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A WILDER WEST

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 15
Unfamiliar Territory

 

Jake looked out through the opening of the tent and peered out across the prairie in the direction of Texarkana. He couldn’t see much through the rain of a late-season thunderstorm and he wondered how a rain-soaked land could catch fire from a lightning strike. He already knew the answer, though. He had seen such things happen before, where a land so dry continued to be flammable tinder even under a little bit of water.  The downfall was not hard and it hadn’t been raining long, and even he knew that water would not cover the whole of the land. It could and often did rain only in spots, and with growing anxiety he knew that the company was camped out in such a place where it could not escape a quickly spreading grass fire.

Samuel’s history records did not give a specific time when the lightning would spark the deadly fire, but there had already been a spectacular light-show in the heavens before even a single drop had fallen – a common sight out on the grand prairie. He only knew that it would happen sometime during the night when everyone would be asleep.

The showman was no stranger to sleeping in a tent, as he had spent many nights in them over the years, but he had never seen a large dome tent before; Samuel and Citra had quickly assembled it from the contents of a small bag that the Amerindian had previously stashed with bedrolls beneath a cluster of sage brush. On a regular night, he would have been fascinated by its water-resistant material, fiberglass rods and camouflage pattern, but he had watched them put it together with detached interest in the blue-white glow of a strange lantern that possessed neither flame nor heat.  He’d set out his old bedroll inside with two others made from fabric he’d been told could keep a person warm even in the cold of the arctic.

Samuel was fast asleep, snoring softly atop his sleeping bag and Citra was cocooned inside another between the two men. Jake had been surprised that the woman would sleep within the same tent as the men, but the others had assured him that neither of them were offended and it would be acceptable. They were only sleeping side by side, and although even this went against Jake’s upbringing, he doubted he would be getting any sleep that night anyway.

A cool breeze from the rain flowed into the tent through the opening he sat cross-legged just inside, but he couldn’t bring himself to close it. They’d shown him how to operate the zipper to close it when he was ready.

He stared out into the storm, flinching every time he saw a flash of lightning, but he was unable to take his gaze away from the night. He could feel the fatigue of the long day, but he was too restless to attempt sleep.

Who would survive? he thought to himself. Samuel had said that most – but not all –  would perish in the disaster. What of Emmett, Lane or Sonya?  He considered Mrs. Norris, the scrappy old woman he trusted implicitly to run his ranch in Tanglewood. What would become of her… or the ranch?  He had not updated his Last Will and Testament in years, and if memory served correctly, it still reflected that all his possessions and holdings were to go to his only son – the son he had buried just before meeting the half-cheetah and half-human woman who had changed his life – and now his continued existence – forever.

He spat out into the rain. Even if he couldn’t tell anyone, he wished he’d had the time to update his will before running off in the night.  He could have set up Desmond or even Mrs. Norris as the Executor of his estate and make some kind of provision for the survivors of those who’d worked for him.  Jake Harrison was a rare employer who always tried to make sure his folks were taken care of and it irked him that he’d not been able to do so in this case.

Whether or not he’d ever gotten foreknowledge of events didn’t change the fact that he hadn’t updated his will with the death of his son. He’d planned to do that when they’d returned to Tanglewood, but it was too late now.  Once he was declared dead and gone, they would probably try to find some distant relative to hand over his estate.  To his recollection, he had no living relatives, but some cockroach would likely crawl out of the shadows to lay claim to what was left.

Jake was not a crying man, but that didn’t stop him from having emotions. His throat was tight and he heaved several thick sighs in the darkness of the tent, but he never removed his eyes from the rain.

He sat thus for several hours into the early hours of the morning, eventually dozing off from sheer fatigue, but then he awoke with a start when he felt two padded hands upon his shoulders. Without thinking, he leaned back until he felt her form up against him, and then her arms slid around him in a light embrace.

In the months they’d known one another, there had been little physical contact between them, no more than necessary, but in the emotion of the moment, he knew that she shared his fears for those they had called friends. Instead of pulling away, he settled back against her and allowed the embrace. He reached up to one of her hands and took it in his own, lightly petting the fur of her arms with the other.

It was only then that he looked back out into the darkness. The storms had moved on and the rains had stopped, and there was now a reddish orange glow off in the distance.  He swallowed hard, realizing that these two who claimed to be from a later year had not lied to him concerning the night’s fatal events.  The fires on the horizon had either killed or were killing his friends and employees at that very moment.

He started to get up, the urge to run five miles back to his company strong, but Citra’s arms tightened and kept him seated.  He struggled for a moment until he heard the sobs at his back.  She also mourned those she’d known that were now dead or dying.

“Why didn’t you let me save them?” Jake whispered. “We could have saved all their lives!”

“Jake…” Citra whispered back through a tight throat, “we cannot change history.  Sam and I could not have even let you come with us if your own future had not already been determined to end on this night.  Had you and I never met, that cougar might have killed you that day as you were probably supposed to, but even if you had survived that, you would be there in the fire now – with them – dying.”

“I know,” he croaked, “but we could have saved them too!  We could have all gone forward to your year with you!”

Citra continued to hold him tight, her face buried in the hair on the back of his head.  “Jake, someone died tonight and when the townsfolk of Texarkana sift through the remains, they will find a body they will mistake as you. That also means that person has died and will never be identified and claimed by his family.  Was it Mr. Desmond, was it Tony, or was it some poor hand in your employment that you did not even know his name? There will not have been enough extra, unidentified bodies to take the place of everyone else you wanted to save. It would have been as if your entire company disappeared off the face of the earth, but our books do not record any such event. History can only be bent – such as my insignificant presence here – but it cannot be changed.”

Jake stretched out his aching legs, having sat in one position too long, but the cheetah would not allow him to leave the tent.  He settled for getting up onto his knees so he could turn to face her.  She kept her hands upon his shoulders as they looked into one another’s eyes.  Sorrow and loss reflected back to each.

The shared emotions got to be too much for the showman and he suddenly pulled her into a fierce embrace as he finally let a few tears moisten her fur.  She held him just as tight with no teasing or accusations that shedding tears meant he might be no real man.

Further back in the tent, Samuel watched them quietly from his bed and was surprised to feel a small pang of envy.  Although he and Susan had gone out together a few times, their relationship had developed into nothing more than friendship.  She was supposed to have gone off to another world out of his reach anyway, but seeing her in the arms of another man, he discovered that he still had some feelings for her.

With some small consolation, he knew that Susan and Jake would not be able to stay together even when they did get back home.  As a genetically altered Fur, Susan was contracted for life with the Anthro Human Colonization Program and would likely be placed in another new starter colony since she had missed out on Hisashi.  Jake would then be on his own in a land that would be just as foreign and unfamiliar in customs and traditions as if he’d gone to some other country.  The showman and owner of a large company would likely be out of place for the rest of a life that had now been extended.

Under the cover of his sleeping bag, he checked the time on his techwatch and noted there was still a few hours before they needed to get up to break down the camp. Nothing would come of disturbing the closeness his two companions shared for the moment, so Samuel closed his eyes and willed himself to relax again.

A moment later, Jake and Citra broke their embrace and then sat down side by side.  Jake glanced back out the door, but Citra reached up and gently turned his face back to her.

“We can do nothing for them,” she reminded him. “Perhaps you should try to get some sleep.”

He dropped his head, touching his chin to his chest. “If I close my eyes, I fear I may see their faces screaming in the midst of flames,” he murmured. “Perhaps I can rest when we get to your home.  Does it take long to get there?”

The cheetah shook her head. “Only a moment; once the Gate appears, we only need to walk through it like a doorway. When you step through, you will already be at our destination.”

“That’s amazing. What does it feel like?”

She gave him a little smile, proud of him for changing the subject away from more dreadful thoughts. “You will feel a small tingling all over when you step through the Gate, but it will only last as long as taking that step.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“Not at all.”

“What will I see?”

“Well, the first thing you will see is the dull interior of a very large building,” she told him with a bemused expression. “The equipment for the Gate is set up inside of a warehouse so that when we start a new colony or resupply one that is already established, we can move everything they need in one line of effort. They are usually already set up on platforms or carts to make the transportation easier.”

“Sounds like a single file of covered wagons or a freight train.”

Citra nodded. “That is a good analogy.”

“There’s another one of your fancy words. What’s a nalo-gee?”

“I should have just said that you had made a good comparison. That is what an analogy is.”

“Yeah, you could’ve just said that,” he remarked with the hint of a smile in his eyes.  “Do you still have trains and horses?”

“Yes, but the horses are not ridden for daily transportation like you do now, and the trains are much, much different – even if they are still used for the same function.”

“If you don’t ride horses, what do you ride?”

Citra tried to think of anything she could use as a frame of reference. “Have you ever heard of a horseless carriage?”

Jake scratched his head. “I’m not sure I know what that is, but just thinking about it, I suppose that could describe a train or a trolley car.”

“Okay, think of a trolley car that can drive around without an electric cable or tracks, going any direction you need it to go along the roads.”

“That takes a might bit of imagination,” he murmured.

“Some of our vehicles move on their own from an internal engine. All you have to do is steer it and tell it how fast you wish to go.”

“An engine. Is that why you said you were an engineer?”

She smiled. “Not exactly, but do you remember the sky ships I once tried to describe to you?”

“The ones that fly through the air to the moon and other places?”

“That is right.  Some of our vehicles fly through the air too, but they do not go as far as the moon. They stay lower in the sky to take their passengers from one place to another.”

“I would like to see that.”

“You will see them, Jake – in just a few hours.”

He fell quiet for moments, but then looked over at her to peer into her large golden eyes.  “What will happen to me?” he asked quietly. “Since it was going to burn up, I grabbed the company money box when I went back to my wagon. I don’t know how long it will last, but at least I should have enough money to buy a homestead somewhere.”

Citra frowned. She didn’t know how to tell him that the few hundred dollars he had in a cigar box would not amount to much in an economy three hundred years removed from what he was familiar with.  Until now, none of them had thought beyond saving his life, but once he was safe and sound in 2195, how would he live? What would he do?  She was lost in thought for a moment, but then Jake spoke again in a quiet voice so as not to disturb their sleeping friend.

“Tell me about your world,” he requested, looking around at the tent and the few items that surrounded them. “Just seeing what you have here tells me that I will probably be a little lost when we get there.”

“Over the next century from right now, electricity will play a large role in many aspects of life,” she began. “You are familiar with telegraphs, electric lights and electric trolley cars, but that is only the beginning of what we call technology.  Energy will be discovered in many forms beyond electricity and will make the things you see in my world seem miraculous, possibly even as incomprehensible magic!  I will try to describe some of them you may see right away so they will not surprise you too much…” 

*** 

Jake did sleep, but contrary to his beliefs, he did not have nightmarish dreams of his friends or of deadly flames. Instead, he was so fatigued that he was as dead to the world as he should have been due to the fire.  Despite this, however, he awoke with a start before the sun was up.

The silhouette of Citra was curled up in a feline ball beside him, her chin resting across one of his knees, but he could feel the tip of her tail twitching against his bare foot, alerting him that she was already awake.  He reached out quietly and then stroked one of her ears. Without opening her eyes, she smiled and the tip of her tail became a little more animated.

Jake glanced toward the doorway of the tent but found it had been zipped up closed, so he looked over to one of the mesh windows to the side.  The sky outside looked only partly cloudy and there was the hint of morning sunlight just beginning to color the east.

“What time is it?” Citra murmured quietly.

Jake fished out his pocket watch, popped the cover and then turned its face in several directions trying to find enough light to read it. “Six fifty-three,” he replied after a moment.  He returned the timepiece to his pocket and then reached for his boots. Citra raised her head and yawned, her ears pressed flat against her head and pink tongue curling up over itself.

Once he had his boots on, Jake snared his Stetson from the side and positioned it on his head after first brushing down his hair with a palm.  He got up onto his knees and moved toward the door.

“I will be back in a moment,” he said quietly. Citra started to get up, but he waved her back down.  “Stay here.”

“You do not want me to come with you?” she muttered with a frown.

“I need to relieve myself,” he said matter-of-factly. “You stay put.”  Citra gave him a contrite look, but kept her place as he fumbled with the door zipper, trying to remember how it worked.  He managed it after a moment and then stepped out onto the damp prairie amongst the field of sage brush where they’d camped.

The feline turned toward her other companion and then batted playfully at one of his ears.  He sucked in a sharp breath, gulped and sputtered for a moment before he reached out and grabbed her wrist without opening his eyes. He held her wriggling fingers away from his assaulted ear and sighed aloud.

“It seems like someone’s in a better mood this morning,” he mumbled.

“Sleep will do wonders for a tired mind and body,” she returned.

“What time is it?”  Citra opened her mouth to reply, but his techwatch suddenly began beeping in a three-tone pattern.

“What is that sound?” asked the voice from outside the tent.

“It is the sound of seven o’clock,” Samuel said, slowly sitting up, his eyes still closed. “Time to get up.”  He rubbed at his eyelids and finally opened them, only to find the large golden orbs of a cheetah staring back at him only inches away.  He started and leaned backward. “Don’t do that!” he complained.  The feline giggled and then sat back on her haunches.

“One of the things I’ve missed being back here looking for you,” Samuel said groggily, “is my Kaffetrakter.”

Citra smiled and smoothed down some of the errant black hair on top of his head. “Poor Sam, having to do without his imported coffee machine,” she purred.  “Do not worry. We will be home soon and you can have all you want then.”

At her words, Samuel looked at his watch as if realizing what time it actually was.  He looked around for his boots and then struggled into them.  “We only have a half hour before the Gate arrives! We need to get everything broken down and put away.”

“Yes, boss,” Citra said, already rolling up her sleeping bag.  She had to do Jake’s next, as he hadn’t come back inside.  With her and Samuel bustling around, he would have just been in their way.

Ten minutes later, the two of them crawled from the tent and started pulling out their bedrolls and other items, laying them across the sage brush to keep them off the muddy ground.  The tent came down quickly afterward and they soon had everything stored away within bundles that could be easily carried.

Jake had not lifted a finger to help with anything, but when they finished and stood up to look at him, they found him staring off to the north with his hands in his pockets.  There was smoke on the horizon and it had again taken all of his strength not to go running across the prairie back to Texarkana.  The show ponies they had ridden had been freed after they’d made camp and all three had disappeared during the night’s storms; if he followed through with his temptation, he would be on foot.

Instead, he walked out from the camp a short distance and found something stuck into the damp ground. It looked like an oversized railroad spike twelve inches tall, but it had a faint yellow blinking light the color of a firefly’s butt perched on top.  He knelt down to look at it and frowned.

“Is this one of your future things?” he called back.  Citra and Samuel both walked out to him and he indicated the spike.

“Yes, that’s part of a perimeter sensor I set up last night.”  He gestured a few yards in both directions and it was then Jake saw there were more of them.  “I set them up in a circle around the camp in case something decided to visit us in the night.”

“What does it do?”

Samuel stretched out his hand and waved it to the side of the spike.  A sharp snap issued from the device and the Amerindian’s hand suddenly jerked away as if slapped.  He held up his hand.  There was a slight red mark across both sides of his hand.

“It sends out a mild electric current between the posts,” Samuel explained, “so that if something tries to cross it, a little jolt will convince it to go away.  It’s not harmful and doesn’t really hurt, but most animals won’t try to cross it after the first snap.”

“I don’t see anything between the posts,” Jake muttered to Citra as Samuel wandered away.

“The energy field is not visible to the human eye,” she remarked, “but I can see faint lines when it is dark. I am sure other animals can see it too, which is another deterrent.”

“Look here,” Samuel said, kneeling down a few yards away.  Jake and Citra saw him switch off the field with a tap to his techwatch and then put a hand down upon the ground.  Beside his spread fingers was the fresh track in the wet soil.  “Mountain lion, a large one,” he explained. “Sometime this morning.”  There were more prints circled around the perimeter of the invisible fence, a stark indication that a cougar had been interested in their camp during the night.

Jake frowned. “Your sen… sensor spikes stopped it?”

“Looks like it,” Citra confirmed. “We could have had a visitor inside the tent last night.”

“This one,” Jake said, pointing to the well-defined paw print, “seems to be missing a toe.”  He scrunched his lips, frowning.  “Old Max, the male cougar we captured three years ago and kept in a cage wagon, was shy a toe on his right front paw.”  Jake spat on the print, and then added, “He was a mean critter, too.  Far too mean to risk having outside a cage.  Eat you in a heartbeat if’n you gave him a chance.”

Citra nodded, adding, “I kept well away from his cage, since when he could see me he became much more restless.”  She dropped down to sniff the footprint.  “Smells like him, so I guess he broke free during the fire.”  She looked at Samuel, her eyes wide.  “Had you not set the sensors, we might have had trouble during the night.”

Samuel suddenly looked again at his techwatch. “It’s almost time,” he announced firmly. “The field is off now; help me gather up the posts and we’ll put them in the tent bag.”

It only took a couple minutes to pull up the spikes from the large circle around the camp site.  Sam scraped as much mud off each one as he could before placing them in the bag with the disassembled tent.

Jake took another solemn look toward the north before Citra put a hand on his arm.  Ready now to put this tragedy behind him, he nodded and turned his back on the smoke.

The trio only had to wait just a few more minutes, but then the air shimmered a few yards away.  To Jake, it looked as if a rainbow had bunched up together into the space the size of one of his supply wagons.  They were not directly in front of it, but Samuel turned to their bundles and picked up as much as he could carry, leaving the rest for his companions.

Citra handed Jake his bedroll and a pillowcase that he’d stuffed the few belongings into that he’d grabbed from his wagon. They followed Samuel a few paces to the east and suddenly the shimmering Gate looked different. 

From the sides, it was nothing more than a rainbow haze, but when standing directly in front of it, Jake saw another scene. At this angle, it appeared to be a doorway at ground level about the size of a barn door, only all four edges were marked by a faint, hazy fog that made no sound whatsoever. There was a strong breeze flowing past them into this hole in the air from unequal pressure and Jake gulped at what he saw.

Just as Citra had described, there seemed to be nothing before them other than several wooden crates strapped down onto strange-looking wagons lined up in a row. That in itself was not what held the showman’s attention. It was the fact that several men and a woman were looking back at them, all of them wearing some kind of matching white robes.  One of them started beckoning them to come through the amorphous gateway and Samuel surged forward without hesitation.

Jake watched him step through and for just a brief moment it looked as if the man had gone out of focus.  Citra reached out and took his hand gently.

“Come, Jake,” she coaxed. “We must hurry. The Gate will not stay open long.”

All of a sudden, Jake’s feet wouldn’t move. He stood rooted to the spot and resisted her pulling on his arm.

“I’m not going!” he gasped, digging his heels into the muddy ground right in front of the shimmering opening. “I’ve changed my mind!”

“You must come with us!” Citra exclaimed, tugging on his arm with glances back behind her. “This is your only way now!”

“Your history books can be wrong!” he said in a tight voice, forcefully hurling his bedroll to the ground. “You saved me from the fire, but now I can go on living right here where I belong!”

Samuel came back to the Gate, his burdens having been dropped to the concrete floor of the warehouse beyond. “Mr. Harrison,” he said in a strong voice, “you cannot stay. To your world, you are now dead!”

“I’m not dead until they plug me into the ground!” he shouted.

Knowing there must be tremendous power being pumped into the system to maintain the Gate for every second of its existence, Citra made a quick decision.  She tossed her bundles through the Gate and then grabbed Jake around the middle. She grasped him tightly with three limbs, purposely let herself fall a little to the ground to off-balance him, and then propelled herself toward the Gate with the fourth.

“No!” Jake shouted, struggling to free himself from the painful clutches of her claws. He felt a slight ripple across his body as they passed through the opening through time and space and hit the ground hard. Another pair of strong hands latched onto both he and the cheetah and dragged them back away from the portal frame just as the rainbow gateway disappeared.

Jake, Citra and their bundles lay in a heap on the floor of the warehouse and Samuel stood large over them. The Amerindian took on a fighter’s stance in case the man from yesteryear got violent, but all the bluster seemed to go out of the showman.  Jake gasped when Citra extracted her claws and he curled up in a ball where he lay.

There were several voices all talking excitedly around him, but there was also a low pulse that could be felt more than heard in the stuffy air that almost drowned out what was being said.  Jake ignored their words, gasping for breath with his eyes tightly closed.

Citra knelt beside him and put a hesitant hand upon his shoulder.  He brushed it off as if her touch burned and refused to look at her.

“Jake?” she said in a soft voice. “I am sorry. I had to do that. I am sorry if I hurt you.”

“Leave me alone,” he growled into his chest.

The cheetah got up on two feet and backed away, giving him time to recover.  When she looked around, Samuel was talking to a man in his late forties whose dark hair showed no signs of his age. The project director in a white lab coat like the others was arguing with Sam about the third member of their party, but the Amerindian was doing his best to explain Jake’s presence in a respectful tone.

When she looked back at the man in question, Citra saw that Jake was now sitting up on the cold floor, his hands absently rubbing the places where she’d dug in her claws. He’d retrieved the pillowcase that contained his personal belongings and had it sitting in his lap as if afraid someone else might take them.

She wanted to go to him, but knew he would talk to her only when he was ready.  She’d forcefully taken him away from everything he’d ever known and something like this could damage even a close friendship.

Jake didn’t look at her, but was glancing around at the inside of the large building. It was cold, musty and he didn’t like the look of the place even though she’d already told him what to expect upon arriving.  Several men and a woman were all wearing those annoying white robes and he silently wondered if he would be forced to dress as they did in this place.

Nearby was a large box with another person inside standing in front of an array of instrumentation that was all alien to the showman. The box was about the size of his travel home if it had sat on the ground without the wagon wheels.  There were thick black ropes on the ground from that booth to what looked to be a door frame near him with a blank wall behind it.  He saw Samuel nod in deference to the man who spoke with him and then the Amerindian headed toward that box, his western boots clomping on the concrete floor.

The other man looked to be someone of authority and Jake found himself getting to his feet when he walked over toward him.  He dusted off his trousers and then picked up his Stetson from the ground where it had fallen in the scuffle.  A gentleman always removed his hat indoors, but he straightened it upon his head despite that he was within a building. He squared his shoulders and faced the man who stopped a few feet from him.

“Mr. Harrison,” the man said with a carefully controlled voice, “I am Dr. Benjamin Quarters, the Project Director of this facility. Welcome to New Mexico.”

Jake transferred his pillowcase to his left hand and stuck out his right. “I’m Jacob Harrison, owner of Jake Harrison’s Wilder West show.”

“Yes, that is what I have just been told,” Dr. Quarters said, taking the man’s proffered hand. They both maintained a firm grip as they shook and then Jake gave the inside of the building another brief glance.

“I’m in New Mexico?” Jake asked. “It’s been some time since I was last here.”

“Las Cruces, to be precise. Yes, it has been a really long time since you were here last,” Quarters reminded him. “How do you feel?”

Jake rubbed the spots where Citra’s claws had dug in as he studied the other man. “I will live, thanks again to my lady-cat, even if she was a bit rough on me this time. If you are the one in charge here, am I in trouble?”

“No, that would be Susan and Samuel.”

“Because of me?”

“Because of you.”  Quarters turned toward the Fur standing quietly nearby.  “However, I understand that if it were not for you, our furry friend here might not have survived, and for that I thank you.”

“She’s saved my life, sir - twice, now,” Jake said. “I would appreciate it if you would be lenient with the lady-cat on my behalf.”

Quarters smiled, looking at the cheetah.  “Susan, would you join us, please?”

The feline approached them demurely, her arms together in front of her, fingers griping the cowhide pattern of her western skirt merely for having something to do with her hands.

“Hello, Ben. I am glad to see you again.” Citra said to the director.

“I am glad to see you as well, Susan,” said the doctor. “It took a lot of effort to discover the means to bring you back to us, most of it due to many sleepless nights for Samuel.”

Citra looked around and saw new faces among those in white lab coats standing near the now-empty frame of the Gate. “I am glad to be back, sir, but how long have I been away? I was with Jake almost five months, but it looks like more time has passed here.”

Quarters looked at her with raised eyebrows.  “Five months, really? You’ve been missing for nearly two years. Today is Friday, April 21.”

“Two years?”

“Ah, yes… the offset time differential. It’s 2197.”

Citra looked down at her western garments. “I think our clothing is a little out of date,” she murmured. “We should change as soon as possible, but all my things are in storage.”  She looked up at Quarters with a frown. “I am sorry I missed out. How are things on Hisashi?”

The project director fell silent as he led them away from the silent Gate. Jake followed along quietly with his pillowcase slung over his shoulder, looking around at everything from the overhead lights to equipment panels on the walls. The other technicians were still huddled together in quiet conversation, and while he could not hear what they said, he was sure it was all about the strange man who had come back with their associates.

Quarters was still talking. “We lost everyone on Hisashi three months ago, Susan. They established their town near the ocean in a gulf region, but they were too close to the shore when a magnitude nine offshore quake sent a tsunami over them. Their equipment transmitted audio and video feeds right up until the end and satellite surveillance corroborated the event.  They’re all gone.”

Citra put her claws up to her chin. “That… that is terrible!”

“It’s one of the dangers of moving to a new place, Susan.  If the flora or fauna don’t get you, the weather still can. The colony site had shown no previous indication there had ever been any earthquakes or flooding in the region. It was thought to be safe.”

“Robin, Chet, Malcom and all the others?”

“As far as we know, all dead.  The Gate receiver on their end stopped working so we haven’t been able to send anyone in to look for survivors.  However, since Hisashi seemed to be otherwise human-friendly, the Terran Colonial Coalition has decided to send another starter colony to try again. They will launch a new Gate receiver next month, and as soon as it arrives and deploys from orbit, another colony group will be going through.  For obvious reasons, they’re choosing another site farther inland.”

“Will I be going with them?” the cheetah asked.

“You only just got back, so that will have to be the topic of a future discussion with the committee.”

Quarters led them to a door leading outside and stopped just inside after he opened it. It was raining outside; not a storm, but a grey day with steady rainfall. Jake couldn’t tell if was morning or afternoon from the available light, but he was still on morning time. The director reached for an umbrella from a container beside the door and Citra took another. She handed it to Jake and then grabbed another for herself.

Jake struggled trying to open it, so the cheetah reached over and showed him how to thumb the quick release catch.  Its spring action deployed quicker than he expected and he jumped back, nearly losing his hat and his pillowcase of belongings.

“If you will follow me,” Quarters said, “we can retire to the conference room where we can discuss your little adventure.”  Jake and Citra stepped out into the rain behind him and it was the showman’s first glimpse of the new outside world.

They walked along a concrete sidewalk that led across manicured grounds toward another building.  Jake looked around and thought he was in the middle of a city, having never seen so many structures so close together that wasn’t a town, but the architecture was like nothing else he’d ever seen.  Tall buildings of glass and steel surrounded them and he could see the distant mountains between some of them. This looked nothing like the Las Cruces he had seen before.

Halfway across the grounds, they passed a large ornamental water garden occupied by numerous fountains with flower beds containing more colors than the showman had ever seen together in one place.

There was movement from the corner of his eye and one of the smaller buildings on the right suddenly jumped up from the ground into the rainy sky.  He sank to a sudden crouch on the sidewalk as it roared away and he tilted up the edge of the umbrella to watch the flying vehicle with wide eyes.

It disappeared through the maze of tall buildings and then he noticed that his companions were staring back at him.  He cleared his throat and stood up again feeling foolish, but to their credit, neither Citra nor Quarters said anything to him about it.  He nodded without a word and they headed off again across the grounds.

Another movement caught his attention when a tiny device with grappling arms beneath it floated by in the air with a quiet buzzing. There was a plastic box clutched in its limbs that protected its cargo from the rain.  Jake blinked several times and started to follow the delivery drone as if mesmerized, but Citra took him by the arm with a smile and coaxed him to follow. 

They gathered beneath a colorful awning at the doorway of another building and folded the umbrellas.  A section of the wall made of glass slid sideways without anyone touching it. Jake stumbled and walked through the opening backward, keeping his eyes on the door as if it was a snake.  It closed again of its own volition when it was sure there was no one in the doorway and the showman was suddenly fascinated. 

He walked back to the door and it opened again without him touching it.  He stepped back out under the awning and waited for it to close again. When it started to do so, he leaned forward to touch it, but then it retreated again from his fingers.

“Come on, Jake,” Citra said with amusement. “We can play with the technology later. Put your umbrella in the canister.”

The showman looked up with a grin and nodded, walking back into the building. He waited for the door to close again before depositing his umbrella and turning to follow his companions.

They were inside of an office building staffed with other people at desks with some kind of book with shiny covers in front of them. Carpeted floors muffled Jake’s footsteps.  Almost immediately, a service bot emerged from a wall receptacle and began vacuuming up the bits of mud, dirt and grass left behind from his muddy boots and Jake tried to jump up onto a desk away from the strange critter. He stumbled, twisted around and then fell across the desk, hitting his head hard on the oak surface.

“Goodness!” exclaimed a young woman seated at the desk. Citra and Dr. Quarters rushed back and found the showman out cold.

Citra hovered over him and patted his cheek. “Jake!” she exclaimed.  “Snap out of it!”  He mumbled something about a woman named Mabel, but didn’t regain consciousness.

“Let’s get him into the conference room,” Quarters remarked.  The cheetah’s hybrid physiology gave her enhanced strength and she gathered up the cowboy in her arms without needing anyone else’s aid. She had carried him like this once before when she’d first found him in the canyon following the cougar attack and had taken him to the cave where she’d been living.

She followed Quarters along a wide corridor while others poked their heads out of their offices to see what was going on.  Many stared and gawked at the clothing that both Citra and the man in her arms wore and discussions began clucking in the background.

Quarters opened the door to a room with dark, wood paneled walls and Citra set him in a wide padded chair at the head of a large V-shaped conference table in front of a wall-sized vidscreen.  There was a pitcher of water and several crystal glasses on a small table next to one wall and the director quickly poured out a portion. Ice tinkled in the glass as he handed it to the cheetah.

Citra held the glass for a moment and then put her cool and damp hand up against Jake’s forehead.  His eyes fluttered after a moment and then he looked up into her large golden eyes.

“Here,” she directed, holding the glass out to him, “take a sip and get your breath back.”

“What happened?” he asked sheepishly.

“I think you fainted when a cleaning bot startled you.”

Jake looked alarmed, glancing from Citra to Dr. Quarters. “Please don’t tell anyone I fainted,” he begged them, taking the glass of water.  It was the second time he had fainted in Citra’s presence and his ego was severely humbled.  There was also a new lump on his noggin where he hit the desk.

“It’s to be expected,” Quarters assured him. “You’ll be fine in a moment.”

The showman lifted the water to his mouth and stopped when it touched his lips. He wasn’t expecting it to be as cold as water from a winter rain barrel. It was cleaner than he was used to seeing too, but he suddenly found himself gulping it down.

“Easy,” Citra cautioned. “Slowly.”

After several moments, Dr. Quarters took a seat at the table and Citra sat down beside Jake. “Take a moment to compose yourself, Mr. Harrison,” the director said sympathetically. “You’ve had a long day and it’s not over yet. Samuel will be with us shortly after he’s completed his task and then we’ll have a long conversation.”

“The day’s only begun,” Jake muttered, “but I agree it’s already been eventful.”  He looked at the crystal glass in his hands and felt the smooth surface beneath his touch. “If it’s not too much to ask, could I beg some coffee? We only woke up an hour ago and this snow water is the only thing I’ve had in my stomach.”

Quarters frowned, again having forgotten the time differential. “Of course, I will order up something for the three of you, but it is late afternoon so I may not be able to get breakfast foods.”

“Anything at all would be appreciated.”

Quarters pulled a techphone from a shirt pocket and tapped at its face for several moments.  Jake watched him curiously and then the director looked up again.  “Something will be brought up from the cafeteria in a moment.”

The showman was about to ask him what he’d just done, but then he rubbed his temple instead.  Citra looked at him in concern. 

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“No, I don’t think I am,” he admitted. “I don’t know that I will be.”

“Jake…”

He looked up at her with a look of hopelessness. “Take me back,” he said quietly. “Please. You tried to warn me, but I didn’t listen. I can be bull-headed like that.”

Citra shook her head with a sad expression. “That is no longer possible, Jake. Remember what Samuel told you – this was a one-way trip.”

“I don’t care if your history books say I died!” he said. “I can go away somewhere else, maybe to San Francisco and start a new life under a different name. Others have done that before.”

“Mr. Harrison, you can never go back,” Quarters said in an even tone. “The Gate to your place in time has closed forever.”

“Even if we could send you back,” Citra added, “there is no guarantee that you would survive.  Paradoxes cannot exist in time, so it is more likely that you would go back only to die.  Remember Old Max’s tracks by our camp? Your body was never found and positively identified, so he might have gotten you even as the momma cougar was supposed to have in the beginning when I showed up to save you. History would have corrected itself had you stayed behind.”

“You planned to come forward with Susan and now you are here,” Quarters remarked. “Second thoughts won’t help you now and what-ifs have no bearing here. You are here, Mr. Harrison, and this is one of the things we will discuss when Samuel joins us.”

“What is Sam doing?” Citra asked curiously.

“Samuel is purging the system of all records, settings and related data associated with our attempt to retrieve you through the glitch in your Gate passage – so that it can never happen again by choice.”

“I thought you might, but I had hoped you would not do that,” Citra remarked. “I know it was a mistake I went back there, but that is how discoveries are made. Time travel could be a—”

“Time travel presents too many temptations to meddle with history. We were never meant to possess such authority. I have elected to erase all knowledge of the means to repeat such a journey before further experimentation can be done. There will be no record of what we’ve done for others to exploit.”

The feline looked at him aghast. “You alone decided that? That kind of a decision cannot be made by one man!” she exclaimed. “Surely we could benefit from further research into —”

Samuel entered the room.  “Dr. Quarters,” he interrupted, “it's done.  All material related to Operation Cheetah Retrieve has been purged from the system along with all redundancies.  It's all gone.”

The project director narrowed his eyes. “Even your private backup files?” he asked firmly.  Samuel looked as if he’d been caught with his hand in the till and reached into the pocket of his trousers. He pulled out a small data wafer and handed it to his superior.

“Thank you, Sam.”  Without taking his eyes off the Amerindian – and without checking the contents – Quarters snapped the wafer in half between his thumb and forefinger.

Samuel nodded with resignation and handed a dirty pillowcase to Jake. “You left this out in the hallway,” he said. “One of the bots was trying to clean it.”

Jake took it and peered inside.  The cigar box had upended and numerous coins and a few bills had scattered among the other oddments, but he wouldn’t know if anything was amiss until he had a chance to inventory everything. One thing was missing, and that was the pistol he had snuck back with him.  He looked at Samuel and saw the gun tucked into the waistband of his trousers. The large man briefly showed him the rounds that he’d removed and held in his hand, and the former showman nodded in acceptance.

Citra was oblivious to this wordless exchange between men, but stared at Samuel with disappointment as he took another seat at the table. All the knowledge associated with the ability to travel to other years had been erased, just like that.

Quarters regarded Jake quietly until the man set his things aside and looked up.  “Now,” he said at last, “before any kind of a decision is made concerning Mr. Harrison’s future here, I want to know what happened.”  He looked at Citra and nodded toward her.  “Start at the beginning, from the point where you stepped through the Gate that was supposed to have transported you to Hisashi.”

The cheetah opened her mouth to begin, but there was a knock upon the door. The director sighed in frustration at the interruption, but Samuel got up to open the door with a thumb to a pad set in the wall.  A man with a floating anti-grav cart stepped into the room and looked apologetic. 

“I was instructed to deliver an early dinner here, sir,” he said. 

Quarter nodded.  “Yes, that is for my associates here.  Please come in.”

The man stared at the western garments that Samuel, Citra and Jake all wore, but said nothing. He pushed his cart to the table and began setting out covered plates, cups and utensils for them. No one said anything, but Jake studied the floating cart until a steaming cup of hot coffee was set before him. He drank his black and for a moment he thought of nothing more than the aromatic java that trickled down his throat.

Samuel and Citra began eating hungrily, but only after Quarters nodded that they could do so before they continued with the debriefing.  He enjoyed a cup of coffee with them, but otherwise sat quietly observing them all.

Jake lifted the cover from his plate and found beefsteak, a baked potato, corn and green beans with a hot roll wrapped up in a paper napkin beside it. He was secretly pleased that they had food he could eat, as he had wondered if he would have been forced to eat some strange critter and vegetables from one of those foreign worlds he kept hearing about.

He picked up a knife and fork and cut into the meat. It was cooked medium well, just as he liked it, and he was surprised to find it had a good smoky flavor.

A half hour later, the same cafeteria attendant had come in and cleared away everything but the coffee pot and their cups.  Having food in his belly with a warm cup of coffee had calmed Jake’s nerves and he listened quietly when Citra began telling her tale.  He interrupted only now and again to clarify something that had to do with himself and his company, but for the most part allowed her to talk at length.

When she had brought her circumstances up to the present, Samuel told his part of it, beginning when he’d hesitantly stepped through the modified Gate signal to go search for her while dressed in unfamiliar garments made to resemble those depicted in photographs from the 1890s.

They took a break after two hours and Samuel led Jake to a restroom, giving him basic instructions for its use. Jake found he was able to take care of things without an issue and didn’t even jump when the automatic flusher activated.  He washed his hands at Samuel’s insistence and seemed fascinated by the water pulsing from the faucet without him having to turn any knobs.

He had only been in this strange world a few hours and he vowed quietly to himself that he would never again faint from anything he saw here.  It might take time to get used to some of it and he would have to learn their rules, but his stubborn will began to assert itself once more.

When they returned to the conference room, everyone was present except the project director.  The three of them sat in relative silence for several minutes, but then Samuel began tugging at the collar of his shirt. 

“I hope we can stop for the day soon,” he said. “My internal body clock is still set for the Texas morning we got up on back in 1892, but it’s almost five o’clock in the evening here. I’m ready to get out of these clothes and into a hot shower.”

“I know what you mean,” Citra remarked. “I may donate the ones I have on to a museum, claiming I found them in a locker somewhere, but I am anxious to get into something more comfortable.”

Jake looked down at his own garments and frowned. He was comfortable in what he had on, but since no one from this year seemed to be wearing them, he suspected the style had long since gone out of fashion. He just hoped he wouldn’t have to wear one of those white robes. He didn’t know why, but they really annoyed him.

Citra put her elbows up onto the table and then rested her chin in one hand. She looked at Samuel with a lazy smile. “Ben said it has been almost two years since I left,” she said. “It has only been a few months for me, so tell me what has happened in my absence.”

Samuel shook his head. “You know how it is,” he replied. “Things change but they stay the same. It’s not much different from when you were here, though we’ve had the usual transient personnel in the office staff. I’m here every workday and even I keep seeing new faces every week.”

“Maybe it is because Ben is such a driving taskmaster,” she remarked with a smile.

Samuel snickered, but shook his head.  “Aw, he’s not so bad – except when something doesn’t go according to his plans. Then he can be a real tyrant!”

“That is what I am afraid of,” the Fur muttered. “We brought him a new dilemma today. So tell me, have you found yourself a nice wife yet?”

Jake listened to their conversation quietly. He was starting to get a little impatient, tired of seeing the walls of the conference room and little else.

Samuel looked uncomfortable. “No, I haven’t,” he murmured, “although I have gone out with Yuri Morisato a time or two.”

“The cute little Japanese woman from accounting?” Citra asked with bright eyes. “You have to be nearly two feet taller than she is!”

“A foot and a half,” Samuel retorted stiffly, “but that doesn’t mat—”

The door slid open and Dr. Quarters reentered the room.  He said something to someone just outside and out of sight, but then turned his back on the closing door to approach the chair he’d occupied earlier.

He regarded Jake for a moment but then he rubbed the underside of his chin with a finger.

“Mr. Harrison,” he said, “you cannot go back, ever.  However, I have been thinking over your situation and there is an alternative, if you’re willing to listen.”

Jake looked at him warily. “I appear to have no choice. Say your piece.”

“Do you like Susan?”

Jake was taken aback by the direct question. He looked at her and she gave him a warm smile.

“Yes sir, I suppose I've become right fond of the little lady-cat,” he replied, his eyes locked on a particular piece of opal jewelry resting on her bosom.

“Does she being part cat bother you?”

“Not anymore,” the showman admitted. “Although I don’t understand all she tried to tell me about how she got like that, I do feel a great affection for her. I'm sure I would miss her even if I could go back. To be frank with you, sir, I think she’s been the only thing keeping me sane since we got here.”

“What if I told you that you could be with her the rest of your life?”

Jake raised an eyebrow and stared at him. Samuel did too. “If I'm to be stuck here in this strange place, she's probably the only one who could keep me at ease. I would like to stay with her as long as I'm able.”

Quarters looked at him with a serious expression and leaned toward him. “Do you love her?”

Jake suddenly looked embarrassed. Men just didn't discuss such things with one another in public, and with Citra sitting in the room, he felt awfully uncomfortable.  After a few moments of fidgeting, he looked down at his boots.

“I suppose I do in some way,” he admitted with a nod. “As much as a man can without crossing a line.”

“And what line is that, Mr. Harrison?”

Jake looked at Citra and swallowed with difficulty. “She used to be a woman, but now she's not,” he mumbled. “She's a lady-cat.”

“Did she tell you why she was turned into a half human, half feline woman?”

“She said there was another Earth far away up in the sky that she was going to homestead with other animal folk. She said the animal bits in her would help her to survive harsh country and weather.”

“That is essentially correct.  Tell me, would you be more comfortable having a life with her if you were just like her?”

“Just like her?  You mean to turn me into a… a… man-cat?”

“Only if you want to,” the director told him.  “You could then go with her and help her settle new lands, not unlike settling the west where you're from. I understand you are quite knowledgeable with that kind of life.”

Jake looked at Citra, but she remained meekly quiet. This must be his decision, not influenced by any words she might say.

“Does… it hurt?” he asked. “Becoming an animal?  Will I lose my soul?”

“I won't lie to you, Mr. Harrison; yes, it does hurt and the process takes months to complete, but if Susan can go through it, I'm sure you can handle it too. She could be right with you throughout the whole process, and once the changes are finished, you will feel stronger, run faster, see and hear much better and will be healthier than you have ever been in your life. You would be taught new skills, and I'm sure you can even teach us a few things from your own experiences. What you do after you are transformed and go to another world will benefit all mankind, not just yourself.”

Quarters sat back in his chair again. “As for your soul, those like Susan who have done this believe their souls are intact. They might have gained instincts from their animals, but they have retained all they were as humans.  Of course, the decision is yours alone.  We cannot send you back to your old life, so even if you decide to remain human, I will see to it that you are provided with a place to live, a job to perform and money to live on, all in thanks for looking after Susan for us while she was in your care.  She will not be able to stay with you, because she still has the obligation to settle another world, but we will be in contact with her on occasion if you wish to get a message to her.”

Jake studied her face for a moment, but didn’t say anything for a long while. When he did speak, it was in a low voice. “This would change everything I've ever known,” he mused aloud. “But just coming here with you has done that already.  May I have some time to think it over? I am a man of business with my own company. I don't make important decisions without weighing the balances first.”

“Take all the time you need, Mr. Harrison,” Quarters told him. “You and Susan may stay together for now, but I will make sure you have the necessary food and necessities you require until you decide your future. It could be a year or two before she can be reassigned since another had to take her place for the mission she was lost from and I do not believe there is sufficient time to get her in on the replacement crew. Once she is gone, she may never have the opportunity to return.”

Just then, the door slid open and a young woman came into the room.  “Dr. Quarters, Albert Desle from the North American Furmankind Institute is on the holocom for you in your office.” 

“Yes, of course. I'll be right there.”  He looked at Samuel and said, “You may go home now and take the weekend to rest up from your trip. I’ll see you at the usual time on Monday.”

“Yes sir,” Samuel replied. “What about them?  Susan’s apartment was all boxed up when she left the first time.”

Quarters nodded. “I will have my management assistant arrange an apartment for them before we close up shop today.” He turned to the cheetah.  “Susan, I will leave him now in your care,” and then to Jake he said, “Good day, Mr. Harrison.”

NEXT CHAPTER

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