LOST IN THE WILDERNESS
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Jon felt a gentle pat — somewhere. He couldn't tell where. It tapped him three more times and there seemed to be some muffled sound with it, but through the hollowness in his consciousness it was hard to distinguish what it might be. He swallowed with some difficulty and wondered if he should open his eyes. Nope, he decided eons later. Sleep.
Pat. Pat. Pat.
What was that? Hmm? Go away. Sleep.
No, don' wanna. Sleep.
“K'mahn, dzon. Wecup.”
“Come on, Jon. Wake up, please. Wake up. Wake up.”
Some kind of illumination lit up the far side of his eyelids. What was that?
He felt something else. What was it?
One of his eyelids was pulled back and a bright light was shone into his eyes.
He blinked, closed his lids again tightly, and then some foreign sound rumbled from the depths of his throat. It might have been an animalistic growl.
“Come on, Jon. Look at me.”
The mountain lion rolled his eyes back and forth beneath the lids, but then he made an effort to open them. He didn't want to do anything more than sleep, but the voice was so insistent that he decided to do it just so the annoying onslaught against his ears would stop.
He opened first the left eye and then the right, but could not seem to keep both open at the same time. There was nothing but a grey blur in front of either of them, so he didn't feel there was anything to see anyway. He closed his eyes again, but that insistent, annoying pat on his cheeks resumed again. He finally sighed in irritation and opened them both at the same time. Something large and dark hovered above him for a moment before the bright light shone into his eyes again, forcing him to squint hard. That really made him want to close them again.
He put his lips together and tried to say something argumentative, but he was having difficulty making his mouth do what his brain tried to tell it.
“That's it, Jon. Come out of it. Your vital signs all look good. I just need you to look at me.”
“Getthatlightouttamahface,” he tried again in a raspy voice that he didn't recognize. The light immediately shut off and the dark nebulous image hovered over him again.
“That's better. Now focus please. Focus your eyes.”
Do what with my eyes?
“Focus on me, Jon.”
Focus? What did that word mean? Was it a foreign term? He thought for a moment, accessing his sluggish mental dictionary. Oh yeah, it means go back to sleep.
“Wake up and open your eyes, Jon,” that annoying voice insisted again.
Sigh. It took a tremendous force of will to make his eyes obey, but after a decade they finally widened and he began blinking rapidly without conscious control.
Stop it, he told himself. Pay attention to the dream.
He couldn't think of a reason to focus his eyes, but he suddenly became stubborn, deciding he was going to rebel and do it anyway.
The dark blob slowly sharpened into what he determined was a face, but it was unlike any face he could recall. He somehow remembered that he was going to another planet, so it seemed likely that the blob belonged to an alien that was probably going to probe all his orifices to see what made him tick. He felt like he ached all over, so perhaps the demon had already experimented on him.
Something waved in front of his eyes and he tried to track it with only marginal success.
“Keep trying, Jon,” the voice told him patiently.
He swallowed again and cleared his throat. “Gimmee minnit,” he croaked.
It took an extraordinary strong will, but he struggled in an internal battle with his wavering eyeballs, and one of them finally started to respond to his will. He closed his eyes again tightly for a heartbeat and then reopened them. This time, a broad nose came into view, surrounded by some kind of blotchy, spotted skin. Was it diseased? No, it was leopard, not a leper, he decided. Two large green eyes were looking back at him, but they were still slightly blurry. Something about the face seemed familiar, but it only took another moment for him to recall who she was. The brain cells were finally coming back from vacation.
“Need ma glasses,” he murmured.
There was a light chuckle. “You don't wear glasses, Jon. You just need to concentrate. Look at me; it's time to wake up.”
He swallowed again and felt as if his throat was slowly loosening up. “Are we there yet, mommy?” he muttered. The fog seemed to be clearing from his mind too.
“Yes, son. We're there yet.”
“Good. Can I go back to sleep now?”
“No, it's time to get up and get ready for school.”
“The weekend's never long enough,” he grumbled. “Haven't done m'homework yet.” He looked up at the leopard's face again and everything finally slid into focus. Jenni smiled down at him and she brushed stray locks of hair from his forehead.
“It's good to see you again,” she said. “Welcome back. How do you feel?”
“Still groggy, but waking up.” He paused and took quick inventory of his fingers, toes and other extremities. “I seem to be all here but I ache all over.”
“That's normal, but it will pass. Let me get an arm beneath you and then I'll help you sit up.”
“How long have I been asleep?”
“Fifty-eight days, just a hair over eight weeks.”
“It feels like I've had a long restless night. I think my tail's asleep from lying on it for so long.”
“Maybe Kristen can massage it for you when we revive her,” Jenni suggested impishly. “We both know she'd like to get her hands on your backside anyway.”
“Cute,” he responded dryly, feeling her arm slide between his back and the bed beneath him. “Did we make it to Bon… Bonestell?”
“We're a little over a day away,” she replied, helping him into a sitting position. “Dr. Dee wanted time to get everyone out of cryo to make sure we were all okay before we land, so Captain Adrienne dropped out of slipstream a few days early.”
Jon rubbed the backs of his hands over his eyes and then looked over at the other two empty cryo beds. “Where's Kris and Sissy?” he asked, remembering them going under at the same time as he did.
“They're still asleep. It didn't matter which order you went into cryo, but protocol specified that the leaders of the colony were to be awakened next after the medical personnel. Ken is with Avon now at the chief medical officer's desk and I've been instructed to take you there when I could get you up on your feet.”
Jon swung his legs over the side of the bed and put his toe pads on the cold tile. “I miss the carpet of the space station,” he grumbled. Jenni put her shoulder underneath his arm to lend support.
“Just take it slow,” she told him. “We have plenty of time, so there's no need to be in a hurry.”
“Thanks.” He eased up onto his feet, feeling a little wobbly, so he kept his arm around her shoulders for a moment longer. He was silent for a moment, but then he looked down at her.
“Were you scared?” the cougar asked in a whisper. “Knowing you were going to be embalmed?”
Jenni remembered that Jon knew the details of the cryo process and she nodded. “Yes, I was. I think you, Ken and I are the only ones who know what goes into the preparations and I will admit only to you that I wasn't at all confident I would wake up again.” She looked up at him with sad eyes and added, “I was afraid I was probably going to die.”
“Me too,” Jon admitted. “I think this is the third or fourth time in the past year that I really thought I was going to die. You'd think I would be used to it by now, but I'm not. It isn't a good feeling.”
“No, I suppose not. Thankfully, we're still among the living – or back among the living, as the case may be.”
“Yes, thankfully. We know this process has been used successfully for years, but even knowing this doesn’t take away the fear.”
“That's the truth. Okay, now. Are you ready to try standing on your own? If not, we can wait a few more minutes.”
“Let me try,” Jon replied. “I'd like to discover that I can walk again because I really need to pee.”
It took more time to revive everyone than it did to put them under. As with Jon, it seemed to take an extraordinary amount of time to reverse the process and then get everyone awake and back up on their feet. Dr. Dee had confirmed that the extra time coming out of it was normal, so there was nothing to worry about. In the meantime, Avon and Jon were together discussing the role of the colony leaders. Most of it was straight forward, but there was one policy to be shared only between the two of them.
“None of the others can know about the Emergency Protocol,” the grizzly told him over cups of fresh coffee in a secluded room. “You already know that we're contracted to the colony for five years, but what you've not been told is that we do have a way out if things get too rough. Although we've brought along enough food to get us through one full local year, we should try to establish our own gardens as soon as we can after establishing our base camp, whether from Terran seeds or by discovering what indigenous food we can safely eat that will provide proper nourishment to survive. By the end of that first year, we should know whether or not Bonestell will sustain us on its own. If not, then the Emergency Protocol will go into effect and we can request a recall ship to come and get us.”
“That sounds reasonable.”
Avon took a sip of his coffee without breaking eye contact with the mountain lion. “Here's where it gets tricky. If a recall is requested before the end of our first year — and that's a local year, which is longer than an Earth year — they will come to get us, but we will all forfeit the prize money guaranteed to us for a fulfilled contract. If we make it past the first year, that should determine we're established well enough to make it for the next four years on our own.”
“What happens if we do okay the first year, but things go bad later on as they did on Bastien?” Jon asked.
“After the first year, we can signal for a recall at any time as a last resort. We won't forfeit the prize, but our five year contract may start over at another colony. Those two Vulps still on Bastien have been there a little over four years. After they've been quarantined and later face a full investigation, they could be sent to another Vulps colony or they could be sent out with a new one like ours. Unfortunately, their five years will start over before they can claim their prize money.”
“Wow, that's tough,” Jon mused. “Why wouldn't their previous time count toward whatever new colony they're posted to? That seems unfair.”
“A lot of Furs agree that it is unfair, but it was also fully declared in the contracts we all signed. I doubt any one of us read the fine print so completely, but it's all there in print and we agreed to it with the signature of our thumbprints. It takes a lot of funding to send out just one ship, no matter how near or far it may be going, so if those expenses are considered wasted by a failed attempt, headquarters will be more tightfisted the next time.”
Jon sat back in his chair, frowning at the absence of a slot for his tail. “Why is our Emergency Protocol such a secret to be kept from the rest of the colony?” he asked, readjusting his tail into a more comfortable position.
“To keep it from being abused,” Avon answered. “As far as everyone else knows, there will be no recall available until we've either fulfilled five years or if over eighty percent of the colony personnel is lost — just as it happened on Bastien. If it became known that we had a quicker way out, there would be little incentive for the colony to survive through rough times. The decision to initiate a recall after the first year will be completely up to me, but if something happens to me, that decision falls to you. If the others knew about it, some of them might try to pressure us into it if disaster strikes and everyone wants to go running back to Earth.”
“What about Masanori? He was director of his branch of the Institute, so I'm sure he's aware of this protocol. I've only known him a few days and can't see him being a troublemaker and doing so, but if things get bad, he could incite the others by letting them know about this rule.”
Avon shook his ursine head. “He doesn’t know about it and neither did Marcelo. The directors aren't on a need-to-know basis for everything.”
“Huh,” Jon grunted, toying with the shiny new military-style dog tags he wore on a chain around his neck. Jenni had presented them to him just before he'd been released from the cryogenics chamber. They didn't contain as much information as their pet microchips, but they'd been deemed just as necessary to colony life for personal identification. Oddly enough, he liked wearing them, though he'd never served in the military.
“We can probably expect some rough times before we get established, but we have to do our best to try to make this work before bailing out. If everyone believes we'll break contract if we leave early, they will be more likely to stick it out. That is why we have to keep this between us. The Emergency Protocol is not written down anywhere in the material we've brought with us, nor is it contained on my PBJ. Just as I'm doing now with you, this was entrusted to me verbally by a visit from an AHCP representative once I had been formally selected to head a colony. If you had let me recommend you as leader of a Felis colony as I'd originally intended, you would have had a similar visit if selected.”
“Hmm, okay. I know we joked about it earlier,” Jon said, “but are there any other hidden agendas or secret orders we have concerning Second Chance?”
“No, we're pretty much left up to our own whims to handle the day to day operations and decisions, but there are some inflexible guidelines in some areas you need to know about before we get down there. These aren't secret, but you should be aware of them if you aren’t already.”
Jon looked over the large galley where the Furs were all relaxing with snacks and drinks after everyone had been revived and over their lethargy. The general mood was one of relief that they'd all made it out of cryo alive and well. To most of them, it had simply been a deep sleep, while others had anxiety attacks before going in. Despite his fears of never waking up again, Jon felt he'd handled the experience well enough without lingering psychological problems. With luck, he'd never have to go through that process ever again.
Avon was currently forward in another compartment with the Logistics Officer concerning issues with their livestock and had asked him to make an announcement on behalf of the captain. The cougar had no issues with the request, as the news would hardly be a surprise after the time they'd spent weightless on the space station over Earth.
“Okay, listen up, fuzz-butts!” he called out over the din of conversations. “I have an announcement to make!”
“Who are you calling a fuzz-butt, Fuzzy-Face?” Gerard called back just as loudly.
Jon pointed a stubby finger at the brown bear. “That would be you!” he retorted with a toothy grin. There were a few more good-natured catcalls and comments before the cougar finally waved both hands in the air.
“Okay, okay, quiet down now,” he said. “Captain Adrienne has a job for us to do. We have roughly a day before we make landfall and—”
“Is that a Terran day or the longer Bonestellan day?” Kevin interrupted.
“The ship's clocks have stretched a bit due to Einsteinian slip, but they're still on Greenwich Mean Time. Per ship's time, we will drop from orbit at 14:15 tomorrow afternoon.” Jon looked at the fennec fox and nodded. “We won't be on a Bonestellan day until we actually land. Avon told me that one of the first things to be issued to us will be the new watches and they'll all be synchronized automatically to the local area according to the satellite stationed geosynchronous overhead.”
“Can we see Bonestell yet?” Wendy asked. “If we're only a day away, shouldn't it be in view right now?”
“Since we're heading directly toward the planet, it can only be seen from the bridge. It can't be seen from any of the observation windows on the sides of the ship.”
“Have you seen it, Jon?” Kristen asked hopefully. “What's it look like?”
“I may be Avon's first officer, but I'm not allowed on the bridge. Avon's the only one among us with that privilege, but he couldn't fit his bulk through the bridge door to see it. The captain told him that we're coming into this solar system with the planet almost directly between us and its sun, so we're coming in on its dark side. We're getting really close, but there's not much to see from here even if we could.”
“That's not very exciting,” Wendy mused.
“That's exactly what I told Avon,” Jon remarked.
“So what's this job the captain has for us?” Manny asked. “Are we going to swab the decks?”
“You're not far off,” Jon replied with a smirk. “The rotational sections of the ship that provide us with the simulation of gravity will need to be shut down prior to dropping into the planet's atmosphere. Once that happens, everything loose is going to be floating free for a while, and this includes things like your drink cups, pillows, and blankets, grooming brushes, cracker crumbs, any fur you've shed and everything else. We are going to police every compartment and every section for cleanup detail. Containers for all ship's material and refuse will be provided to us and then stowed into wall lockers, and each compartment is equipped with a vacuum system.”
Jon held up his copper-colored PBJ. “I'm going to appoint teams in pairs to help one another in this cleanup that will be assigned specific areas. Before the rotational sections are halted, Avon and I will inspect every compartment and once the Logistics Officer is satisfied with our results, he will inform the captain that landing preparations can begin. Now, I'm going to call the names for you and your partner, along with the section your pairs will begin cleaning. Once you've finished one area, consult the schedule I'll share with your PBJs to see where you should work next.”
“What will you be doing while the rest of us are cleaning?” Alicia asked with her arms folded across her chest.
“You'll find me and Avon listed on the roster too,” he told her, correctly guessing that she suspected the two colony leaders would be doing nothing more than supervising. He gave her a nod when she appeared satisfied with his reply.
“Is the ship's crew going to help us clean?” Hank asked.
Jon shook his head, looking at the black bear. “While we're cleaning, the Meriwether Lewis is going to cozy up to the geosynchronous relay satellite that's been orbiting Bonestell over the original colony site for the past decade. It stopped transmitting around the same time the Magellan disappeared, but they're hoping its memory logs can shed some light on the mystery. The crew is going to be busy bringing it on board and then replacing it with a new one built with better systems and extra backups.”
“We're that close to Bonestell?” Jenni asked in awe.
“We're almost there now, and by the time we've all finished cleaning up the ship, we'll be in a desirable orbit preparing to drop into the atmosphere.” He looked at his paper again. “Now, we all need to get started. Hank, you and Ivan will begin with section one, compartment four. Aaron and Gerard will take section one, compartment six. Masanori and Chieko will do section two, compartment one…”
As he read off the names and assignments, Jon felt a sense of accomplishment. For the past year, he had often wondered what kind of role he might play in the colony, and with his past management experience, he finally felt like he had a real purpose.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.