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SECOND CHANCE

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 18
Revelations

 

Sleeping on Bonestell had become a problematic situation for the Terran Furs that had immigrated to the new world. Physiologies long-accustomed to twenty-four hour days simply didn't know how to properly cope with longer thirty-six hour days.  In the middle of the planet’s summer there was daylight for eighteen hours each day, matched by another eighteen hours of nighttime. Bodies that were used to shorter day and night spans found that standard sleeping patterns simply didn't apply. They adjusted as well as they could, but often found themselves with two sleep periods a day and more mealtimes too. 

Having the colony homes constructed inside a large mountain cavern helped, though.  Even though the sun might be shining throughout the longer daytime, the perpetual gloom inside the cave served to make it easier for any of them to sleep when it might be more difficult with sunlight streaming in through bedroom windows.

It was on such a day when the world outside was lit up from diffused sunlight through an overcast sky, but the darkness of the cavern served to help the sleep patterns of a certain group within the colony.

Although born a human that had been transformed psychologically as well as physically, Jon had eventually become accustomed to his new life. He still retained the mind, will, emotions and intellect he'd possessed beforehand, but now that he also had the instincts and physical form of a mountain lion, he was stronger, healthier and even generally happier than he had ever been. He'd not thought it possible for someone such as himself to do some of the things he'd done since his transformation, and something even as trivial as the current sleeping arrangement would have never appealed to him when he had still been fully human.

A month into the colony's first winter on Bonestell, two of the other felines had pulled the components from storage and built a geodesic dome specifically for the social interaction of the Felis.  While the Ursis bears did not need to hibernate through the winter as their Terran cousins did, they still had plenty of body fat insulation to keep them warm.  Likewise, the Canis canine types and the Vulps fox breeds all developed insulating fur undercoats that helped them with the seasonal cold.  Only the Felis felines were not as well equipped to handle the winter.  It was true their coats did grow thicker and some like Kim did actually have something of an undercoat, but the felines as a whole preferred the warmth of indoors.

It was because of this that Arne and Sissy had constructed an extra sleeping dome filled wall-to-wall with extra pillows, blankets and comforters taken from the general supplies.  Each feline still had his or her personal quarters, but for the social comfort and interaction with one another, they all had an open invitation to make use of this special dome.

For Jon, it had been a long night, true in the chronological aspect of the clock as well as hard work he had put in before finally giving in to slumber in the shared dome.  He'd had a troubling argument with Manny over something that should have been trivial and it had been a mental workout. 

Snow had been falling in large flakes since mid-morning and their little valley was covered by a white blanket several inches thick. The lake and river were both only frozen along their edges, as the mountain spring continued to flow into them.

Most of the wildlife around the valley had gone, presumably to seek shelter. The thunderpigs were likely holed up in their cave on the other side of the mountain and the lil-deer had all disappeared entirely. There had been no sign of them for a week, not even out in the forest where life beneath the canopy would have given them more shelter. There had been so many of them by the end of the fall that surely they would have required a large area to winter, but once the cold weather had moved in around the mountains, they'd quickly departed.

Although still visible beneath the water, the various fish and other water creatures were lethargic and didn't seem to move around much. Even the long snizards were curled around themselves among the rocks.  Most of the birds they had come to know had left for other lands, but others had migrated in to take their places, giving Doctor Mochizuki even more species to photograph and catalog in his ever-growing library.

One new critter to appear in the woods that surrounded the valley came in abundance. The white-furred creatures were not unlike snowshoe hares but with a head and ears vaguely resembling something like a koala.  It was a dopey looking thing, but it didn't seem to be foraging for food as much as coming out merely to play in the snow, jumping, hopping, burrowing and rolling around together. Some of them ventured out into the open clearing of the valley later during the night and it was then that Manny took it upon himself to sneak down from the cave to stalk them.

To those who watched, the arctic fox was just as difficult to see against the whiteness of the snow as the little koala-bunnies, but when he was down on all fours, he was fast. Unfortunately, the thicker furman robes he was wearing interfered with his motions and became a source of irritation. After close to an hour without success, he'd stormed back up into the cavern and loped straight to the armory.

He'd pulled out a rifle, and from the lip opening of the cave, began taking shots at the dopey little creatures. Not everyone had been asleep during the nocturnal hours, but once he started firing, they were all up and in arms – some afraid that the thunderpigs had returned to attack while they were all off their guard.

Jon had snatched the rifle from the fox's grip, nearly taking off a finger in the process, and gave him a stern dressing down in front of everyone.  Not only was he wasting their limited ammo, he was using it against something that presented no harm to anyone in the colony at a time when they were not short on food – and in the middle of the night with no warning at all. He'd frightened their livestock, as well as the entire colony.

Once the cougar was finished with him, the arctic fox had gone from embarrassed and repentant to angry and resentful.  Manny stormed down the path, trudging off through the falling snow and disappeared into the woods. Jon let him go, hoping the winter cold would help cool down the hothead.

He didn't return to the cavern for hours, but when he did, the fox was in a better mood, though looking sheepish.  He'd taken his frustrations out on the koala-bunnies in the woods using his human intellect and managed to trap several of them using only a few items.

Using a magnesium lighter that he carried everywhere, he'd cleared out a spot in the woods, made a small fire, and then roasted one of them while he examined the others he'd caught.  He reported that the meat of the little critters had a flavor like kerosene and he'd thrown it all up within a half hour of finishing his first meal. 

Manny brought back the remains of the one he'd cooked for anyone who wanted to examine it. He'd also planned to bring another one back alive, but the creatures had good sets of dentures and the others he'd caught had chewed through the twine he'd used before he could hang onto them. He'd also used his knife to cut a strip from his robe to wrap around his left hand where one had bitten him.

Jenni cleaned his injury, but she couldn't detect any kind of venom or toxin in the bite wound. He'd simply been bitten because he'd not kept his hands to himself. 

Once all the excitement had died down and people started returning to their beds, Jon had stayed up with Manny to talk with him while to make sure they were clear with one another. The fox confessed that he'd simply gotten overexcited with the hunt and the cold weather, both of which he liked, but had gotten frustrated with his lack of success actually catching the little dopes.

Before Jon finally decided he'd calmed down himself enough to go on to bed, Kevin had sought him out with a report of his own.  Looking out into the valley, it appeared the wind was picking up, whipping the continually falling snowflakes around madly.  He was afraid that the snowfall could be building up into a storm.  With their cave at the extreme southern tip of the Hiamovi Mountain Range, the winds funneling south usually blew past the entrance, typically creating an outward draft from the cavern. If the winds shifted, however, a blizzard could realistically force the frigid air right up inside.

The young desert fox admitted that he wasn't sure the weather was building up into a storm, but he wanted to let Jon know his fears just in case it did come about.  The cougar assured him that it was the right thing to do, and then shooed him off to bed so he could go crawl into the shared feline dome himself.

When Jon slowly awoke sometime later, he could feel other cat-bodies all around him. Without opening his eyes, he could hear the regular sleeping rhythms of five others. The pocket of warmth surrounding him was pleasant and he really had no need to get up just yet.

He had his arms wrapped around Kristen, so he snuggled up closer and gently brushed her scalp hair with the claws of one hand. She let out a contented sigh, rubbing the top of her head beneath his chin, and Jon suddenly realized her scent was wrong.

He opened his eyes and studied the black tufted fur on the end of the ears resting upon the pillow they shared. Swallowing with personal embarrassment, he tried to find a way to extricate himself from around the lynx. If Kim woke up and found his arms curled around her this way, he was afraid she might scratch him with her claws in disoriented fright.

He swallowed with difficulty and tried to will his heartbeat to calm down as he removed his top arm from around her and then rolled over onto his back in slow, fluid movement. Kim rolled over with him in her sleep atop his lower arm and then buried her nose in his bare chest fur with a low-throated purr.

He looked down at the top of her head with a frown and his fingers flexed as he tried to think of a way to extricate himself without waking her.

There was an amused chuckle on Jon's other side, just barely audible.  Kristen stuck her muzzle up inside one of his ears and whispered, “That is so cute, watching you trying to get free.”

Jon's eyes tracked to her face in the dim light. “Help?” he requested in a quiet voice.

“Not a chance, Jon-boy,” she replied with another whisper, her canines bared in a mischievous smile. “I know how it is – just like a male. I get tossed aside for the one who feeds you, you alley-cat!”

Jon swallowed again, but then froze when the small form snuggled up to him giggled quietly. The mountain lion looked back down at the lynx and then she turned her head to peer up at him.

“Sorry, Jon,” Kim said with a smile that belied her words. “I thought it was Raine beside me.” She tossed a glance toward Kristen and then threaded an arm across Jon's middle. “I might have done this earlier if I'd known he was this cuddly.”

Kristen snickered. “Now you know why I was after him for so long,” she whispered, lightly batting at his whiskers, each contact making his eyes blink.

“Would you stop that?” he pleaded quietly, trying to keep from waking anyone else in the cat pile.

There were times when Kristen was totally serious with her chosen mate, but there were others when she was playful in their relationship.  Completely unconcerned that another female was cuddling her male, Kristen mirrored her position on his other side and threaded an arm across Jon's middle adjacent to Kim's. She draped a leg across the one of his closest to her and immediately Kim did the same.

The mountain lion was now effectively pinned down and with growing alarm, he was almost afraid that Kristen was going to initiate what they liked to call playtime along with the lynx – and in the middle of a pile of other felines. He needn't have worried, though. Neither Kristen nor Kim had any plans for such an incident. What they did now was simply for the fun of the moment.

Kim looked across the cougar's chest at Kristen. “Is he ticklish?” she whispered mischievously.

The lioness gave her a look of disappointment. “No, but I am,” she whispered back. “Don't give him any incentive or we'll both be in trouble!”

“I heard that,” Jon murmured, inching his fingertips toward each female's ribs.  Kim giggled again and squirmed, but Kristen snared his hand between her elbow and her side, holding it tight.

“Don't you dare,” she hissed, arching an eyebrow at him.  He only smiled back in response, staying his hand. “You'll wake the others.”

“Actually, it would be your screams that'll wake the others,” Jon replied with mischief in his eyes. Before anything could escalate, however, they all heard what sounded like a grunting bear.

“Was that Hank?” Kim whispered, breaking the mood. “He sounds like he has a cold.”

“No, it sounded more like Aaron,” Kristen answered quietly.

The sound was repeated, but this time the three cats all looked from one to another. “I don't think that was any of our bears,” Jon remarked in a whisper.

The lynx suddenly looked afraid.  “Maybe one of the pigs has come back from inside the cavern!”

There was a quiet tapping at the doorway to the dome.  Jon looked toward the curtain and then someone stuck his head inside.  “Jon?” whispered the silhouette.

“I'm here, Michael. What's going on?”

“Sorry to wake you,” said the swift fox, “but we have some new visitors outside.”

“Visitors?”

“Come see.”

The mountain lion untangled himself from the females and somehow managed to twist around so that he could get up onto all fours. It was the easiest way to walk through the curled bodies without stepping on any of them. A few of them opened sleepy eyes to see what was going on, but went back to sleep almost as quickly.

Now fully awake, Kristen and Kim got up together and followed him out into the cavern. The three of them trailed Michael to the cavern entrance, past the animal pens where Cheryl was trying to quieten the sheep that had started to panic with the arrival of the new visitors.

Standing in a snow bank at the foot of the zigzag path were four animals none of them had ever seen before. They could be vaguely compared to a bear, but the resemblance was only basic. It appeared to be two adults and two adolescents with plump bodies, huge paws and claws, long fuzzy tails and wing-like ears, a fat blocky head with coal black eyes and a wooly fur as white as the snow itself, but with black socks around each foot. Their heads and faces didn't resemble Terran bears, but just as the native deer remind the colonists of the deer from home, these could also be thought of as the native variety of bear. They weren't all that big, the largest was about the same size as Hank and Alicia.  Completing the picture, they all acted lethargic as if in great need of sleep.

“Now dat's whut I would call a 'shno barr',” Cheryl said with an exaggerated country accent, mimicking one of her cousins back on Earth. She fished the PBJ from a pocket and snapped a few pictures of the creatures for their scientist.

“A snow barr, huh?” Michael repeated with amusement.  “Kinda fitting, really.  Not a bear, but could be a barr.”

All four of the thusly-named snow barrs were peering up into the cavern.  Other colonists were gathering at the top of the path to look down at them and the largest of the newcomers kept gazing over the pathway from the valley up to the shelter of the cavern. It moaned as if in disapproval that the place was already occupied.

“Maybe this was their wintering den,” Kim suggested. “There may be more coming.”

“If there were more, I'd think they would have already been here ahead of the weather,” Carl said from the side. He and Ellie had already been awake due to the nocturnal side of their lupine ancestry and had been standing watch. Manny showed up with a rifle, but only kept it ready.

The adult male barr took a step onto the pathway with a look that was almost determined. He needed sleep, and really wanted in, but there were strange creatures blocking the way ahead. As soon as he took a second step, all of the Furs at the top lined up side by side across the path. Manny took aim, but kept the safety on for the moment.

“What do you suggest?” Jon asked Carl beside him quietly.  “They haven't really harmed or threatened anyone.”

“If we let them in and all they do is find an alcove to hibernate in, that might be okay,” Carl mused. “This cavern might have been theirs at one time.”

Jon looked down at the poor animals standing out in the heavily falling snow and considered the wolf's words.

“As much as I hate to turn away one of my kin,” Alicia said from the side, “What happens when they wake up hungry? Will they try to eat one of us or our livestock? Do we really want to take that chance?”

Jon frowned and turned to Manny.  “Fire off a warning shot,” he told the arctic fox. “They haven't done anything, so don't shoot one. Just try to frighten it away.”

“What about everyone else that's still asleep?” Manny asked with pursed lips, recalling his earlier dressing down.

“I think most everyone's awake this time,” Jon said, looking at the crowd around them.  “Cheryl, you and Arne may need to quieten the livestock again.”

“Ayup,” the Border collie replied.

“Another wasted bullet coming right up,” muttered the arctic fox. Manny took aim with his rifle, thumbed off the safety, and gently squeezed the trigger.

The bullet struck the rock face of the mountain a foot above the barr's head. A few flecks of stone broke off and peppered the animal, and it jumped backward from the echoed noise and the rocks.

Inside the animal pens, the cattle and sheep reacted to the gunshot with distress, but their keepers immediately began working to calm them.

The male barr bawled out in fright and raced back its family a little further behind, and then turned around to face the Furs again.  For all the expressions that animals could make, this creature actually looked as if it might start crying. There was moisture in its eyes, probably from the sudden unexpected stress, but then it seemed to realize the futility of trying to gain shelter in the cavern.

The barr moaned mournfully at his companions and then the four of them turned toward the woods. Perhaps they could find sufficient shelter against the storm elsewhere.

Jon watched them go until they'd disappeared into the shadows of the forest. He had mixed feelings about driving them away during a snowstorm, but he had to keep the colony's safety in mind. It's possible they might have just settled down into hibernation without causing any problems, maybe even leaving on their own later, but he couldn't really take that chance. 

*** 

Carl muttered beneath his breath as he pulled hard on the top rotor of the gyrocopter.  He was sure the primary shaft was undamaged by the crash, but the thick bushing holding the rotor to the shaft was sticking.  He stood back with hands on his hips and studied the errant damage. The rotor blade itself was bent slightly in two places along its length and he had intended to pull it off in order to make an attempt to straighten it out, but first he’d have to remove it.  He’d taken out the primary long bolt and that should have released it from the shaft, but something was still holding it in place.

The cheek plate looked as if it might also have a hairline fracture, but he didn't know if he had anything he could replace it with; maybe some the scrap metal left over when Norman put together a Faraday cage for their electronics.

It had been two weeks since he and a few others had hiked out to where he’d left the gyrocopter behind, and they’d all had to push and pull it all the way back to the cavern when he’d been unable to get it started again. It had been an afternoon endeavor, but the craft rolled well enough across the grass plains with the efforts of him, Michael, Hank and Alicia providing the muscle power to keep it moving.

The hardest part had been lifting it over the stone partitions to get it up the path into the cavern where work could be done on it, but once it was inside, the wolf had abandoned it to attend his wife. This was her first pregnancy, and since she was over fifty years of age, every little thing was cause for concern to the expectant father.

Now that things had settled down somewhat and the weather had him trapped inside, he had returned to his pet project in an attempt to repair the damage.  He knew he might be wasting his effort and may not even have the tools or parts necessary to fix it, but with nothing else to occupy his mind at the moment, it was better than just sitting around.

He looked over the bushing again and then his eyes lit up.  In addition to a long bolt that had attached the rotor to the shaft, there was a small roll pin he’d missed. He felt foolish at forgetting it, as it had been he and Ellie who had assembled the kit in the first place.

He grabbed a small hammer and an appropriate punch tool from the toolbox at his feet and quickly tapped out the flush pin.  When he tugged on the rotor this time, it slid off the shaft and came away in his hands.  He gave the item a look of triumph and went right to work. 

*** 

A solitary beam of light cut through the Stygian darkness far back in the cavern system.  The lone ursine explorer had often been scolded for making her sojourns alone without a partner in the event of trouble, but now that the colony had been socked in for the winter and there was little enough to do for everyone, Dara Turner had frequently taken off on her own.

Originally, she had compared this cavern system to Mammoth Cave in Bowling Green, Kentucky, but over time she’d discovered this was not exactly a true comparison.  Also primarily a large dry cave, there were plenty of areas within the Kentucky karst topography that contained formations formed by wind or water erosion and mineral deposits, but this cave was completely devoid of any such wonderments. It was dry, completely dry, and although the primary passage was huge in itself and the floor was relatively flat, she knew that wind alone couldn’t have formed such a cavern system.  As a geologist, she had formed several hypotheses for its origins, but with the limited resources at her disposal, it was nothing more than conjecture.

Although Dara had not informed anyone of her departure, this time she'd packed food, water, a bed roll and a few provisions to press even deeper into the cavern system than she'd been able to go before.  She was sure there was another exit somewhere on the other side of the mountain, but the passageways meandered and were never quite in a straight line, so she had no real clue just where under the mountain she might wind up.  The overhead passages were not as immense farther back inside, but there were numerous branches that could go anywhere.

At the moment, the polar bear was camped out in a small alcove with her bed rolled out and a little can of Sterno heating up a small pan of beans. She also had a plastic container of cubes made from various fish, deer and thunderpig meat. One by one, she skewed a cube on the end of a hunting knife, and then she would cook it over the pink flames before eating it with the beans. She'd wished for a few spices and perhaps some other vegetables, but she'd wanted to travel light so had kept her pack at a minimum. She'd even worn a set of furman overalls so she could utilize all the little pockets to carry her smaller items.

She ate her food in silence, enjoying the complete quiet around her. She also enjoyed the solitude away from the other bears. Ever since Aaron and Alicia had announced themselves an exclusive couple, Dara had become the focus of the other males' aspirations by default. She enjoyed the attention and was not against their advances, but sometimes a woman just needed time alone.

When she finished eating, she could feel her eyelids bowing to gravity, so she put out the small cook fire, cleaned up her campsite and put everything away except the Sterno can to allow it to cool. Using only her LED head lamp on a low setting, she pulled off her clothes and folded them up beside her. She set the light beside her garments and then turned it off.

The white-furred female stretched out on the sleeping bag with a thin pillow beneath her head and lay still. She closed her eyes and lay on her back for a long while, but despite that she was tired and ready to rest, she didn't go to sleep right away.  Her ears strained to hear any sound within the cavern passage, but there was nothing at all.  The absence of sound was just as complete as the unfathomable darkness.

There was no dripping of water, no footsteps of little critters and the constant breeze through the passageways was even still. She'd expected to hear the little squeaks and subtle flapping of bat wings, but so far she had seen nothing like them within the cavern of this world. Perhaps Bonestell didn't have bats or their equivalent, or maybe it was just this particular cave that didn't harbor any.  The silence was complete but for her own breathing and heartbeat.  In time, she drifted off into a dreamless sleep.  

*** 

When Dara resurfaced from slumber some hours later, it was a peaceful awakening. She had a moment of disorientation when she opened her eyes and saw nothing at all in the complete darkness, but then she remembered where she was.  She yawned, curling her pink tongue over itself and stretched languidly. Even though she was an anthropomorphized polar bear and had more fat and muscle than she'd possessed as a human, she still had a beauty of her own.

Prior to her transformation, she'd been a big woman anyway. She'd never been obese, but she'd actually been tall, large-framed and broad-shouldered, the type that some men called Amazon.  A larger animal like a bear seemed the right choice when she'd made her decision after volunteering for the program. Although larger than most in the colony, she could be stealthy and quiet in her movements, and although she was quite alone so far back in the cavern system, she began to stir and sit up in the darkness.

She was just reaching beside her bed for her clothing when she saw it. At first she thought it was a trick of the light-gathering nerves in her eyes, possibly misfiring in the total absence of light, but when she blinked again and again, she realized there was something out there.

She swallowed and began pulling cloth over her bare furry form, dressing quickly but trying to stay as quiet as possible.  Without taking her eyes from what she'd seen, Dara rolled up the thin pillow within the sleeping bag and then quickly tied it to the bottom of her day-pack.  Her eyes watered, as she'd even refrained from blinking, but after only a few quick moments, she was dressed and everything back in place upon her broad back.

Moving forward on all fours but without turning on her head lamp, Dara crossed the black passageway toward what looked to be nothing more than an obscure, pale blue glow several yards away.  As she stepped closer, she could pick out the details of the entrance to a small grotto in the opposite wall.  By the time she reached it, her eyes had adjusted and there was enough light coming from the opening that she felt as drawn to it as a bug was to a candle flame.

The opening was just large enough that she could squeeze her bulk into it, but she felt no fear as she followed a brief tunnel that quickly opened up into a larger chamber.  The room was no more than around a dozen feet square with a low eight-foot ceiling, but it was what the place contained that held her sense of awe.

Running through veins in the layers of rock that she could see clearly without the use of a headlamp was a mineral that glowed with its own internal light.  There was such a concentration of emitted illumination that she could have been able to sit and read a printed book without effort. 

She knelt next to a wall and looked closely, having to squint in the light. Just from initial appearances, the mineral looked like marbled blue-white clay.  She sniffed at it and detected a subtle aroma, but it wasn't anything she was familiar with. There was no heat coming off of the substance either.

She figured that it could also be some kind of chemical or biological action taking place within the clay, but since the cavern was in perpetual darkness this far back into the system, it must either be self-replenishing or constant without need for renewal. She was also concerned that the material might be radioactive and she was unwilling to touch it; if it was, however, she might have been exposed already just by crawling into the room.

She frowned, having never considered such a find. She only had a few small sample containers in her pack, but nothing was lead-lined for such a contingency.  If she got sick from exposure, she might expose others by bringing it back, but there was no way she was returning to Second Chance without bringing some of it back for testing.

She pulled off her pack and dug into its contents. She bypassed the plastic containers and found a vial made from industrial glassteel an inch in diameter. She didn't even know why she had it today in her pack, but she'd found it on the ground back at the Furmankind Institute in Upstate New York and had kept it.

Using the trowel end of a small rock-pick she carried in the pack, she scraped off enough of the clay to fill the bottle. She put the stopper in the end and then wiped the end of the trowel on the rock of the wall.

With such an unexpected find, she determined that she needed to return to camp right away.  She squeezed back out to the main corridor and then flagged the entrance with several strands of bright yellow surveyor tape. It would take her a while to get back, so she would need to spend all her time traveling without stopping to investigate anything else along the way. 

*** 

Dara rolled the wheeled stool back away from the work bench and looked up at Dr. Mochizuki.  She set the colony Geiger counter on the bench and then gestured to the glass vial full of the clay she'd found that was quietly glowing even in the light of the dome.

“I can't detect even a trace of radioactivity in that stuff,” she told the red panda.  “Maybe you can find some biological reason why the stuff glows in the dark without exposure to visible or UV light.”

“I will give the mineral a thorough examination,” the formerly-Japanese scientist assured her with a nod. “While I make a visual inspection, I will also run it through the gas chromatograph to break down the components.”

The polar bear looked thoughtful.  “If we can determine that it's safe to be around, we might be able to use it as an alternate light source in our domes if the electronics fail again.”

“I do not think the solar-collection system suffered any damage by the solar flares,” Masanori reminded her, “but an alternative would be a good contingency to have in reserve.  What would you do with it, simply bottle the clay and put one in each dome?”

Dara smiled. She'd not had many opportunities to work with the red panda, but she found that she'd enjoyed the discussions she'd had with him over the past half hour.

“Actually,” she answered, “I thought I could dissolve the material in water, soak it into a blanket, and then let it dry. If that worked, I could just hang it up on a curtain rod to light up my dome and save on the power cells.  Of course, I'd have to stuff it under my bed or in a duffel bag when I wanted to sleep – that stuff is bright when there's a lot of it all together.”

“I will let you know what I find out,” Dr. Mochizuki informed her.  “Even if you cannot use it for the purpose you have in mind, it is still a significant find.” 

*** 

Erin was crouched upon the southern bank of the valley lake, peering into the water at the fish swimming through the reed-like plants.  The clouds and the weather had broken three days ago and a warm front had washed over the region in a brief respite. There was still snow everywhere, but there were places in the direct sunlight that had thawed somewhat, including the surface of the water.

The temperatures had risen into the low fifties, and while not exactly warm, the Furs had ventured out of their cave and were taking advantage of the sunshine.  Kevin warned that the oasis in the weather would not hold and that he suspected another frigid blast was on its way. Erin was proud of him at just how seriously the young fennec fox had taken his responsibilities. He'd been diligent in his studies, and while he didn't have a network of weather stations and satellites to aid him, he was becoming adept at reading the meteorological signs in the sky, the scents on the wind, and even subtle signs by the birds, animals and plant life reacting to upcoming changes.

As a counselor, Erin had bent her rather large ears to the needs of others and the diminutive desert fox seemed to have no lack of clients seeking her out. The group was relatively stable as a whole, but it seemed a natural thing that some needed someone to listen to their anxieties and fears concerning their new home. As Dr. Mochizuki kept reminding everyone, this world may be Earth-like in many ways, but it was still an alien ecosystem that didn't quite match their home planet, and it was at odd times when this alien-ness made itself known to each person.

There were only a few who hadn't come to her, but she was available to any who sought her out. Some had concerns they just needed someone to listen to, while others had issues with the ongoing separation from all they had known throughout their former lives. It's a good thing she'd taken an oath of confidentiality as a counselor, for she knew a few secrets that some had divulged to her that they'd have never wanted made public here in the colony or back on Earth. She was good at keeping things to herself, however, and their confidence in her was well grounded.

According to the Bonestellan calendar that Sissy had worked up, they had been residents here for just a little over seven local months – but the days and months here were greater than they were on Earth, so by the Terran calendars, they had been away even longer.  Erin had done everything she could to encourage them all, but there were some who wondered how they could last for five years.

She had to remind them that although an hour here was the same as an hour on Earth, the length of days and the length of years were different.  A little over two and a half years on Earth would pass by the time they marked their first full year on Bonestell – which meant that the Second Chance population would have fulfilled their five-year contract as it was measured on Earth after only two years of local time.  To the hopes and fears of the Furs, two years here sounded shorter than five back home, even if they knew an hour was still an hour and it would take the same amount of time.

Life here wasn't so bad, although every long day was still a learning experience. The populations to immigrate from Earth would later benefit from the knowledge gained from this small colony, which made everything they did here invaluable.

Movement at the edge of her vision drew her attention.  There were several Furs taking advantage of the outdoor weather to get out and run, and they were all upright on two feet as they jogged around the perimeter of the little valley.  Jon was at the head of the troupe, with Kevin keeping pace right beside him.  Others followed behind, all nearly in perfect step as if they were all marking cadence.  Erin smiled, knowing that she should be out there getting the exercise with them, but she was feeling lazy in the day's warm sunshine. At least Kevin was out there with them. He might have the shortest legs of the group, but he kept up with them all. 

*** 

Jon was enjoying himself. Like the others under his authority, he'd felt cooped up within the confines of the cave and needed the time to get out and stretch his legs. Granted, the cavern system was so immense that a triathlon could have been held within its passages, but running through dark corridors without knowing where the boundary walls might be could be hazardous to one's self.  The mountain lion had tried to maintain a personal exercise program in some fashion or another since they'd arrived, but daily duties and the odd length of days had sometimes altered his routines to where they weren't quite so routine anymore. Sometimes those activities even took the place of scheduled exercises altogether.

As he jogged around the outskirts of the little valley with others beside him or following behind in step, he was aware of eyes watching them from the shadows of the woods. The lil-deer had long gone to wherever it was they went for the winter, but other, larger ruminants had taken up temporary residence within the small forest.  It seemed this region of their continent was host to many different shapes, sizes and types of animals that could be related to the deer family.  It was really surprising that more predators weren't native to the area with such an abundance of food.

Movement along his side caught Jon's eye as a red fox vixen jogged past him and took the lead. The cougar didn't mind, however, since Jasmine's shapely form gave him new scenery to admire.  The fur of her fox tail had grown back completely and was even fluffier than before with the addition of her winter undercoat.  Now that she had her magnificent brush again, Jasmine enjoyed showing it off any chance she could.  Considering that she was the only female currently jogging with the pack, she was aware she now had all eyes upon her backside and made an extra effort to add a little jiggle to her jog.

When they'd made three laps around the perimeter of the five-acre valley, Jon called a halt beside the small river flowing from the lake. Several of them dropped to all fours in order to lap up cool water.

In the moments while they rested, Manny looked over at the mountain lion and caught his attention. “Hey, Jon,” he said. “I have a question for you.”

The cougar looked over at the arctic fox. “What's on your mind?”

“Now that we have good weather again, how about we start that salvage effort on the Magellan to see if there's anything left in the ship we can use?”

Raine looked up from the water with interest and said, “Yeah, I've been itchin' to get out to the wreckage ever since Carl found it.”

Before the colony captain could respond, Jasmine asked, “Doesn't the AHCP want the black box from it?”

“They do,” Jon answered, “but I don't think we have time to get out there and do anything before the next cold front moves in.”  He looked aside at Kevin, who sat on his haunches nearby. The small desert fox nodded, waving his large ears with the action.

“From what I can tell,” Kevin said with confidence, “the next front should come in from the northwest late tomorrow with gusty winds, rapidly falling temperatures and a sharp rise in air pressure. I'm limited by the equipment I have to work with,” he added, “but part of it is intuition – or a gut feeling.”

“A gut feeling?” Raine replied in jest.

Kevin frowned. “I may not be entirely accurate without a host of geosynchronous weather satellites in orbit or weather stations sending data from across the continent, but my gut feelings about our local weather are getting better.”

The cheetah waved a hand dismissively. “I didn't mean anything by it,” he replied. “I doubt I could do any better than you.”

“I trust his research,” Jon interjected, “and with the weather taking another downturn, I don't think it would be advisable to be up on the mountain during inclement weather anyway. I'd like to get up there just as much as any of you, but I think it would be best if we wait for springtime to go back to the Magellan. Then we can take our time investigating the wreckage.  Carl said the nose of the ship was relatively pulverized, so I doubt we'd be able to get anywhere near the bridge, but the black box is located farther back in the fuselage, giving us a better chance to find it.”

“What about salvaging other things from the ship?” Manny asked. “Like that coffee cup Carl brought back for you.”

Jon nodded. “That's become my favorite cup,” he admitted, “but Carl said it looked as if a terrific fire blazed through the ship when it crashed. He found the cup outside, probably thrown out through a split in the fuselage. There may not be much of anything else left to salvage, but it wouldn't hurt to look.”

“Yeah, but we have to wait until spring to look,” Raine grumbled.

Jon looked at Raine and shook his head. “The Magellan is stretched out over a deep chasm and lying partially on its side,” he reminded the cheetah. “If bad weather hits while you're in there, you may not be able to get out.  Carl said the hatch he entered was in the middle of the ship that he'd had to get to by walking across the upper surface of the fuselage. I doubt that was easy with the warm and windy conditions he faced that day, and I don't think trying it in a snowstorm would be that wise.”

He nodded to their shortest member, indicating that he accepted the tan fox's contribution to the safety of the colony. “Kevin will let us know when spring is on its way, and then we'll start making our plans to see what we can find within the Magellan.” 

*** 

Winter weather returned with a vengeance the next evening. Temperatures plunged, heavy snow developed rapidly and dumped enough on the land to make it look as if it had been locked in eternal winter instead of ever having experienced a short period of warmth.  The overcast skies looked as thick as the drifts upon the ground and wind began to howl around the end of the mountain range as gusts to the south threatened to whip up conditions into a blizzard. The surface of the lake and river refroze with the new onslaught, although the natural spring on the side of the mountain continued to trickle, creating an icy waterfall beneath it.

There was a mad scramble to erect wind barriers to protect the livestock, and although they didn't have enough material to block the entire entrance to the cavern, what they did manage to put up was expected to suffice. Fortunately for them all, the winds typically drew air out of the system instead of blowing it inside with such ferocity.

The Furs were greatly thankful for the natural fur coats that genetic tinkering had given them, in addition to the thicker garments they'd brought along, especially since the winters were longer seasons here. Facing the winter in their former human bodies would have been downright miserable, and although men and women had often faced worst conditions in Antarctic stations on Earth, this colony was not as well-equipped with the technologies available to those groups.

With the arrival of winter, the Ursis members of Second Chance often became the subject of good-natured ribbing, everyone wondering when the bears would finally go into hibernation. It was an attribute of their hybrid genetic makeup that they didn't have to sleep through the winter and survive on stored fat reserves; the bears found other ways of staying warm together, and as a result, Dara and Alicia would both be having cubs in the spring.

The colony had plenty of food and water stockpiled within the cavern for the Furs and all their livestock. Not only did they have the stores that had been shipped to the planet with them, they'd also had great success preserving the local food they'd found they could safely eat that also provided them with nourishment.  Dry timber had been cut and stored as cordwood, so there would be no lack of heat, even if the smoke would darken the high ceiling of the cavern above several fire rings. Additionally, the modular geodesic domes were all insulated, and with the space heaters from supply, they should all be warm enough.

Due to the length of days, meals among the varied Furs of the group were often sporadic, scattered around the clock and keeping their two cooks constantly busy. With the advent of winter, however, mealtimes had become social gatherings where all twenty-seven colonists ate together.

During one such evening when everyone had assembled together in the Great Dome for a hot soup of seasoned Bonestellan vegetables with cubed chunks of roasted mooshelk steak, conversations had grown quiet with the howling wind of the blizzard conditions outside.

More through chance than design, Kristen and Chieko had taken a table together and soon fell into a discussion about their individual furman transformations. Both of their mates joined them at the table halfway through their meal and soon Jon and Masanori were drawn into the conversation.

The red pandas often kept to themselves during mealtimes, but neither of them seemed inclined to be detached this time.  Even the scientist seemed grateful for the company.

“Most volunteers to the program go in with an orientation into what they'll be expecting,” Chieko said with a shake of her head, “but neither of us was prepared for the changes.”  The red and black sow was wearing a warm sweater that Dahlia had knitted from the wool of the colony sheep. She and her sister had spun the thread on a simple spinning wheel that had been included in the stores and Chieko had been the first to request a garment made from it. She had a matching cap and mittens, and although the designs in the fabric were only hand painted, it was a cute look for her and she often expressed her gratitude by telling others of Jasmine and Dahlia's skill.

Jon looked at her and then at her husband. “You were the director of your Institute,” he stated. “I thought you were well familiar with the processes.”

“I was, to a degree,” the older red panda agreed, “but only from an administrative standpoint. Although I have been involved in genetic engineering for many years, I was never actually witness to much of the personal transformations that went on in each of our wings. As you know from your own experiences, the physicians who attended you did more than just supervise; they were involved in the day-to-day alterations you endured, helping out with medication or advice as needed.  For Chieko and myself, we had no such help because there was no one with experience holding hands with ailurine subjects. The physiology of red pandas is different from the other four Fur types, and even the diets are very specialized. It took a great effort to learn to eat foods other than the bamboo that we were naturally craving.”

He paused and let out an uncharacteristic sigh. “I knew some of what to expect, but I was woefully unprepared for the sheer amount of pain involved.” He looked straight into Jon's eyes and said, “I had overseen the Toyohashi Furmankind Institute for many years with the transformations of Furs occurring right under my nose, but until I experienced my own alterations, I'd had no real idea what my volunteers had been facing.  Knowing what I do now, I am simply amazed at the number of people agreeing to undergo such an ordeal willingly.”  He looked over at his wife and gently took her hand.

“When Chieko asked to atone for her mistake by undertaking the same transformation, I was horrified. She had never been a volunteer and was just as uneducated on the physical toil as I had been. I forbade her following me through such an experience, and I tried to tell her just what I had endured, but acts of love sometimes blind us to truths that are laid out before us.”

Chieko dipped her head submissively, but Dr. Mochizuki raised the hand that still held hers and lifted her chin with it.  He gave her a compassionate smile when she looked up at him with soulful brown eyes.  “I am thankful for my Chieko,” he said softly, “but I never wanted you to have to experience the terrors that I did.”

Jon nodded silently, watching the two genetic mistakes on the other side of the table from him. He had once remarked that Marcelo Delgado could never fully understand those under his direction at the North American Furmankind Institute unless he had experienced the process himself, but Dr. Mochizuki now knew what none of the other Institute directors had ever known.  It was unfortunate that such a person would have been banished from the Earth because of the mistake. Jon felt that the red panda would now have been the perfect director who could relate to those who came under his care in the program. Away on Bonestell, none of it would matter to those who could have benefited from his guidance the most.

The four of them became silent, their meals finished and each lost in thought. Then after several long moments, Kristen reached over and took her own mate by the hand without looking at him.

“Dr. Mochizuki,” she asked quietly, “may I ask you a question about the furmankind process?”

The scientist nodded. “Of course. What is it you wish to know?”

“I'm sure you're more familiar than any of us with all the experimentation done before the process was ever approved to offer for volunteers,” she began.  “Do you know if the process was ever conducted in reverse?”

Jon looked at her in puzzlement. “What do you mean, in reverse?”

Dr. Mochizuki tapped the table with a finger. “I believe she is asking if human DNA was ever applied to animals, instead of animal DNA applied to humans such as us.”

Kristen's face brightened. “Yes, that's what I meant.”

The red panda nodded. “There were such experiments done in the early days after Professor McEwen's formula was made public for cancer eradication,” he admitted, “but that was long before I was ever involved with the program.  At that time, geneticists attempted to uplift several species of animals in order to make them sentient. Whether or not this was accomplished was never really determined, however.”

“What happened?”

“Most of the subjects did not survive the process. Unable to understand what was happening to them, some killed one another out of sheer madness but others died from the physical agony that warped and twisted their bodies. The animals that were successfully uplifted by the process became smarter and more cunning, and almost always had to be put down after killing their keepers, the ones who tried to help them through it.  It was a dark time and it set the experiments for creating successful Furs back by nearly two decades.  All studies were abandoned and further research forbidden.”

Kristen tilted her head. “If it was all abandoned, how did we come about?”

The red panda gave her a look of amusement.  “It was the allure of forbidden fruit, Ms. Eisenberg.  Such research is never really abandoned completely, even under direct orders. Some geneticists were too attracted by the benefits of furmankind if it ever became successful that research continued in secrecy. Those involved were not allowed to experiment using conventional means, so they had to resort to other methods. There was a time when the news reported of prisoners condemned to die as having been killed attempting to escape, but in reality genetic scientists working covertly for the Terran Colonization Coalition were taking them straight from Death Row. If the subjects died in the process, it was considered an acceptable loss since they were already doomed to die.”

“That's horrible!” Kristen exclaimed.

The doctor nodded. “Yes, it was.  There was a terrible backlash once the forbidden experiments became public, and even though their efforts were ultimately successful, the ones responsible were convicted of heinous crimes against humanity.  The public was incensed and out for blood, and the perpetrators were imprisoned for life without parole.  Some wanted them executed while others clamored to make them go through the very experiments they'd engineered, but even though operations were halted, there was still the matter of what to do with the people already successfully transformed into Furs.

“There was no reversing the process, but compassion spread for the once-condemned and instead of executing them after the agony they'd already endured against their will, it was decided to perform delicate brain surgery on them to wipe out past memories of their criminal lives, to then be reeducated with useful skills. Although these acts were done under forbidden conditions, the original purpose for creating Furs still existed.  Humans sent to settle other worlds that had been determined habitable still needed an edge to survive, so the first successful Furs were trained with survival skills and sent on a new colony ship to a world that became known as Noah's Ark for obvious reasons.”

“Noah's Ark?” Jon sat back in his seat. “I don't remember a colony world with that name.”

The red panda shook his head. “That's because it doesn't exist anymore – or rather, I should say the planet is still there, but it's no longer habitable.  The place was virtually Earth-like when the Furs were sent there, and they successfully put down roots as a mixed colony not unlike this one, but six years after their arrival, a massive asteroid collided with its small moon. The impact broke up both the moon and the asteroid, and the gravity-drawn debris rained down upon the planet. The entire surface of the world was literally bombarded and its atmosphere rendered unbreathable.  Before a rescue ship could be dispatched, all oxygen-breathing life on the planet had perished. There was no one left to rescue.”

Dr. Mochizuki picked up his soup spoon and licked off a bit of sauce still clinging to it before he continued.  “It was a terrible tragedy, a waste of life, but the disaster was not caused by the Furs themselves. They had successfully colonized an Earth-type planet and were propagating, proving that even Furs of matched genetic material could reproduce and populate their world. The research data that had been sent back to Earth during their stay had given mankind such hope that even humanity could move in later and establish a successful foothold there.

“By this time, the AHCP was formed to oversee careful transformation of volunteers.  There were volunteers for the colonization program, but there were not many of those who were agreeable to be turned into partial animals. However, once laws were enacted to protect their rights, the organization received proper funding and the incentive prize money was publicly offered, the number of volunteers picked up.

“Other habitable worlds where humans might have trouble getting started were then targeted for furman advance colonies with the intent of learning as much as possible about a particular world so later humans could properly prepare for the conditions they would find.  The rest you know.”

Jon took a drink from his cup and swallowed in silence. Some of this he had heard before, but other parts was a revelation. Yes, he had endured great pain and agony through the transformation, and for him it had been against his will, but he was now strong and healthy, living well on another world where anything could be dangerous.

It was now their mission to establish a foothold on Bonestell in the name of the humanity of Earth, and every little thing they learned could be potentially important to the survival of mankind in need of expanding away from an overcrowded world.

NEXT CHAPTER

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