©2011 by Ted R. Blasingame


Chapter 12 - Sunset of Humankind


“Everyone is gathered in the kitchen at the coffee pot this morning,” said a voice. “That must be some good java.” All four of the housemates looked back toward the door. Standing just behind Jenni was their attendant nurse. She was dressed in a matching set of powder blue scrubs, a computer tablet with its pink metallic case closed beneath one arm and a stethoscope draped around her neck. She looked fresh and cheerful, her shoulder-length platinum blonde hair nicely brushed and curled, and there was a hint of vanilla perfume in the air.

“Good morning,” Jenni told her with a nervous chuckle at Marcy’s sudden appearance.

“Good morning,” the older nurse replied. “I will be starting your physical examinations shortly, but I need to know if any of you have taken any medication today.”

“I’ve had caffeine and potassium,” Barrett answered, indicating his coffee cup and a banana peel, “but no other meds.” The others responded with similar replies, but none of had taken anything pharmaceutical that morning.

“That’s fine,” said the nurse. “The director has asked to see Brian, Jenni and Dante in his office first thing this morning, so Kristen, I will start with your physical as soon as you are ready, dear.”

“Why does the director want to see us?” Dante asked, picking up an orange from the fruit bowl on the counter.

Marcy smiled. “Marcelo likes to visit with each new volunteer when they arrive,” she answered, “but there was not enough time last night to get to everyone. He has named you three as the first on today’s agenda.”

“He and I have already had our first discussion,” Barrett mused. “Why does he want to see me again?”

Marcy shook her head. “I’ve no idea, Brian. Nevertheless, he asked for you by name.”

Barrett shrugged his wide shoulders. “Sure, okay.” He looked over at Dante and Jenni. “The sooner we go, the quicker we can get to something more substantial for breakfast,” he told them.

“Sounds good to me,” Dante replied, dropping his untouched orange back in the bowl. He then guided Jenni out of the kitchen in front of him, his hands on her hips. As soon as they were out into the saloon, Jenni slapped his hands away playfully. Barrett and Kristen traded looks of longsuffering and then the pair of them left the room together.  The dark-haired botanist followed Marcy toward the door to the lab, while Barrett took his time trailing behind his other two housemates.

Once outside, Barrett felt a slight chill in the autumn morning air. The skies were cloudless, but a faint breeze stirred the leaves of the nearby forest as the sun warmed the air. As they walked along the sidewalk to the main office, they watched several fully formed Furs jogging in sync with one another across the adjacent grassy field. All were dressed in athletic shorts with an adjustable strap over the base of their tails, but none of them, male or female, wore any garments on top.

Their fur coats were sufficient to cover up their owners and keep them warm, the pelts beginning to thicken with the cooler climate. None of the joggers wore footgear and all of them looked as if they could either run upright as they were doing now or get down on all fours just as easily.

Dante and Jenni watched them in interest, but Barrett’s attention was diverted by the slow buildup of aircraft rotors. The antique Osprey on its helicopter pad was facing away from them, but he knew that Tom and Wayne were in the cockpit preparing to lift off for whatever mission was on their schedule today.  He silently wished them well and then felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Is that a Bell Boeing Osprey?” Dante asked in excitement. “I didn’t see it sitting there in the dark last night.”

“That was my ride yesterday,” Barrett told his companions.  Before he could say more, the engines sped up their tilted rotors with a roar and continued to increase until the aircraft left the ground in a cloud of grass, leaves and dust.  Spectators from all over the compound watched the Osprey lift straight up into the sky, and when it had sufficient altitude, it began moving forward as the engine pods rotated. It was lost over the tops of the trees within a moment, although they could continue to hear it for a few minutes more. Activity resumed on the compound once it had gone.

“You came in that?” Jenni asked, clearly impressed.

“Yeah, it was the fastest way for them to get me here from Colorado,” Barrett replied in a quiet voice. Although he had specifically refrained from mentioning the prison, he wanted no one with better hearing nearby to pick up their conversation.

“I didn’t know any were still flying,” Dante remarked. He was the first to arrive at the office building and went inside without knocking. Jenni followed him in with Barrett bringing up the rear. He closed the door and frowned when he saw that Dante was already flirting with the orange feline behind the counter.

Sissy laughed at something the other man said and then looked up at Barrett. “Good morning,” she said cheerfully, including them all in the greeting.  “The director would like to see you first, Brian.”  The man did nothing more than give her a simple nod of acknowledgment and then he walked to the administrator’s door. He tapped on it a couple times and then let himself in without waiting for a response. Dante and Jenni sat down in the waiting area for their turns.

Marcelo Delgado looked up from his double-screened computer tablet when Barrett walked in and closed the door behind him.

“Hello, Brian,” he said courteously.

“Good Morning,” Barrett told him. He did not await an invitation and immediately took a seat in front of the desk, crossing one leg up over the other and putting his elbows up on the arms of the chair. “I was told you wanted to see me first thing today.”

“That’s right,” Marcelo confirmed, absently scratching his chin beneath the black Van Dyke beard. He reached for a fat plastic envelope sitting on the desk beside his computer tablet. He scooted this across the desk toward the other man.  “I received this information from Washington by special courier early this morning.”

“From Washington?” Barrett repeated, opening the package.

“It’s from the US Marshals Service,” Marcelo explained. “It’s your new identity.”

“Ah, right.” Barrett pulled out a sheaf of papers that included a small envelope on top of the others. He set the papers on the desk and then lifted the flap of the envelope. Inside was a New York state identification card that used an image taken of him just before his arrest. Also included was a credicard drawn to a New York bank with a paper financial register made out to a name that Barrett did not recognize —Jonathan Sunset.

“Sunset? Is this a joke?” he asked, looking across the desk at the director.

“No, the name was randomly generated so there would be no ties to your old identity.”

“Yeah, I know that, but a human name?”

“What did you expect? You’ll still be part human.”

Barrett scowled at Marcelo. “What I’ll be is an abomination of nature; I was expecting something more alien, animal-like.”

“The man you killed had a human name,” the director replied, unperturbed.

“Since it wasn’t a man, I didn’t give it much thought at the time. I guess I assumed my fiancé had given the name to her pet cat.”

“Your name has been chosen for you, Mr. Sunset.” Marcelo said, stressing the man’s new appellation. “Your worldwide personnel records have already been updated to reflect your new identity, so there will be no appeal to the selection of your name.”

The other man gifted him with a lopsided smile. “Relax. I don’t have a problem with the name. I was just surprised. Do I have a middle name too?”

“It wasn’t deemed necessary. Did you want one?”

“No, not really. That’s just one less thing to have to remember.” He looked back at the identification and repeated to himself.  “Jonathan Sunset… Jon Sunset.  Yeah, I could get used to it, although it’s a far cry from my birth name.”

“That’s the idea.  You will need to read through the rest of the information and memorize it as best as you can. It’s your new personal background.”

Jon glanced once more at the credicard. He flipped open the financial register and raised an eyebrow at the twenty-five-hundred-dollar balance. “I have money?” he asked in amazement.

Marcelo leaned upon his desktop. “All your immediate needs for the next two years will be provided by the Institute,” he explained, “but all volunteers who opt for a new identity to go with their new lives are awarded a small sum so that you may purchase some personal items beyond the necessities from the Shoppette we have here on the grounds.”  Then as an afterthought, he added, “I would advise against telling your housemates of the monetary account. They might get jealous of the financial bonus.”

“Right,” Jon whispered, clearly surprised.  He put the identification and accounting items back in the small envelope and then reached for the stack of papers that he assumed would also be available to him electronically.  He fell silent as he read over the first page and Marcelo allowed him the time to look at it without distraction. Although hosting a criminal was a rare occasion at the Institute, submitting new identification to a volunteer who had chosen a new background was practically a routine for the director.

“According to my new birthday, I’m now seven months older than I used to be,” Jon murmured quietly. “I was born and grew up in Granite, Oklahoma, lived a while in Norcross, Georgia, and my most recent address was in Poughkeepsie, New York.”  He looked up at Marcelo with an amused expression.  “Oklahoma?” he asked.

The director merely shrugged with a smile. “I’m not the one who made it up.”

Jon shuffled through the rest of the papers and found paragraphs of biographical history of the man known as Jonathan Sunset. Both of his faux parents had died in an automobile accident not long ago.  He had once had a younger brother born late in life to his parents, but the boy had died in a lake accident at a young age. Neither of his folks had any living relatives, so Jonathan Sunset was on his own in the world. There was a list of small community colleges that he had attended and he had no doubt that the Witness Relocation Program of the US Marshals Service had already tapped in and changed the electronic records of those places to add in his existence during those dates.  He also saw a list of undistinguished jobs that he had held, likely with businesses that were no longer in existence or had probably never existed in the first place. He flipped through numerous pages of related information, but he would not bother to read through them right now.

At last, he returned all of the material to the nondescript plastic envelope and tucked the flap into place. He looked up at Marcelo with a casual smile. “It looks like they thought of everything,” he said. “I will go over it tonight and start committing it to memory.”

Marcelo sat back in his old comfortable chair and folded his fingers together across his middle. He was pleased that Barrett had not given him any further grief over the matter. In fact, the man now known as Jonathan Sunset seemed content with his new personality.

“How was your first night with your housemates?” he asked in relaxed conversation.

Almost at once, Jon’s expression grew troubled. “Everything went well until they found the Colorado newspaper that the Osprey pilot gave me as a souvenir.”  Marcelo raised an eyebrow, but remained silent. “My picture was plastered on the front page, along with an article rich in detail about my execution.  I thought they were going to lynch me when they found out what I had done.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Marcelo said, trying to keep a smirk from creeping upon his face; he was successful keeping his expression neutral for the other man. “Since you seem to be relatively unharmed, I assume you were able to keep them at bay. Do I need to step in and take care of it?”

Jon shook his head. “No, we had some tense moments while I gave them my side of the story, and I think they were all afraid of me through the night, but this morning they gathered together and let me know they were going to try to accept me as just another volunteer.”

“Really?” the director asked in quiet amazement. “That was awfully sporting of them.”

Jon smiled. “None of them wanted to leave, even though they knew that I couldn’t, so we’re working it out between the four of us.”

“Remarkable.  What about your medical staff?”

“Unless you’ve told them, I don’t think they know anything beyond the fact that I’m just another volunteer for the Anthro Human Colonization Program. They both know I’m getting a new identity, but beyond that, neither of them was in on our conversations last night or this morning.”

“I see.”

Jon leaned forward in his chair and held up the plastic envelope. “With this change of identity, Brian Delano Barrett is now essentially dead to everyone involved. You know of Barrett’s background, but he was executed yesterday morning in the basement of a Colorado prison. As of now, I only know of Barrett from what I’ve seen on the news, so I think I should be treated as just another volunteer going through your program.”

“Yes, I suppose that would be fair,” Marcelo replied, stroking his beard. “What of your attitude toward the Furs you hate so much?”

“As I’ve been reminded by you and all three of my housemates, I’m going to be turned into one of them and I will be surrounded by them for the rest of my life. I promised you that I would behave, and I’ve given them the same promise in exchange for being given a chance,” Jon told him. “It’s been… difficult being around Furs in just the hours that I have been here, and I’ve had to keep my mouth closed tight from ranting in public — but if I’m going to be forced to join furmankind, I’ve got to leave humankind behind me.”

“So, you’re making yourself comfortable?”

Jon shook his head. “Far from it, Marcelo, but I’ll be working on it.”

“I’m glad to hear you’re going to make an effort,” Marcelo replied.  He glanced at the time on his tablet. “Is there anything else for now?” he asked. “I still have fourteen new volunteers to visit with today.”

“Actually, there is, if you can give me a few more minutes.”

“Okay, what else can I help you with, Jon?”

“It was probably intended that I was not to be made aware of the prize money to be awarded to the volunteers who survive five years in a new colony,” Jon said quietly, “but I found out about it this morning. Not only did I slip up in letting my housemates know who I was, Dante let slip that that the prize was his reason for signing up.”

Marcelo’s expression froze upon his face. “Okay…” he simply responded.

“Since Brian Barrett is dead, executed for his crime, wouldn’t it be a little suspicious if I’m not given the same contract to sign as the other volunteers?”

“I’m not sure that’s an option available to you.”

Jon nodded with a frown. “Yeah, I figured that would be the case.  Listen… my alternate sentencing was that I undergo the transformation and become a Fur similar to the one who stole my fiancé and ruined my life. Once the transformation is complete, my sentencing will be complete as well. The legal sentence does not include my life afterward, only that I spend the rest of my life as a Fur. Going off to start a colony on another world is not part of the sentence; that is the contract that all Furs are bound to, so that is what my job will be in my new life. Shouldn’t I be given the same promise of reward as the others?”

Marcelo was silent for a long moment, his fingers still clasped across his middle and his small dark eyes locked upon Jon’s. The expression on his face clearly displayed the internal struggle within him, but after several more moments of quiet, he nodded reluctantly.

“I will discuss the legalities of what you request with your lawyer, Mr. Harper,” he stated at last.

Jon knew he would get no further confirmation, but he felt as if he had won a small battle to get the director to think about it. He stood up and extended a hand across the desk. “Thank you,” he said with a nod. “I appreciate it.”

Marcelo hesitated a bare moment before he grasped the man’s hand and shook it once. “Welcome to the Furmankind Institute, Mr. Sunset.”

Jon gave him a smile and then picked up his envelope to go, but before he could turn to leave, the director pulled another envelope from his desk drawer. There was no label upon it and it was not thick enough to have held more than a couple sheets of paper, but it was sealed. “Would you give this to Doctor Renwick, please?” Marcelo asked him. At Jon’s raised eyebrow, he explained, “It’s an official record for his files on the arrival of Jonathan Sunset, to replace the one for Brian Barrett. He will be expecting it.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Would you send in Ms. Watson next, please?”

Jon Sunset gave the administrator a final nod and then left the room.  Sissy, Dante and Jenni looked up at him when he emerged and he gave them all a casual smile. “The director will see you now, Jenni,” he said.

The blonde nurse stood up, but did not move toward the door. Instead, she looked up at him with a look of concern. “Is everything all right?” she asked. “You said he had already greeted you yesterday.”

“Everything’s fine,” he told his housemates. He held up the thick plastic envelope and replied, “Information on my new identity came in and he needed to give me a brief run-down.”

“Ah, so who’s the new guy?” Dante asked with a glint of mischief in his eyes.

“My name is now Jonathan Sunset,” he told them, “but I’ll probably just go by the shortened Jon, if you don’t mind.”

“Sunset?” Dante repeated with a wide grin, the cogs in his mind already turning with new ways to tease the larger man. “That sounds appropriate.”

“Appropriate?” Jenni asked.

“It is, now that our friend here is at the sunset of his existence as a human!”

Jon raised an eyebrow with a frown and then shook his head in mental surrender. He had expected some crack about his name right off the bat and the oily younger man did not disappoint.

Jenni reached out and put a hand on his arm. “Jonathan… Jon…” she repeated. “It’s a good name,” she told him with a smile. “I’ve only known you a day, but forgive me if I slip up and call you Brian until I get used to the new name.”

“I’ll have to get used to the new name myself,” Jon responded with his own smile.  “However, you’d better go on in now. The director’s waiting on you.”

“Ah yes,” she replied. “See you gents later.”

“Don’t have too much fun in there,” Dante told her with a smile.  Jenni gave the men a casual wave and then lightly knocked on the door. Marcelo’s muffled voice authorized her to enter his office, and then she disappeared inside. 

Dante gave Jon another grin, but returned to his seat without another word. The older man was free to return to the Felis Wing, but Jon wanted to try something before he left. He turned to the admin assistant’s counter and Sissy looked up at him with a delighted smile.

“I like your new name,” she told him, a pleasant thrum underlying her voice.

“Thank you,” he said to her with a tight throat. It was the first time he had actually spoken directly to her, or any other Fur besides Parker for that matter. “May I ask you a personal question?”

Sissy’s eyes narrowed in amusement. “I don’t have a phone in my quarters, but you may call on me here if you want to take me out sometime.”

Dante suddenly coughed and Jon blinked, both taken off guard by the feline’s reply. “Uh, thanks,” Jon said slowly, “but actually I was wondering if you had a photo of yourself before the transformation that I could look at.”

Sissy giggled at his reaction. She had already noticed that the man had not spoken to her since his arrival, and although she knew nothing of his background, he was not the first new arrival with a hesitation to speak to a Fur for the first time. Her response had been nothing more than a practiced quip to catch a newcomer off guard.

The orange-furred secretary pointed a claw to a photograph on the wall beside the counter. “That’s me, as I was,” she told him with a smile.

Jon leaned over to examine the portrait and Dante was suddenly at his side to look at it too. Sissy had been a young Irish girl with ginger hair brighter that Jon’s and her face had contained a generous smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks. Her green eyes smiled back at the photographer as she flashed a “V” sign with her fingers.

Dante looked back at Sissy with raised eyebrows. “How long ago was this picture taken?” he asked.

“That was about three and a half years ago,” the admin assistant replied, “taken right before I joined up.”

“You look like a kid in this,” Dante mused aloud. “How old were you?”

Sissy giggled. “I had just turned eighteen, the legal minimum age that someone can volunteer for the Program.”

“Your parents approved of this at such a young age?” Jon asked.

“Both of them urged me to join, actually,” the feline replied. “I have two older brothers who went through it together and they’ve had all kinds of adventures on the world where they were sent to colonize. My folks couldn’t afford to send me through college, so they figured I could get a worthwhile education through the AHCP and do something with my life.”

Jon leaned upon the counter, looking down into her feline face. “Why are you still here? Did you get a waiver of some kind?” he asked. “I thought all Furs were to be shipped off to new worlds like your brothers were, as soon as the process and education were done.”

“No, no waiver,” Sissy replied in a quiet voice. “At the moment, there are no new worlds that are open for initial settlement, so those of us who have finished our transformation and education have jobs here at the Institute until the day comes when we get our orders to go.”

“No new worlds?” Dante asked in disappointment.

The feline shook her head. “None currently open for colonization. Each time a new Earth-like planet within reach is discovered, it is studied from orbit for at least a couple years to make sure there are no sapient inhabitants before the authorities declare it open for settlement. At the moment, there are none ready for the Furs to move in on.”

“Is sapience the same thing as sentience?” Dante asked, his mouth screwed up sideways.

“Close, but it’s not the same.  Sentience is the ability to feel things emotionally and to perceive things around you.  Most animals are sentient, but the ability to think, the capacity for intelligence or to acquire wisdom requires sapience.”

Dante raised an eyebrow at her.  “You sound like a professor. How do you know that?”

Sissy laughed and patted the counter. “Doctor Ramirez drilled it into our heads often enough during our furman education that I have it memorized. Like you, I didn’t know it myself before I go here.”

“Have they ever discovered another sapient race on any of the worlds they’ve looked at?” Jon asked.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Sissy replied, “but that doesn’t mean there won’t be. They’ve found all sorts of plant and animal life, but none that have shown sapience as we know it.”

“As we know it,” Dante repeated. “What if there’s something out there that doesn’t resemble sapience as we know it?” 

Sissy shrugged, but then she looked back at Jonathan. “It’s likely that one of the worlds may be open by the time you’ve finished the transformation and education yourselves, and if that’s the case, all of us felines may be on the same flight out.”

“Why didn’t they just send you out to one of the other settlements?” Jon wanted to know. “I’m sure any of them could use fresh help beyond just the few they originally sent.”

“We have often wondered that ourselves,” Sissy replied, resting her chin upon the edge of the counter in front of them.

“If you’ve already been a Fur for three years,” Dante said after a moment of thought, “and it takes us two years to be ready for a colony ourselves, you will have already reached your five years as a Fur by the time we’re done.  Will they award you the one million at that time?”

Sissy sat back and shook her head. “No, that prize is awarded only to those who have served in a starter colony for five years.  They don’t consider this Institute to be a colony settlement and it’s certainly not a starter.”

“How long have your brothers served in a colony?” Jon asked.

For the first time since they had seen her, Sissy’s cheerful demeanor vanished. “My eldest brother only needs another year to mark his fifth anniversary on the world of Monarch.”

“What about your other brother?” Dante asked. “I thought he went through the Program at the same time.”

“He — uhm…” Sissy’s eyes misted over.  “He died during his second year on Monarch,” she replied with a choke. “That… that’s a possible danger when going to a new world…”

“What happened?” Jon asked in a whisper. “Can you tell us?”

“He was bitten by a local insect that he had no immunity against,” she replied after a quiet moment. “He was a fighter and could have held his own in a scrap against some ferocious beast, but instead he died from a bug bite!  It wasn’t fair…”

“Colonizing alien worlds is not a fair game,” Jon said, his brow furrowed. “The humans of Earth consider furmankind to be expendable. That’s why they’re sent in first.”

“That’s no secret,” Dante retorted, looking over at him, “but Furs have a higher success rate of surviving conditions such as those in new environments. They can’t make us go until we willingly sign that contract, and it’s that million-dollar prize they use as bait.”

“They caught you with that cat-toy, didn’t they?” Jon replied drily.

“Yes, yes they did,” Dante had to admit. 

Sissy dabbed at her eyes with a tissue and then looked up at Jon. “You didn’t sign up because of the prize money?” she asked in a puzzled tone.

Jon shook his head and lied to her with a straight face. “I signed up for the adventure of it all,” he told her. “Even Dante here is an experienced cave explorer, so that had to have appealed to him too.”

“Uh, yeah,” Dante agreed hastily. He had momentarily forgotten that it was unlikely that Sissy had any personal knowledge of Brian Barrett’s public background. “Adventure for some is just as much an incentive as a bundle of money. No matter how it was done, our big friend here was caught just like us!”

Jon shot him a dark look at the reference to his arrest.  He was about to inquire further into Sissy’s experience with the Program, but the director’s door opened and Jenni walked out.

“Next!” said the blonde nurse with a smile at Dante.

“That didn’t take long,” the dark-haired man replied.

“Nope, just a few minutes of one-to-one discussion about our reasons to be here and an official welcome.”

“Ah, okay,” Dante remarked, heading for the door she had left open behind her.  Once he was away inside, Jenni put her arms up on the counter beside her remaining male housemate.

“So, Jonathan, dear, are we going to wait for him?” she asked, placing emphasis on his new name.

“Once we get back to the Wing, they’re going to give us a full, comprehensive medical exam,” Jon reminded her. “Are you in a hurry for them to poke and prod every nook and cranny?”

Jenni grinned back at him. “That depends upon who’s doing the poking and prodding!” she replied. Sissy laughed aloud and then giggled. 

Jon rolled his eyes and then took his envelope to a seat to await Dante’s return. Jenni remained at the counter and soon the two females were lost in a whispered conversation that Jon could not hear. He began reading through his new background history, but three young women all in their twenties came in through the door and introduced themselves to the admin assistant as sisters who had volunteered together and were reporting for their one-on-one discussions with the director. Although they had given a cursory nod to Jon and Jenni, there was no time for formal introductions before Dante emerged from Marcelo’s office.

Since the newcomers were waiting their turn, the trio from the Felis Wing all bid Sissy good-bye and then left the building. Jenni and Dante immediately began chatting animatedly about meeting the orange domestic cat, but Jon was lost in thought about the same experience. He had managed to remain civil and she had answered his questions in a friendly manner, but talking to the Fur had been one of the hardest things he had done since his arrival.

They had not been gone long enough for Kristen’s physical exam to be finished, so the three of them relaxed in front of the large screen and tuned in to an old classic movie already in progress to pass the time until it was their turn.

Several hours later, all four had experienced the most arduous, complete physical examinations that any of them had ever endured before. When they walked over to the cafeteria for lunch, Dante limped along, muttering beneath his breath at the indignity of it all. Although the opportunity was ripe for ribald humor, none of the others felt up to teasing him about it, having all gone through it themselves.

Kristen was interested in learning more about Jon’s new identity aside of his new name, but he had left the unread material in his room with plans to go over it thoroughly at a later time; there was not much that he could really tell her, so they chatted idly as they walked.

When they entered the cafeteria and headed for the serving line, Jon gave the room full of human and furman patrons barely a glance. He had not had much of a breakfast that morning and he was ready to see what sustenance the kitchen now had to offer.

The corner table where they had dined the night before was unavailable this time, so Jon led them to an empty one near the center of the room. As they set down their trays, several humans from a nearby table watched them with curious eyes: a young man, a young woman and an older couple.

Welcome to the Institute!” one of them called out.  Dante, Kristen, Jenni and Jon all looked up in unison as a young man with shoulder-length, wavy brown hair approached their table; he was dressed smartly in black slacks, a matching jacket, white shirt, western boots and a bolo tie. The expression on his face matched the sarcastic tone he had used to address them and he swaggered a bit before he stopped at Kristen’s elbow.

“Hello, darlin’,” he told the botanist with an exaggerated country accent that sounded as fake as he appeared. “Ah’m Travis Tyndall. What’s yer name?” He completely ignored her companions, squatting down beside her.

Kristen almost laughed in his face at his presentation, but Dante beat her to it with a loud snort. Travis turned to give him a look of disdain. “Pardon me, but I was talking to the lovely lady here.”  He turned back to the object of his interest without waiting for a response. “Now, where were we, honey?”

Jon and Jenni exchanged amused looks and Dante looked indignant, but it was all Kristen could do to hide her amazement at this unexpected attention.  “Hello, Mr. Tyndall,” she said grinning, “I’m Kristen. These are my friends, Jenni, Jon—”

“Ah’m charmed by your beauty, ma’am,” Travis interrupted, giving her blouse a brief glance and then making his eyebrows jump with a quick waggle. “I would welcome the opportunity to get to know you better, if’n ya know what I mean.”

“Are you one of the new volunteers,” Jenni asked him, “or do you work here?”

Travis looked back at her with a frown. “Do you mind?” he retorted, completely without his accent. “I was talking to this delicious lady.” Then, without skipping a beat, he turned back with a smile to a surprised Kristen, not seeing the look of astonishment in Jenni’s eyes. “How’s about you and me going back to my quarters for a little more intimate… lunch? You can have all you want, darlin’…”

Kristen had sudden mixed emotions about this guy. She was flattered to be on the receiving end of such attention from a good-looking guy when it was usually girls who looked like Jenni they ogled. However, his rudeness toward her housemates was uncalled for and unnecessary. Had she been there on her own, she might have been tempted by his silver tongue, but his comments were borderline lewd in front of friends.

“I appreciate the invitation,” she said quietly, “but perhaps some other time?”

“But I’m hungry for you now, sweetheart,” Travis replied with a mock whine. With just his eyes, he indicated that she should look down, and when she did, she saw his fingers lightly caressing his crotch. Kristen swallowed and shook her head.

“No, but thanks,” she said.

“Listen, beautiful…”

“I believe she said No to your advances,” Jenni told him with an edge to her voice.

Travis turned toward her with a sneer. “Why, were you hoping that I would go after you instead?” he retorted. “I prefer someone with meat on her bones, not some skinny silicone honey the likes of you! You aren’t as appetizing as she is.”

Jenni sputtered indignantly, but when Travis turned back to Kristen, the reception he received was cold indifference. Her eyes were narrowed beneath a furrowed brow and her lips were pressed together tight.

“Why don’t you just bugger off,” Dante growled over his uneaten lunch. “She doesn’t want you.”

Jenni stood up and faced the newcomer across the table. “Silicone!” she hissed, fists clenched. “The AHCP does not accept volunteers with enhancements, mister! There’s no silicone in me and I am not some honey to be attracted to you!”

Travis gave her chest a focused look and then he laughed. “Yeah, right!” He turned back to Kristen and said in a carrying whisper, “Look how riled up she is!  She’s jealous that she can’t measure up to you, darlin’.”

The botanist fixed the man with look of pure disbelief. “Please, just leave,” she said with a shake of her head. “You’re not—”

“Please?” he asked, hoping the universal magic word would appeal to her. “I won’t bite… much.”

“No thank you,” she responded in a stronger tone, trying to shrink away from his closing distance. “You aren’t—”

“Come with me,” Travis interrupted again in a louder voice, all finesse gone. “I insist!” He wrapped his fingers around her wrist and started to pull her up.

The cafeteria grew quiet at his outburst and all eyes were fixed upon the Felis table.

“No… please!” Kristen tried again. “Let me go!”  Travis ignored her resistance and heaved harder on her arm, pulling her up from her seat and eliciting a small cry of pain from the woman. Her chair fell over with a clatter.

Jonathan got to his feet and placed a firm grip on the man’s shoulder. “She does not want your attention,” he said in a low voice, “and you are hurting her.”

Travis glanced first at Jon’s hand and then up into his face with a sneer. “Get yer stinkin’ Irish fingers off me, you big toad!”

“Get yours off Kristen!” Dante retorted.

Travis jerked at his shoulder, but instead of complying, Jon swiftly turned the man to face him and then took hold of the other hand still gripping Kristen’s wrist. Without breaking eye contact, Jon pried Travis’ fingers from the short woman’s arm, squeezing them firmly. 

Travis wrenched his aching fingers from Jon’s hand, his face purple with rage, and then he slammed his free fist into Jon’s middle for his interference; the larger man had expected something of the sort and had tightened up his stomach muscles just before the blow. His body swayed from the strike, but his feet were firmly planted. Without waiting for another blow, Jon slammed the flat of his palm hard against the other man’s sternum in a move so quick that Travis had not been able to anticipate.

Travis reeled backward and fell hard against an unoccupied chair. Both he and the chair sprawled out onto the tile floor, tumbling ungracefully beneath another table. Tyndall groaned and rolled over onto his back with both hands up to his chest, but did not get up immediately. He wiped his mouth with the back of a hand and it came away with a trail of blood from a split lip when he had hit the floor. Incensed, he tried to launch himself back upward, but hit the bottom of the table hard and collapsed again amidst a shower of sparks exploding within his cranium.

The older man who had been sitting at Travis’ table jumped up to help him, but no one else seemed interested in getting into the fray. Like those in the Felis Wing, these people were all new acquaintances in whichever Wing they belonged to, but there were none who knew Travis well enough to defend him against his own actions.

When Jon was certain that Tyndall was going to stay down for a moment, he turned to Kristen with a frown. “Are you okay?” he asked, noticing that she rubbed her wrist where Travis had gripped her. She looked up at him with wide, moist eyes and nodded in quiet surprise. He looked over at Jenni and Dante; they were both standing back away from the table.

“I’m going to take her back to the Wing,” he told them quietly. “We’ll get something to eat later.” Dante nodded in silent astonishment and Jenni mimicked his action without realizing it. “Come on, let’s go,” Jon whispered to Kristen. Without resisting, she took the hand that he offered to her and allowed herself to be led from the cafeteria amidst the clucking conversations surrounding them.




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