©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame
Chapter Twenty-Nine - Penance
Kate looked up at the night sky and spotted Dei and Lao, the two irregular-shaped asteroids always together in orbit as small moons. Both were full tonight, which made them easier to pick out from the plethora of stars overhead. There were only wispy cirrus clouds above, but they were few enough to make stargazing simple. The lioness was reclined upon her back on a bed of crater weed out away from the minimal lights of the colony, taking a bit of personal time to relax and unwind from the demands of the day; Her furman shorts were set aside on the ground beside her; due to the temperate climate in the crater, she had stopped wearing a top of any kind.
There would always be a lot of work to do, but the town of Tellus Mater was slowly taking shape in the months they had been upon the surface of this strangely familiar world. Due to the complications of the transformation that had turned them all into anthropomorphic hybrids of humanity, the population had become mostly divided between carnivore and herbivore types. The herbivores were free to come and go anywhere they wished within the town, but whenever they were among the predator types, they now traveled in groups of two or more for their safety. The carnivores, however, were forbidden to enter the posted herbivore sections of the town unless they had an armed escort of the prey. The Central Authority building and the park surrounding it were considered neutral territory. It was not an ideal situation, but the segregation mostly worked to keep species-related conflicts to a minimum, although it strained relationships in mixed-species families. However, there had been no further deaths since the edict had been announced and even grumbling about the rule had grown quieter over the months.
The resident aliens had mostly kept to themselves in their abode out by the lake, coming into town or inviting others out to meet with them only on rare occasion. During waking hours, at least two of the Sori had remained busy researching what they called the genetic filtering project, while their other team members flew off in their solitary crystal ball airship to continue the original scientific mission of the previous team.
“Dr. Kate, are you still awake?” asked a quiet voice from her techwatch.
The lioness smiled. “Good evening, Arion. Yes, I’m just decompressing out in a field.”
“That presents an interesting visual image.”
“A flattened balloon of Kathleen Ruston fluttering gently across the crater on the valley breeze as if it was a Windsweeper.”
Kate laughed aloud, a sure sign that she was feeling relaxed. “My extra sixteen pounds of Belle-weight has me sufficiently tethered to the ground, my friend.”
“I am glad to hear it.”
The lioness grinned, considering how human-like the SI was in that it could even imagine such thoughts without actual visual input.
“So, what I can I do for you?”
“The Sori have asked me to convey the message that they are now ready to try their genetic filtering procedure on our furman volunteer.”
Kate frowned. “I hope they’re sure. We’ve kept Carson and Trina in lockup for months, and although they’re both repentant of their crimes and back in their right minds, I would not wish to lose either of them to this untried process.”
“Rialsis reiterates that the method using human DNA is unproven, but they have reached a point where they can proceed no further without a live trial. Again, he stresses that there is no guarantee that the host will survive the process and that the volunteer be fully aware of this.”
“Does Rialsis know how long it will take before we know if it’s working?”
“Using Sori history as a vague template, the first effects should be noticeable within days while the genetic filtering takes place at the molecular level. It may take longer before it is known how far the process will go before it is considered a successful progression.”
Kate rubbed a hand across her eyes. “Our transformations took place over decades while we were in cryo. If a reversal takes anywhere as long, we’ll all be too old or too used to our anthro bodies to want to change by then.”
“I have heard our researchers discussing this and Mijel stated that the ‘renovation’ procedure on the Sori to revert them back fully took the equivalent of four and a half weeks.”
“The process for human physiology could take longer – or shorter, conversely. It is currently an unknown.”
Kate reached for her shorts. “Please relay what you told me to Ken, and then we can meet at his office. We’ll need to inform Carson that the time has come to pay penance for his actions.”
Carson Weathers paced his jail cell on all fours, anxiety about his mortality foremost on his mind. The Central Authority building had never been designed with an actual jail in mind, but the engineer had repurposed an extra conference room into a chamber with three cells separated from one another using glassteel panels produced from Arion’s material processing fabrication printers. Each cell had a bunk with a light blanket, a sink, toilet and a plain floor rug. The wall panels were smoky gray that were only somewhat translucent, and the doors were clear, but all were relatively bulletproof. There was a diamond-shaped pattern of small holes in each door to allow for conversation as needed. There was no danger of anyone shooting up the place, but it was well and truly protective against the fangs and claws of furmen who suffered the temporary insanity brought on through their genetic mutation.
Carson Weathers and Trina Barron occupied two of the cells on a semi-permanent basis and the third had only been occasionally utilized if a carnivore Fur felt their humanity slipping away. More than one person had requested being locked away during that time, to be released only when it had passed, so for now that one was little more than a temporary holding cell.
Ethan and Rod took turns tending to their prisoners, bringing them meals and sometimes just sitting with them for company. Despite that Carson had injured the snow leopard, Rod’s wounds had healed up nicely and he held no animosity toward the bobcat.
Others visited on occasion, but since the date of the initial attack, Yvonne had not come to see her husband. Carson missed his wife and their son, but could blame no one but himself for what he had done to her. Angelo Bonavita sometimes came to see Trina, and he would often read to her from some of the novels he had brought with him on his tablet; out of sheer boredom, Carson would listen in too.
At the moment, however, the ocelot was asleep in her cell and there was no one else in the makeshift jail chamber. Carson had been informed of his upcoming procedure late in the evening before, but he had gotten very little sleep through the night. He had no way of knowing if this might be his last moments among the living, but he was also fully aware that he could have been summarily executed long before now.
Even if he survived the initial procedure, he could still die from it later as his body adjusted to the changes. Would he be awake throughout the whole thing, and would it hurt? He had no answers.
Without a tech device nor even a window to the outside, the bobcat had no idea what time it was, but guessed it was still early morning. Ethan and Rod would collect him just before sunup to be transported to the Sori dome. The aliens had recommended that he go in with an empty stomach, so he had not even gotten a proverbial last meal.
While the crimes and incarceration of the two Furs were known throughout the colony, knowledge of the greenlight for the genetic filtering experiment had been kept from the general population. There would always be someone awake around the clock due to the diurnal and nocturnal instincts of the varied species, so they had chosen to move the bobcat before daylight in order to keep questions about the transfer to a minimum.
He looked up when the main door opened. Mayor Robeson walked in quietly, followed by Ethan, Rod, Jessica and Dr. Kazama. The cougar approached the transparent door and put his hands into his pockets.
“Good morning, Your Honor,” Carson said quietly. He got up onto his feet and held his hands together behind the back of his red furman shorts.
“Good morning, Carson,” the mayor replied courteously. “Did you get any sleep?”
“None at all, but I guess that was to be expected.”
Ken nodded. “Despite what happened, none of us wish ill for you. We all sincerely hope this procedure of the Sori will be successful.”
“No more than I,” the bobcat replied, keeping his gaze on the floor. “If it succeeds, I’ll be human again, but I promise that I will willingly submit to any discipline or punishment you may come up with for my crime.” He then looked up and met no one’s eyes but the cougar’s. “If I don’t survive, please scatter my ashes somewhere over the rainforest. At least let something out there benefit from my life.”
“Do you have anything you want me to say to Yvonne?”
Carson thought for a moment and then spoke quietly with a tight throat. “Just tell her that I am sorry for what I’ve become, and that I hope she can one day forgive me, even if I don’t make it.”
“You’re not gone yet,” Ken reminded him, “so try to stay optimistic. Regardless, I will pass on your message. Are you ready?”
The bobcat only nodded and Ethan moved forward to unlock the glassteel panel. Carson stepped out meekly and then followed the sheriff. Rod shadowed them and was armed in case there was trouble, but the bobcat went along willingly without needing to be restrained. Kazama and Jessica brought up the rear in silence.
Ken watched the entourage leave the room. He was not needed for what would come next, so he reached for the light switch. He paused, and then looked into the cell containing Trina Barron. The ocelot slept soundly with her nose turned toward the far wall. If the process failed to work on Carson Weathers, Trina would be the next test subject.
“Just how many will it take?” Ken murmured to himself when he turned out the light and shut the door behind him.
When Carson stepped outside and approached the truck awaiting him, he looked up at the night sky and felt moisture rimming his eyes. It was the first time he had seen the stars in months and the scents on the air reflected the day’s session of rain, making everything smell clean and fresh. That was a nice send-off.
Without further hesitation, he climbed into the truck beside Ethan and settled in for the ride out to the alien’s research station. His mind was numb on the journey and the passage of time seemed quick. Before he knew it, the truck pulled through the Lake Gate.
All four of the Sori awaited him and his party. To the aliens, he was merely a volunteer for the process they had designed to return the furmen to their original selves. None of them were aware of his crime or his shame.
In unison, they hailed him with the hands-open greeting of courtesy. Without thinking, he returned the gesture automatically and then followed them inside the largest of the interconnected domes. Jessica and Kazama trailed him in, but Ethan and Rod remained outside with the truck.
He was led to a rear chamber and when he saw what was inside, he was surprised. He looked back at Dr. Kazama. “They’re putting me into cryo?” he asked.
“Yes and no,” the river otter answered. “You will go into an enforced sleep and the cryo pod you originally slept in will monitor and maintain your life signs. As when you were on the flight out, the pod will make sure your bodily wastes are removed and your muscles electrically stimulated to prevent atrophy while you sleep, although you won’t actually be in cryo. The Sori will initiate their procedure once you’re asleep and monitor your progress throughout the induced transformation.”
“Do you know what it is they will do to me?”
“From what I understand, your original DNA is being used as a template for what it should be, and the procedure will filter out everything in your genetic code throughout your body that does not match that template. This will happen at a substantially accelerated rate compared to the decades-long metamorphosis that occurred while we were on the way here.”
“That sounds painful.”
Kazama nodded. “I’m sure it would be if you were conscious. This is the reason for the cryo pod they have modified. What they will be doing here is a combination of Sori and Terran technologies. When they can detect no further activity, the process will be complete and then you will be awakened with a body that is no longer feline and no longer subject to the predatory instincts that caused your problem in the first place.”
“How long will I sleep?”
“I don’t know the answer to that,” the physician answered truthfully. “It could take weeks or even months, but it’s likely you won’t even be aware of the passage of time. When you awaken —”
“If I awaken,” the bobcat corrected.
“When you awaken,” Kazama repeated without change, “you will be a new man and will give hope to the rest of us.”
Carson looked at him quietly for a moment, and then looked at Jessica. The red panda gave him a reassuring smile, and then he glanced across the pod at the patient aliens that Arion had translated the entire exchange for them.
Then, at last, the bobcat nodded. “Okay, I’m about as ready as I will ever be. Doc, if I don’t survive, I just want to say thank you for giving me this chance at redemption.” He stuck out his hand and the otter grasped it firmly.
“We’ll have a beer the next time you see me. I have a stash in my personal effects that I’ve been saving for a special occasion.” Carson gave him a grin, something the physician had hoped for.
Jessica stepped forward with a familiar waste collection flange in her hands. The red panda flashed him a cute smile and then winked. “It’s time to drop your drawers and crawl into your pod. You know what it is I need to do with this.”
If Carson’s face had not been covered in fur, his cheeks would have flushed a deep red.
When Trina awoke in her cell, she stretched and yawned, and then took a drink from a cup of water sitting on a tray with some food just inside the cell door. The lights were on outside her door and some of it filtered through the semi-translucent walls too.
“Hey, Carson,” she said in a lazy voice, “what did you get for breakfast? Looks like I got oatmeal with raisins again, and you know I hate raisins.”
There was no reply. “Hey, aren’t you awake yet? Your oatmeal will get cold.” Aside of her own voice and movements, her sensitive hearing picked up nothing else besides the building’s air handlers. She moved to the wall and pressed her eyes up as close to it as her muzzle would allow and peered into the next cell. It was dark, but enough light came through its clear door to show her that there was no occupant, just an unmade bed to show that anyone had been in it.
She called out for her keepers, but neither Ethan nor Rod put in an appearance. This worried her. After all of these months, had Carson been executed for his crime in the middle of the night? Would that her fate as well?
When Dr. Kazama checked in with the Sori a week later, he peered in through the glassteel top of the cryo pod. Originally, it would have been frosted over from the inside, but freezing was not part of this renovation processes. He could see all of Carson Weathers inside. The furman’s crotch was hidden beneath the metal waste collection flange between his legs, and IV lines were attached to his body in several spots where his blood flowed out through a filtering system and was then returned to his veins. Snug fitting orange netting encompassed all but his head.
At first, nothing seemed out of place until the otter studied the bobcat closer. The dark fur seemed to have taken on a pinkish hue, but he discovered that it was not the color of the fur itself. Rather it was the man’s skin beneath a thinning coat of fur that was showing through.
He pulled back and looked over at Anano, the female Sori that had accompanied him inside the dome. She had been quietly grooming her fawn-colored hair with two hands and an odd-looking brush while the otter had made his requested examination.
“It’s working!” he exclaimed quietly.
Anano smiled, but shook her head in the human manner and spoke to the techwatch on her third wrist. “It is within acceptable, preliminary limits, Friend Kazama,” Arion translated for her, “but until there is a deeper transformation to reveal how well the renovation progresses throughout the volunteer subject’s body, success is still not certain.”
Kazama put a hand up to his heart and privately willed it to calm from his excitement. “Of course, you are right,” he said. “It has only been a few days. It is too soon to know for certain how well it’s going. Way too soon.”
“We will inform you if anything unexpected shows up in our readings, but you and Friend Jessica are welcome to look in on him anytime you wish. For now, there is nothing more we can do for the subject but monitor progress, so in the meantime, we continue the scientific work begun before the meteor fell.”
Kazama gave the alien a short bow out of habit. “I thank you,” he said, but then he directed his next words at the Synthetic Intelligence himself. “Arion, can you set up a real-time relay for all of Carson’s vitals and other physiological readings from the cryo pod to my tablet so that I can monitor him at leisure without disturbing the Sori’s work more than necessary?”
“Of course, Dr. Kazama. Feeding data to your tablet now.”
“Thank you, my friend.”
One thing the tablet data did not convey was Carson’s appearance, as there were none of Arion’s cameras within the Sori station, so Dr. Kazama still made periodic visits every few days. After a couple of weeks, the bobcat was starting to look ugly as a blend of bobcat and human features. So far, the process appeared to be working, and despite the augmented change rate, he seemed to be healthy in spite of his looks.
Then, after a month and a half asleep in his cryo bed, Carson looked more human than animal and the doctor was optimistic. With the exception of the higher placement of his human ears, which looked really odd residing near the crown of his head, the remaining elongated shape of his nose and the continued existence of claws and whiskers, Carson looked mostly human. Even his bobbed tail nub had shriveled up weeks ago.
The aliens were all still cautiously guarded with the results, however, since the transformation was taking longer with this species than it usually took with their own; it appeared that Terran DNA was far more complex than Sori.
“May I have everyone’s attention, please?”
The mayor had to repeat himself several times before the cafeteria located within the Central Authority building quieted enough for him to make an announcement. This was one of the rare nights when Chef Rocky and Victoria Barbicane had put together a buffet supper with enough variety to appeal to the appetites of the various species that everyone in the colony had gathered to take part in the meal. The room was crowded and there were many conversations filling the air amidst bites of bountiful food, but there was a virtual dividing line down the middle aisle with the carnivore and herbivore types clearly separated. The discussions finally died down as everyone looked to the front of the room where the cougar in charge stood up on a small dais.
“All right,” he said, rubbing his hands together as his thick tail swished back and forth behind him. “The reason we’re having this buffet tonight is a kind of celebration. As most of you are aware, Carson Weathers has been in holding since earlier this season for crimes committed against his wife. What only a few of you know, however, is that for the past seven weeks, Carson has been the subject of a Sori attempt to correct the DNA mutation that transformed him into a bobcat while in cryo on the way here.”
That announcement started another eruption of vocal exclamations throughout the room and it got so loud that the mayor had difficulty restoring order again. It took Arion to issue a shrill whistle from every tech device in the room to get everyone’s attention.
Ken lifted his hands high and waved them in the air. “Listen up!” he said loudly in the sudden quiet. “The Sori have conjectured that they might be able to reverse the transformation, much as they did with their own race years ago when they first ventured out of their own solar system, but since Sori and Terran DNA varies greatly, they were unsure the process would actually work on us. They’ve researched this in the months since they first arrived, and with Arion’s help on our unfamiliar physiology, they finally reached a point when they needed a live test subject to try it out on. Carson Weathers volunteered of his own free will in lieu of imprisonment.”
The cougar searched the crowd of herbivores as he spoke and finally spotted the doe goat who was married to the sleeping bobcat. She returned his gaze, but looked surprised. She had never been notified of her husband’s current status and she had not visited him once since he had been taken into custody.
“It was Carson’s wish to atone for his crime. He volunteered to be the first the transformation process was tried on. If it worked, he would be the first human on Bellerophon. If it didn’t work, then he felt that he would have paid the price for his actions.”
“Did it work?” someone from the herbivore crowd called out, but Ken did not readily recognize the voice.
“The process is taking longer than it usually does for the Sori, but his transformation appears to be progressing nicely. To reduce the effects of physical and psychological trauma, he has been kept asleep throughout the accelerated process, and while he currently looks like a mash-up blend of human and feline, he appears to be more human than furman at this time.”
At this news, conversations started to build, but the cougar was not finished. “Before you get too excited,” he said loudly, “you should know that the final success of this transformation is not certain! The risk of failure is still a possibility, so we won’t be celebrating just yet, but —” he said the last with a smile, “— all signs look good right now.”
There were a few good-natured cheers and then the room erupted into many conversations again. This time, the mayor sat down between Kate and Kazama. “That should boost morale for a little while,” he said over the din.
“Take a closer look around the room,” Kate replied. “It’s not all joy in Mudville, darling.”
“What do you mean?”
The lioness pointed out to different places around the room while Ken and Kazama followed her gestures. It slowly sunk in to both of them what they were seeing. There were joyous animated discussions all right, but there were some who looked to be in shock, while there were others who were openly crying.
“Why are they upset?” asked the river otter.
“Disbelief for some, relief for others,” Kate explained. “Since we woke up from cryo, we’ve been drilling it in to everyone’s heads that our mutations were permanent, to get used to these forms for the rest of their lives. There were a number who needed counseling, and I was one of them.”
Dr. Kazama looked surprised. “You?” he said in surprise. “More than just about anyone else in our group, I thought you handled the change as if it was just another aspect of the mission project.”
The lioness chuffed and shook her head with self-amusement. “Satoru, I have had to wear many masks in my lifetime. Acceptance of my situation was just another mask. Believe me when I say that I’ve had my share of tears and sessions with Dr. Fernando to work through my issues, some of them recent, just as much as any other.”
Ken nodded and crossed his arms lightly. “You’ve told me about some of them,” he said, “but I didn’t know it was that bad.”
“It has now been months that we’ve lived in these forms,” Kazama replied. “We should have all been getting used to being this way by now. I know I’m comfortable with who and what I am, although I still have dreams of who I used to be.”
“There were rumors of hope to fix us when the Sori voidship arrived, but after so much time without news since then, the rumors died off on their own.” The lioness continued, “This new announcement has stirred up the pot again. There are others who actually like and enjoy what they’ve become and will be resistant to the notion of changing back if they have that choice.”
“Why wouldn’t they want to change back?” Ken prompted.
“Think about it. For some, especially the carnivorous predator types, their new bodies are stronger, healthier and more robust, even if they are the equivalent of being sterile. Why would they want to become weaker human beings again, especially if they’d had some debilitating health issues before or were often the subject of bullying by others stronger than them.”
Just then, Yvonne Weathers approached their table. She was accompanied by several other herbivore types.
“Your Honor, sir,” said the doe, “we would like to be first on the list to be changed back! If you’re making a roster, please include us!”
Ken Robeson uncrossed his arms and leaned forward onto the table toward them. “I’m sorry, Yvonne, but we need to wait and see if your husband’s transformation is stable and safe before we let anyone start lining up to go through it themselves.”
“But you said —”
“What I said is that it’s looking good. That does not mean that the ‘finished product’, so to speak, will be what it’s supposed to be. This is an unknown realm of science for us, and the Sori have never met our kind before – human or furman. There could still be dangers or unexpected results, so until we can sit down with a fully restored Carson and give him a thorough physical and psychological examination, we aren’t going to call it done until it’s rightfully done.”
“What kind of danger could it be?” asked a male deer from the small group. Ken recognized him as one of the construction workers who had helped build the very building they were sitting in.
“While the physical transformation looks like it is progressing well,” Dr. Kazama answered, “Carson has been kept asleep in a cryo-like state through the accelerated changes, so we have been unable to check in on his mental health. Will he still be Carson Weathers when he is awakened, or instead will he have the mind and instincts of a bobcat in human form? That could be just as disastrous as what we’ve endured already. We just don’t know at this stage.”
“Why did you bother telling anyone until it was done?” Yvonne retorted crossly. “You’ve given us hope and now you want to dash that to pieces!”
“My dear,” Ken said with compassion, “Hope is exactly what I wanted to give everyone. Hope is never certain in any case, but it can help uplift spirits. That is what I wished for you all. Until we know for sure, hope is all we can do, but we won’t get ahead of ourselves by claiming the process is perfected until it has finished.”
The goat seemed to deflate and she looked around at the others who had joined her. Finally she looked back at the cougar and nodded. “Okay, we can understand this,” she said quietly, “but when — if — the process works to revert my husband back to his original form, we still wish to be first to volunteer to go through it too.”
Ken nodded. “Send me your names to my techwatch and I will create a first come-first served listing of volunteers. I will just keep it on file for now until such time as it may be needed.”
“That’s all we ask, Your Honor. Thank you.”
The herbivores drifted away from the table and it was barely a moment later when the mayor’s techwatch began to ping with their message alerts.
Inside one of the secondary Sori domes, a solitary dinosauria form paced around the room, checking readings from medical sensors and indicators on the panels of the Terran cryo pod. There were still changes taking place within the volunteer’s body, and while things had gone well, something did not smell right. Human physiology was still foreign to him, but Rialsis felt as if there might be a chemical imbalance producing the subtle scent. This was not something that occurred in Sori-based renovations, so it was more of a ‘gut feeling’ than any scientific fact, but the odor he sensed concerned him.
While he was musing over this discovery, warning alarms rang out and startled him from his thoughts. There appeared to be an electrical malfunction to the man’s heart and it started beating wildly irregular in arrhythmias. The patient’s body shuddered, and although the man was fully sedated, a brief painful moan escaped his lips before his heart stopped beating altogether.
Despite the differences in their physical forms, Rialsis knew that a heart that had ceased beating prevented blood flow to the organs and could be fatal without immediate treatment. Unfortunately, as unfamiliar as he was with human physiology, he did not know how to resuscitate him properly, so the Sori rushed to find the techwatch he had removed prior to his previous sleep period.
When he finally found it in another room of the station, he activated the alert as he had been shown and Arion answered immediately.
“Friend Rialsis, how may I help you,” the SI responded in the Sori’s primary language.
“Subject’s heart has stopped. What do I do?”
“Accessing cryo pod sensors.” Several buzzing thumps issued from the cryo pod and the form within jolted several times; the alarm continued to sound. There was a brief pause before the voice spoke again and then the klaxon promptly ceased. The quiet persisted for a couple of minutes before the SI spoke again.
“I am sorry, Friend Rialsis. I was unable to resuscitate him. Carson Weathers has perished.”
The Sori peered down in through the top of the pod and studied the human form within. He was quiet for a long moment, but then activated several controls to back up the data leading up to the terminal event.
“I regret the loss,” he said matter-of-factly, “but not surprised. Humankind is so different from Sorikind that there was always the risk of failure. We will research the data to determine the cause and with your permission, perform autopsy.”
Arion knew that he had total autonomy with this project, so he did not hesitate in giving the alien the permission he needed to do what was necessary. Now it would be up to him to inform the mayor and his command staff of the abrupt end to the experimental procedure.
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