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SUNSET OF FURMANKIND

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 9
Orientation

 

Barrett, Kristen and Dante had stepped outside the doors of the Felis Wing under a darkening sky, were down the steps and had traversed several yards along the concrete sidewalk before any of them noticed the approaching cart. The orange feline secretary was behind the controls with a human passenger beside her.  She pulled up alongside the sidewalk and stopped beside the trio.

“Hi again,” Sissy said cheerily. “I've brought you a present!”

“A present?”  Dante responded with a grin, “For little ol' me?”

Sissy's eyes narrowed in amusement, and then she turned to the woman sitting quietly beside her.  “This is your final housemate, Jenni,” she said in a rush. “Jenni, this is Brian, Kristen and Dante.” She pointed to each in turn.

“Hello,” Jenni said courteously, stepping out of the vehicle onto the grass. The newcomer was slender and shapely, in her late twenties, and as far as the men were concerned, she was striking in appearance. She had shoulder-length blonde hair and a set of powder blue eyes that were mesmerizing even in the waning light. Her makeup was subtle as was her outfit. She wore a long-sleeved white blouse with only the top button undone over a moderate sized chest, a tan skirt that fell below her knees, and a pair of matching flats. There was a delicate silver chain around her left ankle matching a pair of small silver earrings and they glittered when park lights over the sidewalk suddenly came on with the darkness. Dante's eyes seemed to be glued to the curve of her calf and a lopsided smirk appeared across his lips.

Kristen was glad to have another female in the house, but she felt she knew what she must look like when compared to someone as pretty as the new girl. Kristen had never considered herself ugly by any means, but she was fully aware that she had a few extra pounds on her that she had never been able to rid herself of with diet and exercise. However, it was something she was long used to, so her momentary melancholy evaporated just knowing that Dante would be fawning over the newcomer instead of herself.

“Nice to meet you,” she told Jenni with a smile, her words echoed simultaneously by Barrett. She then looked over at Sissy and added, “I thought the director would be a while getting through the crowd of newcomers.”

“The director has never had to deal with this many volunteers at once,” Sissy explained, “so he released everyone to their wings for now and will meet with each one personally in turn tomorrow. Since the Felis Wing was only short one member, I volunteered to bring Jenni out to meet you.”

“Thank you, Sissy,” Jenni said, lightly touching the feline's hand with a fingertip. She turned to a back seat to retrieve her luggage and Dante rushed forward to help her.

“Here, let me get those for you,” he said. When the woman stepped back to let him take her bags, Dante's eyes widened at the weight of the first suitcase. He managed to get it out onto the grass beside him without mashing his toes.

“We were heading to the cafeteria for a bite to eat,” Barrett told the newcomer. “You're welcome to join us.”

“Yes, thank you. It's been a while since the bus stopped for lunch,” Jenni replied gratefully.

“Why don't you four go on to eat?” Sissy suggested. “I can put the bags inside for you.”

“Are you sure?” Jenni asked.

“Are you sure?” echoed Dante, who had just managed to get both weighty bags out of the cart. He looked at Sissy's slender feline build and had his doubts that she could handle them.

“Yes, I'm sure,” the Institute's administrative assistant assured them. “If you will put the bags back in the cart for me, I will take care of them at your Wing.”

Dante frowned, looking back down at the luggage, but Barrett walked over and grabbed the handle of each one to load them up onto the back seat for him. The younger man looked surprised at how easily Barrett handled them and grunted beneath his breath when he stepped out of the way.

“Thank you, guys,” Jenni said with a smile. Sissy gave them all a lighthearted finger wave and then drove the cart to the entrance of their Wing.

Barrett gestured toward the larger building next to theirs. “This way,” he said to the woman.  Jenni gave him a pleasant smile and then she stepped up to Kristen's side. The women immediately began chatting with one another in introduction.

Barrett held back to let Dante follow the women and then he tagged along behind. While he walked, the red-haired man looked up through the numerous trees on the grounds at the slowly emerging stars and a smile spread across his face.  He had been on Death Row and in confinement for so long that it felt like it had been ages since he had last seen the stars at night. A light autumn breeze wafted through the complex and he took a deep breath to enjoy the scents of the surrounding forest.

He outstretched his arms as he walked, for once feeling really free. He tried not to think about the reason for his presence there, only to enjoy the moment. Unfortunately, the mood was shattered when they neared the large structure and he saw a lupine Fur reach the door just ahead of them. The wolfman was dressed in a short-sleeved, dark green robe that hung to his knees, with his full tail wagging gently through a split in the back. The Canis Fur saw the approaching foursome and stopped to hold open the door for them.

“Thank you,” Kristen told him gratefully.

“Yes, thank you,” Jenni added.

“You are welcome,” the wolf replied in a low, throaty voice. “I take it you are all from the bus that arrived tonight?”

“That's right,” Dante said as he moved past him. “We're the newest Guinea pigs.”

Kristen reached out a tentative hand to the wolf's arm. “May I?” she asked.

The wolfman gave her a look of amusement. “Sure, go ahead,” he replied.  Kristen placed her fingertips in the Canis male's reddish fur and lightly stroked it from elbow to wrist. She gave the wolf a smile and continued to pet his arm several times.

“Your fur is coarse,” she said, “but also soft. How can that be?”

“It's autumn, but winter's coming soon,” he explained patiently. “The coarse fur is my regular guard hairs, but I'm growing in a softer undercoat as insulation against the cold.”

“Wow,” Kristen replied. She realized she was still petting his arm, so she pulled her fingers back with an embarrassed grin.  “Thank you.”

“You're welcome,” the red wolf replied. Kristen turned and followed Jenni and Dante inside.

Barrett stopped before he passed the wolf and quietly put a hand up on the door, unwilling to let a Fur hold it for him. The wolfman mistook his gesture as courtesy to hold the door for him, so he nodded to the red-haired man and went on inside.

Barrett swallowed and hesitated for a moment more before he went into the building. Inside was a short corridor lined with grey tile, pale yellow walls broken by several doors and bright overhead lights. A set of stairs to another floor was to his right. The sound coming from the end of the hall was a cacophony of voices amidst the tinkling of silverware and glasses with the clatter of plates and serving trays. When the small group reached the cafeteria, Barrett stopped at the entrance as his companions continued toward the serving line.

There seemed to be an even mix of races in the moderate sized room. Humans, Felis, Canis, Ursis and Vulps were all mingled together. Although the busload of volunteers that had arrived would make up the patients for the next nine months, there were numerous others that were all fully transformed into furmankind. Part of the information that he had managed to read before drifting to sleep on the flight mentioned that even after the process was completed, each patient would stay on the grounds for a little over another year in formal education for their ultimate destination, some starter colony across space on another world. Although there were four worlds already resident with furmankind's small populations, other new planets opened for settlement would first be tamed by the likes of what Barrett saw in that room.

He knew that he would have to get used to the sight of Furs on a daily basis, but that did not mean he would have to like it. Grudgingly, he made his feet move forward as he walked a path bordered with the fewest amount of Furs that he could get by. He kept his facial expression purposely neutral. The last thing he wanted was for some fuzzy idiot to stop him to see if he was feeling okay, despite the revulsion he felt.

He was tempted to return to the Felis Wing without eating, but it was no use. No matter how he felt toward those who were no longer fully human, the fact remained that he had not eaten since Chicago and his stomach grumbled at its emptiness. Despite his physical fitness habits, he had never had the will for fasting and he never missed a meal if he could help it. Quelling an internal sigh, Barrett fell in behind his companions at the serving line and picked up a plastic tray for his selections. Fortunately for his peace of mind, the kitchen workers on the other side of the counter were all human.

Once the four of them had their selections, they retreated to an empty table in a corner of the room. Barrett surreptitiously maneuvered himself in the small group so that when they reached the table, the seat he claimed was facing the back wall. The others did not realize that he had purposely chosen a chair that would put his back to the rest of the cafeteria so he would not have to look at any of the Furs while he ate.

Dante took the seat across from him and closest to the corner, so Kristen immediately sat down next to Barrett. She didn't feel any particular attraction to the broad-shouldered man with the rust-colored hair, but she had already decided that she did not want to sit next to Dante. Jenni set her tray on the table at the remaining chair next to the younger man and gave them all a pleasant smile as she sat down. Kristen watched Dante's gaze rove over Jenni's blouse momentarily before he turned his attention to his meal.

The table remained in awkward silence for some time while each of them started in on their food. Although the four were to be housemates for the better part of the next year, this was their first real gathering together and no one appeared to know how to begin the relationship. Oddly enough, it was Dante who broke the silence.

“I wonder if our sense of taste will change,” he muttered around a mouthful of lasagna. “I love pasta and it would be a crime if I suddenly didn't like the taste anymore.”

“I'm sure there will be some changes,” Jenni replied after swallowing a bit of the chef's salad she had chosen. “After all, we will be taking on some of the attributes of the creatures we will be merged with.”

“I suppose our appetite for meat will increase,” Kristen added. “I haven't seen a listing of what will be available to us yet, but I think most of the felines are of the larger cat variety.”

“What about that cat-girl, Sissy?” Dante asked with a smirk. “Isn't she a domestic cat? If she doesn't eat large quantities of meat like a lion or tiger, what would she eat instead?  Kitty Vittles?”

“Tender Moisties?” Jenni suggested with a snicker. “It's tender!  It's moisty!  Me-ow! Me-ow! Me-ow!

Kristen grinned over her enchilada dinner. “Thanks, now I'm going to have that commercial jingle in my head all night!”

“You'll be craving Tender Moisties during the night,” Dante warned. “Better keep a tin under your pillow!”  Despite her initial mistrust of the younger man, Kristen found herself smiling from Dante's topical banter.

Jenni was smiling, too, but then she noticed that Barrett was quietly eating his Swiss steak and baked potato without taking part in the conversation. She reached across the table and tapped a finger once beside his plate. He glanced up at her and took a sip of iced water.

“Are you feeling okay?” she asked with a concerned expression. “I'm a Registered Nurse.”

“Helloooo, Nurse!” Dante quoted with a grin.

Barrett swallowed his drink and looked at Jenni for a moment before he shook his head. “No, I'm fine,” he said quietly, “I'm just…”  When all three looked at him to finish his explanation, he shrugged his shoulders and gave them all a tired smile. “It's been a long day for me,” he told them, “and I guess I'm still trying to keep everything in perspective.”

“What do you mean?” Kristen asked, setting down her fork.

Barrett gestured out in the direction of the other diners in the cafeteria without actually looking over his shoulder. “Making the decision to give up my humanity was not an easy one for me,” he admitted. “I thought that once I arrived at the Institute, I would settle in and get used to the idea, but I keep remembering that once it's done, there's no going back.”

“Yeah, that's something to remember, all right,” Dante added soberly. “Even after the process is done, we'll be giving up the Earth as well as our humanity.”

“Right,” Barrett said. “Out there on whatever wild planet they stick us on, we will be on our own. We will have to grow or kill our own food, completely living off the land after whatever groceries we take with us runs out, and if there are any emergencies, we will have to deal with them ourselves. It takes months for a transport from Earth to reach some of those worlds, so calling for help or supplies won't be an option for most of those places.”

Deadpan, Kristen quoted, “No phones, no lights, no motor cars…”

“Not a single luxureeeee…” Dante finished in song.

Despite his mood, Barrett chuckled at their grinning faces staring back at him. Jenni reached out again and lightly set a finger on the back of his hand that was wrapped around his glass.

“You've only just arrived,” she reminded him with a gentle smile. “That's not enough time to get used to anything, especially something as life-altering as what we are about to go through.” She glanced quickly at each of their companions and added, “We may have only just met, but we're all going to be there to help one another through everything we face. We'll be there for you if you have a rough time of it.”

Barrett gave her a grateful nod. “Thanks,” he said with genuine appreciation. There was no backing out of this for himself, but having others go through the process with him would give him someone close by who could relate.

Dante didn't respond to Jenni's vow of solidarity, but Kristen gave Barrett a subtle nod to add her confirmation. Barrett gave both of them a smile and then picked up his glass. He raised it in casual salute and then took a sip.

The conversation dropped off as each of them resumed eating, but then Barrett caught Jenni studying him again. “Yes?” he asked over the surrounding conversations.

“Sorry, I'm just trying to remember your names,” the blonde woman replied. “Sissy introduced the three of you so fast that I'm not sure I got them all.”

Dante held up a fork with a noodle skewered on the end. “I'm Dante, that's Kristen and this is Brain,” he mumbled around a bite of food.

“Brian,” Barrett corrected. Dante simply looked back at him with a smirk, knowing full well what he had said.

“Dante, Kristen and… Brian,” Jenni repeated with a smile. “Thanks, I think I can remember them now.”

“Sorry, but mine is going to change soon,” Barrett told her.  All three of his companions gave him puzzled looks.  “I accepted the offer of a new identity,” he explained, “only the decision was made too late to have it in place before I got here. I should have a new name in the next day or three.”

Dante dropped his head and looked at the older man suspiciously. “Are you on the run?” he asked.

Barrett decided to make light of his situation to throw them off the real story, so he told a half-lie with a straight face. “From my ex, perhaps,” he said, “but really I just wanted a change to go with the new face.”

“Ex-wife?” Kristen asked.

“Ex-fiancé,” Barrett corrected. “I caught her cheating on me, so I decided it was time for a change of lifestyle.”

“You should tell people you're on the run,” Dante mused, returning to his supper. “It sounds more exciting.”

“Sorry to disappoint you,” Barrett replied in amusement.

“So what's your new name going to be?” Jenni asked.

“Brain,” supplied Dante again.

Barrett gave him a dirty look and then shook his head.  “I don't know yet. The AHCP is setting it up for me, so I'm just as curious about my new name as you are.”

“Bo-ring,” Dante muttered.

Daunted by Dante's lack of enthusiasm for the discussion, the conversation died for a bit, but after a time, Kristen looked over at the blonde woman. “You said you were a Registered Nurse. Are you going to be part of the group that oversees our transformation?”

Jenni shook her head. “No, the Institute has its own physicians for that,” she replied. “I have no doubt that I'll continue my profession once they assign us to a colony, but I am going to need reeducation for the different furman physiologies I may need to treat.”

“They're going to have to retrain you as a veterinarian,” Dante quipped with a smirk.

“That's probably closer to the truth than you know,” Kristen told him.

Jenni wiped a bit of salad dressing from her lips with a napkin. “We'll still be part human,” she reminded them, “so human medical experience will be as much a necessity as furman medical knowledge.”

“So, what will be your job in the colony?” Kristen asked Dante, pushing away her finished plate. “Jenni's a nurse, I'm a botanist, and Brian is a business administrator.”

“I'm a Dante-of-all-trades,” the man replied, looking at Barrett, “but why are we going to need a pencil pusher out on another world?” he asked.

Barrett gave him a shrewd smile. “It will be my job to keep track of troublemakers and report them back to Earth.”

Dante's eyes grew wide. “Really?”

Barrett chuckled. “Actually, I have no idea what I will be doing for the colony,” he admitted to them all. “I would imagine they will train me in whatever skills they will think I'm suited for. I'm not specialized in talents that would be useful in taming another planet as the three of you are.”  He ate the last bite of his meal, washed it down with some water and then sat back in his chair. “Maybe they'll make me the Administrator of the colony and I'll be over all of you!”

Dante choked on the last of his pasta, but when he saw the roguish look in Barrett's eyes, he knew the other man was not serious. He grabbed his napkin and wiped his mouth while Jenni and Kristen laughed. Although they were all virtual strangers to one another, they were amused that Barrett's melancholy mood had momentarily lifted.

Barrett glanced at his watch. “Doc Renwick said to be back by six forty-five. That gives us ten minutes to finish up and get back to the Cat House.”

“The Cat House?” Jenni asked curiously.

“He means the Felis Wing,” Kristen explained with a grin, “our new place of residence.”

The blonde woman looked at Barrett with wide eyes. “Calling it the Cat House makes it sound like a brothel!”

“I doubt I'm the first to call it that,” Barrett retorted with a lopsided smile.

“Perhaps not, but that doesn't mean you have to,” Kristen scolded.

“Well, I'm done,” Dante announced to his housemates to interrupt the conversation. “It may have been cafeteria food, but it wasn't bad.”

The others indicated they had all finished with their meals as well, so they stood up with their trays and sought out the refuse bins. Kristen and Jenni tried not to stare, but they were both fascinated at the sight of the Furs that occupied tables throughout the cafeteria. The common chairs with the horizontal slots in the seat backs near the bottom cushion now made sense to them, as it allowed the furman patrons to occupy a chair without having to sit on their own tails.

Dante did not share Barrett's revulsion of the Furs, especially the females. He openly gawked at a table occupied by a fennec vixen, a lynx and two canine females. They were all chatting animatedly between themselves and did not see him, but Dante's eyes were nearly bulging when he realized that all were dressed in shorts and none of them were wearing anything more than their fur on top. The fur was thick enough that each of them was sufficiently covered up, but the human male's imagination filled in the details without effort.

Barrett noticed him staring and grabbed the younger man by his flannel collar. It was this action that got the attention of the table of females, and it started them in a round of giggling.  Dante grinned foolishly and waved at the women as Barrett pulled him toward the exit.

Once they were outside, Barrett released him with a look of long-suffering. Dante merely grinned back at him, but Kristen and Jenni were puzzled by their behavior, having not witnessed the display.

“What's going on?” Jenni asked.

“Dante was just doing the same thing you were,” Barrett replied, leading the others back toward the Felis Wing.

“What was that?” Kristen wanted to know, exchanging looks with the other woman.

“Dante was ogling the females,” Barrett replied, “while you two were drooling over the males at another table. The only difference is that I had to drag him out.”

“We weren't drooling!” the dark-haired botanist complained.

Barrett waggled an impish finger at them all. “There's no use in denying it,” he said with an uncharacteristic look of mischief.

Jenni smiled back at him and shrugged her shoulders. “Well, there was a cute black bear in there,” she admitted.

Kristen turned to look at her. “You mean the one who looked like a Teddy Bear?”

“That's the one,” Jenni said with a chuckle. “He was looking at us with wide, blank-looking eyes, as if he were a stuffed animal.”

“He probably was stuffed,” Dante suggested, “with his supper, that is!”

Barrett glanced back up at the sky as he had on the way out, but wispy clouds had begun to gather overhead and only a few stars were still peeking through.

Jenni quickened her pace so that she could walk next to the taller man. “So, what's our place like,” she asked. “I haven't had a chance to see it yet.”

“There's a room for each of us,” Barrett told her. “They're all identical, laid out like a typical hotel room. There's a kitchen, laundry room and the Doc's office, as well as a small exercise room, a coed restroom and a common room type saloon.”

“Coed restroom?” Dante repeated in sudden interest.

“There are separate toilet and shower stalls,” Barrett explained briefly, “but there's no separation between men and women facilities.”

“I'm not sure I like that,” Kristen remarked.

“The director told me the place used to be an establishment for rehabilitating criminals back in the early twentieth century, so I doubt it was designed to give privacy to the inmates.”

“We're staying in a prison?” Dante gasped.

“Hardly,” Barrett replied with a shake of his head, having had firsthand experience with the look and feel of a prison. “It reminds me more of a summer camp cabin, probably originally designed for only one gender at a time.”

The foursome approached the Felis Wing entrance and Barrett held open the door for his companions. Dante looked around and was amazed that Jenni's heavy luggage had not been left just inside the door by that skinny orange cat-girl, Sissy. When they walked up the corridor, he tapped on the long unbroken wall to their left and asked, “What's on the other side of this?”

“That's the restroom I was telling you about,” Barrett answered. “The door to it is just off the saloon.”

“Good, because I need to make a visit!”

“You did say there were separate stalls inside, right?” Kristen asked hopefully.

“Yes,” Barrett replied. At the end of the corridor, they discovered that the main room was empty. Since the sun had set outside, the interior lights were now on and the skylight was dark. Barrett pointed toward the restroom door and all three of his companions headed there together. There was some brief hesitation when they reached the entrance, as none of them was used to going into a restroom facility along with someone of the opposite sex.  Jenni finally shrugged and went in first, followed by Dante and then a reluctant Kristen.

Barrett walked to the sunken gathering area and sat down on the soft cushions of a couch to wait.  Before the others returned, the Wing's nurse stepped out of the office door and gave him a smile.

“Welcome back,” she said, crossing the room toward him. She held a wrapped bundle in the crook of one elbow and an office binder in her other hand. “Where are the others?”

“Using the facilities,” the red-haired man replied.

The nurse glanced back toward the restroom entrance. “I'm surprised they were comfortable right off to use the coed facilities without an explanation,” she mused aloud.

“I think the need was greater than the embarrassment,” Barrett remarked. “I told them about the arrangement on the walk over here from the cafeteria.”

“How was your supper?”

“Filling.”  Barrett glanced around and saw the combined sets of luggage belonging to his housemates. “Nurse… uh…”

“You may call me Marcy,” the older woman told him, stepping down into the central pit. “Just about everyone on the compound goes on a first-name basis.”

“Almost everyone?”

The nurse glanced back at the office door she had just come through. “Doctor Renwick prefers to go by title.”

“Ah, okay.”

“Did you have a question, Brian?”

“Yes, I don't know if the director gave you any information about my situation, but I left rather abruptly this morning and didn't bring any luggage like my housemates did,” he said. “Is there somewhere around here I can buy another set of clothes? All I have is what I have on.”

The nurse gave him an odd look. “I don't know anything about your personal situation, but a friend of yours named Tom brought in your overnight bag while you were at the cafeteria.”

“My… overnight bag?”  Barrett looked around and saw a nondescript black bag sitting next to the suitcases he recognized as belonging to Jenni.  He walked up the steps to it and unclipped the buckle holding it closed. A small toiletry kit sat on top a bundle of garments that he could inventory later. He was not sure who was responsible, but at his first opportunity, he felt he should send a thank you to his lawyer William Harper.

“You seem puzzled,” Marcy told him, setting her office binder on the central table. “Is that the wrong bag?”

Barrett smiled up at her and shook his head. “No, it's mine,” he replied, “but I thought it had been left behind.”

“If you need anything more, there is a Shoppette on the grounds. It's not terribly large, but they do tend to carry more things than you might think.”

Several voices drew their attention when the other housemates emerged from the restroom. As they approached, Kristen looked at Barrett and said, “That was surreal.”

“Surreal?” asked Marcy.

“Using the toilet with a guy sitting in the next stall,” the botanist replied.

“Hey, I couldn’t help it!” Dante complained. “You would have too if you had—”

“Stop!” Barrett ordered, waving his hands back and forth in front of him. “We don't need to know any details.” Dante looked as if he was going to continue, but then closed his mouth at the larger man's stern look.

Once he was sure the subject was closed, Barrett turned to Jenni and then gestured to the nurse standing quietly beside them. “Jenni, this is Marcy, our attendant nurse for the duration of our stay.”

“Welcome to the Felis Wing, Jenni,” Nurse Lagrange said to the latecomer.

“Thank you, Marcy.”

“Doctor Renwick will be out in a moment to give you all the initial orientation,” the nurse told the small group. “Are there any questions you have that I may answer in the meantime?”

“Why is there only one restroom?” Kristen asked.

“That is just a matter of convenience,” said a new voice. Everyone looked up at the approaching doctor. The overhead lights glinted off highlights in his short copper hair, making the bronze of his tan look even darker than it had to Barrett earlier. His golden-brown eyes studied each of them, and then he approached the blonde woman. “Jenni Watson, I presume. I am Doctor Renwick. I will be your attendant doctor.”

“Yes, I am Jenni,” she confirmed.

Satisfied that everyone was present, the doctor gestured toward the end of the room to a row of seats facing a video screen. As the group settled in, Renwick continued with his earlier explanation.

“The restroom arrangement is merely for convenience,” he said again, taking up a position in front of the dark screen. “Every class session is performed with no more than four patients per Wing at a time. With the four of you, we currently have an even number of males and females in the Felis Wing this time, but this is not always the case. It could have been any mix of gender, but this facility is not large enough for separate lavatories.”

“I understand,” Kristen said with her arms crossed, “but I don't know that I'm comfortable without some kind of privacy.”

“Along with the physical changes of the process, you will also develop species-related behavioral adaptations.  Felines are social animals that often eat and sleep together in groups and privacy is usually of little concern.  Once these tendencies begin to take over, the arrangement of this Wing will be more practical.”

“What?” Barrett asked in surprise. “No one told me there would be behavioral modification along with the transformation.  You are going to tamper with our heads and brainwash us?”

For a brief moment, a dark expression crossed the doctor's features, but he recovered almost instantly and shook his head. “Brian, please calm down. What I am referring to is a natural species adaptation, not behavioral modification. The DNA merge will give you physical characteristics of the feline of your choice in addition to retaining your human characteristics. For example, your eyes will change, grow larger to let in more light, and the irises will reconfigure for this. You will see greater detail in a dark room than you have ever seen before and your body is going to adapt to this. This is not the same as an organ transplant, where there is the possibility of a rejection of the tissue.”

“I understand that,” Barrett countered, “but you said tendencies would take over. That's behavioral, not physical.”

“Okay,” Renwick conceded, “it was a poor choice of words. The species related tendencies will not be taking over your mind, Brian, but will be more like a natural conditioning due to your surroundings that complement the feline nature of your transformation.  Whereas someone might be a loner now, later on in the process that person will discover that he or she now prefers the company of others. This is a feline attribute and was only used as an example in explaining the social arrangement of this facility. The extra tendencies you will develop are all natural. We have added nothing to the formula that will make your minds malleable for brainwashing.”

Barrett crossed his arms and continued to frown, but after thinking over the doctor's explanation, he calmed down and finally gave the man a nod. “Okay, I think I understand now.”

“Very good,” Renwick said. Then he looked at Kristen. “Although you will be sharing the same facilities as the men, there are separate stalls for the toilets, as well as the showers. It may be only a modicum of privacy, but once you are farther along in your transformation, I doubt even that will be much of a concern to you.”

Kristen looked over at Dante and Barrett collectively and leveled a finger at them. “No peeking!” she told them seriously. The doctor's explanation for her concerns had not really appeased her as well as his words for Barrett had for the larger man. Kristen did not consider herself a prude, but she was self-conscious about her size and weight, and was concerned for her privacy over that matter more than anything else was.

Dante merely grinned back at her statement, but Barrett made an obvious show of placing a hand over his eyes. Jenni snickered at them all. She was confident enough with her own appearance that she had not found the coed restroom to be anything of significant concern to her.

Renwick smoothed out the front of his smock and then put his hands behind his back. “If you will indulge me, please let me begin fresh,” he said to his audience. “I am Doctor Donald Renwick, and this is Nurse Marcy Lagrange. Welcome to the Felis Wing, your home for the next nine months.”  He gestured to each of his charges. “Kristen Eisenberg, Brian Barrett, Dante Capanari, and Jenni Watson.”  Barrett winced at the use of his full name. It had been plastered all over the national news in recent days and he had no assumptions that those around him would have forgotten it.

The doctor continued without a pause. “Each one of you has volunteered to join the Anthro Human Colonization Program and you have chosen to have the DNA of a feline race merged with your own through the McEwen Process. You have already had legal guidance prior to signing your contracts, but there is an escape clause in the event you decide not to go through with it. The four of you will be living together here in this Wing several days for orientation and physical examinations before the actual process begins. You will have the next three days to consider your reasons for doing this, and then you will make your final decision to go through with it or return to your old lives. Once initiated, the process is irreversible, so once you sign that final document, you are bound to the furman lifestyle for the rest of your lives.”

Barrett had trouble swallowing. Despite the easy banter with his housemates earlier that had put him somewhat at ease, the doctor's speech brought back everything to the forefront. He had received no legal counsel other than the final conversation with his lawyer where he had practically begged him to be allowed to join the AHCP to save his skin. He had signed no legal documents beforehand and there was no 'escape clause' that he could claim. He was just as trapped as he had been while in prison.

Dante held up a tentative hand. “I have no intention of backing out,” he said, “but have you ever had anyone take the escape clause?”

“Yes,” Renwick admitted, “but the benefits of becoming a Fur usually outweighs most fears about the process. There have been those who opt out, but this has not happened in the Felis Wing in several years.” Barrett wondered what those benefits might be, but instead of asking, he kept his mouth shut. The doctor gestured to his nurse and then took a step back against the video screen.

“As you know,” Marcy began with a smile, holding her wrapped bundle up against her chest with both arms, “your bodies will be slowly changing its configuration over the next nine months. Typical human clothing is going to become restrictive and uncomfortable to you rather fast, so until the process is complete, you will all start wearing a different style of garment.” 

She unfolded the first item in her hands and then held up one of the garments that the newcomers had seen the Furs in the cafeteria wear. It was a lightweight, Asian-style robe with short sleeves and a hem that would hang to a person's knees. There was a split in the back that they all knew was for a furman's tail, and a matching belt sash to keep the garment closed. There was a deep pocket on each side, but instead of set perpendicular to the ground, they were each at a forty-five degree angle toward the back. The beige material looked like it might be made of lightweight cotton. She transferred the robe to one hand, and then held up a smaller cloth item in her other hand. It was a pair of matching shorts with wide leg openings and a u-shaped lowering in the waistband in the back, no doubt designed to rest beneath a tail.

“We have these in a number of colors and patterns, as well as sizes to fit you all at your current sizes and that which you will become,” Marcy continued, transferring the shorts to her other hand. She held up the remaining item and said, “For those who don't want to wear the robes in warmer weather, there is a simple pocketed vest available to wear with the shorts. Now, I don't have any with me at the moment, but your feet will also undergo changes and we have specially designed sandals to fit the various feet types you all will develop. The robes and vests are similar to the hospital scrubs that I am wearing, but the cloth is a loose, open weave so that your fur won't feel so stuffy beneath it.”

“Why wear clothing over fur?” Dante asked. “We saw several Furs in the cafeteria that weren't wearing anything but shorts. I assume the shorts were for modesty, but otherwise wouldn't fur be sufficient to cover them up completely?”

The nurse smiled with a nod. “That's a very good question, but the Furs you saw were fully formed. Although the development of fur all over your bodies will be one of the first changes you will experience, it will be months before it is thick enough to be much cover for you. Even then you will need to wear the shorts, no matter how long or thick your fur will be.”

“Why?” asked Kristen.

Marcy smiled. “Primarily for hygienic reasons. Even if your genital region is sufficiently covered over by fur, there's still enough, uh, residue that can get on public seats where others may also sit.”

“Leaving skid-marks!” Dante exclaimed with a sudden smirk.

Marcy chuckled. “In a manner of speaking, that is essentially correct,” she replied. 

“Will we have underwear on beneath them?” Kristen asked.

“Only until your fur comes in. After that, you will find the material of undergarments too thick and confining and likely wear only the outer garments.”

Dante grinned widely. “That means your outer wear will also be your underwear! Change out your shorts daily, boys and girls!”

Kristen looked affronted at his statement, but Marcy continued as if she had not heard him.  “However,” she said, “no matter which items you choose to wear, most Furs agree that in the transitional stage, you will feel better about yourself by having some kind of garment covering you.”

“Why's that?” Dante asked.

Barrett leaned over and gave the man a smirk. “During that transitional stage, your whole body is going to be ugly for a while.”

Kristen put her hands up her mouth and Jenni blinked in sudden surprise. This was something neither of them had considered. Nurse Lagrange looked taken aback at the man's frank comment, but she took a few steps toward the group and cleared her throat.

“I would not have described it so eloquently, Brian, but that is essentially correct. There's nothing you can do about the way you look at certain times, but just like puberty, it's something you will get through just fine.”

NEXT CHAPTER

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