— by Ted R. Blasingame
“Now, while you are down on all fours, put your nose to the ground and breathe in soft and slow. You will want to pick up on any subtle scents that may be in the area; some will be instantly recognizable, but some will be so faint that you could easily miss them.”
Chieko did as she was instructed, and although she felt silly doing so, she did not voice her thoughts. Her fellow colonists had all had training concerning life as a Fur, but since she had left the Earth before her transformation was complete, the red panda sow had never had that opportunity. Some lessons she had learned on her own just by the very nature of her species, but other knowledge could be obtained through the generosity of her associates.
She and Jenni had been out in the warm afternoon air clothed only in furman shorts and their sun-warmed fur for the past hour and today's lesson had turned toward their noses. Standing on all fours was still a new experience for her, but for their current exercise, the stance was perfect for it and it was surprisingly comfortable.
When the Japanese woman slowly inhaled the scents in the grassy field of the horseshoe valley, there was a wealth of information that passed through her olfactory senses. There were many scents, some familiar, but most outside her experience to identify. She had been told that sifting scents was no different than sifting through voices in a crowded room. If she focused her attention, she could home in on a specific voice in order to hold a conversation. The same was true with odors, aromas and other scents.
She closed her eyes and sifted, breathing in deep and slow.
“Without looking,” Jenni said quietly, “tell me what you smell.”
“I smell burning wood from the camp, the horses, cows, pigs, chickens, guinea and sheep… and the latrines.”
“Those are all obvious. I think even a human nose could smell those. Focus on those not so obvious.”
“The grass almost smells like celery,” she answered after a quiet moment, “but I can also smell the soil beneath the grass. It's rich, with flavors of its own.”
“Good. What else?”
“Are you wearing a floral perfume?”
“Very good, but in this case it's not a manufactured scent; I rubbed one of the flowers from the forest behind my ears this morning after I bathed in the pool.”
“I don't recognize it other than just a flower,” Chieko said, her eyes still closed and her nose still down. She moved her head from side to side and discovered a particular scent was stronger in one direction than another.
“What is it?” Jenni asked.
“I… I don't know, but I think something went this way.”
“That's right. Something did come by here earlier.”
“What was it? It almost smells like damp vinyl, like it might have spent time in the water.”
Jenni smiled, pleased with the way the red panda's senses were developing. “It was a tort, one of the headless turtles. Raine and I saw it earlier heading out toward the woods while we were rolling around in the grass.”
Chieko opened one eye and looked aside at the leopard with a smile. “You and Raine?” she asked.
Jenni snickered. “You're being nosey.” The red panda felt embarrassed and started to apologize, but then she raised her head and looked back at her companion with bright eyes.
She touched the side of her nose and asked, “Isn't that why we're out here, so you can teach me to be nosey?”
The leopard female laughed aloud, her eyes narrowed in amusement. “Yes, I suppose you're right! Okay, for the sake of your argument, yes… me and Raine!”
The geneticist lowered her voice to barely a whisper and put her head close to Jenni's. “You may both be Felis, but leopards and cheetahs cannot breed,” she remarked. “Well, not in the wild anyway, but you might be able to as Furs.” Jenni's eyes grew wide in disbelief for only a moment. She chuckled and gently bumped foreheads with the red panda.
“You silly girl,” the nurse told her, “I never said we had any plans for kittens!”
“Then you two are not…?”
“I didn't say were weren't, Chieko — but a warm body to snuggle up to is better than sleeping alone, especially here in this place.”
The Japanese woman nodded. “Then I would wish you the best in your new relationship.”
“Thank you,” Jenni said with a smile. Then, as an afterthought, she gave her companion a mischievous smirk and added, “As Furs, we do have the ability to reproduce with others that are close on the genetic scale. They taught us back at the Institute that this was due to our human side of things. Felines and canines can't reproduce together, but felines and other feline types can.”
“As a geneticist, I should have known this,” Chieko admitted honestly, “but I didn't know that about Furs.”
“Regardless, I'm not making any plans right now to have any kittens, but I wouldn't rule it out. I can't speak for Kim's plans, though.”
Jenni gave her a wink. “Me and Raine. Kim and Raine,” she stated boldly.
Chieko's jaw dropped and the leopard giggled. “Doesn't… that bother you?” the Japanese Fur asked quietly.
Shaking her head, Jenni smiled. “No, and it doesn't bother Kim to share him either.”
“That would explain why Raine has been in an exceptionally good mood lately.”
The feline nurse laughed aloud. “You're probably right! Now, you nosey little panda, back to your lessons!”
Chieko's eyes crinkled in amusement, but before they could resume, they were interrupted by the quick approach of Dr. Mochizuki, who had been loping on all fours across the valley of pale green grass from the cavern. The expression on his face was stern and it seemed every muscle in his body was tense.
“Chieko!” he exclaimed, lightly panting. “You will not dishonor us by your shameless exhibition!”
Jenni looked surprised. “You don't want her to learn to use her new nose for scents?” she asked incredulously.
Masanori grabbed up their furman robe tops where they had been neatly folded nearby and shook them out in front of them both. “I am referring to these!” he huffed. “Cover yourselves – it's not proper to be so indecent out in public!”
Chieko took hers demurely and began dressing as ordered, but Jenni retrieved hers from the male panda and then held it up to him.
“We're covered in fur and showing less of ourselves than if we were human and wearing clothes,” she said with a smile, gesturing toward his shorter mate.
Although covered over her back and the top of her head with the color of rust, Chieko's fur from the neck down across the entire front side of her body was black and the curves of her small furman chest completely blended in with nothing showing through from beneath. Despite this, the elder doctor snorted in derision.
“No matter,” he said, “she is topless out in public, shamefully exposing herself while there are others present!”
Jenni looked at him as if he was the alien everyone had been dreading they might find. “She's only topless in your old-fashioned misogynist little mind,” she suddenly growled at the doctor. “As a human, she would be showing more skin in a one-piece swimsuit!”
“You have forgotten your place!” Masanori responded sternly. “You think because you are wearing shorts that you are still decent! We may be part animal now, but we are still human! Cover yourself!”
Jenni glared at him for only a moment before she deliberately stripped off her furman shorts and shoved them into his hands with her robe top. She had grown up in a family that frequented clothing-optional resorts and was no stranger to being completely bare or the attitudes of others, but this was different.
She spread out her arms and legs with her tail down behind her and stood before him. “Go ahead and inspect me, doctor!” she challenged. “Show me where I am exposed to the world! If we were back on Earth in a crowded shopping mall, I would still be covered up more than half the women there!”
Masanori cleared his throat in indignation. “You may have been free to roam the North American Institute in such decadence, but as the director of the Toyohashi Institute, I would have never allowed such a blatant display at my facility!”
“At our facility,” Jenni snapped, “many of the developed Furs were free to go topless, men and women alike — and I’m not the only one doing it here!” She stepped forward so that she was almost nose to nose with the older geneticist and tapped his chest with a claw-tipped finger for emphasis. “Furthermore, let me remind you that we are not on Earth and we are not at your Japanese Institute; you are no longer in command of anyone and you have no authority to make me do anything!”
Masanori sputtered and harrumphed indignantly, dropping the garments at her feet and stepping back away from the incensed leopard. He turned to his wife, grabbed her arm and led her away.
“You will not associate with this woman,” he demanded of her without looking back at the nurse. “I forbid you from speaking to her in anything but a professional capacity due to her medical station. I will not have you—”
“You can't forbid her from anything!” Jenni interrupted. “She is not your slave!”
Masanori turned back toward her and studied her with narrowed eyes. “Chieko is my wife,” he said in a surprisingly patient tone, “and she knows her place. I do not expect you to understand.”
Meekly, the red panda sow straightened the furman robe top she now wore and then quietly nodded, allowing her husband to lead her away on upright feet. She didn't look back at Jenni, keeping her eyes submissively down at the ground, and said nothing in her own defense.
Jenni took a step forward to go after them, but a growing background sound distracted her. At first, it sounded as if a large mosquito was coming out from the nearby woods, but the increasing crescendo of its buzz was reflecting off the grey rock surrounding the cavern. Masanori and Chieko stopped and looked up into the sky over the valley at the same instant that she did, immediately spotting the gyrocopter as it rounded the perimeter of the mountain.
The helmeted wolf at its controls guided the small craft toward the large open area of the field, out away from the lake, the large domed barn, the gardens and the animal pens. Others came running from the cave and some from the woods to converge near the spot where he set down. Those in the immediate vicinity kept back out of range of the spinning rotor and others that arrived advanced no farther. Jenni, Chieko and Masanori momentarily forgot their argument and joined the crowd around the ultralight aircraft and its lupine pilot.
Ellie rushed forward and embraced him tightly after he unbuckled his harness, pulled off the transparent helmet and stepped up from his seat. She nearly bowled him over to chuckles from the crowd and she licked his muzzle in a decidedly canine manner.
Avon was not present, so Jon stepped forward and extended a hand. “Welcome back, flying wolf!” he said with a smile. “How was your little excursion?”
Carl gave him a canine grin, slipping one arm around his wife's waist and shook the cougar's proffered hand with the other. “Everything went according to plan,” he replied. “No problems, no issues, but there's lots to tell. Where's Avon?”
“Ken's got him in the Infirmary. C'mon, we can go make your report to him.”
“Aww, come on!” Michael called out from the crowd. “Are you just going to ignore us or are you going to tell us what you saw?”
The wolf's grin widened. “I promise to tell you all a bedtime story as soon as I've had a chance to talk to our esteemed captain first,” he said to the crowd.
“That's not fair!” Sissy whined. “He's not here but we are – tell us first!”
Carl looked at Jon with a wilting expression. “A little help, please?” he asked quietly.
“Sorry, Sissy,” the mountain lion said while adjusting the shoulder strap of his overalls so it didn't bind in his fur. “You know the rules as well as anyone – an explorer reports to the colony captain first. We'll make sure Carl gets a chance to let everyone know what he saw, probably over lunch so we can let our other explorers tell their stories too.”
“Yeah, I've told parts of our trip to several people already,” Manny complained, “but I would rather tell everyone all at once instead of having to repeat myself over and over!”
“Can you give us just a tidbit, Carl?” Dahlia asked. “Something to tide us over?”
The wolf smiled again. “I flew up alongside the mountains, moved out over forest and plains, over a lake, saw new critters and birds and came back,” he said vaguely. “Tune in at eleven for the details!”
Sissy pushed out her bottom lip and gave the wolf a disgruntled glare. “Tease…” she said. Ellie poked her husband in the side and he jumped, but Jon patted him on the back.
“Come on,” he said. “The quicker you make your report, the sooner we can get all the children together so you can all tell your tall tales.”
Despite a few groans and remarks muttered beneath low breaths, the crowd began to disperse. Jon gestured toward the cave and the wolves followed him. Before they'd traversed a few yards, however, they heard the electric starter of the gyrocopter turn over and the back prop spin up. Carl whirled around quickly and saw Kevin jump away from the aircraft's pilot seat as the motor shut back down. The young fox looked embarrassed at having been caught and his eyes were wide when the wolf looked at him darkly.
“Unless you have any experience flying one of these,” Carl said to the small fox in a voice loud enough to carry across the crowd, “please don't climb around on it and play 'ground pilot'. It's not a toy and you can get hurt!”
“Sorry…” Kevin squeaked in a small voice. The wolf nodded once and then turned back toward the cave.
“Maybe you should have locked the car and taken the keys,” Jon suggested.
“Unfortunately, the gyro doesn't use a key, just a starter switch.” Carl looked up at the cougar and gestured toward the colony in the cavern. “Why's Avon in the Infirmary?” he asked. “Did something happen?”
Jon snickered. “All the bears decided to go swimming in the lake. They got out near the middle where it's deepest and Avon ran into a little trouble.”
“He met up with a swarm of little bitty water creatures that ganged up on him to see if he was tasty. They're mostly harmless since they can’t even break the skin, but a number of them latched onto his fur around his nether regions and don't want to let go even out of the water; Ken’s having to cut them out of his fur.”
“He should have kept his shorts on,” Carl remarked with a smirk. “What about the other bears?”
Ellie laughed and answered, “Avon seems to be the only one the little critters went after, so the others bailed out of the lake and left him to defend himself. He wasn't too happy about that.”
They walked across the little wooden bridge across the stream and then up the trail into the cavern. The Infirmary dome was further inside near one of the rock walls of the cave and when they got to the door, Jon stuck his head inside; he saw the red wolf still working on the grizzly's damp fur between his legs. A shallow pan containing bits of fur and small silvery objects was on a folding table beside the large bear that almost didn't fit upon the gurney on which he lay. Avon had a look of quiet resignation upon his face as he stared up at the overhead LED lamp, his legs wide apart in stirrups typically meant for the ladies.
“Hey boss,” the cougar said in amusement. “Our winged wolf is back from his flight.”
Ken looked up, but Avon visibly cringed without looking away from the lamp. “I'm way past embarrassment by now, but can it wait?”
“Sure, just look me up when you're ready,” said Carl's voice from outside the door. “I'll probably be surrounded by the curious crowd begging me for details.”
Avon bit his bottom lip, not from what the doctor was doing in a sensitive place, but in thought about the wolf's report. “C'mon in and tell me now,” Avon grumbled. “I'd rather you told me what you found before you detail your exploits to the masses.”
“Are you sure?” the wolf queried, uncertain he and his wife should be there with their leader spread out as he was. Ellie stayed out of sight, trying to stifle a giggle.
Avon sighed aloud. “Come on in and give me your report,” the grizzly said with a deep frown, turning his head to look aside at the grey wolf.
Carl kept his gaze averted to the dome's curved walls and leaned up against a cabinet. “First, I just want you to know that there were no issues with the gyrocopter,” he began. “It performed as it was supposed to. I started my flight to the northwest, moving along the edge of the mountains to see what life might flourish at the upper elevations, but wind shears kept me from spending too much time up there. Near the north side of our mountain here, I saw several of the mooshelk that Aaron and Gerard discovered, though I saw more numbers of them than they'd seen. Before I went too far north, however, I swung out across gently rolling green hills to the west that merged into a large forest interspersed with some open plains. To the southwest was a large herd of thunderpigs, and in a low flyby, I saw a number of smaller young among them.”
With no other chairs besides the roller stool that Ken sat upon as he worked, Carl sat down on the floor on his haunches to make himself more comfortable. Ellie remained outside in the cavern to let Avon have a semblance of privacy.
“Seeing the young hogs got me thinking,” the grey wolf said. “We failed in our earlier attempt to hunt one of the larger pigs, but how about we mount another hunt and cull one of the young shoats from the herd instead? We'll still have the adults to contend with, but maybe we can divide them and separate a smaller one away long enough to take it down.”
Avon glanced over at his second in command, the expression on his face one of consideration. “Jon, what do you think?” he asked.
“The idea has merit,” the mountain lion replied, idly zipping one of his dog tags up and down on its chain. “It still wouldn't be an easy task, since even the small ones are probably as large as a full grown African warthog, and those things are formidable. However, we'd probably have better luck bringing down a younger, inexperienced one. We have our own livestock to be raised as food, but we've always known we need try to find indigenous things to eat in order to survive beyond what we brought with us. Thankfully, we've discovered local birds, herbs, fruit and vegetables we can eat safely, but we need a larger animal to sustain the appetites of a whole colony of predators. We're omnivores, but primarily carnivores. We're going to need lots of meat to survive. The thunderpigs are large enough to sustain us, but first we must find out whether or not they're edible or if they're bad like the lil-deer.”
“To reduce the danger on the hunt,” Carl added, “perhaps we can use the compound bows instead of just trying to take one down with nothing more than teeth and claws. I think even that would have made a difference last time with the adult.”
“I think that first hunt was more for some of us to try out our new bodies and it didn't really matter if we brought in something or not,” Jon said, “but the purpose of the next hunt should be to bring in meat. I like the idea using the bows. There was a reason they blended us with animals to give us strength, stamina and other senses as a leg up on survival, but we're also more than wild animals. We still have the cunning and intelligence of mankind with thousands of years of experience and we should take every advantage that opportunity gives us.”
Avon nodded. “I agree with all of this,” he said. “We'll get together and make plans within the next few days.”
Carl was pleased that his idea was met with approval, so he continued with his report. “Also to the southwest is a large lake and there were whole herds of other animals in the fields near it.”
“What were they?” asked Ellie's voice through the door.
“I don't really know,” the wolf replied. “Other than being quadrupeds, they were unfamiliar to me from a distance and I couldn't get close enough to them with the gyro to take any pictures. They scattered at the sound of my engine and dispersed in all directions, running for the cover of nearby trees and rocks.”
“Maybe they thought you were a large aerial predator,” Ken muttered as he worked. Removing the tiny critters from Avon's fur was not that difficult, but the effort was time-consuming. He could work without giving too much thought to the task or the region where he was facing, and had been interested in the other wolf's report.
“If they thought he was some large flying predator they're familiar enough to panic over,” Jon mused, “what did they think he was? We've seen nothing in the air larger than the arrowheads, but those are only about the size of a turkey – if turkeys could fly.”
The small group fell silent for a moment, all entertaining similar thoughts about possible hidden dangers. After a spell of uncomfortable silence, Jon asked, “What about the lake? Was it a freshwater lake? I know there's an ocean that direction from the satellite photographs Dr. Bohnestiel showed us back at the Institute, but I don't recall how close it might be.”
“Freshwater lake, I would guess. I didn't notice what fed into it as its source, but I also found what looked like salt flats about twenty miles to the west. I wanted to land and investigate, but with the time limit Avon gave me, I didn't really have the luxury.”
“Why did you want to land there?” Ellie's voice asked. “I probably would have wanted to land at the lake to look around.”
Carl shook his lupine head, an action she couldn't see, but it was Avon who replied. “It's the salt,” he guessed. “If that's really sodium chloride that we could process, it would be a great local resource in preserving meat to last through the winter.”
“If it's lil-deer meat you want to preserve,” Jon said with a grin, “forget it!”
“I wouldn't want to preserve that either,” Carl responded with a chuckle, “but if the pigs turn out to be edible, we could use the cool back areas of the cavern to store enough for all of us. We might even take a shot at the mooshelk for possible food. Two hours didn't really give me much time to explore, even from a distance by being up in the air,” he said. “With your permission, I would like to take another day to properly check out some of the things I saw and also expand my range.”
Avon looked over at him with a frown. “It sounds like you made good use of the gyrocopter, Carl, but my earlier concerns still exist. Sending along a single-seater was an oversight – despite how well a couple hours went, you would still be out there alone. If you could take someone with you, I wouldn't be so hesitant, but I don't think there's any way to upgrade the motor to handle the weight of two people even if you could jury-rig another seat.”
“Avon,” Carl countered, “I've had survival training, I've taken solo hikes across the Grand Canyon, up into the Rockies, and I've even gone up into the dangerous Superstition Mountains in Arizona – all before I met Ellie. Since we've been married, we've taken wilderness vacations on the African savannah, into the Amazon rainforests, the mountains of Tibet, and across the Australian outback as well as other places just as rugged, but traveling alone by myself is nothing new to me.”
Moving only his eyes, the grizzly looked over at Jon. “If I ask your opinion, are you going to side with him against me again?”
The cougar crossed his arms. “Hypothetically speaking, if you were to ask my opinion,” he said, “I would remind you that we're here to explore. I agree that traveling alone is risky, but if anyone has to go it alone, Carl is the best one for the job.” He looked over at the door and called out, “No offense, Ellie.”
“None taken. Carl is the best suited for solo exploring,” she replied. “I want the chance to see our new territory from the air myself, but as much as I don't like to be separated from him for long, Carl's your man, er, wolf for the job.”
Avon sighed audibly. “All right… Carl, you may leave at first light on our next good weather day. I'll even give you the same time limit as I gave the others. You must be back in eighteen hours or less to do your exploring. You will report in to me by radio every two hours and let me know of any concerns you may have along the way. Just remember that in the event of an emergency or injury, you will have no one to help you.”
“Thank you, sir,” Carl answered with a smile. “I will stick to the rules and will be back within the allotted hours. I'm sure the time spent on this trip will yield important finds to make it worth the risks.”
Avon nodded. “I guess I can't ask for more. You know more than most on what to pack for such a trip, so I'll let you and Ellie make your plans. I just hope you don't make me regret my decision to let you go.”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.