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LOST IN THE WILDERNESS

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 14
Leaper Colony

 

Rain dripped off Jon's nose and ears as he trotted back across the wet grounds to the Felis Wing. His ribs felt bruised from his encounter with Travis and he wasn't moving as quickly as he might have otherwise, so by the time he stepped beneath the awning over the door steps, he was soaked to the skin beneath his fur.

He stepped inside the door and found several damp and muddy towels on the floor with a small stack of dry towels on a small table accompanied by a handwritten note from Marcy. “Don't drip on the carpet – dry off first.”

One of the disadvantages of having fur was the amount of time it took to dry off with a towel. Jon was thankful for the full-length air dryer in the restroom that had been installed while they were on the space station, but when it came time to pat down as he had to do now, it took several minutes and several towels. A laundry basket sat in the corner by the door, already overflowing with damp towels used by the others. He also recognized furman robes and shorts in the basket.

When he was satisfied that he wouldn't be dripping on Marcy's precious floor, he padded up the hall toward the saloon, his damp jeans and tee shirt added to the basket and a towel wrapped around his waist. The overhead lights were off, but there were several candles burning on the fireplace mantle to give the room a soft glow with just enough illumination to see his surroundings.  Thunder continued to rumble and lightning still flashed through the skylight overhead, but the storm was not as intense as it had been earlier, proof that it was moving on to other areas.

Jon's first inclination was to head to the shower to wash and dry his fur properly, but he heard movement from the sunken recreational pit near the middle of the room.  He walked around the table and chairs that had been relocated to the upper level and peered down at his housemates. Both of them were lying listless atop the large pillows scattered in front of the curved couches. Like himself, they wore only towels draped around their waists. Jenni and Kristen were both clutching pillows in their arms, but the two females were facing away from one another.

The male cougar stepped lightly down into the pit, all thoughts of his shower saved for later. He stretched out on his back across the pillows between his housemates. Jenni pushed her pillow aside and turned over, suddenly clinging to him with her nose up against the fur of his chest. He wrapped one arm around her and then turned his head toward Kristen. He lightly touched her shoulder, but instead of turning toward him too, the mountain lioness scooted away from him a few inches, just enough to let him know how she felt.

He frowned, knowing he deserved the cold shoulder she'd given him, but there was nothing he could do for it so he turned away from her and relaxed beside Jenni. The leopard female looked up at him with large yellow eyes.

“What happened?” she asked quietly.

“The Director ranted at us both, that much I expected,” Jon replied, “but he came down harder on Travis than he did on me.  Marcelo was right behind us when Travis said the things he did, so he couldn't deny any of it.  Travis and I have been ordered to stay far apart from one another, just as we were on the space station. If we get into another fight, Marcelo's threatened to banish us separately to desolate places here on Earth to force us how to survive on our own without a team. He also told us Stockholm might even rescind the prize money from our contracts if we give them more grief.”

“Wow, that's harsh.”

“Yeah.  I'm not concerned about the money, but it hit Travis hard in the wallet.”

“What do you mean, you aren't concerned?” Jenni whispered. “That's a large bank account.”

Jon shook his head. “If we ever get out of here, we're never going to see Earth again,” he answered frankly, “so what use is money going to be to us on a wild world where currency probably won't be used for decades? Even if it was, do you think we'll all live long enough to cash in on it?  Look at Bastien — that whole feline colony was wiped out in a day, only a year away from meeting its five year survival requirement.”

“The Vulps survived,” Jenni reminded him.

“Yes, but Marcelo told us that if Stockholm doesn't send out a new batch of other foxes to fill out the colony with them, a retrieval ship might be dispatched to bring them back. For those two Vulps, that cuts their five years short and leaves them with probable reassignment elsewhere to start another five years all over. It costs money to equip a ship to go out to bring just two of them back, but it will be cheaper than sending another full colony. It wouldn't surprise me if Bastien is simply written off as an undesirable planet, just as they've written off that other one that failed as soon as they landed.”

“Bonestell?”

“Yeah, I think that was the one. The tragedy on Bastien was terrible, but I'm sure there's an accountant for the AHCP who's happy they were saved a large payout to that colony next year.”

“Jon, that's awful!”

“Yes, it is. That's why I'm not concerned about money I'll probably never see anyway.”

The mountain lion fell silent, closing his eyes. They lay together for several long moments before Jenni put her head against his chest again.

“Are they going to shave your tail?” she asked.

Jon chuckled, keeping his eyes closed. “Not for something like this. That takes something more serious than punching Travis in the face. I got scolded by the school principal, sent back to my homeroom class, and that's the end of it unless I get into trouble again.”

Kristen let out a whimper and Jon looked over his shoulder at her. “What's the matter - are you disappointed that I didn't get a more severe punishment?” he asked dryly.

Kristen whimpered again, but shook her head. “No,” she gasped, her body shaking a little with her response. He arms were wrapped around her middle and her knees were pulled up to her stomach.

“Jon, she's in pain,” Jenni explained in realization that Kristen was not just deriding their housemate.

The large cougar released her and then turned over toward his female counterpart. “Kris?” he whispered, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder.

She shook her head vigorously, her eyes clenched tightly. “Please,” she gasped, “just leave me alone.”

Jon frowned and looked back over at Jenni before he got up quietly and left the pit.  Jenni watched him head toward the shower and then she turned back toward Kristen.

“Is there something I can do for you, or do you need me to get Dr. Renwick?” the feline nurse asked quietly.  The lioness shook her head again, but otherwise didn't say anything as another wave of internal pain took her breath away.

Jenni sighed quietly and rolled back over on the pillows, her thoughts returning to Dante.  

*** 

Avon stood up at the front of the charter bus holding onto a small clipboard and looked back over the twenty-nine Furs under his command.  “This bus represents our transport down to the surface of the planet,” he told them in a clear voice. “In a real situation, we will be riding in a Traveler-class heavy freighter colony ship, but simply for this exercise, eight semi-tractor trailers have already been moved into our simulation area containing our supplies.  Realistically, our livestock will be in cryogenic stasis for the voyage to be awakened upon landing, but for this exercise, we will simply herd them in from the pens where we've already been raising them.”

“Will Cheryl be in charge of herding the animals?” Dara asked with a grin.

“Of course!” Gerard responded with a wave of his hand. “That's what a Border Collie's for, isn't it?”

Cheryl stood up and tipped her battered hat with a wide smile. “Hey, I know my job!” she admitted.

Avon smiled at the interplay, but he rapped on the roof of the bus above him with his knuckles to bring the attention back to himself. Cheryl sat down again and looked back at him innocently.

“In a real-world situation,” the grizzly continued after a glance at the list on his clipboard, “the transport would remain on the ground just a few days to give us time to build the animal pens, the domes and supply structures before its launch window back to Earth. We're going to follow the same scenarios here, but instead of the freighter we'll have this bus and the supply trailers for those first days. After that, the bus – aka the transport – will be removed from the grounds and we will all be forbidden beyond the temporary barrier that's been erected to separate our planet from the rest of the Institute. 

“You will not be authorized to speak to anyone through the barrier, and if you still have them with you, I have a box up here at the front for your com phones that will be taken back to the Director, to be returned to you with your PBJs only after the exercise is over.  All communication with Earth will be done through the com unit that is identical to the one we'll have in a real colony. I think we covered just about everything in our meeting last night, but are there any more questions before we begin?” Kevin's hand went up and Avon nodded toward him.

“What if we forgot to bring something from our rooms?” the young fennec asked.

The grizzly shook his head. “If you've forgotten anything, you'll have to do without it. As of right now, our planet is several light years away from Earth and there's no going back for anything. Once we've landed, we're there to stay and will have only what we take with us.”

“If everybody plays nice, do we get an ice cream cone with chocolate sprinkles when we're all done?”

Avon gave Travis an irritated look. “Everybody will play nice regardless,” he answered with a quick glance also toward Jon. “I've been placed in charge for the duration of this exercise and I won't brook any disturbances. We all know why we're here, and although this is just a simulation, we're playing for real.”

He shook off his irritation and gave everyone a lighter expression. “Now,” he said with a final look at the wristwatch around his thick wrist, “this simulation will begin in two minutes. When it starts, put yourself in a frame of mind to think about this exercise as if it was real. We will no longer refer to the grounds outside the barrier as the Institute and I don't want anyone to make any references to it.  We're on another planet and you can consider that barrier to be an impenetrable wall of rock, perhaps a mountain or a canyon wall.”

“Does this planet have a name?” Ivan asked. “You know, just for something we can have a reference to?”

Avon thought about it for a moment and then he nodded. “For the sake of the exercise, the planet is called Poledouris, supposedly named after whatever astronomer discovered it.”

“Where'd you get that name from?” Dahlia asked with interest. “Is that a real world that's under consideration?”

The grizzly chuckled. “No, the late Chesley Poledouris wrote a series of novels I like. Nothing more.”  He looked at his watch and said, “Okay, folks, the simulation begins now.”  He turned and nodded to the driver of the bus, and then sat down in the front seat.

The driver had remained completely silent since everyone had boarded his vehicle, giving some of them an eerie reminder of that night Marcelo had abandoned them like unwanted pets out in the woods.  He put the old hydrogen-powered bus in gear and drove across the grounds from the Clark Savage building where they had loaded up and headed toward a ten foot high, chain-link fence covered in black cloth that had been erected between the lake and the occupied areas of the Institute grounds. When they neared the fence, two guards opened the gate and let them pass through.  Michael looked out the back window of the bus behind him and watched the guards close the gate before they secured it with a thick chain and a large padlock before pulling the black cloth over it.

The bus driver circled the lake toward the large clearing behind it and soon approached the ridge where the shooting range had once been held. Parked side by side in front of the embankment were eight semi-tractor trailers. The bus came to a stop with the door facing away from the trailers and the driver shut off the engine.

“Welcome to planet Polly Doris,” the man said with a smile. “We have landed.”

Avon looked at him and gestured to a PBJ on the dash in front of the driver.  “Martin, give us a report, please,” he said.

“Ah yes…” Martin replied, picking up the device. He thumbed it on and held it up to read from its dual screens.  “External sensors corroborating with known reports – localized air is composed of seventy-seven percent nitrogen, twenty percent oxygen, point ninety-three percent argon, one percent water vapor and one point oh-seven percent of miscellaneous other trace gases. Current morning temperature is fifty-four degrees Fahrenheit. Humidity is seventy-two percent. South wind ten miles per hour. Barometric pressure is twenty-nine point eighty-eight inches and the dew point is forty-five percent. In other words, it's going to shape up to be a nice day!”

At a nod from Avon, Martin opened the bus doors. “The airlock is open and we are now all breathing alien air.”

Avon stood up, adjusted the green vest and black shorts he wore, and then took two of the steps down toward the outside.  He peered out of the door as if examining the terrain for the first time, and then took the final step out onto the ground.  He took in a full breath of air and then let it out slowly.  Without looking back, the grizzly took ten steps out into the clearing, pulled something out of his pocket, and then knelt down in the damp grass with his back to the transport.

“What's he doing?” Wendy asked. “I can't see.”

“It looks like he's praying,” Manny replied.

“He is native American,” Sissy reminded them. “Perhaps he's performing a ritual.”

Avon stood up again, brushed off his knees, and then turned back toward the bus. He returned to the door and stepped up inside. “My friends,” he said in a practiced speech that told everyone he was playing out his part, “We have traveled far. It is my hope that others will travel here from Earth some day to help ease the overcrowding burden of our planet. Today begins the mission we've been training for, so let's get started.”  

*** 

Kristen looked across the new colony and marveled at all the activity. They had all started out the day setting up the livestock pens and had begun construction of the living shelters. They would not have time to get them all put together for the entire population by the day’s end, so the largest dome had gone up first. By itself, the geodesic building could sleep all thirty of the Furs on its floors at once, although its primary purpose would be a common gathering place when the weather wouldn't permit outdoor congregation. Smaller domes would serve as individual living quarters for everyone, though each of them was only little larger than a conventional pop-up camping trailer. Out of necessity, however, all of the ursine Furs would get bigger domes than the others due to their larger natural size.

Other domes would serve as kitchen, food lockers for the furmen and their livestock, communication hut, medical office, biological research, armory, supply storage and others. For a colony of thirty Furs, they were equipped with the frames, panels, flooring and other materials for up to fifty domes of varying sizes. It was unlikely they would ever need to build them all, but for a colony scheduled to exist with the materials they arrived with, replacements may be necessary for a stay of five years or more.

On a real colony of this type, they would be provided enough non-perishable food and medical supplies to last for a local year. By that time, they would need to have planted gardens either of Terran food plants or to have discovered which of the local fruit and vegetables was edible in order to survive. Typically, the launch window of a colony ship was to coincide with the duration of the voyage in order to drop the settlers on a new world in the equivalent of early spring in order to give them maximum time to establish themselves before the next winter arrived. There were sometimes deviations from this schedule, usually dependent upon the conditions upon the destination world, and then it would be up to the colonists to make preparations for whatever season they might have to face.

Despite a few minor personality clashes that didn’t amount to much, everyone seemed able to work together building their camp. Although this was only an exercise, it would give them all valuable experience in the endeavor and most of them saw this as a good thing.

There were always exceptions to this, of course. Travis worked by himself putting together one of the smaller individual domes. He neither offered to help anyone else, nor did anybody volunteer to give him a hand. Like them all, he’d already had practice assembling the structures in recent months, but even he had to admit that the job really required no less than two people to do.  He struggled with it as best as he could, and although the geodesic framework went up well enough, he was having some difficulty holding up the insulated triangular panels at the same time as affixing the seals and installing the fasteners. Mud and grass from the recent rains were smeared onto each of the panels he had managed to cobble together.

Kristen watched him for a moment, but she felt no pity for the canine’s troubles.  She thought that she should probably be delighted with his struggles, but instead she felt nothing more than detached indifference. As long as he kept his distance, she would devote no more than a few random thoughts concerning his very existence.

Returning to her work, she slipped slotted rubber seals along all three edges of a dome panel and then handed it up to Jasmine, who was perched up near the apex of the building they constructed together. The naked framework swayed beneath the vixen’s slight weight, but thankfully the day was still without a wind to complicate her balance.

Jasmine reached into the pocket of the cloth tool apron she had tied around her waist and pulled out several fasteners to affix the panel to the frame. Automatically, Kristen picked up another panel and three more seals to get them ready for her partner to put in place. Although the job was time-consuming, it didn’t require a whole lot of thought, so the mountain lioness found her focus wandering again.

Her eyes roved over the activities until she saw Jon emerging from one of the semi-tractor trailers with an armload of more triangular panels. The large cougar was hard to miss, as he was the only Fur wearing jeans with a tee shirt displaying the logo of an NBA team. Jenni and Sissy stepped out with him, the leopard carrying a cardboard box of fasteners and the orange cat clutching an armload of the rubber seal strips.  All three were laughing at some joke that Kristen wished she’d been a part of hearing.

She locked her eyes upon the broad-shouldered male and wished things had worked out better between them. When she had first decided to take on the same form as him, it had been out of gratitude to the compassion he had shown her, but it had never occurred to her at the time that this had been the worst possible slap in the face she could have done to him. Although she had turned a cold shoulder once he had confronted her with the truth, she knew in her heart that they were both victims of circumstance.  Although she now tried to ignore him whenever he was around, she couldn’t keep herself from stealing glances his way when she thought he wasn’t looking.

The damage was done, however, and she doubted he would ever see her as anything more than just another member of the colony, even though he now seemed to be more at ease with his lot in life than he had ever been since his arrival.  Although he showed no romantic interest in any other female on the grounds, it still pained her to see him smiling or laughing whenever one was in his presence.

Jasmine let out a sudden cry of pain and she lost her balance atop the geodesic frame, clutching her middle from an intense transformational twinge. One leg dropped through one of the panels she had already installed and she almost tumbled out onto the ground, but her ankle caught on the frame and stopped her abruptly. Kristen rushed to help her, momentarily forgetting her own troubles.  

*** 

“What was that commotion earlier out by the lake?”

“Aaron and Gerard were arguing again.”

“What were the cousins going on about this time?”

“Same as always. Every time one of them gets chummy with one of the girls, the other suddenly decides he wants the same girl's attention. They're always competing with one another, and it's all a bother if you ask me.”

“Hey Kevin, what's in this case with your name on it?”

The short fennec fox looked up from a wooden crate he was going through and walked over to the semi-tractor trailer, peering up the ramp at Michael. The swift fox held up a large metal suitcase by its handle, pointing with a stubby finger at a plastic label stuck to its side.

“I dunno,” Kevin replied. “I don’t think I ordered anything.”

Michael handed the suitcase down to him. “Maybe you’ve won a free vacation.”

“Yeah, straight off the Earth to another planet.”  He set the case down on the ramp and then opened the latches. When he lifted the lid, his eyes lit up. “Wow!”

“What is it?”

Kevin turned the large case around so his friend could see the contents. There were several weather-related sensing devices carefully packed in molded foam. Lying on top was a folded sheet of paper.  He opened and read it aloud.

“Kevin, my request that the AHCP requisition a weather kit for you has been approved. It had been my intention to hold onto it and then give it to you when you finally received your assignment, but with your real-time simulation, I felt it could serve you better now. I don’t know if you know how to use this equipment, but I’m sure you will enjoy figuring it out.  Sincerely, Marcelo Delgado.”

“Nice!” Michael said. “Maybe you can predict when it's going to rain again.”

“That's what I'm hoping for,” Kevin replied, looking over each item with pride. Inside the large case were all the items needed for a home station, an anemometer, a hygrometer, a barometer, a wind vane, a rain gauge, a dry bulb thermometer, a wet-bulb thermometer, and a small set of data notebooks with several mechanical pencils.

“Excellent!” he said with a grin.  “C'mon, help me get this stuff set up somewhere.”

“What about the stockroom?” Michael asked, gesturing toward the crate the smaller fox had been sorting through earlier. “Avon's expecting us to get the dome stocked so someone can start preparing something for us to eat.”

Kevin merely shook his head, his eyes riveted to the wind vane he carefully pulled up out of its slotted place in the suitcase. “Later,” he murmured.

Michael frowned. “Fine. Go ahead and play with your new toys. I'll have to find someone else to help me.” He went back up into the trailer to get his bottle of water, but just as he grabbed it, his eyes fell upon another box simply labeled “BIB”.  He turned to call to the small fox to see if he knew what the acronym might stand for, but he stopped himself. If Kevin wanted to ignore him, fine.

The swift fox pulled the thick cardboard box out into the sunlight and used a claw tip to score the tape holding it closed.  He pulled the flaps open and peered inside.  Inside were bundles of cotton fabric in various colors and sizes. Curiosity getting the best of him, he picked up one and unfolded it carefully. When he held up the blue cloth item in the sun, he snickered.  It was a garment that was a cross between a sleeveless shirt and a pair of pants, although the shirt section was really just a cloth panel in front and back with straps holding them together over the shoulder. The pant legs were much larger than usual and ended only a few inches just below the knees.

He checked the inside tag and was surprised to see the bib overalls he held was just his size.  He took a look around and didn't see anyone looking his way. Most of the activity of the colony was focused upon the construction of the domes.  Confident that no one would likely notice him, Michael quickly pulled off his furman vest and stepped out of his shorts. He sat on the edge of another box and slid his foot down into the new garment. He understood immediately why the legs were wider than usual, to allow his digitigrade foot room to go into the pant legs without binding. 

He pulled the pants up, tucking his tail plume through a wide opening in the back, and then slipped the straps over his shoulders. He had to adjust the clasps a little, but otherwise the overalls fit him well enough.  He squatted down and discovered plenty of room in the knees to kneel comfortably.  Even down on all fours, the garment fit him well enough to be practical.

There were several pockets across the front panel in addition to the typical pants pockets.  If he wanted, he could wear a loose tee shirt like Jon's beneath the shoulder straps, but on a warm summer day like this, Michael was content to wear only the overalls.

Grinning widely at his find, he looked back into the trailer and spied several more boxes that were labeled the same.  He knew his popularity was likely to rise when he announced his discovery to the rest of the Furs.  Jon's tailored jeans had been a hit among the others, but due to their special construction, it would be a while yet before there would be more available to those who wanted them.  Apparently someone else had thought among similar lines and had ordered the overalls in advance.

The furman robes they'd all worn for the past nine months were comfortable, but Michael was more than ready for a change.  

*** 

“Do you remember the first time we met?”

Jenni looked over at the red wolf and shook her head. They were stocking the dome that had been established as the colony medical hut. “No, I'm afraid I don't,” she admitted. “All the Furs looked the same to me when I first got here and I think it was months before I actually got to meet with most of your Class.”

“You and your housemates had just arrived and were headed to the cafeteria for something to eat,” Ken told her with a smile. “I held the door open for you, and as you passed me, you asked if you could pet the fur on my arm.”

Jenni chuckled. “Do you remember what I looked like then?” she asked cryptically.

The lupine doctor flicked an ear as he examined her face, searching his memories. “I think you had long dark hair, and I believe you were a little heavier than you are now.”

“That was Kristen,” she corrected, putting a finger up to her scalp-hair and holding up light colored bangs. “I'm a natural blonde and it was Kristen who petted your fur.”  She gave his look of embarrassment a wide grin.

“Uh, uhm… sorry,” the furman physician apologized. “I guess my memory of you at that meeting is faulty too.”

The leopard female laughed aloud and handed him the leather case of a medical kit. Like her own house physician, Ken could be a little too serious at times and she decided right then that she would make it her mission to loosen up his lighter side whenever she could.  Since they were Felis and Canis, they would have no future together at a real colony, but that didn't mean they couldn't be associates. So soon after losing Dante, she wasn't looking for a relationship, but she could always use another good friend.  

*** 

Kristen sat on a rock beside the lake under the morning summer sun, tears rimming her eyes as another wave of pain pulsated through her chest. She held one hand up to her sternum and panted for breath until the agony passed, sincerely hoping the pain was a result of her final transformation effects rather than an actual heart attack. 

Just as Cheryl had been placed in charge of setting up the livestock pens due to her experience growing up on a farm, Kristen had been set over the gardens they would plant for food. She had just staked out an area for a garden near the tall barrier separating them from the rest of the Institute, so that when the exercise was over she might continue to tend what had grown. With all the activity necessary to get the colony established, it might be several days before she actually began preparing the grounds, so she hadn't yet asked for assistance.

She had been thankful of the task to distract her from troublesome inner thoughts, but even that diversion had been unable to clear her mind completely. Just as she would in a real life situation on another world, the botanist had already planned to start with a garden of food plants for the colony, though due to its one-month limitation, she did not want to set out seeds for everything. For now, her plans were to include those that would mature the quickest to add to their meals. Anything more would have to wait until such time as when they might land upon a distant planet, although they had no assurances that seeds from Earth would find enough compatible nutrients in alien soil. Colonies that preceded them had reported only a thirty percent success rate establishing gardens of Terran food plants, so they would need to discover which native fruit and vegetables might sustain the settlers as soon as possible.

Kristen didn't have time to reflect upon any of this, her mind focused only on the chest pains she was experiencing. She looked out over the activity surrounding the colony setup, trying to spot one of their physicians. With so much movement in the camp, she wasn't sure if either of them might even see her waving to get their attention anyway, but she didn't want to give up until she had tried.

She didn't know which of the domes had been designated as the Infirmary, but she was sure they would both be there, likely inside unpacking medical supplies.  The pain increased and a small cry escaped her lips as she felt the fingers in her left hand paw contract tightly.  She gasped, forcing herself to breathe when she saw small sparks in front of her eyes, and then she lost her vision altogether.

When the mountain lioness' vision cleared again, she was lying on her face in the wet grass.  She didn't remember falling, but her chest no longer hurt and her breathing wasn't labored. She must have passed out completely. She swallowed and rolled over onto her side, staring idly up at the tree branches over the edge of the clearing. She lay there for several more moments to make sure she was indeed still alive, but then she could feel the dampness of the rain-soaked ground seeping into her furman garments.

Clearing her throat, Kristen got up on all fours and looked around. Apparently no one had noticed her collapse amidst the continual activity, but when she gazed across the grounds, she suddenly saw Jenni emerge from a dome with a plastic crate decorated with a large red cross that she had apparently just emptied. 

Kristen took a step to go talk to her housemate, but stopped before she could take another. Jon approached Jenni with another crate designated with the cross label and said something that made the leopard female laugh aloud.

The lioness could feel her hackles rise along her back and she snorted in annoyance. As she turned away, however, she could feel moisture rimming her eyes and her throat tightened in jealousy.

“What's the use?” Kristen whispered to herself, turning to face the stakes and bright pink streamers she had placed to mark her garden area. The enthusiasm she'd had for her task had completely evaporated, and so had her interest in the colony itself.

She wiped away the tears and looked over her shoulder at the sound of someone banging on the bottom of a metal pot with a spoon. Now that they were no longer afraid of being abandoned in the woods, Kim and Yuki had taken it upon themselves to put together a meal for the entire group and were calling in the Furs with smiles and gusto.

Both had learned the joys of cooking at a young age and had approached Avon at the first opportunity to take on the role of food preparation. Although they had made few friends with their rants on the survival trek, they were determined to earn their place in the colony by appealing to the various tastes of the settlers.  Once upon a time, Dante had claimed that job for himself, but with his absence, the Tanaka sisters had stepped up to take on the daunting occupation.

Heaving a sigh, Kristen remained on all fours and made her way across the compound toward the largest dome. Folding tables and chairs had been set up inside; another smaller dome was equipped with simple kitchen appliances that could be operated with either minimal power or by burning local wood.

As she approached the assembling crowd, Kristen saw Jon and Jenni together once again. The larger mountain lion was relating some tale to her and Ken that had them both watching with rapt attention. Others looked on with interest when they gathered near them and Kristen let out another hard snort at seeing her two housemates together. Were they spending all their time together? She had seen nothing to indicate anything more than friendship existed between them, but it still irked her.

The botanist looked away and glanced toward the woods that occupied the backside of the Institute grounds beyond the clearing. Under the late afternoon sun, the shadows within the forest were dark and near impenetrable, so she let her eyes rove upward to the high tops of the eastern white pines she could see towering above.

Ignoring the call to eat and acting upon a sudden impulse, Kristen slipped away from the crowd and made her way across the clearing toward the trees. She didn't bother to check to see if anyone had seen her go and she didn't look back when she left the sunshine behind.

The scents of the forest still damp from days of rain were enticing, but they had nothing to do with the thoughts running through her mind. She moved around the underbrush, instinctively following animal trails. The Institute grounds covered several hundred acres, but she didn't have to travel far to find what she wanted.

She stepped out into a moderate clearing surrounded by the tall pines, and after surveying the trunks for only a moment, she chose a thick tree and leapt up onto it. She dug in her claws and quickly scaled the pine. She didn't look down until she knew she was a good distance above the ground, and then she stopped to rest upon a thick limb that stuck out over the clearing.

Disgusted with the way her life had turned out, Kristen peered down and wondered if breaking her neck from the fall would hurt for long. She envisioned hurtling herself toward the forest floor with her arms and legs tucked in close so she would land headfirst. She was afraid she might linger and suffer, so she wanted to make her suicide as quick and painless as she could.

She stepped farther out onto the limb, but then hesitated. What was she doing?  Did she really intend to jump to her death … because of Jon?  Was he really worth that? 

Kristen's eyes filled up with tears again as she thought of her life before furmankind.  Even without her contract and transformation, she could never have returned to those days.  Jon had treated her with kindness and compassion, and his negative reaction to her choosing the form of a mountain lion had been her own fault. He had even tried being nice again to her lately, but she had lashed out at him every chance she got in retaliation for his rejection of what she had thought at the time was a generous reward.  Becoming a cougar for him had caused her nothing but trouble, and it was a form she would be forced to live in for the rest of her life.

Not for long, he thought to herself. She wiped away the tears again and then closed her eyes. Without giving herself a chance to back out, she leapt off into open space and plummeted head-first toward the forest floor. She tried to pull her arms and legs in close to her body as she'd planned, but instead she felt herself writhe and turn in the air. Fearful of what she might hit on the way down, causing more painful harm than she wanted, she opened her eyes just as the ground came up to meet her. 

Instead of breaking her neck, however, feline instincts took over and twisted her body around just in time so that the coiled muscles of her arms and legs absorbed the shock of landing. She landed hard enough that she exhaled strongly, but otherwise she was unharmed.

She crouched down upon the ground for a moment, taking in what had just happened, and panted with the rush of adrenaline coursing through her body. Slowly, she turned her gaze upward to where she had leaped from the tree. The fall should have killed her, but the instinct of self preservation had taken control. She'd landed cat-like on all fours and her enhanced body had saved her – against her will.

Kristen snorted in frustration and gathered her strength for another climb up into the tree. She went up higher than she had before, but this time she chose to face away from the clearing.  If the fall in open air had given her inner cougar time to twist and turn enough to land safely, she would foil it by jumping out into the rugged tree limbs instead. It was likely to hurt more on the fall, but she was certain enough cross branches would keep her instincts from letting her land on her feet, and there was also the possibility a random fork in the limbs could break her neck before she reached the ground anyway.

For a moment, she let a wry smile cross her face. She must be awfully disturbed if she could think of morbid plans in such a nonchalant manner.  The seriousness of what she was trying to do, however, pulled her back down into melancholy. If she thought about it too much, she would probably talk herself out of it, and right now, that's not what she wanted.

Kristen took a deep breath, closed her eyes and then launched herself out into a thicket of tree branches, intent on letting gravity do its work.  Pine needles and thin limbs smacked her in the face, stinging her ears, nose and lips, but before she fell more than a dozen feet, her hands and feet clawed at the branches seemingly of their own will. Her heart racing and her breath quickened, she grabbed frantically at the boughs until she had slowed her descent enough that she could drop down to the forest floor again with only a bare thump.

The lioness rolled over onto her side, her lungs heaving from exertion and stress, and when she'd finally calmed down enough, she burst into tears and cried hard into the dirt, grass and leaves beneath her.  Months of despair and frustration poured out of her in heart wracking sobs and she didn't hold anything back, even letting feline shrieks rend the air.  She didn't care if anyone heard her heart breaking into pieces. She was such a loser that she couldn't even commit suicide without botching the job!

After a long while, the tears ran out and exhaustion set in. She cried herself to sleep, but when she finally awoke, she discovered that only a short time had passed.  It was doubtful she had been gone long enough even to be missed by the others.

Kristen wiped her face with the back of her furry arm and winced at the small cuts and scrapes across her muzzle from the small whip-like needles and twigs of the trees she had thrown herself through.  She didn't know what she would say to Ken about them when she went to him later for a salve for the cuts; she supposed she would think of something by the time she found him.

Disgusted with herself, Kristen didn't feel like making a third attempt at suicide, so she left the small clearing behind to see what the Tanaka sisters had concocted to eat. She felt foolish and sickened by what she had tried to do, and it was unlikely she would do it again.  

*** 

Nighttime had graciously fallen by the time Kristen had finished eating and she had visited Ken to treat her wounds. When the red wolf had inquired, she played embarrassment and merely told him that she had fallen out of a tree trying to reach a few choice seeds for her garden. It never occurred to the doctor that it was unlikely she would find anything in a tree for her garden, and had gently treated her cuts and scrapes regardless.

Outdoor torches had been placed between a few of the domes to illuminate the area, and there were several lanterns lit inside some of the smaller structures. The lioness wasn't sure where she was supposed to be sleeping for the night, as none of the domes had been assigned to specific individuals. She assumed they were first come, first serve and she had likely missed out on grabbing one for herself that first night.

In all likelihood, she would probably wind up on a cot or pallet inside the Great Dome, as the largest had been dubbed. She didn't really care, as she was awfully tired and lonely. Perhaps sleeping among others would be a good thing for her injured sense of self.

She was about to head toward the large structure to claim a spot on the floor when she saw Jon and Jenni in the shadows behind one of the smaller domes. They were talking quietly and then they embraced for just a moment. Kristen watched them impassively, not even having the energy to feel jealous anymore, but then her housemates stepped away from one another and went in opposite directions.

They had done nothing more than give each other a hug and bid one another good night. It was innocent, right? Despite that Kristen had seen Jon in the company of other females throughout the day, he was alone when he crawled into a nearby dome and turned out the lantern within.

Kristen was about to turn away when a thought occurred to her. She looked around to make sure no one nearby might be watching, and then she padded quietly to the entrance of his quarters.  She dropped to all fours, but then settled down on the grass, listening to him moving around in the darkness. It only took moments before she knew he had undressed, settling down for the night, so she steeled her nerve and put her impromptu plan into motion.

The structure had not been built with a door that could be closed, although the hinged framing materials for them were available. The summer air was warm and Jon had likely felt an open door would be more comfortable for now.

On all fours, Kristen boldly walked right into the dome and stopped at the edge of the pallet Jon had set on the floor. There was enough light from a lamp across the camp that she could see his eyes peering up at her curiously. He was stretched out, half on his side and half on his stomach, one pillow beneath his head and his arms wrapped around another.   He wore only a pair of furman shorts.

Before he could speak, the lioness moved forward and then stretched out beside him, not bothering to remove her furman clothes. She buried her face into the pillow in his arms and waited for his reaction. She half expected him to blow up at her, but instead he reached out a hand and lightly brushed her coal black scalp hair away from her forehead.

Encouraged, Kristen took another bold step and quietly moved the pillow out from between them. Jon allowed her to take it, but instead of putting it beneath her head as he'd expected, she set it aside and then scooted in closer to take its place next to him.

Cuddled up beside him as she used to do, it was only a moment before she felt him shift his weight onto his side so he could wrap his arms around her. It was the first close contact they'd shared in weeks and she could almost feel herself melting into his embrace.  Perhaps it was because they were becoming more feline with each passing day, but after her depression and failed suicide attempts, lying together like this was a blessed relief.

For fear of ruining the moment, Kristen dared not speak a word. She didn't want to say the wrong thing, to frighten him away with assumptions that she was trying to seduce him, so she did nothing more than relax into his arms.

They lay like that for several long moments, but then Jon placed his lips near one of her ears.

“I'm sorry, Kris,” he whispered in hesitation.  “I'm sorry for the way I've treated you, and I apologize for getting upset when you were only trying to show me gratitude.”  He paused a moment, but she didn't respond. Her eyes were open, though staring unfocused into his bare chest fur.

Jon swallowed. “I want to accept my new life,” he continued in a soft whisper. “I failed on my end of our promise. I wasn't there to help you throughout the transformation when I should have been. All I could think about was my own pitiful excuse for existence, and I took it out on you because you and I both resemble the guy whose life I took. You didn't know the full extent of my emotional baggage, but I never should have treated you the way I did.”

Kristen still didn't reply, but Jon could see moisture in her eyes.

“Can you ever forgive me?” he asked quietly.

The anthro woman in his arms responded in a way that surprised him. Although she still didn't speak a word, she began to purr, and he throaty vibration was infinitely comforting to both cougars. Kristen had found acceptance and Jon had found forgiveness. Neither thought beyond the moment at hand; there had been neither commitment nor promise made, but the tension between them melted away into the night.

Despite that they slept on a pallet on the floor of what amounted to no more than a geodesic igloo, that night provided the first truly peaceful sleep that either of them had had in a long while.

NEXT CHAPTER

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