Return to the Library

LOST IN THE WILDERNESS

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 23
Firecats

 

Good Morning, Friends!

Groundwork is now underway to prepare the Furs of Classes Fifteen and Sixteen for the upcoming departure, and I have been granted permission to present a contest open to everyone here at the North American Furmankind Institute. No longer separate classes, those of us going to Bonestell will need an actual name for the group as a whole. What should we twenty-nine Furs call ourselves now?  The winner will receive a 24-hour pass to leave the compound, so put your thinking caps on and see what you can come up with.

Also related to the upcoming departure, all Furs are encouraged to invite friends and relatives to attend an Open House next Saturday and Sunday. This will be a good time to show off your new chassis under the setting of a family reunion, since this could be the last time any of us may see them for the next five years or so.  Lodging will be provided on the grounds for any of them who may wish to stay overnight, as well as complimentary meals and refreshments.  Make this a good time to say Fare Well before it's actually time to go.

I just have one further announcement and then we can get back to our preparations.  Ken Wilder, Jon Sunset, Hiamovi Avonaco and Manny Frigh are to meet Director Marcelo in the Mayfair Room of the Clark Savage building as representatives of each furman race at nine o'clock this morning. I have no further information on what will be discussed, but I think we can all assume it has to do with the upcoming mission. Be there promptly, guys.

That's all for now, folks. Have a great day!

Sissy Quinn, Administrative Assistant 

*** 

Jon arrived at the designated place ten minutes early. Although he had passed the door to the Mayfair Room on numerous occasions, he had never been in it.  The door was unlocked, but when he went inside, the lights were all off but for a small document light on the opposite end of the room that illuminated a portion of a podium.  Thinking he was the first to arrive, he reached for a panel of light switches on the wall near the door, but Marcelo's voice stopped him.

“Please leave the lights off, Jon,” the director instructed, “but come on in, shut the door, and have a seat at the table.”

The cougar closed the door behind him and made his way to a V-shaped conference table. The dim document lamp gave his feline-predator eyes ample illumination to see his way to an empty chair, and it was then he realized that there were already others in attendance. He counted silhouettes and noted that he must have been the last to arrive, although he was there well before the appointed time.

Marcelo's voice had come from the podium near the open end of the V-table, and once Jon was settled in his chair, a rear-projection screen behind the director lit up with a photograph of a set of buildings in a forested setting much like the Adirondacks of Upstate New York.

“This is the Toyohashi Furmankind Institute of the Aichi Prefecture in Japan,” Marcelo explained with no further preamble. “It is one of three other facilities like our own, although it has been closed for the greater part of a year due to efforts to rebuild after the damages suffered from last year's devastating Nankai-Tokai earthquake in central Japan. A great number of lives were lost, including some of the Furs in residence; those who survived were transferred to the Stockholm Institute.”

The picture changed to show a middle-aged Japanese man with a narrow waist in a sharp business suit standing up straight as if he were at attention.  His eyes were sharp and his dark hair only showed a hint of grey at his temples, giving him a distinguished look.

“This is Doctor Masanori Mochizuki. For the past decade, he has been the director of the Toyohashi Institute and is also a respected geneticist with the Japanese Preservation Society and the Global Animal Genetic Vault.”

“So that's what he looked like as a human,” Jon mused aloud.

“What do you mean, as a human?” Manny asked from the darkness. “Is he a Fur now?”  Jon prepared to tell him what he'd discovered during their time on Space Station Sebra, but Marcelo cleared his throat, interrupting his reply.

“I was unaware that you were familiar with Dr. Mochizuki,” the director remarked, “but I ask that further questions and comments be refrained until the proper time. I was coming to this in a moment, but yes, this is what Masanori looked like up until three years ago.”

The picture changed again and this time it was of a laboratory setting. Mochizuki was standing with three young assistants, a woman and two men, all dressed in white lab coats.  “The Toyohashi Institute had the distinction of a perfect success record with its volunteers, even to the point of never having anyone take the Escape Clause in the AHCP contracts.”

The picture changed. Dr. Mochizuki appeared to be at home, looking relaxed in a blue and white cotton yukata at a short table on a tatami mat floor. Sitting up beside him was a beautiful canine with dense tan and white fur and a luxurious tail that curled over onto its back. The tip of the dog's pink tongue stuck out between its lips, eliciting a few chuckles from those around the conference table, especially as the canine bore a strong resemblance to their furmate, Yuki.

“Although the accomplishments of his Institute were exemplary, Dr. Mochizuki had great empathy toward the intense agonies his volunteers had to endure, and in time he contacted the AHCP with a special request that would allow him a greater understanding of those he oversaw in the program; Dr. Mochizuki wanted to go through the transformation process himself.  At first, Stockholm denied his request as unnecessary. A considerable amount of time, effort and finances are invested in every volunteer who signs the contract, and the ultimate goal of each Fur has always been to help settle habitable planets to make way for later human colonies. Dr. Mochizuki's position as an Institute Director, as well as his genetic knowledge and experience with the Japanese Preservation Society were worth more to the AHCP to keep him here on Earth than to send him out into the stars. Unwilling to accept defeat, Dr. Mochizuki volunteered to waive the contracted bonus prize money in exchange for remaining on Earth to oversee his branch of the Institute as a Fur. After some deliberation, his request was given authorization by Stockholm.”

The picture changed again, but it was a repeat of the photo of the man with his dog. “He had planned on mixing his DNA with that of an Akita Inu, the doctor's favorite dog breed. In fact, it was his own pet that was authorized to provide the donor DNA material. When it came time to prepare Dr. Mochizuki's formula for the McEwen process, a relatively new lab assistant chose the wrong vial from the freezer. Instead of the doctor's prize dog's genetic material, she picked up an unlabeled vial of Ailurus fulgens DNA.”

Ailurus fulgens?” Ken repeated. “That sounds familiar, but I can't place it at the moment.” Marcelo was annoyed at having been interrupted again, but he continued as if the vulpine physician hadn't spoken. Jon already knew this story but stayed quiet, allowing the director to explain it himself.

“He did not discover the mistake until later when the transformations were not conforming to the body type of an Akita Inu. After extended DNA analysis, his Fur type was identified, but unable to reverse the process, Dr. Mochizuki was committed. The mistake caused him great mental anguish, but psychological counseling and time helped him finally come to terms with what he had become, the only furman of his kind — a red panda.”

“A red panda?” Avon asked, unable to contain his curiosity. “I don't remember ever seeing that species as an option in the Ursis binder.”

“A red panda was never planned to be included in the furmankind project,” Marcelo explained in mild irritation. “The DNA sample taken by mistake had been intended for the Global Animal Genetic Vault that Dr. Mochizuki was also a part of, but it was his own hand that had placed the vial in the freezer unlabeled. Once his body type had been identified, rapid modifications had to be made with a risky second injection to compensate for the unaltered Ailurus fulgens DNA.”

“What happened?” Manny asked.

Marcelo advanced the projection and a photograph of Dr. Mochizuki came up on the screen, but this time it was a human-sized, red panda that stood in the laboratory in his familiar white coat, accompanied only by the young female woman of the previous picture.

“The lab assistant who had chosen the wrong vial was heartbroken over the mistake, but instead of having her dismissed, Dr. Mochizuki kept her with him at all times to help oversee his transformation. Feeling indentured to him for the incident, Chieko Ito stayed with him through every step of the process, helping him through even the roughest part of the pain. At the end of nine long months, Dr. Mochizuki was inspected and given a clean bill of health, although virtually nothing was known of his new Anthroailurus fulgens biology.”

“It was good of the woman to stay with him,” Ken murmured. “She must have been scared out of her wits when his changing shape didn't match anything they'd had on record as a Fur.”

“By the time Dr. Mochizuki was ready to resume his duties as the director of his Institute, he surprised his assistant by asking her to marry him,” Marcelo continued. “They had grown close throughout his transformation and their relationship was foremost on the doctor's mind. Such a thing had never been authorized before, but at his insistence Stockholm agreed… and so did she. For the first time since Furs had been created, a human and a furman were married.  It took some doing to get local authorization to have a traditional Japanese wedding, but it was finally allowed and they legally became husband and wife in a private ceremony.”

“What a fairy tale!” Manny said with a laugh, smacking his paw on the conference tabletop. “I'll have to tell that one to my brother so he can tell his grandkids when they're old enough!”

“I am not finished,” Marcelo told him in obvious aggravation. “May I have permission to continue?” The fox sobered up immediately and leaned back in his seat without another word.  “Thank you,” said the director.

“Since they could never have children due to his condition, Chieko volunteered to go through the same process herself, to become a hybrid red panda like her husband, but Dr. Mochizuki forbade it. Although he had fallen in love with her over their months together, he did not want to see her suffer as he had. It would be enough for her to keep his house, groom him and continue to help him with their genetic research.”

The picture on the screen changed and this time the Toyohashi Furmankind Institute was in ruins. “The great Nankai-Tokai earthquake occurred three months later, and although Dr. Mochizuki and his wife survived the destruction, many there did not.  It took months for the cleanup and rebuilding to begin, but eventually there came a time when the doctor and his wife had nothing to do until things could be put back into operation.”

The next photograph showed the red panda standing with two pilots in front of the SS Branson at Spaceport America in Las Cruces, New Mexico. “Using the downtime as opportunity for further genetic research with other scientists, Dr. Mochizuki was allowed a two month visit to Space Station Sebra. Although Chieko was also a geneticist, she asked to stay behind to take care of their home and their dog.”

“That's when I met him,” Jon said quietly, “while I was up at Sebra.”

However,” Marcelo said in irritation at the interruption, “when the doctor returned to Earth after his extended stay in orbit, he discovered that Chieko had gone against his will and that of the AHCP. She'd talked an associate physician at the Japanese institute into injecting her with the formula from another red panda that they had properly prepared this time. By the time Dr. Mochizuki returned, she was well into her transformation.”

“Wow,” Ken remarked, keeping it brief.

“He was furious with her disobedience, but loving her as he did, he helped her through it all as she had done with him, keeping word of it from Stockholm until most of her transformation had completed. However, once he made his report to headquarters, the incident was not taken lightly. Chieko's earlier request to follow him through the transformation into a red panda had been denied, both by the doctor and by the AHCP, so in response to her blatant insubordination and misuse of AHCP facilities, she is being punished with no chance for appeal.”

“Okay, all this is leading up to something,” Jon grumbled. “Why are you telling us all of this?”

Marcelo changed the photograph once more to a portrait of Dr. Mochizuki and his wife Chieko, both in their red panda forms. This time, however, there was no annoyance in Marcelo's voice when he answered the cougar's question.

“The purpose of a Fur is for preemptive colonization of a potentially habitable world,” he reminded them. “As punishment for her disobedience, Chieko is being sent away from the Earth, and now that a mixed species group is going out, she is being included as a last-minute addition to your group.”

“She's coming here?” Manny asked with a look of surprise. “She's going out with us?”

“That's right,” the director answered. “She's not had the usual colony training, so she will depend upon all of you to help her find her own place within your settlement.”

“What about Dr. Mochizuki?” Jon asked, aware that Marcelo no longer seemed annoyed with their questions. “Did he put up a fight to keep her here?”

“He did, but it was to no avail. Stockholm refused to be swayed, standing on their final judgment. Although she had initially angered him with her disobedience, he was touched by her loyalty and determination to live as he lived for the rest of their lives together.  As her legal husband he was within his rights to refuse to be separated from her, so he resigned his position as director of the Toyohashi Institute so that he could join her in banishment from the Earth.”  Marcelo gestured toward the picture on the screen. “The AHCP did not take his resignation lightly, but Dr. Mochizuki will also be joining you as part of your group going to Bonestell.”

Avon sat upright in his seat. “Since he was the director of an Institute,” he said apprehensively, “is Dr. Mochizuki going to take my place as the leader of the colony?”

Marcelo shook his head. “No, my friend, that responsibility is still yours. You may tap into his knowledge and experience as needed, but Masanori Mochizuki and his wife Chieko will simply fill the role of biological and genetic scientists to help examine your new world.  None of this is a secret, so once you all leave here you are welcome to convey all I have told you to your associates.”

The room fell silent for several moments as the reality of what they had just been told began to sink in. Marcelo walked to the wall and flipped on a single light switch. Three overhead lamps flickered to life and everyone squinted in the sudden brightness.  Marcelo tapped a control on the podium and the wall-sized screen went dark.

Before anyone could think to say anything further, the director walked to another door on the end of the room near the podium.  He knocked quietly on the panel twice and then opened the door. 

“We are ready,” he said to someone in the next room. He stepped aside and then looked back at the Furs. “Gentlemen, I would like you to meet Dr. Masanori Mochizuki and his wife Chieko.”

Two red pandas entered through the door. They were both dressed in the typical Asian-style furman shorts and robes that were so familiar to the Adirondack Furs, and both of them walked in with their eyes down, looking at no one.  They knew that the furman representatives in the conference room would have just been told of their story and both of them had adopted a humble Japanese demeanor.

Both of the new Furs were shorter than most of those at the North American Institute, but Jon doubted that either of them had been very tall to begin with before their transformations. The fur of their faces was deep red, though Cheiko's coloring was a little lighter than her husband's. Both had black human scalp hair on the top. The lower part of their faces looked like soft cream, as was the interior of their triangular ears, but the cheetah-like cry lines beneath their eyes were a darker red. Their arms and legs were smoky black, but the thick brush of a tail behind each alternated in red and cream stripes. His stripes went up the entire length of his tail, but Chieko's stripes were only on the final half of hers.

As the appointed leader of the colonists bound for Bonestell, Avon approached the quiet couple and sat down in a chair in front of them so that he wouldn't seem so imposing, towering above them upon their first meeting.

“Welcome,” he said quietly, his voice a deep rumble in the small wood-paneled conference room. “I am Hiamovi Avonaco, head of the colony we'll be establishing. I am pleased to have you on my team. Please call me Avon.”

Dr. Mochizuki looked up and took the proffered hand paw with a small bow. “Thank you, Mr. Avon,” the doctor replied in a voice with a distinct Asian accent. “We know you have been made aware of the reason for our presence, so my wife and I hope to be of whatever assistance we can.”

Ken stepped forward with an outstretched hand and the red wolf gave the couple a pleasant smile sans teeth. “I am Doctor Ken Wilder, the colony physician. Your vast knowledge and experience will no doubt be invaluable to our efforts,” he said.

Manny stepped forward, introduced himself briefly, but then the arctic fox excused himself to find the restroom, uncomfortable with the newcomers' presence. There was something about their scent that put him on edge, though it was nothing that he could put his finger on. It was unlikely their diverse skills would bring them in much contact with him even in a colonial setting, so he figured that the less time he spent around them, the easier life would be overall.

When Jon approached the short red pandas he practically towered over them. He wasn't as tall as Avon, but instead of sitting down next to the grizzly, Jon gave them both a courteous bow.

“Hello,” he said quietly. “I am Jonathan Sunset, and I am well aware of how life can take roads that were unexpected.  If you feel the need to talk to someone about it, you will always find a sympathetic listener with me.”

Chieko looked up at him with a sorrowful expression. It was the first time she had met anyone's eyes since they had come into the room, and Jon was sure that she was feeling embarrassed at having her sins aired in front of a group of strangers.

“Are you the colony psychologist, Mr. Sunset?” she asked him in a demure voice.

Jon shook his head. “No, ma'am, I'm not. We do have one, but if you need a friend to talk to, sometimes that can be easier than unloading your troubles to a shrink.”

“Thank you, Mr. Sunset,” she replied.

“There's no need to be formal,” he said with a friendly smile. “You may call me Jon.”

“Thank you... Jon.”

Masanori put a gentle hand upon her shoulder and gave the cougar a grateful smile. “I'm afraid we will both be in need of friends,” the geneticist told him. “We don't fit in with any of the four furman races, so we are both feeling a little lost at this time.” He looked over at Marcelo briefly before turning back to the other two remaining Furs that had greeted them. “Although I have been director of my Institute for years, overseeing the transformation and education of many new Furs, I have never been through colony instruction myself.  I fear my wife and I are unprepared for the life that awaits us on Bonestell.”

“Although our races and backgrounds are diverse,” Avon told him, “we have a good, solid group that will help you with anything you may need. Setting up a life on an untamed world is going to challenge all of us, so we'll all need to help one another.”

“Thank you,” Masanori said gratefully. “Chieko and I will do whatever we can to add our usefulness to your efforts.”

Marcelo stepped forward and touched the geneticist on the arm. “If you will both follow me, I will get you set up with a place to stay and then we can finalize your paperwork before Dr. Wilder begins your physical examinations for his records.”

“Of course, Dr. Delgado.”

Before they turned to go, the red pandas gave the furmen a short bow. Avon returned a simple hand wave, but Jon and Ken both returned the bow in unison out of courtesy. Masanori moved toward the side door they had come in through with the director, but Chieko hesitated a moment. She nodded quietly to each of the Furs, looking at Jon last, and she gifted him with a small smile that clearly implied that she appreciated his offer of friendship. 

Friendship was more than she had expected from anyone who was cognizant of her disobedience — a disobedience that had resulted in banishment from the Earth for both she and her husband.  Ironically, she was totally unaware just how much Jon's own background made him a kindred spirit.

NEXT CHAPTER

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