bulk of his pressure suit, but there was no gravity here as well, which made it simpler to find routes around the equipment.
He was no engineer, but he knew enough about starships to recognize the functions of most of what he saw. He studied a few of the active gauges, but without knowing how to decipher the Terran text, he didn’t know what he was reading. He picked up his scanner again, but it was useless in this environment. He couldn’t even get a simple temperature reading.
The narrow walls ended as the captain moved out into the roomier interior of the area. Metal stair rungs mounted on the walls went in every direction, obviously to help free-floating personnel pull themselves around the room. Orange glow panels mounted in the walls provided the illumination he saw. He also saw bits of paper and food wrappings floating about in invisible rivers of air current.
Merlin pulled himself to the center of the room and looked around. He had already lost his bearings on which way was up in relation to the rest of the ship. The engine room was disorienting and he suddenly wished he had Pockets down here with him. He really had no idea where to begin looking to transfer the readily available power to the bridge.
“Captain?” Samantha’s voice sounded with static in his speakers. “I have … things to report.”
“Go ahead, Sam.”
“Max says he’s found … body, but he doesn’t know … to tell anyone where he is.”
“I can understand that,” the wolf replied, looking around the unfamiliar room. “Can Max identify a name tag or anything else on the body to show who it might –”
“Merlin,” Sam’s voice said softly, “the boy’s scared out … his wits. I don’t think he’s … seen death like this before. I think it might … asking too much to have … search the body.”
The captain bit his bottom lip. He shouldn’t have had the young canine join the search party and it had never occurred to him. “Yes, of course. You’re right. Tell Max to wait outside in the corridor from whatever room he’s in. Have the others look for him so someone else can check out the body.”
“Okay, I’ll relay … messages.”
“What was your second report?” he asked. Samantha quickly filled him in on Tanis’ assessment of the pattern of fire he had discovered and the wolf’s frown grew.
“If all the power conduits and panels have been specifically targeted, there may not be a way to restore power to the rest of the ship without an extensive overhaul of the systems.”
“Captain, with … delivery schedule, we won’t have time … anything like that. We … not a rescue or salvage ship.”
“Yeah, you’re right again,” Merlin said. “How much time can we spend to search through the rest of the ship? We’re going to have to file a report with the SPF on finding the Walkabout, and we’ll have to give them some information.”
“We can prob… spare another eight hours at … most. After that, we’ll have … increase our cruising speed to make up … difference in our flight schedule.”
“Eight hours? Okay, Sam. Patch me in to Pockets, please.”
As the wolf waited for the connection, Merlin thought he saw movement among the shadows across the room. He pushed away from the metal ladder he had clung to and crossed the room swiftly. Before he got to the other side, however, Pockets’ crackling connection filled his helmet.
“Captain,” the raccoon reported, “…’s nothing more I … do up here on the bridge without power.”
Merlin snared a support beam as he approached a bulkhead and then stopped his momentum with a clunk against the wall. “Has Samantha filled you in on Tanis’ theory?”
“Yeah, I was listening in … them when he told her about it. It doesn’t look … we’re going to get the systems … this crate working again.”
“I understand,” the wolf replied. “Listen, do you think you can rig up a makeshift guidance system back here in the engine room? We can’t rely on connections to anything you might install on the bridge.”
“I don’t have anything … that in my stores, I’m afraid. The spare system for … Horizon requires the VIP computer system we … on board. I seriously doubt … would be compatible with the Walkabout’s antique diagnostic computer … there.”
Merlin mulled this over as he glanced around the room. A moment later he said, “Each crew compartment of the new Horizon doubles as an escape pod in the event of an emergency. Doesn’t each one have their own guidance system?”
“Now that you mention it, yes. They’re small … self-contained, designed to get the pods away from … ship in a hurry, and possibly get … to some nearby planet to be picked up.”
“Take one from an unoccupied cabin and see if you can rig it up down here,” Merlin said. “We can replace it later.”
“May I ask … you’re planning?”
“I want to fire the engines to move the ship closer to regular PA traffic so the SPF can pick it up. All we need is for the engines to push it to coordinates Renny will calculate. We can also set up a beacon so it can be found again.”
“Hmm, I can probably rig … something like that.”
“How long do you think it will take? We only have eight hours before we have to get back on schedule toward Argeia.”
“Should not take … than four hours with Max’s help.”
“Okay, get on it right away.”
The Com channel went silent as Samantha switched the engineer back into the verbal traffic of the rest of the crew. Merlin looked around the room once more to reorient himself to his position. He pushed off from the wall into the direction of where he thought the main hatch out of the engine pods to be and noticed the orange light in the room suddenly grow brighter. He twisted his body to turn in the air and gasped at a large tongue of liquid fire shooting toward him.
Max stood out in the corridor, across from the doorway into the room where he had found the body. He trembled and wished fervently someone else from the Horizon would show up soon. At first, the youth had been thrilled to be included in the search party. He had thought of the whole thing as an adventure until he came face to face with the reason for the search.
The boy closed his eyes, but the image inside the room wouldn’t go away. He heard a noise in the corridor and looked up to see one of the Blue Horizon pressure suits moving toward him from a junction in the passage. Max managed a smile at the face that peered at him from inside the helmet.
“Hi, Tanis,” he said with relief.
“I found Max,” the medic announced over the Com channel. He looked concerned at the boy and asked, “Ya going to be okay?”
The canine youth nodded slightly. “I think so,” he said.
“Can you give us a clue where you are?” Durant’s voice replied.
“Look up on the wall near the ceiling,” Renny spoke up. “You will see a small set of three numbers separated by dashes every few meters. The lower the first number is, the closer you are to the nose of the ship. The second number indicates the deck -”One” being the top level where the bridge is located. The last number starts with either a zero or a one. A number starting with a zero indicates you are on the port side of center and the following number shows you how many bulkheads you are away from the same center of the ship. Likewise, a number starting with a one shows you are on the starboard side.”
“How do you know that?” Cindy’s voice asked.
“I found a ship’s tech manual written in Standard,” the navigator answered. “It was burned pretty badly. I learned that much from a few pages still intact.”
“Are you reading from it now?” Lori asked.
“No, I left it in a room somewhere. There wasn’t enough of it to keep.”
“And you remember all that?” Cindy asked in wonder.
“I have an eidetic memory,” he reminded her. “I remember everything I read.”
Tanis shined his lamp up toward the ceiling and spied a label with the numbers Renny mentioned. It was printed on a reflective background and the desert fox had to shift his position to read it. “I see it. We’re at 17-2-05,” he told them. “I’m going into Max’s room now.”
“You want to wait until one of us gets there to go in with you?” Durant asked.
“Not necessary,” the medic replied. “I’ve seen bodies enough on Nalirra, not to mention those in Woodward. All the rest of ya can go on looking for others while I take a look at this person. We also need to find the captain’s quarters for a logbook.”
“Keep us informed,” Samantha’s voice piped in.
Tanis put a hand on the canine’s shoulder. “Ya can wait out here if ya want,” he said softly, “or ya can go on to search other rooms.”
Max looked at him through his visor in the dark corridor and shook his head. “I don’t want to look for any more bodies, Tanis. I don’t.”
“I don’t blame ya, Max. Okay, ya stay out here while I check out yer friend in there.”
“Okay,” the youth replied. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Actually,” Samantha said into their helmet speakers, “Pockets needs your help, Max. The captain has a better assignment for you that doesn’t include the crew search.”
Tanis turned toward the room Max had previously entered, but he glanced back at the canine. “Ya want me to go with ya back to the main hatch?” he asked.
Max felt better at getting a new task and the relief showed in his eyes. “No, I think I can find my way back.”
“Okay. Just remember what Renny said about the bulkhead numbers,” the medic told him. “The main hatch should be at 0-2-0. It’s on this level, all the way forward.”
“Yeah, I remember. Thanks, Tanis.”
“Yer welcome,” the tan fox said. Max headed up the corridor and Tanis moved into the room. He glanced around the compartment but didn’t see the body, so he assumed it must be in the head. Max had neglected to mention where it was. He stepped around the broken lamp the boy had knocked off the table and entered the other room. He had expected to find a charred corpse from the evidence throughout the Walkabout, but that was not the case here.
The body of a blonde human woman lay half out of the bathtub, her naked flesh covered in ice crystals. Her face, a frozen mask of terror, lay on the floor next to the toilet, her head turned to the side and her grey eyes open. Broken shower rings littered the floor from when she had fallen through the plastic curtain.
The medic knelt as much as his pressure suit would allow and took a closer look. He counted eight nasty-looking stab wounds across her back, shoulders and neck, and from the long-dried blood stain on the floor beneath her, he assumed there were more across her chest.
“That’s a bad way to die,” Samantha’s voice whispered in his ears. Tanis frowned and stood up.
“I didn’t realize ya were tuned in to my visor camera, Sam,” he said dryly.
“I’ve been switching back and forth between everyone’s signals,” she replied. “Don’t worry,” she added, “I had already prepared myself to see bodies if any were found.”
“Well, this is only the first,” he said quietly as he moved back out into the bedroom. He wanted to see if he could find some identification for the woman. “There’s got to be another twenty-four of them somewhere on this ship. Has anyone else found anything?”
“Not yet. Durant and Lori are down on the third deck. Renny and Cindy are on the same level as you, and Pockets and Max are on their way back to the Horizon.”
Tanis picked up a few items from a dresser drawer and looked them over. “Sam,” the fox said in a stronger voice. “I’ve found the woman’s identification written in Standard. Her name was Mrs. Tracy King and she was a Historian from a place on Earth called Atlanta.” Tanis flipped through some papers and continued, “Her travel voucher says she was part of the team retracing the original historic flight of the SS Goldenrod, but had plans to meet up with her brother once the ship reached Kantus.”
“Yeah, her name’s on the passenger list. Does it give the brother’s name?”
“You said she was married. Was her mate on the flight?”
“I see photos of her with a man, but I don’t know if that was a husband or her brother,” he replied as he picked up a photo from the bed stand. “I don’t see anything listed about her traveling with anyone, and this is a single-occupant cabin.”
He fell silent while he looked around the room some more, but found nothing else of interest. “Have ya heard from the captain?” Tanis asked idly.
“At last report, he was heading out of the engine room. He gave Pockets an assignment and he was returning to the main area of the ship. I’m checking his camera now.”
Merlin Sinclair twisted his body as quickly as his floating form could move, but the intense flames reached him before he could get out of the way. Searing heat licked at his back and the thrust of the flames pushed him across the room. The pressure suit was made of flame resistant material, but the wolf knew it would only hold out under such intense liquid fire for so long. He outstretched his hands to cushion his blow against a support beam, but he caught it at an oblique angle that made him start to spin.
He glanced down at his waist, where the scanner was on fire. He batted at it frantically, but the device remained in flames. He snatched it from his utility belt and flung it away. It resembled a burning meteor as it bounced off a panel of gauges in a shower of sparks and then floated beyond view down another passage.
He had not seen where the flames had originated from, but he had no delusions about malfunctioning equipment or phantoms of the dead crew. Someone was alive and meant to kill him. Another jet of fire shot out across the large room toward him, but his accidental spin saved him from another roasting. Merlin wobbled into a bulkhead and a randomly outstretched hand snagged on an instrumental panel lever. He grabbed onto it and his helmet slammed hard into the corner of a work station. A spider-web crack spread across the visor and Merlin gasped with wide eyes. Fortunately for him, the engine room was pressurized with an atmosphere or the bubble might have exploded out into the room. The captain of the Blue Horizon pulled himself into a side alcove that looked to be a zero-gee break room and he reached down to turn off his oxygen flow. No need to waste my air now that I can’t keep it in my suit, he mused quietly.
He looked around in the orange light to see if there might be anything he could use against his attacker and found only a butter knife, a large plastic serving platter and a mirror. He cursed himself silently for not arming himself before coming on board the derelict vessel. He had assumed it would be safe, and not once had it occurred to him to bring along any of the Binfurr firearms from the Horizon. His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of someone screaming out in rage — his assailant.
Merlin curled his fingers around the handle of the mirror and then edged it close to the boundary of his alcove. He wanted to use it to peer around the corner, but his helmet wouldn’t let him get close enough to it to see. He tried to disconnect and flip up his faceplate, but the crack had become jagged and wouldn’t allow the bubble to recess back into the helmet. With a silent sigh, he unfastened the helmet and removed it altogether. He couldn’t use it now in its present condition anyway and let it float in the air behind him. This done, he inched back to the corner with the mirror.
Durant was tired and bored. The search had been fruitless with the exception of the one body Max had discovered, and the ship was so antique that its rooms and signs written in an unreadable language were unexciting to him. He and Lorelei had looked through just about every door on the cargo level of the ship without finding even one of the Walkabout’s crew. He was beginning to assume that the others had been jettisoned out into space, but wondered why the one woman had been left behind.
The bear found a large crate in the hold to sit on and rested his bulk on top of it. He idly read the contents label written in Standard, as was his habit as the Blue Horizon’s load master, but there was nothing interesting listed inside the container. All around him were boxes of items like decontamination units, cold weather clothing, pressure suits and artificial cheese food. Lori was across the dark room, looking through wall lockers. She’d been quiet the past half hour – a blessing to Durant. She had chattered away almost non-stop since they had teamed up on this level, but the severity of the situation had finally subdued the white rabbit.
Durant looked up to see her walking toward him. “Anything?” he asked her.
“No,” the cook replied as she settled on the box beside him. “Nothing but camping equipment crammed in the lockers. It doesn’t even look like they were stored in there very well, especially the tents.”
“Tents?” Durant repeated. He glanced down at the crate he sat on top of and reread the contents label. 14’x14’ tent, olive drab green. Seven (7) each. Box one of twelve.
The load master got to his feet slowly and motioned for Lori to get up. “What is it?” she asked.
Durant bent over and flipped up three clasps that held the top closed. The locks were not engaged. He swallowed quietly, lifted up the lid, and they both peered inside.
Lori couldn’t help herself. She screamed.
Merlin’s lip curled up into a snarl when a jet of liquid flame blasted the mirror from his hand. His glove resisted destruction, but it became super-hot and the sheer force of the surge almost propelled him out into the engine room. His other hand held tight against a table leg that was mounted to the wall, and he pulled himself back into the alcove a heartbeat before a second stream of fire shot through the place he had just occupied.
He glanced quickly toward his blackened glove to make sure he still had his fingers, but the pain in them was enough to know they were still there. That burst had been too close. His assailant had apparently followed him across the room.
The flames had hit the mirror only a couple heartbeats after he had pushed the edge of it around the corner, but he had already caught sight of his would-be assassin. It was a thin, bearded human with long black hair that floated wildly in the absence of gravity. He was dressed in a soiled white tee shirt and a pair of blue sweatpants. The short glimpse showed Merlin enough, however. The look in the man’s eyes told him instantly there would be no reasoning with him.
The wolf was cornered in the alcove and his attacker was closing in on his position. He looked around again to see if there was anything he missed and his eyes singled out an item he had passed over earlier. He snared his floating helmet out of the air, put it back on despite the cracked bubble and then snapped the connections in place. He reached up to the wall and removed a fire extinguisher mounted over a built-in grill. He pulled the safety pin and then eased himself closer to the opening of the alcove.
Despite the dim lighting in the engine room, he detected a faint shadow on the far wall. It was too vague to give him any much more than an outline, but it told him what he needed to know. He raised the nozzle of the extinguisher before him and then locked a foot around the leg of a table. It was only a moment later when he saw a few random strands of long black hair drift into view.
Merlin counted to three and then squeezed the handle. A jet of white powder shot out from the nozzle and caught the man full in the face just as he peered around the corner. The human sputtered, shrieking foreign words as the force of the extinguisher pushed him out into the open, and he almost lost his grip on the device he had been using as a flame-thrower. Merlin recognized it instantly as a decontamination flame-gun to use on bacterial areas of a ship after setting down in an alien environment. It was not meant to be used at such a high level of expulsion, but he rightly assumed the tool had been modified.
The captain of the Blue Horizon didn’t waste any time. He unhooked his foot from the table and aimed the extinguisher into the back of the alcove. He got plenty of thrust and the wolf shot out of the break-room toward the human who still shouted obscenities from the powder in his eyes.
The man couldn’t see, but he heard the hollow whoosh of the extinguisher and knew instantly he was in trouble. He swung the flame-thrower up and fired off a searing blaze that missed the wolf merely by a foot. He gripped the trigger tightly and began fanning the area around him with intense flames.
Merlin’s inertia brought him within a few feet of the man, but the wild flailing of fire nearly hit him several times. He hurled his spent extinguisher at the man and it hit him on the right shoulder. The human let out a cry of pain and the flames died when his fingers reflexively lost their grip. Still blinded by the powder, he wiped at his face frantically.
Merlin tried to get in closer to grab the flame-thrower, but the human’s sight partially cleared just as his gloved hand closed around the barrel of the device. The man howled and squeezed the trigger again, nearly setting Merlin’s helmet ablaze. The flames licked greedily at the wolf’s helmet and a tiny tongue of fire penetrated the crack, singing the fur on his nose.
Merlin yelped in pain and quickly used his grip on the barrel as leverage to bring his legs around and kick the man in the knees. He had tried to get him in the gut, but the pressure suit limited such movement. However, it was enough to stop the blaze again momentarily. The captain wrenched the flame-thrower back and forth, but the human held on tightly.
For a moment, their grappling brought them up face to face, and for the first time the man saw the face inside the suit. His eyes widened tremendously and his mouth opened in a scream of mortal terror at the sight of the lupine creature within. He began to thrash about violently and started to pound at the wolf’s chest as if Merlin were a wild beast bent on tearing out his throat.
The action confused Merlin, but he saw insanity in the man’s eyes. Without a second thought, the wolf hit him in the face with a gloved fist twice in rapid succession. The wild man’s head rocked back with the blows, but despite the pummeling, the man retained his grip on the flame-thrower; with desperate strength, he wrenched it free of Merlin’s hands. Thrown off balance, The wolf floated backward but tried hard to swim back toward him.
“Captain Amamori! Stop! We’re here to help!”
Merlin and the man both turned to look toward the new voice. The man ground his teeth together and shouted something in Japanese at the sight of three more suited figures floating toward them. He swung the nozzle of his flame-thrower toward the newcomers and the wolf lunged as well as he could toward him.
“Look out!” Merlin shouted. He couldn’t tell which of his crewmates had joined them, though he had recognized the voice of Pockets. The trio scattered a second before the jet of flame passed through the area between them; the human screamed in frustrated rage.
Merlin was unable to swim in the air fast enough to get to the man. He had disconnected the maneuvering pack from his suit earlier and none of his crewmates were equipped with them either since they had crossed over using the extension tunnel. Being out in the open away from anything to push off from, the wolf could do little more than swim in place. Each time the man fired his flame-thrower, its counter-thrust pushed him further out of the lupine captain’s reach.
“Merlin, are you all right?” Renny called out from behind a bulkhead. The wolf briefly wondered why the cheetah’s voice didn’t sound in his helmet speakers, but he didn’t have time to think about it for long. The human fanned the air with flames and Merlin managed a tuck-and-roll that barely flipped him out of the way before taking the brunt of the attack once again.
He opened his faceplate as far as it could go and shouted back, “I’m okay, guys!”
By luck, he managed to float close enough to an instrument panel to hide behind just as a blaze seared the controls. A warning klaxon sounded out and the engine room fire-suppressant system activated. Sticky white powder shot out of nozzles all over the room and it incensed the man further.
Captain Amamori? Merlin mused to himself. Pockets must have seen a photo of the man somewhere in the ship. He looked around him, searching for anything he could use as a weapon. Despite the powdery suppressant filling the air of the zero-gee room in a thickening fog, Amamori continued to shoot flames toward each of the intruders into his domain. It was unlikely anyone would be able to get near him until his fuel ran out, and there was no assurance that he didn’t have more stashed around the room in reserve.
The klaxons continued to sound and a large power unit mounted to a wall exploded outward in a shower of sparks and debris. The fire had apparently gotten to something volatile before the suppressant was able to douse the flames. Amamori cried out as bits of metal and plastic shrapnel pelted him and he suddenly released the flame-thrower. The device drifted away from the man as he started jerking in spasms.
Merlin looked out through the white, hazy air and swallowed hard at what he saw. A long and thin piece of twisted metal was embedded in the middle of Amamori’s forehead. The human’s mouth opened and closed slowly like a fish out of water and his fingers clutched weakly at the air, but before the wolf could force himself to look away, Amamori stopped moving.
“Merlin!” Tanis called out above the alarms.
Captain Sinclair pushed off from the instrument panel toward his medic’s voice. A moment later two sets of hands grabbed hold of his suit. Before anyone could say another word, another equipment panel arced out in a blaze of energy making the klaxon change pitch and pattern.
“Uh, oh, that’s done it,” Pocket said. “We’ve got to get off this ship ASAP!”
“Do we have time to retrieve his body?” Merlin asked.
“No time!” the raccoon replied sternly. “That new alarm is the call for Abandon Ship. We’ll need every second to get back to the ship!”
“Right…” Merlin muttered wearily.
Renny moved up behind them and spoke into his headset. “Samantha,” he said in a rushed voice. “Recall everyone back to the Horizon and get the ship ready to take off in a hurry!”
“What happened?” Durant’s voice sounded as the foursome made their way back toward the engine room hatch. “Did you find the captain?”
“We did. No time to explain, but the Walkabout engine room is on fire, out of control, and is probably going to blow!”
“This is Samantha,” the Border collie’s voice announced immediately over everyone’s headset on all frequencies. “This is an emergency! Everyone get back to the Horizon pronto! The Walkabout engine room is on fire and out of control! I repeat, get back to the Blue Horizon, right now!”
Merlin could hear Sam’s announcement from his crewmates’ helmets but not his own. “My headset must have been smashed when I hit my head,” he said dryly.
Pocket reached the engine room hatch and opened it as the others came up behind him.
“Yeah, we’ve been trying to reach ya,” Tanis said to the captain. “Lori and Durant found the rest of the bodies in the hold and Cindy found a photo of the captain in one of the cabins. His body was not among those in the crates.”
“What about the captain’s journal?” Merlin asked as they propelled themselves into the long tunnel that would take them to the main body of the ship.
“Haven’t found it,” the fox replied. “That wild man back there resembles Amamori in the photo Cindy found, so I would bet he had his journal with him in there.”
“Pockets, do you think there’s a way we can jettison the air from the engine room to smother the fire?” Merlin asked his engineer. “We still don’t know what happened here and that journal may be the only clue.”
Pockets turned to reply, but as he opened his mouth, they heard a deep, muffled boom and the whole ship shook around them.
“Whoa!” Max’s voice said in his helmet speakers.
“What happened?” Durant asked.
“I dunno, but the Walkabout shook and the tunnel between the ships buckled!”
“Is it still intact?”
“Yeah, but I hear hissing.”
“That’s an air leak, Max,” Pockets said with a frown. “Make sure your suit is secure, your helmet’s sealed and get back to the Horizon.”
“It is and I’m on my way,” the young canine answered.
“I’m on the Horizon, Pockets.”
“Close the airlock after each person who comes back on board. If that tunnel collapses…”
“Understood. I’ll take care of it.”
Pockets looked at Merlin and said, “I know the journal’s important, but something big just blew up back there. I doubt we’d have time to vent the air back there and find it.”
The wolf nodded. “All right, it’ll have to remain a mystery. Let’s get out of here.” His breath was getting cold and it fogged the inside of his helmet.
“Captain,” Renny said as they continued to pull themselves along the long corridor. “If the tunnel is losing air, how are you going to get back to the ship? Your helmet is badly cracked. You also have a burn melt-through on the back of your right leg.”
“No wonder my leg is stinging,” Merlin muttered.
Pockets reached inside his utility pouch and pulled out a roll of the most universal repair material in the cosmos: duct tape. As a mechanic, Pockets had long believed that duct tape was Earth’s greatest contribution to the galaxy and he always carried it with him everywhere he went.
Renny grinned at the raccoon’s resourcefulness and took the roll from him. As they neared the hatch to the main section of the ship, he began to tear off strips and apply it over the cracks in the captain’s helmet.
“It may not be completely space worthy,” he said, “but it should hold your air in long enough to get you back to the Horizon still breathing.”
Merlin nodded without saying a word and turned his oxygen flow back on. He felt worn out, but welcomed the familiar sense of gravity when they moved out of the tunnel into the Walkabout’s aft corridor. They may be weighed down by their pressure suits, but the wolf was fairly certain he could run in it faster than they could float in zero-gee.
“You can tape up my leg when we get up to the main hatch,” he told the cheetah. “I want to get away from here before the engine room goes completely and takes the rest of the ship with it.”
“Okay, let’s go!” Renny said. In single file, the foursome began trotting as fast as their suits would let them. The navigator had memorized the route and led them through the labyrinth of corridors quickly. Moments later, they arrived at the main hatch. Merlin was exhausted. Fighting in a suit in zero-gee had taken more out of him than he had thought, and he was wheezing from the fire suppressant that had gotten into his helmet. He leaned against the wall as Pockets operated the mechanism for the hatch and Renny knelt to bind up the tear in the captain’s suit.
“Samantha confirms that everyone else got off the ship,” Tanis said to Merlin. “We’re the only ones still here.”
Pockets looked down at Renny. “Is his suit secure?” he asked. “I’m about to open the hatch.”
“I’ve taped up all cracks and tears I can find,” he replied.
Merlin pointed toward the hatch. “Go.”
Pockets opened the door and immediately they saw a tear open up in the metallic fabric of the access tunnel. There was no time to reattach his maneuvering pack, so without preamble, he took Merlin’s arm and pulled him out away from the ship’s gravity. He and Renny pushed the wolf along before them and Tanis brought up the rear.
“Durant,” Pockets said into his headset, “Merlin’s suit is ripped and his helmet is cracked, but we’ve got him taped up. I don’t know how long the makeshift seal will last, so Tanis is taking him into the airlock first. Renny and I will wait our turn.”
“Aye to that.”
“Go ahead and release the tunnel from the other ship.” Durant didn’t reply, but they felt a thunk in the sides of the tunnel as the far end’s seal deactivated and the remaining air vented as shimmering crystals. Merlin moved inside the airlock hatch and Pockets shut the door behind him.
“Okay, they’re inside the hatch,” Pockets announced. Although they couldn’t hear anything in the vacuum, the remaining pair saw Tanis’ thumbs-up through the small view port to indicate pressurization.
There was a bright flash of light outside the tunnel. “Another explosion from the engine section!” Samantha exclaimed in their headsets. “Oh no! Guys, hang on tight to the tunnel! I’ve got to move the ship fast!”
Pockets and Renny barely had time to grab onto the slack sides of the tunnel before they felt the Blue Horizon move. Renny glanced behind him and saw the open hatch of the Walkabout suddenly lunge toward them, crumpling up the far end of the tunnel in the process. He gasped and drew himself up as close to the blue saucer as he could, but it looked like the explosion that propelled the derelict vessel forward was going to crush the two of them between the ships.
Suddenly the Blue Horizon tilted upward and surged forward to slip over the top of the Walkabout. Pockets closed his eyes as he held on tight. The sudden motion pulled the flexible tunnel down across them and Renny managed a quick glimpse at the burning ship before the Horizon sped away.
“You still with us?” Samantha’s voice called out.
“Barely,” Pockets managed to reply against the sudden thrust of the ship. “But I don’t know how much longer we can hold on, Sam!”
“You’ve got to, boys,” Cindy said into the line. “We don’t want to get caught in the explosion!”
No sooner had she spoken that the suited males saw a brilliant white flash, but because of their entanglement in the remnants of the tunnel they didn’t actually see the replica exploration ship tear itself apart in a magnificent fireball. The flames billowed out rapidly, but then dissipated in the vacuum as the shockwave expanded out away from it.
“Hold on just a little longer,” Merlin’s voice said. “We have to get far enough away from the blast before we can let you guys inside.”
“H-hurry,” Pockets pleaded. “The tunnel’s about to t-tear away from the ship with our m-mass weighing it back against your thrust!”
“Hold on,” Samantha said, “I’m going to slow the ship, but spin our axis so the bulk of the Horizon shields you from the shockwave.”
Pockets pulled himself up hand over hand toward the hatch and suddenly felt the saucer change direction as they had been warned. The raccoon felt sick to his stomach watching the stars fly by at an alarming rate during the quick spin, but smiled weakly when the airlock hatch suddenly opened up. Renny grabbed the raccoon’s elbow and pulled him into the airlock with him, but didn’t relax until the outer hatch secured with a loud clunk.
“We’re in!” he announced.
The Blue Horizon rocked violently as the shockwave hit the ship. “Get us out of here, Sam!” they heard Merlin’s voice call across the Com against the hiss of pressurizing air. They felt a surge of motion and a few long agonizing moments later, the ride smoothed out. Durant opened the inside hatch of the airlock and greeted them with a worried expression.
Merlin leaned back in his chair on the recreation deck where the crew had assembled for a special meal prepared by Lorelei. There was a feeling of quiet among them as they ate without real conversation. A day had passed since the destruction of the antique replica, and while the Blue Horizon had resumed its original heading, everyone’s thoughts were still back on the other vessel.
Merlin had spent time with each member of his crew after they had all rested, to compile as much information as possible before he filed his report with the Spatial Police Force. Samantha had recorded the video images transmitted from everyone’s suit helmet cameras and had saved them into a combined file to transmit along with Merlin’s report. Although she knew that an investigation would be mounted by the SPF into the matter, Sam did some research on her own and found a few bits of information from the London database on Earth.
The captain took a lap of his coffee as he looked around and noticed that everyone had pretty much finished their meals. It was a rare occasion that Merlin let the bridge go unsupervised and allowed the entire crew to gather together. Pockets had the auxiliary station on the rec deck programmed to duplicate any alert that might sound on the bridge, including incoming messages.
“Sam,” the wolf said across the room, “what do we have to send to the SPF?”
The Border collie looked at him strangely. She had already told him everything she knew in an earlier meeting with him, but then she realized her reply would not be for him, but for the others. Everyone looked at her expectantly.
“Well,” she began as she pushed back away from the table near the galley, “what I’ve been able to put together is still a puzzle without all the pieces. The SS Walkabout was a replica of an old Goldenrod class exploration ship that first went out to the stars to colonize Kantus. This one left Earth eleven months ago to retrace the historic route of the original vessel to Kantus, but disappeared twenty-eight days into its journey. A search and rescue operation was mounted by the SPF, but the ship was never located in an area that is now seldom used for regular space traffic between the two worlds. The search was called off after a week.”
She took a lap of her drink and continued. “The commander of the ship was Captain Shin Amamori, a veteran astronaut of the Terran Space Agency. Amamori had a crew of fourteen to staff the operation of the Walkabout and ten passengers of various races who had paid large sums of money to take part in the recreation of the original historic flight. Most of the passengers were historians or worked in fields related to what the flight meant. I dug up records and found psychological profiles on each of the crew and all the passengers. With current LightDrive technology, the usual travel time of between Earth and Kantus is three standard weeks, varying only a few hours dependent upon their orbits around their respective stars. The rudimentary LightDrive-type engines that were used on the Goldenrod, and replicated again on the Walkabout, were not as efficient and the travel time between the worlds using them would be nearly eight weeks.”
She looked around her and gave everyone a wry smile. “As we’re familiar with the effects of long voyages, we can all appreciate the need for a crew that can get along with one another being cooped up in a ship for weeks at a time.”
“I’ve had people tell me how amazed they are that my crew resembles a family more than co-workers,” Merlin said with a nod. “I’ve always used psychological profiles when evaluating someone for my crew. Nobody’s perfect, but if you don’t get along with one another, long journeys can be disastrous.”
“Yeah, look at Armando’s crew,” Renny said with a gesture of his hand. “I keep hearing how his people are always fighting amongst themselves.”
“Good example,” Merlin replied.
“Anyway,” Samantha continued, “there was only one person on board the Walkabout who had not had a recent psyche evaluation prior to their last voyage.”
“Captain Amamori?” Cindy guessed.
“That’s right. He’d been in the service of his company for many years and probably greased the palms of whoever was in charge of getting those done.”
“Greased the palms?” Max asked with a funny look on his face.
“Bribery,” Tanis explained to him.
“Whatever happened on that ship will probably never be fully explained,” Samantha said. “We suspect Captain Amamori went off his rocker at some point and started killing everyone, but even that is uncertain. There’s also the possibility that he was the sole survivor of an attack or mutiny and the long months of being alone afterward unbalanced him.”
“No, I think he did it all right,” Pockets countered. “He tried to kill the four of us in the engine room and Merlin got a close look at the space madness in the man’s eyes.”
“All of the computer memory was destroyed,” Sam said with a quiet shake of her head, “as well as practically every book or other documents on board. The captain’s logbook was never found, and now the rest of the evidence has been lost.”
“All we can do is turn over what we have to the SPF, including the audio and video feeds that Sam recorded from your suits,” Merlin stated. He lapped up another drink of his coffee and frowned. “I’ve already talked to each of you about what you saw and did over there, but we can probably expect the SPF to want to discuss it with us further with questions of their own when they make their investigation.”
He looked around the room and then settled his gaze upon the Border collie. “I’m proud of you all, but I want to voice my personal satisfaction with Samantha’s performance getting the Horizon away from the Walkabout while keeping the rest of us safe in the process, especially Pockets and Renny still clinging to the outside with the approaching shock wave. It was good thinking in a crisis that saved us all.”
Samantha looked embarrassed at the public praise and several voiced their own appreciation for her actions. Pockets leaned up against her and rested his head on her shoulder, his expression one of admiration.
“Thank you, Sam,” he said quietly. She put her arms around him and gave him a warm hug. The conversation fell quiet while everyone mulled through their own thoughts.
A few minutes passed before Merlin cleared his throat and then looked at the raccoon. “Did the Horizon sustain any damage in the ordeal?” he asked his engineer.
“Other than the loss of three maneuvering packs for the suits and the ship-to-ship extension tunnel, no,” Pockets replied. “I’ve already put in the order for new packs and another tunnel to be delivered in Grandstorm to your sister’s house on Dennier, which is where we’re headed after Argeia, right?”
“That’s right,” Cindy replied. “We have another shipment to pick up in a city on Dennier that isn’t near her place, but we’ll have about a week of downtime before we’ll leave with it.”
“Yeah, but I’m anxious to see what Argeia’s like,” Tanis said with a sudden grin. “If ya go by the vidscreens, that’ll be a right dandy place to visit.”
Conversations moved toward tales each of them had heard regarding the new alien world, but the captain’s thoughts were elsewhere as he lifted a hand to the singed spot on his nose. Tanis had cleaned up his wounds and the wolf was thankful for the pressure suit he had worn against Amamori’s onslaught, but he would have memories to keep of this adventure.
Merlin Sinclair sat in the center seat on the bridge trying to reread one of the novels on his slateboard. He had been on duty an hour but found it hard to focus. He marked his place, set the device aside and turned down the interior lights until the only illumination came from the instrument panels.
He stood up slowly and then moved to the forward windows. One star directly ahead was brighter than the rest, Dokke; their destination was in orbit around that sun. He leaned on the Com station and let his mind drift. Almost immediately, he could see Captain Amamori’s brown eyes, wide in stark terror and mouth open in screams of mortal peril. What had the man gone through? Merlin asked himself. What drove him over the edge?
He could only hope the Spatial Police Force could find out something more in their investigation, but he doubted it. With the destruction of the Walkabout, only fragments remained and there was little left of anything physical to examine. All they really had available were the experiences of he and his crew.
Had Captain Amamori murdered his crew, as all of the evidence pointed toward, or was there another explanation? Merlin suspected he would never know. The mystery of the Walkabout would likely go unsolved.
— NEXT EPISODE —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.