SUNSET OF FURMANKIND
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Brian Barrett could rarely sleep sitting upright, but the dissipation of worry and apprehension from the past couple days combined with the constant drone of the Osprey's engines had acted as a sedative to the former Death Row inmate.
He awoke with a start when the compartment's intercom system emitted a sharp whistle. Immediately following was the copilot's calm voice. “Please fasten your seat belt, Mr. Barrett. We are now descending and should be at our destination in ten minutes. You should also secure any items you may have taken out during the flight.”
Barrett wiped a hand across his face and then smoothed down his hair. It was the color of rusty red nails, but despite how course it appeared, it was actually fine textured. As a result, his hair was susceptible to static electricity in the air, windy days, or rubbing against the cloth of a seat back, and it was sticking up in all directions.
Earlier during their refueling stop in Chicago, a bottle of water had been provided for him with his quick-heated supper, so he picked it up from the seat beside him and splashed a little of it in his hands. He wiped it over his hair and then realized that he had no comb in which to smooth it out. There were pockets in his garments, but he had been given nothing to go in them. He worked with his hair as well as he could with his fingers and soon had it looking somewhat presentable, though he had been tempted to pull the knit cap back over it all.
The Osprey hit a small pocket of turbulence, so he capped the bottle and then picked up the items on the floor at his feet. He folded the newspaper, shoved it into the seat's side pocket, and then retrieved the satchel of material that Tom had given him at the start of their journey. He had given the information a cursory glance at first, but found it dry and boring, so had put it away to read more thoroughly at a later time. He stowed the satchel beneath his seat and then refastened his seat belt.
He had flown on airliners many times, but this was his first time in something capable of vertical take offs and landings. When the old craft neared its destination, it slowed almost abruptly, and then the outside roar increased. Barrett suspected the engines had rotated above the wings, because the flooring seemed to drop beneath his seat for a surprised moment. After several long minutes, the wheels touched down and the engine roar subsided quickly.
Unfamiliar with the operations of the antiquated Osprey, he decided to keep to his seat until told he could move. Not for the first time since the flight had begun, Barrett wished his compartment had been equipped with windows. There had been no desire to watch the departure from the prison, but during the hours in the air, he had grown bored with the interior scenery. He had not been allowed out of the compartment while down in Chicago, so he had been cooped up inside for nearly seven and a half hours.
Ten minutes passed before Tom and another short man in a flight suit emerged through the forward door. “Nice flight,” Barrett said with a smile when they approached him. “My compliments to the flight crew.”
“Brian, this is Wayne Mooreland, our pilot,” Tom replied. “We will be resting up overnight before we depart for our next assignment, but this is your stop. If you will follow us, you can sign in with Dr. Delgado.”
Barrett unbuckled his seat belt, grabbed the satchel, and then got to his feet. “Delgado?” he asked, following the two pilots to the exit.
“The administrator of the Institute,” Tom explained, picking up an overnight bag stowed in a locker beside the hatch. “You should have read something about him in the information I gave you.”
“Ah, well, I fell asleep before I could read it all,” Barrett admitted. Wayne cycled open the hatch and then opened it up to let in the cool fresh air. When Barrett stepped down to the concrete pad they had landed upon, he had his first sight of his new home.
Located in a heavily wooded region of the Adirondack Mountains, the place was surrounded by a forest in full autumn colors. The landing pad was situated away from the buildings next to a small lake fed by a natural spring, and an electric cart with three bench seats waited nearby for them. Tom and Wayne put their bags on the back of the cart and then took the front seat. Barrett climbed into the remaining seat and continued looking around when Wayne guided the vehicle along a pathway of bare ruts in the grass toward the buildings.
Although he had read some of the material and saw the photos in a pamphlet, the place was all new to him. He knew that the compound was comprised of a series of smaller complexes. An administrative core was surrounded by five other complexes made up of labs and wings for each of the four furman races, with education facilities encompassing ten other buildings. Although it was hidden away in the woods, the place resembled a community college. Some of the buildings appeared to have been erected within the past twenty years, but the older structures looked to have been there for over a century. The only vehicles he saw on the grounds were electric carts such as the one he and the pilots occupied, none of them equipped with levitation repulsors.
Although it was late in the afternoon, he saw quite a number of individuals walking here and there between the buildings along sidewalks through manicured lawns, and it was only after he saw one of them nearby that he remembered why he was there. What looked like a bipedal red wolf stepped out of a small shed, wearing only a green pocketed vest and matching shorts. Barrett thought it was probably a male, but he could not be sure, and when the stranger saw them, his mouth spread wide in a distinctive canine smile. He waved toward those in the cart and then continued on his way.
Barrett swallowed the lump in his throat and quickly tried to bury the resentment that had forced its way to the forefront of his mind. Upon closer examination of those who walked between the buildings – he was reluctant to call them people – he saw many more anthro humans on the grounds. Some wore shorts and a vest, others had on a short-sleeved, Asian-style garment that hung to the knees and had a split up the back for their tails, and there were even a few clad only in their fur and a pair of shorts with a waistband that dipped below the base of their tails. Many were barefooted, but others were shod in oddly-shaped sandals designed for their digitigrade feet.
Wayne stopped the cart at a small building near the largest structure in the center of the complex. Barrett followed his companions to a wooden door protected by a weathered canvas awning, the pilots leaving their bags in the cart. Beside the door was a simple brass plate that proclaimed, North American Division of the Furmankind Institute, Administrator's Office.
Tom tapped on the door and then turned the knob without waiting for a response. Barrett followed them inside, stepping into a casual reception area with hardwood floors covered by worn rugs of indeterminate origin. Several chairs lined one wall, each of them designed with a curious, horizontal slotted opening in the seat back. Above the chairs on a tan wall hung a large framed oil painting depicting the compound at an earlier age. The only structures in the image were the older stone buildings.
Barrett sniffed the air and idly wondered if there was an office cat in the place.
Tom stepped up to a counter and tapped a bell to signal their arrival. The small hairs on the back of Barrett's neck stood up when something came out of a doorway behind the counter and gave them all a pleasant smile.
Although human-sized, the creature resembled an orange-striped, domestic cat standing upright on its back legs. Unlike the wolf outside, Barrett was certain this feline was a female. She wore a lightweight peach-colored garment like some of the others outside seemed to be wearing, with several bangles around her left wrist, but her hips were wider and there were soft curves to her body that could only belong to a woman. Her large green eyes had vertical black slits for pupils, and she looked pleased to see them.
“Hello, gentlemen,” she said. The words were in English, but there was a definite thrum underlying her voice. Although Barrett was appalled at the sight of her, he had to admit to himself that her voice was pleasant to the ears. There was not so much an accent as it was the timbre of her words. “It is good to see you again,” she added.
“Hello, Sissy. We would like to see the project director, please,” Wayne replied in a quiet voice. “I believe Marcelo is expecting Mr. Barrett.” He gestured toward the third man of his party, and it was then that the feline turned her eyes upon the wide-shouldered, red-headed man.
“Certainly,” she said with a slow blink of her eyes. “I will page him at once.”
Before she could do just that, however, the outside door opened and a short, swarthy man with a head of neatly groomed black hair walked in. He was dressed in dark slacks and a matching jacket over a white shirt. A set of untied blue neckties hung from his collar, and he looked somewhat embarrassed to have been caught looking so casual. His eyes were small and dark, but the smile over his Van Dyke beard was genuine. The stem of a billiard pipe was clenched between his teeth, but it was unlit and he quickly pocketed it to free up his mouth and his hands.
“Hello, Wayne,” he said in a strong voice. “How was your flight?” He shook hands with the pilot after retying his ties, and then did likewise with the other man. “Hello, Tom.”
“We had good weather almost the entire trip,” Wayne replied. “Nothing for concern. Brian was so bored with my flying that he even fell asleep in the back.”
The project director turned and extended a hand toward the newcomer. “You fell asleep in that old rattletrap they fly?” he asked good-naturedly. “You must have had a smooth ride. Hello, I am Doctor Marcelo Delgado.”
Barrett took his hand cautiously, thinking that no matter how much of a front this man might put on for his guests, he was still the leader of an organization that turned good people into monstrosities. Unfortunately, Barrett had no choice in the matter, so he swallowed his thoughts and merely gave him a courteous nod over the handshake.
“Brian Barrett,” he said in way of introducing himself.
“This is Sissy,” Delgado continued, moving to the counter, “my indispensable assistant.”
“Hello, Brian,” said the feline woman. Barrett gave her a courteous nod, but could not bring himself to talk to the creature. This explains the smell of cat, he thought to himself.
“We brought the supplies you ordered,” Tom told the doctor, “but if you don't mind, we're going to head to our quarters and rest up a bit before we unload them.”
“Nothing's perishable, so it can all keep until you can get to them,” the director agreed. “Brian and I will retreat to my office so we can get him set up. See you two later.”
“Bye…” Sissy said to the pilots.
After they had gone, Delgado turned to the feline and said, “Please see to it that we are not disturbed for the next hour. The bus with the others should be here by then, but Brian and I have a lot to discuss.”
“Yes, sir,” Sissy replied. Without another word, she took a seat at a computer behind the counter and busied herself with some task that needed her attention. Delgado turned to the newcomer and gave him a nod.
“This way, Brian.”
Barrett followed him past the counter to a back room, automatically closing the door behind him. Delgado's office was small and cozy with dark paneled walls adorned with framed certificates. A moderate sized desk contained a double-screened computer tablet, but nothing else. There was a cabinet with a potted fern on top in one corner, and a bookshelf full of neatly arranged printed volumes in another. Delgado tapped open a folder on one screen of his tablet as he gestured Barrett to a pair of vinyl-covered chairs with slotted seat backs beside a curtained window. The doctor dropped lightly into his desk chair, and as his visitor sat down, the administrator folded his hands beside the tablet and faced him.
With the door closed for a private conversation, Marcelo Delgado's demeanor changed. “Mr. Barrett,” he began in a tone that had lost all its joviality, “your presence here is going to complicate matters over the next year or two.” Barrett crossed his legs and gifted the man with a look of resignation; he had known this conversation was forthcoming. He said nothing, allowing the doctor to continue.
“I am the only person at this complex who has full knowledge of your situation,” Delgado said quietly, “and I have to admit that I was not pleased when I was contacted with the details of your enrollment here for Class Sixteen.”
“My enrollment? That's a quaint way of describing it,” Barrett retorted, instantly aware that this was not to be a cordial conversation.
“The analogy will do for now,” Delgado told him. “The fact remains that you are a confessed hater of furmankind, as well as a convicted murderer of a man who went through the program at this very facility. I knew Henry Parker, you see, and I don't welcome your presence.”
“Well, Doc, I can't say I'm too happy to be here either,” Barrett replied darkly. “All I did was exchange one prison for another, although in this one I don't get orange coveralls, but a permanent fur coat. For killing a bothersome animal, my freedom is taken away along with my humanity, mind and soul.”
Delgado opened his mouth angrily, but then changed his mind and simply stared at the other man for a long moment. Then, with a more controlled effort, he said, “Normally, a criminal such as yourself going through the process would undergo a surgical memory wipe, Mr. Barrett. You would then be reeducated to live in anthro society without taking along the baggage you carry. Why the judge ordered you to retain your memories is beyond me. Having a Fur-hater living amongst others becoming Furs is a potentially explosive situation.”
“I'm going to be losing my mind anyway, so why don't you just wipe my memories and claim you lost the judge's orders?” Barrett hissed. “Happens all the time in the real world.”
Delgado raised an eyebrow in surprise. “You want a memory wipe?” he asked incredulously.
“What do you think?” Barrett growled. “No, I don't want a mind wipe, but perhaps it would be better going through life as a brainless vegetable than to suffer the painful torture you plan to put me through!”
The director was completely human, but the malicious look he gave the prisoner was almost feral. “Nothing would please me more than to have you tortured for what you did to Henry Parker, Mr. Barrett. Unfortunately, I do not have that luxury. I cannot relieve you of your memories either. By law and by the judicial orders I have already signed in agreement, I must accept you as a typical volunteer for the Anthro Human Colonization Program.” He sat back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. Both men sat quietly for several long moments, but it was Barrett who finally spoke.
“My life is over, and although I chose this option over a violent death, I'm not so sure that it will be any less painful with your procedures.”
Delgado looked over at him and leaned forward upon his desk once again. “Yes, there will be pain involved with the process as the bodily structure is reconfigured,” he admitted, “but it's tolerable to just about everyone who goes through it.”
“Just about everyone? What about those who don't find it tolerable?”
The doctor frowned. “We provide medical and psychological care throughout the process, but there have been times when a volunteer's psyche is incapable of dealing with the changes taking place.”
Barrett folded his hands across his stomach. “I understand that the McEwen process is irreversible once it has begun.”
“Yes, that's right.”
“For those who can't cope with becoming a monster, how do you issue a refund for something that can't be returned? That psychological instability will be with them the rest of their wretched lives!”
Delgado fixed him with a hard glare, but then his expression softened. No matter how much he resented Barrett, this was no way to begin a two-year association with which someone that the legal system had stuck him. There were three other furmankind facilities across the world, and although they had each processed a few criminals through their ranks at times, it was always done with a surgical memory erasure to keep the peace while educating the individual for the colonization program. Barrett was a unique case in that the judge had ordered him to undergo the process with the memories of his deeds intact, and this made the situation volatile.
“Mr. Barrett… Let me apologize for getting started on the wrong foot,” he said in a calmer tone. “My reaction to your deeds was unprofessional, and since neither of us has a choice concerning your presence at this facility, perhaps we should begin again. I am fully aware of your attitudes toward furmankind, but you agreed to the process and you should therefore be treated as any other volunteer to the program. Shall we call a truce?”
Barrett fixed him with a long, hard stare, but eventually he nodded.
“In answer to your question, Mr. Barrett, yes, there are those who cannot cope with the changes their bodies must go through, and it is in those instances that we must work with them personally and delicately. Each case is different, so there are no standards to follow, but it is rare that this happens. The human mind is extremely adaptable, even under the duress of pain. We take every step necessary to make the transition as easy as possible. Usually, the ones who have the greatest problem are those who endure the process who are unsure or un…willing.” Delgado stopped and stared at Barrett in sudden realization of what he had just said. Barrett crossed his arms and said nothing.
Delgado cleared his throat and realized a headache was coming on from this discussion. Then he raised an eyebrow as his confidence returned. “From what I understand about you, Mr. Barrett, you have a strong will and fully-rounded character. I'm sure you can handle the process without any mental breakdowns.”
“I have a question for you, Doc,” Barrett said.
“If you are so assured of the McEwen process, why haven't you gone through it yourself? It occurs to me that the director of such a project should be someone who has firsthand knowledge on what his patients must undergo.”
Delgado frowned deeply. “Those who go through the transformation,” the man said slowly, “are destined to colonize other worlds. That is not the career I have chosen for myself.”
“You agree with the plan to colonize planets, yet you don't have the guts to support what you create here, is that it?”
“I am doing my part to support that colonization,” Delgado replied. “Aside from those such as yourself, every other person who goes through our program is a volunteer. This is the life they have chosen. We take that responsibility very seriously, Mr. Barrett, and even though you don't agree with us, you have also chosen this life, even if it was ultimately as a means to avoid a violent death. Despite my personal feelings, we intend to see you safely through every aspect of the process as we would with any other.”
Barrett knew the director was right. Even if he did not agree or approve of the very existence of the Institute, he was there because of the decision he had made. He ran the fingers of a hand through his hair and visibly relaxed.
“Okay, Doc,” he said, “we've established that I will be a prisoner here just as much as I was in a Colorado prison. I honestly don't believe my mind will be intact by the time you are through with me, but there's nothing I can do about that now. As far as I'm concerned, it will be a slow death, but at least I will get a couple more years of life than I was to have as of this morning.”
“Are you saying that you will cause us no trouble?”
Barrett nodded. “I will deal with what's to happen to me as it comes. I can only hope that my psyche is as strong as you believe it is.”
“We have trained psychologists on the grounds that are available twenty-four seven. If you ever feel you have a need for their services, they are discreet and will work with you on a personal level.”
“We also have a chaplain's office with a staff representing various faiths if you should feel the need to talk to any of them. As with our counselors, the chaplain is on-call around the clock and the chapel is available at all times.”
Barrett suddenly recalled the face of Lloyd Gibson, the minister who had visited him in prison. It had been a long time since he'd last prayed, but with the daunting life ahead of him, he wouldn't rule out the extra bit of faith it might take to get him through it.
“Now then, Mr. Barrett, shall we proceed?”
“Go ahead, Doc. I'm your captive audience… literally.” Barrett said this last with a smirk, signaling to the director that they understood one another.
Delgado allowed himself to smile at his humor. “Since your decision to accept the process in exchange for your original sentencing was done at such a late hour, there was no time for a new background and identification to be set up prior to your arrival here. However, taking on a new identity is an option when any volunteer signs a contract with the AHCP, so it is not unheard of for the paperwork to take a little time. For now, until such time as your new identification is set up, I would advise you to introduce yourself solely by your first name when meeting others. First name introductions are common here anyway.”
“Sounds simple enough. What was this place before you guys took it over and set up shop?”
“That was in the material that should have been provided for you to look over on the flight here,” Delgado replied. “Was it not given to you?”
“Yeah, it was, but I fell asleep on the way here. I didn't get to read it all.”
“Where is the satchel now?”
Barrett searched his memory and then suddenly looked annoyed at himself. “I left it on the seat of that cart the pilots drove over here. It must still be there, if it hasn't fallen off in the grass somewhere.”
The administrator nodded. “Okay, that can be retrieved later. In answer to your question, this location and the original buildings were formerly part of an institution in the nineteen-thirties and forties to rehabilitate and reeducate criminals that were caught outside the law. Although the unorthodox procedures they used were moderately successful, the place was shut down when news of its existence and methods got out to the public.” He gave Barrett a smirk of his own and added, “It's rather fitting that you came here to this place, considering its history.”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.