LOST IN THE WILDERNESS
— by Ted R. Blasingame
At eight o'clock sharp, Jon's PBJ issued a ping while he was poring over the rules, regulations and bylaws that had been put together years ago to govern a furman settlement. It was required reading for everyone who would be destined to live in a starter colony, and although it was mostly dry reading for most, Jon had always enjoyed academic studies and understood the need for such a document.
Although it was no longer on his background records under his new guise, the man formerly known as Brian Barrett was once a respected administrator for Delondin Enterprises, a successful Colorado organization. He had risen through the ranks on hard work and diligence, and had been one promotion away from becoming a corporate vice president at the time that Henry Parker had influenced matters in his life. His downward spiral had cost him everything, but although Sunset could no longer claim Barrett's educational degrees with a resume of work experience, Jon still retained the knowledge and skills he had gained over the years.
Looking over the document on its screen, he clicked on a yellow highlighter tool with a claw tip and marked a paragraph for later research. He would want to look into this area closer for a better understanding on what its repercussions might be in a colony setting.
When the PBJ pinged at him again, he closed out the document and opened up his mail. Sissy's daily news reports had continued like clockwork every day at the same time, so that everyone on the grounds could expect some morsel of information, rumor or announcement on a regular basis. Compared to her usual articles, however, this one was relatively short.
Good morning, Campers!
The volunteers of Class Seventeen are now on their way to becoming Furs. Contracts were signed late last night and only one individual from the Ursis Wing took the Escape Clause. A last minute replacement for him has already been contacted and she should arrive later today. The remaining fifteen volunteers will be getting their initial injections first thing tomorrow morning and then their transformations will begin. Congratulations, Class Seventeen - we're glad to have you among us!
I know this will shock you, but I have only one other message to make this morning. All Furs on the grounds are to report to the assembly hall in the Clark Savage building at nine o'clock for a very important announcement. No amount of pleading or cajoling has been able to weed out any clues to what information Marcelo has to tell us, so I'm just as much in the dark about what he will give us as the rest of you are. I'm sure it's of great importance, so don't be late and make sure everyone knows to be there on time. Attendance is mandatory.
See you there!
Sissy Quinn, Administrative Assistant
It had been four days since the newcomers of Class Seventeen arrived at the Institute and Jon had done his best to stay away from them, Rebecca most of all. Any lingering feelings of attraction Jon may have had from their former relationship had evaporated completely with repeated sightings of the woman, and she seemed to be going out of her way to run into him.
Despite his continued cold treatment toward her, she seemed determined to become friends with him, and although she had been strongly cautioned against it, Rebecca had ultimately signed her final contract with a mountain lion as her Fur of choice. Since all feline Furs would eventually be sent to the same colony, Jon felt that his future was doomed to suffer her presence for the rest of his life. Somehow, he suspected the sadistic judge who had sent him here had also arranged for Rebecca to be near him in similar form to prolong a lifetime of torture.
Since she was now contracted to the AHCP for the rest of her life as he was, there was no doubt that she would be present at the nine o'clock meeting, so Jon planned to make a late appearance to sit on the opposite side of the room from wherever she was for the assembly.
He soon discovered, however, that Rebecca had plans of her own.
Taking his time, Jon closed out all the files he'd had open and then closed the case of his PBJ, setting it on the small kitchen counter. He turned to his closet and decided to change into a fresh set of clothes. He slipped out of the furman shorts he'd been lounging around in and tossed them into a hamper, but he still had forty-five minutes before he had to be at the assembly, so he decided to take a shower. By the time he was washed and dried, he could be fashionably late to the gathering.
As he began the shower, letting the water run over his fingers until it reached the proper temperature, Jon thought he heard the door to his apartment open. He shut off the water and dried off his fingers on a towel.
“Kris, is that you?”
“No, it's not Kris,” replied a familiar voice, “but if you were expecting a companion for your shower, I'm willing to join you.”
Jon whirled around, his claws nearly taking down the shower curtain, which made Rebecca laugh in amusement. He turned to face her and her eyes darted quickly to his nudity. He knew he was sufficiently covered up by his sheath and fur, but her interest only made him incensed.
“Get out!” Jon shouted at her.
Instead of cowering away from him, the dark-haired woman simply leaned upon the bathroom door frame and crossed her arms. She smiled at him for a moment, but his increasingly intense glare of anger dampened her mood.
“I said get out!” he repeated, flattening his ears back against his head.
“Why do you hate me?” she asked in a quiet voice. “I've tried to be friends with you since the day I got here, but nothing I've said or done will please you.”
“Get out! I don't want to be your friend!” Jon spat out at her. He stood up to his full height and took a step toward her. The woman's expression faltered at the imposing feline with anger in his eyes and she moved back out of the bathroom.
“Get out of my home and get out of my life!” he roared at her.
Rebecca stumbled against the end of the couch, losing her balance and she fell backward onto the sofa. “What have I done to make you mad?” she asked, showing him wide eyes in distress. “I've only wanted to get to know you.”
Jon advanced forward and roughly grabbed the back of the couch in one hand and the bottom cushion with the other, effectively trapping her in place. He shoved his face up close to hers just as his front door opened again, but without looking to see who had arrived, he bared his teeth at Rebecca and breathed heavily at her.
“You killed Henry Parker,” he snarled in her face, “and you killed your fiancé!”
“I didn't!” Rebecca squealed in a fear-stricken voice, conscious of how close the cougar's fangs were to her bare throat. “It was Brian's fault!”
“YOU killed them both!” Jon shouted back at her. “It was your actions that caused it all! Two good people died because of you and I don't want you around! Stop stalking me and leave – me – alone!”
Jon pushed himself back upright, shoving the couch hard up against the wall and Rebecca scrambled to get away from him. Her way to the front door was blocked, however, by another angry mountain lion.
Kristen was down on all fours, her lips curled back in a fearsome snarl, and ridge of fur was standing up along her back beneath her thin blouse. Seeing her this way surprised Jon, but it absolutely terrified Rebecca. She had been warned that there was something between the male and female mountain lions and now it looked as if she might pay for her meddling.
The dark-haired woman involuntarily whimpered in fear as the lioness took a step closer, but then another large figure appeared in the doorway. Arne stuck his head in through Jon's open door.
“What's with all the shouting?” asked the African lion. He then saw a cowering woman confronted by two angry cougars and blinked in surprise. “What's going on?”
No one responded to his question, so he knocked on the door frame several times to get their attention. “I think everyone needs to calm down,” he said firmly. “Right now.”
Kristen looked back at him, the angry look still upon her face, but she did as she was told and sat back on her haunches. She turned her gaze back upon the woman and snorted loudly. Jon forced himself to relax his shoulders and he took a step back away from the couch, his clenched fists at his sides.
“It was a mistake for you to come here,” he said to her with a soft growl beneath his voice. Rebecca didn't know if he was referring to her coming unannounced into his apartment or to the Institute altogether, but she swallowed hard and nodded meekly.
“I… I will not bother you again,” she murmured.
“See that you don't!” Kristen hissed.
Arne had no idea what had set off the volatile situation, but he knew he should try to smooth things out a little. “Jon,” he said in a calm tone, “if she's going to become a feline like us, we'll all be together at the same colony when our time comes. Don't you think it would be best if —”
Jon's fist came down hard on the edge of his small round dining table and two legs snapped beneath the onslaught, but before those in the room could really register what had he'd done, he swept the remains of the table hard to the side, where they smashed against the wall with another loud crash.
Arne, Kristen and Rebecca all looked up at him in shock and surprise, but Jon merely brushed splinters from his knuckles and looked back at them in a deceptively calm gaze.
He gave the African lion a look of indifference for a moment and then he returned his scrutiny to the woman. When he spoke, it was in a calm and collected voice, almost in a conversational tone.
“Go away and leave me alone,” he told her. “Don't talk to me, don't approach me and don't even look at me.”
Rebecca got to her feet slowly and nodded, but the embarrassed expression on her face was becoming indignant. “Goodbye,” she said in a raspy voice. Then without looking anyone in the eyes, she walked around the broken table, past Kristen and toward the door. Arne stepped aside quietly to let her go, and when he was sure she had gone down the stairs and out of earshot, he turned back toward the cougars.
“Just what in blazes is going on here?” he demanded of Jon.
The mountain lion heaved a loud sigh and turned toward the table he had destroyed in his anger, which had all drained out of him now. “Let it go, Arne,” Jon said. “It's not your concern.”
“No?” the lion snapped. “You and Kristen were about to harm one of the new volunteers. That makes it my concern!”
“She has been stalking me since she got here,” Jon explained impatiently, pulling a pair of shorts from the closet, “and she just came uninvited into my apartment wanting to get into the shower with me.” He slipped into the furman shorts and adjusted his tail in the back.
“Half the females here would like to get into your shower,” Arne retorted, “but you've never acted this way to any of them before.”
Kristen snorted. “Did you know Henry Parker?”
The lion looked at her, the non-sequitur catching him off guard. “Uh, yeah,” he answered. “He was in the class before mine. What's that got to do with that woman?”
“She was the one right in the middle of the incident that got him killed,” Kristen informed him.
Arne's jaw dropped open. “It can't be!” he muttered.
“That's her,” Jon confirmed, examining the broken sheetrock in the wall where the table had hit. “She got a taste for my kind with him and started after me the moment she got here. I've tried to ignore and avoid her, but it only made her stalk me all the more. When she cornered me in my own shower just now, it all came to a head and I blew up at her.”
Arne looked at Kristen. “What about you?” he asked. “Why were you in here about to pounce on her?”
Kristen looked down at her feet, suddenly feeling embarrassed. “I was defending him,” she confessed. “Jon was standing over her without any clothes on and shouting at her to get out, so I thought she'd tried to rape him… just as Travis tried to do with me.”
Arne sighed and wiped a hand across his face. “All right,” he said after a moment. “I'll back you up if she goes to Marcelo with this. I'm just glad it ended without anyone getting injured.” He frowned at Jon's table and added. “You've either frightened her enough that she'll never be on the same side of the Institute with you again, or you've just made a bitter enemy just as you did with Travis. I'd keep an eye out for her, if I were you.”
Without waiting for a response, Arne turned and walked out of the room. Jon frowned at the mess he'd made and then dropped heavily onto the couch. He looked over at Kristen and gave her a weak smile.
“Thank you for coming to my aid,” he said quietly. “It's good to know you've got my back.”
The lioness padded across the small room and sat down on the floor in front of him, curling her tail around her feet. She looked up with a sorrowful expression. “I was afraid you were going to give yourself away to her,” she whispered so that no one outside the open door might hear. “I was afraid for your life if she'd found out.”
Jon leaned forward and lightly touched his forehead to hers. “Thanks to you, I didn't,” he replied. “You showed up at just the right time and helped me scare her silly.”
“I think you scared me silly too,” Kristen confessed. “You once told me that when you got angry, you got quiet, that you didn't throw tantrums, attack other people, or throw objects.” She looked over at the demolished table and then back at him. “For a moment there, I thought she had pushed you over the edge.”
“I think she did,” Jon remarked, feeling a bruise on his knuckles from hitting the table. “All my pain and frustration must have been building up to that over the past year, but now that it's been released, I think I can probably rest a little easier.”
“Do you think Arne's right, that she'll be a dangerous enemy?” Kristen asked after a moment of silence between them. “After she's gone through her transformation and has an enhanced body like ours, she may be a bundle of trouble.”
“Then it will be two against one,” Jon said calmly. “I'm sure I can take care of myself, but with you by my side, she doesn't stand a chance.”
Jon and Kristen walked into the assembly hall together. From the look on Marcelo's face as he watched them get to seats, they were the last to arrive. Jon didn't meet anyone else's eyes, keeping his attention on the director at the podium. Kristen swept her gaze over the others in attendance but she couldn't find Rebecca anywhere in the room. Suspicious, she looked behind her, but there was no one else there either. The assembly was mandatory, but it looked as if she had gone off somewhere to sulk. Satisfied that she hadn't just overlooked the woman, Kristen turned her attention to the front of the room.
On the vid screen behind the director was a still photograph of the Earth. Jon blinked and looked at it again, realizing that the land masses and oceans beneath swirling clouds didn't look quite right. There were also two small crescent moons in orbit above the planet. It was similar, but it was not the Earth.
“Okay, now that we're all here, we can begin,” Marcel said in a voice loud enough to carry to everyone present. He gestured up to the photograph behind him. “This is planet Bonestell,” he explained, pronouncing the name bahn estell. “It is slightly larger than the Earth with a diameter of approximately ninety-one hundred miles, but it has less land mass with over eighty-seven percent of its surface covered in water. With the exception of two more on the other side of the planet, most of this world's continents are grouped closely together in the northern hemisphere.”
Marcelo turned back toward the audience. Most of them had already studied the various Earth-like planets that the Terran Colonization Coalition had discovered to be potentially habitable, so his introduction seemed like nothing more than a refresher.
“Ten years ago, a human colony tried to settle there,” he continued, “but something unknown happened and all contact with the settlers was lost just before they were to make their landing. The last known report from the colony ship was sent back to Earth on the day of their planned descent from orbit. Repeated attempts to reestablish contact were fruitless, and after three silent years, the colony was officially given up with all hands counted lost.”
The swarthy director absently stroked his goatee for a moment and then he put both hands upon the podium. “I received a special report from the Anthro Human Colonization Program headquarters in Stockholm late last night. The Terran Colonization Coalition has decided that Bonestell is going to be given another chance, but this time it will be a furman colony that will attempt to settle there.”
There were murmurs around the room as some immediately made the connection with the morning's special assembly. Rather than let imaginations run rampant, Marcel continued as if there had been no interruption.
“There will be a difference this time, however,” he said. “Typically, a new starter colony is set up consisting of just one of the furman races at a time, but due to the catastrophe of the Bastien colony of Felis volunteers that killed all but a Vulps couple that had been assigned to the settlement, all of the volunteers from Classes Fifteen and Sixteen of the North American Furmankind Institute will combine for a mixed colony to ensure its survival in case there's a repeat of something similar.”
That got everybody's attention and conversations erupted all around. Marcelo had expected such a reaction, but he was far from finished. He rapped on the podium several times with his old wooden gavel, but was ignored for the most part until Avon stood up and filled his lungs with air.
“Quiet!” he shouted loudly. “He isn't done yet!”
Voices hushed and everyone turned expectantly back toward the man at the podium.
“Thank you,” Marcelo said with a nod. “Now, this may be good news to all of you who have been waiting your turn to get out to a new world, but this is likely to become a volatile subject with the other three Institutes. Originally, the next starter colony was supposed to be an all-Ursis group made up from ursine volunteers from all four Institutes, so naturally this decision is going to be decried as unfair by the bears of the other Institutes left out of this new settlement. Our Institute was chosen because we currently have two classes of fully formed Furs that can be ready to go at a moment's notice; the others do not. With a mixed species group, it was also determined that everyone would be more likely to get along if everyone already knew one another as you do.”
Marcelo picked up a small bottle of water from beneath the podium and took a sip before he continued. “Plans had already been in motion towards something similar when some of you were sent up to the space station, and it became a greater possibility when we learned of the Bastien catastrophe; this is why a lot of you have been undergoing accelerated studies. Headquarters has been weighing the pros and cons of such a mixed group for months and the decision to move forward was made two weeks ago. Budgets, plans and programs were all drawn up and a colony ship is now in preparation to be stocked and readied for an upcoming flight to Bonestell.”
Kevin let out a hurrah that caused others to laugh and giggle at him, but Marcel still had more to say. “If your mixed colony is deemed a success, other such groups could be sent out more quickly than previous schedules could allow. The volunteers of the other Institutes will be asked to be patient since their own classes are several months behind your current availability. Another world is also under final investigation, and should it be as promising as it appears, a second mixed colony ship could be sent out within a year. However, your assignment will be to go in where the original human colony was supposed to set up on Bonestell and try to determine what happened to them. If you cannot find any survivors of the original landing, you are to proceed as if you are the only colony to have gone to the planet.”
Hank held up a hand to ask a question, but the director shook his head. “I will answer all queries after I have finished,” he told him. The black bear nodded and crossed his arms, but didn't argue. Marcelo looked around those under his care and felt a little uncomfortable about his next topic. It was something that needed to be addressed, however.
“Although a mixed species settlement will give you a greater chance of survival against diseases like the one that hit Bastien, it will also put you at a disadvantage. Your assignment will be to establish a settlement that must last no less than five years, but you will have to do so with limited numbers of each Fur group. Instead of at least thirty of each furman group that would normally make up a new colony, there will only be seven of you for each species and some of you have mismatched gender ratios. Although there are no guidelines forcing any of you to reproduce your species, this is something that must be kept in mind for an extended stay. Five years is only the beginning, but once you have gotten used to your new world and surroundings, you may wish to stay and continue the colony. Monogamous relationships among Furs are not a requirement, especially with small numbers, but you all still have free will to pick and choose, accept and refuse your partners. Above all, however, a mixed group such as yours will have to get along in order for such an endeavor to succeed.
“It is necessary to know ahead of time who it is you can turn to in a crisis, so every settlement has its leader established before the colony ship ever sets out from Earth. This leader is appointed by the AHCP, so the position is not up for a vote by any of you, but your leader is free to choose his own second-in-command. I'm sure this will be no surprise to you, but since he has already undergone the necessary leadership training, Stockholm has named Hiamovi Avonaco as the leader over the Bonestell starter colony.”
There was some light clapping and Avon raised his hand above his head to wave with a smile as if he was on a parade float, which garnered laughter and chuckles. No one was surprised at his appointment, and none really had a problem with his selection. Even Kim and Yuki were used to the idea now, even though they had argued against him during their survival hike.
“Okay,” Marcelo said with a smile. “We'll be on a bit of a timeline from now until your departure, so your schedules are going to change. Sissy will send them to your PBJs as soon as they've been finalized. Preparations are already underway and one week from today, you will all be sent up to Space Station Sebra for five days of final orientation. The colony ship will dock with Sebra for boarding, and then you will then be put into cryogenic capsules for the eight-week journey to Bonestell. All your supplies will already be on board, as well as your livestock, which will also be in cryogenic stasis for the voyage. Now… are there any questions?”
Several hands went up, but Marcelo pointed to the black bear first. “Yes, Hank?”
“I'm glad to see this come about,” he said, “but why is this happening so fast? I thought an exercise of this magnitude took lots of budget funding and planning.”
“Even before the loss on Bastien, a combined colony group was previously under consideration, so plans and budgeting had already undergone research. Bastien was simply the catalyst to dust off the plans and put it into motion. I've known about this for some time, but have been under strict orders not to breathe a word of it to anyone. It's good to finally let it out and I'm glad to see you all excited about the mission.”
Sissy looked around until she spied Jon and Kristen sitting at the periphery of the group. She got up quietly and then sat on her knees in the seat in front of them, facing them. “I'm so excited!” she said in a low voice. “We all get to go to the same colony together! I've been afraid that our respective classes would be going to separate colonies.”
Jon reached out and touched her arm lightly. “I'm glad we get to stay together,” he told her. “Besides, I'm sure Avon can use a good administrative assistant like you to keep everyone in line.”
Sissy grinned at him and Kristen echoed Jon's sentiment. “I would have missed you, Sissy,” she said. “It will be good to keep us together as a team.”
Marcelo answered a few more questions as they talked, but after several moments, the director knocked on the podium once again. “Since there seem to be no further questions, I have another important announcement to make.”
Conversations hushed and all eyes returned to him, wondering what else he could say to improve the day. He opened his mouth to speak, but Marcy stepped up onto the stage and handed the director an opened PBJ. He studied one of its screens, but then he looked up at her in surprise and spoke to her quietly for several moments. He looked perplexed, but then he nodded and turned back to his podium.
He cleared his throat and handed the device back to the nurse. “Okay, I have two announcements to make,” he said. “I will give you the original one first.” He gestured toward the curtain at the side of the stage and motioned for someone to join him at the podium. “I'm sure you heard the Osprey arrive earlier. One of your associates has been returned to us just this morning, and she would like to speak to you for a moment.”
There were a few excited and surprised comments in the crowd when a Vulps vixen in a long, Asian style robe stepped out into view. Small cries escaped Dahlia and Rose's lips, and it was all they could do to keep their seats. It was Jasmine Fleur.
The fox stepped up to the podium, but she kept one hand beneath her robe. “Hello again, everybody,” Jasmine said quietly. “It's good to be back.”
The crowd erupted into applause, but then the Furs began to remember why she had been taken from them and the jubilation faltered. The vixen realized what was on their minds and she ducked her head a moment before she looked back out at them.
“I see some new faces in the crowd that were not here when I left, so you may not know what happened, but several weeks ago, I… killed a fellow Fur in self-defense when he tried to… to rape me.” The room grew so quiet that the normally silent air conditioning could be heard pumping cool air into the assembly hall. “I was taken from here to the AHCP headquarters in Stockholm and held there for a hearing on my actions.” She looked out at her sisters and felt her throat tighten up briefly. “Since Travis Tyndall was considered a monetary investment by the AHCP, it was ultimately determined that the price of my crime was banishment from the Earth on the next group to leave, as well as forfeiture of my contracted prize money. Since you are the ones chosen to begin the next colony, I will be going with you to Bonestell.”
Dahlia started to clap, but Rose saw that their sister was not finished and grabbed her hands to stop her. Jasmine nodded and then stepped around from behind the podium. She slowly untied the sash that wrapped around her robe and then dropped the garment to her feet. She was dressed underneath in the typical furman shorts and top, but then she turned sideways so that everyone could see her tail. Her once-luxurious fox tail had been completely shaved to the skin from her butt to the tip.
“This is my scarlet letter,” she said, making reference to a well-known classic story. “This is a symbol of my sin — a badge of shame — for all to see until the fur grows back on its own.” She turned back to face everyone and then put her hands together down in front of her with her head bowed.
“All I can ask is for you to be kind to me,” she said quietly, “but I am glad to be back here…among friends…at home.”
Without waiting for more, Dahlia jumped up out of her seat and rushed to the stage, closely followed by Rose. The trio of sisters clung together tightly, all three of them crying in sobs of joy and relief.
Doctor Maria Ramirez got up from her chair, led the sisters back to the side of the stage, and then they all disappeared behind the curtain.
Marcelo moved back to the podium and cleared his throat once more. “I have only one more quick announcement before you're free to go. Once Sissy sends out your schedules, you'll need to begin your preparations for your new mission.”
Everyone stared up at him, wondering what other news he could give to them after his last two bombshells. The director studied the podium once more and then looked back out at them.
“One of the new volunteers who signed her contract last night has just requested to have that document nullified before the injections could be administered this afternoon. Upon second thoughts, Ms. Rebecca Collins has opted to take the Escape Clause and leave our company. She is currently packing her belongings and will be given transportation to Albany within the hour. The next volunteer applicant will be contacted shortly to come in as yet another last minute replacement to fill her spot in Class Seventeen.”
Jon could scarcely believe his ears. Rebecca had left of her own volition, leaving his future a little brighter.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.