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SUNSET OF FURMANKIND

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 14
No Escape

 

Jon had no more nightmares that night, had not dreamed at all for that matter, but when he moved toward consciousness two things immediately surfaced in his mind. The first was a growing pressure that needed attention and the second was the numbness of his right arm.

He opened his eyes slowly in the darkness of the room, groggily wondering why the security lights were off outside his cell. They were never extinguished, even in the event of a power failure. The prison complex was equipped with a robust bank of backup generators that precluded a total blackout.

It was only when his eyes focused on a set of blue numbers beside the bed that he began to doubt his presence in his old prison cell, and cognizance finally penetrated his sleep-fogged mind.

“Right,” he mumbled hoarsely, remembering the Furmankind Institute. Feeling the need to empty his bladder, Jon started to get up, but something immobilized him. His right arm seemed to be pinned down and he tugged at it in sudden agitation, but when he heard a muffled groan, he stopped suddenly. Only then did he remember where he had spent the night.

Although he and Kristen had done nothing more than merely sleep beside one another, it had been over a year since he had last shared a bed with anyone. The thought put an instant scowl upon his face when he remembered that the last person had been Rebecca.

Gently this time so he would not disturb the dark-haired woman who slept peacefully beside him, Jon managed to slide his arm out from beneath her. Once free, he sat up slowly and then slipped out of the bed, rubbing his arm and flexing his fingers.  He glanced over at the clock and frowned at the hour.

It was nearly seven o'clock, but it was his usual habit to get up at five every morning to begin an exercise routine that he had followed for years, even while in prison. None of the Felis Wing bedrooms was equipped with windows or skylights to the outside, so the room was still as dark as it had been in the early hours of the morning.  He could imagine that his alarm clock had rattled off at the proper time in his own room even though he had not been there to hear it.

Using only the light from the numbers of Kristen's clock, he felt his way along the bed toward the door. When he opened the panel and stepped out into the saloon, his eyes were bombarded with bright morning sunshine illuminating the room from the overhead skylight. It took a moment for his vision to adjust, and when it did, Dante was looking up at him in surprise from the table in the sunken area of the room. The younger man set down a coffee cup beside the folder of photographs he had been looking through and gave him a sudden smirk.

“Couldn't find the way to your own room last night, I see…” he said as Jon began to make his way toward the restroom.  “That didn't take long, did it?”

Jon stopped beside the pit and scowled down at him. “What are you implying?” he growled, his voice still hoarse from nighttime snoring.

“C'mon now. It sure didn't take you long to move in on Kristen after saving her from the big, bad Travis yesterday!” Dante cackled with waggling eyebrows. Then, in a lower, conspiratorial voice, he asked, “How well did she reward you last night?”

Jon's eyes grew dark. “You don't know what you're talking about…”

Dante shrugged and brushed toast crumbs from the front of his green button-up shirt. “No, I suppose seeing you exit the room of one of your female housemates in your underwear means nothing at all.”

Jon looked down and suddenly realized that he was not in his athletic workout shorts, but was indeed clad only in a tee shirt and a pair of blue cotton boxer shorts. Jon did not embarrass easily, but when he looked back at Dante, he could feel his cheeks redden. This only served to make the other man laugh out loud.

Knowing there was nothing he could say that would change Dante's perception, Jon simply shook his head. “Nothing happened,” he said truthfully.

“Uh huh, I believe you,” Dante replied with an innocent expression, idly scratching at his pencil-thin mustache with a fingertip.

Jon had been prepared to just walk away and let the younger man think what he wanted, but that final reply of sarcasm got to him. He stepped down into the pit and then leaned across the table, leveling a fist at Dante. “Let's see if I can rearrange that face for you without the furmankind process.”

Dante's eyes lit up in personal satisfaction for getting the red-haired man's ire, but he raised both hands in submission. “Sorry, old man,” he said hastily. “I surrender.”

Jon glared at him for a moment longer before he snorted and departed the pit. He still needed to use the toilet, but decided it would be more prudent if he were not parading around in his boxers. He returned to his bedroom, turned off his still-beeping alarm clock, switched out the underwear for his athletic shorts and then headed back for the restroom. If the past couple of days were any indication of their routine, he should still have time to get in a workout and shower before they would be needed for anything.

An hour later, Jon emerged from the restroom freshly showered, shaved and fully dressed. Kristen and Jenni had both showered while he had been working out, so there had been no awkward moments in the restroom this time. The two women occupied seats at the table, quietly eating a light breakfast.

As Jon descended into the pit, he and Kristen exchanged a private smile that did not go unnoticed by Jenni. The blonde nibbled on a bagel and watched the two of them covertly. She cast a quick glance toward Dante, but the man was immersed in an article loaded on a magazine reader at one end of a curved couch.

“Good morning, everyone,” said a voice. All four of them looked toward the laboratory and saw Doctor Renwick approaching with several documents in one hand and a tablet in the other. He was dressed in a pair of black slacks, white shirt and thin black tie beneath a white lab coat, and his copper hair glinted under the illumination from the skylight.

Each of the housemates responded with similar greetings, all curious about his presence. Over the few days they had been there, the doctor rarely made appearances unless there was something specific that was involved with the upcoming transformation, leaving the more personal duties to his associate.  Marcy stepped out of the kitchen with a cup of coffee and a bagel of her own, her ever-present, pink computer tablet tucked beneath one elbow. She wore a simple set of scrubs that matched the color of her tablet case, and soft-soled slippers.

“What's up, Doc?” Dante asked with a silly grin, setting his magazine aside. The corner of Renwick's mouth quivered at the old joke, having long been accustomed to it during his years as a scientist and a physician.

“I hope each of you have had time to think on your individual reasons for being here,” he said, stepping down into the pit. He set his tablet on the table next to the folder between Kristen and Jenni. He handed sheets of paper around to each of the volunteers.

“Here is a hardcopy of your contracts, ladies and gents. Each is a copy of the standard AHCP contract each of you initially signed before coming to the Institute.”  He opened up a clamshell cover of his computer tablet and pointed to one of its two screens.  “There are four tabs on this biometric screen, one labeled for each of you. After you've read over the printed copy, come up here and open your folder.  There are two boxes on the last page of your contract awaiting your thumbprint. You will sign only one and leave the other blank; both are labeled clearly. Which line you mark with a thumbprint will depend upon your decision, whether to continue with the process to become furmankind, or to claim the escape clause and remain fully human.” He handed out identical paper printouts to Dante, Jenni and Kristen, but to Jon he gave one that had extra instructions handwritten in red ink.

“If you choose to escape, there will be no disgrace or penalty of any kind. You will receive free transportation back to your place of residence and then you may return to your former lives. However, by choosing the escape clause, you will be prohibited from signing up again for two years.” 

The doctor put his hands into the pockets of his coat and added, “For those of you who choose to go through with it, your lives will be bound to the Anthro Human Colony Program for the rest of your existence. As a fully-transformed Fur, you may be called upon at any time with orders to join a colony on another world, whether one just starting out or one already established. Upon reaching the end of a five-year service at a colony, each of you will receive a prize reward of one million dollars that will be deposited into an interstellar account, where you may draw upon the funds as Credits.”

“Credits?” Kristen asked. “Is that an actual currency?”

The doctor looked at her patiently. “As the term suggests, the currency is nothing more than a credit account, although it is actually closer to a debit account. Instead of trading in physical money, the established Terran colonies use Credits instead of the various currencies of Earth.”

“What is the exchange rate?” Jenni asked.

“In local exchange, it is two Credits to the dollar,” Renwick answered.

“Sweet!” Dante exclaimed, sitting on the edge of his couch cushion. “That makes our prize two million in Credits!” When the others looked at him in amusement, he shrugged. “I know it's the same, but I like that it sounds like more.”

“Can the Credits be used to make purchases on Earth?” Kristen asked in curiosity.

“Yes, but like any other currency, you would need to go through a financial institution to convert them to the currency in whichever country you're in. I'm sure you've heard that many of the world governments are considering going to Credits and completely doing away with printed or minted currency, but there are other nations who are steadfast against it. The colonies, however, have been on this system for several years now.”

Jon remained quiet, knowing all this was a mere formality for himself. There would be no escape clause on his contract and there would be no million dollar prize reward for simply surviving five years on a potentially hostile world. He assumed the contract on the tablet with his name on it was merely a prop for the sake of the doctor, the nurse and his housemates.

“Anyway, it's now time for you to decide,” Renwick announced. “Look over the wording of the contract as closely as you wish, and then come put your thumbprint in the box that is appropriate to you. I can give you time to read through it thoroughly, but I will need your decisions no later than an hour from now.”

Kristen took the printout to the couch and sat down with it. Although this was only a sample without her name on it, she knew it mirrored the wording of the official electronic document. Jenni took her copy to another couch cushion to do the same, but Dante could not get up to the table quick enough, stumbling against an empty chair. Jon took a seat at the central table and settled in to see what kind of a contract had been drawn up specifically for him. Renwick moved back to the upper level and had a quiet conversation with Marcy in hushed tones as so not to disturb the others as they read.

Dante had only given a cursory glance at the paper copy before he slid the doctor's tablet over to him and tapped the folder with his name on it. When the document came up on the screen, he flipped the image to the final page to a couple of side by side boxes.  He applied his thumbprint to one of the boxes and then tapped Submit to record the selection. With a satisfied smile, he plopped back down on the couch merrily and picked up his magazine reader to resume where he'd left off.

Kristen and Jenni both went over every word of the contract, even looking back over the section they had previously signed; neither wished to be tied down to anything against their knowledge if they signed up.

As Jon read through his contract, his eyebrows skirted up higher on his brow. Although he had not previously signed the document as the others had, there was a handwritten note in red from Marcelo beside a line on the second page that directed that he would need to thumb-sign there on the official document. Although the two of them knew he was not a volunteer, it was necessary that he continue to play the part for the doctor, the nurse and the Institute's legal department. 

Suspicious that the electronic copy might be different from his printout, he opened his file on the doctor's tablet and did a cursory read through it as well. Not only did the official document appear to be the genuine contract, Jon suddenly discovered that even the prize reward was guaranteed to him upon the completion of five years as a Fur in a colony settlement! 

Nothing in the document gave away his true background, and everything was made out to his new identity. Although he had no actual choice in the matter, even the escape clause was present on the final page. He re-read the contract to make sure he wasn't deceiving himself and by the time he had finished scrutinizing it thoroughly, Jon Sunset was satisfied that everything was in order.

He applied his thumbprint to the first box on the second page as instructed and then he flipped to the last page. At the bottom of the document were two boxes. The first on the left was clearly labeled to claim the escape clause, and a box on the right to accept the contract as written.

His thumb hovered over the left-hand box for just a moment, merely out of personal satisfaction that it was even there to begin with, but then he set his print to the biometric screen on the other box to sign at his new name, memories of the Colorado prison still fresh in his mind.

He slid the tablet away from him and then moved to one of the couches to wait.  Almost simultaneously, both Jenni and Kristen got up and moved to thumb-sign their documents. After they'd finished, Renwick stepped back down into the pit and retrieved his tablet, giving each of the housemates a brief look to acknowledge that all had finished. When he looked down at the screen, he flipped to the last page of each contract and showed them to his nurse.  Marcy nodded with each one, syncing the documents with the other computer tablet she had brought with her.

When Renwick looked back down at the expectant faces, he gave them all a warm smile. “Congratulations,” he said. “All four of you are now the newest members of the Felis Wing. None of you have chosen to take an escape.”

“How long until the process begins?” Dante asked.

“Tomorrow afternoon,” Renwick replied. “Before that, however, Marcy will need some information from each of you while I discuss your contracts with the director. I will make sure you all receive copies after he has counter-signed.”

As the doctor walked away, the nurse stepped down into the pit and then sat down upon the top step, setting a compact camera on the step beside her and opening up her pink clamshell tablet across her lap. Marcy smiled at each of them and then gestured toward the folder on the table.

“Now that you have all legally confirmed your decisions to join furmankind, I need to know which of the felines each of you have chosen,” she said. “Once I have your choice, some of the blood we took from you during your physical exams will be used with Professor McEwen's ingenious process to produce a hybrid DNA strand that will immediately begin replicating itself once it is injected back into your body. Once there, the DNA code of every single cell in your body will be forcibly rewritten with the new code, and then your body will begin a months-long reconfiguration into the Fur that you have chosen.”

Jon remained in his seat on the couch, but Dante practically lurched forward past everyone else. Marcy smiled at him in amusement as he touched the screen of her computer with a finger and said, “Bengal white tiger!”  The nurse chuckled at his enthusiasm and entered his response beside his name with a thin stylus. 

When she looked over at Jenni, the blonde woman returned her smile and said, “Put me down as a spotted leopard. I have always known this would be my fur coat of choice.” Marcy wrote down Jenni's preference and then looked over at Kristen, but the dark-haired botanist was flipping through the folder again, apparently looking for something in particular. When she did not look up at her, the nurse turned to look at the remaining male.

Jon's right eyebrow twitched for a moment, as he actually considered naming a feline other than the one he was sentenced to become, but he was fairly certain he would receive one specific type of DNA no matter which cat he chose.

“Mountain lion,” he said, fulfilling his sentence. “A cougar or a puma,” he added almost absently. 

When Marcy marked down his response, everybody looked back over to Kristen, the last to give her choice.  When she realized that everyone was staring at her expectantly, she looked up with a tinge of color to her cheeks.

“Kristen,” the nurse said gently, “it's time to decide.”

“Uhm…” the botanist began. She swallowed and glanced briefly over at Jon before she finally worked up the courage to respond. “I'm going be a mountain lion, too,” she said quietly.

Jenni's eyes widened in mild surprise, but Dante suddenly grinned and laughed aloud. “I should have seen that coming!” he exclaimed in delight.  Almost as one, Jenni, Dante and Marcy looked over to Jon, and the look on his face was one of disbelief.

He cleared his throat and blinked before looking at the woman he had comforted the night before. “Kris… don't you think you should go with something else?” he asked quietly. “I thought you were going to choose one of the smaller cats – a bobcat or a lynx, I believe you said.”

Kristen retained her look of embarrassment and nervously entwined her fingers within her long black hair. “Last night when I was scared,” she reminded him, “you promised to help see me through this. We both promised to help one another when we hit rough waters.”

“Yes, that's true,” Jon replied, “but you don't have to become the same —”

“The best way you and I can help one another is if we are both of the same anthro species,” she interrupted with a voice stronger in determination.  She looked over at Marcy. “I stand by my decision. Mountain lion.”

“Mountain lion it is,” the nurse remarked. She looked around the small group and held up her pink computer tablet in one hand. “Any last minute changes?” she asked.  Kristen avoided the imploring look that Jon gave her, but no one else spoke up.  “Okay, then,” said the nurse. “One spotted leopard, one white tiger, and two mountain lions.”

Jon swallowed hard in disbelief. Kristen obviously didn't realize what she had just done to him, but with Marcy and the doctor present, he couldn't say anything.

“Doctor Renwick and I will get started on your blood work as soon as he gets back,” Marcy continued. “The initial formula should be ready by tomorrow afternoon and then we will begin with you one at a time.”

“Tomorrow? You can combine DNA strands in a day?” Jon asked incredulously, forcing his attention back to the discussion.

“Nothing to it with the right technology,” Marcy replied.

“What should we do until then?” Jenni asked. “With nothing much to do over the past few days, I'm getting bored just waiting around.”

“Nice of you to ask,” Marcy responded with a raised eyebrow. “On your first night here, you were told that we would all be joining in together on housekeeping duties here in the Wing. This would be a good time for the four of you to get started. All of you have tracked in grass and dirt from your excursions outside, your restroom is already beginning to smell and a few dishes are starting to stack up in the kitchen sink. I would imagine that each of you might need to do some laundry as well. This would be a good time to get started.”

Dante sat down at the table. “May I ask a question?”

“Anything.”

“We've seen you and the doctor come and go through the lab, but never inside the restroom,” he said. “Do you have your own bathrooms in your quarters?”

Marcy smiled. “Yes, we both have a suite of rooms that includes a personal bathroom each,” she confirmed. “We also have doors to the outside.”

“Wow, why don't we have those kinds of rooms?” Dante wanted to know.

The nurse leaned toward him. “Because you will only be in your rooms for less than a year,” she explained, “while Doctor Renwick and I have permanent residence.”

“How long have the two of you been here?” Kristen asked.

“The doctor has been at this Institute for six years, and I've been here for the past four. I served my residency at the European Institute outside of Stockholm, Sweden before coming here.”

“You're from Sweden?” Dante asked.

Marcy smiled. “No, I'm from Connecticut.”

“Have you always worked with the Felis or have you worked with the other Furs too?” Jenni wanted to know.

“Always the Felis,” Marcy replied. “Don and I both specialize in anthrofelis human physiology.” She picked up the compact camera beside her, stood up and then hopped up the steps to the upper level of the saloon.

“Now, if you will all follow me over to the fireplace, I want to take a picture of each of you.”

“Why?” Jenni asked curiously, getting to her feet.

Marcy smiled. “Before and after images,” she replied. “I'm going to hang your pictures in the entrance hall with the others who have come through here.”

The foursome followed her to the fireplace and she had each of them stand before it. The task took only a few minutes and soon they were all heading back to the central pit.

“Thank you, all,” Marcy told them, “Now, if you will excuse me, I need get started on your formulas. You can begin on your housework at any time. There's a closet of cleaning supplies in the laundry room opposite the appliances.”

All four of them watched the nurse walk across the room, and it was not until she had disappeared through the double doors of the lab that any of them looked away. Dante moved to a couch and plopped down on the cushions with a smile that threatened to become a permanent fixture upon his face.

“Two milli-yon credits,” he said, rubbing his hands together greedily, “come to Papa!”

Jenni had other thoughts on her mind than money. She looked sideways, first at Kristen, and then at Jon. “Well…” she said in a sly tone, “it appears that two of our numbers have already paired up for the duration!”

“Yeah, that's right!” Dante said in boisterous reply. He boldly looked at Kristen and gave her a toothy grin. “You've already chosen your mate!  That makes it awfully convenient when you're planning to start a colony somewhere – the Adam and Eve of mountain lions on a distant world!”

Jon made a choking sound deep in his throat and Kristen's eyes widened in further embarrassment; Dante's declaration took them both off guard.  Before either of them could respond, Jenni plopped down on the couch beside the younger, dark-haired man.

“Since those two are paired up,” she said playfully, “that leaves you and me.”

Dante looked at her in immediate surprise, but then a feral grin practically crawled across his face. He swiveled on his cushion so that he could lie across the couch, and he laid his head back upon her chest to rub his cheeks against her. “I accept,” he proclaimed loudly, “but I want to remind you that as a male cat, I have no plans for a lifetime pairing.”

Jenni smiled down at him and traced a fingertip along the pencil-thin mustache that decorated his upper lip. “Oh, I'm sure I'll tire of you after a while myself,” she retorted with a mischievous wink, “but I'm willing to play for now.”

“I wonder what our kittens will look like,” Dante mused. “Will they be tigers with spots or leopards with stripes?”

Kristen sat open-mouthed at the sudden turn of events. She had never claimed a pairing with Jon, although her decision to make a lifetime commitment to the shape of a mountain lion sure made it seem that way. Granted, she had never really liked Dante, and she doubted the two of them would ever be close friends, but she had never once considered a pair mating with her other male housemate either.

While Jenni and Dante made increasingly suggestive comments to one another that were obviously meant for no other purpose than verbal banter, Kristen forced herself to look over at Jon. The look in his eyes as he tried to bore holes into the backs of Dante and Jenni's heads with his gaze was anything but friendly or even simple embarrassment. She felt a lump well up in her throat, not at all sure how she thought she should feel right then.

As for Jonathan Sunset, the broad-shouldered man harbored thoughts that were anything but indecisive at that moment. After the early-morning conversation with his frightened housemate, he had felt as if she were a kindred spirit of sorts due to her own troubled background, but he had fostered no romantic desires for her.  Following such a life-altering emotional disaster, Jon had been intimate with no one since Rebecca had betrayed him.

Little by little over the past three days, he had made an effort to think of the Furs surrounding them merely as furry people, but after Kristen dropped her bombshell, and then Jenni and Dante picked up the threads to run with them, Jon's old hatreds resurfaced. They had all just willing signed away their humanity, and with what they were about to become, there was no way in Creation that he would ever take on a mate as one of them.

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