FICTIONAL LIFE

 

 

ARION

©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame

 

Chapter Thirty - Furs in the Dark

 

“Mr. Robeson, Your Honor.”

The mayor looked up from his tablet, where he had been poring over the production reports laying additional water lines throughout the proposed city. He was actually glad for the interruption of such a dry report that he did not even mind the ship intelligence’s dig at his title.

“Yes, Arion, what have you got?”

“There is unrest within the ranks and I thought you should be aware.”

“Explain, please.”

“Since your announcement two days ago of the renovation project ending with Mr. Weathers’ demise, I have recorded thirty-two conversations within earshot of tech devices focusing on this failure. There are disgruntled personnel who have never trusted the aliens and they are now actively blaming them for Mr. Weathers’ death.”

“Blaming them, in spite of foreknowledge that the procedure was risky and was not a guaranteed success?”

“Apparently so.”

“Do you expect trouble from the conversations you’ve listened in on?”

“There have been several remarks made concerning the Sori ancestry and the unknown motives of aliens.”

“There’s no crime in having opinions, Arion. I wonder how their remarks would run if everyone knew you were listening in on all conversations. We all value our privacy, you know.”

“Fully understood, but all personnel were briefed when they originally signed for their tech that if privacy was preferred, there is a mute function on all of the devices that would disable the microphones. I do not have the capability to circumnavigate this specific function, which was a hard directive by my designers. The mute feature would have to be manually toggled on or off for communication with me.  So long as the microphones are active, I am listening in.  All personnel have the choice to keep their conversations private if they wish.”

Ken frowned.  “I’m sure most have forgotten that they have that choice and leave them on at all times. I know I do in the case of emergency.”

“That is likely the case, and you are free to remind our personnel of this feature. If you do not wish to know of any dissention within the ranks of your people, you need only give me a directive of your own not to tell you.”

“Noted, my friend.”  The cougar sat back in his seat and looked around the room, wishing not for the first time that his office had a window to the outside, but that was a safety feature in case there was ever a bout of harsh winds or weather that could break glass. Reflecting on what he had just been told, he resolved to make sure his devices would be placed on mute whenever he and Kate had private time together.

“Have any of these conversations discussed causing actual harm to the Sori?” he asked.

“None directly, sir.”

“Perhaps not, but I think we may need to provide some security for our alien friends.  Would you have Ethan and Rod come see me, please?”

“Ethan is currently at the south gate to investigate a herd of Belle Stars that have wandered into the crater, apparently attracted to our city lights, but he has been contacted and should be here in about twenty minutes.”

“What about Rod?”

“I’m here,” said a voice from the hallway. The snow leopard stepped through the partially closed door. “I was visiting with Trina when Arion said you needed to see me.”

“Have a seat. How is she doing?”

“Still working through her emotions on Carson’s death,” Rod answered.  “She knows that when the Sori are ready to try again, she’s next.”

“We have given her a choice,” Ken reminded him.  “When the time comes, we can ask for another volunteer if she’s afraid to do it.”

“I can’t think of anyone who might take you up on the offer after what happened to him.”

“Actually, there are three others who have come to me in private to volunteer.”

Rod widened his eyes at this. “Really?”

“Yeah, these are some who have really had a tough time with their transformations, even after six months in our new forms, and would prefer to risk a possible death to get better, than to go on as they are.”

“Wow, that’s harsh. Let me guess, they’re all herbs.”

“Herbs?”

“Herbivores.”

“One is, the other two are predators who have worked hard to keep from attacking any of the…  herbs. They’ve voluntarily kept themselves away from situations where they have to be in close proximity to the temptation just to keep the peace.”

“Oh, okay.  So, what’s on your mind?”

“I had hoped to have Ethan here to discuss it with you two together, but as his deputy, you can fill him in on any details later.”

“Trouble brewing?”

“Let’s just say that the potential for trouble may be an issue.  We’ve heard grumblings concerning the Sori over Carson’s death. It seems that some are blaming them for sacrificing him like a monkey or guinea pig in a science experiment, and while there have been no direct threats, I would like to set up a rotation of guards armed with medical mercy darts at the aliens’ research station.”

The leopard nodded, absently rubbing a finger across the whiskers on one side of his muzzle. “We’ll need to make sure that who we pick as guards aren’t any of those who are likely to use the position for their own agendas.”

“Agreed. Can you work on that?”

The spotted feline stood up. “I’ll get right on it.”

“Rod…” Ken said with a steady gaze at the leopard, “I have to ask — what are your feelings about all this?”

The deputy was quiet for a couple of heartbeats. “Honestly, I can’t blame anyone for Carson’s death. He knew it was uncertain before he volunteered, and while I’m sure he felt it was his duty to atone for what he tried to do to Yvonne, he was truly warned that it might not work.  He said his goodbyes before he went under, but your alien friends didn’t kill him. It was an untried method to do what we all thought was impossible to begin with.”

Ken nodded. “Thanks, I had to be sure.”

The former First Officer of Arion-1 gifted him with a wide grin.  “You can count on me, Captain. We’ll make sure no one tries to disturb the Sori. If we have any chance of making this work, they’ll need uninterrupted research time to figure it out.”

“Zaizen once told me that she was aware there were Furs who did not trust her simply because she was alien to them, and I’m sure she reported that to the team replacing her here. They may not understand this distrust, but for their own safety I will have Arion ask them to refrain visiting the city for the time being. They can ask for any of us to come out to them with supplies they may need.”

“Right-o, Cap’n. I’ll tell Ethan what you want to do, but in the meantime, I’ll start working up a roster.”

“Thanks, Rod.” 

*** 

Although there were now light poles lining a few streets of Tellus, there were not so many to illuminate the town out to the perimeter fences. Even when full, the two small moons did not reflect much light either, but on nights when they were not visible at all, or the sky was overcast as it was this time, the darkness could almost be felt.

Within that Stygian darkness, four indistinct shadows crept quietly out away from the fences to stay out of reach of the sensors they knew were there. An hour earlier, they had snuck out through the South Gate and took their time down on all fours making their way around toward the crater lake.

Their purpose was anything but honorable, and while only one of them had actually been a close associate of the bobcat, they all believed that he had died under some nefarious experiment that was conveniently contrived to help all the poor furmen.  While none of them had been able to get into the armory to sneak out firearms, each of them possessed items that could be used as weapons to bludgeon the unsuspecting aliens, accompanied by fire-starters to burn their station to the ground.

They spoke to one another only in whispers and only when necessary as they made their way under the cover of darkness, but there were green glowing lamps outside of the Sori domes that helped them pinpoint their destination.  What they could not see, however, were the proximity sensors freshly placed around the domes, and as they got closer to the mark, a series of sharply brilliant LED lamps lit up the very spot where the four creepers were momentarily blinded.

Hidden guards swarmed out of the darkness toward them, and before the creepers could get reoriented and escape, each of them were shot with a compressed gas-propelled mercy round. These tiny medical darts were just powerful enough to penetrate a furman’s pelt and break the skin beneath to administer a swift-acting drug, and it dropped them in their tracks without anyone having to engage claws or fangs.  The four sleeping forms would drowse for a couple of hours and wake up later in lock-up with little more than a headache.

The snoozing bodies were loaded onto a flatbed truck and Ethan trundled off through the gate back to town with them while the other guards got back into position.  During the drive, the brown bear gave Arion details of the incident to be relayed to the mayor whenever hizoner woke for the next day.

With the rising of the sun, Ken made a proclamation to all colonists that the aliens’ research station was now off limits to all but those authorized. He provided only a brief explanation of the night’s event and gave notice that deadly force was approved to be used against anyone else who tried to harm the Sori.

He only let them know that those who were captured were subdued, but he did not mention that only mercy darts had been used, nor did he release their names. If anyone else contemplated a raid on the research station, he wanted them to believe they could be shot for their actions. This was serious business. 

*** 

When the colony command team faced the creepers from the night before, none of the captive predators looked repentant of their actions, only indignant that they had been caught. There were three males and one female locked up in the two unoccupied jail cells, and secured upon the right leg of each prisoner was an ankle monitor that Arion had printed with the fabricators during the night.  Trina Barron sat quietly upon the bunk in her own cell, her knees drawn up to her chin and her long tail wrapped around her ankles as she waited for the drama to unfold.

“We’re going to hold you here for three days so you can reflect upon your actions,” Ethan informed the ocelot’s new cellmates, “and then you will be placed under my supervision for hard labor in the city — duration to be determined.”  He gave them an ursine sneer and added, “What I plan for you will be rather disagreeable, so I hope those enhanced noses of yours aren’t too sensitive to foul odors.”

“Those aliens killed Weathers!” ranted a badger in the second cell. “They deserve to be paid back!”

“That’s not a choice you get to make,” Ken said in a calm response.  “Would you have preferred someone else had given Mr. Weathers payback for what he did to his wife?  Carson knew the risk of what he volunteered to do, and while it did not work as well as we’d hoped, what he did was an attempt to help us all change back to our original human forms.”

“He was a better person than any of you are,” Sean Barringer interjected.  “The Sori had no obligation to help the poor aliens they found on this world, but since their own race had gone through the same thing years ago, they offered to do what they could for us.”

“If you had killed them,” Kate added, “you would have doomed all of humanity to mutate into Furs whenever anyone left our solar system for other stars, and we still don’t know if any of us can have children!  The Sori method was never assured to work on the first try, and it’s unfortunate we lost someone, but at least our alien friends are trying to help us avoid our future fate. Their genetic engineering science is advanced far beyond what we know, so it’s to our advantage to utilize their knowledge.”

“All right, all right!” shouted the African wild dog in the third cell. She stepped close to the glassteel door and slammed her padded palm against its surface. “Spare us the lecture! You’ve said it all before!”

“Yes, but it appears that none of you actually listened to what we said,” Rod supplied in a mocking tone.  “In one furry ear and out the other, completely bypassing the walnut-sized brains you all have.”

“You all say that Carson volunteered,” said one of the other prisoners.  The hyena rolled his shoulders and sat down on the bunk.  “He was my friend and our children were growing up together, but in spite of waking up as a bobcat, being a hero was not something he would do.  He had to have been coerced into doing it!”

Ethan drew himself up to his full height to give Jeff Colton an earful, but Ken held up a hand to stop the bear.  “Carson Weathers was responsible enough to know that he was the logical choice and he asked me to let him be the first test, before anyone would have the notion to try to talk him into it,” he said quietly.

“I don’t believe you,” Colton retorted. “I think your alien friends needed someone to experiment on and since you’re so chummy with them, you gave them a convenient prisoner. I don’t think Carson was ever meant to turn human again.”

The mayor turned to the white rabbit standing beside him. “Did you have the cryo pod delivered here from the research station as I asked?”

“Yeah, it’s in the store room down the hall.”

“Could you and Rod wheel it in here, please?”

“Sure.”

While they waited for the furmen to return, Ken put his hands behind his back, keeping his tail quiet. “I would like everyone to step up close to your doors,” he said. “I want you all to see this.”

The rabbit and leopard pushed one of the familiar pods in through the door, and it barely fit the standard-sized opening.  Ken gestured where he wanted it and they let it stop in front of the first cell. Kate touched a control and the lid pivoted upward with a brief puff of chilled air.

“Take a look inside,” the cougar said to the ocelot.  Trina peered through her door and down in the pod.  Inside was a mostly-human male. The netting, tubes and flange had all been removed, and Carson Weathers lay nude upon the soft bottom cushion with only a wash cloth strategically placed over his genitals.  The woman gasped and pulled her hands up to her face. This was not the bobcat who had once occupied the cell next to her, but she recognized his human face as the man she had briefly met when Arion-1 was still in orbit over the Earth.  His features still had a hint of the feline he had been, but here was proof that he had undergone some kind of transformation back into his original form.  No makeup job could do this.

Ken motioned to Rod and the snow leopard then wheeled the pod in front of the next cell. The pair in that chamber stared down at Carson, their expressions showing a mixture of shock and awe at the changes the man had gone through.  With another gesture, the pod was rolled over in front of the last cell. The inhabitants stared down mutely at the prone figure, and moisture formed beneath the woman’s eyes.

No one said a word, so Ken turned back to Rod and Sean. “Please make sure Mr. Weathers is returned safely to the Sori,” he said quietly. “They are still trying to determine what went wrong, but I understand they are making progress.”  He looked back at the cell doors and added, “Carson’s sacrifice was not in vain, but if a resolution can be found, his name will be revered here and back on Earth once the solution can be transmitted to them.”

The cryo pod was resealed and then rolled toward the door, but before it passed out of view, Trina spoke up with tears in her eyes as well. 

“Take me next,” she said loud enough for those in the other cells could hear.  “I volunteer. No pressure, no coercion.” 

*** 

Dr. Kazama walked quietly into the cell room of the Central Authority building. He wore just a pair of shorts beneath a modified lab coat that fit his diminutive stature and he had his hands in the pockets of the coat.  He nodded to Angelo and Piale Bonavita, the only other people in the room seated at a small folding table, where they looked up from the tablet novel they were taking turns reading aloud.

He walked to the first cell, the only one currently in use.  It had been two weeks since anyone had occupied the others. Sitting on the floor just inside the door was the ocelot, who had been quietly listening to her friends read to her.

“Hello Trina. Hello Angelo, Piale.”  All three returned his greeting.  The lynx closed the cover of his tablet and looked at the doctor curiously, but the ocelot in the cell stood up and faced him.

“How are you doing?” the otter asked. “I heard you wanted to see me.”

“I… I’m fine,” she said in a quiet voice, “but I’m a nervous wreck, just waiting for my turn.”

“That’s understandable, but wouldn’t you rather talk with Dr. Fernando instead?”

She glanced at her friends and then back to the physician. “I have done that already,” she confessed, “but you’re the only one who can help me now.”

“Oh?  What can I do if you are physically ‘fine’, as you say?”

The feline woman hesitated and swallowed hard. “None of us know how long it will be before the Sori are ready for me,” she said, “but the anxiety and stress of waiting is likely to kill me before I can have the chance to die from the procedure.”

“I don’t think that would happen, but how can I help?”

She put both hands up to the transparent door and looked at him firmly.  “I want to be put to sleep,” she said.  The otter’s eyes widened, Angelo gasped and Piale let out a small cry, but Trina shook her head with a smirk.  “No, I don’t mean put me down like a beloved pet,” she explained, “but I want you to sedate me now and keep me sleeping up to whenever it’s my turn.”

“You want to go into a cryo pod for however many weeks or months it takes for them to find a solution?” Angelo asked, suddenly standing beside the doctor.

“You don’t want to do that!” Piale added.  “It could take years!”

“Yes, I know,” Trina answered, “but in cryo I’ve slept for years before and never knew the passing of time. I’m tired of looking at the walls of my cell with only a brief escorted trip outside to see the sky once a week. If I can’t be trusted out in the population anymore, why not just knock me out until I’m needed?”

Kazama studied her for a long moment before he raised his techwatch.  “Arion,” he said, “would you please arrange for one of the pilots to boost up to you in orbit to transport Trina Barron’s cryo pod down to the surface. Have him bring it to me here at Central Authority. There’s no need to give her to the Sori until they are ready for her.”

“Acknowledged, Doctor. Mr. Kittinger has been informed and he says he will prep Secretariat for launch within the hour. I will have my waldo retrieve Ms. Barron’s pod from storage and have it waiting for him when he docks.”

“Thank you, my friend.”

“You’re welcome, Doctor.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Trina said with emotion. “I think it’s for the best.”

Angelo pressed himself up to the transparent door. “Trina! You know that if you’re put into induced sleep before you’re taken to the Sori, you may never wake up again - like poor Carson!”

She had grown fond of the lynx in the months since he had become single again, and had even formed a friendship with his daughter, Piale. She gave him a look of sadness, but did not speak.

The arctic fox moved in close beside her father, distress over her features. “Don’t…” she pleaded. “I… I want you to be my new Mom!”  At those words, Trina choked back a sob.

“When it comes time for me to go,” she murmured after wiping her eyes, “I don’t want to see the aliens.  I have nothing against them, but if I see them again, I’m likely to lose my resolve to do this.”

She looked first at Angelo, and then to Piale. “If this actually works, then I would be happy to be your new Mom. Right, Angelo?”

The lynx nodded vigorously at the reversed proposal. “I accept!” he said with a grin.

Dr. Kazama quietly left the room to give them privacy, and it was doubtful any of the others had seen him depart. The decision made, he had some preparations to coordinate with Jessica, as well as inform the mayor of this new development. 

*** 

Three months after Carson’s death, the descendants of Earth had been on Bellerophon for three-quarters of their first year, and while seasons changed for other parts of the planet, the colony crater continued to enjoy tropical weather owing to its near-equatorial location.

The day finally came when the Sori were ready to try again.  In a quiet conversation with Dr. Kazama, who had Arion relay the discussion to the command team in real time, the aliens reported that they believed they were able to isolate the issue and correct it for the renovation process.

Without making a public announcement, the mayor authorized them to try again with Trina Barron.  This time, Dr. Kazama placed Jessica in charge of his medical practice for the colony and moved into a tent constructed for him near the Sori research station. While none of them had any evidence that his presence could have saved Carson when he had gone into cardiac arrest, the doctor was adamant about staying close to Trina as an additional safety margin.  As before, they all knew it could take weeks before anything could be called a success or failure, but the continual rotation of guards could bring the otter food and any necessary supplies on a daily basis.

Peacefully asleep in her cryo pod, Trina was delivered to the Sori and they accepted responsibility for her with the dignity she deserved. 

*** 

It was close to six weeks of glacial transformation before Trina successfully passed through all stages of her renovation without a repeat of Carson’s incident. The Sori could detect no further changing activity at the genetic level, but had to rely on Dr. Kazama’s judgement to make sure she looked okay, since none of the aliens had ever seen a human before and her new form definitely appeared strange to them.

There was only so much that the otter could tell with her inside the cryo pod and so he made the decision to awaken her for a full physical examination. Her vitals all looked good and healthy, but it was time to bring her out of a prolonged induced coma.  He and Jessica disconnected her from the pod’s electrical and IV systems and allowed her to awaken naturally on her own.

It took an additional three hours for her body to flush the sedatives out of her system, and it was only then when her vitals indicated that she was regaining consciousness.  The doctor and his nurse stayed out of her field of vision and allowed her to awaken to a dimly-lit room, much as they had all done when they had been decanted on the ship.

Trina swallowed and licked her lips, and her breathing remained regular as if she had only awoken from a night’s sleep. The first thing she did was reach for an insulated tumbler of water that she normally kept at her bedside, but there was nothing there; no tumbler and no night stand, only the side of her cryo pod.  She gave a small sigh of disappointment, as if she realized that she had forgotten to fill her water the night before.  She opened her eyes to stare up at the ceiling and peered up at it for several long moments before she rubbed a hand across her face.

“Arion, what time is it?” she asked drowsily.

“The time is now 10:34 am, Ms. Barron.”

“It must be overcast outside. It’s still dark in here.”

She heard the shuffle of nearby feet and she swallowed.  “Is someone there?” she asked in a raspy voice.

“It’s just me and the doctor,” Jessica said from somewhere in the darkness.  “How do you feel?”

Trina took a moment to think about that and absently scratched at an itch on an arm.  “Just a little groggy.  Are we there yet?”

“Where?” Jessica asked softly.

“Bellerophon. Did we make it okay?”

“She doesn’t remember?” said another voice in a quiet whisper.

“I bet she does,” Jessica countered. “She’s just disoriented.”

Trina listened to the exchange and it started to come back to her. “I remember now. How… long have we been on Belle?”

“Just a little over nine months.”

“Nine months…  Okay, how long have I been asleep?”

“About eleven weeks, dear,” Kazama’s voice answered.  “Are you ready to get up now?”

“Get up? ” she whined. “I didn’t want to be awake when the Sori took me.”

“No, dear, the Sori are finished with you.  It’s time to get up and greet a new day.”

“Finished? I don’t understand, but yes, I think I can get up now.”

“Jessica, if you will do the honors.”

“Of course.  Trina, I need to disconnect the elimination flange. You know the drill.”  The woman cleared her throat and spread her legs wide without further comment.  The red panda moved into her view to work, so Trina held up a hand in front of her face — her human hand.

“Did… did it work?” she gasped, flexing her fingers.

Jessica took the flange away to be cleaned and Dr. Kazama’s otter face looked down at her with a smile.  “All indications show that you are no longer an ocelot, my dear. Our Sori friends have declared your renovation complete.”

The human woman put both hands to her face and cried in relief.  The physician allowed her to have a few minutes and even provided a box of tissues imported from Earth.  When she finally dried her face and composed herself, she looked up at him with a wide grin. 

“I didn’t expect to wake up again,” she told the doctor. “Please tell me I’m not dreaming!”

The otter laughed and his whiskers quivered. “There is no dreaming in cryo, my dear. You are quite awake, and from what I can see right now, you are a stunning looking human.”

It suddenly dawned on the woman that what he could see, was her naked body. No longer covered in fur, she suddenly dropped a hand to her crotch and rested the other arm across her chest.  Kazama laughed aloud and offered her a hand.

“No worries, I’m a doctor,” he told her. “Let’s get you up and then we need to give you a full examination.”

“I don’t think my furman clothes are going to fit me anymore,” she said as she swallowed her dignity and took his hand. He helped her sit up, and then she crawled out of the pod to stand unsteadily beside it.

Jessica returned and moved to the end of the cryo unit. She opened a storage drawer and picked up the folded clothing that Trina had placed there over three-quarters of a century earlier.  She set it on the edge of the pod beside her and patted it lightly.

“You can put these on in a moment, but as the doctor said, we need to give you a comprehensive  physical first.  For that, you need to remain unclothed.”

Trina flushed red and could feel it over more than just her face and neck.  She chuckled and then looked around the room as Rialcis raised the lighting in the chamber. She looked at the alien and blinked in the brighter light; she looked around the room to see if there was anyone else gawking at her that she hadn’t seen right off, but there were no others.

Remembering the alien’s greeting, she raised each of her hands toward him in turn, splaying out her fingers.  The male returned her action and then gave her a human-style nod.  “Friend Trina,” he said through Arion’s translation, “it is good to see you renovated and healthy, even if I do not recognize your new features.”

She smiled at him, but then turned to Jessica.  “Before you give me the exam, can I see myself in a mirror?”

“The Sori do not have mirrors,” Kazama told her, “but I have been living in a tent nearby and had the foresight to bring a full-length mirror for my own vanity.”  He gestured to the item leaning up against a wall and Trina suddenly dropped forward to the floor and hit flat on her face. Jessica and Kazama rushed her to side and she looked up at them in bewilderment, rubbing her wrists where she had fallen on them.

“Careful, my dear,” Kazama chided as they helped her upright. “You’ll need to get used to walking with plantigrade feet again.”

“No, that wasn’t it,” she said with an embarrassed smirk. “I tried to drop to all fours to walk over to the mirror.”

Jessica laughed. “You don’t have ‘all fours’ anymore!”

Trina smiled and rubbed her nose that hit the floor. “Exactly!”

Standing upright again, she took a step forward and almost stumbled again, but her body compensated and she quickly remembered how to walk on human feet again.  Her steps were tentative at first, especially without a tail to provide counterbalance, but it came back to her – like ‘riding a bike’.

She made it over to the mirror without falling onto her face again, and once she stood in front of her reflection, she stood with her feet sturdy and her hands on her hips. It was such an odd feeling to be naked again, and to see that person staring back at her.  Despite the weeks asleep, she had good muscle tone, though she would need to work on her tan again. There were no blemishes upon her skin, not a single freckle, and even her ginger hair seemed to have good body, although it was unkempt and in need of a good shampoo and conditioner.  It was shorter than she normally wore it, but she was not choosy. She was just glad to have it again and would let it grow out in its own time.

She leaned in close to study her face and she reached up to brush her fingers across her mouth and nose, amazed that she no longer had a muzzle. She did the same with her ears, which were no longer fuzzy and located on the sides of her head instead of up near the crown of her skull.  She also noticed that her bust size had returned to its former glory and was pleased with that.  She had never been top-heavy, but had always been pleased with how full and firm she was.

It was while she was looking at her abdomen when she noticed something. She partially turned back toward the doctor.  “I’m missing the scar from my appendectomy.”

Kazama looked pleased. “I had wondered about that, actually,” he said. “What the Sori did was basically a reset back to your original DNA code. You probably won’t have any scars you may have once had, and if my hypothesis is correct, you probably even have a healthy appendix inside you now.”

Trina made a wow face and then smiled at Jessica.  “Okay, I think I’m ready for that physical now,” she said, spreading her arms to let them see her in all her naked splendor. “I’m just as curious as you all are about the health of my new-old body.” 

*** 

Once again, all personnel of the Tellus population had been called for a mandatory morning staff meeting in the Central Authority cafeteria.  Those who were nocturnal were roused by Arion’s alarms, and even the guards at the Sori research station was called in to attend. The aliens would lock themselves inside their domes until they returned, but were assured that the necessity of this contingency would likely be over soon.

Once Rocky and Victoria had the segregated crowds all fed and satisfied, Ken stepped up onto the raised dais at one end of the room and called for everyone’s attention.  Discussions quieted down within a couple of moments, but soon all eyes were upon him.  There were only those few of the command team that knew what he was going to announce, but everyone else waited in quiet curiosity.

“It’s good to see everyone here all together again,” the cougar said pleasantly, “and I hope you all had a good meal.  I plan to have these full-on staff meetings once a quarter. It gives everyone a break from the tasks you’re all assigned and also gives you all a chance to meet and mingle if you wish, since some jobs don’t allow you to get away often enough to do so.”

“That’s because you’re a taskmaster!” someone called out jovially from the back.  Ken grinned and nodded.

“Yes, I know I can be, but that’s just because you’re all good, hard workers.  I appreciate that, and when Arion-2 arrives in a little over four years from now, they will appreciate it too!”  He pulled a tablet from the wide pocket of his shorts and tapped the screen.

“First off, a little business, and then I have something special to share.”  He spent several moments going over production reports on their progress, and a new meal plan that Rocky had devised that included a few new fruit and vegetables from the nearby rainforests that had proven edible and quite nutritious for Terran metabolisms.  Finally, he put away his tablet and faced the expectant crowd.

“It’s been months since we lost a good member of our colony, Carson Weathers,” he began. The change in attitude of the room was so quick that the mayor could practically taste it turn sour on the air, so he knew he needed to progress quickly.  “What happened was unfortunate, but the story did not stop with him.  Despite the animosity and blame some of you placed on our alien friends, the Sori continued working on the dilemma and made breakthroughs in their research.”

He stopped and gestured toward Kate, who stood at the exit of the room, and in turn she made a motion to someone out in the hallway.  “There is someone here who would like to take up this narrative and tell you the rest of the story.” 

All eyes were on a hooded, cloaked figure who followed the African lioness around the perimeter of the room up to the dais.  A dark gray robe covered the person from head to toe, and the person’s face was completely hidden beneath the hood.

Ken stepped down off the platform and the mysterious figure took his place.  Then without a prolonged preamble, she pulled back the hood and Trina Barron grinned triumphantly out at the stunned audience.  She then untied the belt around her middle and let the robe drop to her feet.

“I would like to report that the Sori have been successful!” she said in a loud voice, raising her hands in the air. “I’m me again!”

The red-haired human woman that stood before them was dressed in a white tee shirt beneath a pair of farming overalls with boots on her feet; she even wore dangly metal bracelets on each wrist. Not everyone in the colony had known her personally, but for those who did, she looked just as she had over seventy-six years ago before they had left the Earth.  This was not the anthropomorphized ocelot that had come out of cryo sleep with them.

There was stunned silence for a moment before shouts of astonishment filled the air.  There was also a scattering of applause, as well as sobs of relief and surprise.  A surge of Furs jumped up to rush the stage, but Ethan and Rod had anticipated this and stood in front of the woman waving their hands in the air.

“Everybody back to your seats!” Ethan bellowed to the crowds.  He and Rod had to repeat themselves several times, but it was up to Arion to issue his shrill alarm through all techwatches in the room to get everyone calmed again.

Trina plugged her hands into her pockets and laughed in genuine mirth.  “My friends, the Sori were serious with their research and their resolve to help us,” she told them all. “They’ve been exploring space much longer than we have, and they had the same mutating issues when they left their own solar system.  They spent many years trying to undo the transformations and were finally able to do just that.  They also devised a way to shield their future ships from the changing rays so they could continue their exploration among the stars without more mutations.”

“If they knew how to reverse the changes,” someone shouted in the sudden quiet, “then what happened to Carson Weathers?”

Trina looked sad for a moment, but then answered with what she knew. “The Sori had never met a human – or a furman – before we discovered Zaizen here on Belle.  The DNA of humans is more complex than that of the Sori, and there was no guarantee their methods would ever work on us.  Carson was hopeful that he would wake up with his original body just as I have, and he knew the risks before he volunteered, but it took his loss for the Sori to find the right pathway to reversing the transformation.  It was a tragedy, but it was not in vain.  I am proof of that.  It can be done!”

“So when can the rest of us have it?” someone asked with emotion. “When can we change back?”

Trina turned back to the mayor and stepped down from the dais so he could field these inevitable questions.

“I am glad to see everyone so optimistic about Ms. Barron’s change.  For the moment, we will continue to monitor her physical well-being to make sure she continues to be healthy, but there is no way that everyone can be transformed back all at once.  It took her the past six weeks to go through the process, but we will be working on a resolution to make sure everyone gets the chance once it’s been announced. I have already started a roster for those who have come to me over the past weeks, and I can start adding more names once we’re sure the process holds.”

Dr. Kate took his place on the dais and read from her tablet.  “At the most, we could start the process on ten at a time here in this building where we have more room instead of the Sori dome, but no more than that due to limited resources.  With each renovation period at six weeks, in order to put everyone through the process, it would take approximately fourteen months until we’re all human again.”

Fourteen months!”

Ken stepped up on the platform and held up a hand.  “Yes, and that is a best case scenario, folks. This means that when we are sure enough about Trina’s renovation that we can start putting you through it, some of you will have to wait your turn and continue your routines.  You’ve been a bunch of animals for six months, you can go another six or fourteen to have your humanity back.  To be fair, the command team has agreed to wait until last to go through it ourselves, but you must all be patient!”

The mayor went on to field more questions that were similar in context, but Trina had already heard the command team discuss all of this.  She motioned to Kate to come down off the dais and quietly asked if they could leave. The two of them slipped out through the kitchen while Ken retained the focus of the discussion.

Once they were out the back of the building, Kate turned to Trina. “We still don’t have enough houses or apartments constructed for everyone, but I’m sure we can find one if you would rather live there than back in the tent city. You’re a celebrity now.”

Trina looked off across the beginnings of the town and shrugged her shoulders. “I rather thought I would be going back to my jail cell,” she replied quietly.  “After all, I’m still guilty of my crime.”

Before Kate could say anything more, Arion spoke from her techwatch.  “Please forgive the interruption, Dr. Kate, but Dominic Silvanus is requesting to meet with Ms. Barron alone.”

Trina looked suddenly afraid. “He’s the one I hurt!” she hissed. “Now that I no longer have the defenses of a big cat, he might want to repay the favor!”

“We can deny him access to you,” Kate offered. “Arion, please send Ethan out here. Trina needs a bodyguard.”

“He is on his way.”

A moment later, the bear stepped out the back door from the galley kitchen. He spied the women and approached them cautiously.  “What’s up?” he asked. “Arion only said you needed me right away.”

“Dominic wants to meet with Trina, but she’s afraid he might want payback for hurting him. She doesn’t have claws anymore and needs a bodyguard until we can determine his intent.”

“Got it,” said the sheriff. He looked at the human woman and gave her a warm smile. “It’s sure good to see you looking so well,” he said.

“Back to the jail?” Trina asked.

The bear looked back and forth between she and the lioness. “I don’t think that was ever anything we discussed while you were asleep,” he admitted. To Kate he asked, “You’re the deputy mayor. What do you want to do with her?”

“I don’t think she’s a threat to attack anyone else,” Kate answered.  “As far as I’m concerned, she paid the debt for her crime by undergoing such a dangerous procedure and coming out the other side alive and well.  Dominic may not feel that way, however.”

“I have a suggestion,” Trina interjected.  “Put me back in my jail cell for now.  If Dom wants to talk to me, it can be through a glassteel wall.  You can decide what to do with me later.” 

*** 

Dominic Silvanus was escorted by Dean Ruston through the Central Authority corridors back to the holding cells.  When they turned the corner into a side hallway, the Siberian Husky stopped and simply gestured that the tail-less raccoon should continue on ahead without him.

When Dominic approached the door to the cell chamber, he looked up at the imposing bulk of Ethan Edwards standing before it. In a relaxed stance beside the sheriff was his deputy, Rod Vincent. The brown bear, however, had his feet planted apart, his arms crossed and his visage stern.

“Yes?” Ethan asked. He already knew why the biologist was there, but he did not intend to make it easy for him.

Dominic cleared his throat and coughed lightly into his hand. “I am here to see Trina - alone,” he answered in a quiet voice. “Dr. Kate arranged this meeting for me.”

The bear glanced over at Rod, who moved toward the raccoon.  “Raise your arms,” he instructed calmly. “I need to search you.”

“Search?”  Dominic raised his arms and the leopard quickly patted him down in any place where he might carry a weapon. “What was that for?” he asked. “I only want to talk to her.”

“Just making sure that’s all you get to do,” Rod replied. He looked back at the sheriff. “He’s clean. Not even a pencil behind his ear.”

Ethan stepped aside and motioned to the raccoon. “We’ll be right outside, but there’s a panel of glassteel between the two of you, so don’t get any funny ideas.  The door will be closed, but Arion will be listening in, so guard what you say to her.”

The biologist looked like he was going to defend himself against the bear’s words, but thought better of it and nodded.  He moved quickly into the room and suddenly felt a chill despite his fur covering when Ethan pulled the door closed behind him.

Standing in the first cell was the human woman. She stood demurely in front of the clear door panel, her feet together and her hands clasped behind her. With her shoulders drooped, she looked toward the floor without meeting his eyes.

“Hello, Trina,” he said quietly. She nodded and murmured back at him, but kept her gaze humble. He stepped up close to the clear panel.  “Please,” he said in through the diamond-shaped pattern of small holes in the door, “look at me.”

Trina raised her eyes and he could see they were wet with small streams that had made trails down across the smooth skin of her cheeks.  “I am so sorry,” she said with a tight throat.

For several heartbeats, Dominic simply peered into her eyes, and then he finally nodded to himself. He put his hands upon the door and said in a soft voice, “I forgive you.”

She blinked.  “What?” she asked.

The raccoon gave her a gentle smile and nodded.  “I forgive you for the temporary insanity,” he said. “I know others have felt the same prey drive that you did, and that it was only temporary. The only difference between you and them is that I got in your way when it hit you.”

“But… I hurt you… bad.” She glanced down and gestured with just a nod of her small nose.  “I bit your tail off!”

Dominic chuckled, a sound that surprised her.  “I was almost fast enough to get away from you. My tail was all you could catch!”

“I am sorry,” Trina said, again looking down toward her feet. “I have been so sorry since the moment my eyes cleared and the madness left me. I haven’t felt it again since that day.”

“Look at me,” the biologist said again.  She complied and he leaned closer to the door, touching his nose to its surface.  “Listen, we didn’t really know one another well when it happened, but I hope we can be friends after this.”

She mouthed the word “friends”, but nothing came out.  Tears reappeared in her eyes and she suddenly sank to her knees at the door, sobs shaking her shoulders.

Dominic raised his techwatch. “Arion, can you send the sheriff in here, please.”  Almost immediately, the bear opened the door and stepped inside.  He saw the human woman on the floor and he surged forward, grabbing the raccoon by the front of his shirt.

“What did you do to her?” he demanded roughly.

“Ethan!” Trina croaked out.  “Let him go.”

The sheriff looked at her in surprise as she got to her feet. She wiped the tears from her face with the back of her arm and then gave him a smile.  “He didn’t hurt me, Ethan – I was just being emotional. He’s forgiven me for what I did to him!”

He looked down at the raccoon, who merely peered back up at the imposing bear with a frightened expression. He swallowed and just nodded.  Ethan released him and then smoothed down his shirt.  “Sorry about that,” he told the biologist. “Is what she said true?”

“It is.  I have nothing against her anymore.”

“If it’s just a ruse to get in to hurt her, I will pound your head into the floor so hard there won’t be a need to put you in another cell.”

Dominic swallowed. “I swear it, sir,” he gulped. “I am not holding a grudge.”

“Can… can you open the door for me, please?” Trina asked the bear.

Ethan narrowed his eyes at her, but gave her a suddenly relaxed smile. “Now why would I do that?” he asked in a lighter tone. “You are still our prisoner, remember?”

“I withdraw all charges!” Dominic said in a rush.

The sheriff laughed aloud.  “I figured that already. I’m just funning with you.  Arion, you can let Trina go free now.”  There was an electronic clunk and then the door released.  Trina pushed the door  open and stepped out, and the first thing she did was grab the raccoon in a tight hug while Ethan watched for any trickery.

She and Dominic embraced for several long moments, and although they were not a couple, Trina was so very happy to have his forgiveness and his friendship, that she gave him a brief kiss on the lips.

When she pulled back, she looked at him with a strange expression.  “What?” he asked after clearing his throat.

“That feels different with human lips again!” she quipped.  Ethan laughed aloud at that and was about to leave them some privacy.

“Ms. Barron,” Arion’s voice spoke out from the techwatches. “You have more visitors. Angelo and Piale Bonavita wish to see you.”

“Please tell my fiancé and future daughter that I would be happy to see them. Just give me a moment,” Trina said.

“Certainly, Ms. Barron.”

She looked Dominic straight into his brown eyes and smiled.  “Thank you, my friend,” she said softly. “I will never forget your kindness.”

 

NEXT


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