FICTIONAL LIFE

 

 

ARION

©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame

 

Chapter Seven - Rising Fur

 

Once Arion had completed a thoroughly comprehensive physical examination of the new hybrid feline, he presented Kate with a hot cup of fresh coffee as atonement. Despite that she was now the merged result of two different species, she was surprisingly healthy — healthier than she had been when fully human, in fact. It was still to be determined what new dietary requirements she might be facing, but the SI had determined at the least that there was nothing in a cup of coffee that should be harmful to her new physiology.

Drinking from a cup had to be done differently now. It was not easy to make a seal at the edge of the cup with a bifurcated lip, and more than once she dribbled some into her chest fur. She had never owned a domestic cat herself, but she remembered something she had seen on a video and tried lapping up her coffee instead of sipping it. To her amazement, the papillae spines on her tongue picked up liberal amounts of the liquid and she was more successful drinking her coffee this way.

She enjoyed her coffee while leaning idly against Captain Robeson’s cryo pod, her tablet reflecting the unit’s system data in one hand. She had difficulty using claw-tipped fingers on a touch-screen, but managed to pull up the information she wanted with some creative handling.

With a sigh, she dropped it to her side and looked in through the window at the man, deciding he was just as handsome in this form as he had been as a human. They were only barely close friends, but she had always felt an attraction to him. Workplace relationships, however, rarely worked out well so she had never given him even a hint how fond she had been of him.

At first she had decided to have him awakened next as the captain of the ship, but knew deep down that Kazama would be offended if he wasn’t the next – especially since he had gone to sleep fully expecting to be the first.  Arion had only just started decanting the good doctor, and would begin on Robeson and Andresen shortly thereafter, so she would have a little more time to herself before these “furmen” would join her in the Former Human Club.

When her coffee was gone, she walked to a counter to set down the cup and passed the mirrors on the way. She paused for a brief look at her reflection and had the sudden realization that she had been running around in nothing but her natural fur coat for the past three hours. Although she had already determined that all her private bits were fully covered as long as she kept her tail down, she was amazed at how comfortable she had become with her new form in such a short time.

Before Kazama was fully defrosted, however, she knew she probably needed to put on something, so she moved to the pod she had slept in for so many years and opened the clothing drawer at the foot end.

She set down her tablet, pulled out the wool sweater and raised a critical eyebrow at it.  Wool… over fur?  No, she did not think that would work at all. She started to pull it on regardless, but she did not even get her head through the neck hole before she already knew her supposition was correct. For the moment, she set it into the open pod and then reached for the slacks without even bothering with her underwear.

These were made of a slicker material than the woolly-pully, but she had to stretch out and point her digitigrade foot to get it down the leg of the pants, being extra-careful that her toe-claws didn't snag the delicate, light-weight fabric. She made it, however, and managed to get the other foot in as well, but when she pulled it up toward her waist, there was a new barrier. The waistband would not go over her tail, and even if she could, where would the tail go? Down into one of the legs or sticking straight up the back?

She huffed in annoyance and shimmied back out of the slacks; putting them on had rubbed her fur the wrong direction anyway. Her normal clothing had never been designed to be worn by an animal, even a humanistic animal that was still primarily bipedal. She left them in the pod with the sweater and looked into the drawer. Left was a bra, a pair of panties, ankle socks, a pair of shoes and her project hat – none of which she could wear without some kind of alteration. Even the cap would not fit on her head with her ears higher up on her skull; there was not enough room between them.

“Arion!” she exclaimed in frustration.  The waldo was busy working with Kazama, but the SI’s voice answered from a nearby wall screen.

“Yes, Dr. Kate?”

“I’m covered in fur, but I still need clothing! I can’t run naked around the ship once we have personnel up and awake!”

“Do you remember where the tailor scanning room is located?”

Kate looked at the screen in silence for a moment, but then nodded. “Down the main corridor to the first junction, turn left and then it’s in the second compartment on the left.”

“Very good. Your memory still serves after so long.”

“To my memory, it’s only been a few weeks since I was in there last.”

“I can give your body a fresh laser scan and then we will see what I can design that will comfortably fit your new form. Material for the printer is still packed away, but I will see if I can have something made for you before the others see your furry nakedness.”

“On my way!”

***

When Kate returned to the cryo chamber, she walked straight to Robeson’s pod. Without any hesitation, she opened his clothing drawer and pulled out his long white shirt. She pulled it on, buttoned it up and then rolled up the sleeves to her elbows. The shirt tail hung to her knees, though it was tented in the back from her tail.

Arion had informed her that it would be a few hours before he could print up what would amount to a lightweight swim cover with a split up the back, and a pair of shorts with a cutout for her tail and a strap over the top of it to keep the waistband in place. Footwear for her digitigrade feet would require additional research and engineering.  Each person brought out of hibernation would need to be scanned to provide them with some kind of clothing, but she was sure that some or most of the males could get by with just a pair of shorts.

During the years the project had spent with Arion-1 in construction, she had always felt chilly while on board the vessel, but now that she possessed her own private fur coat, she was quite comfortable. The captain’s shirt was for nothing more than a covering against other eyes that would soon be looking at her.

Since the cryo chamber was not equipped with any place to sit other than inside the pods, she moved back out to the waiting room in the next compartment, but she had barely arranged her tail in a seat that was not designed for a being with a rear appendage before Arion spoke to her.

“Dr. Kazama is now waking up and I have already begun the decanting process for Captain Robeson. You should probably be present to help me keep the doctor calm when he discovers his new form.”

“Yes, of course. I’ll be right there.”

In the next compartment, she moved directly for Kazama’s resting place, but Arion’s waldo held up a hand to stop her. “It would probably be best if you stay out of his field of vision until we think he is ready to see you as you are now.” Kate responded only with a silent nod and the SI lowered the room lighting as he had done with her.

Dr. Kazama coughed once and cleared his throat, though his eyes were still closed. His small ears swiveled toward the waldo’s voice, but otherwise the physician remained relatively still.

“Doctor Kazama. This is your wake-up time. Please wake up.”

“Mm, awake,” muttered the otter around a thick tongue. His vocal cords were completely different than they had been and Kate realized that she did not recognize his voice anymore. She wondered if hers had changed too; she had not even thought about that since discovering her own transformation.

“Dr. Kazama, you are drifting. Please wake up.” The otter snorted forcefully, but said nothing. Arion detected that the furman was slipping back into sleep so he tried a different tactic.

“Calling Dr. Kazama. You are needed in Emergency.”

“What’sit?” the physician asked in a huff. “What th’ ‘mergency?” He still had not opened his eyes.

“There have been unexpected mutations and aberrations; lives could be in danger.”

Kazama’s eyes snapped open. He tried to sit up, but was still restrained by everything hooked up to him. “Arion!” he bellowed with a high-registered squeak. “Get me outta this! Now! We’ve got an emergency!”

“Dr. Kazama, please calm down and just lay quietly while I fully finish bringing you out of the system.”

“Is there an emergency or not? Hurry!”

“Doctor, we do have a situation, but it can wait until you are fully decanted.”

“You said there was an emergency!”

“That was merely to wake you up. You were resisting.”

Kazama exhaled impatiently, but then forced himself to relax. As the waldo worked on him, his eyes narrowed and studied the automaton. “You’ve changed.”

“Yes sir, we all have.”

“What do you mean by that?”

As gently as he could, Arion began with the same explanations he had given Kate. Throughout the exposition, the doctor stopped him a few times for clarification, but he seemed to take the news with unexpected professionalism.

Since he had been unable to move until all of his connections and the netting had been removed, he finally asked the biggest question on his mind.

“So, Arion,” he said calmly. “When are you going to tell me what I’ve turned into? Will I scare small children when I’m trying to examine a sore throat?”

“I doubt you will,” Arion’s waldo responded with a smile. “Dr. Kate says you are now actually cute.

“Cute, huh? Well, at my age, I can accept cute. What am I, a puppy dog?” Before Arion could reply, the physician started looking around. “Wait — Dr. Kate? Is she already awake?”

“I’m here, Dr. Kazama.”

“I can’t see you.”

“I’m hiding in the dark until Arion is done with you.”

“You don’t sound like Kate.”

“I assure you it’s me.”

Hmph. Why are you awake? I was supposed to be the first one decanted! Is anyone else up? What about my nurse, Jessica?”

“As the project director, Arion followed emergency protocol and thawed me out first, and no, I’m the only one awake besides yourself.”

“Dr. Kazama, I need to remove your elimination flange now.”

“Uh, Kate, it’s not that I embarrass easily, but…”

“Your dignity is secure. I’m facing the other way.”

“Thank you.”

As Arion disconnected him, Kazama distracted himself by looking and feeling of his furry arms. His webbed fingers were shorter than he remembered and they were tipped with claws instead of fingernails, but the primary thought on his mind was in hoping this would not be a hindrance when he had to perform a surgery. He marveled at the new digitigrade configuration of his feet too.

“Okay, Dr. Kazama. You are free to sit up.”

The doctor did just that, and although the room lighting was still dim, he took a look at his lower half and did a silent inventory of all his parts. The count came up with an additional appendage, a thick tail extending from his spine that he had been laying upon. He rubbed it as if to get feeling into the thing and then he looked up at the nearby waldo.

“Looking at my hands, feet – and this tail, I would assume that I’ve become some kind of aquatic creature. Am I a beaver?”

“That is the wrong tail for a beaver,” Arion informed him. “You would now be classified as a hybrid of human and river otter.”

“A river otter. Huh.” His overall body fur was dark chocolate brown, though he had fur of cream under his neck and over his chest, crotch and inner thighs. He appeared to be similar in size that he was before, though maybe not as tall, since his legs seemed shorter.

Arion offered him a hand to help him out of the cryo pod and he took it without a word. Once he was on his feet, he took a few steps around his bed, but then he saw a shadowy figure across the room. Suddenly recalling that he had been parading around in nothing but his fur, he went to his clothing drawer and retrieved his lab coat. He did not even try on the rest of his clothing, already knowing that none of it would suit him, but at least the lab garment would give him some coverage, even if it would now be a little long for his height. Sitting on top of the coat was his round-rimmed glasses and he picked them up out of habit.

He tried to put them on, but he noticed two things right away. The ear pieces were not designed to reach ears relocated near the top of his head, and when he simply held the lenses up to his eyes, things became blurry. He tried to read a biometric screen on the side of his cryo pod, but nothing came into focus until he lowered the lenses and looked at it directly. He delightfully realized that he no longer needed them to read, and he had been wearing glasses since he was a child. He quietly folded them and put them into his pocket.

“Lights, please,” he said to Arion. The room illumination gradually raised to normal and he immediately started looking for a mirror, but standing against a wall with her arms behind her was an anthropomorphic African lioness wearing a man’s long white shirt. “Kate?” he ventured in a quiet whisper.

“It’s me, believe it or not.”

“You don’t look or even sound anything like Kathleen Ruston.”

“Likewise with yourself, Satoru Kazama.”  She gestured to the mirrors that still faced outward from the wall. “Go ahead, take a look at the new you.”

When he stepped up to look at his reflection, he glanced briefly at the lioness and then dropped his lab coat to the floor. Kate turned toward Arion to allow the otter a moment of naked privacy; while all of her bits were sufficiently covered up by her fur, not all of his were.

It only took a moment of looking at himself from several angles before he re-donned his lab coat.  “Well,” he muttered to Arion when he rejoined Kate and the waldo, “it appears that all my clothes will need alteration.”

“It will be arranged. All personnel will be needing new clothing.”

The doctor looked at his companions, thought of something, and then returned to the mirrors. He inspected a rather impressive set of canine teeth in his mouth and clacked them together in satisfaction; he only hoped he had not swallowed the two false teeth that he used to have in his mouth when the new ones had formed.

Kazama rubbed a finger through his whiskers and blinked rapidly from the effect it had on him. He smiled, shook his head and then wrung his hands together. “Well, we will have time to go over the implications of our changes later, but now we should decant Captain Robeson and Engineer Andresen per mission protocols.”

“The process has already begun for both of them, each to awaken about sixty minutes apart, the first in forty-five minutes,” Arion announced.

Kazama walked over to Robeson’s pod and pressed his thumb up against a biometric window to sign into the system. The screen rudely issued an off-key musical note and the otter tried again.  After getting another error, he turned his thumb up to the light and studied it with a frown.

“Arion, my good friend, can you compare my thumbprint now to what you have on file for me?”

“Certainly.”  Kazama put his thumb back on the glass and less than a moment later the SI gave this report. “Your new mustelid thumbs still possess a human-type print, and while it is similar, the whorls and lines are stretched beyond shapes recognizable to the scanner.”

“That means I won’t be able to log into any of my systems.”

“Not to worry, doctor. Since I can genetically confirm that you are Satoru Kazama, let me rescan each of your digits and I will override those in the system as your authenticated identification. Dr. Kate, I will need to do the same for you, as well as everyone else after they come out of hibernation.”

***

Kenneth Robeson did not react to his transformation as well as the ship’s doctor had – or even Kate.  He screamed and passed out when he saw the anthropomorphic river otter, before he had gotten any kind of an explanation. It took only a moment before he jerked and opened his eyes under the assault of the ammonium carbonate the doctor waved under his nose – a nose that was now many times more sensitive to smells than it ever had been.

“He might have reacted better if your face hadn’t been the first thing he saw when his eyes opened,” said a voice elsewhere in the dark room.

The monstrosity that stood over the captain grinned down at him, showing a sharp set of dental work beneath a furry and whiskered face. “He’s coming around,” said the river otter.  “Nurse, prepare the anal probe.”

“Dr. Kazama!”

The mustelid laughed aloud.  “Sorry, Kate; he was looking at me as if I was an alien who had abducted him.”

“I would too!”

The unseen voice was suddenly closer, right near Robeson’s ear. “Don’t mind him, Ken. That’s Dr. Kazama’s new face. I first thought it was cute, but that was only after I knew it was him.”

“Who – who are you p-people?” Robeson stammered, fright still coursing up and down his spine.

Then he heard the familiar voice of the SI as the waldo took Kazama’s place in his field of view. “Captain Robeson, this is Arion. You are still on Arion-1 and you have been awakened per mission protocol. As planned, we are fourteen days away from Bellerophon, but there has been an incident.”

“That animal you saw was our chief medical officer,” said the unseen speaker.

“That thing was Dr. Kazama?” he asked hoarsely. “Who are you? Is that Jessica? I don’t recognize your voice.”

“You know me as Dr. Kate, although my voice is only just one thing that’s changed about me. The incident that Arion mentioned has affected me too. It’s affected us all.”

“Incident…” Robeson repeated.  He swallowed and licked his lips with a thick tongue, a strange sensation in itself. “Why’s it dark in here?”

“Originally,” Arion answered, “the lights were down so we could ease you into an explanation before you saw anyone else.”

“Before you could have a chance to panic,” Kate added. “Dr. Kazama didn’t stick to the plan.”

“Sorry about that, my friend,” said the otter’s voice. Chastised, Kazama was now staying out of sight. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Yet you did,” muttered the captain.  He closed his eyes, still feeling the IV tubes and neuro-netting cocooned around him.  “Arion, please tell me what’s going on. If those others really are Satoru and Kathleen, they can stay quiet and let you give me an explanation.”

The waldo gave each of the others a brief look and they both nodded to him silently. Now that he could elucidate without interruption, Arion explained to Captain Robeson what he needed to know.

***

“Kazama is wearing his lab coat and Kate has stolen my shirt. What am I going to wear?” Robeson sat up in his cryo pod, his hands casually covering his crotch. He looked over at the lioness and raised a furry eyebrow. “What’s up with that, anyway? Usually a woman wouldn’t be wearing a man’s shirt unless it was the morning after they’d slept together.  Have we slept together, Kathleen?”

Kate laughed aloud and walked saucily toward his pod, toying playfully with the top buttons of the shirt. “What? You’re not chivalrous enough to let a lady cover up from prying eyes? You want to see what’s beneath your shirt?”

Robeson nearly choked. Kathleen Ruston had never come onto him before. Granted, he had opened with his remark, but for the stoic project director to respond the way she did certainly surprised him. Was this a result of her transformation or was she suffering from a chemical imbalance?

“I, uh—”

“Relax,” she told the cougar with a grin. “You have more to cover up than I do.” Her quick glance toward his hands made his face flush beneath his facial fur, but even more so when she fully unbuttoned the shirt and pulled it from her shoulders. She stood there bare in just her fur, holding out the garment toward him just out of reach. A soft growl escaped his throat and he stretched out his fingers to snare it from her with his claw tips. He draped it across his lap and stared at her.

Kate spread her arms out wide and did a full turn, allowing him and Kazama to examine her from all sides. “As you can see, my fur more than gives me adequate coverage – unless I’m on all fours, and then I just need to remember to keep my tail down.”

“Wait… all fours?” Kazama repeated. It was something he had not considered since his awakening, despite that he knew they all now possessed digitigrade feet.

Kate got down on all four limbs, mindful to keep her rear appendage lowered, and casually paced around the compartment. While doing so, it suddenly occurred to her why her chest was smaller than it had been. When down on all fours, breasts would have gotten in the way of her arms – or would that now be her front legs? In nature, a female’s mammaries would not extend and fill up with milk until she would need to feed her offspring. It now made sense.

She looked back at the males watching her, and then stood up again. “So,” she teased, “are you seeing any bits of me that you shouldn’t?” 

Kazama coughed into a hand and Robeson shook his head in quiet amazement. “No, Kate, you’re covered.”

“Well, Ken, it’s your turn. Get out of your bed and show us all what you look like.”  She surprised him yet again. In their years of association, she had never called him by his first name in casual conversation and now she had done it twice. This was a side of Kate he had not seen before; she had always kept things official between them, as she did with everyone on the project.

Without taking his eyes off of her form, he pulled the shirt up around his shoulders and slid his arms into it, but when he began to button it up, he saw a flaw in the plan. The shirt did not hang as low on him as it did her; he would get no real coverage where he needed it most, so he pulled it back off and set it on the cushion beside him.  Oh well…

Robeson started to get up, but as Kate had discovered earlier, his new feet were different to stand up on, and he felt unsure of himself for a moment.  He held onto the side of the cryo pod and then took a tentative step out into the room. Kate’s eyes were immediately drawn to his nakedness and she had to avert her eyes. His fur was not thick enough to hide his maleness, even if one part was sheathed and the remainder was covered over in its own thin coat of short fur.

His tail whipped out behind him to aid with counterbalance and he soon found his equilibrium. Instead of parading around the room as Kate had done, the male cougar made his way over to the mirrors, a popular destination of the room.

Robeson’s fur color was uniform sandy brown with some darkening toward his spine, stretching from the back of his neck down along to the base of his tail. Underlying the fur, however, his skin tone was just as dark as it had been before.  His tail was slightly lighter than the rest of his fur, matching the color of his sides, under his arms and inside his legs; it was thick in diameter and was long enough so the blackened tip just touched the floor at his elongated feet when it was not moving in tune with his emotions.

The muscles of his neck, shoulders, arms, legs and abdomen were clearly defined, despite that he had not exercised in over three quarters of a century. He was secretly delighted by this, as he had always enjoyed physical activity, even when he had been stationed on El-Five and made use of their gym facilities.

He reached up to touch his small round ears, looking at them in the mirrors, and noted how the backs were dark-rimmed as to be almost black with a nebulous white area near the middle.  His scalp was covered over with the same fur that covered his face, though it was pure black on top, likely a holdover from his original hair color.

The tip of his broad nose was a dusty brown, but his lips, jaws and neck were all white. The fur of his nose was the color of sand with darker browns tinting his cheeks and patches over his eyes. There was a darker brown strip leading up above his nose to his forehead, with two dark vertical strips an inch long right above the inside corner of each eye. The nose and muzzle extended out into his field of vision and would likely take some getting used to.

Despite that it was not his original reflection looking back at him, Ken Robeson felt as if he had been dealt a decent hand concerning his new physical appearance.  Of course, as soon as that thought registered in his mind, he suddenly remembered that despite his fur, he was still naked.

Covering up his privates, he turned back toward the others.  “Okay,” he said at last, “I need my shorts.”

“They won’t fit with your new tail,” Kazama murmured, keeping his lab coat buttoned around him.

“How about a kilt?” Kate suggested in amusement.  Robeson looked at Arion’s waldo and only now seemed to notice that even the android body had changed over the years, specifically in the look and movements in the face.  He did not mention it, however, but instead sighed aloud and walked back to his cryo pod.

“There are no kilts in my closet,” he muttered, reaching for his long shirt. He wrapped it around his waist and fastened a couple of the buttons to the side of his hip and then tied the sleeves together also. It looked ridiculous, but would suffice until Arion could print more appropriate clothing for him.

For more than the transformation of him and his companions, the one fact that disconcerted the captain the most was the look of intensity he kept seeing on Kate’s face. Although he was not yet used to her new visage, he could almost recognize a look of hunger in her eyes, and this worried him. How much of that was her and how much was the cat she was blended with?

“Mr. Andresen will be conscious soon,” Arion reported. “While we await his arrival, Captain, Dr. Kazama wants to give you a complete physical to make sure everything is functioning well within you.”

Robeson glanced briefly at Kate and she cleared her throat. “I am going to look in on the others,” she said, turning to enter the adjacent compartment that held the rest of the colony crew in slumber. “You can proceed without me watching.”

The project director did not see Robeson’s look of relief when she disappeared through the doorway.

***

After Kate shut the door behind her, she leaned back against it and rubbed her forehead. She was experiencing feelings and emotions foreign to her, and she knew it had to be her hybrid nature. The feline genetic material that had donated its DNA in the transformation process had never been a conscious, breathing creature, so she had no illusions that she was feeling what that lioness had felt. Still, whether it was feline instinct or a physiological imbalance while her own consciousness was still sorting out what she was supposed to be, the feelings were troubling.

Arion had said that she would have to play the role of counselor to those coming out of cryo sleep, but how was she supposed to help others when she could not help herself?  What they needed – what she needed – was an actual psychoanalyst. When it came time to decant the rest of the personnel, perhaps Counselor Fernando should be one of the first.

She straightened up and looked out into the compartment she had entered. The light panels were still dim, but she could see cryo pods stretching out into the gloom, lined up side by side with their heads toward the fore end of the vessel. Unlike the command staff cryo room, this was fully open to the whole rotating deck and she could faintly see the floor curving up into darkness.

“Lights, please.” Without a verbal response from the SI, the overhead panels strengthened slowly until it was up to full illumination. Kate’s intention was to look in on each of all the remaining pods, but now she felt hesitant, remembering her reaction to seeing Will Andresen’s new form. Arion had told her that the remaining personnel were all mammal types, so she need not have worried whether or not she would see any bug-eyed monsters or reptilian aliens, but she had to admit that her imagination was her worst adversary right now.

Steeling her nerves and locking down her resolve, Kate stepped toward the first pod. Peering at the name on the readout, it was Rodney Vincent, the ship’s First Officer, but when she looked in through the glasteel top, she did not see the youthful man with blond hair, but instead saw the face of a snow leopard. She stared in at him for a long moment, almost expecting him to open his eyes and look up at her, but he remained as he had for the greater part of a century, peacefully asleep. She wondered if he had retained his blue eyes or if they had turned a different color. Snow leopards were known to have blue eyes and they would have looked good with his facial markings.

She did not linger and stepped around his pod to the next one.  Dr. Bali Manhigh was their chief botanist, someone who would be instrumental discovering things about the native flora, particularly if any of it was dangerous – or safe to eat. She would not have recognized this man had she not read his name on the readout. Instead of a handsome, dark-skinned doctor, she saw a fully fluffy canine type with pure white fur. She was not exactly sure, but it appeared that he had taken on the qualities of a Samoyed or a white Siberian husky. Looking at his face, she could imagine his familiar grin, but with a pink tongue handing out of his canine mouth. The thought made her smile.

When she stepped around to the next pod, she recoiled in sudden surprise. Their chief of security, Ethan Edwards was now the hybrid of man and a brown bear, and his bulk filled the interior of the pod as if he had been stuffed into one too small for him. Even the neuro-netting seemed stretched to capacity.  It was a good thing he was asleep or she felt that he might be fighting to get out of the confines. She hoped the former marine was not claustrophobic, but imagined that Arion would likely make sure he had more room to move around before he awakened him.

The next pod was the one she had been looking for. Antony Fernando’s counseling services would be needed once this lot discovered what had happened to them, and she felt she might even be first in line to see him.

When she looked in on him, she stood up straight with a gasp, her fingers gripping the side of the pod tensely. His pointed nose was tilted to the side, as if he had moved around in his sleep, but the colors of his fur were unmistakable without even seeing his monochromatic fluffy tail sprouting out along beside him.

Kate swallowed and studied him some more. Who would counsel the counselor, especially when he had turned out to be a striped skunk? If this one did not develop psychological issues from his transformation, she would be impressed. She just hoped he did not spray anyone when he woke up to the surprise.

The next pod contained a rather cute red panda. Kate thought the woman within would probably like her new look in time, but she would still have to go through the shock of learning what had happened to her. Jessica Heald was a registered nurse, but her official designation for the project was a farmer when Dr. Kazama was not utilizing her for medical assistance. Kate was sure that the river otter would want her up and about soon to assist him decanting the rest of their numbers.

The project director looked up and her eyes followed the line of hibernation pods around the outer curve of the rotating deck.  There was no sense of movement, but the visual perspective was still a little disconcerting, and this even after having spent the past year or so of her life walking the deck after it had been constructed, sealed and rotating to generate Earth-normal gravity so they could keep their feet on the floor.

What more would she see in through the other ninety pods laid out along the deck?  She sighed, rubbed a hand over her muzzle, and then approached the next one.

It was sometime later when Arion’s voice broke her from her musings. “Dr. Kate. Mr. Andresen will be waking soon if you would like to rejoin us.”

“Okay, I’ll be right there.” She still had not seen everyone’s new forms, but after so many different animal types, her nerves were so shaken by now that it would almost be a relief to go back into the other compartment.

***

Despite all those she had seen, Will Andresen was a different animal altogether, figuratively as well as literally.  The wolf-man took the news of their transformation with a flair of personal amusement. Having grown up reading science fiction and fantasy novels since his youth, the chief engineer’s mind had been primed for years, and he saw being turned into a “furry” as more fascinating than frightening.

Up and out of his pod after awakening and examining himself in the mirrors, he did not seem to care that he was naked in front of the others. More so than the captain or the doctor, he was sufficiently covered up solely due to his dense lupine coat of reddish fur and he was wholly unconcerned; even Kate had difficulty seeing the outline of anything inappropriate through all that thick fur.

He turned around with a wide sweep of his bushy tail and planted his hands on his hips. “Well, that’s a heck of a note!” he remarked with a toothy grin. “Still, I can’t say that I’m disappointed with my lot. I could’ve done worse!”

“Worse…” Kate muttered. “I don’t suppose Arion has told you all about the worst part.”

“Eh?” Kazama murmured, looking toward the waldo. “What could be worse that turning into a bunch of animals?”

“We have had two RIPs as a result.”

Prompted by the lioness, Arion informed them of the mutations that resulted in two transformations that had not been genetically viable. They were all familiar with the young engaged couple, each of whom had been well-liked. The situation was bad enough, but the loss of Eric and Felicia would put the fear of Hell into each and every one of them. This would serve to remind them that they were all lucky to have made reasonable transformations, but two had not been able to dodge that proverbial bullet.

Arion studied each of the furmen in the room, watched as the woman and three men battled their own internal emotions. It was several long moments before Andresen spoke.

“We will mourn them, of course,” he said in a somber tone, “but for those of us among the living, we still have a job to do.”

“What do you mean?” Kate asked.

Andresen looked around the room, as if seeing the entire ship in his gaze. “We all seem to be relatively healthy and in full control of our minds and faculties. I don’t seem to be having any amnesia — I’m still remembering facts, figures and personal memories — so as soon as the good doctor pronounces me a fit little doggy, I would like to take a tour of this old ship and make sure its systems and structural integrity are all sound.”

“I can guarantee that you will find everything in good order, despite my age,” reported the SI.

Andresen gave the waldo an amused canine grin. “That may be so, but I would like to see for myself — otherwise, why would you have even needed a chief engineer?”

“He’s got a point,” Robeson remarked. “We all still have duties and responsibilities, no matter what each of us look like, but we also need to sit down together and talk about our next move.”

“Before we do anything,” Kate said, "I think we would all be in a better mood to discuss what we should do from this point forward if we discuss it over supper. I don’t know about anyone else, but my body burned off my last meal ages ago and I’m hungry!”

Dr. Kazama chirped unexpectedly and he seemed amused by the noise of excitement he had just made. “I think that is a great idea, Kate.”  He looked over at the waldo and pointed toward his own mouth.  “Do you think you can have the kitchen systems prepare something appropriate for this maw? I’m sure each of us will have new dietary requirements and it might take a series of personal taste tests to see what we can and will eat now.”

Arion nodded. “I think something can be prepared.  While I am taking care of that, you should all visit the tailor scanning room so I can also arrange to print out some suitable clothing for each of you. Dr. Kate has already been scanned, but I think all of you will be in a better frame of mind knowing you will not have to go about your duties in nothing but your fur.”

 

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