SUNSET OF FURMANKIND
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Dante stood up with an insufferable smirk when Jon and Kristen approached the central pit. “So, how did you like the black wall?” he cackled, spreading his arms and legs wide. He wiggled his hips back and forth, his eyes firmly upon Kristen's reddening face. The botanist narrowed her eyes and then crossed her arms, suddenly looking anywhere but at her annoying housemate.
“I can assume you took the opportunity to enjoy being on display,” Jon said.
Dante grinned. “Nothing to it!” Then he frowned. “I tried to make Nurse Marcy blush with a reaction, but I guess I'm not the first one to try that with her. She didn't even look interested!”
“Aw, poor baby,” Jenni said in mock sympathy. “Is that why you took more time than the rest of us?”
Dante sat on the couch beside her. “Doctor Renwick made me sit down on a cold metal stool until I could relax enough for the scans. He said he didn't want my behavior breaking his scanner and threatened me with an injection if I didn't calm down on my own.”
Jon laughed at the younger man, still lighthearted from surviving the injection, and Dante looked up at him in surprise. During their short association, he had never seen the red-haired man actually look happy.
“You may have enjoyed it all,” Kristen replied gloomily, “but that was the most embarrassing thing I've ever experienced, and that includes the invasive exam we had the other day!”
Jenni looked up at her in amusement. “Honey, you should relax about your body,” she said with a smile. “It's nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Not everyone grows up in a family of nudists!” Kristen retorted, retaining her sour expression. “I'm not a prude, but I don't like putting myself up on display.”
Dante looked over at the blonde next to him. “Your whole family was nudists?” he asked in interest. “Do you have any sisters I could meet?”
“I do have a sister,” Jenni replied, “but she is already engaged.”
“Does she look anything like you?” he asked with a grin. “It doesn't matter if she's engaged or not if she just enjoys running around naked! I would look at her!”
Jenni laughed. “Actually, she looks just like me,” she explained. “Jana and I are identical twins.”
“Ooh, double fantasy! Is she in the Program too?” Dante exclaimed, leaning in close to her.
“No, she and I are very close and have done practically everything together all our lives, but Jana is engaged to be married with a promising future of her own. Like me, she's an RN, but she chose not to follow me into the AHCP, though she has given me lots of encouragement.”
Dante shrugged. “Well, I know you weren't bothered by the scan, but I wish I'd been there to see it, just as Jon was there to see Kristen!”
With her arms folded across her chest, Kristen quietly walked away from the conversation toward her room, her face still flushed. Jon watched her go, but the others seemed to be oblivious to her departure. The discussion about their experiences against the black wall continued for several moments until they all looked up at the sound of the outer door to the building opening and then closing.
Jon's brow furrowed when he saw a short swift fox wearing dark blue shorts and a matching pocketed vest walk inside with a moderate-sized pouch slung from one shoulder. He walked straight to the central pit and then stopped at its edge, his hazel eyes missing nothing in the middle of the room.
“I have a special delivery for the Felis Wing,” the newcomer announced with a smile.
“Welcome,” Jenni said politely, getting to her feet.
“Thanks,” said the Vulps newcomer as he stepped down into the pit. “I have a PBJ for each of you.”
“Thanks, but I've already eaten,” Dante replied with amusement. “I didn't know they would give us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by special delivery.”
The fox grinned. “Same initials, different meaning. It's really called a Personal Business Juxtapositioner,” the fox explained, pulling a metal notebook from his pouch, “but it's just easier for everyone to call it a PBJ.” Aside from its color, the device looked identical to the computer tablets that Renwick and Marcy both used. The Anthro Human Colony Program logo of a human hand clasping a furman hand in unity over a generic planet decorated the top of its smooth, red metal surface. He opened the clamshell item like a book and handed the two-screen device to the dark-haired man. “You will need these for your colony studies, note taking, correspondence and messaging.”
“Looks like a modified writing tablet, or an oversized personal data assistant,” Dante mused as he looked it over, marveling at the lightweight construction of the trade-paperback sized unit.
“It does, doesn't it?” the swift fox replied with a grin. “However, the general public will never see one of these enhanced units on the market, but one is issued to each of you for your work and preparation as part of your contract with the AHCP.” He reached over to the one Dante held in his hands and tapped a removable stylus set flush with the casing on one internal edge. “You can write directly on the screen with this, or you may type it out on the touch screen keyboard here.”
He held up a furry finger and smiled. “In the event of losing the stylus, you can also use a claw tip or even a stick. The screen surface is extremely resistant to scratches, but is sensitive enough to write upon directly. A universal message address has been set up for each of you and these units have been programmed to process anything incoming or outgoing. You may set up a mail-grabber to pull messages from any other personal addresses directly into the PBJ, but eventually this is the only one you will need for the rest of your career with the AHCP. You should carry it everywhere you go.”
“What is a juxto, uh, um… juxtapositronic?
“Juxtaposition means something that is side by side with something else for comparison. It's just the manufacturer's fancy way of saying this thing has two side by side screens, I suppose.”
He pulled out three more units from his pouch and each of them was constructed of a different color. “The red one there is set up to be issued to Jenni W.,” he said, reading from a small card he had taken from a pocket.
“That's me,” the blonde said with a smile, taking the first device from Dante. She immediately sat down with it at the table as the fox referred to his note card again.
“The blue one belongs to Dante C.”
The dark-haired man reached out with both hands. “Mine!” he said. “Are we assigned specific colors?”
“No, they were just chosen randomly when we pulled them out of the box and set them up for each of you,” the fox replied. “All we did was make sure that two of you in the same Wing didn't get the same color.” Dante nodded and then opened his clamshell device to start playing with it.
The next unit was bright green, but the fox looked around him in puzzlement. When he looked up at the remaining man, he said, “You don't look like a Kristen E. to me.”
“That's Jon with an S,” Jenni replied absently while setting up her PBJ to pick up her personal mail. “Kristen was here a moment ago.”
“She went to her room,” Jon said, more to Jenni than to the fox who stood beside him. The vulpine delivery Fur set the green unit on the table and then pulled out the final PBJ, its casing a bright copper color.
“…and a shiny new penny for Jonathan S.,” he said with a smile, holding it up to the red-haired man. Jon took it without a word while the swift fox dug into a wide pocket of his own furman robe; he pulled out another PBJ with a silver case, opened it up and then tapped a few commands on the left-hand screen with a claw tip.
“I will need each of you to sign for your units,” he informed them. Jon took the silver device and then applied his thumbprint to a box on the screen beside his name.
He passed the fox's tablet over to Jenni and said, “I'll get Kristen.” He stepped up out of the pit and walked to the botanist's room. The door was closed, so he knocked on it gently.
“I'm not in the mood for more naked jokes right now!” shot back a reply from inside.
“Kris, you need to come out to sign for your PBJ,” he called through the panel. There was silence for a long moment before the door opened. Kristen looked up at him with puffy red eyes. She was wrapped up in a thick fuzzy robe, but Jon could see the collar of the furman garment beneath it.
“I have to sign for a sandwich?” she asked after clearing her throat.
“PBJ,” Jon replied. “It's a glorified touch-screen tablet we're supposed to use in the Program. It stands for a Personal Business Juxtaposition tablet, I think. They were just delivered, one for each of us, and we have to sign for them.” He stepped aside to let her see the swift fox waiting for her in the central pit.
“Jon, could you do me a favor?” she asked in a whisper.
“What is it?”
“Bring him over to me,” she requested, wiping at her cheeks with the back of a hand. “I don't want the others to see me like this.”
Jon frowned, but then nodded. “Sure.” When he returned to the fox, he steeled himself to talk to the animal. “This way,” he said, picking up the green unit from the table, leaving his own in its place. He led the swift fox up out of the pit and over to Kristen's room, where she waited for them in the doorway.
“Kristen E,,” Jon introduced her to the fox.
He handed the green PBJ to his housemate and then stepped back when she took it.
“Hello, I've brought you a present!” the visitor replied merrily with a gently wagging tail, thinking she might be sick and hoping to cheer her up a little. He handed her the green PBJ and then stepped back when she took it.
“What is it?” Kristen asked quietly. The swift fox gave her the same speech that he had given the rest of them, and after he had finished, he held up his own unit and asked her to sign for it. The botanist applied her thumbprint in the appropriate place and then handed it back to the fox. “Thank you,” she told him.
“You're welcome,” he replied. “I hope you feel better soon.”
Kristen looked at him oddly, unaware that he thought she was ill. Instead of commenting on it, she asked, “What's your name?”
“Michael Lynch, at your service,” he answered with a smile. “I would love to stay and get to know you folks better, but I have more to deliver to the other Wings.”
“Come back any time,” Kristen told him politely.
“Thank you, I will!” Lynch gave both of them a small hand wave and then headed back toward the entrance. Dante and Jenni were already setting up their PBJs so neither saw when he waved on his way out.
Kristen did not bother to open hers and just slipped it into the pocket of her fuzzy robe. She looked up at her housemate. “I'm sorry I'm such a stick in the mud,” she told him in a quiet voice, “but I really did not enjoy what they put me through today.”
“I understand,” he replied with a nod.
“Do you really?” she asked him crossly. “Have you ever been overweight, Jon? I've been fighting my weight for years with diets, exercises and miracle weight-loss supplements. I've tried to get in better shape, I really have, but it's my metabolism that resists them all! I've been told that I have a cute face, but my body is an embarrassment to me!”
Her nostrils flared with her anger, but she managed to keep her voice down. “Sure, if I had a figure like Jenni's, I would probably flaunt it as she does, but that scan today was sheer torture for someone like me! You three may joke about it, but if I had known about this before we had to sign our contracts, I would have gone home and taken my chances with my debts…” Jon opened his mouth to respond, but she cut him off before he could say anything. “What's worse is that there will be more of those scans done to us throughout our development, so I get to look forward to it all over again!”
“I'm sorry you had to go through that,” he replied. “You won't have to worry about me being present next time.”
“Jon, Kristen!” Jenni's voice called out to them. “There's someone here to see us all!”
“I already have my PBJ!” Kristen called back with a scowl.
“We are not here to discuss your electronic toys,” said a new voice with amusement. Jon and his companion looked over at the pit and saw two women standing at the top of the steps with Doctor Renwick and Nurse Marcy, their housemates looking up at them. One was in her forties with long brown hair that was caught up in a long ponytail that hung to her waist. She was dressed in a chocolate brown skirt and jacket with a cream-colored blouse. The other newcomer was younger, closer to Jon's age and hair color. She was dressed in simple black slacks and a tan, long-sleeve blouse with only the first two buttons near her collar open. She wore a delicate silver necklace with a matching chain about her left wrist.
Kristen frowned at the intrusion and pulled her fuzzy robe closer to her. Jon gave her a raised eyebrow and then left her standing at her door. He had only gone a few steps before the botanist sighed and followed him to meet the newcomers.
Doctor Renwick gestured to the women and said, “I would like to introduce you all to Sylvia Janes and Professor Angelina Flynn.” Then he motioned toward each of the Felis housemates. “Kristen, Jenni, Dante and Jonathan. Sylvia has been assigned as your primary instructor in preparation for the basics of colony life, and Professor Flynn is our project psychologist.”
“Hello, felines,” the brown-haired professor said with a smile.
“Psychologist?” Jon repeated with personal amusement. “I suspected we might all be crazy for doing this,” he said to her. “Are you here to confirm it?”
Professor Flynn gave him a disarming smile. “The stressful process of transformation can sometimes bother even the most stable personality,” she replied in a smooth, calm voice. “I am simply here to help volunteers ease into the changes you will all experience, both physical and mental. I would like to spend a few moments to speak with each of you in private later this evening so that we may establish a working relationship.”
“You can start with me,” Kristen volunteered, putting her hands into the deep pockets of her robe, one hand resting upon her new PBJ. “I could use a shrink already.” Professor Flynn raised both eyebrows and with the exception of Jon, her housemates looked surprised.
“Of course, dear,” the professor replied with a nod. “Doctor Renwick has offered up the Wing's office for our use, so we may have a private conversation without interruption.”
“Thank you,” Kristen responded in a calmer voice. “May we start right now?”
Renwick gave the psychologist a quiet nod and then the professor reached out a slender hand to the short woman. “Come along, we can get an early start and take all the time you need.”
Kristen shook her hand and then followed her across the room toward Renwick and Marcy's office.
“What's up with her?” Dante said to no one in particular after the two women had gone. “Is she crazy or just nuts?”
“That wasn't very nice!” Jenni scolded. Then, in a quieter voice she said, “She's probably having second thoughts, now that there's no turning back.”
Jon cleared his throat. “She does not have a very good self image of herself,” he remarked with pointed looks at the doctor and his nurse, “and she's having real issues with the demeaning examinations and scans you've put her through. It was bad enough to have to expose herself to you two, but you're physicians. There was no need for me to remain in there once she voiced her concerns. She practically begged you to let me leave the room, but you wouldn't have it.”
“I told you why,” Renwick said defensively. “For legal reasons, you couldn't wait in the lab with your solutions out—”
Jon cut him off. “You could have easily escorted me out of the lab altogether. It would have taken less time than all the coaxing you had to do to get her up against the wall with me in there. Sure, I admit that I watched during her scans, but I didn't even have to be in there at all.”
Marcy opened her mouth to reply, but Jon cut her off too. “I know you were following procedure and doing your jobs, but you really need to have a little more compassion for your patients. She's overweight and she knows it, but she couldn't have been more traumatized than if you had made her do that out here in front of everyone!”
Without waiting for a retort, he shifted his eyes to the newcomer who had remained quiet since her associate had left with the plump botanist; he walked over to her with an outstretched hand. “Hello, Ms. Janes,” he said with a sudden change of face. He was not smiling, but his expression was no longer stern. “I'm sorry you had to arrive at such an occasion, but welcome to the Cat House.”
“The Cat House, Mr. Sunset?” Silvia repeated in amusement as she took his hand. “Odd, I thought I was in the Felis Wing.”
Jon returned her smile. “I’ve never seen Felis with wings,” he replied, “unless the good doctor slipped in some new code into my injection.” The woman chuckled, glancing over at the physician momentarily.
“If you’re our new schoolmarm,” Dante stated in an exaggerated southern drawl, “are you going to teach us how to be cats, ma'am?”
“She will instruct you in preparation for the basics of colony life,” Renwick repeated what he had said earlier, still feeling the sting of Jon's rebuke. “Learning to be feline is something you will learn on your own as you transform.”
“Starting tomorrow morning at eight o’clock, the four of you will join the other twelve volunteers for three days in the main assembly hall in the Clark Savage building next door,” Silvia told them. “We will begin with the basics of colonial life as a group to cover an initial understanding of the typical conditions you are likely to face. The first session is four hours long, and then we will break for lunch, resuming afterward for another four hours. After three days, everyone will split up again with an instructor continuing sessions within each Wing that will be more specialized for your groups. I am the one assigned to your house and we will have our own sessions over there at the large video screen.”
“Do you know what planet we'll be going to?” Jenni asked, setting her red PBJ on the couch beside her.
Sylvia shook her head. “Currently there are none available,” she answered with a wistful look. “There are three under scrutiny right now, but I'm afraid that none of them will be approved for settlement anytime soon.”
“All three were discovered earlier this year and remote probes have been sent out to investigate from orbit, but it's too soon to tell if any of them are as habitable as long-range sensors and telescopes have hinted. It may be two or three years before any are approved, but in the meantime, we still have to train you in the event that something comes up quickly.”
“What about the other colonies?” Dante ventured. “Even if a settlement has already begun elsewhere, surely they could use fresh blood to help expand their establishments.”
Sylvia nodded. “That is about the only other possibility right now,” she replied, moving to one of the chairs at the table. She pushed aside the PBJ cover pouches and made herself comfortable. “The prize money does not apply to established colonies, however. That is only for first-comers in a starter colony on a new world.”
“Have they ever set up multiple colonies on the same new planet?” Jon asked. “Like the Earth, I would image that other worlds have more than one climate across their surfaces. Other settlements would increase the chances of establishing a foothold upon a new planet.”
“This is true, but due to the small number of volunteers, there haven't been enough to set up multiple colonies.”
Dante frowned. “From what I've been able to gather over the past few days wandering the grounds before it started raining, you have a number of fully-formed and educated Furs just waiting for the opportunity to go. Since there are no open settlements right now, why not use them to start a new colony on one of the other worlds already being explored, only locate them on another continent as Jon suggested?”
Sylvia gestured with a finger at him. “That very thing was recently proposed to the AHCP, but it was tabled since there's never been a mixed colony before. A starter colony is typically made up of all one furman type to provide a greater diversity for possible reproduction. There were some who've argued to try a mixed colony, but the idea hasn't been met with much interest.”
She leaned forward upon her elbows on the table and shrugged. “I have heard no rumors of other worlds being opened up for new settlement anytime soon, but until we have some kind of orders for you volunteers, all we can do is continue to prepare you all for life out there on some distant land.”
She looked at her wristwatch and then glanced back at the office door where her associate had disappeared with Kristen. “Professor Flynn and I were due to visit the Ursis Wing together next, but I don't think she was prepared to take on a client right away.” She looked over at Renwick and Marcy, both of whom had made themselves comfortable on one of the unoccupied curved couches. “Since we have no way of knowing how much time they may need in there, I think I may go on without her.”
“I thought you were being assigned to this Wing,” Dante remarked. “Why do you need to visit with the others?”
Sylvia swept a lock of auburn hair behind one ear and gave him a patient smile. “During the sessions of the next three days, I will be one of the speakers addressing all sixteen of you, so I want to get out and meet everyone personally. You will have me to yourselves afterward, so there's no need to be stingy.”
Dante grinned back at her. “Are the other instructors going to come by to see us too?” he asked.
“Possibly,” she replied, getting back up to her feet, “but I haven't seen their plans. Now, if you will excuse me, I will retrieve my umbrella and be on my way. Dante, Jenni and Jonathan, it was nice to meet you. Please give your friend Kristen my apologies. I will try to meet with her tomorrow.”
Just as she turned to go, a ping signaled an incoming message from the red PBJ on the couch beside Jenni. She picked it up and opened its cover while Sylvia spoke quietly with Renwick and Marcy.
The blonde's eyes lit up with joy. “It's from my sister, Jana!” she exclaimed.
Before anyone had a chance to respond, another ping sounded from Dante's unit. He took a look and a smile crossed his features as well. “Well, that didn’t take him long,” he chuckled to himself. He looked over at Jenni with a smirk. “My old roommate wants to know all the dirty little details of my transformation. He's thinking of doing it himself after I'm finished baking in the oven.”
With his housemates involved with their mail, Jon picked up his copper PBJ and walked quietly to his room, fully aware that he would never receive any messages on his unit outside of the AHCP. With Brian Barrett dead to the world, there was no one beyond the Furmankind Institute who knew Jonathan Sunset.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.