©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame
Chapter Eight - Mission Plan
“The first thing we will need to do when we’re on the surface is to alter the chairs for our tails,” the wolf murmured between the last bites of his meal.
“Perhaps our chief engineer can design something appropriate,” the cougar suggested.
Andresen nodded. “At first glance, I would strengthen the back support on the left side and leave an opening from the right-hand side where we could slide our tails into. We could sit on the chairs without having to sit on our tails or force them to rest against the seat back.”
“Why not just use a center post and leave both sides open?”
“Because my tail is already above the center of my butt and I don’t want it resting against a post that’s also in the center.”
Dr. Kazama looked down at his plate and licked his lips. Although the meal that Arion had prepared for him had used the food printers instead of actual foodstuffs from storage in stasis, it had tasted surprisingly like real fish. He imagined the same held true for the others, who had gotten various cuts of a steak-like dinner with a few faux-vegetables for sides, but he silently noted that each of them had paid more attention to the meats than they did the veggies; they were all still omnivores, but now more carnivorous than they had been before.
The four of them were seated around a small table in the galley one deck above the rest of the hibernating crew. The discussion had begun when they had taken their seats, but paused when Arion had brought them their meals. Now that they had all been taken care of, the SI had returned his waldo to a storage locker. He was still in command of the ship’s operations and could take part in the conversations as readily as he had in the past; he currently watched the small group from a wall-mounted monitor.
“New chairs and new clothes would all be nice,” Kate remarked, “but more importantly, we still need to decide what to do about the rest that are still sleeping.”
Kazama rubbed his forehead. “I can decant them all, but I don’t know if I can handle another ninety-four panicked awakenings. Going by just the four of us alone, we all had different reactions to our transformations.” He looked over at the lupine furman. “Very few of them will be as satisfied as our engineer was when he awoke.” Andresen gave him a big toothy grin, but otherwise did not respond.
“I can almost guarantee that I will have nightmares about my awakening the first time I lay down to sleep,” Robeson grumbled, pushing his mostly-empty plate away from him.
“We need to decant Antony Fernando next,” Kate suggested. “He’s the crew psychoanalyst and will need to provide counseling for everyone. That’s his job and experience, so he should be the one to face each of the frantic personalities when they make the big discovery.”
Robeson looked up in interest. “I had forgotten we’d brought a shrink along,” said the cougar.
“He can certainly help, but there may be an issue decanting him,” Kate said with a frown.
Andresen looked over at the lioness. “What’s the problem?”
“I took a walk to look in at some of the others and saw what he’s become.”
“How will that make a difference decanting him?”
Kate looked over at the captain and shook her head. “You called him a shrink, but with his change, I’m afraid others will call him the colony stink.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Don’t tell me,” Andresen said in sudden dismay. “He’s got a striped tail!”
“Yes, Antony is a striped skunk.”
“Why would we even bring the genetic material of skunks to Belle?”
Kate crossed arms across her furry chest. “I’m not the one who made that decision. That list was compiled by a committee.”
“Why would we bring half of what we did anyway?” Robeson asked rhetorically. “Anything beyond livestock would be considered exotic and not a necessity.”
“Most of the exotics weren’t even planned for release on Belle unless some disaster befell the Earth. We brought them purely as species backups so nothing might go extinct, but we are free to let them out if we decide the new ecosystem can handle them.”
Kazama coughed into a hand; the otter’s face reflected internal turmoil. “Arion, maybe you should be the one to decant Counselor Fernando; the rest of us can wait up here until he’s awake and calmed down.”
“Yes, that might be for the best,” agreed the SI.
“Why have Arion do it?” Robeson asked.
“Because I don’t want to be the one who gets sprayed when he wakes up and panics after he finds out what happened to him!”
“He’s gonna need a shrink, himself,” Andresen muttered. “I would!” He looked at the doctor and put his furry elbows up on the table. “Can’t you just snip his scent glands before he wakes up to spray everything in panicked alarm?”
Kazama gave the wolf a look of longsuffering. “He’s lying on his back with his scent glands beneath him. How am I going to do surgery on them before he comes out of cryo sleep? In order to turn him over where I could raise his tail, the neuro-netting and all of his IVs would first need to be removed. I can’t do that without decanting him.”
Andresen did not have a response to that, but the doctor continued. “Technically, I could, but multiple fluid transfer processes in a short amount of time would place such a physical strain on his system that when he was hooked back up to everything, he would likely have a stroke when he awoke — and I’m not even talking about the psychological stress. The physiological strain alone would likely kill him!”
“When you remove his metal diaper, could you just plug him up with a cork or something so he doesn’t spray from sheer instinct when he gets the shock of finding out what’s happened to him?”
The otter looked incredulous and glanced back and forth between Kate and Robeson. “A cork, he says! Andresen, your sense of humor astounds me.”
“I wasn’t trying to be funny,” the wolf responded tartly. “I was thinking of the problem from an engineering standpoint.”
“That wouldn’t work anyway,” Robeson said. “He would already be awake by the time the flange is removed, so that would be too late —”
“I have a suggestion,” Arion interjected, but Kate spoke at the same time.
“Wait – the flange!” she said in a rush. “It would still be in place and would vacuum away any spray he releases — after all, that’s what it does with the rest of our bodily wastes!”
Robeson tried to snap his fingers, but his new padded digits were unable to make the desired sound. “Of course! The spray would be contained and it would also allow Mr. Fernando to retain some semblance of dignity than just spewing toxic fluids across the room by accident!”
Kazama nodded in agreement. “I don’t know why none of us thought of that at the beginning of this discussion.” He looked up at the wall screen. “You had another suggestion, Arion?”
“I was going to suggest leaving the flange in place to contain potential spray, but Dr. Kate beat me to it.”
“Great minds think alike,” Kate quoted with amusement.
Andresen drummed his fingers on the table. “Once Antony is awake and calm, maybe then he will agree to have Dr. Kazama snip his butt glands. He might be walking funny for a while, but he won’t accidentally let anything slip out.”
“That will be Mr. Fernando’s decision to make,” said the physician, “but I will present the offer at the right time.”
The group fell silent for several moments with nothing but the constant underlying hum of the ship’s systems making a sound.
“What about the rest of the crew?” Captain Robeson asked quietly. “Are there any others that would present a potential danger?”
Kazama pointed a short finger at the cougar, wolf and then the lioness, all in turn. “Each of you could be potentially dangerous, yourselves, specifically if you woke up disoriented and decided a river otter would make a nice waking breakfast.”
Robeson looked chastised. “That’s true, but what I meant was if we had anyone else like Mr. Fernando who might present a problem. Getting sprayed by a skunk might not be life-threatening, but that’s not something any of us would like to experience from a coworker.”
Kate rubbed the base of her tail where it had been up against the seat back. “I didn’t get a chance to look at everyone, but while there’s quite a mix of species of both predator and prey types, I did not see anyone else who would present a problem more than any of us here would. Dr. Kazama is right – most of us would be a potential danger if we were a bunch of wild animals thrown together, but we still have our intelligence and our humanity to keep our baser instincts under control.”
“So, do we start waking them up right away due to the emergency?”
“I would advise against decanting anyone else at this time,” Arion responded. “Now that the primary command staff has been revived, I have activated life support systems for you on all decks, but there will still be limited resources until orbital insertion around Bellerophon in two weeks.”
“Mission protocols specify that we don’t wake the rest of the crew until we are in orbit around Belle,” Kate reminded her companions.
“That was put in place to conserve food, water and air until it was necessary to support everyone,” Andresen added, “and it also limits our bodies from prolonged microgravity. If we decant everybody now, we might be running low on these essentials by the time we get to the planet, and that’s beside the fact that there simply isn’t room for that many bodies within the ship’s corridors to be awake at the same time; Arion-1 wasn’t designed to sustain more than a handful all at once and it wasn’t equipped with staterooms to house them. This ship is nothing more than a cargo freighter, not a cruise ship. Even the four of us awake now will need to find places out of the way to sleep. Once we’re in orbit over Belle, it was always intended that we’d need to start offloading everyone to the surface as soon as we select the prime real estate where we’ll build our new homes. The plan is to keep everyone sleeping until just before they are to disembark to the colony site.”
“We should have enough overlap of resources so that even if we have to wait on the weather or some other situation, we can all stay on board, but we won’t be able to sustain everyone for more than one or two weeks beyond decanting at the most,” Robeson told them, “Standing room aside.”
“What about Mr. Fernando? Do we go ahead and wake him?” Kazama asked.
“Best not to risk taxing those limited resources,” the project director answered. “Unless any of you need his services now, we’ll let him sleep, but he will be the first to rise once we are in orbit.”
“No, I don’t need to talk to him yet,” Robeson answered. “Maybe later, though.” Neither of the others voiced needing a shrink yet either.
Kate nodded. “Then it’s settled. We will hit the snooze button for our friend Antony for now.”
“Once he’s up and about, the next we’ll decant should be our shuttle pilots since they’ll be needed to transfer everyone to the surface.”
“I need my nurse, too, preferably before the pilots,” Kazama added.
No one objected to that, so Andresen reached over to Kate’s plate and picked up a small morsel of meat the lioness had not eaten; she hissed at him playfully. The wolf cowered in mock fear and then popped the scrap into his mouth.
“I know this is not meat, but Arion’s food printers did a remarkable job with the taste and texture,” he said after chewing it. “The four of us will be eating this stuff for the next couple of weeks, but I am already looking forward to landing so we can break out the real food.”
“What you just ate is real food,” Arion reminded him. “Your steak and potatoes were produced from raw elements just as real as what they were designed to look and taste like.”
“What are you using for raw elements?” the wolf asked.
“Best not to ask questions you really don’t want answered,” Kate cautioned him.
Arion’s face looked out from the screen, the hint of a smile across his features. “The answer to your query, Mr. Andresen, is that—”
“I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to know.”
“As you wish.”
Kate laughed aloud. “Wise wolf.”
“Anyway, you all know what I mean,” the engineer acquiesced. “I want a real steak, from a real cow.” He looked across the table at the ship’s captain and frowned. “You look like you’ve got indigestion, Ken. Are you afraid of what you might have just eaten?”
“No, the food was good,” answered the cougar. “I was just thinking of the demands we’ll probably get for us to turn the ship around, put everyone back into cryo and head back to Earth.”
“No can do. Not possible.”
“Even if we could, over a hundred fifty years would have passed by the time we got back to Earth,” Kazama retorted. “Most of humanity will have forgotten about us by that time, so how do you think they would react when a shipload of talking animals shows up in orbit? They’d think it was an alien invasion and nuke us out of the sky before we could explain anything!”
“We would never make it back anyway,” Andresen remarked. “That this was a one-way trip across interstellar space was fully understood when each of us signed onto the project. Even if we did as you suggest, Arion-1 wasn’t designed to make a decades-long return to Earth. The cryo equipment, fluids and materials were only good for one use to get us to our destination, not to mention the fuel needed to get the ship up to interstellar speeds.”
Kazama crossed his arms and felt them bind against his ill-fitting lab coat. “We don’t have the necessary resources to put everyone back into cryo and this isn’t a generation ship where we would all live out our lives and hope our offspring survives to make it back. Again — we don’t have enough of that limited food and water to last beyond a few more weeks, much less seventy-five-plus years for such a return.”
“With ninety-eight lives on board,” Andresen added, “we would eventually run out of air as the oxygen generators and carbon dioxide scrubbers would be over-taxed. We would probably all suffocate long before we ran out of available elements for the food printers as well as eating all the livestock still sleeping.”
“Going back is not an option and we’ll have to discourage such demands,” Kate said in finality. “We must follow the mission plan and disembark soon after we get to Belle. We will only survive by doing what we came to do — no matter if we’re a bunch of furmen or the humans we started out to be, only Bellerophon can save us now.”
“Dr. Kate, mission logs with full details and conjectures on insufficient shielding and resultant crew anthropomorphism have been sent. Time of delivery to Earth monitoring stations will take approximately fifty-six years at near-light travel. Arion-2 will receive the message in twenty-nine months.”
“I thought our other ship was sixty months behind us?”
“Providing they launched on time, that would be true, but they are speeding toward us and our message is speeding toward them, greatly shortening the distance between them as each travel toward the other.”
The director nodded her leonine head and pulled at the new shorts that had been printed for her. The opening for her tail was adequate and the snap-strap over the top of the appendage to keep the waistband in place did not bind, but despite the fit for her new anatomy, she had already gotten used to going without them; the material felt confining over her coat of fur and she was tempted to shed them altogether, despite that the director of the entire project should present a responsible figure.
The shorts were also the same tan color as her fur, so from a distance, it still looked as if she was running around bottomless; she would have definitely chosen a contrasting color. Arion was intelligent with many things, but designing clothing was an area where he seemed to be lacking. He had also offered to make her a covering for her chest in the fashion of a lightweight tube top, but since she was sufficiently covered up by her own fur, she opted to go without one.
Refocusing on the task at hand, she drummed her claws on the galley table and looked up at the monitor screen. The others had scattered to other areas of the ship, checking on their own departments; Dr. Kazama had gone to make a medical examination of the two RIPs, Will Andresen was in engineering to inspect the tachyon drive, and Ken Robeson was on the bridge to go over the navigational logs with the SI.
“Even if your counterpart on Arion-2 receives our transmission,” Kate said, “he — you would have already discovered transformations among the fifteen hundred in cryo and it would be too late to do anything about it now.”
“This is true,” Arion agreed. “Dr. Kazama and I will continue to study what has happened, but it is unlikely we would have anything to add to any research that I may have already done on Arion-2.”
“If nothing else, our report will let you know that it wasn’t unique to that ship, but happened to all of us.”
“This is providing that it happened to Arion-2 as it did with us.”
The lioness looked up. “It didn’t even occur to me that it might have only affected us,” she mused.
“There is no way to know at this time. Captain Robeson noted that on our journey to 51 Peg, we passed within a few light-years of Iota Pegasi, a childless spectroscopic binary star that makes up one of the primaries of the Pegasus constellation. He speculates that whatever type of radiation that triggered the changes may have originated there. It is the only other stellar object we have come close to on our flight plan, but it being the root cause is nothing more than speculation. However, while we have no supporting evidence of this, I presume to agree with the captain to its possibility. This bit of conjecture was a last-moment addition to our transmission, so if Earth sends subsequent vessels out to us, they might be well to alter course to avoid traveling anywhere near Iota since we have no way of countering the effects our ship has encountered. It will add extra travel time, but if it is expected and included in mission flight plans, all cryo sleep times can be adjusted.”
Kate frowned, which made her feline features look incredibly sad. “In the decades we’ve been away, Earth could have already sent dozens of ships to other stars in all directions. The phenomenon may not be limited to Iota and may be more common in interstellar space than we know.”
“A likely possibility. If that is the case, then Earth may be seeding other exoplanets with anthropomorphic hybrids of humanity.”
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