SUNSET OF FURMANKIND
— by Ted R. Blasingame
“Are you sure you don't want a cold compress?” Marcy asked the dark-haired botanist. She stood at the top of the steps that led down into the pit where Kristen and Jon were sitting at each end of a curved couch, just out of the sun beam that streamed in from the overhead skylight.
Kristen looked up at her with a self-conscious smile. “No, I'm fine, but I find myself already wishing we had a stocked kitchen so I won't have to go back to that cafeteria,” she replied.
“That won't be until tomorrow, I'm afraid,” the attendant nurse told her. “Doctor Renwick and I are processing the results of your examinations today, so we won't be able to work on the kitchen supplies until tomorrow morning. The information you all gave us on your current dietary needs will help me make up a shopping list.”
“When you go shopping, may I go with you?” Kristen asked hopefully.
Marcy gave her a patient smile. “I think that can be arranged. Now, if you don't need anything more, I need to return to the lab.” Neither Kristen nor Jon could think of anything, so the older woman walked quietly across the room.
“Are you afraid Tyndall is going to harass you again,” Jon asked quietly, “or do you think you might take him up on his offer if we aren't with you?”
Kristen looked down at her hands folded together in her lap. “I confess I was flattered to have his attention since I don't get noticed much,” she admitted quietly, “but I think he's proven himself to be quite the jerk. I really don't want to see him again.”
“We'll wait a bit and try the cafeteria again later,” Jon replied. “Everyone there at the time should be gone by then.”
Both of them looked up at a sound from the building's entrance at the far end. They expected the return of their housemates at any time, but it was neither of them who rounded the corner and walked across the carpet toward them.
The expression on Marcelo Delgado's swarthy face was as tight as the grip on the computer notebook he held in one hand. His small, dark eyes were smoldering.
“Good afternoon, Director,” Kristen said in hesitation.
“Is it?” Marcelo responded in an agitated voice. He stepped down into the sunken area, grabbed a chair from the table, and spun it around to face them. He sat down, a dark expression on his face, and briefly scratched at his Van Dyke beard.
“I have just come from the cafeteria,” he said in clipped tones, “where I understand you started a fight with another volunteer.”
“Ended a fight,” Jon calmly corrected. He and Kristen had expected to be interviewed over the incident and they had agreed they would simply tell the truth, embellishing nothing.
“Is that so? Mr. Tyndall claims that you provoked him needlessly.”
“He needs to get his story straight,” Jon growled, “or are you immediately taking his word for it due to Barrett's criminal background?”
“Director,” Kristen interrupted, “it was Mr. Tyndall who started the incident. He threw the first punch because my housemates were defending me against his unwanted advances.” She held up her bare arm and offered up the finger-shaped bruises around her wrist as evidence. “He wouldn't take 'No' for an answer and yanked me up out of my chair when I wouldn't willingly go with him.”
Marcelo examined her wrist and pursed his lips for a moment, giving Jon a sidelong look. “Tyndall claims you were jealous and punched him in the chest because he was being friendly to Ms. Eisenberg.”
“Didn't you talk to anyone else?” Jon challenged. “There was a crowd of people in the cafeteria. What about our housemates?”
“Your housemates were not present in the cafeteria while I was there,” Marcelo admitted. “Neither was anyone from Tyndall's Wing.”
“They must have all jumped ship right after we did,” Jon mused, disgusted. “I doubt any of them wanted to hang around Tyndall once his marbles stopped spinning around his skull.”
“Since I'm the one at the center of this, let me tell you what happened,” Kristen stated in a stern tone. Marcelo gave her his full attention and Jon sat back to let her speak without interruption. She explained the incident in detail while Marcelo took notes on his tablet, his expression neutral. At last, she ended by saying, “If Jon had not intervened, you might have had a different incident filed on your hands.” She held up her bruises once again as a reminder. “He refused to accept my rejection to his advances and was trying to force me to go with him. Is rape something you condone here at your Institute?”
Marcelo sat back in his chair, unconsciously defensive. “No, we do not allow this kind of behavior,” his voice now non-confrontational. He looked quickly from one to another and then offered, “Will both of you sign statements swearing that what you have told me is true?”
“Absolutely,” Jon answered, his arms still folded defensively across this broad chest.
Kristen nodded. “I will swear to it,” she said. “Travis Tyndall provoked the incident and it was his own fault as to how it ended. He could have easily walked away as I asked him to.”
The director pulled a thin camera from a shirt pocket. He gestured to Kristen to show the bruises and then he took several shots for his records. Marcelo put the camera away, got to his feet and shook his head in obvious frustration. “Thank you both,” he said. “I will see to it that he is reprimanded and that this goes into his permanent record.”
Jon looked at him, astonished. “You mean – he's going to stay? Wouldn't something like this get him kicked off the premises?”
The director gazed at him coldly. “You of all people, Mr. Sunset, should remember that we give second chances here. Mr. Tyndall will be given the opportunity to behave, just as it has been given to you.”
Kristen stood up and approached Marcelo. “I will sign the statement and will swear by it,” she said, her voice firm, “but I want a copy of the statement to put on file with my lawyer for public record against Tyndall.”
“That is your prerogative,” Marcelo replied.
“If Tyndall is given the opportunity to sign a contract with the AHCP, that means he may one day be assigned to a colony where he could do the same with someone else,” Kristen told him with a hard expression. “Do you really want that kind of strife in a new settlement before it has a chance to begin?”
“Ms. Eisenberg,” the director lectured, “it is my job to maintain order at this facility while you and others undergo the transformation and are given the proper education to survive somewhere out there on a new world. Once he leaves this place, he is no longer under my authority, or responsibility. However, you are free to file the incident with AHCP headquarters in Stockholm as you wish.”
“Can you block him from signing his contract?” Jon asked.
“I could, but I won't,” Marcelo answered firmly. “I have far more reason to block yours, but I'm not going to do that either. With this incident, Tyndall has broken no rules beyond a juvenile disturbance with another volunteer.” Kristen started to object, but he held up a hand to silence her. “Yes, his intentions might have been blatant, Ms. Eisenberg, but Mr. Sunset managed to stop it before any actual crime was committed. Until such things do happen, I don’t have a legal leg to stand on in ousting Mr. Tyndall.”
“All that means is that you aren't going to do anything to prevent a repeat occurrence,” Jon remarked. “So much for the safe atmosphere of the revered Furmankind Institute.” Before Marcelo could make an indignant reply, he turned to Kristen and said, “It looks like we may have to travel in pairs, or even a full pack, if we leave the Cat House.”
Kristen nodded and gave Marcelo a stony stare, lifting her chin slightly. “It appears so, since the administration won't do anything to maintain order.” When Marcelo did not respond, she added, “All right, Director, you can prepare my statement and I will sign it. I just hope for the sake of others like me that people like Tyndall will behave after a mere slap on the wrist.” With that, she turned on her heel, stepped up out of the pit, and then headed for her bedroom without looking back.
Jon got to his feet and put his hands casually into the pockets of his jeans. “Have a good day, sir,” he said in dismissal with a deceptively pleasant smile.
The director narrowed his eyes at him for a moment, but then only said, “Mr. Sunset.” Without further conversation, Marcelo turned and made his way back across the room to the exit.
Jon watched him go until the man was lost to sight and then headed for his own quarters. As he reached the door, Kristen looked out at him from her room.
“Brian, I'm sorry you had to get involved,” she said quietly.
He gave her a good-natured smile. “It's now Jon,” he reminded her. “I'm no longer Brian. As for the incident, think nothing of it. I was getting tired of Tyndall's endless chatter.”
“Jon, are you saying you didn't do it for me?” Kristen asked with a frown.
“I didn't say that,” he responded with a shrug. “We've only just met, but I believe you're a good person. Good people shouldn't have to put up with yahoos like him, especially when they hurt others.”
The botanist reached out and put her fingers lightly on his arm. “Although you got involved in a fight, I think I am finding it difficult to imagine you as a criminal,” she said quietly. “You are a good man, Jon. Thank you for standing up for me.”
“I meant what I said earlier,” he said, gently brushing off her praise. “If you have a need to go out on the grounds anywhere, take me, Dante or even Jenni with you. There's no need to tempt mister slapped-on-the-wrist if he has his sights set on you.”
“Do you really think he will try again?” she asked.
Jon nodded. “All this will likely do is whet his appetite for challenge, either to get you or to get back at me. We'll see.”
Kristen wrapped her arms around herself and looked down at her toes. “Perhaps the simplest solution would be to just let him have me so he can have his conquest and move on,” she muttered. “Guys like him don't form relationships, but can be single-minded to get what they've been told they can't have.”
Her comment surprised Jon and he tilted her chin up toward him gently with a fingertip. “Please don't compromise,” he told her in concern. “If you give in to him, he'll hold that over you from now on. If he can't get you alone, he'll eventually lose interest.”
“Hey, is anybody hungry?” called out a male voice. Jon and Kristen looked out across the saloon and saw Dante and Jenni walking toward them, each with a large plastic tray laden with food from the cafeteria. Kristen grinned at Jon and then hurried down to the table in the pit.
“I sure am!” the botanist exclaimed to the pair. “Thank you!”
“We assumed you wouldn't want to return to the cafeteria right away,” Jenni said, putting her tray on the table next to Dante's, “so we brought you back a feast!”
Jon joined the group and felt his stomach rumble at the sight of everything; they had brought plenty of food. One tray included plates, dinnerware and several bottles of soda, both diet and fully leaded. “All this is for us?” he asked.
“All yours, killer!” Dante quipped. Jon gifted him with an evil eye, but the other man backed up with both hands raised, pleading. “Just kidding! Go ahead and eat all you want. We've already stuffed ourselves.”
The four of them took seats at the table. Jenni opened up soda bottles for each of them while Kristen and Jon filled up their plates.
“We just got a visit from the director,” Jon told them, buttering a roll.
“Yeah, he stopped us on the way in,” Dante replied. “He sounded like he wanted to interrogate us, but since our arms were full he let us go after only a few questions.”
“He did interrogate us,” Kristen retorted before lifting a fork of salad up to her mouth.
“Tyndall told him that I started the fight,” Jon added, “but we set the record straight.”
“That's good,” Jenni said, sitting back in her chair with a soda. “We left right after you did, thinking it was better to vacate the premises before someone called Security.”
“So where did you go?” Kristen asked.
“We just took a stroll around the grounds, watching the Furs still out and about,” Jenni answered. “After a while we went back and peeked into the cafeteria, but by then there wasn't many people still inside. Either they all bailed like we did or they just finished up their meals and left.”
“We appreciate you bringing all this back for us,” Kristen said with a smile after a sip of diet soda. Jon grunted in appreciation around a mouthful of food. Dante grinned at Jon's response, getting personal satisfaction out of the larger man's guttural reply.
The group fell quiet for several moments while the pair ate, but after a while Kristen looked over at Jenni in curiosity.
“May I ask you a personal question?” she asked quietly.
“Sure, what is it you want to know?”
“It's not that I doubt you,” Kristen said slowly with a brief look at the males sitting with them, “but was what you said about the AHCP not accepting volunteers with enhancements true?”
Jenni raised a thin eyebrow and she gave a short chuckle. “I guess I'm the only one who read all the material on the Anthro Human Colonization Program,” she said in amusement. “Yes, it's true. Implants, artificial limbs, organs and other modifications that include foreign substances are not affected by the transformation formula and can actually cause problems in the process. During the transformation, muscle tissue, bone structure, blood vessels, nerves and so on are not only being reconfigured with the longer DNA strand codes, some are also moving into new places. Artificial material in the body might inhibit any of these changes.”
“How do you mean?” Dante asked, curious.
Jenni boldly grasped her left breast through her blouse. “What do you think would happen if I'd actually had an implant in here and it wound up embedded halfway into my heart or a lung during the reconfiguration?”
Kristen's face reddened in embarrassment and Jon suddenly shifted his gaze. Dante's eyes, however, were glued to the breast she held in one hand. “Oh,” he finally murmured after a moment of staring, color creeping into his cheeks. “I hadn't thought of that…”
Jenni laughed, put both hands upon the table and looked over at Kristen. “The same goes with people who have artificial limbs or organs. A replacement knee or shoulder joint, even a heart valve, is just as unaffected by the McEwen process as silicone implants. I have also heard that if you wear glasses beforehand, you won't need them after the transformation, but a glass eye or cornea implant will keep you out of the program.”
Jon thought about this as he finished up the last of his meal. “What about dental work?”
“Same thing,” Jenni replied, “only you can't be rejected for having dental fillings and crowns. From what I read in the material, those simply fall out when the dental reconfiguration takes place. The only danger there is if you sleep on your back and a filling drops down your throat.”
Dante gripped his throat with both hands and pantomimed gagging and coughing. Kristen and Jenni both laughed at his antics and even Jon chuckled at the sight. He had to admit that after the events of that afternoon it felt good to have some amusement.
From that point on the conversations turned light, each of them content to discuss things that had nothing to do with the events of that day. The encounter with Tyndall was stressful enough, but almost worse had been the arduous physical exams they had endured that morning that included time on the exercise equipment. Jon was clearly the most physically fit of the housemates, but even he was put through steps that taxed his endurance.
Doctor Renwick had explained that these tests would be used as a benchmark for comparison with the same set of examinations that would take place after the transformation was complete. Dante had wondered why the exams were beginning now, since none of them had signed final contracts, but Nurse Marcy informed them that it would be necessary to have the information before the process began. If any of them opted out with the escape clause, the data would be discarded, but once the contracts were signed, the process would begin immediately and the information would be needed at that time.
The thing that worried each of them was there would be one final examination just before the initial injection of the formula, and none of them could imagine what else there might be left to examine. “They looked at me inside and out!” Dante complained. “I wasn't even offered a cigarette afterwards.”
They were free to do what they wanted the rest of the day, so in time each of them went their separate ways. Jenni retired to her room to read a book she found in the Felis Wing library, Kristen took a nap, and Dante watched another vid on the saloon's big screen.
Confident he could handle himself if he met up with Tyndall again, Jon left the building and took a personal tour of the grounds. Despite what he had said in the conversations he had held with Marcelo and his housemates, and that he had mustered up the inclination to talk to Sissy as if she were still human, Jon Sunset still harbored a personal resentment against Furs. It had only been a day and a half since he had escaped death, so it was going to take more time before he actually felt comfortable around them.
He watched small groups of them doing things outdoors that looked remarkably ordinary. They did grounds keeping, studied beneath trees, played sports, sat on benches, chatted together over snacks and exercised in the cool evening air. There was even a small group congregated in a clearing in the trees, constructing a geodesic modular structure that he assumed was practice for setting up a colony building.
Despite the freedom he seemed to have at the Institute, he could not keep from comparing it to the prison. He could not leave whenever he wished and a fence still surrounded the grounds where he was kept. His walk had taken him out along a road that was blocked by tall iron gates flanked by a pair of sturdy stone guard shacks. Outside the gates was a moderate-sized gravel parking lot bordered on three sides by thick woodlands, and a two-lane asphalt road disappeared in a winding avenue out through the forest. Several of the small carts were parked inside the gate to ferry visitors to and from the central complex of buildings. Personally owned vehicles were not permitted on the grounds and only the rare supply truck or passenger bus was waved through as needed.
Jon watched the guards covertly from the cover of forestation, silently wondering about the need for such security. Was the high fence and gates designed to keep intruders out or was it intended to keep the anthro-human hybrids inside?
With such thoughts whirling around within his mind, Jon returned to the Felis Wing where the others had gathered again at the central pit, discussing ideas on how to get their next meal without running into Tyndall. It was finally decided that Jenni and Dante would get Jon and Kristen suppers as before, but that the pair would have to go back out into the open come morning.
Later that night, Jon awoke from a dream-filled sleep troubled by mental images of the days to come. Bleary-eyed, he glanced over at the clock marking time beside his bed; it was two-fourteen. He closed his eyes again and turned over onto his back, but now that he was awake, his bladder signaled its need for attention.
As he sat up on the edge of the bed, he snared a white tee shirt from the back of the desk chair and slipped it over his broad shoulders. He pulled at the back of the boxers he had slept in and then walked out of his bedroom. The saloon was calm with the absence of his housemates, the skylight dark and only the soft glow of dim nightlights to guide his way to the restroom.
Moments later, his need was sated and he walked quietly back across the saloon toward his quarters, his feet padding gently on the soft carpeting. Just as he approached his door, he paused to listen. The large open room was as silent as a museum, except for a faint sound to his right.
Tilting an ear to identify and locate the sound, Jon stepped lightly toward the next room. He stopped beside the door and noted that it was slightly ajar. Unless he was mistaken, he was sure what he heard was the sound of a housemate quietly crying.
He did not want to wake the others by knocking, so he pushed the panel open a little more and called out in a whisper. “Kristen?”
There was a brief sob, half choked off at the sound of her name, but then the darkened room fell silent. “Kristen,” he whispered again, “are you okay?”
There was a muffled response. Jon could not tell if she had invited him in or had asked him to leave. Tentatively, he pushed the panel open further, but only to speak again. “I will leave you alone,” he whispered, “but my door is open if you need to talk to someone.”
He began to close the panel behind him, but then he heard her response in a clearer voice. “Please, don't leave me,” she said in a plaintive whisper.
Jon let himself into the room, unconsciously closing the door behind him. In the soft glow of a clock with large blue numbers, he could see her huddled beneath the covers on the far side of the bed, so he made his way around the furniture and then knelt down on the carpeting beside her.
He stretched out a tentative hand to her shoulder to gently let her know he was beside her. Kristen reached up and closed her fingers around his wrist, a little tighter than he was expecting.
“Kris, what is it?” he asked gently.
“I… I'm afraid…” she replied into the darkness. She tugged on his hand and pulled it away from her shoulder, only to pull it closer to her face. He caressed her cheek lightly with his fingers and felt the wetness of her tears.
Jon leaned in until his chin was near her pillow. “Don't worry about that scumbag,” he whispered confidently. “We won't let Tyndall near you again.”
“N-no,” she stammered, sliding her hand up around the back of his neck to pull him closer. Jon suddenly had the impression that she was about to kiss him, but instead, she clung to him and cried on his shoulder.
He swallowed in discomfort from the angle that he knelt over her bed, so he shifted his weight until it rested against the edge of the mattress. “I don't understand,” he whispered.
“It's n-not him,” she managed to reply. “It's m-me… I… I don't know if I c-can…”
Jon frowned. She was not making any sense, so he pushed himself upward. She continued to cling to him, so he gently pulled her upright and then slid onto her bed to sit beside her more comfortably.
“Calm down, Kris,” he whispered into her ear, feeling awkward sliding an arm behind her to lend some kind of support. She buried her head up against his chest and let a few tears stain his shirt. “What's the matter, if it isn't him?”
Kristen swallowed and managed to quell the waterworks after a moment. His strong arm felt comforting across the back of her nightgown, and it seemed to give her the encouragement she needed. “Bria—uh, Jon,” she said weakly, “I don't know if I can go through with it.”
Jon blinked in sudden understanding. “Having second thoughts about the transformation?” he asked. When she only nodded, he held her closer with one arm and then gently brushed her dark hair from her face with the other. “I can understand that,” he whispered. “I've had a few nightmares of my own about it, even tonight.”
The botanist stirred and lifted her head to look at him. The numbers of the clock cast a pallid glow upon her features, reflecting in the moisture rimming her eyes. “It was not a nightmare,” she explained quietly, her whispers a little stronger than they had been. “I kept thinking about what Doctor Renwick told us. It's going to be painful.”
“Yes,” Jon whispered back, “but he didn't act as if it would be all that big a deal.”
“How can it be anything but painful?” she asked. “Our entire bodies will be mutating. Everything about us will be stretching, compressing and remolding into a new form, even as our DNA will be changing at the molecular level with our chemical makeup in flux. That's got to hurt, Jon! Surely he's watched others go through that kind of agony!”
He nodded quietly. “I guess Renwick didn't want to frighten us needlessly,” he replied, “but I think, deep inside, we all felt he was sugar-coating the truth.”
“I don't know what I should do,” she whispered, still looking up at him. “What do you think I should do?”
Jon frowned. “You already know what I think,” he replied. “Get out while you can. Take that escape clause and keep your humanity. You don't have to endure that kind of pain.”
Fresh tears welled up her eyes. “I should,” she answered, “but I don't know if I can go back to my old life.” She closed her eyes and then laid her cheek against his chest. “I… I've already burned bridges to get here.”
“Bridges can always be rebuilt,” he whispered, gently stroking her hair, “or you can find other ways to cross those rivers.”
“What about you?” she asked. “Could you do that if you had the chance?”
“No,” was her companion's immediate response. “My last burned bridge took a life with it. There's no going around this for me and no escape clause. I've got to go through the pain and torture, but you, Kris, you do have the choice to avoid it.”
“I have no money,” her voice choked up, “I have no home, no job and no friends left. I have nowhere to go.”
“But you won't have the pain.”
“There will always be pain,” Kristen told him with a swallow, “just different kinds.” She looked up at him again with fresh tears. “In truth, I really don't have an escape clause any more than you do. I really can't leave, even though I want to.”
“The clause is in my contract,” she stated, “but I can't claim it.”
Jon raised an eyebrow at her. “Okay, you've lost me.”
She lowered her head again, sighing deeply. “I was — unwise with my finances, and I had a swarm of creditors continually banging on my door. To avoid bankruptcy, I asked my boyfriend for some help, and he put me in touch with some people he knew.”
“Uh oh…” Jon breathed.
“Yeah,” Kristen admitted. “They got the collection agencies off my back, but some people got hurt and it resulted in a situation worse than the one I had before with the money I now owe to them.”
“So what did you do?”
“I ran,” she replied with a sob. “They almost caught up to me a few times, so I did the only thing left to me. I signed up with the AHCP!”
“For a new identity?” Jon asked.
“I hadn't thought of it for that. No, it was for the money,” Kristen answered. “If I can make it five years and get the reward, I can settle my debt with them.”
“You won't ever be coming back to Earth,” he reminded her. “Why worry about paying them back now?” She only shook her head as fresh tears soaked through his tee shirt. “Even if you pay them back everything plus interest,” he mused quietly, “you'll still be stuck in a Fur body. That's not something you will ever get out of.”
“I know… I know… but it was the only thing I could think of,” she confessed. “By then, I'll be used to it and maybe I'll just stay with the colony or transfer to another. I… I just don't know if I can go through the pain to get it.”
“I don't know anything about the kind of people you dealt with, other than what I've seen in vids,” Jon told her, “but if there are any similarities, I can certainly see you're in danger staying human. Listen, Kris… although you and I have different reasons for being here, it looks like neither one of us has a choice. We are going to go through this together. When the pain gets too much for either of us to bear, we'll be here to help each other through it all.”
She looked up at him. “Promise?”
Jon made a small crossing motion over his heart and held up a hand, palm facing outward. “I promise,” he said.
Her heart warmed at the small childish gesture and she smiled up at him, wiping her eyes with the back of a hand. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Jon gave her a gentle smile of his own and then started to get up. “Are you going to be okay now?” he asked.
The plump little botanist suddenly clung to him with renewed strength. “Yes, but don't go,” she replied in sudden alarm.
Jon raised an eyebrow. “Uhm…” he started to say.
“Please stay here,” she asked in a small whisper. “I don't want to be alone tonight.”
“Kris, I don't…”
The woman shook her head. “Just hold me,” she pleaded sadly. “Nothing more. Just sleep beside me, please.”
It was Jon's turn to swallow. He was not sure this was such a good idea, but it was difficult to turn down that pair of imploring dark eyes. Silently promising himself that he would do nothing more than provide the comfort of a companion, he gave her a quiet nod.
Kristen made room for him in the bed and then he slid in beside her. Once he was situated on his back with his head upon one of her pillows, she cuddled up beside him, her head on his shoulder and one arm stretched across his chest. He wrapped an arm around her and gently stroked her hair, closing his eyes.
After several long moments she sighed contentedly, and then in a relaxed voice told him, “I like it when you call me Kris.”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.