SUNSET OF FURMANKIND
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Marcelo Delgado glanced at his wristwatch. “I always set aside a few moments for a short one-on-one greeting with each new person who comes here to undergo the process. Usually it only takes me about ten or fifteen minutes, but yours took a little longer. However, I think we still have a little time before the next group of volunteers arrives,” he said, getting to his feet.
“We have a little time for what?” Barrett asked suspiciously, keeping his seat. “I don't think it would be in our best interest to get into a fistfight right before the next batch of suckers get here.”
Delgado heaved an audible sigh of frustration. He fixed the other man with a pointed stare and said with a growl, “I meant to say there's still time for me to show you to your quarters, Mr. Barrett. Must every single thing we say to one another have to be the precursor to an argument?”
Barrett blinked and suddenly felt foolish. He was still on his guard and the words had jumped out before he had even really thought about them. He got to his feet and then stuck his hands into his pockets. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I forgot we had called a truce.”
Delgado raised an eyebrow and then nodded. “Apology accepted,” he said more calmly. “Now, let me show you to the place where you will be living. One of your housemates arrived just before you did; I can introduce you to her before the others arrive.”
“Her?” Barrett asked.
“Yes, there are typically sixteen volunteers per class session, four to a group for each of the four Fur races. Our groups are coed and you'll have two more people joining you before the day is out.”
“I see. How many classes have you had here?”
“Each class is initially nine months long for the transformation and up to another year for education afterward, with concurrent sessions overlapping approximately every ten months. Your class is the sixteenth at this particular institution.”
“Ah, okay. Lead the way, Doc. I'm right with you.”
The orange-furred assistant looked up at them from her desk terminal when they walked out into the front room. “Sissy, I'm going to take Brian over to the Felis Wing to meet Kristen. Please page my com if the bus arrives before I get back.”
“The Felis Wing?” she asked with great interest, her green eyes locked upon Barrett as he passed her counter. “Did he choose to become a domestic cat like myself?”
“Cougar,” Delgado responded automatically, “A mountain lion.”
“Such graceful and powerful creatures,” Sissy remarked. “I like the choice.”
The director knew that although she had not actually acknowledged his instructions, his administrative assistant would contact him at the appropriate time. He led Barrett out through the door into the cool autumn afternoon, turning toward one of the older stone buildings along a concrete sidewalk.
“I am curious about something, Doc,” Barrett said with a look of mischief on his face. The administrator looked at him sideways, unsure he wanted to hear what the other man wanted to know. Without waiting for a confirmation, Barrett gestured broadly across the compound with one hand. “You just said that you had greeted a woman, a housemate of mine, just before I arrived. Since your ties were undone, it makes me wonder how you greeted her.”
Delgado looked annoyed at the implied accusation and sputtered. “I stopped by the cafeteria on the way back from taking her to your Wing,” he huffed, pointing a finger at the largest building of the complex. “I ran into someone in line – literally – and had coffee splashed on me. I was in my cabin changing clothes when I heard the Osprey arrive. That's why my ties were untied!”
Barrett grinned at him openly. “Uh huh…”
Delgado sighed, but continued walking. “Brian, you're going to give me an ulcer. Truce, remember?”
Barrett chuckled. “This has nothing to do with Furs or my personal feelings on this place, Doc, so isn't covered by our truce.”
The administrator glanced aside at his companion and then let a wry smile cross his lips. “Right,” he muttered, visibly relaxing.
Barrett frowned. “I apologize, Doc. I almost met the death angel this morning. Levity is just my way of dealing with such a life-altering experience.”
“Right. I'll try to remember that.”
“Listen,” Delgado said after a few steps, “remember what I said about going by first names here? Please, Brian, stop calling me Doc. My name is Marcelo.”
Barrett shrugged his shoulders. “Marcelo – sure, I can do that. I noticed you've already started calling me Brian, but don't get too used to it,” he reminded him with a somber expression. “I should have a new name soon. It may take me a while to get used to it, though; I've spent thirty-five years with my old one.”
“Brian! Marcelo! Wait up!”
Barrett and Marcelo stopped and looked back at the person who had called to them. Approaching from a set of modern cabins off to the side was Tom Williams, the Osprey copilot. He was now dressed in a pair of denim blue jeans and a matching shirt, looking relaxed after the long flight. In his hands was Barrett's satchel and the newspaper provided for him on the flight.
“I thought you might want these,” he said with a grin, “It's the information on this place that you didn't read because you slept through it, and a souvenir of what you missed this morning!”
Barrett took the items with a smile. “Thanks, Tom. I was planning to come looking for them as soon as I got settled in.”
“Once Wayne and I have had our supper, we have supplies to unload from the Osprey, thirsty gas tanks to refill, and then we'll be taking off bright and early tomorrow morning.”
Barrett held out his hand. “If I don't see you before you leave, thanks for getting me out of Colorado. I hope you guys have a good flight to wherever you're headed next!”
Tom shook his hand. “You're welcome, and thanks!” he replied. He nodded to Marcelo and then retreated back to his cabin at a relaxed gait.
Barrett and Marcelo resumed walking. Within a few moments, they approached one of the smaller stone buildings, but smaller was a relative description. It was not as large as the early Twentieth Century three-story structure occupying the center of the compound, but its floor plan occupied a footprint similar to that of a High School gymnasium. The building was square, with several high windows along two of the sides that Barrett could see. The stone used to construct it was mostly rose granite with a lighter beige rock at the corners and borders around the doors and windows.
The sidewalk took them to the main entrance of the structure. Three wide steps led up to a landing that was covered over by a burgundy canvas awning. Two large oak doors were designed to open in opposite directions for convenience, and the one on the right had a small brass nameplate affixed near the middle of the solid panel that Barrett read with raised eyebrows.
“The Felis Wing — really?” he asked in amusement. “Since cats don’t have wings, perhaps you should have just called it the Cat House.” Marcelo simply rolled his eyes without comment, pushing open the door for him and his red-headed companion.
Just inside the door was an all-weather rug on the floor and a tall round canister containing several wide-brim umbrellas was in the corner immediately on their left. Glowing panels illuminated a high-ceiling corridor with a soft light, but a larger room at the other end seemed lit up by sunlight. Framed before-and-after photographs of past tenants of the Felis Wing were hung on wheat-colored walls, and their footsteps echoed on the concrete floor. Barrett gave the portraits only a cursory glance, certain that he would get used to seeing them in the months to come; they held little interest for him now.
When they reached the end of the long hallway, the flooring changed over to padded carpeting in a large rectangular room. Several doors lined three of the walls, with usable counter tops and cabinets interspersed between. A large skylight overhead provided ample illumination with natural sunlight, the indirect glow panels around the perimeter of the ceiling currently off and unneeded.
Occupying a space on the wall adjacent to the main entrance hallway was a large video screen that was currently switched off. Several more slot-back chairs were arranged casually in front of it, with lamp tables between each of them. There were no lamps upon the small tables, however, but scented candles or bowls of potpourri instead. A small library of leather-bound volumes framed the video screen on both sides, likely for nothing more than decoration since every book ever written was likely accessible for common reader devices.
To the right was an outside wall to the building, unbroken but for a large stone fireplace with a thick wooden mantle above the raised hearth. The ashes from some past fire lightly covered the bottom of the fireplace beneath a soot-covered iron grate, but at present, there were no kindling or logs. A set of iron utensils stood nearby in an upright frame, and a simple pendulum clock occupied a spot above the empty mantle.
At the center of the room was a sunken circular area, a gathering place reached by three sets of two steps around its perimeter. Comfortable couches matched the curvature of the pit, all accented by throw pillows, and a round wooden table sat right in the middle. There were four chairs with slotted seat backs around the table, and a delicate floral arrangement on top.
Seated on one of the couches was a young woman with two travel bags at her feet. Marcelo led Barrett down the steps as she stood up to greet them.
“Brian, I would like to introduce you to Kristen, one of your housemates. Kristen, I am sorry we kept you waiting, but this is Brian. He has just joined us.”
“Hello, Kristen,” Barrett said with a friendly smile. “It is good to meet you.” He set his satchel and newspaper on the table and then held out his hand in greeting. Although Barrett was fully six feet in height, Kristen was ten inches shorter and she looked up at him with deep brown eyes that were rich and warm. She had long black hair that hung to the middle of her back and bangs cut straight across her forehead just above thin eyebrows. She was slightly plump, though not fat, and wore a powder blue blouse over a pair of tan slacks. Although she returned Barrett's smile easily, she appeared somewhat shy with a spot of color appearing on her pale cheeks.
“Hello, Brian,” she replied in a quiet voice, taking his hand delicately. “I am pleased to meet you, too.”
Marcelo was relieved that his red-haired companion presented a charming face to the young lady, rather than the sarcastic one that had been directed toward himself earlier. “Kristen has volunteered for the program as a transterrestrial botanist for the colony.”
“I assume that means you will be the one who determines if the local plant life is edible or poisonous to us,” Barrett remarked, still holding onto her hand. “I automatically want to be your friend.”
Kristen's smile widened, but then she gently retrieved her fingers. “Going to another world, it is always a good thing to take friends with you,” she said. “What position will you be fulfilling when the time comes to go?”
Barrett looked over at Marcelo and frowned. His inclusion in a future life on another world had not been discussed beyond the furman transformation itself. “Well, I'm afraid they are still trying to find a place to put me,” he said as explanation. “I have several business-related degrees, but nothing in the field of sciences. More than likely, I will be low-ranked on the team and wind up digging latrines or building shelters.”
Marcelo smiled at the man's response to Kristen's query. “Don't let him fool you,” he told the woman. “Brian has talents of his own. Business and administrative experience will always be an asset, even on an alien world that might be opened for settlement.” He was about to say something more, but his pocket phone chirped for attention. He took a look at the message and then put it away.
“The bus with the others has arrived and I must attend to it,” Marcelo told them. “I will return in a bit.”
“Others? How many more?” Barrett asked out of curiosity.
Marcelo stroked his Van Dyke beard absently. “The timing of your arrival was spot-on; there's a new class of volunteers arriving at the Institute today. Typically, there are four processed at a time for each of the furman races, so there should be fourteen on that bus unless someone missed the ride. They don't always all come in on one load, but I prefer to meet with all new volunteers when they arrive and you two were the first to arrive for Class Sixteen since you traveled separate from the others. I may be a while before I can bring in your other housemates, so make yourself comfortable. If possible, I will arrange to have your attendants come by as soon as they can.”
“We'll have attendants?” Kristen asked in amazement, suddenly visualizing a staff waiting on them hand and foot — or paw, as the case may be.
Marcelo smiled, instantly realizing her train of thought. “There is a doctor and a nurse assigned to each of the four races, and it is they who will initiate and be with you through every step of the process. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go meet the others.” Marcelo gave them a smile and then retraced his steps back along the corridor.
Barrett and Kristen stood there for a moment longer before the woman returned to her seat on the couch. She looked up at him and brushed a few strands of hair behind one ear. “I've long had an interest in getting out so I can see the new forms of plant life that have developed on other worlds,” she said in casual conversation. “I was unsure if I could accept the furman requirement to go out there, but then I decided it was a price I was willing to pay. Although completely separate ecosystems, I understand there are amazing similarities on the habitable worlds they've found, to what we have here on Earth. Since you have no science background, Brian, what was it that interested you in the program?”
Barrett frowned at the question and his mind raced to come up with a suitable fabrication. He had not yet received his new identity and he had not discussed a plausible background with Marcelo. “Well…” he started off slowly, “life often throws obstacles your way and sometimes you have to swerve around them in order to survive or meet some goal. My life's road has had a lot of twists and turns, and it just happened to have brought me here, so I plan to make the best of it.”
Kristen looked at him blankly. “You… didn't choose to be here?” she asked.
Barrett gave her another of his charming smiles, reminded of Marcelo's earlier words about the choice he had made to stay alive. “There were factors involved,” he told her, placing his hands into the pockets of his denim jeans, “but ultimately the choice was mine alone to make. I am where I have chosen to be.” His smile was infectious and the young woman returned it automatically.
Barrett glanced around the large room and then quietly walked up the steps out of the pit. “Have you looked around the place yet?” he asked her.
“I poked my head into a couple of the rooms while waiting for Dr. Delgado to come back,” Kristen replied, “but I didn't know if we were allowed to see what was there before being shown.”
Barrett looked down at her. “Why would that matter?” he asked. “This is our new home.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Although I know the basics behind the McEwen process, it's still a mystery to me how they turn ordinary people like you and I into half-human, half-animal hybrids. I didn't want to mess with anything inadvertently.”
Barrett nodded. “It never hurts to be cautious,” he agreed. “What did you find during your peek?”
“Four bedrooms, a kitchen and a laboratory,” she replied. “Once I saw the lab, I stopped snooping.”
“Marcelo did not give us any restrictions when he left, so I think I'm going to look around,” Barrett said. “Want to join me to see the rest?”
Kristen suddenly seemed to realize that she was alone with a complete stranger who had only given her only a vague response about his purpose here. According to the director, this man Brian was to be one of her housemates, but until she got to know him better, it might be prudent to refrain from putting herself into any potential situations that could be compromised.
“Thank you,” she answered, “but I think I'll relax for now. I drove for nearly seven hours today to get here.”
“I had a long flight myself,” Barrett replied, “but I'm tired of sitting. Besides that, I need to find out where they've hidden the restroom.” Leaving her alone with her thoughts, Barrett walked to the first door at random. Inside were quarters that resembled a typical hotel room, though without a private bathroom. The bed was king sized, at least, and the recliner in the corner looked as if it were large enough for a bear to relax into well enough to sleep. Barrett frowned at the thought and then shook his head to drop the visual image. As if I didn't need another reminder, he thought to himself.
There was a small table on each side of the bed, each occupied by a generic lamp; a cheap alarm clock rested beside one of them. Across from the bed was a six-drawer dresser with a large mirror and one of the curious slot-back chairs that were common here; beside that was a small stand with a typical video panel. A floor lamp occupied another corner near a tiny walk-in closet, but there were no windows to break the monotony of the back wall, giving the place a slightly claustrophobic air. This puzzled Barrett, since he had seen windows on the outside of the building. When he looked into three more adjacent doors, he found hotel-style rooms identical to the first, all waiting to be individualized by new tenants. None of them had windows to grace their walls either.
Through another door, he walked into the kitchen. It was a little larger than a home kitchen, but it did not include a dining area. A large stove with two ovens occupied one wall, several appliances on a wide counter, a pantry and three cabinets, one of which contained several sizes of pots and pans; eating utensils of various kinds lay in a drawer in separated bins beneath the single counter. The only items currently in the refrigerator were several chilled bottles of water. No doubt, the contents would be provided once it was known what dietary needs were required by the tenants.
The next door over provided entrance to the laboratory that Kristen had seen, through a set of double panels that looked as if they could be sealed around the edges with an inflatable set of rubber bumpers. Brighter than the other rooms he had been in, the lab sparkled and shined, light glinting off numerous chrome instruments and scientific devices that Barrett would not even hazard to guess their functions. Knowing what he was to face in the coming months, the sight of the gleaming medical instruments was chilling.
Two oddly shaped beds occupied the center of the room and looked as if they could rotate on multiple axes. One end had an adjustable cutout that Barrett suspected was for a patient's face while lying on his or her stomach, much like those in a chiropractor's office he had once visited. He decided not to try to guess the purpose of it in this setting.
There were several doors further in, but he was reluctant to enter the room that had apparently been sterilized prior to their arrival. No need to contaminate it beyond just opening the door, he understood why Kristen had not wanted to investigate further, so he switched off the lights and closed the door.
He still needed to find a toilet, so he moved to the next door he found. Inside was small office occupied by two military-surplus desks facing one another, each occupied by a double-screened computer tablet and several file clips. Several photographs were taped to the wall above one of the desks and there was a large filing cabinet on the far wall. Moving to the next door, Barrett found nothing more than air comfort units for the facility, and a walk-in linen closet occupied the next.
He was delighted when the next he looked into housed an exercise room. It was small, but contained three cardio machines – a treadmill, an elliptical trainer and a stationary bike. There was a folded exercise mat up against one wall, next to a fully-supplied weight bench and a frame of free weights. Barrett preferred to work out every morning before going to work, a practice he had continued even in prison, so he was glad to have discovered this room.
The remaining door next to one of the bookcases beside the video panel led into a large restroom with beige tile walls and red brick tiles on the floor. There were five toilet stalls along one wall, the same amount of sinks in a long counter beneath a large mirror, and a long wooden bench mounted to the floor in the middle of the room, similar to those that might be found in a sports locker room.
The wall opposite the toilets housed five water-shower stalls with generic shower curtains so new that he could smell the vinyl as soon as he entered the room. On a wall near the sinks was remnant mounting brackets for some large piece of machinery that appeared to have been only recently removed.
Barrett stepped back out and looked at the door panel, but there was nothing to indicate whether the room was for men or women. It was at least designed with humans in mind, he decided with a personal smile, as there were no litter boxes in sight. He had not seen any other restrooms in the facility, so the place must be co-ed. Perhaps it had never been designed specifically for one gender or the other. From all signs, it looked similar to restrooms in some of the cabins he had stayed in for a summer church camp when he was a kid.
It was then he remembered what Marcelo had told him, that the place had once been an institution for rehabilitating criminals. There were four buildings altogether such as this one on the grounds. Perhaps two had been for women and two for men, but now they were being used to separate not genders, but anthro races.
Without any other options, he secluded himself inside one of the toilet stalls to take care of his need. The last time he had been to the toilet was on the Osprey during the refueling stop in Chicago. At least this place had already been stocked with toilet paper and had typical American-style commodes, although the stool itself was more of a pedestal separated from the tank that he assumed was to allow for users with tails. The internal design and operation of the waste-collection device may have changed over the decades, but the function was the same.
When Barrett returned to the front room, Marcelo had just arrived with another man. He assumed it was the doctor that he had mentioned, but when he approached them, Marcelo was introducing the man to Kristen as a new housemate.
“The name's Dante,” said the newcomer, shaking the woman's hand. Kristen gave him a courteous smile, but even Barrett could tell she was uncomfortable. She retrieved her fingers and then unconsciously wiped them on her slacks as if there had been something on them.
Dante was an average-looking man in his late twenties with brown hair, dark blue eyes and a mustache so thin that it was barely there. He was taller than both Kristen and Marcelo, but did not reach Barrett's height. He was dressed in dark denim jeans, with a long-sleeved brown flannel shirt that was open to reveal a gold chain resting in sparse chest hair. He was currently chewing gum and unconsciously snapping it. Although he looked clean, there was something about his manner toward Kristen that Barrett immediately registered as oily.
“Ah, Brian,” Marcelo said when the taller man appeared at the top of the sunken area and stopped beside a pair of suitcases. “Dante is another of your housemates, having just arrived. He was the first into my office off the bus, so it did not take long before I could bring him out to you. Dante, this is Brian.”
Dante simply looked up at the red-haired man, but when Barrett walked down the short steps into the pit and proffered his out of habit, the newcomer took it with a brief hesitation. “Hey, Brian,” he said. “So you're gonna be another cat like the two of us.” He said the last while sidling up next to Kristen and putting his arm around her shoulders in feigned familiarity.
The woman did not let him linger, instead moving out of his grasp when she felt his eyes travel down the neckline of her blouse. To put space between them, she took up a position between Marcelo and Barrett. It was apparent her impression of Dante matched Barrett's assessment of him.
Barrett ignored the incident and simply nodded to the other man. “Yes, this is the Cat House, after all,” he answered.
“If you will excuse me,” Marcelo said to the trio, “I have others to greet.” Without waiting for acknowledgment, he retreated back up the corridor, almost at a jog. He was busier than usual and it was getting on into the early evening.
Before the administrator was out the door, however, another couple walked in and gave him a quick greeting. Marcelo spoke with them for just a moment before he left and the pair approached those in the main room. Barrett returned to the upper level and Kristen followed him quickly, unwilling to be left below with Dante.
“Welcome to the Felis Wing,” said the female newcomer. Although she looked to be in her late forties, she carried herself well with a confidence that put the others at ease almost instantly. She was nearly as tall as Barrett, and her green eyes contrasted well with her shoulder length, platinum blonde hair. She still retained a noticeable figure at an age when most women would be more relaxed in the way they appeared. “I am Marcy Lagrange and I will be your attendant nurse for the next nine months. This is Donald Renwick, your doctor.”
Renwick acknowledged each of them with a nod of his firm jaw. His short copper hair was lighter than his tanned skin of bronze, looking as if he had spent his summer vacation somewhere in the tropics, and his eyes almost matched the color of his hair. Both wore medical scrubs beneath lightweight lab coats, him in dark blue scrubs, and her in lavender.
“Good evening,” the thirty-something doctor told them with a casual smile. He'd had his hands in the pockets of his smock, but he pulled out a dual-screen compact computer and peered at an open note page within. “If you are in the right place, you two gentlemen must be Brian and Dante,” he said. Then he looked over at the short, dark-haired woman and asked, “Are you Jenni or Kristen?”
“I'm Kristen,” she replied. “We haven't met anyone named Jenni.”
“Sweet!” Dante said with a smile at Nurse Marcy. “The animals are being gathered girl and boy, two by two.”
“We have a short orientation for all of you,” Renwick said, “but we would prefer everyone be present. If you would, just relax in here until your last housemate arrives, and then we can get started with proper introductions and a brief discussion of our procedures here at the Institute.”
“Excuse me,” Barrett said with an upraised finger, “but for some of us who have traveled a ways to get here — what time are we allowed something to eat?”
“Yeah,” Dante added, “do we get our food in here, or is there a cafeteria somewhere?”
“There will be times that you will eat here,” Renwick replied, “but until we know your specific dietary needs, our house kitchen is not yet stocked. There is a cafeteria on the bottom floor of the Clark Savage building, the large stone building next door if you wish to get a bite for now.”
“What kind of prices do they have there?” Dante asked.
Marcy shook her head. “There's no charge for your meals,” she told him. “That expense is covered by your stay here.”
Dante rubbed his hands together with a smile. “Good, because I do love to eat! How late are they open?”
“Due to the nature of the clientele here,” Renwick replied, “it is open around the clock.”
“The nature of the clientele?” Barrett repeated.
“Some of the furman races can be nocturnal,” the doctor explained, “so appetites don't always depend upon a clock's time schedule.”
“That makes sense,” Kristen said.
Renwick looked at his wrist watch. “It is currently five of six o'clock. If you can be back here in the saloon by six forty-five, the director should have ample time to visit with your remaining housemate and release her to us.”
“Saloon?” Dante repeated, looking around. “Where are the swinging doors?”
Renwick looked at him in puzzlement, but Barrett chuckled, shaking his head. “A saloon is a large room used as a gathering place, Dante,” he explained. “The term does not always mean there are cowboys, dancing showgirls and western shoot-outs.”
Kristen snickered and Marcy looked amused. Dante simply looked up at Barrett. “Oh,” he said quietly. “I've never heard it used for anything else.”
“Come on, let's get something to eat,” Barrett said to his housemates, moving toward the entrance corridor. “We'll be back shortly,” he told the attendants. Nurse Marcy gave them a smile, but the doctor was already walking toward his office.
As the trio headed out the front door, Barrett could not scratch the uncomfortable feeling when he considered their new doctor in that room of gleaming medical instruments. It was like an itch between the shoulder blades that he could not reach. Renwick had done nothing to present himself as a mad genetic scientist tinkering with the lives of innocents, but he had not exactly appeared to be a warm individual at their initial meeting. First impressions often served as important indicators to Barrett, and he hoped his feelings were wrong.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.