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SUNSET OF FURMANKIND

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 10
A Killer in Our Midst

 

Doctor Renwick produced a remote from a pocket of his medical smock and thumbed one of its buttons. The video screen behind him came to life with a sharp aerial image of the Furmankind Institute complex. Surrounded by a healthy forest preserve in the Adirondack Mountains, it was some distance away from the nearest town, secluded even from the nearest state highway. There was only one paved road into the region to the Institute, where it ended at a gravel parking lot in front of tall iron gates that connected a similar fencing completely around several hundred acres. The original complex of stone structures was the centerpiece of the compound that now housed numerous buildings built in secret away from public scrutiny.

As the images focused on different areas of the complex, the doctor explained that although the grounds were surrounded by a tall iron fence, there was plenty of room so that when animal instincts began to surface, the patients would be allowed to roam the region as desired.

When one of the images showed the compound covered in a blanket of snow from a past winter, Dante held up a hand to interrupt the doctor.

“Yes?”

The dark-haired man first gestured toward the paused image on the screen, and then he did the same toward Nurse Lagrange standing to the side with the furman garments still draped across her arms. “Are those the only clothes we're going to have to wear around here while we wait for our fur to grow thick enough for insulation?” he asked. “It's almost November and the night air is getting chilly out there already.”

“How do you feel at the moment?” Renwick responded with a question of his own.

Dante shrugged his shoulders. “In here, I'm fine,” he replied, “but on our way back from the cafeteria, I got a little chill.”

“In answer to your question, you will be spending most of your time indoors when winter comes,” Renwick explained patiently. “This Wing is well insulated so that your furman robes will be sufficient as long as you are in here.”

“What about when we go to the cafeteria to eat?” Kristen asked, raising a hand.

“That won't be necessary,” Marcy Lagrange answered for her. “The pantries in our kitchen here will be well-stocked by that time and we will be able to prepare our meals here.”

“Who's doing the cooking?” Dante wanted to know, crossing his arms.

“We all will,” Marcy replied. “Once the weather turns bad, we will have a rotation of kitchen duties, myself and Doctor Renwick included.”

All of us?” Dante asked, looking surprised.

Marcy smiled. “All of us. After the process begins, we don't intend for you to simply wait around for the changes to take place, so to help pass that time, you will all begin your studies into the various career fields you will follow into your colony settlement. A cooking rotation will be required in the colony, so you will be getting used to it now. However, with the six of us living here together, we will all maintain cleanup duties for the Wing as well.”

“When I was looking around earlier,” Barrett interrupted, “I only saw four bedrooms. If you and Doctor Renwick are living here too, where do you sleep?”

“Marcy and I have our own apartments through the lab into another set of rooms set up just for us,” Renwick answered. “Although separated from the four of you, we are still living in the same Wing together, so therefore we will share some of the duties with you.”

“That seems fair,” Jenni remarked with a nod.

“In answer to Kristen and Dante's questions,” Marcy continued, “if there is a need for you to go out onto the grounds when the weather gets colder, we do have thick Turkish robes you can wear, but they were not made with Fur physiologies in mind. Since your feet will be in transition by this winter, there are no perfected winter boots available either. All your needs will be provided for you right here, so you will have little reason to leave the Wing during the winter.”

“In other words, we'll be confined within these walls,” Barrett remarked, visualizing bars over the skylight and doors. “I hope you have medication to prevent cabin fever.”

“Between dealing with the transformation effects, housekeeping and your studies, there should be plenty to keep you occupied, Brian,” Marcy told him. “You will have periods to do with as you wish, but for the most part, your primary purpose will be to prepare yourself for colony settlement on an untamed alien world.”

“They don't have snow on other worlds?” Dante asked sarcastically. “How are we going to prepare for harsh weather like that if we avoid it here?”

“You are going to be at the Institute for the greater part of two years,” Renwick explained, ignoring the younger man's tone. “Your bodies won't have changed enough to endure this year's Adirondack winter on their own, but enough transformation will have taken place where human winter garments won't work on you anymore. Sit out the cold weather this season, and then you will get your correct weather training next year when you will be fully capable of dealing with it.  Species-specific furman garments are available for those finished with the transition.”

Kristen held up a hand as if she was back in a university classroom.

“Yes?” the doctor responded.

“I drove up here from Philadelphia in my car. It's just outside the gate in the parking lot, but I was wondering… During our two year stay here, will we be getting any vacation time to go visit family and friends?”

“No, Kristen, I am afraid not,” was the reply. “During your transition, your bodies will not be in any condition to drive a car, and by the time you have completed the transformation, your new bodies will be unsuited to the controls of vehicles designed for human hands and feet.”

“What am I supposed to do about my car then?” the botanist asked.

“If you decide to go through with the contract, you will need to arrange for a friend or family member to come up to get your car and take it back for you. What you do with the car will be up to you, whether you wish to sell it or let someone you know have it, but you will be physically unable to drive it anymore once we begin.”

Kristen crossed her arms and pushed out her lower lip. “It's a restored classic Oberon and I only bought it last year,” she complained. “I like my car…”

“You're cute when you pout,” Dante whispered with a grin, scooting closer to her.

The plump woman raised an eyebrow and moved away from him as far as her seat would allow. She bumped against Jenni on her other side and then hunkered down in her chair with her arms crossed, the bottom lip still protruding.

“I like my car…” she repeated in a small voice.

“Doctor Renwick,” Dante asked when the conversation waned, “may I ask you a question about the McEwen process you use here?”

“Certainly. What is it you wish to know?”

“If you had two individuals who happened to choose the same animal… a tiger, for example, would you be using genetic material from the same donor for both people?”

“That is a possibility,” the doctor replied with a nod, “but we have multiple donors for each species we offer to keep a relatively fresh bloodline between our volunteers.”

“Using the same example,” Barrett said with sudden interest, “what would happen if you used the same DNA for both volunteers? Would they look like twins afterward, having the same face and same fur patterns?”

Renwick actually smiled. “No, the similarities would only be species-specific,” he replied. “The animal DNA is only part of the equation. The differences in each human's DNA will continue to make each Fur unique in his or her own way. For example, both you and Dante are human, but aside of your commonalities due to being human, you two look nothing alike. The same would be true if both of you decided on being half tiger, even using genetic material from the same tiger donor.”

Barrett felt an internal sense of relief at this explanation. He had almost been certain that after the transformation that he would look into a mirror and have Henry Parker's exact face looking back at him if they used his original donor material on him.

“Doctor Renwick, will there be a lot of pain involved in the change?” Kristen asked hesitantly. “I've only heard rumors and the material we were given didn't cover that, but I have to assume there will be some.”

The physician turned off the screen with his remote and then put both hands into the pockets of his smock. The look on his face confirmed the botanist's words before he spoke. “Yes, I'm sorry to say that you will have to endure a bit of pain to go through the transformation,” he answered quietly.  “If you were only going to grow claws and fur, you wouldn't have much to be concerned about, but when your body goes through these kinds of changes, everything from muscle tissue, blood vessels and even bone material will reform to the hybrid design. That is not going to happen overnight, but you will not feel all the changes. Most of it will be mild discomfort, but I'm afraid that some of it will be painful.”

“We are authorized to dispense some pain reducers to ease the worst of it,” Marcy added, “but standard painkillers actually interfere with the McEwen process. The meds we use were specifically engineered for our use, but they are not terribly strong. All they can do is lessen the pain to make it more tolerable.”

“I knew there was torture involved,” Barrett grumbled beneath his breath. The doctor looked at him with a brief look of irritation before he continued.

“This is one of the reasons you are given a last opportunity to enact the escape clause before the process begins,” Renwick told them. “Each of you must consider what you will go through in order to make the transformation. The prize money will be rewarded only to those who fulfill their contracts.”

Prize money? This was the first that Barrett had heard of such a thing. He opened his mouth to inquire, but then closed it again when he realized that each volunteer who had signed a contract must already know of this reward. This was something he would have to ask the director in private or he might tip his hand to the others about his true identity. None of them had reacted to his real name when Renwick had named each of them aloud, so his secret appeared to be safe from his housemates for the time being. If at all possible, he wanted to keep it that way.

“Is the pain of transformation worth it to you?” Renwick continued. “You already know that by volunteering, you have decided to leave Earth to take part in the adventure of taming a new world so that others may one day emigrate there. It is possible that you may never set foot upon the Earth again in your lifetime, and the remainder of that lifetime will be spent as furmankind. If you agree to sign the final document without claiming the escape, life as you know it will change forever.  You must be sure.”

“That sounds like you are trying to scare us away, Doctor,” Dante mused aloud.

“If you can be scared away,” Jenni interrupted, “then you never had what it takes to be an explorer.”

“Yeah, that's true,” the dark-haired man agreed without hesitation, “but I am an explorer. I have been a caver for most of my adult life and have explored places underground that very few humans have ever been. I don't intend to escape. I'll sign that last document right now.”

Renwick shook his head, but gave him a crooked smile. “Dante, you may be eager to finalize it now, but you must wait with the rest of your housemates before that option is available to you. This is a permanent change, so give it some thought. We've had some who believed all this would be nothing more than an exotic vacation, so we want everyone to be absolutely sure you know what you're getting into.”

Although Kristen had been confident about her decision before, she now looked uncertain. Despite this, she did not add any further comments.  On the other hand, Brian Barrett's mental capacity for rational thought was growing numb. He did not want to be a Fur. He was not there voluntarily, he had not signed a contract, and he knew nothing of a prize reward for becoming some abomination of nature. What made it worse was the knowledge that even if he did have an escape clause and took it, they would certainly send him back to prison to face his original executioner.

The only other alternative was to make an escape clause of his own doing. He briefly considered trying to escape the Institute sometime in the night during the three days they had to make up their minds before signing, but if he did that, Barrett knew he would be on the run for the rest of his life, and it was likely to be a short lifespan at that. As far as the public was concerned, he had been executed in Colorado that morning, so if he went on the run, the authorities could shoot him on sight without bothering to take him in alive.

No, he thought to himself angrily in final realization, If I want to live, it's going to have to be as a cursed Fur!

Barrett had to work hard to quell the sudden anger that had risen within him. The others continued the conversation in quiet voices, and by the time he had control over himself, he looked up at Doctor Renwick with a calm expression.

“You said the process was irreversible, yes?” he asked.

“That's right. Once human DNA has been combined with animal DNA, the longer strand of new genetic code cannot be separated,” Renwick replied.

“Once the process begins, there's no turning back,” Dante remarked.

“Have you ever tried to reverse it?” Barrett asked.

“Tried and failed,” the doctor replied without hesitation.

“Correct me if I'm wrong,” Barrett said, “but wasn't Professor McEwen's discovery originally intended as a cure for cancer? It theoretically works by repairing each cell's genetic code, overwriting all cells in the body with the code from an undamaged cell.”

“Yes, that is correct.”

“What if the process was used on a Fur, using the genetic code from a cell collected from that person before he became a Fur in the first place?” Barrett asked. “Wouldn't the new code overwrite the mixed code and return it to its original pattern?”

Doctor Renwick shook his head.  “That was the theory and that very thing was attempted about three years ago on a Canis Fur at the Buenos Aires Institute who willingly volunteered to be the test subject.”

“What happened?” Jenni asked, leaning forward to rest her arms on her knees.

“The process went well for the first four months, but then traces of goetazine still in her cellular system from the previous transformation reacted against the new infusion of coded goetazine. It became a fierce battle on the genetic level over which code would be dominant. The internal stresses became too much and she did not survive the chemical imbalance.” Renwick paused and looked down at his shoes for a moment. “I didn't know her personally,” he added in a quieter voice, “but I understand she had a brilliant mind and a pleasant personality. It was a devastating loss. It has not been tried since.”

Barrett sat stricken in his seat. He had not really expected to hear of such a loss and it only reinforced his belief that he would lose his mind along with his humanity. He tried not to let it show, but he was more afraid of the transformation now than he had been before.

The room fell quiet for several moments before Doctor Renwick shook his head as if to rid his thoughts of cobwebs. He removed his hands from the pockets of his medical smock and then gestured toward the other end of the room.

“There are four bedrooms down there for you,” he said in a stronger voice. “All of them are identical to one another, with the same furnishings and layout. You may decide between yourselves so that each of you may claim a room as your own. This Wing will be your home for the next nine months, so feel free to personalize it as you wish. Due to potential medical emergencies arising from the transformation, none of the doors have locks, but you may close them as needed for privacy.

The doctor gestured toward the large video screen behind him. “On local channel one-seventy-six, you will find a continually running program that documents the transformation process from start to finish, should you wish to watch it before signing the contract. I will warn you that it can get graphic in places, but you may watch it at your discretion.”

“There you go, trying to scare us away again,” murmured Dante.

Marcy refolded the furman garment in her arms and said, “There is a folder on the central table over there that contains information and images for each of the feline species that we have available for you to choose between. If you have not already chosen your intended form, perhaps the material will help you decide. The images show the original genetic donor animals, as well as pictures of past volunteers who have chosen those forms. This will give you an idea what you may look like when the change is complete.  For those who elect to go through with it and sign the final contract, you will need to have chosen your feline by then so the proper formula can be prepared for you.”

Renwick looked at his wristwatch. “It's getting late, but as with the cafeteria, the very nature of furmankind volunteers prevents us from setting a curfew.  You are free to set your own hours and stay up as late as you wish for now, but once the process begins, we will try to maintain a regular schedule for your evaluations and training to maintain a sense of normalcy.”  He took the video remote from his pocket and set it on one of the bookshelves near the screen. “We have all channels available here, local and national, which are also available on the screens in each of your rooms.  We have book readers you may use, as well as online courses for your study.  Marcy and I have already put in a long day preparing for your arrival, so we will bid you good night and retire to our own rooms.”

Marcy gave them all a pleasant smile as Doctor Renwick headed off toward the lab doors.  “Although you still have several days to make your decisions,” the nurse told them, “we will begin with physical examinations tomorrow. Until you are called or needed for these, we suggest that the four of you take the time to get to know one another. Do not be strangers to your housemates. Good night, everyone.”

“Good night, Marcy,” Jenni said.

“Nite-nite,” added Kristen. Dante gave the nurse a little wave, and Barrett simply nodded toward her before she turned to go.

Once Marcy had disappeared through the lab doors, Dante stood up and stretched his arms. He sauntered over to the central pit to stand beside his two suitcases. He saw a newspaper sitting on the round table and hopped down the steps to retrieve it.  The others quietly walked over to the pit, each one moving toward their belongings.

“So, how do we go about choosing our rooms?” Dante asked, giving both of the females a slow once-over that he didn't bother to conceal from them.  Kristen frowned and crossed her arms across her chest.

“Why don't we let the ladies choose first,” Barrett suggested. Although he might be against the program itself, they were all still human and he could be courteous when he chose to be.

“Okay, good idea,” Dante agreed.  “Take your pick, girls!”

Jenni and Kristen exchanged glances and then the botanist gave the blonde a casual gesture. “Go ahead,” Kristen told her.

Jenni walked over to one room at random and went inside to see what it looked like.  She browsed around casually, quickly coming to the same conclusions that Barrett had about the likeness to a hotel room. She walked into another room and saw that it was identical.  Since there were no differences inside to help with a decision, she simply stopped beside the left middle door.

“This one,” she announced.

“You're next,” Dante said with a grin at Kristen. 

Although she had gotten along around him all right for the past hour, the botanist suddenly felt his oily gaze upon her again. “You go ahead and choose,” she told Dante quietly.

The younger man shrugged and simply pointed toward the room to the left of where Jenni stood.  “I'll take one on the end closest to the kitchen,” he said. “That will make it convenient when a late night snack attack hits me!”

Kristen looked back at Barrett, who only stared back at her impassively. “Okay, then,” she said quietly, “I'll take the one on the other end.”

Barrett did not have to be a detective to deduce that she had purposely chosen the room farthest from Dante. He had recognized her expressions of unease every time she was near the man. “That leaves me with the other middle room,” he remarked calmly.

“Boy, girl, boy, girl,” Dante chuckled. “Maybe I should have picked that one. You're going to be sandwiched between two women!”  He tucked the newspaper beneath an arm and then grabbed the handles of both his suitcases with a self-satisfied grin, oblivious to Kristen's scowl at his remark.  “I'm going to unpack!” He hefted them up together and then waddled toward his quarters.

Kristen walked down into the pit to retrieve her travel bags; Barrett picked up his satchel and the black bag that Tom had brought over for him. The two of them wandered over to their rooms, passing Jenni on the way back to get her own.

Inside his room, Barrett tossed the satchel up against a pillow and then set the overnight bag on the foot of the bed. He unbuckled its clasp, pulled out the toiletry kit and opened it. Inside were a couple of cheap bladed razors, a bottle of after-shave lotion, a can of shaving cream, a comb, a bar of unscented soap, deodorant, mint toothpaste and a toothbrush. It was just the basics, but he frowned when he realized there was no shampoo or conditioner in the bag.  He gathered up everything, put them on the dresser in front of the mirror, and then turned back to the overnight bag.

He pulled out the small stack of clothing and set them out onto the tan bedspread. All in his sizes, he found another pair of denim blue jeans, a pair of navy blue athletic shorts, two white undershirts, and two button-up shirts, one a dark blue shirt with long sleeves and the other burgundy with short sleeves. He had been given an unopened package of boxer shorts and a package of white socks. Also included was a grey sweatshirt with a matching pair of sweatpants.  Again, it was all just the basics, but it was more than he had owned earlier that morning.

He had just put everything away inside the dresser when there was a quiet knock on the frame of his open door.  He looked up and saw Jenni standing there, an apologetic expression on her face.

“Hi,” he said, closing a drawer.

“Could you help me with my luggage again,” she asked. “Please?”

“Sure,” the man replied with a smile.

“One of the wheels on the big suitcase broke this morning, and I'm afraid the bag is too heavy for me to drag across this carpet to my room.”

Barrett followed her out to the remaining suitcase by the pit, and Kristen came out of her room, watching idly from her doorway. He grabbed the handle of the case and hefted it up off the floor. It was weighty, but he managed to maneuver it back to the blonde woman's room without too much difficulty. It was no heavier than some of the weights he often worked out with in his exercises.

Before he got the bag inside her door, however, Dante walked out of his room, his nose buried in the newspaper he had picked up. He looked up with an odd expression on his face and Jenni saw him swallow hard. Barrett looked over at him just as he reached the door and stopped to set down the case.

“What's wrong?” he asked.

“Uhm, you said your name was Brian, right?” he asked the red-haired man. He licked his lips nervously and Barrett was suddenly reminded of his lawyer, William Harper.

“That's right.”

“Brian… Barrett? Isn't that what Doctor Renwick called you?”

The older man frowned, a chill tickling the small hairs on the back of his neck.  “Yes,” he replied, “but remember, my name will change sometime in the next few days.”

Dante looked first to Jenni, then at Kristen behind her, and then back to the newspaper in his hands. “I think I just found out the reason why you chose to take on a new identity,” he said quietly.  At Barrett's look of disbelief, Dante held up the newspaper so they could all see the headlines.  Large text reported a major earthquake that had devastated a portion of central Japan, but it was a secondary column header he indicated with a finger.

The words, “Convicted Furman Killer to Die Today” were accompanied by a color photograph of the murderer. To the women standing near him, there was no mistaking the photo to be anyone but the person standing in their midst.

Jenni grabbed the paper and began reading the article aloud. “Brian D. Barrett, the convicted killer of furman Henry Parker is set to die today at two o'clock, Mountain Standard Time. Due to furmanitarian laws to protect the genetically altered citizens known as furman, or Furs, Barrett's sentencing for the death of a Fur is to be carried out as Death By a Fur. In a solitary room beneath the foundation of the Corwin Prison in eastern Colorado, Barrett will face his execution at the hands of Ross Forrester, an unstable Ursis furman rejected by the Anthro Human Colonization Program due to a bloodthirsty history of violence.”

She looked up over the paper at the man helping her with her luggage, her face pale and her eyes wide.

“That… that's you?” Kristen asked in shock, slowly backing into her room to put distance away from him.

Barrett sighed, but nodded at the newspaper. “Yes, that's me,” he admitted.

Dante snatched the paper back from Jenni and held it up as if it were a barrier between them. “It says here that you are to be executed at the hands of a Fur because you killed a Fur!” Dante repeated hoarsely. “Are they going to do the execution here? Tonight?”

“No,” Barrett replied in a voice that was calmer than the adrenaline that was currently coursing through his body. “I was offered furmankind transformation in exchange for a violent death penalty.  I was told that the official record of the execution taking place would be for the benefit of the families of the victims.”

Victims!” Jenni cried, stressing the plural as she backed away. “Just how many people did you kill?”

“I killed a stray tomcat for sleeping with my fiancé,” Barrett answered with a growl. “The other victim they mentioned is probably Rebecca Collins, my ex. I did not harm her, but she did lose her pet.”

“Her… pet…” Dante repeated, his throat going dry.

“I was sentenced to die for my crime of passion,” Barrett continued, “but I was given two choices for my method of execution. For killing a Fur, I could die under the claws of a Fur — or I could die by becoming a Fur.”

“No one's ever died by becoming a Fur,” Kristen's voice called from her room. “I did a lot of research into the process before I decided to sign up for the program. They have a perfect record!”

Barrett fought to control his anger. “I will cease to be ME at the moment they inject me with that cursed formula. It will be same as dying.”

 “H-how?” Jenni asked, suddenly remembering in fear that the doctor had mentioned that their rooms had no locks on their doors.

“My new death sentence is to become the same kind of Fur as the one I killed and spend the rest of my life as a living reminder of what I did,” Barrett said in a calmer voice. He leaned back against the wall and rubbed his eyes. “When I've been turned into a mountain lion and trained with some new tricks, I'm to be banished from the Earth to an untamed world that will probably try to kill me anyway.”

“You… killed… a Fur, so they sent you to the very place that has the highest population of them in this country!” Dante croaked. “We're about to become Furs also — are you going to try to kill us too?”

Barrett looked over at him wearily. “Dante… I never hated Furs until I caught one of them mounting the woman I was about to marry. That is when I realized he was an abomination of creation… Like most people, I only thought of furmen as a curiosity, having never seen one in person. In hindsight, I suppose I should have just let the cat have her, if she was going to throw me over to shack up with an animal. What she did was nothing more than bestiality!” He looked around and saw that each of his housemates was practically cowering in their doorways.

“You guys can relax,” he told them after an audible sigh. “I promised my lawyer that I would behave and become a good little furman if they spared my life.”

“Why would they even offer you such a deal?” Kristen asked. “You might be tempted to kill more Furs if someone else makes you mad!”

“I think that sadistic judge wanted to torture me. If I died at the hands of a mad Fur, it would have been violent, but I would not have suffered long.  Being forced through the painful torment of the transformation process, the judge is seeing to it that I suffer over a long period of time before I die on some desolate planet out in space!”

“Do Renwick and Marcy know about this?” Dante asked, trying to reclaim some kind of emotional stability. He had never been in the presence of a killer before.

“Aside from the three of you — who should have never found out — the director is the only one on the grounds who knows my background.” He pulled the newspaper from Dante's grasp and folded it neatly beneath an arm. “This was a souvenir given to me as a reminder of the violent death I almost met this morning. I see now that it was a mistake to keep it.”

“How could you kill someone?” Jenni asked in a quiet voice. “Were you an assassin in the military?”

Barrett shook his head. “I was never in the military, but I grew up as a hunter in a family of hunters. I have only killed animals and birds.”

“And one furman,” Kristen's voice added.

Barrett looked at Jenni for a moment, and then at Dante.  “Have any of you been married or engaged?”  None of them responded. “In love?  Honestly — in love?”  Jenni started to nod, but then changed her mind and averted her eyes. There was a murmured sound from Kristen's room, but no real response.  “Rebecca was the only woman I ever truly loved. I felt differently about her than I ever have toward anyone else in my life and I fell hard for her, head over heels in love. Of course, it didn't hurt that she resembled a popular pin-up girl from the last century; most people wouldn't have recognized her as such, but I'd known about that particular icon. We dated three years before I worked up the nerve to propose to her, but she didn't hesitate to accept. Both of us being romantics, we set Valentine's Day as our wedding date and we were both deeply involved in the planning for it.”

The red-haired man leaned back against the wall again and rubbed a hand across his face. “She told me that she was just as much in love with me as I was with her – and I believed her. Then one day, I got off work early to surprise her with a pre-wedding gift I'd picked up for her. I let myself into her condominium with my key as I had many times before, but then I heard noises coming from the bedroom. She and this… this… mountain lion were all over the same bed that we had shared.”

“You mean, they were — ?”

“Yes — they were,” Barrett replied gruffly. "Quite passionately."

“Is that when you killed him?” Dante asked in a whisper.

“No, I ran away,” Barrett confessed. “When I saw her later, she acted as if I was still the most important person in her world. I pretended that I had not witnessed her little rendezvous, but she could tell my reactions to her were cooler than usual. I played along for a while, pretending to myself that I must have just dreamed what I saw, until I actually convinced myself that she was faithful and I had been mistaken.”

“How could you mistake being a witness to infidelity?” Jenni asked, suddenly feeling anger herself.

“It was a psychological warfare with myself,” Barrett replied. “It was denial.  I had never met a Fur in person before, so I had no experience in what kind of draw this guy might have had to her. Perhaps she did not consider bedding a Fur as cheating on me. I don't know, but I walked in on them again about a month later – at the very place and time I was supposed to meet with her to go shopping for wedding invitations. I guess she thought the two of them could finish before I got there, but I have always prided myself on being prompt to my schedule. It wouldn't have mattered anyway, since the place stunk of cat and I would have known he was there. I refused to turn a blind eye this time and confronted them openly.”

“Is that when you killed him?” Dante asked again.

“No, but I did slug him hard,” Barrett replied, holding up his right fist. “The solid reality of my knuckles on his jaw convinced me that it had been no hallucination.  I grabbed Rebecca's hand and held it up so the mountain lion could see my diamond engagement ring on her finger, telling him that she was marked as mine, and that I would fight to protect my fiancé from his bewitching black magic. He backed down without a fight and left with his clothes in his arms, but when I let go of Rebecca's hand, she stripped off the ring and shoved it into my hand without a word. She stormed off after him in a robe, leaving me alone in her living room.”

Barrett forced himself to relax his fist, dropping it to his side. “I tried to call her the next day, but she wouldn't talk to me. Instead, she told all our friends and relatives that she had discovered how unreasonable I was, that I had a violent temper, and she was calling off the wedding.”  He looked over at Dante and raised his fist again. “I have never struck another person in my life that wasn't related to a sporting event, and I had only hit this guy once. When I get angry, I get quiet. I don't throw tantrums, I don't attack other people and I don't throw objects.  She knew me long enough to know this, yet she called me unreasonable and violent. What's worse is that all our mutual friends who should have known me well enough believed her. Naturally, she never mentioned her furry lover.”

Barrett began pacing along the wall with nervous energy. “The betrayal felt like she had skinned me alive and poured rubbing alcohol over raw nerves. I tried to get her to talk to me, but she would have nothing more to do with me.  This was the woman who had stolen my heart, the one I had intended to spend the rest of my life with… Till death do us part.”

“And that's when you killed him?” Dante asked.

“No,” Barrett replied irritably. “I entreated our friends to listen to me, but everyone shut me out. Even my own family wouldn't listen to my side of the story. Rebecca Collins was everybody's dark-haired angel and I became a pariah.”

“So what happened?” Jenni asked quietly.

“I moped around, got moody and I let myself go. Nobody wanted to be around me after Rebecca poisoned their minds against me, and they really didn't want to be around me once I stopped taking care of myself.” Barrett stopped pacing for a moment and looked back at Kristen, who was now peering at him from the doorway of her room.  “I eventually lost my well-paying job because of it, and then one of my so-called friends came around and tried to get me to move on. He wanted me to go out with some girls he knew to get Rebecca off my mind, but by then I was soured on relationships and had no desire for companionship.  However, he finally convinced me to get out of the house on New Year's Eve. He said a group of our old friends were going to gather at the downtown outside celebration that is held in our town every year, and we could all get drunk together.”

The red-haired man looked at Jenni and shrugged his shoulders. “I'm not a drinker,” he said. “I've never gotten past the initial taste of alcohol, but I agreed to go only because I was lonely and needed something else to think about. I volunteered to be the designated driver and went along. Before we arrived, however, my friend confessed that Rebecca was going to be there with a new friend of hers, some Fur she had met that she wanted to show off to everyone. He thought I would find amusement in it, but I told him what I thought of his idea, turned the car around, and drove back home with him yelling at me all the way. Back at my place, my friend cursed me out and then drove off to join the others.”

“You went back on your own, didn't you?” Jenni asked, biting her bottom lip.

“With a gun,” Barrett admitted in a low voice. He looked over at the dark-haired man and then nodded. “That is when I killed him, Dante. Like a hunter, I stalked him in the crowd until I saw them together. I didn't put two bullets into him because he was a Fur — I did it because he stole my mate and destroyed my life!”

“If you didn't kill him because he was a Fur,” Kristen remarked, tentatively stepping out of her room, “why are you so adamantly against them now?”

He looked back at her darkly. “During the months of seething when everyone was avoiding me, I began studying declassified reports on how Professor McEwen's original formula for treating cancer was perverted into a deadly process for torturing condemned criminals. It was all done in secret, you know. They knew what they were doing was wrong or they would not have experimented on lost souls out of the public's eye… Not unlike what's being done here in this out-of-the way location, I might add.”

“Brian, the Furs are now all volunteers,” Jenni told him. “The formula is perfected and there is a purpose for furmankind.  Earth is overcrowded and other habitable worlds are needed to ease the strain. There are only benefits now.”

“The McEwen process was meant to be a cure for cancer victims,” he replied with a scowl. “That was a perfected formula, and that was a worthwhile endeavor that benefited mankind. There was no need to go any further with it beyond its medical purpose. It took someone else's warped mind to think of using it to experiment on people and animals together. Although those initial test subjects were men who were going to die anyway, experimenting on them was inhuman! They robbed men of their souls and cursed them to a life without humanity. They became neither man nor animal, but some abomination stuck somewhere in between.  Now they give you all a song and dance to reel you in, promising you some prize reward and the chance to explore new worlds in exchange for reducing the world of its human population a little at a time.”

“If you're so against it, why don't you take the escape clause the doctor was telling us about?” Dante asked in a huff. “Just get out and leave us to our own dreams!”

Barrett raised his arms in exasperation. “I don't have an escape clause, you idiot! I'm just another condemned prisoner for them to experiment on just like in the early days. I didn't sign any legal documents and I don't have some prize awaiting me!  This is a life-sentence. I don't have a choice. You three do – escape while you can and keep your humanity! This is my future. It doesn't have to be yours.”

Still stinging from being called an idiot, Dante crossed his arms and gave Barrett a sneer. “You know, you are going to be awfully lonely for the rest of your life.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“If what you say is true, you don't have a choice. You are going to become a Fur and then you will be shipped from the Earth. No matter where you go from now on, your only companions will be other Furs. If you hang onto your hatred of them even while you're surrounded by them, no one is going to have anything to do with you. Although feline, you'll be the equivalent of a lone wolf. Lone wolves don't have a high survival rate!”

Barrett gifted Dante with a hard glare, but when the other man did not back down, he simply lifted a hand and gestured casually in the air. “You're probably right,” he said in a calmer voice. “I don't want to be here, but I have no choice. It's not your fault what life has dumped on me, but what you do with your own lives is your choice.” 

He rubbed his eyes again and looked at each of the women in turn. “I jumped at the chance to save my skin by accepting the transformation in place of being torn limb from limb by a mad Fur in the basement of the prison. Soon I will have a new identity, and when the transformation begins, the last remnants of Brian D. Barrett will have been swept away. Whoever or whatever I become will be the new me, and if there's anything left of my mind by the time we get to a new world, I will have to do my best to forget this old life. At the end of a conversation much like this one, I promised the director that I would behave.  I'm sorry you had to find out who I really am, but there's nothing I can do about that now. I will give you all the same promise if you can promise me in return to give me a chance. I am not a violent person. What I did was done in the heat of the moment and I will be paying for it the rest of my life.”

When none of his companions ventured forth a reply, Barrett nodded in resignation and then quietly walked back to his room, leaving Jenni's suitcase where he had stopped with it. He shut the door behind him and then cleared the last of his meager belongings from the bed. A small trash can beside the desk became the recipient of his souvenir newspaper and then he sat down on the edge of his bed. The mattress was firm, though felt as if it might have a pillow-top layer. He was tempted to shut out the light and go on to bed, but although he was tired, he did not feel sleepy.

He considered turning on his room television screen, but knew the likelihood of seeing a newscast about his supposed execution was high. He looked around at his private hotel room and suddenly felt claustrophobic. It was not a feeling of being closed in a small room, but it was life itself that pressed in on him.

The conversation had left him feeling dirty. He could almost imagine each of his housemates going to Marcelo to demand that their murderous housemate be removed from the Felis Wing. Perhaps the director would do just that, confining him to some small shack on the back side of the compound to undergo his transformation in solitary confinement. He knew that Marcelo would likely have to bribe each of them to remain quiet concerning Barrett's presence, lest a riot break out if word of him got out to the rest of the Institute.

The red-haired prisoner stood up and removed his shirt. He kicked off his boots, slid out of his socks and then took off his pants. He folded up his clothes neatly, set them on top of the dresser, and then opened a drawer to pull out the athletic shorts.

Since he was not yet ready to sleep, he would go the exercise room to work off his frustrations and then shower off all the uncleanness of the day. Clad only in his new shorts, Barrett opened the door and walked out into the saloon. His housemates had apparently retreated to their own rooms, so he walked barefoot across the central room to where he had seen the linen closet earlier. From a shelf full of towels, he selected one, unfolded it and draped it around his neck.

Three sets of eyes watched him enter the exercise room, and there were active thoughts behind each of them.

NEXT CHAPTER

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