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LOST IN THE WILDERNESS

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 9
Felisastrophe

 

“Do you think you could find that cabin again?” Marcelo asked, shading his eyes against the morning sun.  He and Avon were standing outside the iron gate of the Institute, both of them peering up the side of the mountain nearest the compound.  The grizzly bear sat on his haunches on the gravel parking lot so he wouldn't tower over the man beside him, while the director idly handled the Personal Business Juxtapositioner he held.

“I don't know,” the Ursis answered with a grumble deep in his throat. “We came down the mountain in the dark, following only the light of the Institute to get back. We were all to the point of exhaustion that if we hadn't had gravity on our side, I doubt we would have made it back in near as good a time as we did.”  He shook his head and held up a massive hand paw.  “I didn't notice any landmarks in the dark, and during the final leg of the journey, I think all I saw were my feet in front of me, putting one in front of the other just to get back. Jon and Kristen led the way those last few hours, so maybe they might know the way back up there.”

“It's been two days since you returned,” Marcelo replied. “I hope they're okay.”

“It's too bad their microchips don't have GPS transmitters in them,” the bear remarked.

The director looked over at him with a look of amusement. “That was actually discussed at one time,” he said, “but it never made it past research.”

“Why not?”

“They couldn't come up with a viable power source that would last and still be safe for the host whose hide it would be under.”

“How about a tiny solar cell worn like an earring?” Avon remarked.  Marcelo looked at him incredulously, until he saw the ursine leader's smirk.

“Right,” the director retorted with a smile.  “I suppose the whole unit could be contained in an ear tag.”

“Oh, that would go over real well,” Avon replied with a snort.

The short, swarthy man beside him stroked his Van Dyke beard absently. “Either Kim and Yuki were serious about staying away for good, or they've gotten lost trying to get back.”  He looked over at his companion. “You know them better than I do; will they be okay out there?”

The grizzly cleared his throat with a rumble. “Personally, I don't think either of them knows that much about surviving on their own,” he answered. “I'm sure their animal instincts will help them catch small game to live off of, but if they try to eat any of the local vegetation without knowing what to look for, they could poison themselves unknowingly.”

Marcelo sighed aloud. “Headquarters wants us to mount a search for them,” he confessed. “They are AHCP property and they're afraid Blackthorne might find them first, if he hasn't already.”

“Did you tell Blackthorne we'd lost two of our Furs?”

“No, but if he'd somehow bugged the Institute while he was here, he may know already. Headquarters doesn't want to take the chance of his people getting their hands on them, whether for body guards, slaves or genetic samples of our work.  I'm also afraid that a full-scale search effort might attract too much attention from those who don't need to know about it.” He looked over at his companion and added, “I would like you to choose three or four Furs from the group to go back up the mountain to find them. You'll have proper provisions and equipment this time – even a radio to report in.”

“I'd take Carl and Ellie, to be sure,” Avon mused aloud. “They have the most survival experience of anyone around.  We'll travel faster if we can carry our provisions in packs so we can move on all fours.”

“We have furman packs. Who else?”

“Alicia and Jon. Both had done cross-country hiking and hunting before they came to the Institute, just as I had.”  He paused for a moment and then gave Marcelo a smile. “If we can't find them, perhaps the sisters might come back out of sheer boredom,” he quipped. “There's nothing to do up there besides hunt for food or firewood.”

Marcelo appreciated the grizzly's candor and after talking with others about Avon's actions during the past few days, he had no doubt that Hiamovi Avonaco would be a great colony captain someday.

The bear then frowned. “On the other hand, what if they still won't come back with us?  Do we tie them up and haul them down off the mountain?”

The human matched his frown. “Have Manny supply you with a tranq pistol. If they won't come willingly, the girls will still be in violation of orders so I'm giving you authorization to tranquilize them. Be sure to give them a choice before you shoot them with it, though.”

“Of course.” Avon replied with a smirk. “I would prefer that they came along willingly. They'd be quieter knocked out, but that means we'd have to carry them!”

“Just convince them that their fears were for nothing and that I won't press disciplinary measures upon them if they come back on their own.  If you have to carry them down, they will both wake up to a surprise.”

“Director!”

Marcelo and Avon turned in unison toward the gate guard who approached them with a folded sheet of note paper. “I just got a call on the horn. You're needed back at your office, sir!  There's been some kind of incident and headquarters needs you to contact them right away!”

The swarthy director took the note and read the guard's scrawled handwriting, basically saying the same thing he'd just told him without further explanation.

“Thanks, Stuart,” he murmured quietly.  He looked up at Avon and waved him toward the electric cart they'd ridden out on earlier. “Gather your team and get whatever provisions and equipment you need from Supply, but see me before you leave.”

“Sure thing, boss,” Avon replied, getting onto the back of the director's cart; the bumper of the lightweight vehicle dropped low to the ground from the grizzly's bulk.

“I just hope Blackthorne hasn't gone after the Furs at one of the other Institutes,” Marcelo muttered. They rode in comparative silence back into the compound and Marcelo dropped him off in front of the Ursis Wing before heading toward his office.  

*** 

An hour and a half later, all personnel of the Institute were gathered for an assembly. No one knew the purpose of the meeting, but Avon presumed it must be related to the director's emergency phone call. The grizzly and his small search party had been about to leave when the order was issued for all personnel to meet for an important announcement. Marcelo wanted him to wait until after the assemblage before heading out to look for the missing sisters.

As with the meeting two days earlier, nearly everyone on the compound was present. Erin was still in her hospital room, but Travis was there this time, sitting quietly off to the side of the room as far from his fellow Furs as he could get.  His face was still bandaged from the stitches he had received for his facial injuries, but it was his tail that got the most attention now. 

As a disciplinary measure for his actions against another Fur, the German Shepherd's tail had been completely shaved from its base all the way out to its tip. It was a simple thing, but it was his mark of shame, proclaiming his punishment to everyone he met.  The fur would grow back, of course, but it might take six months before it had its normal covering again. While it was bare, however, he would have to keep it covered in sunscreen while out in the summer sun or the pale flesh could burn easily. Sitting by himself, Travis had his naked tail in his hands across his lap, awaiting the director's announcement with the rest of the gathered crowd.

The congregation was not left sitting for long. Once satisfied that everyone who could be there was present, Marcelo took the stage and approached the podium. He placed a single sheet of paper in front of him and then leaned toward the small boom microphone.

“There has been an incident on the world of Bastien,” he began without preamble. “For the past four years, Bastien has been the home of thirty-two Felis and two Vulps.  Earlier this morning, Stockholm received a relayed message reporting that with the exception of the two Vulps doctors that were assigned to a full group of Felis volunteers, all personnel on Bastien have died. From the doctors' brief reports, a rather nasty sickness swept through their camp in a matter of hours.”

“Oh no!” Dahlia exclaimed, putting her hands up to her face, her red-orange eyes wide. “I knew someone in that colony!”

“It was determined that the sickness came from the secretions of a newly-discovered animal on Bastien that was tried as a food source. The reactive elements affected the feline nervous system within minutes, leaving the doctors with little time to treat those afflicted. It is still unknown how the sickness was transferred around the colony, since the new food was ingested by only a few, but that is something still under investigation.  It is also unknown why only the felines were affected, but not the foxes.”

Jon held up a hand paw before Marcelo could continue. The director was mildly irritated at the interruption, but he nodded toward the cougar anyway.  “Yes, Jon?”

“I thought a colony was supposed to be all of just one species at a time. How did two foxes wind up in a colony of cats?”

“Having at least one physician in the settlement is a requirement of the colony project,” Marcelo explained. “The launch window for Bastien was small and there were no feline doctors, nurses or even a medic whose transformation was sufficiently complete to be sent with the group going out. A mated pair of Vulps doctors volunteered for the assignment. They are now the sole survivors of the Bastien colony and they have had to bury every one of the friends they'd made there.”

He raised a hand before more questions or comments could arise. “Details are sketchy right now,” he said, “but I do know that Stockholm is debating whether to send a ship out to recall the doctors or send an all-Vulps colony back to Bastien since they seem to be immune.”

He looked straight at the eight foxes in the audience. “I have received no specific orders concerning this, but I want to warn all our Vulps volunteers that if the decision is made to send out replacements, you will all likely receive your assignments for Bastien within the next two or three months.”

“Why that long?” Ivan asked.

Marcelo leaned forward and rested his arms on the podium. “It takes time and expense to prep, supply and send a colony ship. Even a recall ship just to bring back the two survivors would take a month to prepare, so headquarters is going to have to weigh in all the costs and logistics of either scenario.  There is another colony ship already in preparation at this moment, but its destination has already been planned for months to a different star system.”

Despite news of the catastrophe, this last statement spread excitement through the volunteers. Sudden thoughts of the one million in prize money jumped into the forefront of their minds.

“Who's going?”

“Where's that one headed?”

“Have we gotten our assignment?”

Marcelo waited patiently until everyone realized that he was not responding to any of their queries. When order was resumed, the director casually put one hand into the pocket of his trousers and shook his head.

“The final orders have not yet come in,” he told them, “but you have known for months that the next approved starter colony would consist of Ursis volunteers and that all of our bears would on that next assignment along with the ursine members of the other three Institutes. Hiamovi Avonaco has been in training as the next colony captain, which is why he was in charge during your recent survival march.”

“Do we have a departure date?” Dara asked with a half-raised hand paw.  Marcelo nodded to the polar bear.

“I have that information, but I have not yet been authorized to reveal either the date or the planetary location for the colony.”  There were a few outbursts from the bears at this, but the director waved both of his hands in the air for their attention. “Listen, I have rules and directives to follow just as you do,” he said with an irritable edge in his voice. “Until Stockholm gives me the go-ahead to release that information, you will simply have to satisfy yourselves just knowing that you could be leaving sometime in the next two or three months; the final month of your stay on Earth will be in the company of the other Ursis all gathered together so that you may all become acquainted before departure.”

Although the bears were excited with the prospect of being sent out soon, some of the foxes were not as optimistic.  Kevin raised his hand tentatively, but the director saw him amongst the animated group of Furs.

“Yes, Kevin?”

“Uh, sir, if there's a deadly sickness on Bastien, why would they want to send more of us out there?  Isn't the purpose of a starter colony to make the way for eventual human settlement?  What if the Vulps aren't affected, but humans are?”

“Those are good questions,” Marcelo replied. The conversations around the room quieted down at this. “In answer to your second question first, yes, the purpose of your colonies is to establish a foothold on a potentially habitable planet where mankind may one day spread out to ease the congestion of the Earth.  Should headquarters decide to send foxes out to Bastien, simply surviving on another world will have an altered focus. With the Vulps unaffected by the sickness, further research into this animal's secretions will be made. Is the poison harmful only through ingestion as a food source, or can simply handling the animal kill felines or others? Can an antidote be derived from it? Those questions will need to be answered long before humans can move in, so having an established colony on Bastien is still a good idea, even if it takes longer to root out all the possible dangers.  If it ultimately turns out that certain Furs can live there, but humans cannot, the colony would still be considered a success.”

“How can such a catastrophe be considered a success?” Ken asked, trying to see it from a medical standpoint.

Marcelo frowned.  “Before the Furs came into the picture, events like these might have wiped out whole colonies of humans before a solution could be found.  Your starter groups typically only consist of thirty to fifty colonists that are considered an advance research team.  For a human colony to survive, nearly five hundred men, women and even children are required to establish a permanent presence scratching out a living on some foreign world.  I know it's a sobering thought, but all of you have known from the start that Furs are considered expendable and there are very real potential dangers involved. This is why we ask for volunteers. We don't want to lose any of you anymore than we would anyone else, but for mankind to spread out among the stars, people like you are needed to go out and test the waters of the planets we find.”

The director cleared his throat and picked up a water bottle from inside the podium.  He took a drink and the replaced the bottle while comments flitted back and forth all over the assembly hall. Even the other human employees of the Institute were discussing these events.

“Keep in mind,” he continued a moment later, “that the fate of Bastien is still in deliberation in Stockholm. This is only the beginning of what could be a long and involved decision-making process, but we wanted to let you know what had transpired before you heard anything from other sources.”

Doctor Aristotle walked into the room from a side door. He mounted two steps up onto the stage and then pulled Marcelo off to the side to whisper into his ear.  The director pursed his lips and then nodded.

When the director moved back to the podium, the room had gone completely silent, everyone wondering what else might have transpired.

“That's all I have for now,” he said. “You are all dismissed. If I have any further news concerning Bastien, I will have Sissy relay it in her daily news.”  He looked around until he found the large grizzly bear to the side of the Furs.  “Avon, would you join me, please?”

Alicia looked at Avon.  “Should we go with you?” she asked, meaning the small search party that was planning to leave the compound as soon as the meeting was over.

“It's probably just a last-minute instruction before we head out. Why don't you, Jon and the Amaranths wait for me outside, please?”

“Sure.”

When Avon approached Marcelo and Aristotle at the side of the stage, the director looked up at the furman leader. “Kim and Yuki have been found,” he said in a quiet voice. “Sheriff Davis is bringing them in.”

“Where did he find them?” Avon asked with raised eyebrows.

Marcel almost smiled. “They were caught raiding the hen house of a nearby farm. More than that, I don't know yet.”

Avon shook his head. “I'll go tell my team the hunt is off,” he said. “We'll put the provisions back into supply and I'll check the tranq gun back in to Manny myself.”

The director nodded, but he put a hand on the grizzly's furry arm. “It will take about a half hour for Davis to get here with them. Once you're squared things away with your team, meet me back at my office, please. I'd like you there when I talk with them.”

“Sure thing, boss,” Avon replied.   

*** 

Sheriff Davis shut the door behind him as he left Marcelo's office. Inside the small room behind his desk was the director, standing to the side was Avon, and seated in the middle of the room were Kim and Yuki in a pair of wide-seat chairs, their tails hanging listlessly through the slotted seat backs. The sisters looked just as bedraggled as the other Furs had when they had first arrived back at the Institute, their demeanor subdued and the expressions on their faces were humble.

Yuki's sesame-colored fur was matted with bits of grass, leaves, pine needles and dirt all in the Akita Inu's hair. The dense outer coat would normally have shed most of the larger debris, but she'd had nothing to groom it with for nearly a week and she looked filthy. There were also dried blood stains in the fur around her muzzle.

Likewise, the Eurasian Lynx beside her was unkempt in appearance with similar forest rubbish all through her reddish-brown fur. Kim's long whiskers drooped, the ruff beneath her chin was flat against her neck, and the tuft of fur at the top of her left ear was missing with raw red skin around it. Neither of them had donated their robe tops to Gerard's rescue from the cliff, but the garments were dirty and even torn in places. They were both quite a mess.

Since they had tried to go against their contract by abandoning a return to the Institute, Marcelo had little sympathy for them. He sat with his arms resting upon his desk and stared darkly at them both for a long moment before he spoke.

“If you had intended to abandon your contracts,” he said roughly, “you should have stayed up on the mountain – not that it would have done much good. We were about to send up a search party for you, and you should know that I had authorized having you shot with tranquilizers and brought back tied up once you were found.”  Neither of the girls bothered a response, both of them with their heads down and eyes on the floor in front of them.

“I've been told that you supposed that you were going to be sold to an exotic zoo. Right now, that sounds like a very good ending to this.” Both of the sisters looked up in alarm and Marcelo sneered back at them. “Fortunately for you both, I'm not the one who decides your fate. Stockholm still wants to shoot you two off into space to eke out a living on some other celestial dirtball, so I still have to put up with you until that time ever comes along.”

“We're s-sorry,” Kim stammered, her eyes still wide. “When we were d-dropped off like unwanted p-pets out in the woods without an explanation, it l-looked like you d-didn't want us anymore!”

“What were we supposed to think?” Yuki added with a trembling that shook her ears.

“You were supposed to work together as a team,” Marcelo retorted. “That's what you're going to have to do in a colony. Striking out on your own can get you killed very quickly!”

“Don't we know it,” Yuki muttered in a soft voice, gesturing toward her sister's ear.

“What do you mean by that?” Avon ventured to ask, uncrossing his thick arms.

“After we were sure the group had gone on without us,” the canine explained, “we went back to the cabin and slept. We spent the next day alone in the cabin, straightening up and trying to patch the hole in the roof with limbs we found around in the woods, eating the occasional rabbit and squirrel we could catch.”

“Then the hunters came,” Kim added.

Marcelo exchanged glances with Avon. “Hunters?” the grizzly repeated.

“Yeah, two guys out hunting apparently knew about the old cabin and were going to use it as their base camp. When they saw us,” Kim indicated her raw ear, “one of them took a shot at me, trying to bag a mutant animal.”

“It didn't seem to matter that we were both wearing clothes and standing upright on our hind legs,” Yuki remarked. “Maybe they thought we were aliens or something, but we ran and they chased us through the woods until it got too dark, playing cat and mouse with us all evening.”

“We had to r-run for our very lives!” Kim wailed, gingerly touching her injury. “I almost l-lost an ear!”

“There was no way she wasn't going to get an infection,” Yuki continued, “so we knew we had to come back. We didn't even have a First Aid kit to treat it.”  She looked down at her hands and wrung them together. “We had no idea where the others went, so we just ran down the mountain as fast as we could go.  The hunters almost caught up to us several times, but we finally lost them when it got too dark.  We could see their flashlights behind us, but the dark slowed them down, although we still had enough light to see by.”

“I was so tired and hungry, r-running and hiding so much,” Kim said wearily, “but we had to keep going to lose those guys.”

Yuki licked her lips, looking over at the director's water cooler in the corner and wishing she could have a drink. If Marcelo had noticed, he made no offer to her.  She swallowed and let out a loud sigh.

“We finally stumbled upon a small farmhouse,” she went on. “We didn't want to risk getting shot again, so we decided not to knock on the door and ask for help. We didn't think they would miss one or two small chickens, so we crept into the hen house to help ourselves.”  The canine looked up at Avon with a look of irony. “Their mangy farm dog ratted on us and got the chickens all stirred up with his barking before we could grab one.”

“I got tangled up in the chicken wire fence and we couldn't get away before the farmer and his wife caught us,” Kim admitted. “He almost shot us on sight out of fear with that huge double-barrel shotgun he had, but we gave ourselves up.”

“We gave them a frantic explanation about what we were, but they'd never heard of the Institute, even though they knew there was some large organization out here. Finally, the wife called the sheriff and when he got there, he confirmed our story about the Institute to them.”

Yuki rubbed her eyes and little bits of dust dropped from her fur into her lap. “We simply told the sheriff that we'd gotten separated from the others during an outing. That's when he called you.”  Both sisters fell silent and neither the director nor the grizzly said anything more.

Marcelo folded his hands on top of his desk. “I will inform headquarters,” he said after several long moments. “They will need to send agents out to the farm to extend our apologies and they'll likely have to pay them hush money to keep quiet about you two; we certainly don’t want word of this broadcast on the local news.”

He leaned back in his chair and absently tugged on his chin beard. “Seeing as how you tried to come back on your own,” he said after a moment of thought, “I won't submit you two to disciplinary action. However, you're both confined to the Educational Wing for a week; no trips to the Shoppette, the main cafeteria, out to the lake or anywhere else.”

“Yes sir. Thank you, sir,” Kim murmured quietly.

“Thank you,” echoed Yuki, relieved that they wouldn't be punished for striking out on their own.

“Now go on,” Marcelo told them. “Clean up first and then go see your respective physicians.  You'll need to be treated for your injuries and they will also want to check you over after your experiences. I will come by later and give you a proper explanation of everything that's happened since you've been gone, as well as the reason you were dropped off in the woods.”

Kim and Yuki nodded in unison and then stood up together. Avon moved to the door and opened it for them, but closed it behind them after they'd gone.

“What do you think of their story?” the director asked him.

The grizzly eased himself into one of the wide chairs made specifically for Furs his size. “The wounds on Kim's ear were real,” he replied crossing his arms with his chin down on his chest, “but I'm not so sure the whimpering and stuttering was.”

“That was my assessment as well,” Marcelo said with a nod. “You'll need to watch those two, my friend. When you set up your colony, you'll want to know where everyone stands ahead of time. You'll be facing enough dangers from the world itself without having it rot from within.”

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