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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 3

— Episode 26

"Out of Order"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

Blue Horizon, PA1138

Captain’s Journal 

It’s been smooth sailing since we left Kantus, unless you can count a few of the crew having some kind of flu-like symptoms. Our cargo hold contains four large trucks loaded down with books from Book Depot to be delivered to Iverson, Alexandrius. I might have to consider hauling our cargo like this more often. It didn’t save us any time loading up the ship, since we had to manually inspect the shipment for possible tampering from our unknown enemy, but the subsequent time to reverse the process once we reach our destination will be greatly reduced.

This was a replacement customer for Brandersen Electronics, who cancelled our contract to give their business to the Savannah Hunter - which I have since learned has been renamed the Bamboo Wind by the ship’s new owner, Jiawen Chon. There’s been no further word on this guy’s operations, and in view of what happened at the home office, I am suspicious of him. Likewise, we’ve heard nothing more from Armando, so perhaps he’s out of our fur for good.

Cindy has hired two security guards for the home office, one for the evening shift and one for the early morning times. One is a wolf named Bob Robinson and the other is Stuart Sloan, a mastiff who prefers to go by his nickname, Stu. Both are ex-military and come with references that the SPF was good enough to check into for us. On board the Hidalgo Sun, Patch has already built a Moss unit based on Pockets’ designs. Cindy contracted out a local shop to build a Moss unit for the home office, but they’ve not yet received it. Although there are already such flobots standard on board exploration ships like those in the Firebird Fleet, I think Pockets is planning to apply for a patent for his Moss design and then submit the plans for the unit to the Okami Corporation in hopes they can become standard on all their ships.

Our lawyer’s already leaning hard on Brandersen for the breach in contract, and despite that Brandersen has been a repeat client over the years, I hope Mr. Wyatt burns the guy’s biscuits for his arrogance. Still, this whole mess has me rethinking the business a bit. Blue Horizon Freight Transfer has done well since we expanded our reach, but I realize that in such hard economic times our prices might be a little steep. I have instructed the home office that when dealing with a customer that is hesitant with our prices to offer a lower rate by ©2,000. If the customer is still hedging, she has my authorization to work with them ©2,000 at a time, though limited down to a ©6,000 discount, in an attempt to secure their business. Obviously, this policy is not to be promoted to the public, but is an internal matter. Hopefully she won’t have to drop our fee that far, but if that’s what it takes to keep our customers, it may have to be done.

There’s been no word from Clarence Duffy since he returned to his home on Fyn, and Tanis is concerned about his friend and the continuing Roppa War. The Oe’Tanata forces are still pounding Nalirra with unpredictable strike patterns, and it’s clear that Sed Amittias is in way too deep. Still, the dictator hasn’t called upon any of the other PA worlds for assistance other than medical aid. Unfortunately, it’s apparent that the Tanatans are far better equipped for this war despite their own losses. They have the upper hand in this conflict and haven’t backed down. Only time can tell how much longer Nalirra’s government can hold out. 

Merlin Sinclair, Captain    

*** 

“WaChoo!”

Max looked up from the spanner he was calibrating with a small tool. “Bless you,” he said for the tenth time, using a courteous phrase he’d heard while on Earth. Pockets blew his nose on a handkerchief he produced from his coveralls, and then rubbed his eyes with his other hand. He sniffled and then looked over at the trainee mechanic.

“D’ank you,” he said through a stuffy nose, which he again blew into his handkerchief. “Ugh.”

“You aren’t looking very well,” Max said to him. Pockets nodded in agreement, and then returned his attention to the monitor on his workbench. “Why don’t you go lie down for a while,” the youth suggested, “or go see Tanis?”

The raccoon shook his head with a sniffle. “Mahss reporded a probleb wit the ladding gear mechadism lass night,” he said with clogged sinuses. “Id looks serious, Magx.”

“What’s wrong?”

Pockets pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his nose again. “The speudraulig eggstender is leaging fluid from the bood gasgedt. If the gasgedt idsn’t reblaced before we get to Aleggsandrius, we won’d be able to eggstend the ladding gear.”

It took Max a moment to work out what Pockets had said, but he thought he understood. “We have to replace the boot gasket in the spadraulic extender in the landing gear before we get to Alexandrius?” he asked.

Pockets nodded and blew his nose again. “Id’s not an easy job,” he gasped. “Id’ll take bo’ of us worgin in crambed guarters to ged the ohd one out, and a harder timb puddin’ the dnew one bagk in.”

“Do you think Armando damaged it when you sent him in to grease the gears?”

“Poz’bly, bud I don’ thig he coud ged in ta where ids at. E’s too big.” WAchoo!

“Bless you. We still have a few days before we land,” Max said, worried for his friend. “You should have time for a few hours of rest, anyway.”

Pockets shook his head and just waved him off. “I’ll redst lader,” he said. Max frowned dubiously. The chief engineer was not breathing well and his eyelids were half closed as if the dim light in the room was painful to his eyes. Max went back to his calibration and just shook his head in concern.    

*** 

Durant trudged out of his quarters in a dark green bathrobe over his shorts and a tee shirt, feeling as if his head was going to fall off his shoulders to bounce along the corridor. He’d been awake most of his regular sleeping period with a stuffy head, and the sinus drainage had given him a sore throat. He felt miserable, and while he usually resisted taking medication, he knew he would only find relief in the Infirmary.

As luck would have it, Tanis was in the room studying a screen on notable medical universities. He looked up when Durant noisily blew his nose into a paper tissue. He frowned and shook his head at the sight of the load master.

He tsked at the bear and motioned toward the single bed in the middle of the room. “Have a seat, m’friend,” he said. “I wondered how long it would be before ya shuffled into my sick bay.”

Durant glared at him through bloodshot eyes and just nodded in reply, his throat too sore to speak. Tanis opened a clear jar on a nearby counter and pulled out a simple wooden tongue depressor. He pulled a penlight from the pocket of his white smock and then held the flat stick up to Duran’s nose.

“Open wide,” he said. The bear did as he was told, but felt like he was going to gag when the medic pressed down on his tongue. Tanis peered into the grizzly’s throat with his light and frowned to himself. He released the bear and stepped back. “Ya have a lot of drainage,” he said. “How’s the head?”

Durant swallowed hard and then replied as gently as he could, “Stobbed ub. Feels lighg idz gonna ‘splode.”

Tanis nodded in reply and then disappeared into a back room. When he emerged a few moments later, he held two bottles out toward the accountant with one hand. The other hand was resting inside the pocket of his white lab coat. One of the bottles contained several large blue pills and the other held a vile-looking green liquid. Durant took them reluctantly.

“Swallow a tablespoon of the syrup every four hours,” Tanis instructed. “That will help relieve the soreness caused by yer drainage. If ya take one of the pills every twelve hours with some food, that should help relieve the pressure in yer sinuses.” Durant nodded his head and immediately regretted the motion.

“Whut ‘ave I got?”

“Considering where ya picked it up, I would wager ya have the Waxflatter flu virus. It’s a native viral infection of the region of Kantus we just visited. It’s not too nasty, but bad enough to make most folk fairly miserable. It doesn’t take much exposure in cold weather to catch it.”

Durant looked at him through tired eyes. “I thod we were vaccinaded from all dose thigs for Kandus…”

“Well, I suppose that’s one that didn’t get into the normal inoculations,” Tanis admitted. “I may have to immunize almost everyone on board for it. Would ya like some immediate relief?” Durant nodded again. Tanis waggled his eyebrows and then pulled his other hand from the pocket of his smock. It held a capped syringe. Durant instinctively backed away. Tanis smiled and pulled the cap from the thin needle. “Turn around and show me a full moon,” he ordered.

“Uh uh…” Durant gasped. “No needles, blease…”

“Listen, I know ya really don’t like needles, but if ya want to get better, yer going to have to listen to yer doctor and take yer medicine properly.”

The bear growled lowly, but knew the medic was right. He turned around, dropped his shorts to the floor, and pulled aside his robe. He leaned up against the bed, rolled his eyes to the ceiling, and waited for the expected sharp sting; it came a heartbeat later.

“Ow!” he gasped through a stuffy head. Tanis daubed the needle mark beneath the fur on the bear’s right buttock with a cotton-swab daubed in an amber liquid, and then ejected the syringe into a bin marked with a triple-bladed biohazard symbol.

“I hade thadt! I wish you still hab thadt bressure-hybo,” Durant gasped. “It didn’d hurd as mudch.”

“Sorry, but it doesn’t work right anymore,” Tanis replied. “Instead of a nice little snik, it now grabs the skin and won’t let go. I just haven’t gotten around to replacing it as yet.”

“Jusd by kine of luck…” the bear muttered.

“Now,” the desert fox commanded, “I would recommend getting something in yer stomach and then taking yer pills before going back to bed for rest.”

“Danis,” the bear said as he pulled his shorts back up to their proper place, “I gan’t go back to bed. I hab worg to do.”

“Not today, ya don’t,” Tanis said with authority. “To bed with ya. Rest and medicine is what is going to make ya better, not more work.”

Suddenly Durant felt extremely tired, and after a moment nodded his acceptance. “First food,” Tanis reminded him, “then to bed with ya.”

“Right,” the bear replied. He gathered his robe around himself with what dignity he could muster and then left the Infirmary.

Tanis frowned to himself. This would get around the crew and probably distress everyone but the canine types, since Waxflatter didn’t have much effect on them as a species.    

*** 

Lorelei stared mutely at the grizzly bear sitting at the galley table as he quietly lapped the hot tomato soup she had made for him. The load master looked absolutely miserable, but the Horizon’s cook wasn’t much more animated than he was. Unlike Durant, she was breathing fine, but she ached all over and felt lethargic. She wasn’t quite her normal bubbly self, but the grizzly hadn’t even noticed when he had come in to ask her for something to eat before his medicine.

Even in her current state, she still worried after her co-workers. She had offered to replace his blue pills with an herbal paste she kept in her quarters for sinus infections, but he waved her off, telling her that Tanis had already given him a shot. All he wanted was something to eat that wouldn’t aggravate his sore throat. Normally, she would have berated him for going to Tanis for drugs before coming to her first for a natural remedy, but at the moment, she didn’t feel like bothering with it. She had fixed his soup without argument and then quietly cleaned up her pan and utensils.

Lorelei checked with Durant to make sure he didn’t need anything else, and once she was satisfied that he would not require her any further, she took the lift down to retreat to her cabin. A nice herbal tea should help perk me up, she thought to herself.   

*** 

When Taro stepped off the lift onto the recreation deck in dark green shorts and a tan halter top, she was pleased to find the room vacant, though Moss floated quietly over the galley stove monitoring its diminishing heat. She had not seen Durant shuffle off the lift several moments before she got into it herself, but thought it had an odd medicinal smell, like cough syrup.

She moved to the forward curved wall of the room and hummed quietly to herself as she tapped out a few commands on the computer terminal. The room was suddenly filled with active music and she began to sway her hips and tail with the steady beat. In perfect time with the music of veteran star Dahlia Neko, Taro tapped out a few more commands and then glanced back at Moss. The small saucer-shaped unit suddenly sunk from sight and she could hear it bang against a countertop.

“Meoroow!” Moss squawked as it compensated for the sudden gravity increase. It reappeared over the galley counter, reoriented itself, and then flew directly at her. The fox thought it was going to ram her, but it swerved around her and then stopped above the computer console, its whisker antennae rotating in agitation. “Meow. Me-meow…”

Taro suddenly felt lighter as the gravity plates in the room returned to ship-normal. She slammed a hand down on the counter and felt it give a little. “Moss!” she said in a voice raised above the din of the music, “I want the Rec Room’s gravity to match Hestra-normal!”

The small unit rotated on its axis until it stared at her with its two sensor lenses. “Meow?” The offset, upper lens changed from green to blue.

“Put it back where I had it!” Taro commanded. Without further hesitation, Moss raised the gravity of the rec deck to the level where the first officer had originally set it, and then made its own internal compensations. Then it moved away from her toward the back of the room.

Satisfied that she had her music and gravity where she wanted it, Taro moved to the exercise equipment on one side of the room. She loaded up the barbells with a set of weights on both sides that would have normally bested Renny at ship-normal gravity. She then slid beneath the crossbar with her feet planted firmly on the floor. The Hestran fox lifted the barbell up off the rack with some effort, and then began to press the set in time with the music.

Ten minutes had passed when the lift door opened and Taro heard curses intermixed with her music. She set down the dumbbells she had just started working out with and looked toward the door. Merlin was sprawled out on the floor, struggling in vain to stand up and gasping for breath. Taro ran to the computer terminal to reset the room’s gravity and shut off the music. She began to feel lighter as she rushed over to the captain.

She helped him roll over and sit up. He looked up at her with a puzzled expression, and then ran his fingers through the fur on top of his head, looking for his hat. Taro picked it up off the floor and handed it to him.

“What happened?” he asked her as he sat back against the closed lift doors.

“Sorry about that,” Taro replied. “I had the gravity set higher so I could get in some exercise.”

Merlin looked at her and shook his head. “You had it set for Hestra, didn’t you?” he growled.

“That’s right,” she admitted. “I don’t get a good workout if it’s set to ship-normal. If I don’t exercise periodically, my muscles might start to atrophy again,” she explained as she helped him stand up. “It took me a while during my convalescence to get re-acclimated to Hestran gravity since it had been years since I’d last been there. I’ve tried to get in an exercise session like this at least once a week since I’ve been back, but I usually try to do it while everyone’s on a sleep period.”

Merlin felt a twinge in his left ankle when he stood up. He had crumpled on top of his foot as soon as he stepped out of the lower gravity of the lift. “Ouch,” he yipped. He massaged it and looked up at his first officer with a weary expression.

“I came up to get a late-night snack,” he said as he limped toward the galley. The vixen followed him to the table and he waved casually back toward the lift. “Do us all a favor, Taro… Next time you want to do something like this, hang a note inside the lift so the rest of us mere mortals will know we might break a leg if we step out into the room without an endosuit.”

Taro looked embarrassed. “Sorry about that, Merlin. I’ll make sure there’s a note next time.”

“Thanks,” the wolf replied wearily. “As penance for crippling me, you can make me something to eat.” Taro grinned and nodded. She moved into the kitchen and Merlin picked up a remote off the table. He aimed it at the dark vidscreen at the fore end of the room and switched it on. The channel was set on a cooking frequency, indicating that Lorelei had probably been the last one to use it. He tapped in the channel for INN and sat back to wait for his food.

Popular news anchor Holly Harken was on the screen, dressed totally in denim with her dark hair pulled back into a stylish ponytail. Apparently, it was a dress-down day at her studio. Merlin turned up the volume and listened to the human woman as she covered the maiden launch of the first of five new vessels whose mission would be to explore the areas of space beyond the perimeter of the Planetary Alignment worlds. He listened idly for several moments, but then perked up when someone off-camera handed her a sheet of paper.

“Pardon me for this interruption in our profile of the Firebird Fleet, but INN has just received information concerning the Roppa War between neighboring planets Nalirra and Oe’Tanata. Ever since this conflict started a month ago, it has been unclear to observers what started this bloody campaign. Earlier today, an anonymous source within the Sardis Citadel in the region of Braf has revealed that Sed Amittias initiated the kidnapping of the Tanatan Emperor’s youngest daughter, using hired feline pirates from Brandt. Our source tells us that Amittias intended to use the three-year-old child as leverage in his mounting campaign against the Tanatans, but the kidnapping backfired and the Nalirran dictator is now on the run while his world is suffering the massive retaliation by the superior Tanatan forces.

“INN was able to get this information out of Nalirra only because our source reports that Sed Amittias has taken the child and has fled into an underground labyrinth somewhere beneath the desert region of Kardon, leaving the remaining government officials to deal with the Tanatan onslaught.”     

*** 

The intercom beeped in the Blue Horizon’s Infirmary and Tanis chose not to look up from his work. He had just started cutting into the dried-out gel material of Renny’s cast and frowned at the interruption. The cheetah looked at him in concern, but Tanis shook his head very gently to let him know his arm was in no danger from a distraction. He increased the speed of the tiny circular blade that began to separate the cast material. Renny held his breath, but it was not an easy thing to do with running sinuses. The apprehension of the cutter digging into him outweighed the dripping from his nose, so he tried to quell the urge to wipe his nose with the handkerchief he held in his free hand.

A moment later, the door to the Infirmary swished open and Merlin limped inside. “Tanis,” he said. “We just –”

Don’t distract him…” Renny hissed at the captain. Merlin stopped just inside the door and saw what the medic was doing. The news could wait.

After several agonizing moments, Tanis shut off the cutter and then pried the cast away from Renny’s wrist. At once, the cheetah began scratching at the sweat-matted fur that had finally been exposed to fresh air. He chirped unconsciously as he rolled his eyes in paroxysms of long denied relief.

“Careful!” Tanis scolded him, “or ya’ll scratch all the fur off yer arm!”

“Ah, but it feels so good…” Renny purred.

Tanis just smiled and shook his head as he tossed the remnants of the cast into a waste receptacle to be incinerated later. He looked over at the wolf and immediately noted how the captain favored his ankle. “What happened to ya?” he asked.

Merlin lifted up his foot and grimaced. “Taro had the Rec Room gravity turned up so she could exercise,” he explained. “I collapsed as soon as I got off the lift.”

“Ouch,” Renny said in sympathy. “That happened to me last week.”

“I ordered her to put a note in the lift next time she does it,” Merlin said.

“That why yer here?” Tanis asked.

The wolf shook his head. “No, we just caught an INN report about Nalirra,” he said. Tanis and Renny listened in rapt attention as Merlin related the details of the news spot. When he finished, Tanis spat out a string of curses in his native language. The words were meaningless to Renny, but Merlin winced with understanding.

“I knew Amittias was ambitious,” the desert fox said at last, “but I didn’t think he was insane!”

“I don’t understand,” Renny said as he rubbed his freed arm. “Why would anyone do something that crazy? Surely he would have scoped out the military strength of Oe’Tanata before doing something like this. He had to know the Tanatans would clean his clock. He and those poor Nalirrans aren’t holding up very well against them.”

Tanis let out a deep breath and then nodded. “Right,” he said in a clipped tone. He looked up at the cheetah and then gestured toward the arm that was now free of its cast. “Try not to task yer arm too much for the next week,” he said in a professional manner, “unless ya just like visiting my Infirmary.”

Renny rubbed his arm again unconsciously and then shook his head. “That’s incentive enough,” he said appreciatively. “Thanks.”

Without another word or a glance to the captain, Renny walked out of the room. When he was gone, Merlin studied the fox. “How are you feeling about this situation?” he asked.

“Feelin’ what I can, and a few things I shouldn’t,” came the reply. “To be totally honest, with the critters fighting against my own people, it’s hard to talk with Renny sometimes.”

“Is it because he’s feline?”

“Yeah,” Tanis sighed. “I know it’s wrong and he’s not responsible for it, but…”

“You’re angry, frustrated and he shares enough qualities with the bad guys to make a convenient target.”

Tanis grumbled, “Yes.”

“Renny is your friend, Tanis.” Merlin placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. “I appreciate and admire that you’re strong enough to put your professionalism before these issues.”

Tanis managed a wan smile. “Thanks, boss.”

“Now,” he said, “how about taking a gander at my ankle?”    

*** 

Pockets aimed his flashlight torch down into the maintenance access tunnel and frowned. The light was mounted to an elastic strap fitted over his head and provided an illuminating brilliance from a tiny bulb powered by a sliver of Ionic Siilv. Max wore an identical lamp and followed the raccoon into the small passageway. He was larger than the chief engineer and would have a harder time negotiating the tight quarters, but knew his help would be needed. Unlike Pockets, he didn’t wear coveralls every waking minute while on board, but while working on the ship like they were today, he’d donned a pair of light blue coveralls with equally as many pockets as the raccoon’s garment.

While seemingly ready to do his work, the engineer appeared lethargic and didn’t look at all well. Max had tried again to convince Pockets to take a bit of a rest before tackling a job of this magnitude, but the engineer was adamant about taking a physical look at the leakage in the landing gear extenders before doing anything else. Once done, then they could plot out their course of action to begin the repairs.

Max readjusted the rubber kneepads he wore and then followed Pockets on his hands and knees into the access tunnel. He could hear the raccoon gasping for breath and sniffling, but resolved not to say anything more. Pockets was starting to get cranky every time he brought up his health.

They crawled along for several minutes before they came to a cross-junction in the passage. Pockets consulted numbers stenciled onto the ceiling that denoted internal grid locations and grunted in satisfaction. He turned to the left and started down another tunnel. Two minutes later, Pockets stopped, his head hanging low between his arms.

“What do you see?” Max asked. He couldn’t tell what the engineer examined.

“I’b seein’ spods in frond of my eyes,” Pockets replied weakly, “and I feel lige I’b gonna throw ub…”

Max looked alarmed. This was no place to be getting sick. “Let’s go back,” he suggested. To his surprise, he saw Pockets’ light bob up and down in agreement, and then the raccoon began to back up. Max had no choice but to return backwards along the crawlway. When they reached the junction in the passage, Max backed up further to allow Pockets to turn around so he could crawl out head first.

Pockets stopped at the junction to get his bearings and Max pointed in the correct direction. The raccoon looked up wearily at the canine and swallowed hard. “Mags,” he said, “I’b goin’ to see Tanis. See if you cand assess the damage on your own. Maybe by the time I’b get back, we can get started.”

Max had no delusions that Tanis would actually allow Pockets to go back to work, but he thought he had learned enough from the chief engineer to examine the landing gear on his own. He had studied the layout diagram along with Pockets and he knew what to look for.

“Go ahead, Pockets,” he said. “Go take care of yourself. I can look it over down here.”

Pockets nodded and felt another wave of nausea come over him. “Guud boy,” he muttered. He began trudging along the tunnel back to the engine room. Max watched him go for a moment to make sure his friend could indeed crawl back on his own, and then nodded to himself.

He pointed his lamp back up the direction they had been traveling and then started on his way.    

*** 

Samantha rubbed her eyes and then shook her head to clear the cobwebs from her brain. It had been her turn for bridge watch and she had occupied her time by doing file maintenance on the ship’s VIP computer system. Voshnesinski Information System computers were generally considered to be among the most reliable throughout the Planetary Alignment and required little maintenance, but there were times when the computer tech in her just had to tweak the system here and there.

She had installed a provided firmware upgrade to the Geo-25 system during their last voyage and everything seemed to be functioning more efficiently. What she did during this particular downtime consisted of nothing more than locating and backing up old personal files that she and other members of the crew no longer needed in certain places within the memory. She had just completed tagging over seven hundred individual files and the process for backup had been initiated. Now all she had to do was sit back and relax for a while.

The Border collie stood up from the terminal she had pored over and stretched in satisfaction. She leaned forward on the engineering station and peered out the windows at the stars. Just off-center was a yellow star of a brighter magnitude than the others around it were. That would be Centaurus, the primary star of Alexandrius, Fyn and Hestra. Slightly to the left was a bluish-green smudge in space, the Van Conner Nebula, a constant source of irritation to freighters due to pirates. However, the Spatial Police Force had been patrolling the region on a regular basis for the past few months, and reports of trouble in that area had been greatly reduced, practically eliminated.

Samantha put her finger up to the forward glass and placed it over the top of Centaurus. She then traced out an imaginary design with other lights to form a star picture. From this position in space, it was not a real constellation she drew, but she was bored and had a good imagination.

There was a chirp from the console to her right, so the canine moved to the Com terminal and tapped out several buttons. “This is the SS Blue Horizon,” she broadcast. “What can we do for you?”

“Samantha?” asked a familiar voice.

The collie smiled. “Hello! Yes, Cindy, it’s me. How are things? We lose another customer?”

“No, Sam, nothing like that,” the mouse replied with a chuckle. “I don’t always call when there’s trouble… We have another job, but I wanted to ask Merlin about it before I make the assignment.”

“Is it a big delivery, or a problem with the customer?”

“The delivery is sizeable, but neither that nor the customer is the problem. There’s no problem with this one. I just wanted Merlin’s advice.”

“Okay, I’ll get him for you.” Samantha touched the intercom controls and waited for the response.

“This is the captain,” said the wolf’s voice a moment later.

“Cindy’s on the line, Merlin,” she told him. “She needs to pick your brain about a potential cargo.”

“Alright, Sam, pipe it down here.”

The Border collie rerouted the call, but decided to listen in to see what was on the mouse’s mind.

“Hi, Cindy, this is Merlin. What can I do for you?”

“Hello, Boss,” the mouse replied. “I received a delivery request from Aris Grand a little while ago. They need a shipment of expensive textiles delivered there from Alexandrius. I know both the Blue Horizon and the Hidalgo Sun will be on Alexandrius within a few days of one another, but Captain Kegawa will be there before you will. In fact, he should be landing in a few hours.”

“Okay, so what’s the dilemma?”

“Well, I know you’re pretty chummy with the royalty on Tanthe and thought you might like the Horizon to take the job rather than Hidalgo.

“No,” Merlin said without hesitation. “If the remainder of his schedule can handle the job, have Rezo make the delivery.”

“There’s no problem moving his schedule around,” Cindy replied in a disappointed voice. “But your schedule’s also flexible right now.”

“No, give it to the Hidalgo Sun.

“But, I thought—?”

“No, give it to the Hidalgo Sun, he said again.

“I was sure you would want—”

Merlin cleared his throat. “Cindy, do I have to repeat myself again?”

“No sir. I’ll make the arrangements with Captain Kegawa.”

“Anything else?”

“No sir, that was all.”

“Good night, then. I’m going back to bed.”

“G’night, sir.”

When both sides closed their connections, Samantha reset the controls on the Com terminal with a frown. She would have loved to visit Tanthe again, but didn’t understand Merlin’s adamant refusal to return to the capitol city. Merlin had been extremely quiet about his last visit to see the royal family and the longer he went without telling anyone about what happened there, the more concerned she grew. There were rumors among the crew that he’d a relationship with the Princess, but he would neither confirm nor deny the crew’s teasing about it. If asked about it directly, he would either change the subject or just act as if he’d not even heard the question.

Samantha sat down in the center seat and rested her chin on the back of her right hand. It’s like he wants to avoid Tanthe, she thought to herself. There was something Merlin wasn’t telling them, and the more she thought about it, the more she wanted to know.    

*** 

By the time Pockets had made his way back to the engine room, dropped his lamp and tool belt and shuffled to the elevator lift closest to him, he was so weak that he could barely stand up. He had thrown up once in the small lavatory in the engine room, although he knew without a doubt that there was more in him that could easily follow.

The chief engineer rode the lift up to the crew deck and trudged out into the corridor. He saw no one, but didn’t care. His quarters were nearby and the queasiness had increased. Rather than attempting to make it around the curve of the deck to the Infirmary, he decided to make a quick dash to his cabin instead.

A moment later, Pockets was hanging over the pedestal toilet and throwing up hard. He gasped for air and felt another surge well up inside him. He was extremely hot and yearned for a cool towel for his forehead. His middle knotted up and he felt his head spin as his stomach turned itself inside out yet again.

Ten minutes later, he clung to the side of the metal bowl and pressed his brow against its cool surface. He was weak, light-headed and wanted nothing more than to lie down and die. Yes, that sounded like an excellent idea – to be released from his misery. He opened his eyes and looked around slowly. There was a discarded towel lying on the floor nearby and he reached out to grab it. He used it to wipe the residue from his mouth and then set it aside.

Pockets crawled on his hands and knees. He passed the little workbench where he often spent his free time tinkering with some new tool or invention, but paid it no mind. He was in no frame of existence to play now.

When he reached the side of the bed, he managed to pull himself up and onto its soft mattress without bothering to get out of his tool-laden coveralls. He pulled back the covers and then allowed himself to plop facedown onto the cool sheets.

Now I can die, he thought to himself.    

*** 

Max hauled himself out of the open access panel in the floor of the engine room and removed his headlamp and kneepads. He’d just surveyed the damaged boot gasket that surrounded a section of the spadraulic extenders for the landing gear and it didn’t take a chief engineer to recognize a cracked rubber covering leaking fluid. He had checked all four of the extender arms and it was the only one leaking.

Pockets had said that changing out the rubber boot would be an involved endeavor, especially having to do it in flight with the massive landing gear folded up inside tight recesses in the belly of the ship. The job would have been easier with the Horizon on a landing pad where they could have the gear extended out away from the ship. The young canine didn’t believe that Pockets would be back anytime soon, so now he had to figure out what to do until the engineer did get back; it might be a number of hours, or even days, from the way the raccoon had looked.

Max decided to study the ship’s tech manuals on the landing gear. Perhaps by the time Pockets returned, the mechanic would have a better understanding of the job they would have to do. He took his time and put away his gear, and a few moments later he was reading titles on the large, bound volumes of the Tech Manual library closet in Pockets’ office. All the information was in the ship’s computer already, but Max wanted to be able to put the manual out on the desk and read through it at his leisure. Max had always preferred reading from a printed page rather than from a screen.

The German shepherd smiled when he found the correct tome and pulled it off the shelf. The volume was heavy, thick with stain-resistant paper, but he managed to get it over to the desk with a little effort. He looked up when he heard a humming noise and nodded to himself when a small flying saucer floated into the room.

“Meow!”

“Hello, Moss,” he said with a smile. The mobile sentry unit alternated different colors on its upper secondary sensor lens and then went about its business to monitor gauges and other settings throughout the engine room. Max watched it lazily for a moment and then returned his attention to the manual. Before long, memories of the things that Pockets had taught him about the ship came back to him as he studied the book.

The young canine sat back after a few minutes and smiled to himself. He felt he’d learned more about the Blue Horizon in the past year under Pockets’ tutelage than he had learned about anything in all the previous years he had been alive. He hungered to learn new things and seemed to have a good retention for details. He shook his head in wonder and then returned once more to the large book.   

*** 

“Tanis,” Merlin asked as he limped into the Infirmary, “have you found out what’s going on with our crew?”

The desert fox set down the slateboard that he’d been using to inventory the medications in the cabinet and looked over at the captain. Merlin sat on the closest stool he could find and began to massage his sore ankle.

“It’s not quite an epidemic, but there is something going around,” the medic answered. “It’s nothing really to worry about, in my opinion. It’s just the Waxflatter flu virus.”

“Waxflatter?”

“It’s not serious, but bad enough to make those who get it feel awful.” Tanis jumped up on a bed and put his hands in his lap. “We maintain a constant climate on board the Blue Horizon,” he explained. “When we landed on Kantus and had to inspect the cargo outside before loading it on the ship out in the middle of the winter, most of the crew was not insulated with much more than their own fur and regular clothing. The Waxflatter virus is airborne and thrives in those conditions, but it’s local to the region where we landed. More than likely, the Waxflatter virus is prolific but more benign in cold weather. The warmth of the Blue Horizon probably made it active, multiply rapidly and cause the illness. Of course, we have a limited and recycled air supply on the ship, so I’m not surprised there are several on board who aren’t feeling well. I took a small blood sample from Durant to test for it and he came up positive.”

Merlin looked thoughtful. It had been a while since they’d had to move cargo in wintry conditions. Their deliveries always seemed to coincide with a region on each planet with fairly decent weather, but this time they had had to operate in freezing temperatures. A few of the thinner-furred members like Renny had complained about it at the time. The wolf was probably better suited for the cold than the others on board, but even he didn’t have his winter undercoat.

“So, who’s healthy and who’s not?” he asked.

Tanis looked upward in thought and then scratched one of his huge, wing-like ears. “Renny and Durant have come to me for medicine,” he replied. “I tried to make them both go rest, but I think Durant’s back down in his office going over the books some more.”

“Yeah, that sounds like him,” Merlin commented. “Who else?”

“Lori wasn’t acting like her usual bubbly self, so I’d bet she’s got it too. But, ya know her… she’d rather meditate, peer into a crystal, interpret tea leaves or toss bones to make herself feel better before she’d come to me for vile and evil drugs.” Merlin chuckled and nodded. Tanis thought some more and said, “Samantha told me earlier that she was feeling a little stuffy, but otherwise was okay. She took some sinus medicine and seems to be okay for now.” He looked at the wolf and added, “I’ve heard ya sniffling, too.”

“Just a little. What about the others?”

“Well, I talked with Taro a little while ago and so far she’s been unaffected by this. I haven’t talked with Max or Pockets, so I can’t give ya a status on their health at the moment. I think they’re down in the bowels of the ship working on important repairs, and I didn’t feel like crawling through grid supports to stick a thermometer in their ears.”

“What about yourself?” Merlin asked. “After being in direct contact with sick folk, I don’t imagine you are immune.”

Tanis smiled. “Actually, I’m in good health,” he answered. “I’d already taken some preventive medicine prior to landing on Kantus, so I think I’ll make it through this okay.”

Merlin nodded and then reached for a tissue on the counter next to him. He blew his nose and then sniffed again. “What have you got to keep me on my feet too?” he asked with a smile. “It seems like most of my crew could be down during this flight, and I don’t want to be out of order, myself. What did you give Renny and Durant?”

“I gave a fairly mild antiviral and sinus decongestant to Renny, and an antihistamine and cough suppressant to Durant.”

“What do you think I need?” Merlin asked with another sniffle. “If I can beat this before it gets worse, I should be okay.”

“A simple antihistamine.”

“Okay, I’ll take it.”

Tanis grinned and hopped down off the bed. “Alright, that can be done. I’ll need ya to show me a full moon.” He walked to the back room to get his medicine and Merlin looked oddly in his direction.

“What was that?” he asked.

Tanis returned to the front room and uncapped the fresh needle atop his syringe. “Drop yer drawers and moon me,” he said with a wink. “I need a bare hip for this…”

“How about an arm?” the wolf suggested hopefully. “An arm would be really good.”

“If you want to get better, follow orders. Otherwise, the captain can suffer with his minions.”

Merlin swallowed. He wasn’t afraid of needles, but he wasn’t fond of them either, especially in the hip. Feeling hesitant, he turned around and unbuckled his trousers.   

*** 

Durant blinked in rapid succession and then rubbed his eyes for the twentieth time. He was trying to locate a subtle discrepancy in the accounts that was nagging on him, but he found that concentrating on columns of numbers while his head was pounding was not making him very productive.

He picked up a handkerchief from the desk beside his ledger and blew his nose. He winced and closed his eyes. The pressure in his head had returned and his nose was raw from all the blowing. He set the handkerchief down and picked up his pencil to resume his work.

As he glanced down at the numerical columns, he had to blink several times to get the numbers to stay in focus. Durant coughed suddenly and felt his head balloon again.

“Forgedd dis,” he muttered to himself. “I’b goin’ bagg to bed…”

The grizzly closed his ledger and stood up, only to feel the room shift beneath his feet. He steadied himself against the wall and knew that if he was going to stay dizzy and eventually topple to the ground, it may as well be in his cabin and over his bed before he dropped.

Although unsteadily on his feet, Durant left his cargo deck office and headed for the lift.   

*** 

Just missing Durant, Merlin took the lift down to the hold. The wolf stepped out near the engine room and wrinkled his nose at the familiar smell of grease and oil. He walked around to the door to the engineer’s office and poked his nose in through the opening.

“Hello?” he asked.

“I’m back here, Uncle Merlin,” said a voice from the rear cubicle. Merlin moved around the boxes of tools and spare parts that Pockets always seemed to have on the floor and then saw Max dressed in light blue coveralls, sitting at the raccoon’s desk with several large volumes of engineering schematics and drawings spread out across the tabletop.

“Did you get assigned some homework?” Merlin asked with a chuckle.

Max looked up at him with a smirk. “No, I get plenty of that from Samantha,” he replied. He waved a hand over the open books and said, “I’m doing my own research on the problem with our landing gear. I think I might be able to repair it myself, but wanted to make sure before I got started on it.”

“By yourself?” the wolf asked as he rested on a corner of the desk. “Where’s Pockets? I would think he’d be right in the middle of it himself. That’s the kind of stuff he lives for.”

The German shepherd nodded. “He wanted to be in the thick of it,” he agreed, “but he hasn’t been feeling well and went to go see Tanis.”

“That’s odd,” Merlin said as he glanced up at several pin-up calendars from various worlds on the walls, displaying minimally-clad females of different species who were posing with oversized tools. “I just talked with Tanis and he hasn’t seen Pockets at all. He thought you two were buried under the deck plates somewhere.”

Max grinned again. “I’ve been under there three times today already,” he said, “but Pockets left me to research the problem. I’ve not heard from him since he left.”

The captain nodded. “I think I’ll go looking for our missing engineer,” he said with a frown. “If he didn’t make it to the Infirmary, he’s probably in his quarters.” He looked over the drawing layouts and gestured to them. “Do you understand all that?” he asked. Merlin was no stranger to working on ship systems, but sometimes engineering schematics were a little beyond his comprehension.

“Most of it,” Max admitted. “What I don’t understand, I’ve been cross-referencing with the other books we have here.”

“Wouldn’t it be faster using the computer? I think he has all that information already loaded into the VIP system.”

“He does, but I wanted to spread everything out where I can see it better and take notes.”

“Well, good luck, Max. I’d assign someone else to help you work on the problem, but it seems most everyone else is out sick; I’ve got to help Samantha prepare meals for everyone, or I would help you myself.”

The canine youth looked puzzled. “Everybody’s sick?” he asked. “Is that what Tanis calls an epi… epidermic… uh?”

“Epidemic,” Merlin corrected. “He doesn’t think so, but he’s giving everyone inoculations for it anyway. He’ll probably be down to give you a dose later.”

“Pills or needles?”

“Needle, I’m afraid,” Merlin replied as he rubbed his hip.

Max made a face. “I’d rather take a pill.”

“You and me both. How are you feeling?”

Max shrugged his shoulders. “I feel fine. I don’t have any of the stuff that Pockets had, that’s for sure. I’m getting hungry, though.”

“That’s a good sign,” Merlin replied as he slipped back off the desk corner. “Lori’s down with it, too, so Sam and I are making everyone’s meals today. You can join us in about an hour, if you can hold off that long.”

“I think I can make it,” Max said with a grin.

“Okay. I’m going to go look in on Pockets. Have fun with your project.”

“Thanks, Uncle.”   

*** 

When Merlin knocked on the engineer’s door for the third time, he frowned to himself. He tapped the touch pad beside the door and it slid aside quietly. He’d been afraid it would have been locked, but as it was not Merlin stepped inside the darkened front room.

“Pockets?” he called out. He sniffed the air and wrinkled his nose. He could smell sickness in the air. There was no reply, so he tapped on the lights and then made his way across the magazine-strewn room. He frowned at the condition of the cabin. Pockets was an excellent mechanic and engineer, but he had poor housekeeping habits. Magazines, books and paper notepads were all over the floor in seemingly random piles, and there were papers and pens all over the computer desk. Even at a quick glance, Merlin could tell that most of the newer publications sported pictures of the Firebird Fleet on their covers. The raccoon was always mindful of new technologies and he had a keen interest in exploration. Merlin had no doubt that Pockets would feel right at home on one of the Firebirds.

He reached the door to the bedroom and called out again. “Pockets? Are you in there?”

“Somebody shood me,” a weak voice sounded from the darkness.

Merlin turned up the bedroom light just enough so he could see. He didn’t want to trip over the strewn clothing all over the floor, but didn’t want the lights bright enough to bother the raccoon. He approached the bed and found his engineer lying on his back, panting heavily with one arm resting across his eyes. He had not removed his green coveralls and there was a foul wet stain across his chest.

The wolf sat down on the edge of the bed beside him and put a hand to Pockets’ forehead. “Good night!” he said with widened eyes. He reached toward the intercom button on the lamp stand beside the bed and Pockets lightly grabbed his arm.

“Thad you, Cap’n?”

“Yes, I’m here, Pockets,” Merlin replied. “Why didn’t you tell Tanis you were this sick? You have a fever!”

Pockets let go of his arm and swallowed before answering. “Tried to…” he said weakly. “Coude’t magg it that far… widout throwing ub…”

Merlin clicked the intercom button to the Infirmary and the medic’s voice piped in. “Infirmary.”

“Tanis, I need you in Pockets’ quarters ASAP. He feels like he has a fever, and it looks like he’s been throwing up.”

“I’m on my way.”

Merlin switched off the intercom and then stood up. “Can you get up and out of your clothes?” he asked the raccoon. He grasped hands with Pockets and helped him sit up gently.

“Maybe,” the engineer muttered.

Merlin walked around the bed and went to the lavatory sink. He picked up a washcloth from the counter and ran cold water over it. He heard the clinking of tools and then a louder clunk. He wrung out the cloth and then moved back into the other room just as Pockets was sliding under a cool sheet. Merlin daubed the cloth around the sides of the raccoon’s mouth and then set it across his forehead.

“Captain?” a voice called from the front room.

“Back here, Tanis.”

The desert fox walked into the room and switched the lights to full strength. Pockets groaned and draped his arm back over his eyes as the medic gingerly stepped over the discarded, tool-laden coveralls toward the bed. Tanis pulled the damp cloth up and felt of the engineer’s forehead. He frowned and then replaced the cloth.

“Why didn’t ya tell me ya were sick?” Tanis scolded as he dug into the black medical bag he had brought in with him. Pockets only grunted at him. Tanis didn’t find what he wanted so he put a hand into the large pocket of the white smock he wore and then pulled out small plastic pouch labeled Refloxin. He handed this to Merlin and said, “Go mix this in a cup of cold water, then pour it down his throat.”

The wolf nodded and headed back to the lavatory. Tanis pulled out an electronic thermometer and placed the end of it inside Pockets’ ear. With his other hand, he lifted one of the raccoon’s hands and felt for the pulse. He watched the digital clock on the lamp stand and counted off the beats.

Merlin came back into the room with a white coffee cup adorned with a cartoon fish, stirring the contents with the handle end of a toothbrush. Tanis looked up at him and snickered.

“I couldn’t find a spoon,” the wolf explained at the medic’s amused look.

There was a small beep and Tanis brought the thermometer’s readout up close to view. “Mmhmm…” he hummed to himself. He stepped aside to let Merlin bring in the mixture and then started digging in his bag again.

The captain bent over the bed and said, “Drink this, Pockets.”

“Whut is it?”

“I don’t know,” Merlin admitted. “Tanis said for you to take it.”

“Then I don’ wannit,” Pockets grimaced. “He’s tryin’ to poison me for beatin’ him at cards.”

Tanis glanced over his shoulder and snorted. “For that I should let ya suffer,” he replied. “I still say ya were cheating.”

Merlin smiled and then held the cup up to the raccoon’s lips. “Drink it, Engineer. That’s an order.”

Pockets complied and swallowed the lemony liquid. To his surprise, it didn’t taste as nasty as he had expected. It took three swallows, but he finally emptied the cup.

“Good,” the wolf said. “What is that stuff for?”

“It’ll calm his stomach and help reduce his fever. Now he needs something a bit more unpleasant,” Tanis said as he produced a syringe. Merlin winced when he saw it and suddenly felt his own needle wound throb.

The medic lifted up the sheet and then jabbed the needle expertly into the raccoon’s bare hip. To his surprise, Pockets didn’t flinch or even grunt. Tanis daubed the spot beneath the fur using a cotton swab coated with an antiseptic and then replaced the sheet.

“That will get him headed back to himself,” Tanis told the captain. “Give him a couple hours for the mixture to work on his stomach and then have someone feed him something light. I’ll check back in on him periodically.”

“Thanks, Tanis,” Merlin said. “I need to get up to the galley to help Samantha with the meals now.” He left the medic with his patient and then departed the cabin.

Tanis sat on the edge of the bed and looked down at Pockets, who had his arm once again across his face. “Take care of yerself, partner,” he said quietly. “We need ya up and about again.” When he didn’t get a response, he stood up and gathered together his things.

Pockets reached up and lightly grasped his wrist. “Thangs, doc,” he whispered.

Tanis frowned. “I’m not a doctor yet,” he mused aloud, “but I intend to be one day.”    

*** 

Max frowned to himself. He had waited for the chief engineer’s return by doing research on the ship’s landing gear. Pockets was undoubtedly sick in bed, but the repairs would take time and needed to be done before they could land at the destination they were speeding toward. Max believed he could make the repairs by himself, but he didn’t know if Pockets would allow him to work on it alone. He wished he could take the schematics down into the crawlways with him to refer to while working. Unfortunately, the tomes were too large to lug around with him. He couldn’t spend the time to crawl back and forth between the work area to the books and the canine was at a loss of what to do.

Max sat down at Pockets’ desk, resting his chin on his hands. Pockets had taught him enough that the young mechanic was restless to get started and anxious to prove he could do it. He sighed in frustration and then closed the largest volume with a whump. The resulting poof of air from the book’s closing caused a pamphlet-sized document to dislodge from a shelf above the desk and drop to the floor. Max picked it up to return it to its place, but then he saw what it was.

It was the homemade User Manual that Pockets had put together on the ship’s Mobile Sentry System. There were design changes and new drawings stuck inside that denoted the differences between the current Moss and the previous unit that had been destroyed in the crash. Out of boredom and curiosity, Max propped his feet up on the desk and began to study the information.

Several minutes into reading, Max’s eyes widened and smile crept across his lips. There was a reference to a function of the Moss unit he hadn’t been previously aware. He read further with interest and then reached toward the computer terminal on the desktop. Referencing the pamphlet, Max accessed a software routine and then typed in several commands in a programmed sequence to recall Moss to the engine room.   

*** 

“Durant?” Samantha stuck her head into the grizzly’s front room. She heard a mumbled response from the bedroom so she moved through the room and to the rear doorway. “Durant?” she called again.

“Blease go away,” said the accountant’s voice.

“I brought you something to eat,” the Border collie replied as she set a tray of food down on the table next to the bed. There was a huge lump under the covers, but no sign of a head. Despite this, weary words emanated from the light blanket.

“Don’ wan any…” Durant said.

“Durant, you have to keep your strength up,” Samantha said and crossed her arms.

“Don’ wan any…” the bear repeated.  “Jus’ wanna be left alone.”

“Durant…”

“Jus’ leave it and go, blease…”

Samantha sighed with a nod. “Okay, Durant. I’ll check in on you again later, but if I see that you have not eaten the good food I’ve brought you, I’ll see that Tanis rigs up an IV to get the nutrients into you – and I know how much you like needles, my sick friend!”

There was movement under the covers and a cinnamon-colored snout protruded from under the blanket. “All right…” Durant said irritably, “I’ll eat it. But blease make everyone else leabe me alone, ‘kay?”

“Okay,” Samantha agreed. “Just get well, please.”

Durant slid a hand out of the blanket and his face emerged after it as he shakily picked up a small glass of juice with a straw from the tray. Samantha gave him a nod, a small smile and then left the bear to his food.    

*** 

Max grunted in satisfaction. It had taken him half an hour in multiple trips to get all the tools he thought he would need down in through the crawlway to the landing gear well, and another half hour to wrestle the replacement, three-meter long boot gasket into the same area. The crawlway, already crowded with just him, was now absolutely cramped. However, the schematic of the place showed two lower deck plates that could be removed to give him more room to work on the spadraulic extender. There were three bright lamps giving the mechanic ample illumination and Max wondered briefly if this was what a cave might be like. The robust tunes of Pixly Dixly echoed through the lower cavities of the Blue Horizon and Max hummed along with it as he set to work to remove the access floor panels. Inane as she was, at least she was consistent inasmuch as all her music sounded the same; Max could have white noise that wasn’t too distracting.

“Meow?”

The canine looked up with a smile. “Just hold right there, Moss,” he said in a reassuring tone. The small flying saucer hovered to his left and twitched its antennae slightly as it emanated Max’s work music. Several moments later, the mechanic removed the deck plates and set them aside. He crawled down into the lower space and wriggled his toes inside his soft boots. They had started to cramp in the squatting position he had been in, but now that he had room to stretch out his legs a little, he got some relief.

He shined his headlamp around the area and recognized the layout from the schematics he had studied before. He had trouble remembering the sequence for draining the spadraulic fluids without causing a mess, so he pulled a small notebook from a pocket and consulted some figures.

He nodded to himself and looked back up at the mobile sentry. “Okay, Moss, I need to see the plans for sub-section 121-661.”

Moss turned on its axis and faced the nearest bulkhead. Its secondary lens became a projector as it displayed an image of the system plans the mechanic needed onto the wall. Max consulted the diagram and nodded once in appreciation for a good idea.

“That’s good, Moss,” he said. “Continue to hold that image until I need the next one.”

“Meow.”

Max began his work. He knew it would take a while to complete, and he was aware that he wouldn’t be able to stop work once he began the repair work, but he was confident he could manage it. His only regret was that he had neglected to grab something to eat first.   

*** 

Merlin frowned at the rabbit. He had stopped to check in on her condition and had been trying to leave for twenty minutes. Lorelei was not as sick as some of the others on board were, but she didn’t seem to be handling being cooped up alone in her cabin very well. The fact that she had decorated her quarters in vibrant colors to fluoresce under black lights, with hanging crystals and magma lamps all around, it didn’t seem like an ideal setting for someone sick, the captain mused to himself. In addition, her sickly-sweet music with birds chirping, water babbling, and the rush of wheat fields in the wind seemed brain numbing to the wolf. No wonder she didn’t want to be by herself.

“Merrrrliiiiiin…” Lorelei whined as she clung to the captain’s arm. “Please don’ go!” (sniff) “I need combany… Id’s lonely here.”

Merlin sighed and wrenched his arm free of her grasp. It was truly amazing how strong she was for one who was ill. The wolf’s stomach did a small flip when Lori wiped her streaming nose with the back of her hand and then wiped it on the front of her cotton night shirt. Ugh, he thought, noting the unused box of tissues on the bedside table. He grabbed the box and handed it to her.

“Lori,” he said as she took it with a shrug, “I have others to look in on before I relieve Taro on the bridge.”

“Nooo,” the rabbit whined again. “Don’t wanchu to go…”

“Sorry, girl, but I can’t stay,” Merlin replied as he took a step back out of her reach, lest she cling to him again. “Check StellarNet for the talk shows you like, or perhaps you can watch your favorite cooking show.” The bunny looked up at him and pouted. She attempted to give him her best pitiful look. When he didn’t seem moved by it, she nodded reluctantly and accepted the vidscreen remote he handed to her.

Before she could latch onto him or start whining again, Merlin gave her a nod and retreated quickly.    

*** 

Max grunted and snorted as he tugged and pulled on the damaged boot gasket. As per the textbook, he had sliced the old gasket from top to bottom along its three-meter length, but despite this supposed freedom, the boot would not come off.

He was slippery from burgundy fluids that had been inside the landing gear extender and grimy from all the dusts and particles in the crawlway that adhered to him. He had drained the affected area before he had cut the gasket, but there had been a pocket of the spadraulic fluid trapped inside that had come flooding out after he had released it unknowingly.

He was more than a little annoyed at his condition, as well as the resistance of the gasket, but he was determined to triumph over the irritation. He slipped on the slick deck plates and fell once again. Moss let out a sympathetic mew at the canine’s plight, but Max interpreted it another way.

He glared up at the small flying saucer that watched him and growled beneath his breath. “I will personally dismantle you with a sledge hammer if you’ve recorded any of this to show anyone!” he snapped.

Moss twitched its antennae whiskers and let out a small mewip noise in alarm. Unknown to Max, the small unit quickly erased a record it had made of the mechanic’s progress and then deleted a redundant copy it had been storing in real-time on the ship’s VIP computer system.

Without another word, Max turned back to the boot gasket and tried again.   

*** 

“Come on, darling, you have to eat something,” Taro said in a soothing voice. Renny looked up at her with puffy eyes and a forlorn expression. The cheetah was covered up in his bed by a dark green sheet. All other blankets had been pushed off onto the floor.

“Not hungry…” he replied. His companion knew he must be sick if he wasn’t interested in food.  Renny had an infamous, ongoing appetite that could best anyone on board the ship.

Taro absently toyed with the feather clipped on the left side beside her ear. “What can I do for you?” she asked gently. “I’ll do anything you need or want me to do.”

Renny closed his eyes and swallowed before he looked back up at her. “I could use some cool water,” he said at last, “but not too much. My stomach is still tender.”

The vixen nodded and got up to get his water. Renny didn’t seem to be as sick as he had been earlier, but he was still miserable.    

*** 

When Tanis stepped into Lorelei’s cabin, he had to stop inside the door to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. He activated the light switch; the only thing that came on was a black light that made posters of bright colors flare out at him, but didn’t do much to illuminate the room.

“Lori?” he called out.

“Bagg here,” the rabbit responded meekly from the bedroom.

Tanis stepped gingerly through the room and made his way to the door in the back. Had it not been that all the cabins on the Blue Horizon were identical in layout, he might have had more difficulty finding his way without bumping into things. He managed to reach the darkened doorway and stepped through.

“Lori, it’s me, Tanis. I got yer message that ya wanted to see me.”

“Thangs. You can turn on the light.”

The desert fox flipped on the overhead light and found Lorelei burrowed under a mountain of blankets. Only her ears and the pink tip of her nose were showing, as well as the edge of her right hip. He sat down on the edge of the bed and put a hand under her pillow to feel of her forehead. It was warm, but not as if she had a fever.

“What can I do for ya?” he asked quietly. A sparkling crystal on the floor at his feet caught his attention. He picked it up idly and looked back at the rabbit that now peeked out at him from under her pillow.

“I’b sick…” she replied in an embarrassed tone.

“Yes,” he agreed. She had been ill while on board from time to time in the past, but would never call on him as a medic due to her belief in using natural remedies to take care of herself.

“I don’d thigk I’b getting any better…” she admitted.  “I… I need somb help…”

Tanis raised his eyebrows. “Are ya sure ya want my help?” he asked as he put a hand into the pocket of his white lab coat. “I’m the evil one, remember?.”

Lorelei glared at him, but then nodded. “I don’d agree wit’ your methods,” she said, “but nothig of mine is workig this time. I need some relief.”

Tanis held up the crystal he had picked up off the floor and let it spin a little on its gold colored string. “I’ve heard ya give names to yer crystals,” he said casually as he stood up and held it over her nose. “What’s this one called?”

The rabbit stared up at the faceted orb and concentrated. “I thig that one is – Oww!” She cried out when she felt a needle pierce her hip and she looked up at Tanis in alarm. He wasn’t smiling, but he appeared satisfied that his method of distracting her enough to give her a shot had worked. He daubed a small cotton swab on the spot he had pierced and Lori whimpered.

In a voice loud despite her sinus congestion, she called him a few choice names in several languages. Tanis was shocked, as he had never heard the gentle bunny use profanity before, but it was apparent she was well versed in her verbal selection. He let her continue her tirade as he capped his syringe and replaced it into his pocket. Finally, when it appeared she had exhausted her vocabulary, Lorelei began to cry.

She reached out, took his wrist, and then pulled him down to her so she could bawl onto his shoulder. The fennec rolled his eyes, but allowed himself to be wept upon. He deduced that she cried not because of the needle, but because she had made the difficult decision to accept medicinal help. She probably feared it was something she would never live down, especially if Samantha found out about it.

“Lori, look at it this way: what I do is merely a refinement of holistic medicine. You believe in natural remedies, and all the ingredients that I use in my practice have to come from somewhere, right?”

From the dark look the rabbit gave Tanis, he knew his reasoning wasn’t working with her.    

*** 

When Tanis finally left Lorelei’s cabin, she had cried herself to sleep. The medic felt confident that now that she had received a dose of medication that would fight the viral infection within her body, she would start to feel better after some rest. Of all those on board that had become ill, she was perhaps the least sick of them all.

The worst one had to be Pockets, however. The desert fox moved around the perimeter of the crew deck until he came to the chief engineer’s quarters. He didn’t bother to knock and went right inside. As soon as the door panel had closed behind him, he could hear the raccoon retching in the back room. He moved quickly, but didn’t find Pockets in his bed. More retching came from the lavatory and Tanis shook his head. Apparently, the liquid he had had Merlin force him to drink earlier hadn’t helped quiet Pockets’ stomach.

He stepped into the bathroom and found the short raccoon huddled over the toilet bowl. He had a blue cotton robe haphazardly wrapped around him that had residue from his current activity across the front of it. Pockets looked over at the medic with half-lidded eyes and looked exhausted.

“Help…” he said weakly.

“I’m sorry, Pockets,” Tanis said as he grabbed a washcloth from the sink and then wet it down with cool water. “I’m surprised yer stomach is still this active after the Refloxin I gave ya earlier.” He knelt down next to the engineer and wiped his mouth with the cloth.

“Threw id ub right after you left…” Pockets replied.

“Ah, so it didn’t have a chance to work on ya,” Tanis said. “Merlin probably used lukewarm water from the tap, instead of cold water like I instructed him to use.” Pockets closed his eyes and panted without a word. “Are ya willing to try this again?” Tanis asked him. “I’ll stay with ya this time to make sure it stays down like it’s supposed to.”

The raccoon nodded and Tanis pulled another pouch of Refloxin out of his black bag to fix another batch. “After I’m sure it stays down this time,” he added, “I’m going to get an IV of saline to set up beside yer bed; yer going to need to help battling the dehydration.”    

*** 

A deafening roar filled the lower levels of the Blue Horizon. Max had dragged a suction hose down into the bowels of the landing gear crawlway and was earnestly cleaning up the fluids he had spilled earlier. Covered in the greasy fluid himself, he had stripped off the saturated coveralls after he had gone to get the hose and had taken a quick shower in the cargo deck restroom. He had donned another set of coveralls before resuming his job.

It had taken him nearly two frustrating hours to get the old gasket off the unit and out of the crawlway, but he had finally been successful in his task. Before he could begin the process of putting in the new gasket in the cramped quarters, he would have to clean up all the old fluids. Fortunately, the Blue Horizon was equipped with a high-powered vacuum system designed for such usage, although a pair of snug ear protectors was necessary to prevent deafness.

Once finished with the cleanup, he would have to inspect the landing gear extenders to make sure he’d caused no damage getting the old gasket out before beginning to install the new one. Once the new boot was finally in place, he would have to refill the area with fresh spadraulic fluid, a task he was sure would be just as unappealing.    

*** 

Tanis stepped off the lift onto the recreation deck and glanced over at the wall-sized vidscreen that was currently tuned to an all-music channel. He recognized the band members of The Jettisons playing their instruments in what appeared to be an isolated canyon in some remote area of Earth. He didn’t recognize the lyrics of the song they sang, but he nodded in time with the music as he walked across the room to the galley.

“Hey, Tanis,” Samantha said when he sat down at the counter. She was cutting vegetables into a clear broth in a pan on the stove and she was wearing Max’s old apron; it had the cartoon figure of a canine on it, with its tongue sticking out the side of his mouth while holding a fork in one hand and a knife in the other.

“Hi, Luv,” Taro said when she came out of the large, walk-in freezer with several packages of previously prepared meat. “The meals won’t be ready for another hour yet.”

“Hello, ladies,” Tanis replied with a smile. “I am getting hungry, but I can wait. I’m more concerned about our ship full of patients. They’re the ones who need to eat.” He looked back at the vidscreen and asked, “Where’s Merlin?”

“He’s on bridge duty,” Taro answered as she started to work on portioning out the frozen meat.

“Mind if I change over to the news?”

“Go ahead,” Samantha replied. Tanis got up and walked across the room toward a couch. He found the remote on the floor beside a recliner and then keyed in the frequency for the Interstellar News Network before he sat down.

“…an hour ago. The allies of Nalirra are stunned and the PA Legislature is now currently in a closed-door meeting over the matter.” Tanis stared at the screen in silence and both women in the galley looked up from their work. Holly looked off camera for a moment and then turned back to face the screen. “Excuse me, Viewers, but we’re receiving more information at this very moment. While the data is coming in and being analyzed, we will replay the Tanatan broadcast.”

The image of Holly Harken was replaced by a cheetah dressed in what appeared to be a tan robe adorned with small strips of colored fabric attached to a sash about his middle. The camera angle zoomed in shakily to frame just his face on the screen and his large, golden eyes were steady.

“This am a message from Oe’Tanata High Council,” he said in a voice that had an underlying thrum to it. From the way he pronounced his words, it was evident that he had not been speaking Standard for long, but was using the basic language to broadcast his message to the Planetary Alignment.

“Zed Am’tias, the leader of N’lrra is captured and executed. The Emperor’s kitten been restored to Mrr’Ranah Palace from N’lrra cavern. As of now, world N’lrra not-limits to your Planet-Lineup. Under Oe’Tanatan rule, N’lrra no more concern of your people. Our star system under Oe’Tanatan rule complete. Stay away, no come.”

Tanis opened his mouth, but no sound came out. This could not be! Taro and Samantha forgot about their food and both came further into the room to stand behind the medic on the couch.

“Our world honored by Planet-Lineup for its inaction. Even during our fight, no other world stick snouts in business. Very wise. Continue this and no more trouble for all. Any outsider come to our system be destroyed, so be honored and stay away.” The cheetah made a sign across his brow and then the screen went black.

“What about the citizens of Nalirra?” Tanis croaked. “What’s to be done with them?”

Holly’s face reappeared and her expression was grave. “From all accounts,” she said, “Nalirra has been completely taken over by Tanatan forces. Sed Amittias was captured in a desert cave earlier today and executed immediately by the forces that caught him. The Tanatan Emperor’s daughter has been returned home safely, but the fate of the whole world of Nalirra is currently unknown. The transmission contained a direct order for all outside the Roppa star system to stay away, though praised the Planetary Alignment for not taking part in Nalirra’s campaign against Oe’Tanata.”

“Holly,” Tanis growled, “we just heard him say all that. Tell us something else!”

As if the human news anchor had heard him, the dark-haired woman picked up a common slateboard that had been placed before her and glanced over its screen quickly before looking back at the camera. “Several Nalirran military cruisers on station within the Reytharsa Asteroid belt at the outskirts of the Roppa system have just been destroyed by Tanatan battleships. Among them were seven civilian cargo carriers and four personnel transports with Nalirran citizens trying to return to their homeworld, as well as incarcerated citizens of Nalirra being returned for active duty after having dodged their draft. There were no survivors.” Holly looked a little shaken and added, “An INN field crew witnessed the massacre and made their report… only moments before… before being destroyed as well. The families of the INN crew aboard the SS Cartouche will be notified before the names are publicly released.

“SPF long-range sensors have detected a massive armada of warships patrolling throughout the Roppa star system boundaries, proof against further inbound vessels. All attempts to receive signals from Nalirra have been unsuccessful; it appears the Com-Net has either been jammed or destroyed. There are currently no more INN news correspondents within the Roppa area, so it may be some time before more is known. Until further notice, PA Legislature Speaker Jo Chan has issued an order that forbids attempted contact with either Nalirra or Oe’Tanata due to the dangers involved in that star system.”

“What’s going on?”

Tanis spun around at Renny’s voice with clenched fists. The navigator was dressed in a blue and white cotton robe and had just stepped off the lift in search of something to eat. He was feeling better and ready to fill his belly. Tanis wore a scowl and pointed back at the vidscreen behind him just as the earlier video broadcast was repeated.

“My homeworld’s just fallen!” the medic snapped at him.

Renny glanced up at the vidscreen at the cheetah’s face that spoke to the unseen camera. He looked back at Tanis with the realization that the fox associated his species with the individual on the screen. He held up his hands toward him with his hands open. “Hold on there, Tanis!” he said quickly. “That’s not me up there!”

“Ya’ve not been very sympathetic to what’s been happening to Nalirra,” Tanis said darkly.

“That doesn’t mean my people are the ones who have been at war with your homeworld,” Renny replied in his defense. “I’ve not been too sympathetic because it was Nalirra that started the war.”

“Yer a cheetah, just like they are!” Tanis took a step forward and Taro readied herself to intervene if he looked like he was going to jump the navigator. Samantha wiped her hands on her apron, preparing to do the same.

“There aren’t any Tanatans in my bloodline!” Renny replied. “Get that out of your head right now!”

Tanis glared at him, clenching and unclenching his fists. Taro stepped around the couch quietly and then grabbed his wrist.

“Calm down, Tanis,” the vixen said to him. As soon as he felt her hand on his wrist, he jerked his arm to pull it away from her, but her grip was too strong and held him fast.

“Let go of me,” he growled at her.

Taro bent over and put her nose right into his closest ear. “I said ‘calm down’, Tanis. That was an order.”

The medic glowered at her for a moment and then glared back at Renny, but he relaxed his arm and finally looked away. Samantha grabbed the remote and muted the INN broadcast that had continued to recap the same events. Taro released Tanis’ wrist, but he made no other moves toward the cheetah. He took the remote from Samantha and turned the sound back on as he plopped down on the couch, sinking his head into his hands. He said nothing more to any of them and didn’t look at Renny.

Taro sighed and looked apologetically at her lover. “He’s been under a lot of pressure lately,” she reminded him. “You would be too if your family and friends were knee-deep in war and you could do nothing about it.”

 Renny shook his head and then moved to a nearby recliner. If he was going to be accused of conspiring with Tanis’ enemy, he wanted to know the situation. Samantha looked first at Renny and then at Tanis as they both kept their attention on Holly’s report. She shook her head sadly and then returned with Taro to the galley to continue with their meal preparations.

Even while Taro worked with the food, she kept an eye across the room toward Tanis, watchful that the medic didn’t make any threatening moves toward the cheetah.    

*** 

“Moss, come up here and then please display schematic for sub-section 121-668,” Max called out. He was four meters above the floor, clinging tenaciously to a folded arm of the landing gear extender. He had finally managed to get the boot gasket in place, but he was having difficulty trying to figure out how it connected to the top portion of the extender.

“Meow, me-ow,” the small flying saucer acknowledged as it floated up to the mechanic and then located a flat surface to project the requested diagram. Its lens lit up as the image appeared on a bulkhead. Max studied it for a moment, and then his eyes lit up.

“Ah, so that’s it!” he said in satisfaction.    

*** 

It had been several hours since Taro and Samantha had gone around to all the members of the ship with trays of food, making sure everyone had been fed. While they were gone, Tanis had stayed on the recreation deck to watch INN for anything new that might come up, but Holly had been unable to do anything more than recap the whole conflict between the two worlds from its beginning until now.

There were reports of former Nalirran citizens and business associates with the planet that were outraged or fearful, but as to Nalirra herself, no more news had come out of the Roppa system on its population. Tanis could have easily watched the news from the screen in his quarters, but he had not moved from the couch since he had seen the initial report.

Arktanis knew he needed to get up and make the rounds to check in on those who were sick, so he finally forced himself to shut down the vidscreen and leave the rec deck. He had no intention of looking in on Renny, however. The navigator could nurse himself back to health, for all the medic cared. However, as he approached the lift, Tanis heaved a great sigh. He knew that Renny had nothing to do with the conflict on Nalirra any more than he did himself, but it was hard not to forget the Tanatan cheetah’s face on the vidscreen as the fate of his homeworld was sealed.    

*** 

“Moss, disengage engineering routine Alpha-Nautilus-03,” Max said with a smile. “I’m finished with you.”

“Meow!” The mobile sentry system alternated colors across both its forward sensor lenses, reoriented three of its whiskers, and then moved away across the engine room to resume its original programming. Max watched it float away until it was out of sight and then began to haul his tools up out of the crawl space tunnel so he could clean them and put them away.

He stopped to yawn and then blinked several times. He was tired, but satisfied that he had completed his self-appointed task. By himself, the young mechanic had replaced a difficult part in cramped quarters, but he had managed it with only the help of Moss and the ship’s engineering schematics. Unfortunately, there would be no way to test to see if everything worked properly until they would be able to extend the landing gear. He sincerely hoped he hadn’t missed something.

It would take him yet another hour to clean up the tools, but Pockets would hang him up by his tail if he didn’t put them away in spotless order. The chief engineer may have a messy personal cabin, but he kept the Blue Horizon’s engine room tidy and expected his trainee to do the same. Once the tools were accounted for and put away, Max intended to take a long nap before checking in on his boss. He hoped Pockets was okay.     

*** 

Two days later, Pockets opened his eyes with the need to visit the head. He threw back the covers and moved across the room to the lavatory. A few minutes later, he stared at himself in the bathroom mirror and stuck out his tongue at himself. He sniffed the air a couple times and then decided that the foul odor he could smell was himself. He glanced back at his reflection with a frown. “You,” he said to the other raccoon, “need a shower.”

His reflection wrinkled its nose in sync and then he paused as something occurred to him. He sniffed the air again and sorted through the other scents in the air: medicine, soup and the lingering smells of dust and grease from his abandoned coveralls somewhere in the other room. Then he smiled to himself. His sinuses were clear. He could smell and distinguish between things again.

Tentatively, he raised his arms above his head, but they didn’t ache. He bent over to touch his toes, and to his delight found that he could. The raccoon spun around in glee and punched the air with his fists.

“Yes!” he said jovially, “Jerad Porter is back among the living!”

An hour later, Pockets had showered, dried and brushed his fur to perfection. He chose a clean set of coveralls from his closet and decided he would wash his laundry and bedding later. His sense of duty as the Blue Horizon’s Chief Engineer was strong and he remembered that the landing gear would need to be repaired before they could land on Alexandrius. He couldn’t recall just how long he had been ill, but he felt it was time wasted.

It would take time and Max’s help to replace the damaged boot gasket on the landing gear extender. Normally, he would not have relished working on part of the ship in a hard-to-reach area of the ship where he would get filthy from the leaking fluids, but he was in such a good mood at feeling better that even that didn’t daunt him. The important thing would be to get it done while they still had time.

The raccoon left his cabin and headed for the lift. He discovered he was famished and quickly decided he’d be a better engineer with a full tummy. At the lift door, he tapped the touch pad to take him to the recreation deck, but before the door closed fully, a voice called out.

“Hold it, please!”

Pockets jabbed the Stop button and the doors reopened. Samantha stepped inside with a smile. “Thanks, Pockets,” she said.

“No problem,” the raccoon replied.

“You’re sure looking better,” Samantha told him as the doors closed and the lift began its upward climb.

“Thanks, I feel a lot better – starving, but I’m better.”

“You’re just in time then,” she said. “Everybody else should be up here for a staff meeting. I’ve just left the bridge on automatic with the auxiliary sensors routed to the rec deck.”

Pockets looked up at her as the lift came to a stop. “Why wasn’t I informed about the meeting? Merlin rarely has them.”

“Tanis suggested we let you rest,” the Border collie told him. “You were the sickest, but you look like you’re back to normal now.”

“I feel decent,” Pockets agreed with a smile. The doors opened and the two of them stepped out into the rec room. The large vidscreen circuitry was off and the panel was now nothing more than a forward window with the backdrop of stars in space. There was a bright star directly ahead. The raccoon could smell Crescentan fish cooking from the gallery and his mouth began to water. His stomach growled in response and Samantha laughed. Gathered around the long galley table was the rest of the Blue Horizon’s crew. Merlin grinned when he noticed the engineer’s normal demeanor.

“Hey, glad to have you back with us!” he said over the conversations around the table. Everyone else looked up and Pockets felt welcome to be there. Lorelei waved at him from the kitchen, her eyes bright as she tended to several dishes in the midst of preparation. Samantha sat down next to Tanis and gave him an elbow in the ribs to make him scoot over some.

“What’s going on here?” Pockets asked the captain. “Are you giving out pink slips again?”

There was laughter all around, but something in the raccoon’s mind picked out that Renny and Tanis were at opposite lengths of the table from one another. The pair of them normally sat close together to taunt or tease one another in fun, but neither of them even looked the other’s way. Pockets took an empty seat between Samantha and Max.

“Well, at least you’re no longer the living dead,” Samantha added.

Braaaains!” Pockets grunted, feigning a movement toward Renny before shaking his head and demonstrating that it was a lost cause.

Merlin stood up and all eyes went to him. “Now that the gang’s all here, I want to tell you all that I’m glad that everyone’s finally back on their feet. This Waxflatter flu virus has finally been eradicated, thanks to our good doctor—”

“Medic,” the desert fox corrected.

“—thanks to our skilled medic,” Merlin said with the slight alteration. “Nobody’s getting canned,” he said with a wink to Pockets, “but now that you’re all better, I expect everyone to help get this ship cleaned up.”

“Pockets’ room needs priority disaster aid!” Samantha quipped. The raccoon looked embarrassed and grinned foolishly.

“We’ll be landing on Alexandrius in about ten hours,” the wolf continued, “and I want this ship in order before then. I will make an inspection of each compartment before I allow anyone out the hatch.” There were several groans around the table. “We’ll be down for eleven days on Alexandrius before our next job, and I don’t want to come back to a filthy ship after a journey where most everyone’s been ill.”

“Captain,” Pockets said meekly, “Max and I need to be excused from this cleanup detail.”

“Not a chance, Porter,” Merlin said with upraised eyebrows. “Your cabin is the worst of them all, and I’m not having someone else clean up after you, even if you have been sick!”

“If Max and I don’t get the landing gear extender boot gasket replaced before we get to Alexandrius, we won’t be able to land anywhere,” Pockets said sternly. “Ten hours doesn’t give us much time to…”

“Sorry, Pockets, but you can’t use that excuse,” Merlin said with a proud smile. “It’s already been taken care of.”

The raccoon looked puzzled. “Huh?” he asked. “Who?”

“Your trainee mechanic did the repairs while you were out of commission,” Taro said.

Pockets looked over at Max, who appeared to be sitting up straighter than he normally did. “Max fixed it?” he asked incredulously.

“That’s right,” Merlin replied. “The rest of us were either too sick or too busy taking care of the sick to give him any help, so he took care of it himself, by himself. After he reported the completed job to me, I crawled down in there to examine it myself. The repair work he did was a classic textbook case and he did an excellent job.”

Pockets sat there for a moment, and then he stood up and walked around the table to the young canine. He put his hands on the German shepherd’s shoulders and Max looked up at him quietly with pale blue eyes. “Max, I’m proud of you,” the engineer said. “If you managed a repair job like that one in conditions as bad as the one down there, you’ve got the potential to be a great mechanic!”

Renny laughed out and reached across the table to smack the table in front of the young canine. “Careful, Pockets,” he said merrily. “Max will be taking your job from you soon!”

“Yeah, he’ll be Chief Engineer before we know it!” Durant chuckled.

Pockets smiled at the others and then he looked toward the captain. “After such an accomplishment,” he said, “I don’t think we should consider Max a trainee anymore. He’s proven himself a fully-fledged journeyman,” he looked down again at Max, “and a valued member of the crew.”

“Thanks, Pockets,” Max said with an embarrassed grin. He still wasn’t used to being the center of attention of the whole crew. “I’ll try to live up to your expectations.”

“You still have experience to gain,” Merlin said with a smile, “but you’ve been a good student and Pockets is apparently a good teacher. You can learn a lot from him, even if he is a goober sometimes.”

“Hey!” Pockets exclaimed.    

*** 

“I can’t believe it!” Tanis said in excitement. “We never thought we’d hear back from ya again!”

“Well, I never got a recall, so I’m still here on Fyn, although I’m not in my mountain cabin anymore.”

“What made ya give that up?” the medic asked. “I thought ya loved that place.”

“Oh, I still own it; I’m just not currently living in it. Do you remember that ramshackle place near the Well of Luck?”

“Vaguely, Duffy. I was tired and hurting from our ordeal. I seem to remember one being there, but I never gave it much attention. My only thought at that time was to get back to Rrowrnon before the Blue Horizon left without me. What about it?”

“I think I told you that I bought the Well of Luck and was going to reopen it as a tourist attraction. The shack was included with the property and I just finished renovating the building. It took some doing – there was a lot of mildew and rotting wood in the walls that I had to replace, but you should see it now. I have a back room that I’m now living out of and the grounds are nicely mowed and clipped. There are walking trails all through the woods and there’s a small parking lot down by the main road where you tried to get yourself run over. I’m currently awaiting a shipment of curios and other souvenirs for the gift shop, and I’ll be stocking the snack counter just before it opens. The place will officially be in business next week for tourists, and just in time, too. This whole part of the countryside is used for outdoor recreation and I’m right off the main road. It should bring in a nice little income.”

Tanis made a face at the vidscreen where the Siberian husky was smiling back at him. “I can’t believe ya think ya can make money from that stinking place, Duffy,” he said in amusement, “but I do wish ya luck — with the Well of Luck!”

“Thanks, Tanis, I appreciate that. You wouldn’t believe all the work I had to do inside the well itself, but I did find a few odds and ends down in there, including your little pendant. Want me to ship it to you?”

“No, thanks, ya can keep it. So, what brings ya to give us a call?” Tanis asked.

“Well, I’m sure you’ve heard all about home,” Clarence replied. “After our last visit to Nalirra, I figured you might have wondered about me, so I thought I’d check in.”

“I’m assuming the attack by the Tanatans kept yer name from making it through all the channels to get you recalled into active duty.”

“Yeah, despite all the trouble we went through to get our names out of the system, the enemy did it for us. Stroke of luck, eh?”

“If ya say so,” Tanis said with a frown. He was quiet for a moment in thought and Duffy grew restless with his friend’s mood.

“There’s another reason why I called,” the husky said at last.

“Ya need a loan for yer trinket shop?” Tanis replied with the familiar friendly twinkle in his eyes.

“No, it’s nothing like that. I was just wondering how my son was doing.”

The medic looked up at the screen in surprise. Did he really know, or was he fishing for information? “Uh, what are you talking about, Duff?” he asked.

Clarence chuckled and waved a hand in the air. “You don’t have to feign ignorance, Tanis. Max sent a letter to my cabin address to tell me about it. I just got it this morning.”

“And…?” Tanis prompted.

The husky grinned. “I thought it was a joke at first, but he also sent along copies of the DNA comparison you did. That convinced me he was telling me the truth.”

“So… how do you feel about that?”

“Heh… Tanis, I hate to break this to you, but I was discovered by another puppy of mine a couple years back, the result of the seed-sowing I used to do those ages ago.”

“Ya were a veritable lawn sprinkler,” Tanis added with a smirk.

“Cute,” was the wry reply. ”Max has a half-brother – probably others. Unfortunately, when this other one tracked me down, all he wanted was to liberate me from my money. Legally, he couldn’t really do anything about it since his mum was a pleasure girl and that’s a risk of that line of work, but he gave it his best shot to intimidate me. That’s the real reason why I was living up in the mountains. It was to get away from that guy. When he first contacted me, I tried to befriend him, since I am his pop, but he didn’t care anything about that. All he wanted was money.”

“Ouch,” Tanis said. “Why did ya leave yer retreat to run yer little tourist trap if ya were trying to hide from him?”

Duffy grinned. “He tracked me down even there, but when he saw the condition of the place, he seemed quite put out that I wasn’t rolling in money. I invited him to stay and live with his pop, but from that moment on, he wanted nothing to do with me. I think it embarrassed him.”

“I wonder what he would think if he knew ya had a nice bank account from those investments ya made on Mainor.” Tanis laughed. “Just because someone has money doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to live in extravagance.”

“To be honest with you, Tanis, old boy, there’s not much left over from all that. It cost me quite a wad to make that trip to rendezvous with you and then the return trip home. Travel between the planets isn’t cheap, my friend.”

“Ask ya something?” Tanis requested.

“Sure, what do you want to know?”

“With such a bad experience with yer other offspring, ya don’t seem too bothered with Max contacting ya. Why?”

Duffy scratched an ear. “It was what he wrote in his letter, Tanis. He told me that you’d found out about us and looked into it, and how your captain broke the news to him. He said he felt he had the responsibility to let me know, but he also apologized that he wanted to stay with the Blue Horizon, rather than move to Fyn to live with me. He was honest, Tanis, and he didn’t want anything from me. He only felt I had the right to know I had a son in the event I wound up going to battle on Nalirra.” Duffy’s eyes grew moist and he stopped to wipe them, unashamed to do so in front of his long-time friend. “Max is a good soul, Tanis. I think he’s had some terrific folk to be around after leaving the Dump. He’s turned out alright.”

“We think he’s a good kid, too,” the desert fox replied. “He made a major repair on our ship a few days ago, all without the help of anyone else. If he hadn’t done that on his own initiative, we’d be scrambling at this very minute to try to get the repairs done in time for our landing. He’s a good learner and is doing well.”

“Thank you for telling me that, Tanis. He may be my son, but we have separate paths to take. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help raise him, especially now knowing the environment where he grew up, but I’m glad he met your people. It’s the best thing that could have happened to him. Tell him that if he wishes to write to me, not as a relative, but as a friend, I’d be happy to hear from him.”

“I’ll make sure he knows, Duffy.”

“Looks like my time is up, so I’ll have to sign off here. Take care, Tanis!”

“Take care of yerself, Duffy. I’m glad yer doing alright.”    

*** 

Alexandrius loomed blue and bright in the forward windows, both of its small moons full on opposite sides of the world with a backdrop of glittering stars. Clouds swirled like ribbons across its surface and the planet’s oceans glittered even from the distance of spatial orbit.

Merlin sat in the pilot seat, Taro was stationed at the Com terminal and Renny was at navigation. As usual every time the Blue Horizon approached her homeworld, Samantha was on the bridge in the engineering seat to watch the planet come up to meet them.

“Resetting ship’s clocks to Iverson standard time,” Taro announced over the intercom. “Local time is oh-eight thirty-seven.”

The red fox received a signal in her headset and nodded to herself at the information scrolling across her station screen. “This is the SS Blue Horizon,” she stated into her microphone, “Planetary Alignment registry number PA1138. We’re coming in on standard approach vector for landing at the Aglet Spaceport in Iverson.” She listened a second and then answered, “Book Depot.” She received the transmitted coordinates on her screen and as she listened, her fingers glided across her panel to transfer the data to Renny’s terminal. The cheetah set about programming the information into the main computer as Taro finalized their approach from the Alexandrius Defense Authority.

“ADA has given us the okay for deorbit, Captain,” she said over her shoulder.

“Good,” the wolf replied. “Renny?”

“Transferring navigational trajectory to your panel now,” the cheetah answered.

“All hands, all hands,” Taro announced on ship-wide speakers, “deorbit has begun. Strap yourselves in. We should be landing in approximately forty minutes.”

Merlin moved the guidance shifts forward and the ship nosed down toward the blue world. Renny flicked a switch at his station and the forward windows took on an orange hue as the heat shields activated. There was a resistance to the controls as the atmosphere thickened with their descent. The blue oval-shaped freighter dropped quickly toward the planet’s surface through a clear morning sky.

Thirty-five minutes later, members of the crew all over the ship swallowed in unknown unison. They all trusted Pockets’ assessment that the repair to the landing gear while in flight by their young mechanic appeared to have been done correctly, but there was still a little apprehension now that the time for landing had come.

Merlin checked his readouts, adjusted his course over the countryside and dropped their speed. A small city appeared on the distant horizon and they could see other ships landing and launching over the metropolitan sky.

“Here we go,” Merlin said. The wolf dropped the ship’s altitude further, and then decreased its speed so as not to create a sonic boom to frighten to the non-sentient livestock below. The city approached quickly, and soon they were being escorted by a couple of smaller guidance craft that Taro chatted with over the com channel. He dropped their altitude to twelve hundred feet and slowed to within flight speed limits.

“There’s the spaceport,” Taro said.

Samantha had been quiet throughout most of their descent, and with their slowed speed she unbuckled her harness and stood up for a better view of the city, which seemed to glow in the morning light.

“Sam,” Merlin said, “start equalizing our internal air pressure with that of the outside and then begin atmosphere transfer.”

“Aye, Captain,” she answered, returning to her seat.

Taro engaged a few switches and then spoke over the ship-wide intercom, “Artificial gravity will be disabled in fifteen seconds. In another five minutes, we will be on the ground with full engine shutdown. All personnel report to the cargo bay in ten minutes for cargo detail.”

The ship slowed even more and Renny glanced out the windows. They were moving beneath the spaceport traffic and on approach toward a small beige building. In large green letters across the top of the structure were the words, Book Depot. The Blue Horizon stopped forward movement above a paved surface ringed with flashing lights and began dropping slowly.

Merlin hesitated only a moment before he flipped the toggle to lower the landing gear. Renny jumped at the slight click of the switch and then grinned foolishly.

“Landing gear has been extended and locked into place,” Pockets reported in from the engine room. There was an almost tangible relief in the air from that announcement and then Merlin set his ship gently onto the pad with the slightest of bumps. Max had done his job right.

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