LOST IN THE WILDERNESS
— by Ted R. Blasingame
“Why do we have to study entomology anyway?” Aaron asked in frustration, setting his PBJ down on the desk in front of him. “The bugs on another world aren't going to be like our bugs, so studying what we have here isn't going to help us at all!”
“Because, Mr. Bleys,” replied the instructor from the front of the assembly hall, “across the known habitable worlds mankind have discovered, insects are similar enough so that a working knowledge of Terran bugs may very well help you on another planet. Development has never been exact, but the similarities have been staggering on each of the worlds we've visited. Some may turn out to be nothing more than a nuisance to you, but each insect has a place in its native environment. Some insects pollinate the flora, some eat other bugs, some aerate the soil, some make edible honey and honeycomb, and some may have venom or other secretion that may actually be beneficial to mankind.”
“Or furmankind,” Dara interjected.
“Or furmankind,” the dark-haired but balding instructor agreed. R. J. Johnston tapped a pencil on the podium beside him and then gestured back up to the video screen behind him at the enlarged image of a black carpenter ant most common across the North American continent.
“Now, while the Camponotus pennsylvanicus is an omnivorous insect, meaning it will eat just about anything, this ant does not eat wood; instead, it clears the wood out of the way for its galleries in the grains. It prefers to live in moist wood, and out in a forest this can be beneficial because it promotes decay of fallen leaves, trees and branches, giving further nutrients to the rest of the forest. However, due to this destructive activity, wooden houses with water damage and other structures are always in danger of infestation, which is one of the reasons why your colony domes are made of treated plastic, rubber and fiberluminum materials.”
Aaron gave the image from the screen that was duplicated on his PBJ a look of irritation and sighed. Jon sat beside the brown bear in the assembly hall and looked over at him in sympathy. He was no stranger to academic studies himself, but the accelerated courses that had been initiated for the Class Sixteen furmen were taxing even his mental capacities. However, he could not argue against Johnston's case that this could be useful information in their future, should any of them ever get an assignment off the Earth.
After several days of fast-paced classes in areas most of them had never considered studying before, the Furs had been released for the weekend. They were still not allowed to leave the grounds, but Jon didn't feel like spending all of his spare time in front of a computer or television as some of his fellow furmen were apt to do by habit, so he dressed down to just a pair of shorts and decided to take a jog around the perimeter of the complex. In order to keep his muscles toned, he planned to trot upright on two feet instead of down on all fours.
He shut the door to his apartment and then headed for the stairs. Jenni's doorway was open to the hallway and as he passed it, she called out to him. Jon stopped and peered into her room with a smile.
“Good morning, Jen,” he said. “What's up?”
The spotted leopard sat at her small dining table in a pair of denim overall shorts and a pale blue tee shirt, her finished breakfast dishes set to the side and her PBJ opened like an upright book in front of her. She held a coffee cup displaying a popular Japanese smiling kitty with an upraised paw.
“Good morning, Jon,” she replied. “When you passed by my door, it looked as if you were heading out in nothing but your fur!” The male cougar looked down at his shorts and laughed when he realized the tan pair he had randomly selected was close in color to his own fur.
“Unlike you,” he answered with a grin, “I obey the rules when it comes to keeping my drawers on out in public.”
Jenni grinned and took a sip from her cup. “Are you headed down to the exercise room?”
“No, I thought I'd take a leisurely jog around the outer fence for a change of scenery and a good stretch of the legs.”
“Would you mind having some company?” she asked quietly.
“Not at all; I'd love to have a jogging partner.”
“What about Kristen? Doesn't she sometimes run with you?”
“She's already up and out at the colony gardens. She told me last night that Kim and Yuki volunteered to help her pull some weeds before it got too hot. Those two have been doing a lot of volunteering with everyone lately – I think they're trying to make up for their tantrums during our forest trek.”
The feline woman smiled and stood up, closing the clamshell case of her PBJ. She turned and headed to the bathroom, swishing her tail behind her. “Let me change. I'll be just a moment.”
She emerged from the bathroom a moment later still wearing the oversized tee shirt, but instead of the coveralls, she was now in a matching pair of powder blue shorts. She didn't bother with her sandals, trusting the pads on the bottom of her feet to protect her soles.
She closed the door of her room, walked down the stairs and then quit the building with Jon. Once out in the comfortable morning air, Jon set an easy pace and they headed across the grounds toward the distant fence.
They passed several Furs already out in the morning air and they waved as they trotted by. Cheryl was breaking up hay in the cattle pen and Ivan was spreading corn on the ground for the chickens. Kevin was out by the lake checking the readings of his weather instruments with Erin looking on. The diminutive vulpine counselor no longer limped when walking, her injuries mostly healed, and she was getting out more as her schedule allowed.
The felines hadn't jogged far across the compound when both of them looked in unison toward the large gates of the entrance. Instead of the four or five vehicles typically parked outside the compound, the gravel parking lot was full and there seemed to be a crowd of people gathered just on the other side of the fence. The gathering was far from quiet, as they seemed to be chanting something, but it wasn't until Jon and Jenni got nearer that they could see that some held up signs and hear what they were shouting.
“Turning People Into Animals Is EVIL!” proclaimed one sign.
“Remember the Dead of Bastien!” read another.
“STOP MAKING FURS!!!!”
“The Furmankind Program Is Too Dangerous!”
“Say NO to the AHCP!!!!”
Jon slowed to a stop, Jenni halting a few steps beyond. Several of the Institute guards were lined up by the gates on the inside, watching the crowd tensely. None had yet drawn their weapons, but all were preparing themselves in case it turned ugly.
“I wonder what that's all about,” Jenni mused. “Why would they be protesting us?”
Jon put his hands on his hips, staring across the grounds toward the fence. “There have been a few articles in the news lately about small groups petitioning the AHCP to stop sending Furs out into space to die, sparked by the loss on Bastien. There's always someone protesting about something, so I haven't given it much thought.”
“I wouldn't be surprised if Blackthorne was behind the whole campaign,” Jenni grumbled, spotting a van with darkened windows at the edge of the parking lot. “Since he couldn't buy a Fur or two for his personal property, he probably started this out of spite!”
Even though they were still a good distance away from the fence, Jon's sensitive feline hearing could make out some of what was being shouted by the crowd. One comment in particular sounded awfully familiar.
“Converting good people into animals is an abomination!”
Jon frowned, mixed feelings suddenly making him uncomfortable. If he had walked away instead of killing Henry Parker, would he have become involved with such a crowd decrying the inhuman act of transforming humans into animals? He didn't feel that way anymore, but knowing there were still those with these sentiments, he wasn't sure how to feel about these people. He could smell Jenni's growing anger, but he was unable to mount such thoughts himself.
A cart raced across the grounds toward the gate, its driver only giving them a cursory look as he passed them. It was the director and his expression was rather intense.
“Here come more of us,” Jenni remarked. Jon looked back toward the buildings of the complex and saw other Furs coming to investigate the commotion.
“Come on,” he said quietly, tugging gently on her elbow. She followed him closer to the fence, but then several of the protestors seemed to notice them. The shouts and jeers increased in volume now that there were actual Furs present.
One man dropped his sign and bent down to the gravel parking lot to pick up several rocks. When he stood up, he got close to the bars of the fence and then began to hurl the stones toward the felines. The distance was too great for them to reach the Furs, but others followed his example and gathered up rocks of their own to throw.
“What's going on?” Manny asked, hesitant about getting within range of the incoming stones. Without conscious realization that he was doing so, the arctic fox kept Jon between him and the crowd.
“It's people like them who killed Henry,” Raine grumbled, coming to a stop beside Jenni. When she looked over at him with a strange look, he simply assumed she didn't know about the cougar from an earlier session.
“Henry Parker was in the class before mine,” the cheetah explained with an eye on the incensed crowd, “a cougar like Jon, here. He ran into one of those Fur-haters out in Colorado who killed him just because he had been changed.”
“I remember Henry,” Manny remarked. “He was a good guy, too. He didn't deserve to die like that.”
Jenni glanced back at Jon and was frightened by the scent she got from him. “No one deserves to die like he did,” Jon growled, “but he shouldn't have been messing around with a woman with an engagement ring on her finger.”
Raine looked up at him with narrowed eyes. “What are you talking about?” he asked. “Henry wouldn't do anything like that!”
When Jon turned to look the cheetah in the eyes, the expression on his face made Raine take a step back. “The details of the trial were all in the papers and on the news,” the mountain lion replied tersely. “The woman who'd been sleeping with him was engaged to the guy who shot him.”
“I don't remember hearing about that,” Manny replied, idly scratching his neck. “Why are you sticking up for his murderer anyway? He hated Furs like us and said so at his trial.”
Jon forced himself to relax and brushed a hand across his face. “I didn't say I was sticking up for him,” he answered in a calmer tone, “but Henry might still be alive if he'd bothered to check that woman's ring finger before crawling into her bed.”
“Uh oh,” Jenni muttered. Her companions looked back to the parking lot and the guy who had picked up the first rock was now climbing up on the fence. The iron bars didn't provide much purchase, but he'd kicked off his shoes and socks and was making his way up to the top. With all the noise and commotion from the crowd, neither Marcelo nor the guards had noticed him.
“Now that is one brave soul,” Carl remarked, having just arrived with Ellie, Cheryl and Wendy.
“Brave, but not very smart,” Manny answered.
Although the crowd was still noisy, the Furs all stood in mute silence as they watched the man reach the top of the fence. He looked back down at his associates with a grin and then began his descent on the inside.
“What's he planning to do once he gets in here?” Cheryl wondered aloud.
“I guess he's going to picket us up close,” Raine muttered.
They watched the man until he was about halfway down the fence, but then his toes lost their grip and he fell the rest of the distance to the ground. Without even thinking about it, Jon dropped to all fours and ran out to help the man, honestly hoping he wasn't injured.
The brave protestor looked up at renewed shouting by the crowd and felt the blood drain from his face at the sight of a large mountain lion rushing straight for him. He jumped up on a sprained ankle, screaming in sudden terror as he attempted to climb the fence again.
Marcelo saw the cougar out of the corner of his eye and was instantly afraid that the former convict was about to attack a man that had somehow gotten through the fence.
Jon had been focused primarily on getting to the man to render assistance, but when the guy jumped up shrieking in fear, the mountain lion drew up short and stopped in confusion. Then it hit him that the man must have seen him as a wild lion rushing out to eat him.
He rose up on two legs, barely panting from the exertion, feeling foolish. The crowd hushed when he stood up, and even the frantic man quieted as all waited to see what he was going to do. Unseen by the protesters, Marcelo and the guards approached the intruder. The officers apprehended him by the arms and started to lead the individual back to the gate. Stunned that the cougar hadn't killed him, the man allowed himself to be taken away without a struggle, relieved to be in the hands of humans instead of the claws of an animal. In hindsight, he wasn't really sure why he'd climbed the fence in the first place, other than he'd been caught up in the frenzy of the crowd.
Jon cleared his throat and walked calmly toward the fence where the protesters were still watching him warily.
“What's it doing?” someone whispered.
He stopped a short distance from the fence and cleared his throat again. He remembered Norman's speech to the crowd in Florida, and although he doubted it had done much good with that group, Jon felt he should give this one a similar try.
“Hello,” he said to them. Some started, actually surprised that he could speak. His voice held an odd timbre due to the structure of his mouth and vocal cords, but he enunciated his words clearly.
“I was like you once,” he said a little louder so everyone in the crowd could hear him. “I did not agree with the practice of turning good people into Furs. In fact, I was downright against the program altogether.”
“What made you change your mind?” a young woman with strawberry blonde hair asked quietly.
Jon put his hands into the pockets of his shorts. “My situation forced me to work with a group of Furs; I didn't like it, but I had no choice in the matter,” he told them. “Being around them, I learned that although their bodies had been altered in order to provide a service to all of humanity, they were all still the same people they were beforehand.” He tapped a claw-tipped finger against his temple. “Nothing up here changed. The mind, will and emotions remained intact. Although their bodies were altered in processes that can be compared to many other reconstructive surgeries done daily all over the world, they were still the same individuals they were throughout their lives.”
“If you didn't like 'em,” another man sneered, “why did you sell out and become one of them?”
Jon nodded toward the guy. He couldn't really tell them the reality of his background, but what he did tell them was true. “It took some time, but when I began to realize they were all still people, I began to see what it was they were out to accomplish. The AHCP didn't set out to create animals out of people just because they could do it. The Earth is overcrowded, we're all running out of room, viable land and resources, and although it may take time to do all that needs to be done, other Earth-like worlds have been discovered that could one day ease these issues. Before this can happen, though, it will take the efforts of brave souls to risk exploring new lands to make sure they are safe before mankind can move to them. No one can be forced to take the risks to discover if a place is truly compatible with the people of Earth, so they ask only for volunteers to go in first. The changes,” – he put a hand up to his chest – “are done to help give men and women an advantage surviving in a new land.”
He gestured toward the Furs behind him with a casual hand. “We aren't freaks and we're not outcasts. We're volunteers doing a job as important as any other on the Earth. Just because we no longer look fully human, we—” One man in the crowd stepped up closer to the fence, pulled a gun from his waistband and fired it. The bullet struck Jon in the left shoulder and he jerked backward from its impact, spinning him around before he dropped to the ground.
The crowd around the shooter bolted away from him with shouts of surprise, those closest to him trying to climb over those behind them in their attempt to vacate the area. This was only supposed to be a protest against the inhumane practices inside the fence, not an attempt to rid the world of them.
The crowd dropped their signs and scattered in a panic, leaving the gun wielder standing alone by the fence. He looked back and forth around him for support, but everyone else was already rushing back to their cars to escape before the local police could arrive. There were already sirens in the distance up the winding forest road, apparently alerted to their protest by those who ran the Institute.
The armed guards approached the shooter, who was now waving his weapon around him with a wild panic in his eyes. No one else wanted to get shot, but this guy was going nowhere. Five guns were aimed back at him with deadly determination as the last of the visiting cars left the parking lot in scattered gravel and dust.
“Lay your pistol on the ground and back away from the weapon!” called Martin from inside one of the small guard shacks just inside the fence. The other protester who had scaled the fence was resting on a short stool behind him, massaging a sprained ankle but watching the incident through the doorway.
The shooter swung his pistol toward the voice, but somehow refrained from firing again.
“This isn't going to end well if you don't put down your weapon!” called another guard. The sirens drew closer and two vehicles rounded a bend in the road flashing red and blue lights. The shooter spun around to look at them, but then whirled back to the fence. The talking mountain lion he'd shot was surrounded by more of the abominations, and suddenly they were all he could see. The gun had already chambered another round; he lifted it toward the cluster of Furs and suddenly the guards were all shouting at him at once.
The sheriff's car slid to a stop in the gravel and Davis shoved his arm out the window with his pistol without opening the door. The man turned toward the sound, but froze when he saw how close the sheriff's car was, as well as the barrel of the gun aimed directly at him. Deputy Loggia was squatting behind her armored door, aiming a scoped rifle at him too.
“Drop your weapon right now, mister!” Sheriff Davis called out. “You have the freedom to protest the Furs all you want to, but discharging a firearm is not allowed. Put your gun down and raise both hands high above your head!”
Suddenly realizing that there was now no way out of the mess that he had started, the man raised both hands beside his head, but he refused to give up the pistol. Davis narrowed his eyes and took careful aim.
“I said 'drop your weapon'! Don't make me repeat myself again, son.”
The wild look was still in the man's eyes as he turned toward the sheriff fully. Then in silent determination, he tilted the gun toward his own head, placing the barrel up against his temple.
“No!” Loggia shouted.
There was a sudden shot and a cloud of blue smoke. The man's hand jerked hard, erupting in blood, and the pistol he'd been holding flew out of his fingers to land on the ground several feet behind him. The man shrieked in pain and sunk to his knees clutching the hand that the sheriff had just disabled with a single, well-placed shot.
His deputy rushed forward and knelt beside the man to attend to his wound before the sheriff could open his door and step out of his vehicle. The Institute guards all rushed to the gate to lend assistance in case the wounded protester caused any more trouble.
On the other side of the fence, Marcelo approached the cluster of Furs with a hard lump in his throat. He had to gently pull Manny and Wendy out of the way so he could kneel down next to the fallen feline.
Without a handy First Aid kit, Jenni had pulled off her top and was pressing the wadded tee shirt up against the wound in Jon's shoulder in an effort to stop the bleeding. The cougar himself had his eyes clenched tight and was panting lightly, but Marcelo was thankful to see that Jon was still among the living.
“Can you tell how badly he's injured,” the director asked the feline nurse beside him.
“I haven't had a chance to examine him yet,” Jenni replied, “but at first glance there doesn't seem to be a lot of external damage. He got it up in the shoulder, but I don't think it really hit anything besides muscle.”
“It was small caliber round,” Manny said, “probably no larger than a twenty-two.” When Marcelo looked up at him, the fox added, “I didn't get a real good look at his gun, but I think it was something like a Browning Buckmark twenty-two target pistol.”
“You have a good eye,” Sheriff Davis remarked, walking up to the small crowd. “That's exactly what the guy used. The clip only had low-power, solid-point target rounds in it.”
“Good,” Jenni muttered.
“Good?” Raine repeated. “Jon just got shot, and you say that's good?”
“It's good that it was only a .22 target round,” the nurse explained patiently. “There will be minimal damage.”
“It sure hurts like the dickens, though,” Jon said dryly. “Feels like someone tried to drive a home run through my shoulder using a baseball bat with a nail in it.”
“Is he going to be okay?” Davis asked.
“I don't think his life is in any danger,” the spotted leopard replied, “but he won't be using this arm for a while.” She lifted the bloody tee shirt and peered beneath it. Most of the bleeding had slowed, though there was still some oozing from the wound. She sighed in relief that the bullet hadn't hit a major blood vessel. She slid one hand beneath him, but felt no exit wound.
“We'll need to get him into surgery right away to remove the bullet,” she told the director.
Marcel nodded and stood up, pulling out his com phone. He thumbed the quick dial for Dr. Renwick and got an immediate response. While he gave the Felis physician a brief explanation on what had happened, Davis knelt beside the cougar as Jenni used her claws and teeth to rip the tee shirt into strips so she could bind the wound with them.
Jon looked up at the sheriff and gave him a grimaced smile.
“I should have known I'd find you right in the middle of things again,” Davis remarked.
Jon tried to laugh despite the deep ache in his shoulder, but it only came out as a cough. “I didn't have a catcher's mitt, but you should have seen me catch his fastball.”
Davis chuckled. “Mr. Sunset, that enhanced body of yours may allow you to do things beyond that of mortal man, but you aren't invulnerable. Try not to get yourself killed before some monster on another world has had its opportunity to try to eat you first!”
“What a horrible thing to say!” Wendy replied.
Raine snickered. “At least this time, Jon's only crime was getting in the way of a bullet!”
“What's going to happen to that guy?” Ellie asked, putting a damper on the momentary levity.
Davis got up to his feet and looked back out through the fence where his deputy and the guards had things well under control. Loggia had wrapped the man's injured hand while Martin and the other Institute guards held him down, and the shooter was now cradling his hand in the back seat of the sheriff's car.
“He'll be charged with discharging a weapon in a public place, and I'd wager he doesn't have a conceal-and-carry license either. After his last stunt, we may have to put him on suicide watch too.” He turned back to Jon and watched Jenni bind up the wound with her cotton strips for a moment.
“He'd better have a good lawyer,” Cheryl muttered with a scowl, “since he'll have attempted murder added to his list of crimes.”
“No,” Jon gasped when his nurse cinched up the final binding a little tight. He looked up at the sheriff with imploring gold eyes. “Don't charge him with that.”
“Huh?” Raine asked. “Why not? It might have only been a small caliber, but if his aim had been better, that bullet could have gone right through your eye and up into your brain bucket!”
Davis studied the cougar. “That's up to you,” he remarked, “but your friend has a point.”
“Maybe it was an accidental discharge,” Jon answered. “He's still guilty of bringing that gun out here with him, but maybe he didn't intend to shoot it at all, just wave it around to back up their protests. When he saw that he'd actually shot me, that's when you had to keep him from shooting himself.”
“Jon, you know that's not what happened!” Cheryl replied hotly. “He tried to kill you!”
The mountain lion grimaced in pain when Jenni and Carl helped him to his feet. Marcelo had gone to get his cart and pulled it up close so they could get him up onto its seat.
Jon ignored his friends and looked once more at the sheriff. “People like him are frightened by things that don't fit the mold of normal life and he acted out of fear. He's in enough trouble as it is without having attempted murder hanging over him.”
“A hanging is what he needs.”
“Raine, stop,” Marcelo commanded. The cheetah shut his mouth with a grumble, certain that Jon must be delusional from the pain and shock of being shot.
The sheriff studied the cougar's face for a moment before he nodded. “If that's what you want, then we'll play it your way,” he said. “However, we'll let his lawyer talk to him for a day or two before we let him know that's what you want.”
“Why?” Jenni asked.
“I want to give Mr. Sunset some time to think about it some more in case he changes his mind.”
Jon opened his lips to argue, but his shoulder was really aching and he shut both his mouth and his eyes. He was helped onto the seat of the cart and then Jenni got up next to him to make sure he didn't topple off on the ride. Marcelo climbed behind the wheel and looked back at the sheriff.
“Can you spare me long enough to get him to surgery?” he asked.
“Go ahead, but I'll need you back as soon as you can to give me some details and issue a statement. In the meantime, I'll talk to these fine Furs of yours and get their eye witness accounts.”
Marcelo nodded without a word and put the cart into motion. Jon grimaced when the lightweight vehicle rolled over uneven ground and Jenni held onto his good arm in concern.
“Well, this changes things,” the director grumbled as he guided the cart across the grounds toward the Felis Wing where Dr. Renwick would already be preparing for surgery. “Later this evening, I was going to have Sissy announce that Stockholm had granted all Furs a small vacation off the grounds for several days, but with this event, I think that might be too dangerous.”
“Ah, no,” Jenni whined. “I could have gone to see my sister and her family!”
“Sorry about that…” Jon muttered.
“It wasn't you,” Marcelo assured him. “It was that crowd out there. Even if none of them had brought a gun, that kind of public attitude isn't going to bode well for the Institute. If someone's inciting a mob against us, there could be more. No, when I give my report to Stockholm tonight, I'm going to recommend against letting you all out amongst the public. We don't want another incident like this one.”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.