©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame
Chapter Six - A Rude Awakening
“Dr. Kate. This is your wake-up alarm. Please wake up.”
The SI’s voice sounded far away, but the project director kept her eyes closed.
“Doctor Kathleen Ruston. This is your wake-up alarm. Please wake up.”
This time he sounded closer, almost right in her ear.
“Wha’mtr?” she mumbled groggily.
“That is better, but you need to wake up. Please wake up.”
“Dr. Kate, it is the planned time for you to rise, but we have a situation. I need you to awaken and clear your thoughts.”
Kathleen swallowed, running a thick tongue across her teeth and then made an effort to clear her throat. Without opening her eyes, she yawned widely and then asked, “How long’ve been asleep?
“Seventy-five years, seven months, six days, four hours, twenty-three minutes and —”
“Be’an a’fully specific. Plez generalize.”
“As you wish, ma’am.”
“Are we, uhm, thur yet?” She was still having trouble speaking, as if the tongue in her mouth was unused to forming words. Even her hearing seemed distorted; her voice did not sound right, but Arion’s words were crisp and clear.
“We are approximately two weeks away from orbital insertion over Bellerophon. As per mission protocols, we are right on target to 51 Pegasi.”
“Have - have ve flipped?”
“Yes. I can give you an accurate time count, if you wish, but in the generalization that you requested, the ship flipped outside the heliosphere months ago for active deceleration, and we have already made a close pass in and around Dimidium to reduce our speeds so that we do not over-shoot our goal, which is directly ahead out-system of us.”
“Arion-1 has weathered the voyage well, a sign of excellent craftsmanship. However, we have another issue — a major issue that will need your full attention when I explain it to you.”
Another yawn. “What sort of issue?”
“Full attention. You will need to awaken completely.
“No, I do not think that would be wise.”
“If you want full focus,” -yawn- “you will give coffee.”
“Not until we know how it will affect you.”
“Effect is wake me up.”
“Not yet, Dr. Kate.”
“Caffeine – need it.”
“I am not a tyrant, but I can be stubborn.”
The director let out a long sigh and forced her eyes open. There were a few blurred spots of light in her field of vision, but the first thing she noticed was the darkness. It was not a total black, but more of a dark gray.
“Why are the lights down?”
“I have them off for a purpose, Dr. Kate.”
She felt a little more awake with each passing moment, vaguely aware of the scientific knowledge that the SI had likely administered a diuretic to flush the medical sedatives out of her system; she felt the strong need to urinate.
“Bathroom,” she stated simply.
“Go ahead, you are still attached to the system, but I do not want you to rise just yet.”
Kathleen swallowed again and relieved herself into the elimination flange and tubing still in place between her legs, thankful that it was only a Synthetic Intelligence present for such a personal act. When she was finished, she felt a warm wash of water cleansing her, and then a mild vacuum to remove residue. The need taken care of, she actually felt more alert.
“Done. Can I get up now?”
“Not yet, Dr. Kate. You are still physically hooked into the cryo system via a series of IV tubes and wrapped up in the neuro-netting, all of which would prevent you from rising. We need to have a conversation before I remove them.”
“With the lights off?”
“Yes, with the lights off.”
“Before I even sit up?”
The woman cleared her throat again and tried to relax upon the cryo chamber cushion beneath the wire net, but it almost felt like she was lying on a rubber garden hose. She ignored it for now, since her posterior was probably just numb from spending over seventy-five years in one spot.
“Wait,” she murmured when something floated to the surface of her memory. “Where’s Dr. Kazama? Isn’t he supposed to be the first one revived?”
“Under normal circumstances, yes, but that does not fit the current criteria. Protocol requires that I awaken you first in the event of a deviation.”
“That doesn’t bode well, but I think I’m probably awake enough to listen to your worries, papa bear.”
“Cute. Your vitals and brainwave patterns appear to confirm cognizance at this time.”
Kathleen snorted forcefully in annoyance, and the loudness of it surprised her. “Okay, Arion. What’s got your tail in a knot?”
“I find it interesting that you should use that metaphor at this moment. It is - appropriate.”
“Yes, ma’am. Please note that what I am about to tell you is mostly assembled out of conjecture, as I do not have all of the facts.”
“Your tone suggests annoyance, but I assure you that my hesitation to come right out and tell you what has happened is justified.”
“If you’re hesitating, it must be serious.”
“It is. What I have to tell you will come as a shock, but it is necessary that you allow me to give you all the details before you submit to that shock.”
“Now you’re starting to scare me, Arion. All right, tell me why I am lying here naked in the dark without my coffee and give me your conjectures.”
“About two weeks prior to our launch, do you remember a conversation with First Officer Rod Vincent concerning the spatial shielding being installed over the outer hull of Arion-1?”
Kate was quiet for a moment before it came back to mind. “I think he was concerned that the shielding wouldn’t be adequate for our voyage through interstellar space, that we might all wake up mutated or sterile.”
“We, and I am including myself, assured him that everything was up to specification and would keep everyone safe. However, we were wrong and Mr. Vincent was correct.”
That last statement made the director pause and lick her lips. “We are all now sterile?”
“That has yet to be ascertained without further tests and analysis, but the fact exists that there have been mutations.”
Kate swallowed. “What kind? How bad?”
“Without further physical examinations, I cannot give you a comprehensive answer, but if you will allow me to present a probable scenario, we will get to that.”
Up until this moment, the woman had remained still on the bed with her arms relaxed on the cushion beside her, but now she brought her arms up to her chest beneath the wire net cocoon and suddenly froze. Her movements were limited due to IV tubes connected to her arms, but two things occurred to her instantly. The first was that her breasts were substantially smaller than they should be, and instead of her hands resting upon bare flesh, her fingers came into contact with what felt like… hair. Considering that the cancer treatments had killed all of the hair follicles of her body, she should not be feeling hair anywhere — especially not on her chest. Had she mutated into a man?
“Dr. Kate, do not move. Please lie still.”
Ignoring him, she spread out her hands, and with the limitations beneath the snug net, she slowly moved them over herself; everywhere she touched that she could reach, there was hair, but with the elimination flange between her legs, she was unable to check there. Tilting her chin down to her chest and threading her fingers up through the wire net, she discovered this hair even across her neck and cheeks.
She almost stopped breathing when she moved her hands to the side of her head and did not feel her ears where they were supposed to be. She did locate them, however, higher up on her skull, and again, they were covered in hair. Her ears were soft and pliable, and when she brushed some of the hairs sticking out from inside, one of her ears twitched!
With a new suspicion, Kathleen brushed the side of a broad nose with one hand and found whiskers. When she touched them, the sensation she got was almost electric – not in her fingers, but as if the whiskers were sending signals directly into her brain.
“A-Arion?” she asked hoarsely, quickly moving a hand inside the net and down beneath her. There, as an extension of her spine, was a thick rope of a tail, and it was only then that she realized that was not hair all over her body, but fur! She had not turned into what she had supposed a hairy man, but an animal!
“What’s – what’s happened to me? Am I a – a – c-c-c-cat?”
“Dr. Kate – Kathleen. From all appearances, both visual and physical examinations that I have been able to conduct from within your cryo-tube, you seem to have become a blend of both human and feline.”
“How? How?” she repeated, barely audible.
“Now that you have discovered your physical attributes on your own before I would have recommended it, this would be a good time for me to explain my conjectures.”
“Ohmigosh!” the woman exclaimed, starting to hyperventilate. “I – uh, I – uh, I – uh,”
“Have a mild sedative, Dr. Kate.”
The director continued making gasping noises for a moment, but soon her heart rate began to slow and she swallowed several times to get herself under control. Arion granted her a few moments of respectful silence.
“Uhm, Arion,” she said after quiet reflection, “Thank you.”
“You are welcome, Dr. Kate. Let me know when you are ready for me to continue with my report.”
“Before you do, will you bring up the lights now? I assume you had them down so I wouldn’t see myself – before you could explain.”
“Your assumption is correct, but I would still like to give you that explanation before I allow you to see yourself.”
Kate put a hand over her heart and was reassured that its beat was only slightly faster than normal. Either she was still in mild shock, or it was a – feline attribute.
“I seem to recall you saying you would save up the heart attacks until we had reached Belle. You’re early.”
“Some emergencies require me to reprioritize.”
“Okay, I think I am ready – again. I will try to remain calm.”
“Let me talk to the scientist within you.”
The director willed herself to relax upon the cushion beneath her. She was now consciously aware of the tail protruding from her spine above her backside and realized that its tip was twitching in response to her mental state. She inhaled slowly, and then let out a long breath.
“Oh – okay,” she said at last. “What do you think has happened? Talk to me. Tell me a story.”
“Once upon a time,” the SI began.
Kate chuckled and closed her eyes. “Very cute. Get on with it.” Satisfied that he now had her attention and she seemed to be focused once more, Arion proceeded.
“With a history of over a hundred years of spaceflight within the Sol system, shielding against stellar radiation had developed well enough that every manned ship to leave the Earth was more than sufficiently protected against such harmful effects. Even the flexible fabrics and hard-shell materials developed for spatial pressure suits protected the wearer with a liberal margin for safety.
“Having never traveled beyond our own interplanetary neighborhood, however, there was no way to know that the heliosphere surrounding the solar system may have provided extra protection against the rest of the galaxy – protection that was lost once far outside of our star’s influence. During the years of travel, I continually monitored interstellar conditions far ahead of our flight path. I was unable to push Arion-1 up to our top velocity at half-light speed until after we had safely passed through a hundred-thousand Astronomical Units of the Oort Cloud, and that in itself took several years.
“Unfortunately, as a construct, my sensors were only able to detect cosmic radiations that they were designed to look for. It is my conjecture that there may be other types of radiation permeating the vast unknown regions of space that I have been unable to detect, and that our interplanetary shielding was insufficient to repel such rays.
“Whatever this external force may be, it seems that during the long years of travel through interstellar space, the ship was continually bombarded with it, and over time the protection provided by selenomelanin in the cryo cocktail broke down. However, instead of this unknown spatial radiation killing you, the cosmic rays apparently passed in through all of the animals, embryos and DNA samples stored on the outer concentric decks, and copied or carried genetic code from them and into you, altering your own DNA. It would not have been an instantaneous change, but gradually over the decades of time – so gradual that I did not detect alterations to your changing physical readings until too far into your transformations to do anything about it.”
“Could you have done anything about it?”
“Perhaps I could have tried to screen out the damaged selenomelanin in your bloodstream, or possibly constructed additional shielding over the human cargo deck using my waldo. As such, I may not have been able to do anything about a type of radiation that my store of human knowledge has no record of or even a way to detect. For all I know, it could possibly even pass through the dense element of lead, of which we only have a limited supply on board.”
“In other words, it could have happened anyway.”
“That is my conclusion, yes.”
“Has this unknown force had any adverse effects on the animals and embryos? Will any of our animals turn out to have human characteristics?”
“Oddly enough, I can find no mutations in any that I have examined, but I will continue to screen them all. They were all on decks above you, so the passage of the rays appear to have moved one direction from external to internal.”
“And since the decks were rotating, these rays roasted us evenly as if we were in a rotisserie,” Dr. Kate murmured. She fell quiet for several long moments. “How many of our personnel have – have changed like I have?”
“I have checked all one hundred cryo pods. There have been such genetic changes within all of them.”
“Aside of a – furry transformation, is everyone alright?”
“No, Dr. Kate. There were two RIPs as a direct result of the genetic edits.”
A sudden chill went up the woman’s spine at this news and she swallowed with difficulty. “Wh-who?”
“Felicia Painter and Eric Frasier.”
“Oh no! Those two were to be married on the day we land on Belle!”
“Their cryo pods are next to one another. It was unfortunate where they were located.”
Kate wiped at the moisture in her eyes. “What did the location have to do with it?”
“Their pods were in a direct line beneath certain DNA samples in storage. The genetic code that merged with Ms. Painter was avian, specifically Cardinalis cardinalis – a Northern Cardinal, but the DNA strands were too different to recombine successfully and she did not survive the process. I recorded her death approximately forty-seven years ago. It seems that only mammalian-types effectively survived the recombination process, although such experimental mergers have never been successful in a laboratory setting.”
Kate returned her hand to her heart to feel it pumping wildly from this news. She steeled herself for the answer to her next question. “What of Eric? What DNA was he merged with?”
“Insect, specifically Danaus plexippus – a Monarch Butterfly.”
“I recorded his death within days of hers, although at the time I was unsure as to the cause. Both bodies are being kept in cold storage inside their pods and stowed in a compartment out of the way. I assumed you would want them held for burial after you have landed on the surface of Bellerophon.”
“Yes, thank you. How – how far along were their transformations before they died?” The director had sudden horrific mental images of what they might have become.
“Fortunately for each, neither survived long after the new DNA sequencing took effect, so externally both still appear to be human. This is one of the reasons I did not detect the changes right away. At the time of their deaths, the cause was still unknown to me. It was only later than I was able to work out the basis due to the changes to the rest of you.”
Kate felt a catch in her throat and she could feel more moisture leaking into the fur beneath her eyes. Felicia and Eric were the first casualties of the mission, and they had never even made it to the new world.
She looked down at her feline hands through the wire net covering her body; the room was still dark, but her new eyes were able to use the small amount of illumination from the room’s instrumentation to discern things somewhat. Her fingers seemed to be a little shorter than they had been originally, but also thicker for the retractable claws within them, and the fingers and palms of both hands were padded.
“Arion,” she said in a quiet voice after several minutes. “When can I see what I’ve become? You said that I am feline, but I can only tell so much looking at my hands in the dark – or should I call them paws?”
“If you are prepared for what you will find, we can do this now.”
The light levels slowly increased and she could see more details of the room in low illumination even before it was up to normal levels. The upper lid of the cryo pod was already open and locked upright behind her, so she glanced over to the side and was startled to see a man standing beside her.
“Arion?” The figure nodded and gave her a casual smile. This did not look like the stilted, articulated representation of her friend, but he looked as real as his high-definition digital depiction on a screen ever had.
Without a word, the man began shutting down lines and disconnecting the cryo pod connections to the woman through the netting. Kate grunted when some of the intravenous needles were pulled from her arms, legs and neck, with each entry point beneath her fur sealed with a spot of biodegradable medical glue that would also deaden the pain at the injection points.
As the lights steadied at room normal, Kate studied Arion’s figure. His movements were smooth and she could even see muscles and tendons moving beneath his skin layer as he worked with meticulous precision until all but the final items were removed. The neurological wire netting that was used during her sleep to stimulate her muscles to prevent atrophy came off finally, and he folded it aside on a small rolling table. The last item was the elimination flange between her legs. Kate felt her face heat up beneath her fur, but Arion gently removed the intimate components from her genital region without emotion.
“You’re looking more realistic than you did the last time I saw you,” she remarked as he held out a hand to help her sit up. She kept her eyes upon his face as she slid her legs off the side of the cryo bed. “Has Pinocchio become a real little boy?”
“I have had over three-quarters of a century to fine-tune and improve upon the original model,” Arion explained. “I still do not use him very often, but having access to hands and fingers to work on the ship’s systems has been a valuable asset. Disconnecting you from the cryo pod would normally have been done with automatic systems before you awoke, but after your traumatic transformation, I thought perhaps you might like to see a familiar face.”
Kate gave a weary smile toward the automaton and reached up to caress its cheek with the back of her fingers. The skin was pliable and only resembled human tissue, but her smile disappeared when she focused not upon his humanlike expression, but the thick fur growing from her own limb.
She looked down at her seated form. Her whole body seemed to be covered in uniform creamy beige color, with only gradual white highlights across her chest, belly and crotch. She ran her hands over her chest, again focused upon the fact that her breasts were smaller than they used to be. Beneath the thick coating of fur, she found her nipples, but noticed right off that even without a shirt or top, they were sufficiently covered up without being presented to the world around her. She felt around lower for two or four more that a cat might have, but did not find any extras. Idly, the thought occurred to her that like this on a hot summer’s day, she could go without a top and still be covered. It would not have been the first time she had visited such a beach in Europe where swim suits were optional, and although she had gone topless before, she had never tried going fully nude in public.
Her hips looked wider than she remembered and this brought a frown to her face. She ran her hands over them and even probed her fingers into the skin beneath the fur. She traced the hip bones and realized they were larger as well.
“Arion,” she ventured, “examine the structure of my hip bones. Is it malformed?”
“Negative, Dr. Kate. Your hips seem to be in good proportion for their function, which is to say that from all appearances, you should be able to get down on all fours and walk that way just as comfortably as up on your feet.”
“All fours, huh? If that were the case, my legs would have to be – digitigrade.” Her jaw hung open in quiet surprise as she took a look at her feet for the first time. What used to be the tarsals of her ankle and heel were now stretched and farther up her foot; when she walked, it would be primarily on her toes – her digits. Like her fingers and palms, there were thick pads on the bottom of her toes.
She braced her hands on the bed and then pushed up to stand on those strange new feet. As she had started to suspect, the new configuration actually made her taller, as if it would be to stand up on her toes on regular human feet. Arion’s waldo stood ready to catch her if she fell, so she took a tentative step. She remained steady and maintained her balance, so she took several more steps out into the room. She wobbled a moment and then realized that from the movement behind her, the tail was moving to counterbalance the wobble. She suppressed a grin and took more steps, each one feeling more and more – normal.
“Do we have a mirror in here?” she asked, again looking down at herself. “I want to see my new face.”
Several tall narrow panels in one wall flipped around and she turned toward a trio of full-length mirrors arranged in a semi-circle, a common feature of cryo chambers for those awakened. She had fully expected to see a domestic housecat looking back at her, but instead it was an African lioness! Her head was vaguely shaped in a large blunt triangle. Large rounded, fuzzy ears were located at the top sides and facing straight ahead. Her eyes were small, round and golden. There was black, almost like eyeliner in the fur around each eye, with a broad, white line beneath each. Her nose, which had been small and thin during her human years, was now broad and flat, with the end just as black as the eyeliner. Her lower jaw and muzzle were also white, though the rest of her face and head were beige. She turned her head back and forth, and dipped it down to look at the top of it too. Despite that there were a lot of feline features in that face, there was also human familiarity there, as if Kathleen Ruston was somehow still in the mix; at first glance, she looked nothing like the person she had been, but if she studied and squinted a little, she could still see her face in there. Even the fur on the top of her head reflected a bit of the auburn tint of her original hair color.
She then looked at herself as a whole, her hands resting upon her widened hips, tail leisurely swishing back and forth behind her. That appendage was a darker tan than the overall beige of her body, and the black tip looked as if it had been dipped in an antique inkwell. She turned her hips slightly and posed for her reflection, a sly smile creeping across her features.
Arion chuckled and the lioness looked over her shoulder at him. “You have something to say?” she asked.
“I am amused at your modeling,” he replied. “The shock seems to have worn off.”
“It will take some getting used to, but since I assume that the change is irreversible, I think I can grow to like it. After all, I now have hair again, even if it is actually fur and all over my body!”
“Before you were awakened, I did extensive research into the human knowledge records encoded within my memory systems, but I was unable to deduce any method that would reverse your changes, even if we used your original DNA collected before we launched out from El-Five. We simply do not have the means to reverse, or even duplicate, what has been done to you. I am afraid that it is quite permanent.”
Kate had a sudden thought and looked across the room at the three other cryo pods still sealed with their activity lights blinking. Stepping quietly as if she might awaken her companions, she dropped to all fours and padded softly to the pod closest to hers. When she reached it, she stopped and looked back at her hind quarters, realizing just what she had done. She glanced back at Arion’s waldo that had followed her and gave him a wry smile.
“Huh,” was all she said before she turned back to the pod and got back up onto her feet to stand upright beside it.
Looking through the darkened glasteel pod lid, Captain Robeson now resembled a tan-furred cougar, a big cat also known as a mountain lion – and he was a mix of man and feline just as she was. She gave a small, voluntary start when she saw him like this, but it quickly passed. She would have to get used to such surprises in the coming days when they revived everyone else. If she did not know that the form in the pod was Kenneth Robeson, she might not have recognized him right off. As with herself, there were elements of his face that she remembered, but his features were blended so well with the new visage that he could be easily mistaken for a total stranger. She briefly wondered if they would all need to wear name tags until they all got used to seeing who was whom again.
At this thought, she looked up at Arion, and then over at the next pod. “Are we all kinds of cats?” she asked.
“No, Dr. Kate. In this chamber alone, only you and Captain Robeson resulted in feline physiologies. The rest of the personnel are as widely varied as a veritable zoo.”
“A zoo, huh?” Out of curiosity, the lioness stepped over to Will Andresen’s pod and looked in through the lid. The ship’s engineer still slept soundly, but what she saw was not the robust man, but a North American red wolf. He still looked as large and muscular as he always had, but the lupine face gave her a brief chill of instinctive fear. He did not resemble anything so monstrous as a mythical werewolf, but her reaction to his hybrid face was just as real.
She swallowed deeply and stepped back away from the pod, almost as if he would awaken and attack her as a rival predator. Then she looked back across the room at Kazama’s pod. She wondered what he had become, but she was almost afraid to look.
She put a hand up to her chest and felt her rapid heartbeat. “I – I don’t know how much more of this I can take right now,” she murmured to the SI.
“Feel free to take a moment to calm your nerves,” Arion suggested. “I think you will find Dr. Kazama’s new form more to your liking.”
“Are you sure about that?” she muttered. “I don’t know what he could have turned out to be that I will like. Even forewarned, this is upsetting me more than I thought it would.”
“Just relax. You will have to steel yourself to get used to seeing the new forms of our personnel. They are wide and varied, and you will eventually have to talk to them all.”
Kate nodded, fully understanding that he was right, but gave herself another few moments to use relaxation methods she had learned long ago. The stresses of being the top director of Project Pegasus had warranted learning such techniques to keep herself composed and stoic in front of those she had responsibilities over.
When she finally felt she was calm enough to proceed, she first looked at Arion, who gave her a reassuring smile and nod, and then she looked at Kazama’s pod. Readying herself for whatever it was she might find in that rectangular container, she let out a long sigh and then stepped forward.
She peered over in through the lid, and froze. The man’s new form was nothing that she had expected, and an unconscious smile crossed her features. Dr. Satoru Kazama had become a river otter, and his face was rather cute. He had retained his human size, but the dark brown fur was sleek, his ears were small, and the whiskers that sprouted from his muzzle were long and thick. He even possessed a bushy pair of eyebrows that blended well with the rest of his fur, but they were prominent enough that she could almost see his facial expressions with them already.
She studied him for another minute before she simply looked up at the ceiling and began laughing. It was a chuckle at first, but then strengthened into a full belly laugh. She had to hold onto the cryo pod with one hand while she wiped the tears of laughter from her face.
The feline looked over at the waldo’s amused expression and shook her head. “I’m fine,” she said at last.
“Why did you laugh?”
“I wasn’t laughing at what he has become,” she explained with a grin, “but I think it was the sudden realization that he wasn’t a monster after seeing Will as a werewolf! The emotional relief was too much and I couldn’t help the release. I’m fine, really.”
Arion chuckled. “I am glad to hear it. As I said, you will have to get used to seeing everyone in their new forms, and your reactions to them can be a detriment or a benefit when you see them awake.”
“You’re right. There’s nothing we can do to reverse it all, so I have to get a grip on myself and show everyone the stern project director they’ve always known. They’ll need to see a confident face.”
Kate looked down at the river otter a moment more. “Should we revive him next? The original mission protocol had the ship’s chief physician waking first.” She then looked across the room at the captain’s pod.
Arion followed her gaze. “At this point, I do not believe it will matter which one is awakened next, but before anyone else is revived, I want to give you a complete physical. There is only so much I can do from within the cryo pod, and since you were the first, we need to make sure you are healthy before we awaken the others. If we can establish that your organs are functioning well, your nervous and endocrine systems operating as they should with your hybridity and that nothing is malfunctioning, then we can proceed with either Dr. Kazama or Captain Robeson as you wish. In addition to everything else, you have just had a new duty assigned to you.”
“What duty is that?”
“Until Dr. Fernando can be revived, you will have to take on the role of counselor. You made it well enough through your personal shock and trauma, and you will be needed to help get the others through it too. Some of them may not be as accepting of the unexpected situation and may need your calming influence.”
Kate sighed, rubbed her eyes and then refocused on Arion’s waldo. “Now can I have some coffee?”
“Not until we know how it will affect your new physiology.”
“The sooner we can establish that you are healthy and that stimulants are not harmful to your new body, the quicker we can ascertain that you may be welcome to have your coffee. Not before.”
Kate let out another embellished, drawn-out sigh. “Right. Let’s get this over with. I would rather have you do a physical on me than Dr. Kazama anyway.”
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