LOST IN THE WILDERNESS
— by Ted R. Blasingame
The memorial service for Dante Capanari had been planned to take place in the five acre clearing near the backwoods of the Institute property, but a change in the weather forced them to have it in the assembly hall to stay out of the summer thunderstorm.
It was unknown whether or not their associate's body had yet been cremated as per AHCP policy, but there would be no actual casket to gather around; the service was really nothing more than a chance for those who knew him to stand up and share a few memories with the gathered group. A picture of Dante as a human was displayed on the projector screen behind the podium, side by side with a recent photo of him in his near-complete Bengal white tiger form. He was grinning in both.
Most of the comments were short and given without much conviction, similar to Whelan's service months earlier. The general consensus was to have the service, but no one felt like saying much when it was their turn to state something about the Fur who had not made it through the program. Without much to be said, Marcelo finally closed out the service and shut off the projector.
“I know your feelings are muted right now,” the director said, “but I would like all the Furs to come back here in an hour after you've had time to prepare yourselves to move on with a new phase of your training.”
“Is it important?” Gerard called out from his seat.
Marcelo nodded. “Yes, it is.”
“Why wait an hour, then?” the bear asked. “We need something else to think about, so why don't we have it now?”
“That sounds like a good idea to me,” added Arne from the back of the crowd. “There's no need to go out in the rain and then come back in again.” Several other voices added their approval, and after the director looked around the room and noted the attentive faces, he shrugged his shoulders and put one hand up on the podium and the other in his pants pocket.
“I just wanted to give you all a small announcement on a change in your training while I have you all together,” he told them. “I know this might not seem appropriate coming right after Dante's service, and I don't want to seem insensitive, but you've had a few days to grieve and ponder upon life in general. However, it's time we moved on, just as we did after the loss of Whelan Nolan.”
Marcelo could feel the eyes of all thirty remaining anthro-humans in his charge. “Stockholm has given me additional direction for your training that we will implement next week. So far, you've all taken part in general colony education, finding out what will be expected of you, learning skills and trades that will be helpful out there, as well as raising and caring for the types of livestock you'll be taking along with you. A few of you have received specialized training in specific fields, but for the most part, the rest of you have only general colony knowledge.”
He gazed over the small crowd, knowing some were feeling impatient for him to get to the point. His preface over, he put both hands upon the podium. “Until now, both of your classes have lived in comfort in the rooms of the Wings and the dorms, but this is about to change. The rainy weather we've had the past few days is predicted to end on Saturday. This means the grounds will still likely be damp and muddy for a few more days afterward, but as of Monday morning, you are going to simulate a landing upon another world and you are going to set up structures to live in as if you were all alone and starting out right now.”
“How's that going to help?” Ivan asked. “We already know how to set up the domes.” There were a few other mumbled comments between the Furs, but Marcelo continued on as if he hadn't heard them.
“Just as your survival trek taught you a few things about negotiating unknown territory, finding food and learning to work together as a team, this new exercise will replicate colony life itself. Before you even go out there among the stars, you need the simulated experience of living in the domes you've learned to build, set up for food, water and other resources you'll need. You aren't just going to build these structures for practice, but you're going to start living in them instead of your dorm rooms.”
There was surprise on most of the faces, but a few actually saw this as merely another step in required learning and was not totally unexpected.
“Supply trucks with the items you'll be given for a real colony will be delivered this weekend. Once the exercise begins, you will be forbidden to return to your Wings and dorms, the cafeteria or any other facility on the grounds. Your current medical staff will not be available to you, so you will depend upon the physicians going with you; for this scenario, Ken and Jenni will be your only medical personnel. You will check in all your PBJs and leave them with me, so the only communication you will have outside of your colony will be through the primary com set identical to the one you will have with you on another world.”
“How long will this exercise run?” Jon asked.
“Tentatively thirty days or more,” the director replied.
“Thirty days!” Sissy squeaked. “Who's going to watch Jonesy for me for that long?”
“Jonesy?” Michael asked. “Who's Jonesy?”
“Her cat,” Jon explained. “She has a kitty that looks just like her.”
Marcelo gave his administrative assistant a smile. “Sylvia can check in on him while you're away, just as she did when you were out in the woods.”
Sissy gave him a relieved smile. “I didn't know she'd done that for me. I'll have to thank her the next time I see her.”
The director nodded and then continued as if he hadn't been interrupted. “As with a real, working colony, your leader will make regular reports to AHCP, and the information in the progress reports received will determine the length of this simulation. If the reports are negative, you will stay there longer until those results change.”
“Who's our leader for this exercise?” Yuki wanted to know.
“Avon, of course.”
“He appointed himself as our leader when you abandoned us in the woods,” the canine complained. “How about someone else this time?”
Marcelo frowned and shook his head. “Avon is the only one among you who's had official leadership training,” he said sternly. “He's not just playing at being a leader, folks – he's the real thing, so get used to the idea of him being in charge. If you have any official complaints, you may file them with me in private, but his selection was not by my hand; he was appointed by AHCP committee. He may choose a first officer as he likes, but Avon's place in command is set in stone and there will be no more debate to the contrary.”
Discussions about this detail set several conversations in motion, so Marcelo reached into the recesses of the podium and pulled out an old wooden gavel. He rapped it several times on the edge of the stand to get everyone's attention back upon him.
“Before you begin this exercise,” he said loudly, “Dr. Aristotle has an announcement to make that may have an impact for those of you in Class Sixteen.”
“We don't want to hear anything he has to say,” Travis grumbled from his place slightly separated from the rest. His denuded tail was across his lap in his hands, a familiar position of late.
“Shut it,” Aaron growled back at the German Shepherd behind him. Travis merely glared at him in response.
Despite the canine's wishes, the tall, thin physician of his Wing stepped up to the podium and took the director's place, looking older than his age under the silver hair upon his head.
“For those of you in Class Sixteen,” he said in his accented voice, “you have all entered into the final stage of your transformation development. “You haven't reported many aches and pains associated with your anthropomorphism in some time, but that is about to change. It is typical that your bodies will go through a sudden, final growth spurt around this time, so I want to warn you all that this may occur within the next week or two. Unfortunately, this will coincide with the colony simulation, so when this does occur, you must remember that you will not have your Wing physicians available to you. Any issues you have must be reported and treated as possible through your colony physicians. Your Class Fifteen associates have already been through this last stage of development, though not in a colony setting. This training exercise is new to the program, so you will have to deal with everything that happens as if you were on your own.”
The doctor brushed a few animal hairs from his medical smock and added, “Between now and the start of the simulation, your colony physicians will be briefed on all your medical records and they will be the only ones among you equipped with a PBJ to contain that information. Out on another world, you will have solar powered charging stations for the electronic devices deemed necessary, but for this exercise your medical staff will be issued units modified especially for this situation.”
Kevin looked at Erin beside him before he held up a hand; the doctor smiled at the young fennec fox's courtesy. “Yes, you had a question?”
“Is this last growth spurt going to be as painful as before?” he asked with a worried expression.
Dr. Aristotle gave him a nod. “It can be,” he confirmed. “Every Fur is different and may experience diverse changes and levels of associated pain, but most of what you'll feel will not be visually identifiable. Most of it will be internal, a final shifting of organs, muscle tissue, blood vessels, nerve endings and a final chemical rebalance. In simple terms, the hardware and software of your bodies has been upgraded, so now a reboot of sorts is required to reset everything into conjunction with one another.”
“How long will this series of final changes take?” Cheryl asked without raising a hand.
“Approximately one to two weeks,” Aristotle answered. “Some may experience more internal alterations than others and that can even take place within the various Furs of your own species. There's no way to predict what will happen to whom, so we cannot give each of you a timeline on your own changes. I must also warn you that severe mood swings are likely to be associated with the chemical rebalancing. Since you will be cut off from the rest of the Institute, you will need to rely on one another to get through this, and you will also need to watch your tempers. Now, are there any further questions?” Many of them had numerous thoughts concerning what they'd been told, but no one else spoke up. The doctor looked behind him and nodded to Marcelo. They swapped places at the podium and the director cleared his throat.
“Okay, that's all I have,” he said. “If you have any questions prior to the start of the exercise on Monday, feel free to talk to me or send a message via your PBJ. Once the simulation begins, you will be on your own for the next month. I'm sorry for our loss of Dante's presence, but it's time to move on with the rest of your training. You're all dismissed.”
Jenni and Jon walked side by side as they left the Clark building, neither of them saying much. Most of the crowd had filed out the doors before them, leaving only a few behind them. Just as they got outside and put up their umbrellas against the rain, Travis snickered in their wake.
“What a waste of time that memorial was,” the German Shepherd cackled loudly to no one in particular. Jenni stiffened beside her housemate but Jon tried to ignore the canine. “Nobody had much of anything good to say about that cat, did they? That's because nobody cared for him!”
Jenni reached out and grabbed Jon's arm for stability and he could feel her arm shaking in fury. He was just as irritated at Travis' attempts to get a rise out of those walking in the rain just in front of him.
“It's just as well we'll be on an exercise for the next month. He won't be missed for long,” the canine continued as if he couldn't see how his words were affecting the leopard in front of him. “He was so unloved that his so-called lover wouldn't even get up to say anything nice about him at his memorial service. I don't suppose he was very memorable!”
Jenni spun around and hissed at him, her teeth bared and her ears flat against her head. “You know nothing!” she spat at him.
“Oh ho!” Travis responded in delight. “So there is a spark of life in the tiger's wench!”
Jon turned around and punched him between the eyes so quickly that the German Shepherd didn't have a chance to avoid the blow. His head rocked backward and he fell onto his backside in the mud puddle he'd just stepped around. It dazed him, but when he got back up to his feet, his bruised face was contorted in rage.
He launched himself at Jon with a deep growl and grasped him about the waist, using his weight and momentum to tackle the cougar to the wet ground. Jon wrestled with him, but Travis retained his hold around his middle, trying to use his enhanced canine strength to squeeze until something broke inside.
Jon pounded on the dog's back, but he didn't have a good enough angle on the ground to put much power behind it. Travis was making it difficult to inhale, so Jon tried to roll over onto his opponent. The cougar outweighed him by a good sixty pounds, but Travis had been a nimble wrestler in his past and used the feline's own weight against him.
Someone was shouting at them, but somewhere in the back of his mind, Jon realized that Travis was fighting like a human. Instead of using teeth and claws, he was using manmade tactics, though very well it seemed. Jon had to do something quick; he tried to bite one of the dog's triangular ears, but he missed by inches. In desperation, he raked his claws hard across the canine's back. Travis yelped and loosened his hold around Jon's middle for just a moment.
Freed enough to pull in a hard intake of breath, Jon coughed twice, but that gave Travis time to pummel at him with his fists, bellowing at the top of his lungs. Jon snared one of his wrists, but instead of trying to bat it away, he pulled forward on the arm and then clamped his jaws around it hard.
Travis shrieked, but unable to pull away, he punched frantically with his other fist. He connected with side of the cougar's head, which only made Jon bite down harder. The mountain lion quickly kicked off his sandals and pulled his feet up between them, digging his hind claws into the canine's middle.
Travis yelped, seeing the danger of being gutted, so he pushed away hard and rolled aside as quickly as he could, but Jon still had a firm bite on his arm; it was the same one that Kristen had previously injured, so the canine kicked him hard between the legs in frantic desperation.
Jon released him and curled up in pain, but he managed to scrape his fangs across Travis' arm in the process, ripping bloody furrows into the flesh beneath his fur.
Not content to retreat despite all the pain, Travis kicked the mountain lion in the ribs while he was trying to recover. Jon grunted, but the dog's soft and muddy bare toes didn't have much impact. Despite the pain in his groin, Jon managed to snare Travis' foot and yank him off balance. The canine fell to the wet ground with a muted splat.
Jon tried to get over to Travis on all fours, but there was a hard thump on the back of his head that drove his chin down onto the wet grass. He blinked rapidly, blearily thinking the shepherd had somehow gotten behind him, but then someone else thumped Travis on the back of the head too. Both were momentarily stunned and then the two of them were unceremoniously pulled farther apart from one another.
Jon felt rough arms up beneath his own pull him up to his feet, but whoever it was didn't release him. Likewise, Travis was yanked up to his feet with his arms in a lock hold to keep him from getting loose.
Overhead lightning from the storm lit up the rainy scene and Jon saw Dara holding Travis struggling in her arms. Jon didn't resist, but he looked over his shoulder and saw Avon's brown eyes looking at him in disgust.
Back inside the Clark building, Jon and Travis were seated on metal folding chairs far apart from one another, several of the bears standing by as unofficial guards in case there was another incident. The physicians from each of their respective Wings treated their wounds while Marcelo ranted and bellowed at them both. The short, swarthy man paced back and forth between the two troublesome Furs, punctuating his words in the air with his hands. At last, he stopped to take a deep breath and faced them with both hands on his hips.
“There's been friction between volunteers in the past,” Marcelo ground out between clenched teeth, “but you two are unbelievable! Every time I turn around, you are at one another's throats! How are you two going to work together out in a colony if you can't get along here? Once you leave the Earth for good, you'll need to rely on one another, and that even means the two of you!”
Travis snorted, but didn't look at the director.
“You find this amusing?” Marcelo bellowed.
“He's a cat and I'm a dog; we won't be going to the same colony other than the play-acting you're making us do.”
The swarthy director gifted the canine with a dark glare and cleared his throat. “Don't ever assume in absolutes,” he retorted. Jon looked up at him and thought he saw some unspoken thought in the man's eyes, but Marcelo turned away with his hands behind his back to resume pacing.
“I don't know whether to separate you two or have you shackled together so that you have to work together!”
“I wouldn't recommend the latter,” Jon replied after giving Travis a dark look and making a show of examining his claws.
Marcelo glared at the feline. “I've come to expect better of you in recent months,” he admitted with a huff, “but you're trying my patience, Jon.” He then turned toward the canine and crossed his arms. “You, however, have been nothing but a major thorn in everybody's sides since you got here.”
“He hit me first!” Travis complained.
“Yes, he did, but I saw how you were acting and heard what you were saying, too,” the director replied tonelessly. “I was only a few steps behind you. I don't condone what he did, but I might have slugged you myself for spouting off like that! You deliberately stepped on emotions already hurting and ground them into the gravel. You have nothing to carp about – you knew what you were doing and instigated the fight yourself!”
“Yeah, maybe I did,” Travis growled back at him defiantly. “I don't owe anyone any favors, including you, high and mighty Director! You can't fire me and you can't jail me for anything I've done – all you can do is ship me off to another planet, which is what I'm contracted to do in the first place! I can do anything I want and the worst you can do is to give me a slap on the wrist! You think shaving the hair off my tail is going to embarrass me into acting like your good little doggie?” He spat on the floor at Marcelo's feet and sneered up at the man.
“Can I hit him again?” Jon asked quietly, “or would you prefer to do that yourself?”
The director's face was purple with rage at the canine's words, but he knew Travis was right. “Maybe I can't punish you in the usual ways,” he ground out between clenched teeth, “but I can make it harder for you to get your hands on the prize money even if you manage to survive five years in a colony – maybe I can even get it revoked entirely for all the time and trouble you've cost the company!”
“What?” Travis exclaimed with additional swearing in several languages. He was just hit in the only true vulnerable spot possible. “You can't do that! That money's in my contract!”
“Do you want to meet with the company lawyers to discuss the fine print of your contract? I can arrange that easily. You belong to the AHCP, Travis, and although we don't treat you as slaves, you signed away your life when you willingly put your signature on that contract. Your insubordination will not be tolerated, and if you don't start behaving in a civilized manner, I'm sure Stockholm can come up with appropriate punishments by methods I'm sure I'm not even allowed to think about.”
Travis' ears were flat against his head, growling beneath his breath, but he had nothing more he could say and he knew it.
Marcelo cleared his throat again and then tilted his head back to look up at the high ceiling after glancing over at the cougar sitting by quietly massaging his ribs. “Travis, since you're in this for life, I need you and Jon cooperating right now, but so help me, the next time you two get into a brawl and have to be separated, I will banish each of you to desolate parts of the planet to learn what it's like to live alone on another world by yourself. If that happens, it could be years before you're even allowed onto a colony at all without being part of a team. Think about it – you could be stuck doing menial tasks for the AHCP right here on Earth for the rest of your life.”
He looked back down and gave each of them a look of impatience. “Now, I want both of you to stand up, shake hands and then get out of my sight.”
Jon stood up as ordered and grudgingly held out his hand to the canine, but Travis kept his seat.
“Never,” the German Shepherd growled.
“Stand up and shake his hand or so help me I'll put you in solitary and let you go through your final transformation pains alone for the next month! Now go on and shake his hand!”
“I'd break contract and sell out to Blackthorne first!”
“As if he'd have you! Shake his hand like I told you.”
Travis stuck out his bottom lip, which was a disconcerting sight on the face of an irate Fur, but after glaring at the director for another moment, he stood up and purposely knocked over his chair before he shoved his hand into Jon's.
At once, he tightened his grip as hard as he could, and Jon had no choice but to respond in kind, squeezing his larger hand in a fierce competition with the canine. As a physically fit human, Jon might have bested him right away, but as Furs, both had enhanced strength and stamina so the impromptu contest was evenly matched.
Both grimaced as each of them earnestly tried to squeeze hard enough to break the bones in the other's hand. They grunted and gasped almost in unison and Marcelo traded looks of irritation with Avon and Dara.
Jon could hardly believe the strength in the smaller German Shepherd's grip, but he matched it every pound for pound. “That's a good grip you have there, Travis,” he grunted hoarsely. “I always hated a flabby handshake myself!”
The mad canine tried to retort, but the bite wounds on his arm were throbbing and it took everything he had to keep up his end of the competition.
“Oh, for Pete's sake!” Avon exclaimed. “Break it up or I'll break both of your hands!”
Neither gave in, so the grizzly swung a huge hand paw and forcibly knocked their hands aside. Jon and Travis immediately let go of one another, each of them privately grateful that the bear had forced them apart.
Jon rubbed his mangled fingers with his other hand, trying to get the blood and feeling back into them, while Travis stumbled and sat down heavily in another nearby chair, tightly gripping the fresh blood soaking into his bandage.
“You two beat all I ever saw!” Marcelo said with a disgusted snort. “Now get out of here and go back to your Wings. You've both been warned – if you two are caught fighting again, I will keep my word! Now go!”
Holding his arm in pain, Travis scrambled out the door without even another sarcastic remark; Avon and Dara followed out behind him to make sure he didn't double back. Jon was a little slower leaving, but Marcelo was suddenly at his side. The man motioned the cougar closer and Jon bent over his bruised ribs to turn an ear toward him.
“You've made great progress since you've been here, Jon,” the director told him quietly. “Angelina's reports have given me hope for your rehabilitation, but you've got to keep your anger in check or it will destroy everything you've accomplished.” He sighed heavily, looking as if he'd aged several years since Brian Barrett had first met him. Marcelo glanced back toward the door the others had departed through.
“Travis has become the troublemaker I expected you to be, Jon, but you're not without guilt in these brawls either. Consider yourself punished and do us all a favor by straightening up your act or I may be forced to think up something for real.”
“You got it, boss,” Jon told him sincerely.
“Good to hear it. Now go back to your Wing and apologize to your housemates. They were both already emotionally tender and I'm sure you scared them both; right now they need to know you aren't going to lose your head if they say anything that might upset you.”
The mountain lion frowned, but knew Marcelo was right. He had some personal damage control to perform.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.