FICTIONAL LIFE

 

 

ARION

©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame

 

Chapter Nine - Hybrids of Humanity

 

“Dr. Antony Fernando. This is your wake-up alarm. Please wake up.”

The counselor swallowed and then licked his lips, but kept his eyes closed. “Hi Arion. Wh’ time’s it?” he whispered.

“Good morning, Dr. Fernando. The ship’s time is 0635.”

“Tha’s too early. Wake me in ‘n hour.”

“Sorry, doctor, but it is time to face a new day.”

(sigh) “I could really use another hour,” the counselor said with a little more clarity, “but duty is duty. Does someone need my help?”

“As a matter of fact, there are several who could benefit from your expertise.”

“Oh, all right.”  The man opened his eyes with a little effort, but he saw nothing but a dark gray room and the raised lid of his pod in the gloom above him.

“Why’m getting up now? You haven’t even turn’d on th’lights yet.” He struggled to sit up, but was restrained by the neural-netting; the IV tubes seemed to have been removed already. He relaxed back against the cushion, but something seemed out of place. “Feel weird coming out this time.”

“Sorry, Doctor. The lights are down for a purpose. Before you are released from everything, we need to have a discussion.”

Fernando blinked several times and swallowed again. “Sounds ominous, but you have a captive audience.”  He chuckled at his lame little joke, but realizing that he was still wearing the flange, he urinated into it without preamble. He felt the cleansing and strangely enough, he felt a little more alert afterward.

“What’s the topic of our discussion?”

“The topic would be Unexpected Changes.

“Go on.”

“To be brief, Arion-1 has safely reached the 51 Pegasi system and we are now two days away from orbit. During the long journey, however, this ship encountered unknown interstellar radiation that we had no protection against. This resulted in alterations to the genetic makeup of sleeping human personnel.”

“Genetic alterations? You mean that we have changed?”

“Yes.”

“Let me guess… we reverted to an earlier state and have become the missing link that we have long been searching for.”

“Not quite, Doctor, but you are thinking in the right direction.”

Fernando lightly bit his bottom lip and even that felt strange.  “Give me a moment to process that before you give me more.”

“Certainly.”

The counselor was quiet for several moments, and had there been anyone else in the room with him, they might have thought he had fallen back asleep. His mind was active, however, and he worked through a calming technique to combat the adrenaline that had quickly surged with the SI’s brief revelation.

“Okay,” he said at last. “I know there’s more to it than that, so go ahead and give me the low-down.”

For the next thirty minutes, Arion presented the counselor with a comprehensive explanation of the incident and its results. Fernando listened to everything quietly, forcing himself not to interrupt until he had all of the information, but by the time he had everything up to his awakening, his pulse had quickened and he was struggling even to use those calming methods again.

“Uhm, help…” he said at last. “Something to calm my nerves, please – maybe a finger or two of Maker’s Mark whisky?”

“Have a mild sedative instead, Dr. Fernando.”  It took only a few moments for the counselor’s heart rate and breathing to return to something close to normal.

“Thank you, my good friend.”

“It is understandable. You are welcome.”

“Now for the million-dollar question,” Fernando murmured, “out of all the genetic specimens we are carrying, which one wound up in me? Start with its scientific name, just to prepare me.”

“Mephitis mephitis.”

“Okay, you got me. I don’t know why I asked you to do that. I don’t know what that is.”

“Striped skunk.”

Antony Fernando laughed aloud, and then continued laughing for nearly a full minute. When he finally got control of himself, he snickered a bit and then ended with an amused chuckle.  “Arion, my friend, I know from experience that you have a sense of humor, but somehow I don’t think you’re teasing me right now.”

“I am sorry to inform you that I am serious. The species your DNA has been merged with is an actual striped skunk, and your associates are very concerned for you.”

“My associates?

“Captain Robeson, Dr. Ruston, Dr. Kazama and Chief Engineer Andresen. All of them were successfully revived almost two weeks ago per the mission schedule, each with their own genetic changes to cope with. You were not actually intended to be decanted for another two days, but it was felt you might need the time to come to terms with your transformation before your services might be needed to help others through their own changes.”

“Where are they? I assumed Dr. Kazama would be here to watch over my decanting.”

“They are awaiting your presence in the galley on the next deck. For personal reasons, Dr. Kazama asked me to take care of your awakening.”

“I see. Was he afraid that I might spray him in panic?”

“Very perceptive, Doctor. That is the primary reason for his request.”

“Huh… well, I can’t say that I blame him.”  With his arms at his sides, he stretched out the fingers of one hand and tapped a claw tip against the flange between his thighs. “It’s a good precaution that I’m still wearing this,” he said. “My grandmother always called me her little stinker, but now that I can be, I can’t say I am in the mood to spray anyone.”

“I am glad to hear it. Each of your associates had different waking reactions than one another and it was unknown how you might react.”

Fernando fell quiet again, but when he said nothing more for several minutes, Arion’s voice issued from the darkness.

“Dr. Fernando?”

“Yes, Arion. I’m still here, just thinking – internalizing what you’ve told me.”

“Do you need assistance?”

“Actually, no, though I do admit that I am feeling impatient to get up and see my new chassis.  I once had a college roommate who told me that he’d had a de-scented skunk as a pet when he was younger and I’d always found that fascinating. He said it was just as affectionate and playful as any cat he’d ever had, but its fur was not at soft as you would think from looking at it.”

“Do you remember my waldo?”

“Hmm, oh yes, your robot self. I saw it around the ship before we shipped out.”

“I have had it standing by during your decanting process. With your permission, I can use it now to remove the rest of the cryo systems or I can use the articulated arms from the pod.”

Fernando hesitated. “If you don’t mind, just use the pod arms. It’s embarrassing enough to have you fiddling around between my legs without you looking humanoid, and I wouldn’t want to spray you by accident.”

“That is your choice, and speaking of your potential spray, Dr. Kazama wanted me to present you with an offer.”

Fernando squinted in the darkness, still unable to see anything more than the set of robotic metallic arms moving on both sides. He lay still while the neural-netting was unwrapped and he felt his arms freed from his sides.  He scratched idly against his side and felt coarse fur beneath his fingers.

He closed his eyes and spread out his legs when he was prompted, and stoically allowed the removal of the elimination flange and its internal components attached to him in intimate places. He was impressed that even through that action, he was able to maintain control over the anal glands that everyone feared, and it was then he remembered what Arion had said.

“I can probably guess, but go ahead and tell me about this offer that Dr. Kazama wanted to give me.”

“This is solely voluntary, but if you so desire, Dr. Kazama can perform a small procedure which would render your scent glands inoperative.  It is unlikely that in your hybrid form that you would actually need this defensive capability, and the procedure would prevent the likelihood of an accidental release, but if you believe you can control it on your own, the decision to keep them functional is totally up to you.”

Fernando smiled and sat up in the pod now that the flange had been removed. “You can tell Dr. Kazama that the procedure might actually be a good thing. Believe it or not, that was actually one of the first things I thought of when you told me I was a skunk.”

“I have informed Dr. Kazama of your decision. He will be here shortly.”

“Can you bring up the lights so that I can see myself now?”  The room illumination increased slowly to give his eyes time to adjust, and the first thing he noticed was the black, pointed nose within his field of vision.  He reached out to touch it, and then saw his black-furred hands and claw-tipped fingers.  Then he looked down at his plantigrade feet and wriggled his toes.  He was unaware that the others had all developed digitigrade feet, but since regular skunks were already plantigrade, they did not seem too out of place to him.

He crawled out of the cryo pod and then saw Arion’s figure standing quietly beside the bulkhead. He started, but not enough to set off his defenses.  “Ah, there you are,” he said flippantly.  Against one wall of the compartment in a line were four more cryo pods with their lids raised, though he could see that they were all empty. Only his stood in the middle of the room.

Arion’s waldo gestured toward the wall panel, where the full-length mirrors flipped around for him. When Fernando stepped up to examine his reflection, he tilted his head to study his new body and then turned several directions to see what he could see. Surprisingly, he found that his neck was more flexible and he could turn his head each direction farther than he had ever been able to as a human. He saw that his overall fur consisted of a black base with a pair of thick white stripes extending from a nebulous patch on the top of his head, down across his shoulder blades, along both sides of his spine and continuing along his flanks across his rump, where it then fanned out down the length of his voluminous tail.  He had a white splotch across his chest and the upper part of his belly. There was even a slender white stripe from his forehead and down along the top of his nose.

He felt his skin heat up around his neck beneath his fur when he caught sight of an impressive set of genitals and he swiftly walked back to his clothing drawer. He had worn only a button-up shirt, a pair of walking shorts and some sandals when he had reported for cryo, but the only thing he pulled out were the shorts.  He put his feet in through the wide leg holes and pulled it up until the back stopped just beneath the base of his tail. He had already known the tail would keep him from fastening them, but while holding it with one hand, he could keep his privates as private.

The door to the compartment opened and Fernando’s eyes nearly bugged out when he saw a bipedal river otter enter the room; Arion had not mentioned what the others had turned into. Since the figure wore a medical lab coat, he twitched an ear and said, “Are you, uh, Dr. Kazama?”

“I am Kazama. How are you feeling, Dr. Fernando?”

The skunk gestured toward the doctor’s coat with his free hand. “Can I get one of those?” he asked. “My shorts don’t work too well with this new tail and I need something to cover up with.”

Kazama smiled. “Yes, I can get you one to use for now, but Arion will scan your new form and can print up something new for you to wear.”

“That would have been my next request,” Fernando said with a side glance toward the waldo.

The medical doctor unbuttoned the lab coat and pulled it off. Underneath, he wore a pair of modified bib overalls that had short legs with wide openings and a large dip in the back for his thick tail. Shoulder straps held them up in place and there were several useful pockets for anything the otter might need to carry.

“Okay, I admit those look like they could be comfy.”

“They are, but we’ve had to try several different clothing designs to find something comfortable to wear over fur that’s easy to get on and off over our tails and altered limbs. It’s not the most desirable of fashions, but this is the best we’ve come up with so far. If you can think of something better, just tell Arion and he will try to design your ideas. We also have shirts of a type, but the others have found it more comfortable going without a top of any kind.”

“Uhm, topless?  What about the women?”

Kazama nodded and handed the medical smock over to his associate. “Dr. Kate has enough fur on top that her chest is well covered and she prefers not to wear anything over her fur for more than modesty anyway.  Cloth on top of fur can feel a little smothering, but I don’t mind the lab coat.  So now, Dr. Fernando. How are you feeling?”

“Sorry, you did ask me that already.  Aside from being a little shaken over what’s happened, I think my body feels fine. No aches or pains, although the base of my tail is a little sore, but I assume that’s from laying on it in my pod.”  He looked at the cryo bed where he had spent over seventy-five years as a modern Rip Van Winkle and then glanced around the compartment. “I don’t remember going to sleep in this room, though. I thought I was in a large chamber with ninety-someodd other pods.”

“We moved you in here so Arion could rouse you in a darkened room. Using our own wake-up reactions as a guide, we felt it was better to ease each person into the knowledge of their transformation this way. They can be told about it before they can see the physical evidence first. Unless you have a different method you would use, that’s how we plan to decant the rest of the crew once we’ve arrived at Belle.”

Fernando nodded. “No, that’s a good idea.”  He noted the physician’s patience and then realized why he was there.  “Ah, right. How long will it take you to do this?”

“Once the area is sedated with only a local anesthetic, it should only take about twenty minutes,” Kazama answered. “There will be no stitches or staples, just a bit of bio-medical stitch-glue to seal up two incisions.”

“How long until I can sit down again?” the skunk asked with a lopsided smile.

“With luck, you may only need to sit on a donut cushion for a couple of hours, but during that time I will need to give you a full examination to make sure everything in your hybrid system is functioning as it should. I will have you up on your feet for most of it, so you may not even need the donut.”

“Wow, thanks – I think.”

Kazama chuckled. “After you’ve been inspected, I will take you up to meet the others. So far we have a cougar, an African lion, a wolf, and one river otter - me.”

“And a striped skunk who’s about to be de-scented.”

“That is correct.  I cannot do this procedure with you lying face down in the cryo pod, so if you will follow me to Sick Bay, I can take care of you properly there.”

“Lead the way, Doc Otter.” 

*** 

“That was probably the best chef’s salad I have had in a long time – relativistically speaking, of course!”

The newest decanted crew member of Arion-1 sat back in his chair and dabbed his muzzle with a napkin. He currently sat on a donut-shaped cushion on a chair in the galley that had been modified with a slot in the back for his tail to rest behind him. He only had to remember it was there when he got up or slid his chair back. Dressed in a pair of overall shorts that Arion had printed for him, he thought he looked like a good ol’ boy, country skunk, but he felt truly relaxed as he looked around at his companions at the table.

“Arion’s gotten better with the menu since we awoke,” Will Andresen remarked.

“How are you feeling now?” Dr. Kate asked, resting her elbows on the edge of the table.

Fernando’s cheeks warmed up beneath his fur, though the others could not see his red cheeks. Even though the lioness was fur-covered, the skunk was male and the sight of the project director without a shirt or blouse fueled his imagination. He looked down at his plate and shrugged.

“As well as I can,” he admitted. “I feel okay.”

“Like the rest of us, he’s completely healthy,” Dr. Kazama reported. “Previous afflictions have all be reset, if you will.  Signs of previous broken bones from the man’s tumultuous youth have been repaired, as if his bones were regrown in the process. I discovered the same with all of you.”

“Yeah, I haven’t felt the carpal tunnel syndrome in either of my wrists either,” said the skunk, rubbing his arms. “I worked through my college years as a part-time sheet metal mechanic, and the rivet guns I used ruined my hands. This is the first real relief I’ve had in ages.”

“How’s the head?” Capt. Robeson asked, tapping his own furry brow. “I had nightmares for a week after waking up.”

Fernando studied him a moment with a professional eye. “We can talk about your nightmares, if you wish.”

“Later, in private.”

The skunk nodded. “I have only been up for several hours now, but so far I have been handling all the little changes with me and you four okay. To be expected, I was shocked that such a thing was even possible, but at the moment I seem to be all right with it all. My conscious mind is cooperating for now, but it remains to be seen how my subconscious deals with it when I sleep.”

“We decided to pull you out two days early, so take your time,” Kate told him, “We will help as we can, but it will be your job to counsel each one we decant from now until everyone is out of cryo.”

Robeson tapped a claw on the table. “We all agreed that if you need someone to talk to between now and then, you can grab any of us. After all, we four had one another to fall back on during the past couple of weeks, and I believe that each of us had to do just that at one time or another.”  All of the counselor’s companions nodded agreement with the cougar’s supposition.

“Thank you,” he replied. “I’m sure that I will probably take up the offer with one of you. Even counselors need someone to talk to now and again, and this has to be the most unusual set of circumstance I have ever heard of.”  He picked up and nibbled on a last bit of carrot from his plate before he added, “I could probably start with the rest of the crew tomorrow, but I think I’ll take that extra time to prepare myself before I counsel the rest of furmanity.”

“Furmanity?” Andresen repeated in amusement.  “Kate came up with furmen and being furman, and Ken uses Furs. We’ve all invented new nouns and pronouns for the lot of us!”

“That’s better than just calling us all a bunch of animals,” Kazama remarked. “It all works for me.”

“We cannot decant anyone else until we have reached Belle anyway,” Robeson told him. “We don’t have room for more than the handful of us—”

“Pawful of us,” Andresen corrected. 

Robeson narrowed his golden eyes at him. “—handful of us at a time, so we’ll need to transfer small groups to the surface as we wake them.  You can have your two days, Counselor.”

Fernando suddenly yawned, his pink tongue curling up toward the roof of his mouth. “I know that I have been sleeping for many years, but now that I have been up and about, poked and prodded, and had a good meal, I feel like I could take a long nap. I don’t ever remember seeing staterooms, so where have you all been sleeping?”

“In our pods,” Robeson answered. “Now that they have fulfilled their purpose and will never again be needed for cryo, we have been using them for glorified bunks to sleep in.”

“Yes, but we’ve discovered that only one person can fit in them at a time,” Kate added impishly.  Everyone looked over at her, but she refused to meet anyone’s gaze. The project director’s personality had taken a different turn since her transformation.

Kazama cleared his throat. “Right, then. All of the medical lines, tubes, sensors and netting used for each of our bodies have been stored away and can likely be repurposed for other uses once we land on Belle.”

“If we’re going to be sleeping near one another, you all may need hearing protection with me,” Fernando confessed with a curious side-glance at the lioness. “I’ve been told that my snoring can rattle the walls when I sleep.”

Andresen grinned. “You may be surprised to learn that your new body has different nasal passages than you used to have. You may not snore at all.  Then again, if you do disturb me when I’m trying to sleep, all I have to do is close the lid to my pod. It’s well-ventilated, so I won’t suffocate, but it blocks out surrounding noises quite well.”

“The cushion is relatively comfortable,” Robeson added, “and we have pillows and blankets from supply.  Arion still watches over us when we sleep, too.”

“Yeah, he’s a voyeur that way,” Andresen quipped.

“I see all, Dr. Fernando,” said the SI’s voice, “so be on your best behavior.”

The skunk looked at each of the other Furs in the room and then he burst out laughing.

 

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