— by Ted R. Blasingame
Carl looked up at the blue-green sky and rubbed his hands together in anticipation. The strong winds of the previous day were now calm as the sun lit up the peak of the mountain that overshadowed the little horseshoe valley. There were no clouds in the sky, but heavy dew had fallen during the night that now rose as a thickening morning steam.
Unwilling to wait until there might be someone or something to delay his departure once again, the grey wolf nodded to his wife and then began preparing the gyrocopter for a full day of aerial exploration. He had already been up for hours, but had awaited the dawn before making his decision.
Ellie had checked his pack twice, making sure he had plenty of provisions, full charges on his PBJ and the hand radio he would use to check in with Avon. The grizzly bear was currently snoozing in his bed and could still be there for some time, but Carl didn't want to wait until when he might awaken before leaving; he wanted to make the best use of the time allotted to him.
Certain that all was ready, the wolves embraced, nuzzled and then gave one another an affectionate lick. Carl promised to be careful and then squeezed his erect ears up into the transparent helmet. There were others up and about tending to chores, but since he'd not made any specific announcement on the time of his departure, Ellie was the only one on hand to see him off.
The wolf crawled into the seat of the contrivance, buckled himself in, double-checked the power cell charge, and then started up the motor. Ellie removed herself to a safe distance before he engaged the upper rotor, and then he was off the ground after rolling only a couple dozen feet across the grass.
Ellie watched him until he disappeared over the trees to the northeast before she turned back toward the barn to help feed the animals. Before she'd made it to the corral, Avon emerged from the cavern rubbing sleep from his eyes with a look of annoyance. He searched the sky for the gyrocopter, but seeing nothing, he looked around until he saw the she-wolf. She smiled and waved, but then returned her attention to the corral.
The grizzly bear ambled down the path to the valley floor and then approached her at the barn. “Did Carl just take off?” he demanded.
“Yes,” Ellie replied as if there was no edge to the bear's tone. “He wanted to get an early start to his day so he could be back well within his time limit.”
“Why didn't he check in with me before he left?”
The wolf looked up at the bear and twitched an ear. “You were still asleep and we didn't know when you'd be up,” she answered. “He just left, so I'm sure he'll check in with you in a couple hours.”
“I wanted to talk to him before he left,” Avon grumbled.
“You had plenty of time to discuss anything you wanted last night,” Ellie reminded him, an edge of her own in her voice. “You were too busy fishing to talk to anyone, so it's not his fault. You'd already given him permission to leave when the weather was good, so he didn't feel the need to ask again. If you really need to give him extra instruction, I’m sure you can relay it to him over the radio.”
Avon looked at her and raised an eyebrow at the tone of her voice. Suddenly feeling there would be nothing gained by having an argument with her when he was still half asleep, the bear simply nodded.
“I will catch up with him later,” he acquiesced. Ellie's expression softened and she gestured toward the interior of the domed barn.
“If there's nothing else,” she said, “I need to feed the chickens. They're starting their autumn molt and aren't laying as many eggs, but we still need them healthy.”
“Of course,” he mumbled. Without further discussion, he turned toward the latrines to leave her to her chores, but before he'd gone a handful of steps, someone was calling for him from the cavern.
Jon looked up at the blue-green sky over the thick morning fog that hugged the lowlands of the prairie, wondering if he would ever get used to the color. He and Kristen had been traveling since well before the dawn, trusting their instincts to take them back toward the range of mountains that could only be seen as darker silhouettes on the horizon against the night sky. Now with the dawn lighting up the tops of the peaks ahead, they could see that they had been on the right course, though a little north of where they had intended to be.
Kristen, however, was looking back over her shoulder with her nose to the air and her nostrils quivering. She could sense a subtle change in air pressure, and although her eyes didn’t see anything to suggest rain, instinct told her that a change in the weather might be coming. Back on Earth, she’d slowly gotten used to new furman senses, but with all the focus and attention on the Institute, their studies, and the aches and pains associated with the transformation, she had never had the clarity of instinct as she’d had since arriving on Bonestell.
She wondered if this was how Kevin perceived the weather or if he was still dependent upon his meteorological equipment. It wasn’t that she doubted his abilities, but he was still young and learning, and some of his predictions had fallen short. She knew it frustrated the fennec fox, but instead of daunting him, he seemed to take each failure as a challenge to be more accurate the next time. He’ll get it, she thought to herself. No one else in Second Chance was trying to figure out the Bonestellan weather patterns, so it was up to him to meet those challenges.
“Do you hear that?” Jon whispered, staring off through the thick morning mists; the fog rose around fifteen feet above their heads, muting both sight and sound at ground level.
Kristen tilted her head and listened. She actually had heard the light sound, but it had been so subtle that she hadn’t given anymore thought than a bit of morning background noise. What she heard was a delicate swishing against the damp buffalo grass of the prairie that could have been the wind if there had been any; the air was still.
“Yeah, what is it?” she whispered back. Without waiting for a reply to the rhetorical question, she moved forward on all fours. Jon followed only a step or two behind her. They moved together, instinctively stalking the sound on the padded hands and feet of a Fur with noses quivering.
They didn’t have to go far to find the origin of the sound. They both stopped quickly and Jon’s whiskers quivered as a ridge rose up in the fur along Kristen’s back. Moving across their path and ignoring the felines completely was what could only be described as a large ‘pack’ of big, hairy spiders, and that was in the literal sense.
Each was over three times the size of a Terran tarantula and their chocolate-colored bodies and legs were completely covered over by long stringy hair that trailed over the grasses they walked across, causing the swishing sound. Like the other local spiders, they only had six legs, but even these looked ominous. Their large bulbous eyes glittered in the morning light, and although none stopped or paused to face the cougars directly, both Furs somehow knew they had not gone unnoticed.
Whatever purpose or instinct drove the spiders to their unknown destination might never be known, but neither explorer even considered capturing one to take back for study. Jon and Kristen watched mutely as nearly forty or fifty of the things marched on through the mists, both thankful the creatures were not heading into the direction of their valley.
Shaking off a sense of unease from the spider migration they’d just witnessed, Jon stood up on two feet and shook his hands vigorously. “I’m not generally afraid of spiders,” he said, “but that just gave me the willies.”
“I think I’m ready to go home now,” Kristen said quietly, still down on all fours.
“Home, meaning Second Chance, or Home as in all the way back to Earth?”
The lioness raised an eyebrow at him. “Second Chance is home now,” she clarified. “Earth is just a mythological place, y’know – a place of legend.”
“I can’t see very far in these mists, but we should be getting close to our forest.”
“How can you tell?” she asked. “The mist muffles sound as well as limits our sight. It's too eerie.”
“I just know,” Jon replied. “I can feel it – maybe feline instinct. I dunno, but I think I can smell them.”
There was a low snort to the left, as if someone had heard his comment and was mocking his response. The cougars stopped and stared, wondering if they’d come across a hunting party from camp.
“Who's there?” Jon called out. “Is that you, Carl?” There was no specific reply but a repeat of the snort, only this time it was from their right and it didn’t sound like it might be from any of their associates.
“Jon…” Kristen whispered, catching a scent through the mists. “I think we'd better get out of here.”
The snort from the left sounded again, this time much closer and it was accompanied by the heavy footfall of a rather large animal. Jon dropped back onto all fours, bumping shoulders with the lioness.
“Go for the direction we've been heading,” he whispered. “Run as fast as you can for the trees, but don't let the pigs run you down. Zigzag if you have to. If we get separated, we’ll regroup in the treetops.”
“I'm ready,” she replied, crouching down and preparing to put on a burst of speed right out of the starting gate.
Digging her back feet into the rich loam beneath the grasses, Kristen launched herself forward into the mists and heard the heavy breath, snorts and pounding hoof-steps tear out after her. She was still almost blind in the heavy fog, but she knew that one or two of the massive native warthogs were after her and it was imperative that she not let them get to her. While she had never seen nor heard of the thunderpigs chasing down a Fur since they'd arrived, there were instances where the great pigs had gone after the lil-deer with a ferocity that she had hoped she'd never have to face. It looked like some of them had decided to see how the Terran intruders might taste.
She didn't know where Jon was, whether he was just behind her or if he'd run off in a different direction to draw one or more of the hogs away from her. All she could hear besides her own panting was the thunder of hooves and heavy snorting just behind her tail, almost as if an enraged bull elephant was on the charge.
She tried weaving back and forth, and that seemed to confound the large beast for only a moment, but then she had to change her tactic and cut for a longer distance in one direction when it began to match her movements. It was clearly possible the pig could see through the foggy mists better than she could, and if this was the case, she needed to get to the trees as fast as she could if she intended to stay healthy.
The lioness came upon the forest faster than she'd expected and had to dart to the right quickly to avoid running headlong into a large twist-oak tree that appeared almost out of nowhere. There was another just beyond it and she lost speed trying to avoid it too; from the sounds behind her, however, the giant shaggy-haired pig hadn't matched her dexterity and had at least side-swiped the rough, twisted bark of a tree or two.
She took a chance and launched herself off a thick trunk to the left and then used the extra momentum to jump up into the lower branches of another tree. She almost missed the bough, and it bent dangerously beneath her weight, but she scrambled upward to put distance between herself and the ground leaving clawed furrows in the bark.
The thunderpig warbled out in frustration and rammed the tree she was in, causing the limbs to vibrate so hard that she almost lost her footing and fell out. Her claws dug into the black bark and then she jumped into the adjacent tree.
She heard more crashing behind her and didn't know if it was her pig or another that might still be chasing Jon through the woods. She hoped he had been able to get up off the ground to the relative safety of the trees.
She stopped for just a moment when the fog thinned and she saw the other mountain lion's silhouette climb higher into a tree that was shaking from the roots up. Still for just a moment too long, she heard the thundering hooves only a second before the trunk of her own tree rocked hard. She wasn't out of danger yet and she had no delusions that the roots of the tree could withstand the onslaught of porcine muscles and determination.
The mists seemed to be getting thinner the farther they moved through the upper branches of the forest, and soon Kristen was able to see that three of the large thunderpigs were still attempting to get at the cougars that had thus far managed to escape their rage. Thankfully for the felines, the trees were closer together and it was only then that the botanist noticed that the tree she was in was of a different type than the twist-oaks they had been in before. She recognized the type and looked down at the ground to see the rocky terrain she'd expected below. They were at the foot of the mountains already.
What's gotten these things so stirred up? she wondered as she and Jon gained ground away from their pursuers. The large animals were so big that it was getting harder for them to follow through the trees so closely, and after moments more they finally stopped and bellowed their rage at the escaping Furs.
Unwilling to press their luck, Jon motioned Kristen on to put more distance behind them before they might stop to rest. Despite the increased endurance they had as Furs, Kristen could feel the toll this had on her limbs and she was panting hard with every leap to another tree.
After another ten minutes of tree-travel, Jon made his way closer to her and she could see several angry red scratches in his fur where the tree limbs had gotten him in his headlong rush through the treetops. Unnoticed before, she could feel several of them on her arms and shoulders too. They would heal, but it was a small price to pay to still be alive.
If she'd been a human colonist, Kristen doubted she would have survived. Being a Fur already had certain advantages and she was thankful she'd gone through the painful transformation to gain that extra stamina, speed and endurance that had saved her today.
“I think… we finally lost them,” Jon said between panting. He looked her over and with a gentle finger, traced one of her scrapes across her left ear. “Are you okay?” he asked in concern.
“I will survive,” she told him wearily, leaning into his hand and briefly closing her eyes.
The lion looked back the way they'd come toward the sound of thrashing in the trees as the tenacious pigs continued to try to get through. Jon knew from experience in this part of the woods that the trees and brush grew too close together for something as large as or larger than a buffalo to get between. They were safe for the moment, but he did not want to tempt fate.
“We're close to camp,” he said, “so we'd best go on before we let down our guard.”
Kristen would have preferred to rest just a moment or two more, but they were still too near to the pigs for comfort, so she nodded and followed him through the trees. After some time, the trees grew farther apart and she recognized some of the underbrush below where she had harvested some of the flavorful, star-shaped tubers they'd all been eating lately. Jon led them to lower branches and then down to the forest floor again where the bed of leaves, pine needles and soft dirt beneath was easier on their foot pads.
They could no longer hear the angry pigs, so perhaps they had finally turned away, having lost their prey. It didn't take long before the mated pair of cougars emerged from the woods and out onto the pale green grass of the Second Chance valley.
“Home, sweet home,” Jon intoned in a weary voice. “You can do what you want, but I think I'm going to take a swim in the lake to get the dust, dirt and leaves out of my fur and then I'm going to take a nap before reporting in to Avon.”
“That all sounds like a good idea to me,” she replied. “Count me in.”
They had walked halfway across the clearing toward the lake before either of them noticed the quiet. Looking around warily, Jon peered up at the cavern and Kristen focused her attention on the barn dome and the animal pens. The livestock were all calm, so there didn't seem to be any great emergency, but no one else was in sight, either in the valley or what they could see up into the cavern.
“Where is everyone?” Kristen whispered, almost afraid that raising her voice might draw some hidden danger to them. After some of the things they’d seen over the past day, the silence in the little valley was eerie.
Still down on all fours, the cougars crept along the vegetation growing around the perimeter of the lake, the large cavern looming above them. The only sound they could hear was a quiet hum of the refrigeration units inside, but otherwise the place was silent.
“What do you suppose happened?” Kristen asked in a subdued tone. She hadn’t seen any bodies scattered about, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any. It would be unlike Avon to let everyone take off away from camp at the same time, so there had to be some explanation that neither of them would like.
Jon stopped and Kristen looked back at him. “What is it?” she whispered.
“I’m just remembering what happened on Bastien,” he said. “Whatever it was that hit them swept through the whole population within a day – and we’ve been gone long enough that something like that could have happened here.”
“Omigosh, I didn’t think of that! There’s still so much we don’t know about the ecology here that it could have been anything!” The lioness looked up toward the cavern, wondering if the place was filled with death. “Do you think we should stay away in case it might get us too?”
“What happened on Bastien only affected one type of Fur; that's why this colony is the first mixed group they've sent out. However, if some disease has jumped species, we could already be in danger.” Jon looked back toward the pens and looked perplexed. “If that’s what happened here, I wonder why our animals weren’t affected.”
“Maybe it only infected our human elements,” Kristen suggested, the uneasiness growing in her voice. “If that’s the case, Earth will abandon this world for sure, especially since they lost a whole human colony here already.”
Jon shook his head. “That may be, but the original colony never made it here to get infected. No, something else happened to them, probably before they descended from orbit. A stray meteorite might have breached their hull, perhaps. I’ve seen a number of them streaking across the sky some nights.”
The lioness leaned against him. “Jon, I’m frightened. Maybe we should have brought the radio.”
The sudden voice made them both jump. When they turned in unison, they saw Sissy running at them on all fours from the direction of the woods toward the landing field. Emerging from the shadows behind her were the rest of the Furs, all walking slowly back toward the camp.
The orange domestic feline rushed to the pair of cougars and then launched herself into Jon’s arms, knocking him back on his haunches. She buried her face in his bare chest fur with her arms around his middle and began sobbing.
Kristen was too shocked to find everyone suddenly okay to feel anything but relief, but at Sissy’s muffled cries, she reached out and lightly stroked the back of the kitty’s head.
“What is it?” Jon asked, trying to pull her away from his chest to look into her face. “What happened here?”
“We… we just…” Sissy tried to speak, looking up at him with wet eyes. “We just buried Rose!” she finally gasped.
“Oh no!” Kristen exclaimed, both hands up to her mouth. “How? What happened?”
The orange striped feline felt weak, but the touches of comfort from her two friends were calming. “Remember when she and Ivan went off on their ride to the east?” she asked hoarsely. “She was bitten by a tiny spider while digging up a plant to bring back.”
“I remember that,” Kristen said. “It happened days ago.”
Sissy nodded, staying close within Jon's arms around her for solace. “The infection from its venom got worse. Dara f-found her farther back in the cavern this morning than any of the domes and it looks like she d-died sometime during the night.”
Jon nodded, mostly to himself. As second in command of the colony, he’d been aware that their geologist made frequent solo ventures back into the large dry cavern of a type that bore a resemblance to a large commercial cave in southern Kentucky. There were no stalactites or stalagmites, no flowstone formations of dolomite and no calcite ridges, but Dara was sure there might be some minerals or other resources farther away from the entrance that the colony might make use of, preferably another water source they could tap into if the natural spring they used now froze up during the winter. She had also stated that she was on the lookout for any side corridors that might be useful to pen the livestock during inclement weather; it was because she’d found several they might use for that purpose that she was allowed to make such forays into the heart of their mountain.
During the first half of a long Bonestellan day, Dara assisted with the chores necessary to maintain the colony, but after a sleep period and several meals, she claimed the second half of the daytime hours as her own. Rather than hiking through the woods, climbing the mountain or taking part in some other outdoors activity, she chose instead to pursue her geological interests deeper into the cavern. For safety’s sake, Avon had entreated the polar bear to take a partner with her, but she always seemed to slip away on her own. It must have been coming back from such an excursion when she discovered the poor vixen.
“Rose was the first of us,” Sissy said with sniffle.
“What do you mean?” Kristen asked softly.
“She was Second Chance’s first casualty,” the orange striped cat explained. “Although some Fur colonies have been more successful than others, they’ve all lost someone in the first months of occupation.” She looked up into Jon’s face with an expression of great anguish. “One of my brothers died the same way she did — from an insect bite he had no immunity against!”
Kristen looked up when a shadow fell over them in the morning light. The grizzly bear casting it looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. That appearance was deceptive, as the cause had more to do with the responsibilities of command in light of Rose’s death.
“Jon…. Kristen…” Avon said quietly, looking down at the orange feline. “I’m glad you two are back.”
The male cougar frowned. “Yeah, we have some stories to tell about our trip, but they can wait.”
Avon nodded thankfully. He really wasn’t in the mood to listen to a trip report at the moment, so he gestured toward the others making their way back up to the cavern. “We just had a burial service for Rose out in the woods, as I’m sure Sissy has just told you.”
“She did,” Kristen replied solemnly.
“We put her next to one of the flowering bushes with blooms similar to blue roses,” Sissy told them. “We thought it was appropriate. We hung her dog tags on the bush.”
“I think she would have liked that,” Kristen said with a nod. The blooms of that particular plant smelled nothing like Terran roses, but they had a pleasant aroma of their own and Rose had been fond of them.
“I’m tired, my head hurts and I need to lie down before I put together the report to send back to Earth,” Avon mumbled. “If you want the details on Rose’s death, Ken can tell you what you’ll need to know.”
“Okay, we’ll leave you alone for now,” Jon said. “You can let us know later when you want our trip report.”
“That’s fine. Thanks.” The colony captain ambled away toward the cavern on all fours, his head down and movements slow. It was apparent he’d taken the death of one under his supervision rather hard.
“I don’t want to be alone right now,” Sissy said quietly after he’d gone, “but I don’t want to hear the details of her death again.”
Kristen took the kitty’s hands in her own and gave them a gentle squeeze. “We’re going to rest a while after we talk to Ken. You’re welcome to join us if you wish.”
Jon embraced the small Felis warmly. “You can wait for us in our dome,” he added.
Sissy gave Kristen a look of gratitude, but for just an instant, she almost looked guilty. Before Kristen could inquire, however, Sissy looked up at Jon and then kissed him briefly on the mouth before running away at top speed on all fours.
Kristen blinked several times in surprise and then looked up at her mate, who seemed just as surprised as she was. “What was that for?” she asked, certain dark emotions suddenly welling up inside.
The mountain lion shook his head, unwilling to put his suspicion to voice. “Beats me,” he muttered. “C’mon, let's go find Ken.”
“What happened?” Jon asked, watching as the colony physician examined Kristen’s hands where the colorful cotton swabs had briefly numbed her fingers. Jenni sat nearby on the medical gurney, still quiet after the burial ceremony.
Ken and Jenni both looked up at the mountain lion with morose expressions. “Rose said she was bitten by a spider on the outing she took with Ivan to the eastern hills they self-named the Ivanrose Forest,” the red wolf answered. “It got her on a finger when she was digging up a plant sample to bring back.”
“Didn't she report it?” Kristen asked.
“She did,” Jenni confirmed, “but apparently it was already too late. The toxin got into her system and spread internally, while destroying all tissue in the immediate vicinity of the bite.”
Ken picked up a sealed plastic jar and held it up in the light of the Infirmary. A tiny creature with six legs and blue and white body markings that resembled denim blue jeans lay unmoving on its back on the bottom of the container.
“Most spiders this small aren't able to penetrate human skin tissue, but this one has a pair of exceptionally sharp and strong lancers despite its size. Typically, a spider bite itself is not serious, but it looks like this one's venom caused bacterial infection in the deeper layers of the skin and tissues of her hand that spread quickly. It is likely she had a high fever as her body tried to fight off the infection, but the toxins in the venom may have been too much for her system. It's my guess that it got in and affected her central nervous system in the areas that control heartbeat regulation and respiration.”
“Were you working on a treatment?” Jon asked; it wasn’t an accusation, just a question of curiosity.
“I tried to extract its venom to see if I could come up with some kind of antidote for her,” Ken answered, “but such things take time and there were no miracles.”
Rose Fleur was the first victim to fall to the dangers of a new world, but it was something that could have happened anywhere. Earth had its own share of venomous insects and other creatures, but most of those already had available antidotes developed from years of research and experimentation. Something new on this world that had never been part of the Terran ecosystem could be either easy or astronomically difficult to produce a treatment.
Jon indicated the denim spider and said to Ken, “Do you still think you can create a vaccine from that thing, in case someone else gets bitten by one?”
“Probably, given time,” the wolf replied. “With Avon’s permission, I took some of Rose's blood to analyze in hopes it will help us come up with something. We’re bound to get into more of these things, so I’d like to have a treatment of some kind.”
Kristen looked up when the doctor finished examining her hands, apparently satisfied that there seemed to be no lingering effects from the topical numbing agent of the swabs. “Forgive me for asking,” she said in hesitation, “but why did you bury Rose? I thought the AHCP required cremation when a Fur dies.”
Jenni stared at the lioness as if she'd gone insane, but Ken shook his head. “The purpose of cremating a Fur,” he said, “was the AHCP's way of making sure that no other genetic company on Earth could get its hands on the DNA coding sequences and reverse-engineer the goetazine formula the company uses to create critters like us.” He shrugged and said, “There's no danger of that here, so Avon felt we could give Rose a proper burial.”
“That was an awful big decision for Avon to make on his own,” Kristen remarked.
The wolf put his hands into the pockets of his shorts. “Not really. It's widely known that the felines of the Bastien tragedy were all buried by their surviving Vulps physicians. The AHCP didn't make a fuss about them having been buried versus being cremated, and there was a greater reason to burn the bodies there than we have here.”
“Cremating the bodies would have destroyed the affliction within them that swept through the place,” Ken supplied. “Since the Vulps handled the bodies and were unaffected, I'm sure the AHCP might have had them exhume one of them to take back with them to Earth for a greater autopsy inspection than what they could have done on-site.”
“That can't have been very nice,” Jenni muttered. “Imagine having to bury your friend, only to have to dig her up again later. It's one thing if you're impartial and another if you actually knew her as a friend.”
Kristen returned to the dome she shared with Jon and found Sissy curled up in the middle of their bed. She frowned for a long moment before she crawled onto the mattress and sat down beside the orange feline. Sissy’s large green eyes opened before Kristen touched her, and when she saw that they were alone, there was a sudden expression of uncertainty upon her face. Kristen sniffed the air, immediately recognizing the fear scent from the smaller Felis, and she locked eyes with her.
Sissy swallowed and looked away, unable to maintain the gaze. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I… I didn’t mean to do that.”
“Do what?” Kristen replied. She knew exactly what was being discussed here, but she wanted her friend to say it aloud. Sissy knew it too and she fidgeted before answering.
“I’m sorry I kissed Jon in front of you,” she said quietly.
“Listen, I understood when you clung to him for support when you were upset about Rose,” the lioness said slowly, “but that had nothing to do with kissing him. He’s my mate and I don’t think I liked what you did.”
“I’m sorry…” Sissy squeaked. Then she stopped and looked back at her. “Your mate?” she repeated.
“That’s right,” Kristen said matter-of-factly, “and I’m sure you know what that means.”
Sissy dropped her gaze again and let out a long sigh. “I know you’ve been after him for a long time, so I shouldn’t be surprised. You two have seemed closer since we got here, but I don’t think anyone’s known for sure that you two were…. mated. All during his transformation, we all knew Jon was hung up on his ex-fiancé and that he never intended to have a physical relationship with anyone. If that’s changed between you two, does this mean you are getting married?”
It was Kristen’s turn to look uncertain. “I don’t know,” she admitted quietly. “Jon told me that he and Avon have been discussing conventional traditions of monogamy, whether or not it would work in a Fur society where there were disproportionate genders like ours and numbers were so small – primarily among the Ursis. This has never come up before since we’re the first experimental mixed colony. They’ve made no official policy, but I think others are already deciding this on their own.”
“There are more Felis females than males,” Sissy reminded her.
Kristen purposely did not look at the other cat. “Yes, but only barely.”
“Jenni and Kim are both mated to Raine, and they all seem to get along okay with the arrangement.”
“Yes, and that takes up the slack, leaving just you and Arne to get together.”
“I don’t like Arne,” the orange feline murmured. “Sure, he’s handsome enough, but he has an abrasive personality; very few people like him – of any Fur species – and he's always rough with anyone he has personal dealings with. He’s not my type.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Sissy, but if you don’t hook up with him, your only option is to take up a friendship with a male from another species. You won’t have any children, but it would keep you from being lonely.”
“But I’ve always wanted children and hoped I’d meet a nice Felis in whichever colony I wound up in. I didn’t know that the AHCP would cheat and throw us into a mixed group like ours. It’s not fair!”
Kristen shook her head, fighting back a yawn; the morning’s escape from the thunderpigs had taken more out of her than she’d thought and she had no real interest in this conversation anyway. “No, it’s not fair, Sissy, but Arne’s your only option,” she remarked, stretching out on the mattress beside her.
“I don’t like Arne,” the smaller cat repeated.
“Okay, so where are you going with this?” Kristen asked suspiciously.
Sissy couldn't meet her eyes, keeping her head down on the bed. “You are one of my best friends here,” she said quietly, “and I've always liked Jon. I, uhm… I was wondering if I could partner with you two.”
Kristen stared at her. “Sissy, how do I put this? I like you… but I'm not bi. I'm not sure a threesome is something that I could —”
“I'm not either,” the cat squeaked in surprise, her eyes wide, “but I was kinda hoping you might share Jon with me… like Kim and Jenni do with Raine.”
Kristen fell silent and Sissy was sure she was angry with her. “I'm… I'm sorry,” she muttered, looking down at the mattress beneath her. “Please forget I said anything.”
Kristen sighed aloud. “Sissy, as you’ve reminded me, I've been after Jon's affections for a long time; he's only just now accepted me as his mate. Now that I have him, I'm not really sure I want to share him with anyone else – especially right away.”
“I know,” Sissy replied with emotion. “That's what I was afraid of.”
Kristen stretched out, covering her head with a pillow, and was quiet for several long minutes. When Sissy started to get up, the lioness put out a hand and stopped her with a touch.
“Sissy… Listen, I'm not saying yes… but I guess I won’t say no either. We're going to be here for five years. Let the two of us have time to be a couple first, and maybe – just maybe – I'll be more open to the idea. Of course, it wouldn't be my decision alone; Jon would have to agree to it too.” She looked at Sissy suspiciously from underneath the pillow, but the other cat wasn't looking at her. “Have you mentioned this to him?”
Sissy shook her head. “No, I knew I would have to convince you first, but I should have known better. I knew he was hung up on his ex-fiancé, but I also knew that you wanted him too.”
She sat up and wrapped her arms around herself, closing her eyes. “Being exclusive isn’t fair, but it’s how we were all brought up to believe. We don't have thirty-one Felis of a regular colony to mix and match as we please – there are only seven of us.”
She looked at her hands again and her eyes misted over. “With Rose's death, it reminded me that all of our numbers are limited, and even though we're only supposed to be here for five years, we could be here longer. I thought it made sense to start building up our numbers at the start, but with our old ways of thinking, I think children are going to be rare.”
Kristen crawled up beside her and put a gentle hand on Sissy's shoulder. She enveloped her friend in her arms and held her in a warm embrace.
“Give us time,” she whispered. “That's all I ask. This is all so new to me, so let me think it over and when I think I might be ready to share him, I'll bring it up to Jon.”
Sissy shook her head, knowing it would never happen with such a jealous friend, and did her best to hold back the imminent tears.
“Carl to Avon – Carl to Avon. Are you there?”
The grizzly barely heard the radio receiver in the pocket of his shorts. Although he had been expecting a call from the grey wolf all morning, he’d momentarily forgotten it.
“This is Avon,” he replied crossly. “Where’ve you been? I expected you to call in every two hours!”
“Have you ever tried herding cats?”
The non-sequitur caught the bear off guard. “Huh?”
The wolf laughed. I’ve found a large herd of something that look like cats, but are wooly like sheep. They’re just about as random as you’d think cats would be like traveling in a pack, but they’ve somehow managed to stay together as they travel.”
The excitement in Carl’s voice made Avon forget he was upset with him. “What are they like?”
“They’re big, mostly the size of an African lion, but add about fifty or more pounds for what looks like a thick wool coat all over their bodies. There’s not much of a neck that I can tell – it’s either hidden beneath the wool or their flattop heads attach right at the shoulder. Of course, my first thought was whether or not they were edible.”
“Spoken like a true predator,” Avon said with amusement, “but are you thinking of them as a cat or sheep to eat?”
“I suppose I was thinking of the sheep,” the wolf confessed. “I've never tried eating a cat before, but I know my lupine ancestors probably ate any they could catch.”
“A cat the size of a lion would probably be stalking you instead, Carl. We’ve not seen any large predators other than the pigs, but I wouldn't try it until you see whether or not these can fight back!”
“Good point. I've seen numerous other animals from the air, but most scatter before I can get too close with my gyrocopter. Hoping the oily black deterrent is common only to the lil-deer, a lot of what I've seen today represents large potential sources of food to sustain all of us. I've been taking lots of pictures and loads of notes so we can determine what we might try eating later.”
“Besides prospective food, have you seen anything else of interest?”
“Too many things to tell you about now, even in the short time I've been out here today. The horizon keeps throwing me off, though. The diameter of this world is larger than the Earth, so the horizon's more distant and visually a little disorienting when flying. Despite that, I did see something remarkable in another good sized lake to the north that butts up to the mountains. There's something rather large swimming around under there.”
“What do you mean?”
“I've not seen it surface, but the water's clear and I could see something dark swimming for long distances.”
“The size of a shark, perhaps?”
“Bigger - much bigger. There were times when I could make out a shape and it made the fur along my back want to stand up.”
“What did you see?”
“My best guess was that it’s a something like a plesiosaur with either two heads or two long limbs stretched out in front of it as it swims. Body-wise, it reminds me of a creature like Champ or Nessie.”
Avon snorted. “Nice, we have our own local lake monster,” he said with a smile. “Don't fly too low to the water or one of those heads might try to sample you as a new cuisine.”
“Yes, poppa bear. I will be a good wolf and remain a distant observer.”
When Jon got back to the dome he shared with Kristen, he found her and Sissy both dozing lightly on the bed. They were facing away from one another on opposite sides of the mattress, so Jon stretched out in the empty space between them, lying on his stomach with his face down upon his arms. Tired out from the events of the long morning, he wanted only to rest and didn't notice that both females were actually awake.
Kristen turned over to face him and saw over his back that Sissy had done the same. The orange cat had a guilty expression, but the lioness mouthed silently to her, 'It's okay to snuggle.'
Sissy looked at her in disbelief, but Kristen was long accustomed to doing nothing but snuggling up to Jon at night, something she knew that he didn't mind; she wouldn't begrudge the kitty from doing the same.
Quietly, so as not to disturb him, both females cuddled up to his sides. When Sissy put a slender arm across his back, she found that Kristen's was already there, but the lioness grasped her wrist lightly to make sure she didn’t pull it back. For now, they were still friends, and like the cats they were related to, napping together in a warm group was natural.
Avon grumbled beneath his breath at the PBJ in his hands. The screen had been faulty of late and he didn't know if it was the power cell or the circuit board beneath the display itself. The dual screens had the capability to switch functions with one another, and changing the primary display from one to the other didn't seem to help in this matter. He'd been taking notes while Jon and Kristen gave him a report on the trip to the salt flats, but with the unit acting intermittently, he was getting nowhere with it.
“I'm sorry, you two,” the grizzly muttered to the pair of cougars before him. The three of them were sitting on the grass in the shade of a wide umbrella that Wendy had constructed out of scraps for use out in the little valley; the quiet golden retriever was resourceful in making things like this for their usage. He tapped the PBJ with the side of his palm and snorted. “This thing's on the fritz.”
“Sissy's been having trouble with hers,” Kristen remarked. “Jon's too.”
The grizzly turned off the errant unit and set it on the grass beside him. He looked across at her and shrugged. “You may have to write up notes of your own and send them to me later.”
“Sure, I can do that,” said the botanist.
“Anyway,” Jon said, continuing his earlier narrative, “just as we got back to the forest at the foot of the mountains, thunderpigs charged after us. I couldn't be sure if there were more due to the dense morning fog, but there were at least two that I knew of definitely.” He went on to describe the scene to the colony captain, with Kristen jumping in periodically to add some detail he missed.
“…but you know where the trees get closer together on the northwest side of the valley, that's when we finally lost the pigs,” Jon finished. “We didn't do anything to them, so I don't know why they were so stirred up. Maybe they just go crazy when it's foggy.”
Avon shook his head, but smiled casually. “That's our fault,” he explained. “While you were away, Carl's hunting party managed to take down a young adolescent, but they had to fight for every step of the way to bring it back. Those pigs were extremely upset that we'd killed one of them and they almost lost Aldo on the way back.”
“What happened to Aldo?” Kristen asked. “Is he okay?”
“He has a broken rib and got his side opened up by a tusk. Jenny got him cleaned up, sewed up and wrapped up, and he's resting now, but he'll be okay even if he's out of commission for a while.”
“Wow,” Kristen replied. “Anyone else hurt?”
“A few scrapes and bruises, but they managed to get everyone else back in decent condition. Like you, they finally lost the attacking pigs in the dense tree line, but they almost didn't get the travois with body of the adolescent through with them for the same reason.”
Jon was sitting with his legs out beside him. He'd prefer to sit cross-legged, but that was something a little more difficult now that he had digitigrade feet. He reached behind him and repositioned his tail, but then he leaned forward, giving Avon his full attention.
“I don't suppose you've tried eating it yet, with the situation with Rose,” he started, “but I would like —”
“If you want to try some, we have plenty left over from last night,” Avon interrupted with a smile. “No one's that's eaten any of it – and that's most of us – have had any issues. It's really good, too.”
“Great!” Kristen said with a smile. “Who was the first to try it?”
“Arne! After what happened with the lil-deer, I'm surprised he didn't demand someone else to go first,” Jon said in amazement.
The grizzly was still smiling and he chuckled. “He's still trying to prove his worth to the colony, I think, since he volunteers for everything. Fortunately for him, this time the gamble with new food was a success. There were a few other gambles while you were away, but they all paid off too.”
“Oh?” Jon and Kristen asked in unison.
“We've tried all the different fish in the lake we've been able to catch. All good, all safe.”
Jon licked his lips. “Too bad it's too late in the season to grow our own potatoes. We could have fish and chips!”
“You have to plant Terran potatoes in the spring,” Kristen advised him, “but the Bonestellan tubers we've found so far seem to like the summer and autumn months. We have plenty of those we can try frying up.”
“Sounds like we have plenty of meat options,” Jon remarked. “There were several plants Kris found on our trip that could provide extra vegetable-like foods too, though we found one meat source that we'd just as soon ignore.”
“Oh?” the bear asked.
“It was an ugly tailless thing about the size of a bulldog, with a fat, round face, open holes for ears with ridges over them as well as its eyes,” Kristen supplied. “The naked thing was totally hairless. We thought we'd chase it down and see what it was like to eat. Despite four stubby legs it did its best to outrun us both.”
“So what happened?” Avon asked. “Did it have the black ooze?”
“No, not exactly,” Jon muttered. “Kristen took it down all right, but when we cut into it to prepare it to roast over a fire, the insides looked rotted and diseased.”
“Exactly. We only saw the one, so we don't know if this was typical of its species or if that one specifically was sick, but we buried it and tried the local fish in the lake instead.” Jon scratched briefly behind his ear and said, “Like yours, the fish we tried were edible and quite tasty. Kris found a few local veggies to go with it, so our last meal out there was a good one.”
“That sounds like you had a decent trip altogether,” the grizzly conceded. “We'll be studying the salt samples you brought back to see if we can use it for meat preservation, and if so, I'll probably be sending a party back out there to collect a bunch.”
“Just leave the salt-torts alone,” Jon advised.
“Of course. Too bad you couldn't bring one back, though. Dr. Mochizuki will probably want to get one to catalog it at some point.”
“He can go get one himself,” Jon grumbled. “Just make sure he gets there and back during the daylight hours. He'll want to avoid the pigs too.”
“True, true. At least, we've determined the hogs are completely safe to eat, but whether or not they'll be safe to hunt is another matter,” the bear remarked.
“It could be you took their leader, an alpha, perhaps,” Kristen suggested.
“Too young, I would think,” Avon replied. “There were plenty of other, more seasoned hogs in the herd. Carl seems to think they have a tight-knit family bond and reacted just as we would have if they had taken one of us.”
“Do you think they might be sentient?” Kristen asked.
Avon shook his head. “No, not really. They're just beasts reacting instinctively. Like the buffalo of the old west, just one of them could feed a lot of us and we can probably use other parts of the animal for things as well. They've proven they're dangerous, however, so we'll have to keep an eye out for them.”
“You mean, like that one?” Jon asked quietly. Both of his companions followed his gaze to the edge of the clearing that occupied the majority of the little valley. A lone thunderpig was standing just under the shadows, peering out at them – almost directly at Avon, Kristen and Jon, it seemed.
“How long has it been standing there?” Kristen whispered.
“I just noticed it,” Jon answered. “I caught its scent and saw a little movement out of the corner of my eye.”
“Maybe we'd better make our way back up to the cave,” Avon suggested. “Slowly.”
The three of them stood up on two feet to make themselves look larger, but the pig did nothing other than watch them walk to the bridge over the river and then up the path to the cavern entrance. Even after the three of them split up to go their separate ways, Avon could see that the pig seemed content to do nothing more than look out at them from the woods.
Since it had come in the from the southern direction instead of the northwest where the cougars had been chased, he wondered if it was from a different herd or a lone pig on its own that was unaware of the previous conflicts.
The large animal made no threatening moves, not even toward the animal pens. All it did was stand and peer out across the valley toward the cave.
Back inside their dome, Jon pulled out one of the sample cases from the pack he'd worn on their trip. “I'm going to take Dara the selenite crystals I dug up,” he said. “I doubt they'll be anything more than a curiosity to her, but maybe she'll like to have them.”
He looked back at Kristen and raised an eyebrow at the tone she used. She seemed hesitant.
“Hmm?” he responded.
“I have something I need to discuss with you,” she said quietly.
“I'll only be gone a few minutes. I'll be back and then we can take a walk in the woods for some privacy if you'd like.”
The mountain lion left his mate sitting at the small round table, where she wrung her hands together. Her thoughts and emotions were all a jumble and she briefly considered dropping the discussion before it began. Instead of waiting for him, she could just go to the Great Dome and get something to eat, but by the time she wrestled with herself, wavering back and forth, Jon returned.
He approached her and held out a hand to his mate. “C'mon,” he said, “let's go take a walk.”
“Did Dara like the crystals?” Kristen asked, getting to her feet.
Jon shook his head. “I couldn't find her, so I left them on her table with a note. She'll see them later.”
The cougars walked together on all fours through the cavern. Ivan, Jasmine and Dahlia were all huddled together outside of Erin's dome with the fennec fox speaking quietly to the trio. Of everyone in the colony, these three would have the hardest time dealing with Rose's death, so their counselor had jumped in right away to talk with them. Reminded of their loss, Kristen's thoughts turned inward and she walked beside Jon quietly without a word.
Jon looked over at her a few times on the way out, but allowed her quiet moments to sort out whatever was troubling her. When they got to the wooden bridge, he looked up and saw the thunderpig still standing where it had been earlier, silently staring right at them. He felt unnerved by those dark eyes, so he stopped and bumped shoulders with his mate.
“Let's not go into the woods,” he suggested. “Let's go up to my lookout point instead.”
Kristen noticed the pig and understood. She nodded quietly and then followed him on all fours up the side of the mountain, around boulders and through the trees along a path becoming travel worn. After a little time gaining altitude, they arrived at the flat slab of rock that overlooked the valley that Jon had come to claim as his own private sentry perch. Others knew he went up to it often, whether on watch or just to get away to do some thinking, but he was rarely bothered when there.
He made himself comfortable, but when he looked up at her, she still stood on all fours with an unreadable expression upon her face. Although he knew she'd been preoccupied, he didn't know what it was about and a feeling in the pit of his stomach began to quiver.
“Okay, we're alone,” he said quietly. “What’s on your mind?”
As the two of them had grown closer since their arrival to this world, she had been thankful that he'd always given her his full attention whenever they were alone together, but this time she felt shaken by his direct gaze. She sat down upon her haunches and tried to will the tip of her tail to stop twitching.
“Do you remember telling me about your conversation with Avon about the relationships within the colony?”
He seemed puzzled by the question, but nodded. “'Exclusive relationships may not be wise in this setting,' I believe was the sentiment expressed concerning the uneven ratio of males to females in the Ursis group.”
“How do you feel about such polygamous relationships?”
He hesitated before responding. “I think under certain circumstances, it's probably more practical than monogamy,” he said, “but that's up to all parties involved. Are Gerard and Aaron fighting over the girls again?”
“No, there are no problems with the Ursis that I know of other than what you and I discussed on our trip.”
“Okay, you've lost me then. What's going on?”
Kristen tried to steel her nerves and brushed the black bangs of her human hair from her forehead. “Are you are aware that Jenni and Kim have formed a tri-bonding with Raine?”
“Yeah, he told me about it himself. It took him by surprise, but he's never been shy with the ladies. Is there a problem with them that I need to break up?”
Kristen shook her head, wishing he wouldn't make this more difficult than it had to be with his suppositions. “No, they're all getting along just fine. The arrangement seems to suit all three of them.”
“Then what's the problem?”
“Uhm… Sissy approached me about a similar setup a little while ago.”
“Sissy… approached you…?”
“Yeah… She was looking for my approval so she could pair up with you, Jon. She's hoping the three of us could have an arrangement like the one Jenni, Kim and Raine all have.”
Jon stared at her without a word for a long minute.
“She… wants me?” he asked slowly, his brow furrowed. “Why—? If she's worried about pairing up with another Felis, why doesn't she go after Arne? He's still available.”
Kristen shook her head. “She doesn't like him,” she explained quietly, “but she's had a thing for you since you first got to the Institute.”
Jon nodded. “Yeah, she often flirted with me back there, but I never gave her any indication I was interested.”
“She said she already knew you were hung up on your Ex, but that never kept her from liking you – kinda like me.”
Jon frowned deeply and rubbed a hand across his face. “You sound like you've already given her permission to pursue me,” he grumbled. “Are you tired of me already? Was I such a disappointment to you after the long wait?”
“No, that's not what I'm saying,” the lioness replied in alarm.
“Jon, I don't want to share you – especially after what happened on our trip. I want you as mine and mine alone!”
“I'm glad to hear it!” Jon said in agitation, his own tail twitching behind him. “Why didn't you just tell her that and end it before she puts too much hope into it?”
“I wanted to, but all I said is that I would think it over,” Kristen mumbled, her ears back against her head.
“My gut instinct is not to do it,” he grumbled. “I like Sissy and think she's cute, but the Felis aren't in danger of dying out due to mismatched numbers. Jenni, Kim and Raine took care of that problem themselves to even things out. If all she wants are kittens, Arne can help her with that whether they like one another or not.”
“Jon, I didn't say I approved.”
“No, but saying you would think about it might give her some expectation that you were at least open to the idea. Does she think that your permission is all it takes? What if you're agreeable, but I'm not willing to be someone's stud animal? Listen, if the bears all want to swap out their lovers to keep their numbers up, that's their business, but I was raised to believe in marriage to just one person at a time!”
Kristen looked at him and raised an eyebrow. “We aren't married, Jon,” she reminded him softly. “We're only mated, just like our animal cousins.”
The lion's tail stopped twitching – stopped moving altogether – and then he slowly shook his head with his eyes closed. “Kris,” he said in a quieter tone, “I've only now just gotten to the point where I can have a physical relationship with you, and part of it is due to the fact that you know my real background. Sissy doesn't know Brian Barrett and I would like to keep it that way. If I had a relationship with her or anyone else, it would be on a false foundation based upon my new identity – I don't think I can do that.”
“Remember what you just said about Sissy and Arne,” Kristen said calmly. “That applies here, too; perpetuating the Felis on Bonestell doesn't require truth or honesty, just the physical act.”
Jon snorted his frustration and sat up on his haunches. “Are you trying to talk me into letting Sissy into our relationship or not?” he asked gruffly. “You say you don't approve of her request, but you're also defending the principles behind that request!”
“Jon…” she started. She stopped, sighed aloud and then cleared her throat. “Jon, like you, my first reaction was that I didn't want to share you with anyone, but I've thought about it and decided that if you were open to the idea, I would okay it, but only for Sissy. I'm not into other girls and she says she's not either, but you would be the common share point in such a relationship. If you don't want to do it, then that's what I'll tell her, but I wanted you to be aware of both sides and have an opinion.”
She looked up at him, feeling very small. “I love you, Jon, and I'm selfish. I don't want to share you, but if it means giving the Felis an additional chance to survive, I would be willing if you were. 'Exclusive relationships may not be wise in this setting,' I believe you said. You either believe that or you don't.”
Jon's expression softened. “I love you too, Kris, but I don't know that I could be comfortable being with someone else while still having a relationship with you. It would feel too much like cheating, and that is the very reason I'm a Fur now. I would still be human on Earth with a good paying job and probably starting a family of my own with Rebecca if she hadn't cheated on me with Parker.”
“It wouldn't be cheating if I knew and approved of it,” Kristen replied. “That's the difference.”
Jon shook his head. “I don't want to do it,” he said at last. “I'm flattered that Sissy likes me that much, but while there are still relatively even numbers among us cats, I don't see the need. I'm sure she'll start to resent me once you tell her I don't want her, but if she doesn't even want to consider Arne, perhaps Raine might like to add another to his harem; he doesn't seem to mind having multiple partners. By next spring, there could be kittens all over the place with his spots.”
Avon sat on the ground near the edge of the cavern shelf that overlooked the small lake and stared back at the thunderpig that had been standing on the other side of the valley clearing all afternoon. Some of the other Furs had become alarmed by its presence, and although it was causing no trouble, it was too near the latrines for comfort. The lil-deer eating the pale green grass paid it no mind, however, and it seemed to ignore them in return.
Manny had suggesting killing it for food since it didn't seem to want to leave, but the colony captain didn't like the idea. Even with thirty Furs in the camp, they had plenty of food for now and he was secretly afraid there would be more injuries trying to take it down.
He had just visited with Aldo, and although the bloodhound seemed in good spirits, the grizzly still felt responsible that someone under his charge had gotten hurt. Avon felt bad enough losing Rose and was concerned that Aldo could have been another casualty.
Why was the pig standing there? It hadn't moved more than a few steps from the very spot where it had first appeared all day, but it seemed intent on watching them all. Whenever someone was in view from the cavern opening, it was watching them. When someone was down in the animal pens taking care of their livestock, it was watching them.
No one was bold enough to try to approach the huge creature, especially after how nasty the others had become after killing the adolescent, but Avon was sure they'd have to do something soon or its mere presence would be interrupting their daily routines. Perhaps it would leave at sunset, since none of the pigs were ever seen after dark, an attribute they didn't share with their Terran counterparts.
The colony captain looked up when a pair of feet stopped behind him. His nose quivered and he knew by scent who it was before he turned around.
“Hello, Yuki,” he said, looking over at her. Even seated on the ground, his head was almost even with the Akita's while she stood.
“Is that thing still out there watching us?” she asked rhetorically. “I don't like it.”
“It's not causing any problems,” Avon replied. “It's not even bothering the lil-deer.”
“It probably doesn't like their taste either,” Yuki remarked.
“Getting a breath of fresh air?” the grizzly asked after a quiet moment. “You and your sister are always in the kitchen and I'm surprised you even see the outside some days.”
She returned his teasing smile and shook her head in good nature. “That might seem true, but we do get out and take walks in the woods sometimes just to get out. Actually, I have some troubling news for you.”
“Oh? What's the matter?”
“You know how some of our PBJs have been acting lately? Well, it's happening to the freezers and some of the other electric kitchen appliances too.”
Avon blinked. That wasn't good. “The freezers?” he repeated. “We're not going to lose them are we?”
“I don't know,” the dog said with a frown, “but the system is only working intermittently at the moment. Kim and I have been trying not to open them as much as possible to keep everything inside cold. What we have frozen is supposed to last us through the winter and beyond unless we can restock it with native meats and vegetables. But… if the freezer goes out, we'll lose everything that we can't eat up right away.”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.