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A WILDER WEST

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 11
A Fanciful Tale

 

Citra looked out through the bars of her cage wagon with a deep frown, her short fingers wrapped around the iron and her feline nose pressed up between them.

“Is this really necessary?” she asked in a plaintive voice. “Everyone already knows what I am now.”

Jake looked up at her apologetically as he clicked a padlock closed through the latch of her cage. “After that near-disaster, I don’t want to press our luck by repeating your performance and causing another riot.  For your safety, it’s best if we keep in you in an exhibit cage for now.  You can talk to the hands and visitors as you like, but I don’t want anyone able to get to you.”

“What is to keep someone from shooting me through the bars?” she asked, crouching down to look him in the eye. “Someone tried that before. If you lock the gate, I cannot get out to chase them away! I will be no more than a target sitting in here! I will not have the local minister to talk them down everywhere we go.”

“We’ll keep someone posted guard over you while we’re in town,” he said.  “When we’re traveling, you can ride with me.”

“So why are you locking me up now?” she asked. “We are done here in Salina and you are breaking down the show for our move to Topeka. The townsfolk are not here now.”

Jake scratched at an itch beneath his mustache. “There will be too many distractions and it will be too easy for some local idiot to get at you,” he told her. “I don’t want anyone to try stealing you away in the night, so I will have Chetan watch over you until it’s time to go.

Citra snorted, crossed her arms and turned her back on him. “I would rather ride with Chetan on his horse than with someone who would lock me up. Unlike you, he is nice.”

Jake sighed audibly, but then shook his head to clear his thoughts when he realized he was staring at her backside.  He cleared his throat and forced himself to look away.

“I will have Sonya bring you some clothing,” he said after a moment of uncomfortable silence.

Citra looked over her shoulder at him in amusement. “Why?” she asked with a smirk, “Now that you have seen me in clothing, does that mean that you now see me as naked?”

Jake cleared his throat again. “You already told me in the cave that you were naked,” he reminded her. “I just got used to seeing you like that.”

“You mean you got used to seeing me as an animal,” she retorted, getting down on all fours and turning to face him.  Although she was comfortable in nothing but her fur, she did feel conspicuous without clothing whenever she was surrounded by others, particularly when standing upright.  As she’d told Sonya earlier, she didn’t have to wear clothes, but it was a lifelong habit that felt natural to her.  The fabrics in this place didn’t breathe as well as her own garments did, but she didn’t have a choice in that matter.

Jake looked up at her looking embarrassed. “I suppose I did,” he admitted.

She lay on her belly so that her face was even with his. She reached out and tapped the brim of his hat with a finger. “I do not blame you, Jake. I am used to people here thinking of me as an animal by now. It is a natural reaction when I am seen for the first time, even if it is known that I used to be fully human.”

“How long have you been a… a furry?”

Citra chuckled. “I have been a Fur,” she corrected, “for four years. It took the greater part of a year for the transformation, and then a little over three years afterwards to attend training for the job I was to do in this form.”

“What job was that?”

She smiled and shook her head. “That is what I cannot tell you, Jake. You would not understand.”

Susan, I am tired of you treating me like a total idiot,” the man grumbled. “I’ve had some education and I’m a successful businessman. I am not stupid!”

“I never said you were stupid, Jacob – only that I do not know how to give you the answers you want so that you would understand them.”

Jake stared at her and then made a show of pocketing the key to her cage. “That’s the same as calling me stupid,” he groused. “I will send your friends to attend you as I promised, but I need to get to work.”  They could already hear Desmond’s bellowing voice outside the cheetah’s enclosure as he directed hands to start breaking down the grandstand bleacher boards.

“Jake!” Citra called as he turned his back to her and began walking toward the split in the curtains. “Do not leave me locked up!”

The man disappeared without another word and the feline captive slumped down on the straw of her cage with a pout. 

*** 

The next morning, everything was packed up and ready to go. Everyone belonging to the show had rested up for the night and Jake’s wagon home led the troupe out across the Kansas countryside.

Despite their argument the night before, Citra sat beside the showman as he drove his team of horses. Being at the front of the line, this was the first time since she’d come to the show that she wasn’t breathing dust stirred up by other wagons, horses, bison and cattle. Although the seat beneath her was only thinly padded, it was still more comfortable than clinging to the sides of a cage over rough terrain.

While all was being prepared for the next move on the previous evening, Citra had had a steady line of visitors, mostly hands who had either seen her surprising coming-out performance, or had heard about it from other hands. Most came to gawk and stare, while others actually tried to engage her in conversation.  It was hard to say if she had actually made any new friends that night, but it was certain everyone knew about her now.

The distance to Topeka would take the entire slow-moving caravan a week and a half to traverse the countryside, primarily due to the cattle, oxen and buffalo, so there would be plenty of time for her to mingle with those who might be interested in conversing. There might even be time to grow some of her scalp hair back before they get there, now that they were no longer cutting it for her.

Citra enjoyed the first day of travel, sitting quietly beside Jake and lazily looking out over the landscape.  Her companion had barely said a few words to her since they’d started out, and even though she’d tried to engage him in chitchat, his responses were short, clipped and somewhat irritable. She knew he was still chafing from their exchange the night before.

She reached out and touched his arm. He glanced sideways at her, but otherwise remained tight-lipped.

“Jake,” she said, “I am sorry for what I said last night. Please forgive me.”

He looked at her again and grunted.  “I don’t like being called stupid,” he reminded her, “even if you didn’t say it in so many words.”

“Jake, you are not stupid and I did not mean to infer that you were. Again, I am sorry.”

For the first time that day, the man turned in his seat and looked at her directly. “Susan, you have told me time and again that I won’t understand what you tell me.  Maybe I won’t and maybe I will, but why don’t you act like I have some smarts and do me the courtesy of giving me some kind of explanation.”

The feline studied him for a long moment, considering just what to say, and he took her silence to be another refusal.  He snorted in frustration and turned back to his reins.

Jacob,” she said at last, “I… will try to tell you what you wish to know.”  He glanced over at her without turning his head, clearly disbelieving her words.  He didn’t say anything in response and she knew without a doubt what he was thinking without having even a smidgeon of telepathy.

“As I have mentioned before, my name is Susan Carole Ann Foreman,” she began. “I am the daughter of Scotty and Amanda Foreman of Raton, New Mexico.”

“I’ve been through Raton,” Jake remarked, his gaze still out on the trail across the prairie grasses, “but it was called Willow Springs then, before the post office changed its name a few years back.  I think they also called it Otero for a couple years.”

Citra nodded with a smile, remembering that bit of personal history from her home town. “Yes, that is where I was born,” she said.

“What year? Guessing the age of a cheetah isn’t one of my specialties as a showman.”

The cheetah swallowed hard before answering.  “I was born at ten minutes after two o’clock on the afternoon of December 18, 2161, and I am now thirty-four years old.”

Jake turned his head slowly and then looked right into her large golden eyes. “Twenty-one sixty-one, huh?” he repeated in a tone that suggested he considered her answer nothing more than sarcasm at his curiosity. “Are you making fun of me now?”

Citra shook her head and put a hand over her heart. “It is the truth, Jake. I swear it.”  He snorted again, but this time she took offense.  “You asked to hear my story, but if you will not listen to me, I will simply shut up now and you will never hear it again.”

He swatted at a fly that was buzzing around his head and then looked back at her with narrowed eyes. “How am I supposed to believe anything you say if you claim you were born in 2161?” he asked in exasperation. “That’s a long time away from now!”

“Yes, Jake, I am from a future time,” she replied calmly.

“That ain’t possible!”

“Neither is an anthrofelis acinonyx jubatus or what is more commonly called a Cheetah Fur in my time, yet here I sit beside you in 1892 having an impossible discussion.”

Jake turned back to the trail, consternation showing clearly across his face. He didn’t say anything for moments, but when he did, his voice was more controlled.  “Continue.”

“I have already told you that I used to be fully human,” she reminded him. “When I was thirty years old, I volunteered for a transformation that would combine my physical make-up with that of a cheetah. By this time, that process had been in use for many years.”

“Rubbish. A pile of rot.”

“Do you want to hear this or not?”

“Okay, for the sake of the argument that I believe this… story… is possible, why would you do such a thing?”

Citra’s expression softened and she gestured out across the prairie with an outstretched arm.  “You have plenty of wide open spaces now, Jake, but populations all across the Earth will increase over the years.  At this moment, there are little more than fifty million people in the whole world, but in my time, there are over twelve billion people on the Earth!”

“Twelve billion! I don’t even know how many zeroes are on that number.”

“That’s a twelve with nine zeroes, Jake. Because there are so many people, we are running out of room and resources to keep everyone sheltered and fed. This is where I come in.”

“You?  Is turning people into animals giving more food back to people? Do you eat less?”

Citra relaxed a little. At least he was now asking proper questions instead of simply giving her grief. “No, we have a different purpose, one that takes a lot of planning.”  He didn’t respond, but merely waited for her to continue her fantastic tale.  “Because there are so many people in this world, we now look toward other worlds for people to move to.”

“What do you mean, other worlds?  There’s only one world!”

Citra smiled. “There is only one Earth, but Earth is just one world of many. We call them planets.”

The expression on Jake’s face almost looked as if she had just spoken heresy, and his mouth hung open in his disbelief. Before he could retort, however, she continued. “When you look up at the stars at night, Jake, what do you see?  What are they?”

He snapped his jaw shut and turned back to the trail in time to guide his horses around a washed out gully in the prairie. When they were again on even ground, he cleared his throat.

“The stars are just points of light for direction to guide us at night. Nothing more.”

“Each of those points of light is another sun like ours, Jake, only very, very far away.”

Prepost—”  He clamped his lips together and bit off his reply.  “Go on.”

“By my time, we have devoted a lot of scientific research on the study of those stars, Jake, and we have discovered that some of them have their own worlds around them.  Some of the stars are much larger and much hotter, though some are smaller and weaker than our own; those do not always have their own worlds or the ones they do have would not support life. However, there are some suns like ours that have worlds very much like our own Earth.  It is to those places we have explored and discovered to be habitable with their own plants and animals. It is to those places that some of our people have settled, much like the western United States was settled at one time.”

Jake swept a hand in front of him, indicating the land around them. “They used to call this a New World,” he remarked.

“Exactly,” said the cheetah. “We have found many other new worlds, and although some of them are very Earth-like, there are many with harsh conditions and there have been difficulties staking a claim for a homestead.”

The showman nodded. “There were many hardships when these lands were settled. We overcame them in time, but it took tough men and women to endure and things were not easy at first. It’s these things we try to remind folks with our show.”

“That is exactly right, and what we do on other worlds is similar.”

“How so?”

“Every time we discover a new world where we might settle, we first send in someone to explore the immediate area, and if things look good, then we will send in a small group of people to see if they can live with the land; they build homes, raise their cattle, try to grow crops to feed them all, and if they are there long enough, some even have children. Sometimes things look good at first, but conditions turn out to be harsher later with the change of seasons. Sometimes the settlers survive, sometimes they do not.”

Jake nodded again. “That is the way of things.  Sometimes it takes hardy men to tame a land first before the weaker, more common folk can move in later.”

Citra smiled. “That is right. Sometimes, however, it takes people hardier than the toughest folk you could find. That is what Furs are for.”

“You’re a settler?” he asked with interest.

“Of a sort,” she answered. “One of my jobs is to go in alone and take a first look at the lay of the land before others join me. If what I report back is favorable, others follow along with tools, livestock and enough food to start out, but then it is up to us to learn what natural plants and animals can be safely eaten to sustain us. Furs like me were created so that we have the intelligence of humans with the hardy stamina and instincts of predatory animals. With that kind of combination, we are more likely to survive a harsh, new environment and we can learn as much as we can about the new place before the regular people can try to move in.”

Jake leaned back, keeping an eye on the terrain up ahead with the reins in one strong hand while he stretched the other out across the back of the seat.  “I still don’t know that I believe your story, especially about going to other… star-worlds,” he said with the crook of a smile, “but I think I’ve understood most of what you’ve told me. Was that so hard for you to tell me?”

“I have not answered all your questions. If you do not believe me so far, how are you going to believe what I have not yet told you?”

“How long does it take to get to these other plan… uh, worlds? I have never taken an ocean voyage, but I know those take weeks and sometimes months, depending upon which direction they’re going and what kind of winds they face.”

Encouraged, Citra sat back in the seat and was suddenly conscious of the man’s arm behind her.  She was about to lean forward again, but his fingers idly began petting at the fur of her shoulder nearest his hand; he didn’t look as if he knew he was doing it, so she relaxed and stared off across the prairie.

“Long before I was born, mankind made discoveries that allowed him to fly high above the Earth, even to the moon.”

“The moon?  I remember hearing someone on a train talking about some far-fetched book written by a Frenchman about flying away to the moon. I never read it though. It sounded like someone’s fairy tale.”

“Was the author Jules Verne?”

Jake nodded. “That name sounds familiar. It might have been him.”

“Verne was only one of many writers who imagined flights to the moon, but it eventually became a reality.  Man first had to learn to fly through the sky before he could learn to fly to the moon – or to the stars.”

“I seen me a balloon fly through the air once. Two fellows rode in a basket underneath it while they cooked the air inside with a fire. That sure was a big thing. I can’t imagine how big it must be to reach all the way up to the moon!”

Citra smiled again. “Mankind learned to make ships that flew higher and faster, and yes they were very big, but even the first journey to the moon took days to reach it.”  Jake looked up into the partly cloudy sky, but didn’t see even the faint outline of the moon. Sometimes he could see it peeking out of the sky during the day, but the sun always dominated it, making the moon’s light dim and barely seen at times.

“A flying ship, eh? That must have been some sight.” Without a frame of reference, Jake could only visualize a large sailing vessel with full sails floating up to the moon among the clouds and stars, giant hot-air balloons attached to its masts.

“The voyages of the first ships to other worlds just in our own neighborhood took years to reach them and many more to reach other stars,” Citra said in a quiet voice, “but then they went even faster, cutting the journey down to the most distant known world to mere weeks. Even that was not fast enough when we found other worlds that were ever farther away and other technologies had to be invented in order to make the trip.”

“That all sounds far-fet… uh, fascinating,” Jake murmured in a distracted tone, “but it still doesn’t explain how you got here. Did your sailing ship fly backward?”

The furry woman actually laughed aloud at that, making Jake frown. “Actually, I do not know how I wound up here, three hundred and three years before I left. It should not have been possible.”

Her statement made him blink. “What do you mean?”

“We learned how to create small wormholes through space, not through time. Instead of sending people on ships, we have something like a bridge between the Earth and whatever other world we were going to.”

“A worm… worm hole?  Like in an apple?”

“I suppose that is where it originally got its name, since a wormhole is rather like a tunnel that a worm has eaten through an apple, only this is through space.”

“I don’t see how any critter could eat a hole in the air,” Jake muttered.

“That is one of those complicated things I do not know how to explain to you.”  The man looked irritated at that, but dismissed it with a wave of his hand.  “Let us just say that mankind learned how to drill holes into the sky so we could travel great distances in a shorter period of time. Instead of going around a mountain or a whole mountain range, you can save time by going right through a mountain using a tunnel.”

“Okay, that I understood. I rode on a train that went through a mountain once, but they’ve been blasting tunnels through mountains for a long time.”

“It is a similar principle, but instead of using picks, hammers and explosives, we create our tunnels using physics.”

“Fizziks?”

“That is right,” she replied casually, as if he knew what the word meant. “Although the method was discovered by mistake, it is a practice we have been using for about a decade now; although it uses a tremendous amount of power, it is economically cheaper than sending a ship. Sometimes there are forces in the universe that are unexpected and can cause problems to the system. Perhaps that is what happened to me.”

“So, you went through one of these worm tunnels, but instead of coming out on the other side of the mountain, some fizzik put you here instead?”

Citra raised her eyebrows and looked at the showman in surprise. Had he really understood what she’d tried to tell him?

“Yes, Jake.  Something like that must have happened to me.”

The cheetah fell silent for a while, lost in thought. What had happened to her? With all the advances of mankind over the ages, time-travel was not one of them. Even in her time period, it was nothing more than a facet of the imagination, often romanticized in popular fiction; the day she’d come to this place and time had begun without any warning on what was to come. 

*** 

Susan Foreman’s day started much like any other. She crawled out of bed, padded her way across the carpeted floor of the hotel suite and began her morning routine with a trip to the bathroom. The feline engineer rarely slept in anything since she’d grown her own fur coat, so she didn’t have to strip out of anything like a nightgown when she stepped into the shower.

On a normal day, she preferred a floral shampoo and conditioner designed with the cheetah’s spotted fur in mind, but for today’s venture she would forgo anything that added a scent beyond her own; all of her personal possessions had already been boxed up and put into storage, so it was unlikely she’d find anything matching her own toiletries anyway. Unscented soap and unflavored mouthwash had been provided to her with the room, and although neither was much to her liking, they were necessary measures today.

After she stepped out of the full-body dryer and groomed her fur, she walked to the closet and found the single outfit that had been cleaned and left for her, a tan pair of furman shorts that fit loose over her fur with a hole below the aft waistband for her tail, and a short white lab coat with a split up the back, also for her tail.

Before she left the suite, the cheetah female took a last look around. It would be some time before she would sleep in comfort again, but at least they’d given her a plush suite of rooms for her last night on Earth.

When Susan reported for work an hour later, she was clean, dressed and well fed with a sumptuous breakfast. It wouldn’t do to begin her day on an empty stomach, and with a full belly she was feeling chipper and anxious to get started. She smiled and gave a brief finger wave to several technicians in the large warehouse, skirting around crates of equipment they were lining up in front of a large square frame with thick metal sides at the far end of the room from the hangar doors.

There was nothing but a wall behind an empty space of darkness on the other side of that frame, but a low frequency pulsing emanated from those shadows.  She gave it only a brief glance as she headed to a nearby control booth, stepping over thick cables running between them on the floor.  Inside was a female bobcat Fur and two men, all dressed in white lab coats matching the one she wore.

“Good morning, Susan,” Robin said with bright green eyes.  “Did you sleep well?”

Susan returned the feline woman’s smile and stretched out her arms with exaggerated movement. “I did indeed,” she answered. “Good dreams, too!”

Dr. Benjamin Quarters looked up from a computer tablet in his hands and gave her a friendly nod.  “Are you ready to see a new world?” the dark-headed man asked.

“I am! Have you established the connection already?” the cheetah asked, peering back toward the door frame outside through the glassteel windows of the booth.

“Briefly, just for calibration,” said Samuel Hawke, the other male who sat before a bank of control panels. The broad-shouldered Amerindian looked up at her with a wide smile, even though she wasn’t looking at him. “The signal from the other end fluctuated a little, but it stabilized and we have a solid lock.”

Dr. Quarters set his tablet on a small folding table to the side and put his hands into the pockets of his lab coat.  “Since this is your first assignment with us,” he said to the cheetah. “State the situation and your mission for the record.”

Susan looked at him and folded her hands in front of her. She gave the project director her full attention with a nod. He knew everything she was about to recite, but this was for her benefit as a refresher.

“The two-year robotic study of planetary body BR5.49, code name Hisashi, was completed six months ago and all partners of the Terran Colonization Coalition have approved immediate settlement. A small automated ship consisting of nothing more than an interstellar engine boosting a cargo package was sent out to the target world and its cargo deployed from orbit. Upon landing weeks later, a small TranDim Gate began transmitting a tachyon signal back to Earth to establish a wormhole bridge synchronized with the main TranDim Gate here, counting for planetary and stellar movement.”  She glanced at the large frame outside for only a moment.

“Once Samuel reestablishes the bridge between our Gate here and the one on Hisashi, I am to go through alone, reconnoiter the area to make sure the other end does not spill out over a canyon, the side of a mountain or body of water, and to determine whether or not there are hostiles in the vicinity before I anchor the signal. Once anchored, I will transmit the go-ahead code back through the Gate so that Robin and the other technicians can come through with the tools and material we will need to build a larger TranDim Gate to receive furman colonists, supplies and equipment.”

She exchanged smiles with Robin Dayne, the Fur who would lead the furman technical team after her to construct the larger Gate. This was a first assignment for all the Furs involved in establishing a starter colony on Hisashi, an Earthlike world seventy-three light years away that had been named for its discoverer.

“Very good,” Dr. Quarters said with satisfaction.  He had been involved in launching furman colonies to their worlds for the past two decades, but the first half of that time had been via huge colony ships instead of the trans-dimensional tachyon gatefold system that later made them obsolete.  Rather than a faster-than-light interstellar vessel taking weeks or months to traverse the vast distances between star systems, the TranDim Gate involved no more time and physical action than simply passing through the portal from the transmitter to the receiver as one would walking through a door.

“Did I get it right?” she asked with an all-too-feral grin.  She was an engineer with all the ready knowledge for her task and had no doubts of her own capabilities, but she couldn’t keep the smile from her countenance at her excitement.

“Yes,” Dr. Quarters said with a chuckle. “You’ve passed with the proverbial flying colors.”

Susan wrung her hands together and looked down at Samuel. He was the primary engineer for the entire system and was also responsible for maintaining the connection between worlds, so her life was really in his hands. They had gone out a few times in the recent weeks leading up to this moment, but they’d never really become more than just friends. It was likely due to their dissimilar species, but perhaps it was for the best. Once she stepped through the Gate, she would become a permanent resident of the feline colony she was helping to get started and would likely never see him again.  She’d met most of the other forty-nine Furs who would later follow her through the Gate to Hisashi and she felt there were a number of potential males that could warrant her attention.

Samuel stood up and opened his arms.  “Let me have one last hug from my Citra,” he said, using the descriptive nickname shortened from citrakāyah that he’d pinned on her at their first meeting. Despite the species she’d become through anthro transformation, she’d not known what the Sanskrit word meant at first, but had later come to understand its origin.  She’d never had a nickname before and enjoyed it when he used it when addressing her.

The slender cheetah slid into his arms and practically disappeared in the warm embrace of his strong arms.  “I will miss you,” she said solemnly, a faint rumbling purr accenting it.

A small chime sounded from the console and the low pulse of the system increased in volume, signaling an established connection of the Gate. Samuel kissed her cheek without another word and then she stepped back with an embarrassed smile.

“This is it!” Robin whispered, almost as excited as she was herself.  She gave Susan a brief hug and then retreated to a corner of the small control booth.

“I will see you soon, Robbie!”

“Good luck and Godspeed,” Dr. Quarters said with an outstretched hand. Susan took it gratefully.

“Thank you for everything, Ben,” she said with warmth. Then the time came for her departure. She left the booth and then walked straight to the Gate, the large square frame that dominated the back wall of the warehouse hangar.

Looking into the active Gate from the side, it looked little different that it had while powered down, but only when she stood directly in front of it, there was another world looking back at her through a smaller, rectangular window at its center.

The wormhole was only as large as both ends of the tunnel, and although the Gate transmitting on this end was large enough to drive a charter bus through, the receiving end on Hisashi was only big enough for one person to cross over, little larger than a standard doorway.

The small window in the center was framed with a faint, hazy rainbow around its edges, but through the middle was an unblemished countryside of gently rolling hills of lush green, chlorophyll-based vegetation under a milky blue sky. Oases of tree-like flora dotted the hills and high cirrus clouds occupied the sky.  There was a strong breeze flowing into the warehouse from unequal air pressure, and with it came a clean, fresh aroma mixed with the smell of a nearby unseen sea.

Susan grinned and began to step forward, but then checked herself.  Without looking back at the control booth or at any of the other warehouse technicians watching her, she stripped off the white lab coat, dropped it to her feet on the concrete floor at and then did the same with her tan furman shorts. Clad now only in her natural spotted fur, the cheetah dropped to all fours and peered back through the Gate. It would only take a few steps to reach that landscape, but to her it felt as if she was about to begin a long journey.

There didn’t seem to be any birds or wildlife that she could see, but that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be something in the vicinity when she stepped through. Disrobing was standard procedure and a Fur never really felt naked anyway, but when she emerged on the other side down on all fours without clothing or jewelry, this left little for a potential attacker with anything to hold onto.  Her fur patterns would help her to blend in better while she’s looking around and the absence of artificial scents from soaps or perfumes would help keep her from giving away her position if she had to go into hiding.  Once the all-clear was given, Robin would bring her a bag with more clothing when she came through behind her.

She readied herself to run if necessary and then approached the Gate, stopping only a few inches from the threshold to let the wind blow through her wavy brown scalp hair.  She took a last look toward her associates in the booth. Samuel and Robin waved and Dr. Quarters gave her a nod of approval. Then without further delay, she turned back to the Gate and walked through.  The low pulse of the Gate silenced immediately.

She felt a brief ripple of energy through her fur and across her skin, and her eyes squinted in the sudden unfamiliar sunlight of a new place, but otherwise there didn’t seem to be any other physical manifestation of her journey. She stepped forward on dry yellow grass that crunched beneath her feet and felt the dry heat of a summer sun upon her back.

She blinked, standing still, and looked out across the flat and dusty landscape. This wasn’t right. What she’d seen through the Gate before stepping through had been different.

Susan turned toward the wormhole portal, but instead of looking back through into the warehouse, there was nothing behind her but miles and miles of open prairie with a range of low mountains in the distance that wavered in the heat. She sniffed at the air and frowned at the dryness. There were no fresh aromas and not even the salty sea air she’d scented through the Gate.

She swallowed and looked around again.  She was completely alone in the middle of nowhere, and there should at least be the lander with the small Gate receiver, but it didn’t look as if such a device had ever been here.

She turned around, and around again, looking everywhere.  The sun was directly overhead and she was starting to pant in the heat. It was as if she had stepped through onto a savannah where her kind had once lived back on Earth.

Earth...  Was this Hisashi?  That world was like Earth in many ways, including different environments and terrains all across its surface. Had the Gate system hiccupped and dropped her onto another continent by mistake?  She’d never heard of such a thing happening before, and didn’t know if that was even possible.  The end of the Gate came out at the receiver.  There was no receiver here, so how had she gone anywhere at all?

She started panting heavily and not all of it was due to the heat. She felt light-headed and wavered on her feet, so she put her head down silently willing herself not to faint.  She was alone.  Utterly alone.

Naked without a single tool upon her, she had been dependent upon the supplies that would have been included on the lander.  She had no way to contact Earth; no way to transmit a recall signal.

She crouched down close to the ground, wondering what she should do.  She had been trained to make a living on a strange, unfamiliar world, but most of that training had included some tools and equipment to start off with. She looked at the yellow grass in front of her nose, sprouting up from dry, reddish dirt.  It looked like grass, but she couldn’t be sure of anything. They’d been taught that no matter where they went in the universe, an Earthlike world would have trees, grass and flowers of its own, whether they resembled Terran vegetation or not.

One thing was certain. She needed water.  She’d had a full breakfast not an hour before and could go days without food anyway, but she had to have water – especially in such a dry heat that was beating down on her.

There was movement in the corner of her eye. She raised her head and looked out across the land. A slow-moving dust devil stirred up dirt and grass less than a half mile distant. It presented no danger, but it was another reminder of the desolation around her.

She got up on two feet, shaded her eyes and began looking off in the distance in every direction around her.  She saw nothing that might have been a river or lake, but a shimmering mirage of water in the direction of the mountains enticed her.  Would she find what she needed there?  Natural springs often issued from mountainous regions, so that would be her best chance at finding shelter and life-giving water. 

*** 

Citra looked over at Jake and let her eyes refocus upon his face. He stared back at her with the expressions she had expected - incomprehension and disbelief. No matter, he’d wanted to hear her story, so she continued.

“For a long time,” she said, “I really thought I was on Hisashi, the other world where I was supposed to have gone, but everything around me was too Earth-like and it all confused me. I found water to drink and food I could chase down and eat when I reached the mountains.  There have been life forms on the other worlds we had settled that were similar to our own, but there were always differences due to the environments and ecosystems.  Here, I found rabbits, squirrels, foxes, possum and deer that were not just similar, but identical to what I knew from Earth.

“Despite the conflicting knowledge in my head, I had been trained for survival in an alien environment, so I set out to make a life for myself, though wondering where the other colonists might be and why they did not come after me. I was reluctant to leave the place where I had arrived, in case a connection was reestablished, but the day was hot and long.

“I eventually decided water was more critical so I moved off.  Wildlife was abundant and I am a good hunter, so I knew I would not starve, but it would have to be done entirely with tooth and claw, since I stepped through without any other weapons.

“The days began to run together as I roamed the countryside, hunting for food and seeking shelter against the inclement weather in caves like the one I took you to when we first met. In time, I was drawn to a pillar of smoke on the other side of the mountains and I came across a homestead; it was then that I knew I was somehow still on Earth.

“I could not get too close to the house due to a pair of dogs, but I was near enough to recognize a rancher, his family and the things around their house and barn. One of the things I found was a relatively recent newspaper written in English that had survived a burn pile and it was from that I learned that instead of 2195, I was now in 1892, somewhere out in the middle of the North American Great Plains.

“This date was more than a century and a half before Furs like me were ever genetically created for interstellar exploration, and I knew to reveal myself could get me shot and skinned or stuffed as an exotic animal. I had to stay hidden and I also began to suspect there would be no more of my own people arriving to join me or rescue me.  Life looked bleak and lonely until I met you, Jake.”  She leaned against his arm across the back of the wagon seat and sighed aloud. “I took a chance when I saved you. If I had chosen wrong, you could have killed me as just another animal.”

Jake was quiet for a long while, giving his attention to guiding the horses across the prairie, but just when the feline began to feel impatient for a response, he looked over at her.

“Citra,” he said slowly, “you are unlike anyone I have ever known, and while I think that was quite a yarn you just spun up for me, I can see that you believe it all to be true.  Perhaps it is, but there was very little of what you said that I understood.”

The cheetah opened her mouth to speak, but he held up a hand. “Yes, I know you’d already said you didn’t know how to explain it where I could understand, but I’m wondering if you didn’t just make up a lot of that for my benefit.”

Citra snorted and crossed her arms. “If I was going to make up something just for your benefit, mister, I would have given you something I knew you could swallow! Everything I told you was the truth, whether you understood it or not. Next time we stop, get a Bible and I will swear on it, just as I made those men do in my performance!”

“Citra…”

“If you do not believe me after that, I can always leave you to your show and go back out on my own.  There are people who know about me now, so maybe I can survive a little while longer on my own without you!  I could even try to make my way to Philadelphia to that zoo! At least there they would probably take care of me the rest of my life if my people never show up to take me home, and maybe I will not have to tell them a thing about where I am from or why I am here!”

“Citra, please sit down.”

In her indignation, the cheetah hadn’t realized that she had gotten up onto two feet and the rocking of the wagon was threatening to topple her off.  One of the wheels hit a rut in the dirt and she stumbled.  Citra sat back down hard on the seat, her lips pressed tightly together, her arms crossed and the tip of her tail flicking with her agitation.  She pointedly did not look at him, sitting on the forward edge of the seat so that she wouldn’t be leaning back against his arm.

“Citra,” Jake said again. His voice was calm and quiet, but he kept his eyes focused out across the terrain.  She didn’t respond, so he removed his arm from the seat back and put a gentle hand on her arm.  “If you are willing to swear upon the Holy Bible that what you’ve said is true, I suppose I must believe you, no matter how fetched it must sound.”  He sighed and then put both hands back upon the reins.

The feline’s posture relaxed, but she kept her arms across her bosom. “You believe me now?” she asked incredulously.

He nodded without looking at her. “I cannot deny what you are,” he said quietly, “even if I don’t know what you are. You saved my life when you could have just stood by and let that momma puma kill me. For that alone, I am indebted to you in that I can do no less for you.”

Citra let out a soft sigh and then scooted closer to him on the thinly padded wagon seat, putting a hand upon his shoulder. “Thank you,” she said with a quiet purr. “You have more knowledge and experience of the world around you than someone who lived three hundred years before you, and this is the same with me. I know it must be difficult for you to accept, but I swear I have never lied to you, Jake.  This is why I did not want to tell you my story.”

The showman nodded and then looked aside at her. “My life must seem so simple to you,” he said.  “Please forgive me for being stupid.”

“Jake, just because someone does not know everything that someone else does, that does not mean they – or you – are stupid. You just have not experienced the same things I have.”

“Okay then, will you forgive me for being stubborn and set in my ways?” he asked with a crooked smile. “I suppose I just didn’t want to believe there was any other time but the here and now.”

Citra returned his smile. “Yes,” she said, “I forgive you.  You are my friend, and although you do not understand everything I have told you, I am thankful you are willing to listen.”

“Thank you, Susan.”

“You are welcome, Jacob.”

He suddenly felt amused, realizing that anytime he called her by her given name, she always responded with his given name.  “I want to know everything about you,” he added after a moment. “I may not be able to comprehend what you might tell me, but you are the most interesting woman I’ve ever known and I want to know you better.”

The cheetah narrowed her large golden eyes over a smile. “Oh, you do, do you?” she said playfully. “Does this mean you now see me as a woman instead of just a talking cat?”

“I suppose I do, ma’am,” Jake replied with a tip of his hat. “Although you don’t have much of a chest.”

Citra looked up at him in surprise at his remark, but then gave him a mischievous smirk. “That is natural with a Fur,” she informed him with a snicker. “Down on four feet, can you imagine me trying to run with a large chest between my forelegs?”

Jake coughed and sputtered suddenly at the boldness of her words, his neck and face instantly turning red.  The feline woman laughed aloud at his embarrassment and clapped her hands together in delight. “Yes, I suppose you can imagine that!”

The showman muttered something beneath his breath that she didn’t catch, but then the riding companions shared a lighthearted chuckle, lapsing into comfortable silence as the horses pulled the wagon over the rolling terrain.

The pair of them had been so focused on their discussion and argument that neither of them had realized that someone had been riding on his horse parallel to the wagon and had heard everything they’d said. Chetan had smiled inwardly at their playful banter, but Citra’s story filled his head full of endless thoughts.

NEXT CHAPTER

Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.