©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame
Chapter Twelve - Unpackaged Personnel
Dr. Antony Fernando put his head down on the desk of the small office compartment that had been assigned to him on Arion-1 and heaved a heavy sigh. He had been fielding the unbridled emotions of decanted crew personnel for hours and the stress of dealing with them had left him with a strong headache.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” queried Arion’s calm voice.
“Yes, eject them all out into space,” said the counselor. The response he got from the SI was a quiet chuckle, not the reply he had expected. He lifted his head and peered at the digital image on his wall screen. “You find that amusing?” he asked.
Arion smiled back at him, but shook his head. “Not amusing, Dr. Fernando, but ironic in that such a cynical remark came from the ship’s counselor.”
The skunk narrowed one eye at him, but then a smile crept across his muzzle. “Yes, I suppose that was rather sarcastic of me,” he admitted. “I’m the one who is supposed to display a calm demeanor while everyone else is cracking up, yet here I am giving in to the pressures of the job.”
“Panic, disbelief and fear are all natural expectations of those who awaken to find their very physical existence has changed for the strange, but in addition to those, you have had to feel the full brunt of their anger as if you were personally responsible for it all.”
“All true, my friend. I have been a psychoanalyst for seventeen years and through all the cases I have dealt with, I have never experienced such vitriol toward my profession as I have in the past forty-eight hours. If I hadn’t had Dr. Kazama snip my butt, I’m sure I would have been sorely tempted to spray at least three of those I’ve counseled; their attitudes would have greatly deserved it!”
“We should all be thankful, Dr. Fernando, that you could not. I doubt my environmental equipment could have satisfactorily scrubbed the air following such an event.”
The skunk laughed aloud at the SI’s response. There were times when Arion said things that were so completely deadpan, but could elicit great amusement from those he made them to. He wondered if the Synthetic Intelligence had been designed to lighten emotions when things got too dark. It was often difficult to think of Arion as just a machine, especially when he could even play the part of a counselor.
Fernando smiled up at the image looking back at him from the screen and raised a hand in concession. “No worries, I don’t regret that decision. I may be a skunk on the outside, but I can still be a petty human on the inside, and I would have been greatly tempted to use that attribute as a defensive – or even offensive - weapon. It’s best that I don’t have that capability. I think I frighten them enough just because of what I represent. Perhaps I need to cultivate that fear and simply withhold the fact that I have been descented; let them believe I’m still fully loaded if they get too confrontational.” He said the last with an embellished grin of evil and was rewarded when Arion feigned a chuckle.
The counselor sat back in his chair and rubbed the base of his tail where it pressed up against the unmodified seat back. “I think I will take a break, get a cup of coffee and take a walk around the ship to calm my nerves before I face the next one Dr. Kazama throws at me. We’re only a little over halfway through the crew list, but they can wait.”
“I believe Dr. Kate put a fresh pot of raspberry tea in the galley refrigerator before she left for the surface. It is decaffeinated and will settle your nerves better than coffee will.”
Fernando sighed aloud and rubbed his temple. “Just what I need, decaf…”
“Yes, it is just what you need, and I am sure she would share a glass with you.”
“We’ve got to go back!”
Emma Bonavita grasped the arm rests of her ill-fitting chair with such a grip that the aluminum rivets holding it together threatened to pop loose. The sleeping blanket wrapped around her middle threatened to unravel and fall off, so she scrambled to hold it in place, covering up as much of her dark brown fur as she could. Emma had never been a big woman in the first place, but now that she was a brown bear, she had increased in size and was larger than she had ever been.
Her husband Angelo had been decanted ahead of her and was in the counselor’s office with her. As a married couple, they were now just as mis-matched as they could be. The short lynx looked over at his wife’s tirade and was doing all he could to keep from adding to the waves of anger to the situation.
As the caretakers of the myriad of embryos and DNA samples stored on the upper rotating decks within Arion-1, these two were especially distressed at the turn of events.
“I am sorry, Emma, but as I have already explained, returning to Earth is something we cannot do. We don’t have the necessary resources for a return flight, and as you knew before boarding, this was a one-way journey to Bellerophon.”
“This transformation is inexcusable!” the bear retorted. “We didn’t sign up for this!”
“None of us did,” Dr. Fernando countered in a calm voice. “This was an unforeseen situation.”
“All contingencies should have been prepared for!”
The skunk struggled to keep himself calm. “Since this has never been encountered within the history of human spaceflight, there was no way to anticipate that our DNA would be merged with the genetic material we brought with us.”
Angelo Bonavita tried a different tactic. “What has the command staff done to reverse our conditions?” the lynx asked quietly.
“Dr. Kazama and Arion have been researching all modern knowledge of genetic manipulation for a way to return us to what we used to be, but again, since there has been nothing of this nature before, there’s no precedence for this situation and no information. We’re all flying blind, but it’s not a total disaster.”
“’Not a total disaster,’ he says!” Emma growled. “We are no longer human! How is that not a disaster! Just look at all of us!”
Fernando silently counted to ten while the bear glared at him. “Angelo – Emma – you are still alive and even as a hybrid, you are both perfectly healthy. You still have your mind, will and emotions, and even your soul is probably still in there somewhere. You’re still you, just with a bit more.”
“It’s true, we are healthy,” Angelo conceded, “but how are we supposed to live like this?”
The skunk smiled. “One day at a time, just as we always have. Listen, folks – there is no magic wand to change things back the way they were. We came to Belle to live out our lives on a new world, and that mission has not changed. Our bodies have changed, and we do not resemble the same people we were when we left the Earth, but we are the same individuals inside. I still have my life’s work, knowledge, experiences and memories, and although I’m now covered in fur, have claws and possess a fluffy tail, I am still Antony Jean Fernando, ship’s counselor and psychoanalyst for Arion-1 detail to Bellerophon in the 51 Pegasi system.”
Emma huffed in exasperation, but held her tongue. She exchanged looks with her husband for a moment and then gestured between him and herself with a large hand-paw. “Look at us,” she said in a calmer voice than she had been using. “I’m a bear. He’s a cat. How are we supposed to be a family? It doesn’t take a biologist to know that we’ll never have any other children like this – it’s just not biologically possible!”
Angelo’s expression changed as that thought had not occurred to him. “Children!” he exclaimed. “What about our daughter, Piale? What’s happened to her?”
Fernando shook his head. “She hasn’t been decanted yet.”
“Arion!” Emma called out. “Do you know what she’s been turned into?”
“Yes, ma’am. Miss Piale Bonavita’s DNA has been merged with that of Vulpes lagopus, an arctic fox.”
“A fox!” Angelo said, gesturing in the air with both hands.
“An… arctic fox,” Emma breathed in a whisper. “Tell me, Arion, are there any other transformed foxes among the crew.”
“Just one. Victoria Barbicane is a hybrid of Vulpes vulpes, a red fox.”
Emma put a hand up to her chest. “My poor Piale,” she muttered. “There will be no children for her and no more for us. Our family bloodline is at an end.”
Angelo swallowed with difficulty. “Arion, sir – what of Emma and myself? Are there any others like ourselves on board?”
“There are other felines, Mr. Bonavita, but you are the only Felis lynx. There are other Ursus arctos brown bears on board, but only one male, Mr. Ethan Edwards.”
“Oddio!” Emma invoked. “I do not partner with Mr. Edwards!”
“Just a reminder – the sleepers on Arion-2 have probably undergone the same type of transformations. There’s a greater chance of matching species due to the higher number of colonists still on the way. All hope is not lost.”
Angelo hissed at that. “Is there no alternative to this life?”
Dr. Fernando shook his head. “No, I’m afraid not. The best we can do is accept what has happened and learn to live with our new… attributes. For now, I would suggest that if you have a mission checklist for destination arrival, you should get started on it. This will help take your mind off of our anthropomorphic transformation as you focus on your jobs. As soon as you have accomplished your onboard checklist, Captain Robeson has ordered that all personnel are to transfer down to the surface for immediate base detail.”
Tight-lipped, Emma held out a corner of the blanket she was wrapped in. “What about clothing?” she asked. “I can’t do my work wrapped up in this, and none of my own clothes will ever fit me again!”
The skunk looked down at the simple coverall shorts he wore and tilted his head with a smile. “Arion will scan your new bodies to print up appropriate garments for you, plus he will re-scan your fingerprints so you will have proper access to your systems, all before you transfer to the surface. A galley tent has been set up on-site on Belle, so you can begin your planetside duties without having to do so hungry.”
Without waiting for a dismissal, Angelo stood up from his chair and unconsciously rubbed at his stubby tail. The short appendage was stuffed down into the back of a pair of yellow boxer shorts; the underwear was the only thing he had been able to get his digitigrade feet into after waking up to find what had happened to him. Emma stood up beside him, clutching the blanket to her chest.
“From this office, the scanning room is just down the main corridor to the first junction,” Fernando reminded the embryonic specialists. “Turn right and then it’s in the second compartment on the left.”
Without another word, the Bonavitas turned and strode out stiffly. Dr. Fernando rubbed his forehead and then looked at his tablet for his next patient.
Nick Ansara refused to sit down. He clomped around the room with heavy footsteps as the counselor calmly watched the troubled individual pace. As the colony’s chief animal wrangler, this was one of the more odd transformations that Dr. Fernando had seen so far. Being a blend of human and equine, Ansara had hooves for feet, but humanlike hands. Unlike others, he would be unable to “get down on all fours” – he was fully bipedal, and although technically a horse, he was not a mythical centaur. In reality, he actually resembled the Greek mythological Ipotane, a race of half-humans with just two legs, hindquarters, tail, head and ears of a horse.
Ansara’s body pattern and coloration was that of a pinto, consisting of large patches of white and medium brown, and since there had been nothing for him to wear besides a sleeping blanket, he had chosen to walk about in his altogether. Fernando had to avert his eyes from the horse-man’s endowments and focus on his head and shoulders.
“Send me back to Dr. Kazama,” Mr. Ansara stated after only a few moments in the counselor’s office.
“Are you feeling ill?”
The equine face turned toward him. “Emotionally devastated,” he said. “I know that’s your department, but Kazama’s the only one who can complete the end to my life!”
“End? Mr. Ansara – Nick! That’s not the solution to this situation!”
Tears welled up in the soulful brown eyes of the horseman. “I can’t live like this!” He opened his mouth and revealed an impressive set of equine dental work. “I’m never going to be able to eat meat ever again! I am not a vegetarian, but with these clackers I will never be able to eat anything else!”
The skunk tilted his head. “How do you know unless you try?” he asked calmly. “You might have to cut it up in smaller pieces first, but you may still be able to enjoy your steaks and chops.”
“How do you know?” wailed the man. “What if I’ve lost my taste for meat? I enjoy it too much and I couldn’t go on living without it!”
Fernando had to fight to keep a smile off his face. This client’s primary issue was not that he was horse-faced with hooves and a tail, but whether or not he could still eat meat. “After Arion can provide you with some appropriate clothing…” he started. At this, Ansara looked down reflexively toward his crotch and suddenly grinned despite his distress. “…perhaps you can try a steak dinner before you have to transfer down to the surface for work detail.”
The horseman seemed fascinated by his new private equipment all of a sudden, as if he had only now seen them, but he made no move to cover himself. “Uh, sure, Doc. A steak dinner would be great!”
“I will make all the arrangements for Mr. Ansara. By the time he has been scanned for fingerprints and clothing, I will have a meal prepared for him.”
“Thanks, Arion!” the horseman said, looking at the SI’s image on the wall screen. He looked uncertain for a moment and asked, “What if I don’t like my steak?”
“Then we will endeavor to find something you do like.”
“Okay, maybe that can be good.”
After Ansara had left for the scanning room, the counselor slumped back in his chair and blinked several times. “Well,” he muttered aloud, “that was short, but all over the place.”
“Every person has their own personal reactions to the transformation,” Arion agreed. “It just takes a different perspective for each to come to terms with it all, and we have to do what we can to discover what that motivation must be.”
“You are starting to repeat yourself.”
“For good reason. You seem to need to be reminded after every encounter.”
The skunk rested his chin upon a fist. The ship’s intelligence had a point.
A shapely form leaned forward across the desk toward the counselor. If he could read her feline expression correctly, the Bengal tigress was amused. “Can you see me, doctor?” she asked with a thrum underlying her voice. It was not exactly a purr, but with her present emotional state, it was hard to tell.
“Yes, my eyesight is better than it ever was,” he responded with raised eyebrows. “Is there a specific part of you that you wish me to examine?”
The orange, black and white striped feline chuffed in what was supposed to be hearty laughter. She stood up straight, put her hands on her hips, and then stuck out her chest. She waggled it with an impish grin. Like the African lioness on board, her transformation had left her with a greatly reduced chest, but she did not seem to have an issue with this. Her fur more than made up for her lack of clothing, as she seemed to be sufficiently covered in all the pertinent places.
“Specifically, do you see anything poking out that shouldn’t?” she asked saucily.
Dr. Fernando chuckled and shook his head. “No, there’s nothing poking,” he assured her.
“Okay, then – why do you and Dr. Kazama keep insisting that Arion print up clothing for me? The purpose of that is to cover up the naughty bits, but if they’re already covered, why the insistence?”
“I admit that you have a point, and Dr. Kate would likely agree with you. Like yourself, she feels as if she’s sufficiently covered. We’ve had a time getting her to wear anything since she was decanted, but I think she wears the coverall shorts just to appease everyone else.”
“Our project director’s a tiger too?”
Dr. Fernando recalled what he had read in her personnel records while she was being decanted. Angel Celeste’s name might literally mean heavenly angel, but she was anything but anyone’s sweetheart. She was a physical fitness, outdoorsy type who never shied away from hard work of any kind, and she respected anyone who pulled their own weight. She had little regard for lazy people, and although she was proud of her own accomplishments, she had never been boastful.
Like many others following behind them on Arion-2, Ms. Celeste did not have a specific role to play amongst the colony population of talent other than “worker bee” (as she called it). She did what was needed and often volunteered to help with things if she saw the need.
“Well then, if that’s the case,” the tigress continued as if there had not been a pause in their conversation, “I will acquiesce and wear the shorts when in the company of others.”
“It’s more than coverage,” Fernando reminded her. “It’s more hygienic when you sit in public places.”
Celeste raised her eyebrows, but nodded. “Ah, I see what the fuss is about then. It isn’t the nudity, but it keeps the furniture clean.”
“Something like that.”
The tigress returned to her seat, remembering not to sit back all the way to allow her new tail room behind her and to stay on the towel draped across the cushion. “Okay, since you have me here, I assume it’s because you think I need counseling.”
The skunk nodded. “Waking up to discover such transformations have been traumatic for some,” he said. “It’s my job to help you get used to the idea. We can’t go back to the way we were and we can’t go back to Earth, so we must all learn to cope with the changes in our lives.”
“Personally, I find this fascinating.” The feline held up an arm and rubbed her padded fingers through her fur. “I never considered myself to be an animal person, but I have to admit to certain fears.”
“Would you care to discuss them?”
She thought about that for a moment and then gave him a solemn nod. “First there was the shock when Dr. Kazama revealed what happened to us all, and then what had happened to me personally. Despite this, or maybe in spite of this, I accepted it readily enough.” She waved a hand, generally indicating everything around them. “After all, we’re out here doing something that’s never been done before. Yes, we’ve tried to colonize other planets in our solar system, but we’ve never gone interstellar before – this is our first time in another star system, so yeah, we’re going to discover and experience things we’ve never, ever faced. I figured this was just one of them. I mean, what if we had put the genetic material for the animals on the decks below us? They haven’t been affected, but would we have discovered a bunch of animals that were now ‘uplifted’ to human intelligence instead of humans with animal attributes?”
“That’s a good point. Is that what frightens you?”
She shook her head. “No, when I think about that, I’m glad it turned out the way it did. It’s worked to our advantage and I’m sure we’ll find good ways to use what we have become. What frightens me, however, is not the fact that I am now part tiger, but that in just the short time I’ve been awake, I keep experiencing animalistic behaviorism and instincts.”
Fernando leaned closer, resting his elbows on the table. None of the others had mentioned this. “Go on.”
“I took a peek into some of the other cryo pods before I reported to you after my decantation. There are some still asleep that I would call prey types, and I found myself feeling predatory towards them. What I felt was strong and the intensity of it frightened me when I realized what was happening.” She looked down at her hands, and then back up into the skunk’s eyes. “I’m afraid of what might happen if my inner tiger gets loose.”
“I see,” Fernando mused. “Like all temptations we are faced with in life, you will need to learn to control yourself. Do you see me as prey?”
Celeste smiled, but shook her head. “Not really. Maybe it’s the knowledge that while you are not another predator, you have a built-in defense mechanism that my species somehow knows to avoid.”
“Does it make a difference to know that I’ve been descented by Dr. Kazama?” He pulled his fully fluffy tail around from behind him and stroked it affectionately.
She laughed at that. “No, the feeling is instinctual. I don’t have the need to stalk you through the corridors.”
The counselor chuckled. “That’s good to know, actually. Still, if you feel drawn to prey types, remember that you must control those urges. Those are your fellow colonists, and if the same changes happened to Arion-2, we’ll have many more prey types coming to live among us in just a few years.”
“Perhaps by then I’ll have a handle on these feelings.”
Fernando sat back. “As an exercise buff, you have had to be accountable in the past with your physical regiments. You can do the same with mental exercises. Any time those feelings get too strong, feel free to seek me out. I will help you work through them – help you to accept that you have them, and can stay in control of who you really are despite them.”
Celeste stood up and then walked around the table toward him. Without saying a word, the tigress indicated that he should stand up. The counselor got to his feet, and then the feline woman wrapped her arms around him in a warm embrace. She gave him a peck on the check and then smiled at him.
“Thank you,” she said with emotion. “I know you’re just doing your job, but it’s one that’s important to me right now. If I can’t reign in my instincts, I may very well need your counseling.”
“You’re welcome, Ms. Celeste.”
“Angel. Please call me Angel.”
“You’re welcome, Angel. Come see me anytime. I will transfer to the surface after the last of us have been decanted, but I’m still here until you disembark.”
Celeste wiped moisture from her eyes and then backed away with a suddenly jaunty expression. “Okay, now I’m going to go get some drawers on before I give temptation to others I might meet!”
“Yes, please!” Fernando replied with a grin. “Go already!” The tigress laughed and then was gone.
The counselor got up, closed the office door and then returned to the desk. He had not been wearing his techwatch since the band pinched at his arm fur, but he picked it up off the table and tapped a small screen for the phone app. He pulled up his contacts and then connected to the project director. It only beeped once before her feline face appeared on the screen.
“Yes, Doctor, what can I do for you?”
“Dr. Kate, I’m ready to make my report if you have a moment.”
“This is a good time. We just finished erecting another of the military tents and are taking a break before we start the next one.”
“How many have you gotten up?”
“Eight so far; three large ones and five smaller tents. Of the large tents, one is for central operations, one for the galley with seating, and one to house the fabrication units that are being brought down. The others are smaller bunkhouse tents. We’re focusing on those so the personnel you’re sending down will have a place to sleep, rest and have protection against the weather.”
“Our crater is located in the middle of a rainforest,” the lioness reminded him. “Conditions have been good today, but Arion predicts showers tomorrow afternoon at the earliest. We’ve been trying to step up construction efforts to get as much done as we can before it does.”
“We’ve been putting everyone to work as you’ve sent them down. Please tell me you have more.”
“I have five who should be ready to disembark in a couple of hours,” the skunk replied to the techwatch. “Decanting takes time, but I’ve had so many frightened and mad people to process afterward that things have slowed considerably. I have only had four come through my office this morning, but Dr. Kazama just sent me a text that he has one more to send me before he takes a break.”
“Five more, eh? How many do you have left to process?”
Fernando looked up at the wall screen where Arion put up a list of names for him. “We still have nineteen left to decant. With luck, the last one will up and about tomorrow afternoon.”
“Edwards, Gordon and Vincent are still helping the Barringers transfer equipment from the ship to the surface with the shuttle trucks, though I may assign one more to help them. Everyone else you’ve sent down have been divided up between constructing the perimeter fence, the runway and the tent-city. Fortunately for the shuttles, they finished the runway a couple of hours ago. The ground cover plants were cleared away, and although the runway is not paved, several feet of soil was taken down to a hard, stony layer that is relatively flat and level from the blast of the meteorite impact. We appreciate your work, Antony. We’re working hard down here, but I think you have the most difficult job of us all. Keep at it, but don’t give yourself burn-out with so many bodies. Take time for yourself too.”
“Thank you, Kate.” He glanced at his tablet and nodded. “I’m expecting young Piale Bonavita soon, and then she can join her folks and the others to take Omaha down to you. After they’ve gone, I’m going to have a meal and a nap.”
The lioness chuckled. “I don’t blame you one bit. Take care, Dr. Fernando.”
“You too, Dr. Kate.”
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