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LOST IN THE WILDERNESS

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 7
Downhill All the Way

 

Jon's eyes flashed open. He was in total darkness and utterly alone. He didn't move for several moments, fighting down the panic that surged through his brain, but soon his other senses slowly awakened and his situation didn't seem as dire.  How could things be wrong when there was the smell of bacon in the air? Then, for a heart-pounding moment, another thought occurred to his addled mind. Have they turned me into a pig?

 The large furman's nose twitched as he sorted through the scents he detected – bacon, fried potatoes, fried eggs, orange juice… dirt, leaves, pine needles, and the remnant odor of wet feline fur. He relaxed as the realizations of that last aroma assured him that he was still in the hybrid body of a human-cougar mix. Despite the months of anguish about the transformation, he felt comfortable in the knowledge of whom and what he was now.

Jon uncurled his leonine body beneath the lightweight sheet on top of his king-sized bed and then stretched languidly in the darkness of his room. Not for the first time, he wished his room was equipped with a window to the outside to let in morning sunshine.

He rolled over and looked toward the side of his bed to read the illuminated numbers of the clock. It was ten-oh-seven.  Somewhere within the foggy memories of his brain, Jon remembered that they were all to meet in the assembly hall that afternoon to get an explanation from Marcelo, so he still had plenty of time to shower and eat a late breakfast.

The mountain lion yawned widely, curling his pink tongue in over itself and laying his ears flat against his broad head. He was sorely tempted to remain in bed and forego the rest of the day. He would be surprised if many of the other Furs were awake even now after the forced march they had been on for the past several days. Jon's typical routine of exercising every morning never even entered his mind this time. He'd had plenty of exercise lately. All he wanted to do now was go back to sleep.

He lay there several more minutes in a relaxed state before he made himself turn over and reach for his clock to set the alarm for noon.

Jon smiled to himself in the darkness and then stretched once more before curling up to his pillow. He was snoring softly within minutes.  

*** 

Despite the number of people in the assembly hall, the room was fairly quiet when the director stepped up onto the stage and positioned himself behind the podium. Not only were the Furs present, but it seemed that every employee of the Institute was gathered in the room as well; everyone from the physicians, administrators and instructors down through the ranks to the custodians, supply clerks and kitchen help were all there.

Rather than sitting apart by their Wings as they had done in the past, the Furs were all seated together in the center of the assembly. No longer separated by species, the furmen volunteers were unified by their experiences and sat together in a group. All were now dressed in fresh furman garments, even though some of them had gotten used to wearing minimal covering over their fur for the past few days. 

Despite the full gathering of personnel, there were a few absences. Erin was probably in a bed in the hospital, and perhaps Travis too for his injuries; the Tanaka sisters were likely sulking in their rooms, having been proved wrong about their conjectures over the whole situation.  Still, none of them knew what the purpose was behind it all, so many were hoping the director's explanations would make their experiences worthwhile.

When Marcelo looked up at the anthro faces that peered back at him, he had already expected the numerous unkind expressions that he saw. He cleared his throat before the small boom microphone that extended toward him from the podium.

“Good afternoon,” he began, putting both hands upon the podium. “I want to begin by informing you that Erin Sealock was in surgery for her injuries early this morning. There was no permanent damage and there were no complications during the operations. She is now in recovery, but she may require a few weeks of convalescence.  I encourage all of her friends and associates to visit with her on the second floor of the medical facility in room two-oh-nine.”

He put one hand into a pocket of his trousers, keeping the other on the podium. “Likewise, Travis Tyndall was treated for his injuries with a few stitches just a bit ago” –Aaron booed from the midst of the Furs, but the director continued as if he hadn't noticed– “and is being held in a quiet room by himself.” Ivan started to make a crack too, but Marcelo held up a hand for silence, casting a brief glance toward Kristen. “Mr. Tyndall's actions have been documented and he will receive disciplinary measures this afternoon appropriate for a Fur.”

“What do you mean by that?” Norman asked loudly. “Are you going to whack his nose with a rolled-up newspaper?”  The brown bear had been serious and indignant, but the question garnered a few snickers from the audience of others than just the Furs.

“No, something a little more enduring,” Marcelo replied, struggling to keep from smiling at the bear's remarks. “Of the others, Gerard's sprained wrist has been treated and is in a firm wrap,” –the bear raised his arm to let everyone see his soft splint– “and Cheryl has been checked for concussion. Both of them seem to be responding well.” The Border Collie stood up, tipped her battered western hat toward the audience with a grin and then sat down again.

“I know at least two have requested an audience with Professor Flynn for counseling, and the rest of you have been looked over by your resident physicians.  If any of you have further health-related issues resulting from your experiences, please see them first.”

The director fell silent for a moment before returning both hands to the podium. He nodded toward the expectant faces and cleared his throat again.

“Now, I know the question on every Fur's mind right now is Why? – Why did I gather up everyone and drop you off in the middle of the forest in the middle of the night?”

“Yeah, why?” called Gerard.

“There are two reasons,” Marcelo replied, holding up a pair of fingers to the crowd. “The Anthro Human Colonization Program has initiated a new directive for all four Furmankind Institutes to implement a forced survival march with each of its Fur groups. The purpose is to give you practical experience by placing you into an unfamiliar territory with little or no provisions, instructions or preparation.”  Carl crossed his lupine arms in satisfaction that his theory had been correct in that respect.

“The Buenos Aires Furmankind Institute in Argentina had the first group on a forced survival march during last January's summer of the southern hemisphere, although the Furs there had temperate grasslands to cover instead of a mountain forest.”  He gave his audience a wry smile and added, “I'm surprised none of you remembered it from Sissy's daily news back then.”

I didn't even remember it until just now,” Sissy complained.

Marcelo smiled at her and shook his head. “The march of the Adirondack Furs was originally scheduled to take place in another three weeks anyway, but a situation arose that moved up the schedule.”

“What happened?” Jasmine asked.

The director pulled absently on his beard with one hand and then leaned forward upon the podium. “I don't know if any of you are familiar with billionaire industrialist Alastair Blackthorne, but he's been in the news over the past few months concerning a few advancements his research and development teams have made in interstellar slip-drive technologies.  In addition to this, another of his many concerns focuses on genetic research, some of it parallel to those of Professor Oliver McEwen of the University of Edinburgh. Blackthorne's research is primarily of medical applications, but he is not unaware of the Furs that have also benefitted from McEwen's discoveries.”

“Is he interested in making Furs of his own now?”  Michael asked.

“Stockholm suspects he might be,” Marcelo answered, “but Blackthorne himself denies it.”

“So what does this have to do with our survival march?” Aaron wanted to know.

“Blackthorne is married to a former Playboy centerfold model,” the director explained patiently, “and he wanted to buy a couple of you as body guards for his wife.”  Comments and exclamations erupted after a moment of stunned silence, but Marcelo knocked on the wooden podium with his knuckles to regain order.

“Stockholm refused, of course,” he informed them. “The primary existence of Furs is for interstellar colonization, and even though the AHCP owns the patent on the process that created each of you, Furs are not slaves and you are not a retail commodity for sale. You have lifetime contracts with the company for the sole purpose of moving in as starter colonies on the various habitable worlds discovered orbiting other stars.”

The director had to knock on the podium again as the crowd noise rose once more.

However…” he nearly shouted, “Alastair Blackthorne was so adamant about having a couple of Furs that he did some research and discovered where Furs are made – meaning the Furmankind Institute.  Although there are some small businesses we deal with for services and supplies, the exact location of all four Institutes has been closely guarded from the public. As you all are fully aware, acceptance of Furs in the general society is still tenuous at best in places, but Blackthorne has sources to get what he wants.”

The director picked up a bottle of water from a shelf inside the podium and took a sip. “The AHCP has its own resources against industrial espionage and its intel discovered that Blackthorne was on his way here to this Institute backed up by a full bank account. It was his intention to buy out one or two of you to break contract, wanting you to abandon the purpose for which you were made, with promises to care for you the rest of your lives.”

Nobody interrupted him now; they were all hanging onto his words. “It was AHCP headquarters that directed me to get all Furs off the premises before Blackthorne could arrive, and it was decided to move up the date of the survival march to ensure you would be out of pocket for several days.” He paused and rubbed a temple with his fingers. “Without Blackthorne's interference, you would still have gone on the survival march just as you did, with few provisions or instructions. Although the weather is something you will have to deal with on a new world, it hadn't been our intention to send you out with rain in the forecast. You're fortunate that you hadn't been scheduled for it in the middle of winter.”

“What happened while we were gone?” Jon asked, strongly interested in the director's explanations.

“Blackthorne's private jet landed at Saranac Lake and then he came in on a helicopter, demanding that I let him take a look at our Furs.”  Marcelo smiled at his audience. “I lied straight to his face, telling him that all our Furs had already left Earth for another planet that had just been opened for colonization. After all, that's what the purpose of this place is for. I also told him that with the Furs gone, this location was about to begin renovation to the premises, so it might be another year or two before the next volunteers come in, and even then another nine months beyond that for their transformations. Despite that, the Furs would not be for sale, now or then.

“Blackthorne was quite put out by this, but not convinced that all the Furs were gone. He demanded a tour of the entire facilities to see for himself. I had to get special authorization from AHCP headquarters to allow him access and it took a couple of hours to get approval from the headquarters in Stockholm.  We gave him the tour he wanted, denying him access only to certain classified labs we didn't tell him about, and he was disgruntled afterward that he had seen no Furs other than the portraits in your Wings. There were only humans on the entire compound, so he finally got back in his helicopter and left.”

“Wow,” Dante mused aloud.

“That's not the end of the story,” Marcelo continued. “The gate guards informed me that a van with darkened windows was in the parking lot for several days. When they knocked on the windows, no one would respond, but when we called to have it towed away, someone else had the call for towing cancelled.  We figured out quickly that Blackthorne was having someone watch the place, but when there was no miraculous repopulation of Furs several days after Blackthorne's visit, the van finally left – yesterday evening – just hours before you got back. That was good timing, though we've still been on the lookout for the return of the van or some other surveillance.”

“Y'know,” Gerard called out, “you could have saved us all the trouble we went through just by giving him Travis!”

Marcelo caught himself before a smile reached his face, musing that he'd like to get rid of the German Shepherd himself. He steeled his expression and shook his head. “No Fur is for sale,” he reiterated. “Not even Travis.”

“Aw man…” Norman said in a mock whine.

“Travis wouldn't make a good guard for a Playboy bunny anyway,” Jasmine quipped. “They'd have to have another guard just to guard him!

Marcelo saw a courteous hand go up.  “Yes, Jenni?”

“Why did you give us only partially charged batteries for the GPS?”

“That wasn't intentional. When I got everyone up to get on the bus, I simply grabbed the first unit I reached from the supply cabinet. I didn't know the batteries in it did not have a full charge.”

“What about the PBJ connection?” Wendy wanted to know. “Why would you block Sissy's PBJ from getting a satellite signal? It could have come in handy while we were out there.”

“That wasn't me, and we don't have the means to block the satellite signal anyway. Sissy gave her PBJ to me this morning and from a dent in its side, we've determined that the unit's transceiver was probably damaged by an unrelated incident in her own room earlier the same day you were taken away. I will make sure she gets a new PBJ from Supply this afternoon.”  The director frowned. “Keep in mind that when you start a new colony, you won't have a set of satellites overhead for GPS triangulation, neither will you have an Internet connection.  There will be a single geostationary satellite over your colony location to relay the occasional report back to Earth, but that will be it.  Using a GPS receiver here is a luxury you won't have out there.”

“If our survival march had taken place in three weeks as you'd originally planned,” Carl remarked, “would we have been given any supplies or provisions like we'd have on another world?”

Marcelo shook his head. “Things would have been little different, though your leader may have been given the briefest of instructions to find your way back and live off the land. We may also have made sure you had a full charge on the batteries, although using your instincts to get back over the past few days probably gave you better practical experience.”

“That's a heck of a note,” Hank grumbled.

Marcelo cleared his throat again. “Don't blame me and don't shoot the messenger. My instructions came from Stockholm.  However, despite a couple of near-losses, I'm glad you all made it back relatively safely, though I hope you brought back some experiences that will be helpful once you've gone out to tame another world.  Now, are there any further questions?”

“I have one,” Jon called out. “Do you or our high and mighty AHCP masters have plans to send us on any more survival marches like this one?”

Marcel actually smiled. “I am not aware of any further plans for another march,” he assured them. “Any other questions?”  No one spoke up.  “Okay folks, if that's all you have, that's all I have.  You are released from further classes and studies for the next two days, so feel free to relax, eat, sleep or visit among yourselves as you wish. Because of Blackthorne's people, I would caution all of you to stay within the confines of the grounds.” He said this last directed at Sissy, as he was now aware of her late night sojourns for snacks. “He may be back at some point in a surprise visit or post more surveillance, but if we're approached again, I'll deal with it at that time. None of you are authorized to speak with him or his people without first coming through me.  That's it – you're dismissed.  Welcome back, Furs.”  

*** 

When Jon walked out of the building, he stopped and closed his eyes, letting the afternoon sun warm the fur of his face. Despite their days of roughing it, he felt good about the whole ordeal. Although he might have wished to have been informed why they'd been dropped off out in the woods beforehand, he agreed with the primary purpose of the excursion. Their instructors could try to teach them everything by the book in a class room setting, but there was no substitute for hands-on training – or in their case, paws-on training, he thought with a smile. They needed the experience they got out in the woods; they probably hadn't been out there long enough by any stretch of the imagination to get the experience they really needed, but if nothing else this would give them a foretaste of what might be ahead of them.

“I know that cats can fall asleep anywhere and in any position,” a teasing voice said from his side, “but I've never seen one go to sleep standing up on its hind legs before.”

Jon opened his eyes and smiled down at the orange striped cat. Sissy was dressed in their standard furman garments, but she hadn't bothered to tie the belt around the top, simply letting it drape loose from her shoulders to her knees. She'd been topless out in the woods long enough that it never even occurred to her that she might be exposing herself to anyone.  For a Fur, it didn't mean the same since she was still sufficiently covered.

“I'm just enjoying the warmth on my face,” he told her, “and I was just contemplating going out by the lake and taking a nap in the sun, stretched out on the grass. After a day of soaking rain, I could use a solar recharge.”

“Mmm, that actually sounds good,” she said. “Before you do, would you come by my room for a minute?  I have something to give you.”

Jon tilted his head. “Are you propositioning me?” he asked with a smirk. Sissy laughed aloud, but shook her head.

She poked him in the stomach with a claw tip. “No, silly, perhaps another time. I still have what we talked about up on the mountain.”

“Ah, yes,” he said with a nod. “I'd already forgotten about it.”  He gestured toward the building where she lived and then followed her across the grounds. They talked idly as they walked, enjoying a two-legged stroll that didn't involve stepping over fallen trees, around rocks or finding their way through dense brush.  When they got to the Educational Wing dormitories, Jon followed Sissy up to the second floor, realizing that he'd never been to her place before.

She opened the door for him and allowed him to go inside first.  Jon stepped into the studio apartment and looked around quietly. The place was Spartan, having very little furniture or decorations. There were a couple of curio cabinets, each one occupying a corner and filled with feline-themed trinkets, and a small bookcase occupied by only a few plushies, most of which were of cats. Instead of chairs, a bed or a couch, there were several large pillows on the floor in front of a small wall-hanging vid screen. A light blanket was folded up neatly against a wall near a small dining table with only two chairs. The kitchenette was separated from the rest of the room by a small countertop, and even it was sparsely decorated. There was a window on one wall, covered over by a dark blue curtain.

“Looks cozy,” he remarked.

“Thanks, it is.” Sissy smiled up at him and then moved toward a closet beside the kitchenette.

Jon leaned up against the wall beside her small bookcase and was startled when an orange striped cat meowed at him from the second shelf. He knelt down and peered at the cat, which merely looked back at him curiously. Despite that a much larger feline was staring at it, the cat didn't appear to be alarmed by his presence. Jon scratched it beneath its chin with a smile and the kitty gave him a contented purr.

“Now here's one for the history books,” he commented with a small shake of his head. “An orange striped Felis with a pet cat that looks just like her!”

Sissy chuckled. “That's Jonesy,” she explained. “He took to me right after I got here and was with me all through my transformation.”

“Jonesy? Wasn't that the name of the cat in that vid with the melon-headed alien?”

“Yup, another orange striped cat. They've always been my favorites, which is one of the reasons why I chose to become one of them.”

Sissy backed out of the closet with a large rectangular box. She closed the door with a foot and then presented the cardboard container to him as if it were precious.

“Here they are,” she said with a grin. “I'm glad I held onto them for you.”

The mountain lion stood up and took the box with an embarrassed smile. “Thank you. I never thought I would ever want these again, but I have to know that I can get past the memories that made me give them up in the first place.”

Sissy watched warily as Jon set the box on the counter, open the flaps, and then pull out a bundle wrapped in light blue tissue paper.  He pulled off the tissue and then lifted up the folded pair of cotton denim jeans. The pant legs were much wider than normal to allow digitigrade feet and legs room to get into them and stopped just few inches below the knees. There was also a large round hole in the back for a tail and a button flap above it to keep the waistband together.

“There's only one way to find out,” Sissy suggested, repeating what she had told him once before. Jon looked at her for a moment and smiled at the look in her green eyes. Her slit pupils were open and a little rounded in the dim light of the room.

He gave her a grin and turned his tail to her. He undressed quietly, pulling off his furman vest first and then the shorts. He looked over his shoulder at her and as expected, caught her admiring his furry rear. He flicked his tail at her just as he'd done before and she reached out quickly, snaring it in her hand paws. She gave it a gentle tug with a giggle, but didn't let it go.

Jon gave her a smirk and held out the jeans. He unbuttoned both the fly and the tail flap and then slid one foot down into a leg opening. He had no trouble getting his altered limb all the way through, so he added the second and then pulled them up into place.

He had to make Sissy release his tail to get it through its opening, and then getting the tail flap re-buttoned took a little extra dexterity. Fortunately, the front fly was button-up and he managed it without getting anything caught in it.

Jon walked to her bathroom door and examined himself in the full-length mirror mounted on its inside panel. He turned back and forth to see how they fit on him. They were as comfortable as he remembered, though he recalled that the knees would be a little snug in front if he squatted down; he figured that he could have them adjusted by someone on the grounds. He had never tried them while down on all fours, so he dropped to the floor to see how they felt.  As with squatting, the knees were a little binding, but after walking around the room a moment, he felt the jeans for furman anatomy might work out all right.

“I still think you have a nice butt,” Sissy told him. “Those jeans fit your hiney even better now.”

Jon grinned at her, stood up and then returned to the box.  He pulled off the tissue wrapping from a long-sleeved flannel shirt made of large red and black squares.

“I sewed the buttons back on for you,” Sissy commented quietly, “but I couldn't find an exact match for the ones you popped off.”

The cougar looked over at her with an embarrassed smile. “I'm sorry about my tantrum that night,” he told her. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome.”

He slid his arms into the oversized openings of the shirt and then pulled it around him.  There was plenty of room beneath it for his fur, and despite that it fit over him as another layer, it was not uncomfortable.  He buttoned it up and then tucked the shirt into his jeans before returning to the mirror.

“No doubt about it, Jon -- you look great!”

“Thanks!” the mountain lion said, pleased with her reaction. He slipped the odd sandals back upon his feet and then turned back to the mirror to take a good look at his reflection. As had happened before, Jon looked at his image in the mirror and saw Henry Parker looking back at him. Blue denim jeans, plaid flannel shirt of red and black squares, Parker had worn almost the same outfit on the night that Barrett had shot him, the only difference being a lightweight jacket that cougar had worn that cold January night in Colorado.

Jon stared down the other furman in the mirror while Sissy waited nervously for his reaction. You got what you deserved, he thought at Parker's memory quietly, and I'm no longer afraid of you.

Jon studied his appearance for a moment longer; Parker looked back at him only briefly before Jon's own reflection took over.  He liked the image he presented to himself, but the flannel shirt was already getting warm. It was a cold weather garment and Jon knew he would probably have to save it for the winter.  He unbuttoned it and pulled it back off without saying a word, but when he saw the worried look on Sissy's face, he gave her a reassuring smile.

He folded the shirt carefully and took it back to the box with the others of different colors he had ordered, though he left the pants on.  “Do they still carry tee-shirts at the Shoppette,” he asked his companion. “I ordered the flannel shirts back in the winter time, but they'll be too hot this time of year.  An oversized tee-shirt might work for now, though.”

Sissy let out the breath she didn't realize she'd been holding. Jon had made no anguished outburst at seeing himself in the mirror this time, and she was relieved that he seemed okay with them now. Whatever the painful memories were that had resurfaced before, he appeared more at ease with them.

“I think they do stock them,” she answered. “See what your pants look like with the vest.”

Jon picked up his discarded furman vest and slipped it back on. He didn't return to the mirror, but instead just spread out his arms and looked at her.  “What do you think?”

“Not bad,” she told him. “I'm with you, though. It's probably my human upbringing, but I think a tee-shirt would look better.”  Jon simply nodded and then leaned up against the kitchenette counter.

“How are you feeling about this?” Sissy asked him timidly.

Jon knew exactly what she was referring to, but he was truthful in his response. “I think I'm okay now,” he told her. “I've worked through my issues in recent months with Angelina and I think maybe I'll be fine.”

“I still wish you'd tell me what happened to you,” she remarked. “You scared me last time.”

“Maybe someday when I’m old and have a grey muzzle, but not now.”

Sissy gave him a frown, but then her expression changed. She grabbed him by the arm and ushered him toward the door. “Come on,” she suggested. “Let's go show off your new look!”

Jon hesitated before she could get the door open. “Wait, there's something I need to do first.”

“What's that?”

“Marcy originally helped take my measurements for these and I'd promised to let her be the first to see me in them. I failed in my promise by letting you see me in them first those months ago, but perhaps I should let her think she's the first.” The mountain lion looked embarrassed, but when he put his hand paws gently on her shoulders, he gave her a smile.  “Will you help me?”

“Sure, I suppose.”

“I'll need to change back into my cult clothing and then sneak back to my Wing. I'll find her and chat with her a few minutes, and then you could come in with the box for me, as if it had just arrived. Do you have shipping tape to seal it up again?”

“Yes, I do. Won't she be suspicious that the box took months to get here?” Sissy asked with a smirk.

“Who knows how long tailors take to make their clothing?” Jon countered, unbuttoning the fly in front of her without thinking about it. “After all, they wouldn't have had a usual human pattern to follow when making these things.”

The orange feline finally nodded as she watched him undress. “Okay, I'll help you with your little deception for letting me be the one to see you in them first… and out of them too!”

Jon realized that she was boldly watching him, so he chuckled and turned his back to her before dropping the jeans around his ankles.

“Thanks, Sissy,” he said once he had his furman shorts back on. “After I've modeled these for Marcy, then you can accompany me out on the grounds.” 

“Great! I'm certain you'll get a few requests to order jeans for some of the others once they see you in them.”

“That's odd. Marcy said just about the same thing when she took my measurements.”  

*** 

Later that evening, Marcelo stormed across the grounds toward his office, his face clearly reflecting the anger inside. No one had seen either Kim or Yuki since the Furs had returned to the Institute early that morning and their rooms remained just as they had the night he had roused them out of bed for the bus ride. Avon had given him a full report on everything that had happened during the survival march, including the sisters' attempts to have them abandon the return to base.

The director had quietly interviewed several in the group concerning them and had just come from the Felis Wing; Jon had informed him that the last anyone had seen of the sisters was just after they had left the small mountain cabin in the rain, supposedly to go pee behind a tree. With the rain and exhaustion, he'd never noticed if the sisters had returned or not.

No one could remember seeing either of them since getting back, but their whole demeanor had been so annoying on the trek that none of them had bothered looking for them once they were back home anyway.

Marcelo resisted the temptation to slam his office door on the way to his desk. He sat down heavily and opened a bottom drawer for the bottle of Jack Daniels Classic Tennessee Whiskey he kept for such occasions.

If the girls had stayed up on the mountain with the intention of setting up housekeeping on their own, they were in violation of the contract they had willingly signed. However, such an occasion had never occurred before, so the director was not sure what he should do about the matter.

Once he had calmed down sufficiently, Marcelo would have to send a report to the AHCP headquarters in Stockholm requesting instruction. There were more mishaps and personality clashes on the outing than he had envisioned, and now he was beginning to wonder if this group would even survive the dangers of colonizing another world altogether.

NEXT CHAPTER

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