LOST IN THE WILDERNESS
— by Ted R. Blasingame
“Playing sports as a Fur is a whole 'nuther ballgame!” Norman said with a wide grin. The ex-NFL linebacker gripped a child's foam football in his massive hand paws and peered across the others who were out on the open lawn between the buildings on a mild summer afternoon. This was a free day for them all; none of them had duties or classes to attend, so the friends were merely outside for some play time.
With Jon cleared of the crime he had been accused of for killing Travis several weeks earlier, the others were cordial around him again. There had been no further word on Jasmine's fate, despite that her sisters had inquired of the director every day. There had been anger when everyone believed it had been Jon guilty of murder, but most of the Furs didn't fault Jasmine for defending herself.
Travis may have only had one or two individuals at the Institute that could get along with him, but most felt he had brought about his own end. A memorial had not been held for the late German Shepherd, as there was no one willing to attend one, so his remains had been quietly cremated and the ashes shipped to Stockholm for storage. He would likely be forgotten in time, a sad end for someone whose transformed life had had the potential for greater things.
Weighing the strengths and weaknesses of those on his impromptu team, the brown bear made a signal to Jon and then hurled the light football over the heads in front of him. Raine Terrance weaved in and out of the small crowd on all fours and then leapt up to intercept the ball before it could get to the mountain lion.
Jon blinked in surprise at the spotted form but then gave chase to the cheetah already knowing that he'd probably never catch him. Running on all fours did present a problem, however; Raine had been forced to carry the ball in his mouth and Gerard took a swipe at it as he passed, nearly knocking it from the cat's teeth. He didn't lose it, but it did break his concentration and he plowed headlong into Kevin, the smallest one out on the field. The fennec fox rolled head over heels several times, coming to rest up against Alicia's feet. He opened his eyes and looked up at the black bear.
“Are you okay?” she asked in concern, reaching down to help him up. Surprising her, the young fox laughed and gifted her with a grin.
“A little dizzy, but yeah, I'm fine.” Despite his short stature, he had happily joined in the game and had even managed a few tricky maneuvers of his own.
Raine stopped to check on him, but had neglected to watch behind him. Still caught up in the chase, Jon launched himself at the cheetah and grabbed him around the middle, letting his weight and momentum assist in the tackle. Both cats tumbled away and so did the ball.
“Excuse me!” Alicia exclaimed with a laugh. She scooped up the fumbled football and ran for a white towel stretched out on the ground designating the other team's end zone. She crossed the line with Arne right behind her and spiked the foam ball in the grass for her triumphant touchdown.
“That's it!” she called out. “Final score – we win!”
Arne grabbed her by the shoulders with a smile. “Almost got ya,” he said cheerily. “For a big girl, you move awfully fast!”
“Aw, you say the sweetest things!” the bear replied with a smirk. She patted him on the cheek and added, “Better luck next time.”
Jon got to his feet and then gave Raine a hand up. “You okay?” he asked the cheetah.
The other feline gave him a wide grin in reply. “No problems, I'm a lot more flexible than I used to be.”
“Yes, and that's a good thing.” Jon patted him on the shoulder and then gave a casual wave to the rest of the group. “Good game, all – I'm heading for the showers!”
“Yeah, me too,” echoed Norman.
With the light game over, the group broke up into twos and threes while Jon turned toward the Felis Wing, brushing dirt and grass from his bare chest fur.
“Mind if I walk with you?”
He looked aside at the short fennec fox who was idly scratching at one of his oversized ears.
“Sure, Kev. What's on your mind?”
“I heard what you said to Raine about how being a Fur was a good thing.” Kevin looked up at him with a guarded expression; he looked as if he thought he might be treading on a touchy subject.
“I was referring to being so flexible,” the cougar corrected, “but yeah, being a Fur has its advantages.”
“Does that mean you're okay with it now?”
Jon raised an eyebrow and looked down at him as they walked. Kevin had no knowledge of his true background, but it was common knowledge that he'd had some tough mental moments dealing with the changes.
Jon gave him a friendly smile and tapped himself on the forehead with a claw tip. “It took a while for my human brain to come to grips with what I was becoming, but yeah, I'm okay now.”
Kevin looked relieved. “I'm glad. You seemed powerfully unhappy for a long while.”
“I was, but thanks to friends like you and Professor Flynn's voodoo head-shrinking methods, I made it through.”
“I'm glad you count me as a friend,” the young fox said. “I'm afraid I wasn't very friendly to you on our hike through the woods.”
Jon chuckled. “You had girl troubles and I inadvertently got into the mix. I wasn't trying to take your girl and she wasn't trying to get me.”
“Yeah, we both know that now.”
“You and Rose are friends again?”
Kevin nodded. “We aren't dating anymore, but yeah, we're friends. She's been really worried about Jasmine, especially since neither she nor Dahlia has heard anything since she was taken away.” He looked up at the mountain lion and looked slightly embarrassed. “Although we aren't a couple, she's needed a lot of hugs lately.”
“Someone once told me that hugs are important,” Jon told him. “I'm a firm believer in them myself.”
Kevin looked at him. “You don't seem like the hugging type.”
That made Jon laugh out loud and then he raised his arms to flex his biceps. “You think I'm too manly for hugs?” he asked, eliciting a grin from his companion. “Just because I keep myself fit doesn't mean I don't like having a woman close to me. Listen, Kev – anytime a woman needs hugs, don't be afraid to give them to her – whether she's a close friend or not. I even need them myself at times.”
“Me too,” the fox admitted.
They approached the awning-covered doors to the Felis Wing and Jon gestured with a hand. “You coming in?”
The large ears shook back and forth. “Thanks, but I'm heading back to my Wing for a shower of my own. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Jon patted him lightly on the shoulder. “Thanks for checking up on me. I think I'll be fine now.”
“Glad to hear it!” Kevin gave him a nod and then turned to go. “I'll see you later!”
Soft music was playing when Jon reached the saloon. Both of his housemates were parked in the chairs in front of the large entertainment screen, and from the images he could see, Jon saw they were watching a romance vid.
“You look absolutely stunning, milady” the handsome male lead said to the attractive young woman.
The beauty smiled warmly. “Why, thank you, milord,” she said. She spun around slowly so the man could see her from all sides, and then stopped to face him again. She lowered her chin, but looked up at him with half lidded eyes. The man caught his breath and moved closer to her. He put his arms around her and then she tilted her head up to him expectantly. They shared a long kiss and then held each other for a long moment as the music swelled in crescendo over the end credits.
“Aww,” Kristen cooed over the pillow she had her arms wrapped around. “I knew they'd get together!”
“Of course they would!” Jenni agreed. “You could tell all along by how much bickering they did throughout the vid!”
Jon shook his head with a smile and proceeded to the linen closet to grab a towel for his shower. He doubted if either of them even knew he was there.
By the time he was cleaned, dried and dressed in a pair of his special jeans and an oversized light blue tee shirt, the girls were relaxing on the couches in the pit. Jenni was composing a letter to her sister on her PBJ, but Kristen was merely lounging across the cushions in the sunbeam that fell through the overhead skylight, thankful in the knowledge there would be no more transformation pains.
Thinking she had the right idea, Jon stepped down into the pit and then stretched out on the pile of floor cushions that had also been sun-warmed by the skylight. It felt good to simply relax.
A little while later, Dr. Renwick appeared at the top of the pit and looked down at them all with his hands in the pockets of his medical smock. Nurse Marcy appeared a moment later, and while the doctor remained standing, she sat down on one of the top steps. In her hands were three wooden picture frames.
“Hey, Doc,” Jon said lazily. “Hi, Marcy. What's up?” The female felines looked up and both gave the physicians a small hand wave.
“It's common knowledge that cats love to relax in the sun and you all look comfortable,” Renwick said lightly, “but I'm afraid it's eviction time.”
“Huh?” all three felines said in unison.
Marcy brushed a hand through her shoulder-length platinum hair. “Now that your transformation is complete, it's time for the three of you to pack up your personal possessions.”
“Why?” Jenni asked. “We haven't gotten an assignment to go anywhere yet – have we?”
“No, I'm afraid not,” the doctor replied, “but now you're being transferred to the Educational Wing where you'll take up residence in the dorms with the rest of the Furs. You'll continue your education learning more skills you'll need in a colony settlement on an accelerated schedule.”
“Accelerated?” Kristen echoed.
“You'll have the same courses that Class Fifteen's done, but Stockholm wants them on an accelerated level.”
“That’s odd. Did they say why?”
“No reason given.”
“Wouldn't it be easier if we just stayed here in the Cat House while we attend our studies?” Jon asked.
“Easier for you, perhaps, but Marcy and I will need to clean and sterilize the Felis Wing so it can be prepared for the next group of volunteers that will be arriving soon.”
“Wow, is it that time already?” Kristen asked. “How long before the next group gets here?”
“Three weeks,” Marcy answered, “and it will take that long to get everything ready.”
“Okay, I don't mind the move,” Jon remarked, “but I wouldn't think it would take three weeks to clean up this place. We've tried to keep it in good shape ourselves.”
Renwick cleared his throat. “Most of the preparations will be in the lab, not to mention all the paperwork,” he explained, “but we'll need you out of the way in the meantime. Marcy and I will still be giving you periodic examinations to make sure there are no unexpected problems, but your bodies at this stage have made all the necessary adjustments into your new forms and really shouldn't require our services unless you get hurt doing something. It's now time for you to use your minds and learn more skills necessary for your vocation of taming new worlds.”
“Our paperwork and cleanup will only take a week,” Marcy admitted, “but then we'll both be on two week vacation. We'll be back a day or two before the next group of volunteers arrives.”
“You get a vacation?” Kristen asked.
“Of course,” said the nurse. “This is our job and we're entitled to time away to relax before we do all this again.”
“Now that we've finished our transformations,” Jenni added, “do we get vacation time off?”
“No, sorry,” Renwick answered. “You're volunteers, not employees.”
“That's hardly fair,” Jenni murmured. “We've been working hard too.”
Marcy gave them all a sympathetic look. “Sorry, we can't help that,” she said. “Anyway, your classmates in the other Wings will be moving too, so we've secured one of the carts that you can use to move your things,” Marcy added. “I've also put empty boxes in each of your rooms.”
Kristen stretched lethargically in her sunbeam and yawned. “Do we have to move right now?” she asked. “What's the rush?”
“Yes, you have to move this afternoon,” Renwick told them. “All of you have classes to begin in the morning. You should have already gotten your schedules sent to your PBJs, so you'll want to already be in your new rooms before you turn in tonight.”
“I expect you'll want to get everything unpacked and put away,” Marcy said, “although you shouldn't have much more to move than your clothes and few personal items.”
Jon stretched again and then slowly got up onto all fours. “Okay, we get the picture. Like little birds that have grown up, we're no longer cute and are being pushed out of the nest.”
“Something like that,” Renwick said dryly. Jon gave him a look of amusement and then padded up the steps out of the pit.
“Speaking of getting the picture,” Marcy added, “I have the after portraits I took of you last night ready to hang on the wall if you'd like to see them.”
All three Furs gathered around the nurse and each examined the portraits. Kristen and Jenni really liked the way theirs turned out, and Jon was amused at how little of his human features remained of his face beyond the rusty red scalp hair perched upon his head. He doubted even his own mother or father would recognize him now.
He wondered briefly how they were both doing, but then shook his head as if to shake off the memory. As much as he'd cared for them, their son was long gone now and under his new identity he no longer had any living parents; it was best not to think of them anymore.
Handing his picture back to Marcy with a nod, he turned to go. “C'mon, girls,” he said over his shoulder. “We're unloved, so we may as well start packing.” Marcy chuckled and the other felines smiled up at her, but they followed their housemate out of the pit and headed for their rooms.
“The house will seem so empty without the pitter-pat of feline feet,” the nurse remarked as she turned to go.
The doctor looked at her with a smile. “You'll have another litter of kittens to fuss over shortly. Come on. Let's go into town for lunch. I'll buy.”
Marcy's face brightened. “Wow, it's been a long time since you've treated me! Okay, you go hang these on their nails while I get my purse. We can take my car.”
Jon stopped in the entry hall and turned back to look over the saloon. The Felis Wing had been his home for the past nine months, and although he had arrived with a massive chip on his broad shoulders, he was a different man now. Literally.
Over time, he had changed both physically and mentally. He was now one of the creatures he had once despised, though he now enjoyed the benefits of having a hybrid body with a mind that was at peace with itself. He had served his sentence and was still alive and intact at the end of it all. He would miss this place, but it was time to move on.
Still holding one of the cardboard boxes that contained his meager belongings, he turned and faced the 'before and after' portraits that were lined up along both walls of the entrance hall. Due to his original hatred for all Furs, he had purposely refrained from ever looking at them whenever he passed in and out of the building, but now he focused his attention upon them directly.
Jon's group of four volunteers was the sixteenth set to go through the program at this location to become Felis – the human and feline hybrids whose purpose from that point on would be to settle on other habitable worlds as the forerunner of human settlers that would come later.
There were sixty-four 'before' portraits on the walls, but due to mishap or misfortune, there were some in earlier classes that did not have an accompanying 'after' portrait. He assumed those few had not survived the transformation for one reason or another, probably due to incidents like the ones that took Dante, Whelan and Travis.
Beneath the original photos taken of them when they'd first signed their contracts, the portraits of him, Kristen and Jenni were already up on the wall. He studied Dante's human face for a moment and remembered that he'd once thought of the younger man as oily, much as if the guy had been a used car salesman from a disreputable lot. Over time, however, Jon had gotten used to him, even enjoying the occasional banter they exchanged, and he was missed.
Moving along the rows of pictures to shift his inner thoughts elsewhere, he let his mind wander as he pondered where these other Furs were now. He rightly assumed that some of them had likely been at the Felis colony on Bastien that had perished, and while neither Marcy nor Dr. Renwick had said anything about it, he was sure it had been difficult for them to hear news that some of their previous clients had died. Granted, it was a foregone conclusion that there would be some losses among the Furs sent out to wild and untamed planets, but to lose that many at once had to have been painful to those who had known them.
Jon finally stopped in front of one face that would forever be burned into his memory. Henry Parker. He tried not to think of the first time he had seen the mountain lion's face, but the image came back to him unbidden; he'd been hovering above Rebecca as they writhed together on the same bed he'd once occupied with her himself, and then later when he'd confronted the mismatched lovers in the very act again.
He had not even seen Parker's face when he'd shot him in the back that fateful winter night, but his visage had haunted him long after the deed was done. He looked at the cougar's portrait and saw similarities in the features with his own. Renwick may have been directed to use DNA from the same animal that Parker's had come from, but there were other subtle differences in facial structure, fur pattern, and of course, the color of the scalp hair. With a wry smile, Jon supposed the two of them could have come from the same litter.
The amusement disappeared almost instantly. Now that Jon had grown comfortable with himself, he knew that Parker had been no mindless animal rutting with his fiancé. Parker had gotten mixed up with another man's woman, and no matter what he might have been, he was fully responsible for his own actions. Now long after the fact, Jon felt remorse for killing him – for murdering him. He should have simply walked away, dumping Rebecca for the cheating woman she was.
Brian Barrett was not the first man to lose his woman to another lover and there were many throughout history who had walked away, but he had chosen to let anger and the hurtful feelings of betrayal guide his actions.
Jon stared at the portrait only a moment more and let out a sorrowful sigh. “Why did you have to go after her,” he whispered to the other cougar's image. “I think we could have been friends otherwise and I would have never hated our kind.”
He considered the mountain lion a moment longer before a thought occurred to him. Would Parker have been one of the felines who'd gone to Bastien? If so, the man had been destined to die one way or the other. The thought didn't comfort Jon at all, but it was certainly something to make him wonder if that might his own fate to come. He had cheated death, but would the bony old skeleton come to reclaim his prize once Jon was on another world too?
Despite that they had all been living in the Felis Wing for the past nine months, it was true that none of them had many possessions. The three of them had been able to put everything within the two boxes each of them had been given, clothing, trinkets and all. As the boxes were not very large of themselves, they were able to load all six of them onto the cart with room for the three of them to ride on a single trip across the compound.
Jenni drove the cart with Kristen beside her and Jon sat on the back seat with his arms on the boxes to make sure none of them fell off as they moved across the uneven grounds.
When they got to the Educational Wing, there were two other carts already parked beside the multistory building, both still partially loaded with boxes of their own.
“We're on the second floor with the other Felis,” Kristen reported after a glance at her PBJ. “Jon's in room 204, I'm in 205 and Jenni's in 206.”
“That puts me next door to Sissy.” Jon stood up after the leopard had shut off the motor. He picked up the two boxes that contained his things and turned toward the building. The door opened at that moment and Carl stepped out into the afternoon sun.
“Hello,” the wolf said with a smile, holding the door open for them. “Where are they putting you kitties?”
“Thanks, we're on the second floor,” Kristen replied with a smile. “Are you and Ellie in separate rooms or did you get one together?”
“We were each assigned a room on the third floor, but we'll be sleeping in only one of them at a time.”
“Sounds like you got the best deal,” Jenni remarked with a smile. “At least if you get into an argument, you can each go to your own rooms!”
“I hope it doesn't come down to that,” Carl replied with a smirk. “We've always gotten along rather well, probably because we were close friends for ten years before we decided it was time to get married.”
Despite that he had picked up his boxes first, Jon was the last through the door. “We don't have much to haul up the stairs, but does this place have an elevator for heavier items?”
“The elevator is down the hall and to the right, beside the ice machine.”
When they got up to their floor, Sissy was there to greet them.
“Hello!” she said enthusiastically. “I'm so glad to have some new neighbors! I opened the windows to your rooms this morning to let them air out, but you may want to close them now and turn on the air conditioning. It's starting to get hot.”
“We have windows?” Jon asked brightly. That was something he'd really missed having in the Felis Wing. Although they'd had a skylight to let sunshine into the saloon, he'd often wished for a window in his room to open to let in night air while he slept.
“Yup!” the orange cat said with a grin. “I didn't know who was getting which room, so I put generic linens on each of your beds. We have lots with different patterns and pictures, but I didn't know if Jon wanted flowers or little rocket ships!”
The mountain lion gave her a mock snarl, but then grinned. “I'm in room 204.”
There were brass numbers on each wooden door, but Sissy gestured to one and proclaimed, “This is your suite, Sir!” She opened the door for him and then went to do the same for Kristen and Jenni.
Jon carried his boxes into the studio apartment and looked around. The floor plan was identical to the one Sissy lived in, though his had more furniture than hers did; she preferred a Spartan existence and had gotten rid of most of what had come with the room by default. He supposed she had put them in storage somewhere.
The dorm consisted of two rooms, a large rectangular room and a small private bathroom; the kitchenette was merely an extension of the main room, separated only by a small countertop, though it was equipped with a stove, oven and a small refrigerator. Dishes would have to be washed by hand in the single sink, but there seemed to be plenty of storage cabinets for such a small area. There was a door to a clothing closet between the bathroom and the kitchen, and it was currently open to air out. There were three drawers at the bottom of the closet since the dorm was not equipped with a dresser.
Jon peered into the small bathroom and frowned. There was a sink, a toilet and a shower. There was no space in the tiny room for a wall-mounted fur dryer, and he silently wondered how many hand dryers he would wear out during the rest of his stay here.
There was a full-sized bed at the far end of the room, with a small table in one corner beside it with a touch lamp. The other back corner was occupied with a diagonal shelf that could be used for trinkets, photos or other oddments. In the middle of the room was small dining table with two chairs. A small vid screen occupied the wall beside the front door and an open window on the side wall was flanked by dark green curtains.
Jon set his boxes on the table and then walked to the window. Despite his preference for having a window to open at night, there wasn't much of a view. Twenty yards away was the wall of another building, but at least there were no garbage bins in the alley between them to smell. The summer afternoon air was warm and Jon decided to heed Sissy's recommendation to close the window and turn on the air conditioning.
He closed the panel and then flipped the switch on the thermostat near the front door before he walked back out into the corridor. Sissy was in Jenni's room, chatting away happily, so he stopped at Kristen's door and tapped lightly on the frame.
“Come on in,” the botanist responded. “It's a little bigger than what we had in the Felis Wing, isn't it?”
“Not bad, but it's a trade-off,” he replied, taking a seat at the small dining table. “We have our own little bathrooms and kitchens, but the bed is smaller and there's no large common area to sit around and relax together.”
“Actually there is,” said another voice. The cougars looked toward the entrance and saw Raine leaning up against the door frame. “It's down on the first floor, but since I believe you all came in through the side door, you probably didn't see it.”
“Hi Raine,” Kristen said to him with a smile.
Jon inclined his chin in friendly greeting. “Are you the welcoming committee?” he asked.
The cheetah laughed and crossed his arms. “Sure, why not? Welcome to the big time.”
Kristen raised an eyebrow. “Big time?”
“You're graduates of the Furmankind Institute and are fully-fledged Furs now!” He scratched idly at the cry-line beneath his left eye and then gave them a smirk. “Maybe we should arrange for a little hazing for you.”
“Don't you dare!” Jenni scolded from behind him. She grabbed his tail and then smacked his rear with the end of it.
Raine held up both hands and then backed away from her grinning. “Okay, it was just a thought!”
“You can just un-think that thought, kitty,” the leopard female admonished, shaking a claw-tipped finger at him.
“Anyway,” the cheetah added, looking back into the room, “we have a seventy-inch screen down there and we're all planning to watch a vid at seven o'clock tonight. The cafeteria will be delivering pizzas for us and we'll have the popcorn machine going too. You're all invited.”
“That sounds like a great house-warming party,” Kristen said. “You can count me in!”
“Me too,” Jenni replied.
Sissy looked up at Jon when he didn't respond. “What about you, oh lion of the mountain?”
The cougar blinked, having been lost in his thoughts, and then looked down at her. “Hmm? Why not? It sounds like a good way to start off our first night here with the locals. For now, however, I'm going to unpack, relax and scent-mark my new territory.”
When the others looked at him with various expressions of shock and horror, he laughed and said, “Just kidding!”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.