LOST IN THE WILDERNESS
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Jenni looked up wearily at the overcast, late night sky as she walked between the small sleeping domes of the simulated colony. In addition to caring for the medical well-being of the colonists, she and Ken had doubled up their duties as veterinarians to look after the health of their livestock too. Considering that the settlers were also part animal, it made sense that the medical staff be able care for them as well.
A majority of the Class Sixteen population had experienced the final reboot of their physiologies during the second week of the assignment, but by the following week there were hardly any minor twinges felt by the personnel. Now in the fourth week of the colony, most of the medical staff's time was focused primarily with the livestock.
This night had been no exception. One of Cheryl's Arabian horses had inadvertently stepped on one of the chickens that freely roamed the grounds. The bird did not survive the encounter, but when the horse jumped back startled following the hen's dying squawks, it backed into the wooden corral fence where a large splinter jutted out and stabbed the animal in its flank. It had taken most of the evening to quiet and treat the hurting horse and now Jenni was more than ready to rest.
When she approached the camping-trailer size dome that she had been sharing with Jon and Kristen, she pulled off the straps of her bib overalls and then slid out of the garment before entering through the open doorway. Although there were plenty of the green fiberluminum domes for each Fur to have one of his or her own, the felines of Class Sixteen had been sleeping curled up together in the same one.
The leopard dropped her overalls on the floor just inside the door and then stepped over to the sleeping bodies. She was about to add herself to the pile when she noted an extra body. Kristen slept beside Jon, who had an arm around her protectively, and Sissy was spooned up behind him. All three were breathing quietly and Jenni smiled at them all.
The nurse knelt down beside Sissy to stretch out beside her, but then the smaller orange cat turned over onto her other side, leaving a small gap between her and Jon. Jenni smirked tiredly and slipped in between them to spoon up to Jon as Sissy had been a moment earlier. She slipped an arm over his middle and then closed her eyes. It took only a moment or two before her breathing deepened into restful slumber.
Twenty-nine Furs were gathered just outside the Great Dome. Hiamovi Avonaco stood before them all and looked back over his colony with a smile.
“The reason I have called this meeting is to inform you that I've just received word over the com set that our daily reports to Stockholm have been exemplary. Although we've had a few bumps and hiccups along the way, the committee has counted our simulation with a mixed-Fur population over the past thirty-five days to be a success and we have been ordered to break camp, effective tomorrow.”
The group broke out into applause and Cheryl let out an exuberant whoop. Avon held up his hands with a grin. “I think we've all learned a lot over the past month,” he said. “I know I have. We've had to do without some things we've taken for granted all our lives and do other things a little differently to compensate, but at least we all now have invaluable experience on what it may be like when we finally get our assignments to go. Some of you have also made some very good recommendations and suggestions for changes that I've forwarded to headquarters. Of course, I'm sure you all realize that this has only simulated colony life in itself. Out there on a real world, we'll also have to be cautious and on the lookout for potential dangers from the alien flora and fauna we find.”
“We won't find any alien life,” Arne called out. “We will be the aliens there!”
“This is absolutely true, but a whole new world will be alien to us. Trees, rocks, birds and other creatures may appear similar, but they'll all have formed from a separate environment than what we're used to, so what may be harmless to the indigenous life there may be deadly to us. Likewise, something dangerous there may not be to us. We can never know until we get there, so don't let our successful few weeks here delude you into thinking it won't be any different on another world. We've done well, but this was only a practice session.”
“What happens now?” Raine wanted to know.
Avon nodded toward the cheetah and then spread his arms out wide. “First thing in the morning after breakfast, we will start dismantling our colony. The semi tractor trailers will be moved back in and we will need to systematically pack up everything we took out of them at the beginning. It took us three days to build all the domes and fill them, and it's likely to take almost as long to take everything down again. We want this area returned to its former state. Then – and only then – will we be allowed access to the rest of the Institute grounds again.”
There were murmurs throughout the group, their enthusiasm dampened by the promise of more hard work, so Avon waved his hands to quiet the crowd once more.
“For those of Class Sixteen,” he said, “you will need to report back to your Wing physicians for a final examination when we've finished here. Your transformations should be near to completion and your medical staffs will be preparing for your checkups. Congratulations, Class Sixteen. Once you've been given a clean bill of health, you will be certified as fully developed furmen.”
“Yay!” Kevin shouted on impulse, garnering chuckles from others around him.
“There are some of us who still have duties tonight, but for those who don't, I encourage each of you to help them. If you so wish, you're welcome to start taking things down tonight, but you won't be obligated to do so until tomorrow morning. Any questions?”
“What about the garden?” Kristen asked with a raised hand. “Some of the vegetables my helpers and I have planted are only now becoming ripe enough to eat. Do we have to dig them all up in order to return the area to its original state? I had originally placed the gardens where they are so I could continue to tend to them after we'd finished here.”
The grizzly thought about it for a moment. “I don't think the director would be against leaving it in place just as long as someone continues to maintain it, but I'll ask him the next time I talk to him.”
“Thanks, I would appreciate it.”
Any further questions?” There were a few murmurs, but no one else spoke up. “Okay, that's all I have.”
It took three days to set up the colony, but it only took two to break it down again. Although everyone knew that once they were on another world they wouldn't be able to simply go back to their comfy beds provided by the Institute, but for now they could and they were all anxious to get back to their rooms.
Most of the consumable goods that had been provided to them for the exercise had been used up, which presented extra space in the storage trailers for items that just didn't seem to go in as neatly as they'd come out.
The livestock they had cared for had been transferred back to their original paddocks on the grounds by Institute personnel, with the pens and corrals disassembled by the Furs; when the last storage trailer door was closed, there was nothing more to do but have everyone pick up the trash and debris left scattered on the grounds. It was an odd sight to see well-worn trails in the grass that now only seemed to meander around haphazardly without obstacles to traverse.
Late into the second night, the Furs all gathered at the locked gate to be let out. Grinning like a court jester, Marcelo took his time walking to the gate from his office to unlock it for them. He could have easily taken his cart, but the exercise had been such a success that he was feeling mischievous. Even when he finally got to the padlock, he acted as if its key was lost among all those on his key ring. The Furs jeered at his time-taking and some even playfully called him names through the fence, but there were smiles throughout.
After several agonizing minutes for the Furs, the director found the right key and tripped the tumblers in the padlock. He pulled it from the gate and then swung it open to let the exuberant crowd through.
“Welcome home!” Marcelo called aloud over the animated voices.
Jon was just as anxious as the others to get out of the enclosure, but he hung toward the back of the group. When it was his turn to pass through the gate, he lightly patted Marcelo on the shoulder with a wide smile.
“Well,” he said as the director hung the padlock back on the fence, leaving the gate standing open, “do you think it all went well?”
“I do, and although Avon made his daily reports directly to the Stockholm dispatcher instead of to me, I've received a full report from headquarters. They're all pleased with the results of a mixed-species colony and that information could be useful.”
“Oh? How so?”
Marcelo shrugged. “I think the disaster on Bastien really opened everyone's eyes to what could happen to a single-species colony. They could be revising future plans based upon what we've all learned from this exercise, but we'll have to wait and see. It could still be years yet.” He looked over at the taller male and smiled. “At any rate, this shines a good light on our branch of the Furmankind Institute. Before this, the Toyohashi branch in Japan always took top honors, but their downtime to rebuild and the recent incident with their director has thrown them off track.”
“Incident? Did something else happen to Dr. Mochizuki'?”
Marcelo frowned. “Ah, I forgot you met him up on the space station. Forget I mentioned it,” he muttered. He looked up ahead at the furry backsides of the former colonists, which were all quickly leaving them behind. “What do you plan to do now?” he asked.
“I'm going to meet Kris and Jenni at the cafeteria and we each plan to order a nice, juicy steak!” Jon replied with a feral grin. “After that, I suppose Marcy and Dr. Renwick will drag us all up to the black wall for our final examinations.”
The director gestured forward with a hand with a smile. “You may have to wait for that steak,” he said. “Most of the crowd seems to be heading toward the cafeteria. For your sake, I hope the kitchen is well stocked with beef.”
“Ack!” Jon dropped to all fours and started running. “See ya!” he called back.
The black wall. Once upon a time, those words struck terror into the heart of one mountain lioness, but no more. Volunteering to be the first in front of the measuring lasers, Kristen dropped her bib overalls on the floor at the feet of both her housemates and boldly stepped up to the dark wall. Without argument or squabble, she spread out her arms and legs with a grin.
Marcy chuckled and her housemates looked on in wonder. The slender cougar had changed over the months since they had begun their lifelong journey together, and not just in the physical sense. Kristen's sense of self-worth had improved greatly, and although she still had her introspective and shy moments, she had determined that she had shed enough weight and her private bits were now comfortably covered with a luxurious fur coat that the wall was no longer something to be feared.
“Kristen,” Doctor Renwick said with only a mildly scolding tone, “face the wall. You know the drill – backside first.”
“Oh, sorry,” the feline botanist replied with a giggle. She turned around as directed and widely spread out her limbs and digits. She closed her eyes and waited for the laser to begin its clinical measurements of her body.
“Kristen,” Renwick said again, his easy irritation evident. “Stop wagging your tail. Let it drop straight to the floor.”
“Okay, that's perfect. Close your eyes and hold that pose until I say you can move.”
The bright blue, pencil-thin floor-to-ceiling laser issued out of the scanner just to the left of Kristen's shortened fingers and then the beam began tracking right while the equipment hummed in deep resonance.
“The tip of your tail is twitching. Be still!”
Kristen snorted into the wall, but willed her tail to remain still. There were times when the appendage responded to her thoughts or emotions without her consciously thinking about the movement, but to make it stop took extra effort.
While the blue light tracked from one side to the other, Jenni watched only in a detached manner, remembering how much Dante had actually enjoyed being up on display. He had not grown up in an open-minded family as she had, but he had seemed to have no hang-ups being on exhibition.
Jon, however, watched in fascination as the laser tracked over Kristen's soft curves, through her fur and over her limbs. It had been a while since he had really looked at her, having had his anthro prejudices blinding him until recently, but now he liked what he saw. Although she was considerably more slender than she had been in the beginning, she still possessed a little padding to her curves that he found pleasing; he'd never really cared for the look of stick-figure super models that were in vogue again.
The blue light disappeared just past Kristen's right fingertips. “Okay, you can drop your arms and relax for a moment,” Renwick told her. “Let me reset the scanner and then we will measure the side that you were so eager to show us.”
Kristen turned and looked at the physician over her shoulder, amused at the smile that was on his face as he went to work with his equipment. She rubbed her arms to let the blood flow back into them, and then she glanced back at her housemates. Jenni appeared lost in thought, but Jon gave her a big smile. She grinned in response, pleased to have him as a friend again.
“Okay, Kristen, back up against the wall, hands and legs spread out wide with you tail down and unmoving.”
The mountain lioness did as directed and soon the laser began to track once again. This time, she was successful in keeping every part of her still so that the doctor didn't have to scold her again. It took a tremendous effort, especially knowing that Jon would be openly watching her, but she intended to do the same when it was his turn up against the wall. It took fully five minutes, but finally she was able to relax again.
Having done this a couple times already, she didn't wait for the doctor's instructions. She dropped her arms straight against her side and turned so that her left shoulder was against the wall. She looked directly ahead, though from the corner of her eye, she could see Marcy looking up at her with a smile.
When she had been scanned from all sides, Kristen was allowed to step down. She walked over to the counter to pick up her short-legged bib overalls, but she didn't put them on right away, instead holding them draped over an arm as she approached her housemates.
“You're next, Jon,” Marcy announced.
Jon and Jenni had both already disrobed, having folded and stacked their clothing neatly on roller stools by the back wall. Unashamed of his furry physique in front of his companions, the male cougar stepped quietly up to the wall.
The feline nurse put a hand lightly on Kristen's arm with a smile as the doctor prepared to begin the next round of measurements. “Congratulations,” Jenni told the botanist. “You look so comfortable with yourself that you'd make a great nudist now.”
Kristen's eyes grew wide and she suddenly looked embarrassed. When she glanced across the room at Jon, he grinned and waggled his eyebrows at her comically before turning to face the wall. She laughed aloud and looked back at Jenni while suddenly stepping into her overalls.
“Thanks to everyone, I feel more comfortable with myself these days!”
Jenni leaned in close and whispered, “So, how are things between you and Jon?”
“Still just friends,” the lioness replied in a whisper of her own, “but I'm okay with that. Maybe someday it'll be more, but for now I'm happy just to be in his good graces again.”
Both of them turned and boldly looked up at the male cougar at the wall. The blue laser light had begun at his fingertips and the feline females took time to admire his backside. Partly due to his new genetic code and partly due to his daily morning and evening workout routines, the muscles in his neck, shoulders, arms, legs and abdomen were clearly defined. His tail was thick and long enough so that the tip just touched the floor at his feet. His uniform, sandy brown fur darkened toward the middle of his back and stretched from the back of his neck down to the base of his tail.
The long appendage itself was slightly lighter, matching the fur color of his sides, arms and legs, though the tip darkened to black for the final three inches. Beneath his tail, the fur lightened to beige, and although he currently faced away from them, they had already seen that the lighter color fur covered his chest, belly, around his crotch and on the underside of his arms. The backs of his small round ears were dark rimmed to be almost black, with a nebulous white area in the middle of each. The scalp of his head was covered in rusty red hair rather than fur, and although it grew just as long and quickly as it did when he had been fully human, he'd kept it trimmed short enough to be manageable, though he preferred to let his bangs grow longer so they covered his forehead.
They continued to watch him when it was time for him to face outward. He saw their eyes dart toward his crotch as soon as he'd turned around, but both forced their eyes upward with embarrassed smiles at having been caught looking. Just as Kristen had felt sufficiently covered by her fur, he felt the same with his genital sheath, though he'd never really had the same hang-ups that she'd had about his appearance. There was no hiding the rest of him, but he was calm and relaxed enough to know he wouldn’t have to be concerned with an unwanted reaction in front of them, so he settled into his place at the wall with his eyes closed and head back.
The tip of his nose was muted pink, but his upper and lower lips, jaws and neck were snowy white. Atop his nose, the fur was sandy brown, with darker browns coloring his cheeks and pale patches over his eyes. The fur over his brow and the sides of his head were in various shades of tan and brown. Above his nose ran a darker brown stripe straight up his forehead with two dark vertical strips an inch long right above the inside corner of each eye.
His nose and muzzle where broader and extended out in front of the rest of his face, something that had taken him some time to get used to seeing in his range of vision, and although the shape of his head and the coloring of his fur were evenly proportioned to the rest of his new anatomy, he could hardly be called handsome by human standards. Still, in this finished state of the transformation, neither of his female companions could find fault in his features. As with each of them, Jon had a beauty of his own that someone as familiar with Furs as his nurse found appealing.
Marcy had also paused in her own tasks to admire the furman in all his raw glory. Despite the numerous opportunities she'd had over the years, the woman had never allowed herself to dally with the men who had been transformed under her care, but that had never stopped her from admiring the product.
When Doctor Renwick informed Jon that he could move and get into position for a side view, the cougar opened his eyes and found three pair of female eyes staring back at him with smiles.
“Are you enjoying the show, ladies?” he quipped. Marcy suddenly averted her eyes, but Jenni and Kristen grinned back at him openly.
“Of course, we are!” the leopard replied. Kristen did nothing more than nod, but she wasn't even trying to look away.
“Let's begin again,” Renwick said in an annoyed tone. Jon closed his eyes and became still again.
“Poke me, I'm done!” Jenni said with pride.
After all three Furs of the Felis Wing had been precisely measured at the black wall, they were taken into the main lab for full invasive physicals just as they had undergone at the start of their journey into furmankind. Bodily fluids were drawn and examined, and an hour after the last of the examinations, Marcy had come out to them in the saloon to give them the news. The active goetazine in their systems that had prompted and controlled their genetic transformations was now inert. There would be no further alterations to their systems.
All three were in top physical condition, probably healthier than any of them had ever been in their lives, and they were all filled with a sense of wonder as they all looked at themselves in the restroom mirrors. Jenni posed and looked at herself from all angles, she was pleased with what she saw. Kristen had her back to the mirror, looking over her shoulder at her hips, lightly swishing her tail back and forth in satisfaction.
Jon stood in front of the sink mirrors clad only in a pair of furman shorts, his hands on his hips as he gave his reflection a detailed examination of his own. It was the first time since the beginning that he'd really looked at himself. Despite the anguish over the past nine months about how he'd expected to lose his humanity and his soul, Jon now considered his future with a brighter outlook. Although he looked like an anthropomorphized puma, he had retained all his memories, his mind, his will and his emotions. He hadn't lost himself to the animal, and although he had no way of knowing if his soul was intact, he suspected that he was still all there.
Brian Barrett was truly dead. He had become Jonathan Sunset.
When the feline housemates all emerged back into the saloon, freshly showered, dried and dressed, Marcy was waiting for them in one of the chairs parked in front of the large video screen.
“Here, I have something for all of you,” she said with a smile. She handed each of them a large manila envelope. Jon was the first to open his, pulling out a thick sheet of parchment. It was a certificate of authenticity, declaring him a fully transformed furman citizen, signed by Ásmundr Gustavsson, president of the Institution of furmankind and co-signed by Marcelo Delgado, director of the North American Division of the Furmankind Institute. Included in the envelope was a smaller sheet of plain white paper decorated with multicolored balloons, an invitation to what amounted to a graduation party for Class Sixteen later that evening.
“A party for us?” Kristen asked with a smile. “Nice!”
“Congratulations again,” the nurse said brightly.
“Hmm, what should I wear?” Jenni said in mock seriousness. “Should I go in standard furman shorts and robe, furman shorts and vest, furman bib overalls, or just my own luxurious fur coat?”
“At least wear shorts of some kind,” Marcy cautioned her as she headed back toward her quarters for a shower of her own. “It's more hygienic, and it's also the rule!”
Jenni laughed. “Yes, mother!” Marcy chuckled and waved, disappearing in through the lab doors a moment later.
“Jon, what's the matter?” Kristen asked. Jenni looked back and saw the male cougar staring down at the invitation as if he'd gotten some bad news.
“I really don't think I want to go to a party,” he said after a moment's hesitation.
“Why?” Jenni asked lightly.
Jon slid the certificate and invitation back into the envelope and looked at his housemates. “It was a party celebration where my troubles began,” he said. “Had I not gone out there that night, I might have moved on with my life. It might have taken me months to get over Rebecca, but instead I had to go to that blasted party. The price was a life sentence.”
Kristen took his free hand into her own. “You told us that your sentencing was to make you undergo the furmankind transformation.”
“Yes, that's right.”
“Did the sentence specify that you were to transform for the rest of your life?”
“No, but as a Fur, I am contracted to the AHCP for the rest of my life.”
“That's true,” Jenni contributed to the conversation, “but that's a condition for anyone who becomes a Fur. That has nothing to do with your sentence.”
“I don't understand what you're saying,” Jon replied, looking back and forth between both females.
“What we're saying is that with that official certificate in your hands, your sentence to become a Fur is now over,” Kristen answered with a friendly smile. “With the completion of the transformation, justice for your crime has legally been served!”
“You may be contracted to the AHCP for the rest of your life like the rest of us,” Jenni added, “but you can now consider yourself a free man!”
Jon raised his eyebrows. “I hadn't thought about it like that,” he admitted. Then, after another moment's thought, a smile spread across his feline features, realizing that he really did have something to celebrate.
It was a free man named Jonathan Sunset of Furmankind that would attend the party with his housemates.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.