FICTIONAL LIFE

 

 

ARION

©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame

 

Chapter Sixteen - Something in the Dark

 

The air was heavy with moisture, but the daily rains had stopped hours earlier. The sun was setting behind the high ridge rock of the crater, and although there were clouds in the air, they had broken up enough for the overhead stars to begin peeking through the purpling atmosphere.

One of the four gates that opened out through the tall perimeter fence nearest the center lake swung open on hinges that squeaked quietly, and two mismatched figures stepped through to the outside once the proper code had been entered onto a weatherproof pad. Crater weed softened their steps, but they were not trying to be covert.

The male form was a white-wooled sheep with black spots, and although in his human-age twenties, the ram’s curved charcoal-gray horns were not yet fully developed.  He held out a human-like hand with shortened fingers and hoof-tough nails to the female gray wolf at his side; she grasped it in one of her similar-looking, claw-tipped hands.

Ginger closed and relocked the Lake Gate behind them, and then the couple walked hand-in-hand toward the nearby lake shore. When they stepped out onto wet sand at the water’s edge, Barry Sandon looked over at his girlfriend and frowned.  In the waning light, he could see moisture rimming the woman’s eyes.

“What’s the matter?” he asked quietly, stopping to face her. “Have you changed your mind?”

The wolf shook her head, but rubbed at her eyes. “No,” she muttered, “but I’ve had a growing sinus headache all day. I may be allergic to something local.”

“You have a headache.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Yes, really.”

“Okay, then. Can you breathe okay?”

“Just a little congestion, but it’s mostly sinus pressure.” She looked at him with a tired smile and shrugged. “I’ll probably be fine once we’re in the water, swimming and collecting your plant samples.”

Barry finally gave her one of his boyish grins, one that had endeared him to her even when he was fully human, and without taking his eyes off of her, he reached up and unsnapped the straps of his bib overalls. Her gaze followed his movements as he pulled them down and then stepped out of the garment, his stubby tail not needing a separate opening in the back. She waited patiently, but made no move to do more than study his new form. Despite that he was a completely different species than her, even his changed body appealed to her.

The ram boldly reached up and unsnapped her straps for her. He pulled them down slowly, savoring the sight of her furry chest for a moment, and then pulled them down to her hips. He had to reach around her to unfasten the small strap across the top of her tail, and then finished the job, leaving their garments on the ground at their feet. Within a moment, they were both bare in what their new natures had given them.

Barry held out his hand and with just a momentary hesitation, she took it and allowed him to lead her to the water’s edge. They waded into a sun-warmed lake, and although the daylight was dwindling fast, the water had retained its comfortable temperature.

“Are you sure this is safe?” Ginger asked. The survivalist would normally have no fear of the lake water, but they were on a different world with its own rules and life forms.

“Arion reported nothing more than tiny krill-like creatures and Dom’s already caught and examined several of them.”

“Dom?”

“Dominic Silvanus, one of our biologists, now a raccoon. He said the little swimmers have no teeth, no stingers and nothing toxic in them.  All they do is eat the water vegetation and leave nutrients in the water.”

“How do they eat without teeth?”

“He explained it to me, but I’m a hydroponics botanist, not a biologist. They have a pair of thin bony ridges that can tear off tiny bits of plants to ingest, but they aren’t strong enough to pierce a human’s skin, or the hide of anything we’ve turned into.  Just know that they’re nothing for us to be afraid of, and Arion detected nothing larger swimming in this lake.

“Just because he hasn’t detected something doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

“True, but I think we’ll be fine.”  The ram pulled her further into the water until it was waist deep. The muddy bottom was firm beneath their feet with only a gentle slope.

The wolf swished her tail slowly back and forth within the water, but hugged herself as if she were cold.

“Barry,” she said with hesitation. “I don’t think I feel up to this. My head is throbbing. I think I need to go back and lie down.”

“Okay, we can go back.”

She put a hand on his chest. “No, I can make my way back okay. You can stay and collect your soggy plants. We’ll come back and frolic in the water later.”

“Promise?”

She leaned forward and slipped her arms up around his neck. She kissed him deeply and then pulled back to look into his dark eyes. “I promise to make it worth the wait. Go ahead and get your plants. I’ll see if Dr. Kazama has something for my sinuses and then I’m going straight to my bed. I will see you in the morning for breakfast.”

“Okay,” the ram said, disappointment in his voice. “Good night.”

The overhead Milky Way stood out brilliantly in the night sky, the myriad of stars casting enough illumination that he could admire her lupine figure as she waded back up to shore. When she reached dry land, she bent over to wring water from her leg fur, and she looked back at him with a tired smile.  She raised her tail for him as she retrieved her clothing, and chuckled softly at his mesmerized expression.

Then she faded away into the darkness toward the camp lights.  Barry stood in the water until he heard the faint squeak of the gate hinge, and then he waded back to where it was only thigh-deep. Before they had lost daylight completely, he had seen some of the bosom plants he had heard about, not far from where they had entered the lake.

He reached a small cluster of them bobbing gently in the water and was about to reach for one when he heard the faint squeak of the gate hinge.  Had Ginger changed her mind and returned?

He looked in that direction, but did not see her.  Perhaps the wolf was going to play-stalk him and he smiled at the thought.  The bosom water plant forgotten, he waded back to dry land, but then he heard a noise above him.  Instinctively, he looked up and saw something occlude the stars as it passed overhead. He ducked and knelt simultaneously, but nothing swooped down at him.  Whatever it was, it had only passed by and continued on its way.

When he stood up again and looked toward the camp lights, he saw a silhouette creeping toward him. He had feared an alien creature for a brief moment, but the bipedal shape with pointed ears on top made him smile foolishly.

“Hey, Ginger,” he said. “I’m glad you came back.”

What responded to him was not the wolf’s voice, but a different low growl. The ram’s eyes widened in sudden prey response and without thinking, he started looking around for a way to escape. With the camp lights behind it, Barry could see no eyes or other details, just the indistinct shape as it dropped onto all fours. 

“N-now, G-ginger,” he stammered, “don’t do that to me. If y-you want me to walk back with you, that’s f-fine. I can get the w-water plants later.”

He gave one of his smiles to show he was not upset, but when he got closer, a different scent reached his senses just as the figure leapt for him.  It was not Ginger, and he let out a bleat, quickly cut short.

***

Later the next morning, the camp’s white anthro-fox sat back on her haunches beside a sedated goat, her tail splayed out on the ground behind her. The vixen was half-human, although the goat was a fully decanted animal shipped down from the orbiting ship with a small herd of others. With the assistance of two helpers and a medical x-ray tablet, Piale had successfully implanted a thawed embryo into the ewe’s uterus, and everything seemed to go well for this first attempt.

Rex Bletchingdon handed her a wet towel to wipe off her hands and looked over at Nick Ansara, who gently held the goat’s head against his thigh.

“Nicely done,” said the tan Labrador retriever, patting her furry knee. “Just keep your head and don’t be in a hurry, and the rest you do will be as successful.

“I couldn’t have done it better myself,” Nick added his personal praise, the horseman lightly stroking the nanny goat’s neck. It would take the animal a while yet to come out of sedation, but she had done just fine throughout the experience. “You have capable hands.”

Unnoticed and watching from several yards away, a brown bear and a lynx had their heads together. Emma looked insulted, but Angelo seemed merely passive.

“You have to admit that she did it,” the lynx whispered.

“I don’t have to admit any such thing! She had to have help and take instructions from those two animals!”

“Yes, but that’s how she learns.”

“It didn’t need to be two males fawning over her!”

Angelo sighed inwardly, fully regretting the ultimatum his wife had made him give to Robeson.  “Yes,” he agreed, “that should have been us working with her, but we stood by our decision. That’s no longer our responsibility.”

Emma narrowed her eyes at him. “What are you not saying?”

The lynx looked up at the bear and met her gaze without flinching. He leveled a hand and gestured toward their daughter. The white fox was preparing a sedative for the next ewe to be implanted with a thawed embryo and the horseman picked up another goat from the back of a work truck.

“We challenged Robeson’s decision to stay here and it backfired,” he grumbled. “We refused to do our duties and he simply got someone else without making any concessions about returning to Earth. Even if he hadn’t tasked Piale, he would have given it to either of those guys anyway since they have the experience. Our hand was weak and he knew it.”

Emma put her hands on her hips. “Are you proposing we tuck our tails and ask for our jobs back?”

“Precisely that.”

“Coward.”

“No, I’m practical. You’ve always said so yourself.”

“I don’t want to stay here! We have to find a way to force them to take us back!”

Angelo glared at her. “It’s not going to happen.  We aren’t going back to Earth and it’s unlikely we’ll ever get back to normal, so we may as well as try to make the best of it as everyone else is trying to do!”

“I don’t think you ever wanted to go back. You only agreed with me to keep me on your side!”

Angelo snorted. “We aren’t doing this, Emma!” he shot back with a growl. Without another word of argument, he turned his tail to her and walked away to let her sulk, going straight to where his daughter was working. 

The vixen looked at him in surprise when he settled onto the ground beside her. “Hey little fox,” he said in a light tone. “Could you use some more help?”

She blinked and looked at Nick and then Rex. “Uh, sure,” she replied.

The lynx shifted his gaze to the two males and gave them a friendly smile.  “I appreciate the assistance you’ve given her.”

“It’s no trouble at all,” replied the horseman. The previous ewe was still lethargic, but the trio had moved the next goat a few paces away to repeat the process. Nick held another ewe with a strong arm gently across her chest and she looked at the lynx passively. “Would you like to take over? I have other things I could be doing.”

Angelo nodded. “Yes, I would appreciate it.”

“Do you still need me?” Rex asked quietly.

“Of course!” Piale said with a grin. “It’s easier with three.”

“I can be your third, if you will let me,” said another voice.  Everyone peered up at Emma, who looked sheepish despite her ursine countenance.  Rex exchanged looks with the fox and then grinned.

“It looks like everything’s under control,” he said, wagging his tail behind him.  He got to his feet and then looked over at Nick. “C’mon, I’ll buy you lunch.”

“Thanks, guys!” Piale said with a smile of her own. “I really needed your help for my first time and I owe you. It was great!”

Rex laughed aloud. “Let us know if you need any more help having sex with the animals!”

Nick jabbed an elbow into the canine’s side for the comment, Angelo looked surprised and Emma appeared absolutely scandalized.

Piale yipped aloud and pointed a clawed finger at him, obviously pleased with the risqué dialogue. “I’ll remember that!”

Rex and Nick waved and walked away, while Angelo and Emma took up positions around the goat.

The bear reached for the cooler of thawed embryos, though did not open its seal just yet. “Vulgar…” she muttered beneath her breath. Then she looked over at her daughter and gave her a look of embarrassment.  “We’re sorry, Piale. We shirked our responsibilities and you got saddled with our work.”

“Thanks, Mom,” the fox put a hand on the bear’s arm. “I don’t mind the work and would be happy if the three of us did this together.”

“Do you want one of us to take over the transfer rod?” Angelo asked. “After all, we both have a lot of experience with this sort of thing.”

“Actually, I want that kind of experience too, but if I get tired, I won’t hesitate to ask either of you to take the driver’s seat.”

“As you wish,” he answered.  “Now, what you did before worked, but there’s a way to make it easier on yourself if you don’t mind a little instruction.”

“Not at all!”

None of those involved with the embryo implantation efforts noticed the cougar standing just beyond the bed of the work truck holding the other goats.  Ken Robeson nodded his approval at the turn of events. He had kept a covert eye on the Bonavitas, and although it had not been his plan to push them toward their duties, he was surprised that they had come around – at least for now.

With a private smile, he dropped to all fours and slipped away quietly.

***

Near the runway was a long row of shipping containers that had been brought down from the ship and lined up beside one another. There were still more to be brought down, even though the shuttle trucks could transport six at a time, and since very few of them had been emptied as yet, the area had become known as the “supply depot”.

One of the containers was open on one end and two Furs were inside making a quiet inventory. “I found them,” said one of them. “Two crates holding three dozen solar charged night lamps in each.”

Dr. Kate looked up from the manifest on her tablet at the slender red panda and nodded. “Thank you, Jessica. We’ll need to distribute those to the sleeping tents.”

“How do you use solar powered lamps at night?”

Kate laughed and put away her tablet to help pull the crates toward the door. “Set it outside your door to charge during the day, put it on your night stand when it gets dark out, and turn it on or off as needed.”

“Yeah, I guess that makes sense.”

One of the work trucks pulled up outside as they manhandled the first crate out into the hot sunlight toward the vehicle. “Good timing,” Jessica remarked.

The canine Rex poked his head out of the open window. “Dr. Kate!” he exclaimed. “I was sent out to get you. We have a situation!”

The women set the crate in the back of his truck and then both approached the tan Labrador. “What’s going on?” Kate asked.

“We have a missing sheep,” Rex replied.

“It’s probably wandered off between the tents,” the African lioness said dryly. “You don’t need me for that search party.”

“No, the sheep is Barry Sandon, our hydroponics officer. No one’s seen him since last night, and they’ve already searched all the tents for him.”

Kate spoke toward her techwatch. “Arion, has Mr. Sandon returned to the ship on one of the shuttles?”

“Negative, Dr. Kate. The only personnel currently on board are Haru and Emiko Kirato, presently decanting chickens, and chef Rocky taking inventory of MREs prior to sending them down to the camp.  War Admiral is scheduled to launch the cargo crew from the surface in forty-eight minutes.”

Kate tilted her head slightly. “Where’s their toddler? I thought Emiko keeps him with her at all times. Is he with Takuma?”

“Jeanette Colton is currently babysitting Daisuke Kirato, Kimmy Colton and Dale Weathers in the camp, while Takuma Kirato, Dean Ruston and Carson Weathers are constructing a playground for the children in the area set aside to be a public park out near the Lake Gate.”

“Thank you, Arion.” The lioness looked at the canine. “Who was the last one to see Mr. Sandon?”

Rex shook his head. “I don’t know the answer to that. I was just asked to find you and take you back to camp headquarters.”

Jessica nudged Kate’s shoulder. “You go on,” she said. “I can continue here by myself.”

“I’ll come back out and help once she’s where she needs to be,” Rex volunteered, the tip of his tail tapping the seat beside him.

The red panda patted the canine on the cheek gently while Kate moved around the vehicle to climb in. “Thank you,” she said to the farming dog. “Bring some water bottles back with you.”

“Will do!” 

The truck took off along the tracks worn across the crater weed back to camp, and Jessica returned to the relatively cool shade just inside the shipping container. She found her own tablet sitting on a box near the door and she tapped the screen.”

“Hello, Arion. Would you transfer a copy of the manifest that Kate was working from to my tablet?”

“Done. Ms. Heald. I have included her notes and checkmarks.”

“Thank you.”

***

Ginger sat on a backless stool, her hands in her lap and her furry tail hanging low to the ground. She did not look at any of the Furs that stood in front of her, her expression one of shame.

“We slipped out through the Lake Gate late last night,” she confessed in a quiet voice. “Barry wanted to collect some of the lake vegetation to examine, but that was only an excuse for us to fool around in the water.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” Ken Robeson remarked. “This isn’t a prison camp and you aren’t forbidden from private meet-ups.”  He glanced over at Kate, who met his eyes only briefly.

“I’d had a sinus headache most of the night,” the gray wolf continued, “so I bowed out and went back to camp.”  She looked up and shrugged. “He probably thought I was just using the old headache excuse, but I really did have one. He stayed behind to collect his water plants and I came back to camp.”

Dr. Kazama nodded. “She came to me for sinus medication, which I dispensed with a cup of water and instructions to get some rest.”

“I haven’t seen Barry since then,” Ginger continued. “I went right to bed and slept until the sunup this morning. I went to find him for breakfast, but the bed in his tent hadn’t been slept in.”

“Since you bowed out with a headache,” Will Andresen ventured, “do you suppose he found someone else to snuggle up to during the night?”  Kate shot a glare at the engineer for his supposition, but Will ignored her.

“That actually crossed my mind,” Ginger admitted with a shrug, “but no one I’ve talked to has seen him this morning.”

Ken looked around the small group. “We did a casual search of all the tents – sleeping tents, galley, fabrication, etc. As she said, no one can recall seeing him today. His spotted, white wool stands out in the sunlight, so I would have thought someone would have remembered seeing him.”

Ginger looked up for the first time since the query had begun. “Do you think something in the lake might have gotten him?” Her voice cracked with the emotion in her question.

Kate spoke toward her techwatch. “Arion, please send a sensor drone to the lake and start scanning for Mr. Sandon, in the water and on the shore. We’ll head out there shortly to have a personal look around.”

“I have scanned the lake multiple times since our landing, Dr. Kate,” said the SI’s voice. “At no time have I detected any large life forms in the water.  The lake has an average depth of twenty-one feet with the deepest point only thirty-six feet in depth, and a central underwater plateau only ten feet below the surface.”

“When was your last scan?”

“Three days ago, Dr. Kate.”

“He might have slipped on algae and fell in,” Andresen suggested. “He could have hit his head or gotten tangled in water weeds.”

Kate glared at the engineer again and saw Ginger stiffen at his words. Although Will was a red wolf and Ginger was a gray, they had never shown any attraction with one another. Barry and Ginger had been an item before they had left Earth and they had continued their relationship even after discovering their new physical natures. Kate suppressed the idea that Andresen was actively trying to distance the two of them so he might have a chance with the she-wolf.

“Arion, please look again,” she directed at her techwatch. “You might find Barry from the air before we can get there to conduct a search.”

“A fully-charged sensor rover is launching from the camp now.”

“Thank you, Arion.”

Without waiting on anyone, the lioness turned and walked out of the tent. The others followed her to one of the work trucks and everyone found a place inside, including the gray wolf, who took the shotgun seat next to Kate.

Dr. Kazama tapped on the truck door. “I am heading back up to the ship with the cargo crew to check on some meds that I have processing on board. We’ll be leaving in about fifteen minutes, so I must get out to the runway. I’ll keep an eye out for Barry, just in case he made it up there. You can grab Jessica if anything medical comes up while I am away.”

“Thank you, doctor.”

As the truck headed out toward the lake, Ginger wrung her hands together. “He has ram’s horns,” she reminded the lioness, “but he hasn’t considered them defensive weapons. They’ve been more of an annoyance, always framing his field of vision.”

“I’m sure he would use them if a predator tried to attack him,” Kate said soothingly. “Barry is a practical guy, and even if he’s never been a fighter, his baser animal instincts would kick in. A lot of us have been discovering such instincts and I’m sure he would be no different.”

***

“Doc, can you come to cargo bin A133-065? I am including a map to get here.”

“I can, but I am involved in something. Can it wait?”

“I will leave that up to you. We’ve found a large smear of blood across an out-of-the-way storage bin.”

“I am on my way.”

“Aye, Doc. Thanks.”

***

Kate rubbed her eyes and then rubbed her throat, trying hard to suppress her emotions. Ever since her transformation, her thoughts and feelings got out more than they ever had when she was fully human. There were times in recent days when she really wished she was still as firm and stoic as she used to be.

Her techwatch chirped at her and she tapped the near screen automatically. “This is Dr. Kate.”

“This is Dr. Kazama. We’ve made a terrible discovery here on board the ship.”

The lioness made an inarticulate sound, her throat constricting again.

“Dr. Kate?”

“I’m here, Kazama. We’ve just discovered Barry Sandon’s body and it’s pretty grisly. It looks like a predator killed him and had a feast, so you’ll need to do an autopsy when you get back down here. Jessica said she’s not qualified to do that.”

“Sandon – that’s the sheep ram, isn’t he? I hate to tell you, but we’ve made a similar discovery here as well.”

Kate looked over at Ginger Martin, who was on all fours, retching into the lake water several paces away.  She lowered her voice and rubbed her throat again, trying to entice her words into the techwatch.

“What’s happened there?”

“Ethan found a smear of blood on a storage bin door panel, but none of the personnel up here have been injured. I checked it with my med kit and the blood matches what we have on file post-transformation for Whitney Marker.”

“Oh no…”

“We did a search of the area and found some equipment scattered haphazardly in an aisle, and when we checked a sealed trunk where the equipment was supposed to be stowed, we found the girl’s body. Her throat was torn out and her body was partially eaten, but so far I have been unable to discover what’s done this to her. Arion has no cameras in that area, so he has no record of the incident.”

“Oh, that makes me sick,” Kate murmured. “We found almost the same thing here. Barry was reported missing this morning and we did a search in the last place he’d been seen, out by the lake. We don’t know what got a hold of him, but his throat was torn out and he’s been partially eaten. We found his body covered over with crater weeds, as if whatever did it was trying to hide him – or save what was left for later.”

“If it was just him, I would have suspected a local predator we’ve not yet encountered, but with almost a mirror incident on board the ship, I would have to conjecture it has to be one of our own predators.”

The lioness was quiet a moment before she said, “I really hate to admit it, but I’m inclined to agree with you.”

“Most of my medical equipment has already been transferred to the surface, but I still have duplicate capabilities here for a full autopsy. I will examine Ms. Marker’s body closely and see if there’s anything present that I can identify to make a match.”

“Do we need to transport Barry up to you there?”

“No, I can examine him when I am finished here and can return to camp. Once I have sufficient information to make an educated guess, I will contact you right away.  Arion, please log these two personnel as confirmed RIPs. When I return to Belle, I will bring Ms. Marker down with me.”

“It has been logged, Dr. Kazama.”

“How has the crew on board reacted to this?” Kate asked.

“Mostly shock and numbness, but I haven’t informed Rocky or the Kiratos yet.”

“Do you have any suspects?”

Kazama lowered his voice. “With the exception of Haru, Emiko, Rocky and myself, everyone else up here is a predator, but I won’t voice any suspicions until I have more to go on.”

“I understand. Please keep me apprised of what you find out.”

“Certainly, Dr. Kate.”

 

NEXT


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