LOST IN THE WILDERNESS
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Thirty-one Furs were crowded together at the large observation window to watch the colony ship approach the space station. As Slipships go, the Meriwether Lewis was not much to look at. Built more for functionality than aesthetics, it resembled nothing more than a fat winged cigar flattened on the bottom and narrower at the back around the interstellar slip-drive engines. While unneeded for space flight, the massive upper delta wings essential for descending into Bonestell's atmosphere gave the vessel the appearance of being the largest airplane any of them had ever seen.
Large cargo doors were flush with the curved sides of the vessel just forward of the engines. Its stubby nose was adorned with a single row of glassteel windows for the bridge flight deck. The overall external color scheme of the ship was dirty white, with its name and registry number painted red in small block letters across the cargo doors.
Unseen from the outside and aft of the bridge were several internal sections that rotated within the diameter of the ship around a central axis to simulate Earth normal gravity. The cryogenic capsules where the colonists would be spending the next eight weeks would rotate continually in a one-gravity environment so that bone and tissue mass did not diminish while they were sleeping.
Likewise, another rotating section near the cargo area contained larger cryogenic chambers for the sleeping livestock that had been loaded before the vessel had lifted off from the ground. Keeping the animals, birds, insects and the colonists all in frozen slumber would reduce the need for extra food and oxygen during the two month voyage to Bonestell. The two conversely rotating sections were in synchronous calibration with large gyroscopes so the ship wouldn't wobble in flight. Only the ship's crew would be awake for the full journey. Their quarters were within one of the E-Gee rotating sections, while the bridge itself was completely free of gravity until the ship was within the influence of a planetary body.
“We're going… in that,” Ivan muttered flatly.
“All the way to Bonestell,” Erin replied with a smile. “Don't worry, you'll be asleep for the trip.”
“It looks like she's been in service for decades!” Michael added, pushing back on Aldo and Manny who were crowding him from behind.
“It's not the years of service,” Gerard said, “but the mileage. It's a colony ship. Just think of how many solar systems it's been out to and back.”
“That doesn't make me feel any better,” the Swift fox replied. “I'm just hoping she has at least one more voyage in her, but she looks like a good solar wind would shake her apart.”
The large interstellar vessel fired its thrusters to slow its final approach to the station as it lined up with Sebra's extended airlock arm. There was a dull thump throughout the station a few moments later.
Wendy Miller reached over and tugged at the hem of Jenni's halter top. The leopard looked over at the canine woman. “Yes?”
“Are they really going to freeze us for the trip?” she asked quietly.
The nurse gave her a sympathetic look. “Yes, but it won't be anything like putting your grocery steaks in the deep freeze,” she told her.
“Yeah, this way your meat doesn't go bad,” Norman quipped, having overheard them. “I hate it when my meat goes bad, don't you?” he asked, looking aside at Gerard. The other bear only snickered, but when Jenni and Wendy each gifted Norman with an incredulous look, he laughed aloud at their expressions.
Jenni shook her head. “Don't mind him. If he doesn't behave, I'll make sure he's frozen solid in a block of ice!” Norman laughed again, but put up his hands in surrender. The feline nurse gifted him with a smirk and then turned back to the Golden Retriever.
“The cold sleep we'll go into is an electrochemical combination process that slows down all your body functions to the point where your cardiovascular, respiratory and other processes are in a type of suspended animation,” she explained. “You won't be completely stopped in time as in a stasis, but everything will be so slow that by the time you're awakened, it will only feel like you've just taken a nap.”
“Just a nap?”
Jenni put a reassuring hand on the canine's shoulder. “You'll be groggy and your muscles will ache a little when you first come out of it, but as with any long sleep, you'll wake up just fine.”
Wendy nodded and smiled, feeling comforted when Jenni returned her smile. They both turned back to the window, but very little of the Meriwether Lewis could be seen now as most of its bulk was out of view.
Privately, Jenni didn't feel as comforted as the canine woman. What she'd told her was true, but as the nurse who would be assisting Dr. Ken in preparing everyone for cryogenic freeze, she was fully aware of the processes necessary to put them into cold sleep for the long voyage. It would actually frighten most sane people if they'd known what was involved, so Jenni had done her best to keep a passive face with Wendy.
Although she'd never told any of her housemates the details, Ken and Jenni had assisted in the actual preparation of a long voyage traveler during their previous visit to the space station. It was necessary hands-on familiarity, but the experience had shaken the leopard woman with the knowledge. She was not looking forward to undergoing the process herself, but she and the doctor would be the last ones to go under after prepping everyone else. Conversely, the pair of them would be the first ones to come out of it—she hoped—when they finally reached their destination, to awaken everyone else.
With firsthand knowledge of the preparations, Jenni was tempted to volunteer to stay awake for the full eight week voyage to Bonestell to keep watch over everyone else.
Although Second Chance would be spending relatively little time on board the Meriwether Lewis while awake, the captain agreed to allow the Furs to have a floating tour of her vessel before they reported to medical for cryo preparations. Despite the size of the ship which was mostly devoted to the engines and cargo space, the interior felt small and confining, on a par with antique diesel-powered submarines. Some of the internal hatches were obviously not designed for the larger bulk of the Ursis Furs and all eight of them were tempted to forego the tour just to have room to turn around.
As with many commanders, Captain Katherine Adrienne was proud of her vessel, and although most of the Furs didn't think too highly of the ship, they were all courteous enough not to mention this to the one they would depend upon to get them safely from Earth to Bonestell. The thirty-something-year-old woman wore a royal blue set of coveralls and had an old-fashioned nautical cap pinned to the top of her thick red hair to keep it on her head in the weightlessness.
At last, the entourage of thirty-one visitors was taken through the zero-gee sections into one of the rotating internal drums that provided an Earth-normal gravity environment. The welcome feel of one's feet on the floor returned to them all and then the captain led them a short distance through a wider corridor.
“Here's where you'll be spending the next eight weeks, folks. It's not a four-star hotel, but you'll be comfortable enough on the ride out to your new home,” Adrienne explained.
The room in which she directed them was barely large enough for all of them to gather at once, so she had them stand around her against three of the four walls. The middle of the room contained three large medical beds with an array of instrument arms hanging over each from the low ceiling, but the thing that caught instant interest was the fourth wall that opened up to the cryogenic capsules that each of them would soon sleep in.
Despite that there were some rather big Furs in the group, each of the capsules would be just large enough even for Avon to occupy. In some respects, looking into the open ends appeared similar to the sleeping capsules of the space station, but instead of a whole wall of them, there were only three in view on a massive cylinder behind the bulkhead. Once each was occupied, the capsules would rotate inside the wall to bring the next three in line with the room. To more than a few of the Furs, the setup reminded them of a giant vending machine that would dispense each of them in turn when they reached their destination. Smiling to himself at the analogy, Jon hoped they'd brought enough coins to get them all out again.
The three in view were all empty, but the medical benches in the room were on tracks that would slide into each of them.
“I already feel claustrophobic sleeping in Sebra's capsules,” Wendy muttered with a little panic in her voice, “and now we have to spend another two months inside more space tubes?”
“You won't even notice,” Ken reminded her. “You'll be asleep before you even go inside it.”
“Knocking me out is the only way you're getting me into one of those!” Dara grumbled morosely, holding up her hand paws to look at her claws. “I've woken up every night in my sleep capsule since we got up here, ready to tear the walls off trying to get out!” She looked at the captain with a frown. “Can I volunteer to stay awake for the trip?” she asked.
Adrienne smiled but shook her head. “Sorry, ma'am, but we won't have enough food, water and air for the four month trip out there and back for more than just my crew.” She indicated the middle cryo chamber with a hand. “This is the only way that passengers get to travel with us, but don't worry. As your doctor fox said, you'll go to sleep out here in this spacious prep room and then you'll wake up in the same place. You'll have no awareness of cryo, the sleep tube or the passage of time whatsoever. You won't even dream while you're under and the process is a tried and true experience.”
Jenni was glad she was standing behind Jon and Avon where no one else could see the expressions of dread upon her face. The captain made the process seem as if it was no more than a simple anesthetic administered to knock them out. She did her best to swallow her fear and appear as if she were just another Fur along for the ride.
“How long until we go into them?” Michael wanted to know.
Captain Adrienne turned to Ken. “Just as soon as Dr. Wilder and Ms. Watson have checked in with my chief medical officer, they can begin the preparations. It will take some time to get all of you tucked into bed, so if you'll follow me, I'll take to you another chamber where you may relax until it is your turn.”
She motioned everyone back toward the doorway, but then she stopped and looked around at them with a smile. “It won't matter if you've eaten anything or not before you go into cryo, but I would recommend that everyone visit the head before each of you go in. Waking up with the need to pee after cryo is usually rather intense, so the fewer amounts of fluids in your system before you go in will be better for everyone. There's so many of you that a rush on the toilets might be disastrous!”
There were chuckles and a number of side comments as everyone followed the captain out of the room. After a moment of negotiating the narrow corridor again, they finally entered a large galley with tables and chairs with enough room for everyone, even the bears.
Ken and Jenni waited by the door for the captain to show them to her medical officer, but the commander loitered a moment to answer a question put to her.
“Where is this planet we're going to?” Ivan asked. “We've heard a lot about the world itself, but no one's said where this place is.”
Adrienne smiled at the red fox. “Bonestell orbits star L792-4, a yellow sun in the southern sky three point nine parsecs, or approximately twelve point seven light years from Sol. Up until a mere twenty-five years ago, L792-4 was relatively unknown in our skies, hidden from our astronomical line of sight behind Epsilon Eridani, but pre-colony investigation satellites in orbit around εEri made the discovery which set about an investigation of its own. L792-4 was originally thought to be a variable star due to a thick cometary dust cloud surrounding its solar system, so it was designated as such before the oversight was discovered. In other lists, it is now simply called εEri2.”
“Isn't Bastien located in the Epsilon Eridani system?” Ellie asked.
“That's correct,” Captain Adrienne replied to the wolf.
Ellie nodded. “Are you going to stop and pick up the two foxes still living there?”
The woman seemed pleased with the wolf's insight. “Yes, that is the plan, but it will be on the return voyage after your colony has been deposited on Bonestell.”
“Why not before, on the way out there?”
“I'm surprised the AHCP doesn't want to transfer them over to our colony since we just happen to be going their way,” Jasmine remarked. “We wouldn't mind having another couple of Vulps along, especially ones already experienced in setting up a new colony.”
Adrienne looked at the vixen and shook her head. “Due to the disaster on Bastien, the two survivors will be placed into quarantine to make sure what killed the rest of the colony isn't brought back with them, and then a full investigation will be made into the incident. No one wants to introduce a foreign element into your Bonestellan environment – beyond what you'll be taking there from Earth yourselves, that is. Those two will be going into a special quarantine module we have on board specifically for them so they won't inadvertently infect my crew either. The foxes may be immune, but we may not be. Entrance to this module is attained only from an airlock on the outside of the ship and none of my crew will be allowed to disembark while we're there to reduce contamination. Further investigation of Bastien will be the responsibility of some other ship.
“As for why we aren't stopping there first on the way out, that's simply a matter of fuel consumption. Right now, the Meriwether Lewis is loaded to full capacity with your cargo, livestock, supplies and a local year's worth of groceries for the pantry. Once we have off-loaded everything at your colony site, we'll be lighter and thus use less fuel on the landing and subsequent takeoff from the Bastien surface to retrieve the poor foxes.”
“Since εEri2 is in direct line-of-sight with Sol,” Jon mused, “won't we have to divert around the Epsilon Eridani system to get there?”
“That is correct,” Adrienne answered. “Ideally, we would skirt in close to the star to use its gravitational forces to give us extra boost on our way past it, but there are two asteroid belts orbiting Epsilon Eridani we would have to go through. Unlike what the entertainment industry likes to present in their vids, asteroids are relatively far apart and normally wouldn't present that much of a problem to fly through, but at the speeds we'll be traveling a single random rock could spell disaster. Circumventing the system altogether will take more time, but will be safer.”
“How long until we depart?” Carl asked.
The captain consulted her wristwatch and frowned. “Hmm, I didn't realize it was so late. We're scheduled to separate from Sebra at zero-hours Greenwich Mean Time, which gives us about five hours.” She turned to Ken and Jenni. “I'd best introduce you two to Dr. Dee so you can begin preparations to get your people into cryo before we depart.”
“Doctor Dee?” Jenni repeated.
“His name's D’allesantarino, but that's too much of a mouthful to say every time, so we just call him Dee.”
“After you, captain,” Ken said, prompting the commander to lead them on.
Adrienne turned back toward the gathered Furs and raised her voice above the conversations that had started up around them.
“Feel free to make yourselves comfortable here in the galley,” she said. “Your personal effects have already been stowed and your medics will call on each of you in turn when it's time to go into cryo. It's unlikely I'll be back in before we launch, so I'll see you all again once we've arrived at Bonestell in eight weeks. Welcome to the Meriwether Lewis, folks!”
When it was Jon's turn to go into cryogenic freeze for the journey to Bonestell, he found himself more than a little apprehensive. While bored and awaiting his name to be called, he had idly looked up the process of modern cryogenics on one of the ship's public terminals.
There was more to it that simply putting him to sleep and then sliding him into a freezer box. The procedure was more akin to embalming the dead. The body's entire blood supply was drained into a special holding tank specifically for that person and was replaced with a synthetic chemical that would slow down anatomical responses exponentially while still supplying oxygen to the system. This chemical would then react to electrical stimulus provided by a thin net of wires wrapped around the body to keep the nervous system functioning at a reduced rate while the temperatures of the capsule are dropped to freeze the body without danger of crystallization.
Then, when the months-long voyage reached its conclusion at their destination, each body would be recovered from its capsule and the procedure would be reversed, warming up the body and then replacing the chemicals with the owner's original blood supply that had been kept within a storage stasis field to slow its degradation. In the event of an emergency, the sleepers could be revived with the chemical solution still within them, but they would be little more than automatons with sluggish interiors and little conscious thought.
This procedure had been used mostly without fail since interstellar space flight had become a reality, and although it seemed there was a lot involved, the entire process only took twenty minutes from the moment the patient was anaesthetized into sleep for an average-sized individual; the Ursis Furs would likely take longer due to their larger body sizes.
The livestock going along for the ride would undergo a similar process, but the smaller insects and birds would go into a more mundane type of suspension stasis due to their more delicate physiologies. This process was also a tried and true method, but stasis generation required large amounts of power, which is why the larger animals and furmen went to sleep via chemical treatment instead.
Three human or furman bodies could be managed simultaneously in the Meriwether Lewis' cryo room, but with thirty-one Furs to process, it would take nearly four hours to get them all safely into their tubes.
Jon swallowed with difficulty when he, Kristen and Sissy were called in for their turn. His two companions chatted merrily with one another as they made their way through the corridor back to the cryo room, oblivious to what was ahead, but Jon knew that if he'd still been fully human that his palms would have been sweaty with anxiety. Even though he'd made the suggested visit to the toilet, he still felt a nervous urge to pee. He had to keep reminding himself that he had also initially feared the painful change of anthropomorphism and had safely lived through that process.
When they entered the room, Ken and Jenni awaited them with comforting smiles. If it was possible through her layer of spotted fur, the leopard female looked almost green around the gills, something Jon noticed immediately. He didn't know how many Furs had already been processed before him, but his former housemate was trying to put on a brave front for her friends.
Before they'd even approached the trio of beds, Jon noticed a row of canisters beneath each of them. He knew that the typical human body contained six quarts of blood and each of the canisters looked as if it could hold two gallons. Ken indicated which of the beds they would each occupy, and as the doctor was helping Sissy up onto hers, Jon focused on a label on one of the canisters beneath the middle bed; as he suspected, it had his name, blood type and date handwritten upon it. A lengthy chemical name was labeled on another beside it, probably his embalming fluid.
Jenni helped Kristen get situated on her bed and then she turned to him. The nurse saw the fear in his eyes and somehow knew that he was fully aware of what was about to take place. She tried to give him a reassuring smile, but Jon wasn't buying it. He'd seen a tiny splash of blood on the floor beneath his bed, which didn't help at all.
With a desperate swallow, he eased himself up onto the bed and found it not uncomfortable despite what was about to happen upon it. He was not squeamish at the sight of blood, but knowing what it represented made him squirm as he tried to get settled.
Jenni turned to Kristen, who appeared just as comfortable as if she were laying back to take a nap. “I'm going to start with Jon, if you don't mind,” she said.
Kristen shrugged. “Go ahead. I'm not going anywhere.”
The nurse turned back to the male cougar and lightly brushed the rusty red bangs back from his forehead.
“Just try to remain calm,” Jenni whispered to him, reaching up to a flexible face mask hanging from plastic tubing above his bed.
“I know what you're going to do to me,” Jon whispered back, keeping his voice so low that even she had trouble hearing him. “I read up on the process. How can I be calm?”
She put a gentle hand upon his chest. The thumping beneath her fingers was quick and hard. “Think of good things, Jon, a warm fire, a comfortable blanket, a good friend beside you. I'm going to administer the anesthetic and then the next thing you'll be aware of is waking up on the other side of our journey.”
“You promise that I will wake up?” he whispered.
She put her free hand over her heart and nodded. “I swear that my face will be the first thing you see when you reopen your eyes.”
Jon reached up and caressed her cheek with his fingertips. He gave her a resigned smile and replied, “I'll hold you to that. If it's Ken looking down on me, I might have to sock that red wolf's nose.”
She chuckled, guiding his hand back down to his side and then pulled the face mask down to his muzzle. It was designed to fit all snout shapes of Fur faces and once she had it in place around his mouth and nose, she said, “Close your eyes now and breathe normally. It will only seem like a few minutes before you will see me again.”
Jon did as he was told and was comforted that the aroma from the mask that tickled his nose had a slight cinnamon scent. He liked cinnamon.
The Meriwether Lewis eased away from Space Station Sebra right on schedule, small chemical thrusters pushing the colony ship to a safe distance before its orbital engines powered up. The vessel would make two revolutions around the Earth before it would break free on its new heading to another world, though the slip-drive would not be engaged until the ship was beyond lunar distance.
Asleep in their cryo-capsules, thirty-one furmankind colonists were completely oblivious to the universe around them and could not see the blue and white marbled planet one last time as they left their home world, possibly forever.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.