©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame
Chapter Twenty-Seven - The Sori
Life in the crater returned to normal routine, although Kate experienced an unexpected sadness that her new friend had gone without even saying goodbye. Perhaps that was Sori tradition, but the lioness herself was surprised at her reaction. The formerly stoic project director had never been one to feel much concern over anyone’s departure, much less someone she barely knew. The people she met in her work were often transient acquaintances and were rarely in her life for long, so why should this be any different? She could only attribute it to the social nature of lions, even if the alien had never actually been a part of her pride.
Despite Zaizen’s absence, however, Arion confirmed that the large silver ship was still in orbit over Bellerophon, although it was no longer geosynchronous over the outpost. Since the alien vessel was at a higher altitude than Arion-1, its orbital period was longer at slightly over two and a half hours. During the times that it was in line-of-sight, the Synthetic Intelligence directed radio signals toward it in hopes of establishing contact, but all to no response.
The smaller silver orb that was assumed to be the alien’s airship had been seen streaking back to the outpost twice, but each time it had already launched back up toward the orbiting vessel before anyone from Tellus could prep a flitter to go meet it. It was assumed that the Sori were collecting what research data that might have survived the cataclysm so the information would not be lost, but it was anybody’s guess if that was the case.
Then, three days after the lonely Sori’s rescue, Arion received an unexpected signal across the bandwidth utilized for the techwatches.
“Friend Arion, are you there?” The words were in English. “This is Sori voidship 74857.”
“Yes, Friend Zaizen. I am always here. It is good to hear your voice again. I trust you are well?”
“Yes, very well. I am with my people again. Very happy, very well.”
“What can we do for you, Ambassador?”
“Leader Xuxua would like to meet with Furman leaders, much discussing.”
There was a pause. “English equivalent of Captain.”
“Understood. I have just contacted Mayor Robeson and he agrees to the request. Where should they meet with you, at your ship or mine?”
“Airship 10425 with Leader, engineer and myself to land outside the Lake Gate. Meet there.”
“Mayor Robeson said you are permitted to land within the perimeter fence, any place convenient for you.”
“We will meet outside the Lake Gate. Two hours.”
“Acknowledged. They will meet you then. Dr. Kate will be happy to see you.”
“And I, her.”
Inside his office within the Central Authority building, Ken stood in front of a mirror and quietly groomed his fur with a brush. The tawny cougar was a short-hair feline, so he did not have to worry about mats in the fur, but he still wanted to remove bits of dirt and dust from working out in the town. If the captain of the Sori voidship wanted to meet with him, he wanted to look presentable at the least.
There was a hurried knock on his door and he looked at his techwatch in apprehension. The alien airship was not due to land for another hour and ten minutes.
“Come in,” he called out, turning toward the door.
A large brown bear pushed into the room. “Sorry to bother you,” Ethan growled, “but we’ve just had another incident!”
Ken swallowed. “Incident?” he repeated. “Don’t tell me another predator has — ”
“I’m afraid so! Yvonne Weathers was tending her sheep, but had to fend off a bloodthirsty attack by her own husband, Carson!”
“Yvonne is a…” the mayor wracked his brain, trying to recall what species each of the Weathers family was.
“She’s a goat — he’s a bobcat; they have a little boy, a panda cub.”
“Right. Go on.”
“Witnesses said that Carson stopped in the paddock to visit with his wife during his lunch break. They were seen casually speaking, but then without provocation, Carson struck her down and then leapt on her with his jaws at her throat. She tried to fight him off, screaming for help. He shredded one of her arms and part of her neck, but Rod and I were nearby and were able to beat him off of her. He was quite out of his mind, acting more like a maddened animal than a construction worker with a keen intelligence. He attacked Rod too, but I managed to subdue the guy before he could hurt him too much.”
Ethan raised a large ursine hand paw. “I had to punch Carson in the head several times, so he may have a concussion. Once he collapsed, I tied him up with some wire I had in my pocket.”
“What about Yvonne? Is she —?”
“She was still alive when Nick Ansara picked her up and rushed her to Dr. Kazama, but she was in critical condition. Rod went with them for his own injuries. I’ve already recalled Jessica to help Kazama with surgery.”
“Thank God,” breathed the mayor. “What did you do with Carson?”
The bear gestured with a thumb over his shoulder. “We never planned for a jail in this building, so I locked him hog-tied in an empty closet for now. I’ll check on him later to see if he’s come back to his senses or if he’s just gone all the way to an animal.”
Ken moved to his chair and sat down hard on his tail. He pulled it out from beneath him and then leaned upon the desk, trembling. “I’m… just shocked,” he muttered. “Despite their transformation differences, I’d heard they were a good and stable couple. Does anyone know why he attacked her?”
Ethan shook his head. “Nobody was close enough to hear their conversation, but they didn’t seem to be having an argument. Something must have happened to set him off!”
“This is not a good time,” said the mayor. “Not a good time at all!”
“When is it a good time for a predatory man to attack his prey wife?”
“No, that’s not what I meant! We’re meeting the alien leader in an hour. This is not a good time to have an emergency — especially something of this nature! We can’t let them know this happened.”
“No, I suppose informing distinguished visitors that we’ve been having feral attacks as a result of our changes would be a bad thing. They would fear for their own lives.” The sheriff sat down in another chair and it strained beneath his ursine weight. “You know we may have to segregate our town if this keeps up.”
“I know, Ethan. The thought’s crossed my mind too, and that’s something I didn’t want to do.”
“There may not be a choice.”
“Let’s hope to God nothing else like this happens while the Sori are here.”
There was a flash of starlight in the noonday sky before the crack of thunder that followed it reached the crowd awaiting on the ground below. The silver sphere dropped toward the crater with such a velocity that it looked as if it was in freefall, but long before it hit the ground, it gradually slowed until it fairly floated down to a soft landing, its crystal mirror surface reflecting the lake and the gathered Furs. The Sori airship sat unmoving for several minutes, no doubt to let its exterior cool from its high-speed flight from orbit.
Nearly ten minutes later, an opening appeared in the silver curve of the ship and a flat platform extended to the ground. The first to emerge was the familiar form of Zaizen, only her iridescent body hair was now glossy and well groomed. She smiled toward the Furs and gave them a human-style wave. Following behind her were two other Sori, both similar in size as herself. One had hair that was brown with black highlights, and the other’s hair was tan with a ginger tinge. It was impossible to discern each one’s gender as their long hair covered over any marsupial pouch either might have possessed, and all genitals were internally housed and also covered over by the body hair.
Kate, Will and Ethan all stood just behind Ken to represent his command staff, just outside of the open perimeter gate. The cougar faced the newcomers nervously, his tail twitching as if it had a life of its own, although he tried to put on a friendly air. Kate smiled openly at Zaizen, but neither spoke.
The ginger-tan being stepped forward and said, “Sori Xuxua” in its native language. Zaizen immediately translated and pronounced it in English as Sori Shu-sha. The black and brown being stepped forward and said, “Sori Selasi.” Both of the newcomers were looking at the furmen with open interest, their first encounter with actual aliens from another world. Their eyes were bright and their fuzzy, cup-like ears were focused toward them all.
Zaizen stood just behind and between her companions and spoke quietly in the Sori language so that both could hear. Each of the Furs before them heard accented versions of their names, and when she finished the introduction, Ken took a step forward and raised a hand in greeting.
“Welcome friends,” he said with a sociable expression.
“Leader Xuxua is captain of voidship 74857,” Zaizen offered with a hand on its shoulder, and then turned to the other and said “Engineer Selasi maintains voidship 74857.”
“It’s always good to meet another engineer,” Andresen remarked quietly to the African lioness beside him.
Zaizen immediately translated his words, although Will had not directed them toward the visiting aliens. Selasi’s face lit up and it said something back to their translator.
“Engineer Selasi agrees,” she said with a smile. “He would enjoy the opportunity to discuss voidships with you.”
Andresen cleared his throat uncomfortably at having been overheard and nodded. “Please tell him I would like that.” Zaizen immediately complied. She nodded her head with a few quick words, and the Sori engineer looked at the red wolf and mimicked the head-nod, a gesture not used by the Sori, but Zaizen had instructed him of its traditional usage among the human-born.
“How is it that we may help you?” Ken said, directing his words to their leader. Xuxua gave a lengthy reply and then glanced aside at Zaizen.
“Leader Xuxua thanks you for the friendship you gave to me when I was alone, and she wishes that our two peoples can be friends as well.”
“That is our fondest wish as well. Friend Zaizen has been a welcome visitor to our town and has given us good insight to other worlds that were unknown to us.”
“Exchanges of information is good. Wish for more. Leader Xuxua would also wish to respectfully request return of Sori devices you collected from the outpost. Some of them may contain the data we had been assembling from surveys of Serallasion before the meteor fell.”
“Of course,” the cougar replied. “They have been of little use to us and you are welcome to have them back. I will have them all returned to you before your departure.”
“This is appreciated.”
“In the meantime, Friend Zaizen, please ask if your leader and your engineer would like a tour of Tellus.”
“Yes, please,” she responded after conveying the offer. “I have told them many things of your town, your animals, your technologies and your people. Leader Xuxua is most anxious to put my words to your sights and your ways.”
“If you will follow us, we have several flat-bed trucks with us to transport you into town.”
“Is kind, but Sori prefer to walk when not far.”
“As you wish.”
As they walked, Xuxua spoke at length with Zaizen and the Furs all allowed them this discussion without interruption, although Arion listened in quietly. Selasi added something to the conversation, and then Zaizen turned back to Ken.
“Was it your people that tried to contact Sorini?”
Puzzled, Ken blinked and then slowly shook his head. “No, we did not have knowledge of Sorini,” he answered. “It was only after your ship was detected on approach that we tried to contact you, but even then we were unable to elicit a response on whatever frequencies you communicate with. We were completely unaware of Sorini’s existence until we met you, Ambassador.”
“Leader Xuxua said that a retrieval signal was sent out from the Serallasion outpost coinciding with the time your people discovered our devices and a voidship was immediately dispatched from Sorini. I was unaware of the device, or that any of our technology still functioned; it was not I who sent the signal.”
“I may have an answer to this mystery,” interjected a voice from Ken’s techwatch. The cougar stopped and lifted his wrist so that they could all hear.
“Go ahead, Arion.”
“While investigating the dome, Dean Ruston found a four-inch cube among the debris, and since they had discovered several of the egg-shaped capacitors that still retained some energy, he plugged one into the box. He reported that the cube vibrated hard in his hands for several seconds before it fell silent again. At the same time of this event, I detected a powerful signal burse from his location lasting 3.14 seconds. I was not recording signals at the time, so was unable retain a copy, but I made no identification of the pattern during its duration. Mr. Ruston tried to recreate the signal, but despite using another partially-charged capacitor, he was unable to make the device repeat its function. The conjecture at the time was that whatever the unit was, it burned itself out before its purpose could be determined. Further experimentation was unable to recreate the event, but in light of Leader Xuxua’s report, this may have been the source of the signal that was transmitted to the Sori.”
Although Arion was probably fluent enough in the alien’s language to get by and could have repeated his report to their leader directly, it was Zaizen who referred all of this to her companions. At the conclusion, Selasi made a motion with a hand and Xuxua repeated the gesture. Zaizen turned back to the Furs.
“It is as he says,” she remarked with a human-style nod. “Description of cube matches a common retrieval beacon to be used by survey teams in the event of catastrophe, but as I was not part of what you would call our command team, I had no knowledge of the device or its function. Leader Xuxua has said that perhaps it is time that all survey team participants be instructed in its usage. Had I known of it, I would not have been on Serallasion when you arrived here to settle. That Mr. Ruston activated it by mistake was fortuitous on several accounts.”
“On several accounts?” Dr. Kate repeated, the first words she had interjected into the conversation since the Sori airship landed.
“In my report after having been retrieved from my abode under the rainforest canopy, I informed them of your journey and your plight. While I do not possess the knowledge to reverse the process that caused the mergers of your physical forms, Leader Xuxua says it may be possible to correct the mistake. In addition to this, we may be able to teach you how to shield your voidships for future protection.”
“My God!” Will Andresen exclaimed, startling all three of the Sori. When he realized what he had done, he smiled a toothy grin and waved a hand back and forth in the air. “My apologies,” he told them. “This is good news – good news indeed!”
Selasi chattered something at Zaizen for a moment. “Engineer wants to remind that we have not met another race before, so our technology and your technology may not be compatible without necessary modifications.”
“Engineering often requires many modifications before perfection,” Andresen agreed. “As long as both sides are willing to learn, I’m sure we can find a solution.”
“Modification to techniques may also be necessary for human physiologies. What works on Sori may not work for Terran bodies.”
Ken’s tail had stopped twitching, but was now again active behind him. “Please tell them that we will gratefully accept any assistance in these areas as you can provide. Your engineers are free to work with our engineers, and your medical scientists are free to work with ours as well. We may not be able to do either of these without your help.”
Zaizen relayed this to her companions, to which both gave short responses. “Some of your technologies would like in trade.”
“What would you like?” Andresen asked, suddenly guarded.
“Sori do not have video communication technology. Never thought of it. Would like to add this to our technologies.”
The red wolf glanced first toward Ken, who gave him a subtle nod, and then returned his gaze to the Ambassador. “Agreed, you would find it quite useful.”
“Agreed. Also interested in Synthetic Intelligence.”
“That,” Arion supplied, “might be more difficult. My existence is the culmination of nearly a century of experimentation of specialized technologies built on top of others that may not translate well to Sori systems. However, once I know more about your own sciences and can tap into your data libraries, we may be able to present the foundation of an initial Artificial Intelligence that your own scientists can build upon. In time, you may develop your own Synthetic Intelligence.”
Zaizen relayed his words, but upon this revelation, there was no response.
Later that day, the Sori had all returned to their voidship in orbit, having had a grand tour of Tellus with many discussions on physiological and technological topics. Although they had gone, taking the devices that had been returned to them, Zaizen promised to remain in contact with Arion through the techwatch she possessed since other communication avenues were not compatible.
While the aliens’ visit was no secret among the colony population, Ken had hoped to keep details of their discussions with them on a need-to-know basis, but over the course of the day, word spread quickly throughout the population and now it was widely acknowledged that the Sori was going to change them all back into humans! He still did not know who leaked the information, but what did not get spread around was the fact that it was unknown if the aliens could apply their physiological methods to human anatomy.
People started to believe that they would be normal again, but not that it was only a possibility, and a long shot at that. There was a sudden shift in morale throughout the town, most of it in cheerful optimism, but there were some who took the news in private disappointment; these were Furs who liked being furmen, who now enjoyed their new attributes even if they would have never chosen this life to begin with.
In a private meeting with Ken, Kate, Satoru, Ethan and Will, the Synthetic Intelligence waited patiently for everyone to get situated.
“Okay, Arion, what do you have for us?” the feline mayor asked after the door to his office was closed and the others were seated around a small conference table.
“Ambassador Zaizen reports that after research into the Sori archives, and with the information on human physiologies I have provided to them, they believe that it may be possible to filter out the extra DNA codes that were merged with human genetics. However —”
“That’s great news!” Will interrupted happily, thumping his red-furred lupine hand-paw on the table. “I’ve gotten used to my new furry chassis, but I will look forward to seeing my real face again in a mirror!”
“I heard a ‘however’ in there,” Kate muttered.
“That is correct, Dr. Kate,” Arion confirmed. “Sori and human physiologies differ in many respects, but they believe the process used on their people in the past can possibly be modified for yours.”
“A sample of a person’s original, unaltered DNA will be necessary in order to reset the genetic code, and a volunteer will be necessary to test the process. There is no guarantee the medical processes they use will work on such an alien physiology as a human body and they cannot guarantee the volunteer will live through the process.”
“That’s not reassuring,” Ethan muttered.
“I remember how Zaizen reacted to eating our food,” Kazama remarked, “and even something as common as the acetylsalicylic acid we take could be fatal to them. We just don’t have enough information about our physical differences.”
“Acetylsalicylic acid?” Ethan repeated with a slight tilt of his head.
“You could have just said that,” the brown bear grumbled.
“Anyway,” Kazama continued unperturbed, “if the Sori scientists need human DNA, we have samples for everybody on file taken just before they went into cryo, providing the stasis fields survived during the long journey to get here.”
“Stasis fields for DNA samples have been uninterrupted since activation and are still functioning on board,” Arion reported. “All samples should still be viable. Once you have a volunteer, I can transfer that person’s genetic tissue to the Sori.”
“Now we just have to find a volunteer,” Ken remarked. “I’m almost afraid we’ll—”
“I volunteer,” Kate said without hesitation. The others looked at the lioness in various stages of shock and surprise.
“Are you out of your feline mind?” exclaimed Will.
“Absolutely not!” Kazama added. Ken and Ethan both looked at her as if she had just announced her mind could simply be siphoned out and poured into the brain of a horse or a rabbit.
“Why not?” she shot back with a curl of her lips. Her nose wrinkled, she started to bare her fangs at them and her tail was twitching in agitation. “I have just as much of a right to my humanity as anyone else!”
“Calm down,” Ken said at last. Kate glared at him a moment longer, and then recomposed herself. She crossed her arms and sat back in her seat.
“Kate…” Kazama said in a softer voice. “This isn’t about getting your humanity back. It’s about the danger of an untried method.”
“So what? I have my reasons for volunteering.”
Will leaned on the table and softened his own voice. “Kate, you have been the heart and brains behind Project Pegasus since the beginning, and despite your recent nomenclature of Deputy Mayor, you are still the Mission Director. We can’t afford to lose you if something goes wrong. You’re too important.”
The lioness opened her mouth to argue, but Ethan tapped on the table with a large claw. “In that event, it falls to me to volunteer,” he said. “My place in the colony is to maintain security, but anyone can be the sheriff and I’m just as anxious to get my old face back as anyone else.”
“No,” Ken said firmly. “It won’t be any of the command staff, and that’s my final word on that debate. We can put out an announcement and let others volunteer if they want to give it a try, but stress the danger involved. Since we’re dealing with a technology designed for a completely different species, there’s more that can go wrong that might go right and the chips are stacked against it happening on the first try.”
“When you put it like that, we may not get any volunteers,” Kate grumbled.
“You said you had a reason to volunteer,” Kazama reminded her. “What was it?”
The African lioness put her hands together in her lap and then hung her head, looking at no one. “It’s only been weeks, but the longer I am in this form, it seems like my humanity is fading,” she said in a quiet voice. “I have always had a keen mind for facts and figures, one of the reasons why I was put in my position, but I am finding it hard to concentrate and I’ve caught myself acting very… un-Kate-like.”
“I think we have all had times like those,” Ken remarked.
“It’s not only that,” she added. “I have moments when I feel that I’m becoming feral and I’ve had predatory thoughts, myself, toward those who are prey-types. I’m afraid the longer I am merged with a lion, the more like a lion I become. ” She looked up with fresh moisture rimming her eyes. “I am becoming more like Angel Celeste every day, and I constantly worry about when I’m going to snap and kill someone…”
“Carson Weathers!” Ethan interrupted, getting to his feet. “I haven’t checked in on him at all today! He’s probably soiled himself by now, and is weak from hunger or thirst!” The sheriff left Kate in mid-confession and rushed out of the room.
“What the devil’s he talking about?” Will groused.
Kate’s voice was hoarse. “What does Carson have to do with anything?” she wailed, still emotional over her revelation. “We were talking about me!”
Ken and Kazama traded glances and the mayor gave the surgeon a subtle nod. “Carson Weathers attacked his wife Yvonne just before the alien airship landed,” the otter explained. Kate and Will both looked shocked. “Ethan and Rod managed to stop him before he killed her, but it was not without a fight. I had to perform surgery on both Yvonne and Rod while you all were chatting with the Sori.”
“Will they be okay?” Will asked.
“Both will live, although Yvonne’s condition was critical. Jessica is watching over her now. Rod’s injuries required a few stitches, but he’ll be alright with some rest.”
Kate wrapped her arms around herself and shuddered. “First Angel, now Carson. I may be next.” She looked at Ken with a look of defeat. “Let me volunteer. I’m a danger to those around me.”
The cougar cleared his throat and drummed his claws on the table for a moment. “You aren’t alone in your feelings, Kate,” he said cryptically. “I’ve had others tell me virtually the same thing – and I’ve felt it myself. We’ve all had to keep a rein on the instincts of the animals we’re merged with, and it’s already been suggested to me to segregate the carnivores from the herbivore population.” He looked at her for another long moment, but then he shook his head. “No, your request is denied. You’ll not be the first.”
Kate heaved a heavy, audible sigh. After several heartbeats, she looked up at Kazama. “What about Yvonne’s little boy, the panda cub?”
“Dale was with Jeanette Colton when Carson attacked his wife; she’s still watching over him for now.”
“Thank goodness for that.”
There was a tap at the door and Ethan let himself back into the office. When he returned to his seat, he looked around at the others. “Carson’s filled up the coffee can I left for him to pee in, plus he’s hungry. I’ve got Rocky preparing something for him so he’ll be healthy enough to stand trial whenever we get to him, but he’s still locked up in the closet I put him in. We’ve got to have somewhere better to keep him penned.”
“I can probably arrange something in one of the conference rooms we aren’t using yet,” said the engineer. “I can have Arion drop several panels of glassteel for walls and a door.”
“Trial,” Ken repeated beneath his breath. “First Angel, now Carson – and we still have no precedent for what they did aside of temporary insanity.”
“I have a suggestion,” Ethan said.
“Anything, please,” the mayor prompted.
The bear looked from face to face. “Carson seems to be back in his right mind again, but that doesn’t excuse what he did. He seems very remorseful, and while he remembers everything that happened, he said he felt like a spectator while the cat within him took control. Yvonne is a goat and the bobcat saw her as lunch. He is glad he didn’t kill her, but he did ask me to kill him for what he did.”
“Your suggestion is to just execute him?” Will asked.
“Oddly enough, it isn’t – at least not directly.”
Ken frowned. “Okay, you’re going to have to explain that one.”
“Let’s tell Carson what the Sori have told us, and let him volunteer on his own. If he makes it, that will be a victory toward him and the rest of us shedding our feral instincts. If he doesn’t… justice is served.”
The group fell quiet, but eventually Ken felt the need to speak. “I still don’t like it, but I can’t think of anything better. Ethan, you can be with me when I talk to him, but it will just be the three of us. I want to really impress upon him the seriousness of his actions, but also the potential danger. If he doesn’t volunteer on his own, and we don’t get any other volunteers, it may become his sentence.”
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