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SUNSET OF FURMANKIND

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 21
Split Lips & Microchips

 

Jon frowned at his cup of coffee. Sometime during the night, the fleshy part of his face below his nose had reformed into a fuzzy, bifurcated lip; his tongue had also thickened and lengthened somewhat. The combination of these two alterations, in addition to the lengthening of his canine teeth affected his speech so that he almost spoke with a lisp; worst of all, he could no longer form a seal upon the curvature of a common drinking cup. After several attempts, he had merely managed to dribble coffee down his chin to his furman robe without swallowing so much as spoonful of his drink.

Jenni was having the same frustrations as he was and grumbling just as much, but Kristen had found a straw in a drawer of the kitchen. She had a similar problem trying to form a seal on the straw well enough to suck up her coffee, but she managed it after finding the correct angle. Unfortunately for her, drinking coffee through a straw left much to be desired.

Undaunted by the dilemma, Dante abandoned finesse and simply lapped up his coffee with his feline tongue. Whether it was the curl of the longer tongue or the papillae hairs that now coated its surface, the younger furman discovered that he was more successful “drinking” his coffee than the others were. It was a little noisy, but it got the job done.

Jenni and Jon exchanged looks of annoyance, but then the leopard decided to give it a try. She tilted her cup to the side and then gave the dark liquid within a tentative lap. To her surprise, her tongue scooped up a fair amount of coffee, but the taste made her pause. Not only had the configuration of her tongue changed during the night, so had her taste buds.

Jon had identical reactions to lapping up his coffee, and they looked up at one another in unison. Then, as if they both had the same idea, they turned together and looked at Dante, still lapping up his coffee to the bottom of the cup. They wondered how he could stand the difference in taste, until they both remembered that he always lumped heaps of sugar into his coffee. The sweetness must override the new bitterness of the coffee.

Jon shook his head and set his cup down, lamenting his loss of enthusiasm for the coffee he had enjoyed since he was a teenager. He might have to switch to soda or merely water with his meals.

Kristen's change of taste made it difficult to drink her coffee as well, but she attributed it to the straw rather than the liquid itself. However, with the change in her taste buds also came a heightened sense of taste and smell. The traditional American Thanksgiving meal that had been provided for them seemed to taste better than the meal had ever been before. She practically rolled her eyes at the flavors of smoked turkey breast and honey roasted ham. She was not totally carnivorous and she enjoyed the flavors of the vegetables served with the meal. She could not remember when food tasted so good in recent memory.

With the exception of the coffee, her furman companions likewise enjoyed their new taste sensations; even their altered sense of smell enhanced the food spread out on short-legged trays set between them at the fireplace.

Seated at the regular table in the pit, Don Renwick and Marcy Lagrange enjoyed their own Thanksgiving meal, and although neither of them had enhanced senses, the two of them were both pleased with the bounty that the Institute had provided.

Aside from the meal and the cleanup afterward, there was nothing on the agenda today for either human or furman residents of the Wing. Neither of the physicians was in uniform, a sure sign of the day of rest and relaxation. Don was in a loose pair of blue denim jeans and a comfortable sweatshirt bearing the logo of his alma mater. Marcy was relaxed in a matching pair of pink sweats adorned with daisies that hugged her figure nicely.

Jon dealt himself a sliver of pumpkin pie with a dollop of whipped cream and relaxed back against the couch cushions. He had to readjust his foot-long tail, but then settled in to eat his dessert. Just as he took the first bite, his PBJ issued a muted ping to alert him to an incoming message.  He took his time to chew his morsel and swallow before he reached beside him to pick up the unit with a copper case. He flipped it open with one claw tip and then set it up in his lap.

He had a short and cryptic message from Kevin. 'We're off to outer space, leaving Mother Earth!'

Jon recognized the theme lyrics to an old popular science fiction television series he had seen in syndication years ago, but did not understand Kevin's reference. The broad shouldered furman shrugged and set his PBJ to the side to return to his pie. One of the Fleur sisters in his Wing must have spiked the kid's juice with wine.

He gave the message no further thought. His belly was full, the fire was warm and he was cozy. He had always heard that tryptophan in turkey made one drowsy, but he was never sure if it was that or just being well fed that always made him lethargic after a Thanksgiving meal.

His eyes were heavy and he was just letting them close, but a noise at the end of the entrance hall heralded visitors.  Six pair of eyes focused upon two figures that approached them. The taller male was dressed in a heavy winter parka, while his companion wore nothing more than a thick Turkish robe over her orange striped fur.

“Happy Thanksgiving!” Sissy said cheerily when she and Marcelo Delgado approached the central pit.

“Yes, Happy Thanksgiving,” echoed the director.

Renwick took a sip from his coffee cup. “Yes, it's been a good one, thank you,” he said.

“Indeed, thank you,” Marcy said with a smile. “The Institute's provided quite a spread this year.  They must have gotten an increase in funding!”

Sissy snickered and Marcelo nudged her gently with an elbow. “Yes, there has been an increase in funding for the new fiscal year,” he admitted.  Before the conversation could continue, the director stepped up out of the pit and moved toward the Felis housemates reclining on their cushions by the fire. 

“Happy Thanksgiving, felines. I see you have been enjoying yourselves,” he said, looking down at them with a smile. He pulled off his coat, set it aside on the floor, and then made his way around the edges of the cushions to the fireplace hearth.  “Mmm, that feels nice,” he murmured with a smile. “I can see why you've parked yourselves here.”

“With a full belly and a warm fire in cold weather, it doesn't get much better than this,” Dante mused lazily. “I hear you have some kind of news for us. Are you going to put us into cocoons so we can hibernate through the winter?”

Marcelo laughed and absently stroked his dark goatee beard. “Nothing of that sort, but I'm sure it will be just as much of a surprise to you all.”  He looked over at the pit and then gestured the physicians toward him.  “Why don't you join us over here by the fire?” he said to them. “This will affect you just as much as it will them.”

Renwick took his and followed Marcy up the stairs. Sissy tagged along beside them, her hands tucked into the pockets of her robe.

“What's this about, Marcelo?” the doctor asked, taking up a position behind Jenni's short tail. He glanced at it briefly to make sure he would not step on it. Her muscles needed to move the tail independently had not yet fully formed, so he had no fear of it sliding beneath his slippers. “Is it about the float tanks?”

Marcelo looked surprised. “As a matter of fact, Don, this does have something to do with the tanks, though not as you might expect. There's been a change this year due to our funding.”

“How so?”

Kristen looked up in interest. “Float tanks?” she repeated in curiosity.

“I had hoped for a little more light conversation before getting to the announcement, but I guess this is as good a lead-in as I might get for it,” the director told them. He looked back at the doctor and said, “Don, would you explain the purpose of the float tanks to your companions here?”

Renwick took a sip from his cup and nodded when all eyes focused on him. “Right about this time in your transformation, you've already become aware that your skeletal structures have softened somewhat and just about any real movement against gravity is associated with aches and pains.”

“Boy, does it ever,” Jon muttered, rubbing one shoulder with tired fingers. “Sometimes it's just sore, but other times it can be downright agony.”

“Yes, well I'm afraid it's going to get a lot worse for about the next two months,” he admitted, “so much that you won't even be able to walk from your bed to the restroom without the danger of falling over and not having the ability to get back up again.”

“I've fallen and I can't get up!” quipped Dante. His own aches and pains had been relatively light today, mostly because he had spent most of the day in front of the fire instead of actually doing anything. His housemates, however, did not share his flippancy. They all groaned in unison.

“During this time,” Renwick continued, “gravity is going to be your enemy, pulling down on your softened frames. This is where the float tanks come in. Sometime in the next week, each of you will be placed unconscious into a tank of comfortably warmed fluid with tubes and hoses hooked up to you for breathing, intravenous feeding and the removal of bodily wastes. This will provide your suspended bodies an almost-weightless environment with the ability to go through the most painful and difficult time of the transformation without having gravity work against you.”

“Floating and unconscious, you say?” Jon repeated. “A kind of suspended animation?”

“We'll be suspended and since we'll be asleep, we won't be very animated, will we?” Dante quipped with a grin. Jon gave him a mock snarl, showing his teeth, but there were no strong emotions behind it.

“How long will we be in the tanks?” Jenni asked. “Are you using water or some other viscous fluid?”

“It's a viscous gelatin,” Marcy answered since the doctor was in mid-sip from his cup, “and you'll be in there for nearly two months. This is the time when your bones will increase reformation into the shapes of your half-human, half-feline designs. When you come out of it, your bones will have re-hardened almost to the consistency where you were a week ago, but you won't recognize yourself in the mirror anymore. You will all have new faces and bodies.”

“I barely recognize myself every morning anymore,” Kristen murmured.

“That doesn't sound so bad,” Jon said, sitting up on his cushion. “If I can go to sleep for a couple months and miss all the pain while my body is scrambled through its contortions, so much the better.  Just remember to set the alarm clocks to wake us up again, please.”

“We have been using this method to great success for years,” Marcelo said, bending over to pick up a small piece of wood from the hearth. He tossed it onto the fire and then rubbed his hands over its warmth. “The only way to improve upon this method would be suspension in total lack of gravity.”

“If you've already been doing this for several years,” Jenni asked, “why the hush-hush to make it sound like it's a great new secret?”

Sissy snickered and Marcelo shot her a brief look of annoyance.

“The big announcement is this, my friends,” he said. “At noon tomorrow, all sixteen volunteers of Class Sixteen, along with their attendant medical staff, will be boarding a flight down to Jacksonville, Florida.”

“You're putting them in tanks in Florida?” Marcy asked in surprise. “What's wrong with the tanks we have here?”

Marcelo gave her a wide smile, having enjoyed the looks of confusion on all their faces. “No one will be going into float tanks this session. The Furmankind Institute has been granted extra funding to send the lot of you into orbit where you will spend seven weeks in a zero-gee environment.”

What?” Renwick and Marcy exclaimed together. The others echoed their expression by only a second.

“You will all be going two hundred fourteen miles above the Earth to Space Station Sebra, where you will continue your colony education during the time your bodies will be going through the greatest changes in a gravity-free zone most beneficial to your formation.”

Jon sputtered and gripped the cushions on each side of him, puncturing them with his claws. “You want to keep us conscious through the worst of the pain?” he practically shouted. “Where's the logic in that?

“That's insane!” Kristen added.  Jenni swallowed with difficulty, her exclamation caught in her throat.

Dante, however, grinned widely. “That's just sweet!” he said. “We'll all be fur-bearin' space cadets!”

Jon suddenly remembered Kevin's cryptic message. Now it made sense. The director must have visited the Vulps Wing before bringing his announcement to the Felis group.

“Please calm down,” Marcelo requested. “If you will just let me explain…”

Jon crossed his arms and glared at the director, visually daring him to continue if he had more bad news. With the exception of Dante, his other housemates assumed similar attitudes.

“The original plan was to lift you all up to Sebra already unconscious for your full stay in orbit, but a change in AHCP plans has directed us to speed up the process a bit. We will need you all conscious to continue your colony education while you are going through your changes. Meds will be administered to dull most of the pain, but the zero-gravity environment will greatly reduce the need for them.”

“What kinds of changes were made for headquarters in Stockholm to warrant an accelerated program?” Renwick asked, just as flabbergasted as his patients.

That is classified Top Secret for now, my friend,” Marcelo replied. “All I am allowed to tell you is that it is necessary. The Adirondack facility is the first of the four Institutes to send their volunteers into a pure no-gravity arena, simply because you are the first session to be ready at this time.  The Stockholm facility is about two months behind your timetable with their volunteers, the Buenos Aires facility won't be ready for another six months, and the facility in Toyohashi is currently under reconstruction in the wake of their earthquake without any volunteers in session. This is a great opportunity for you all!”

He looked around at all the sullen faces. “Now, listen. Yes, there will still be pain involved, but the weightless setting is what you need to help you through it. The meds and the environment will make it tolerable, but it is imperative that you continue your studies. Most of what you have learned so far has been general colony community information, but soon you will need to break off into individual studies for the skills you will need in the settlement where you will be assigned. Our usual education period has been shortened by the changes I cannot tell you about and I am under a directive that keeps me from revealing more about the reasons behind all this. Now, while in orbit, you will all be closely monitored by your physicians, who will be going with you. Low impact exercises will still be necessary during this time to prevent atrophy of your muscles, but this lack of gravity is necessary for your skeletal reformation.”

“How are we supposed to get up to the space station?” Kristen asked. “We can barely stand up now, and we've already been warned against doing anything strenuous for fear of damaging our soft bones. How are we going to survive the mass gravities of a rocket launch?”

Marcelo smiled and gestured toward her with a finger. “I am so glad you asked that question. Ideally, the best way to get you into orbit would be by way of the Equatorial Space Elevator, but delays in its construction won't make it available for our use for another three years. You are correct in that a standard rocket to orbit will be too hard on your systems at this stage, so instead you will board a large spaceplane that will launch from the runway at Cecil Field located just outside of Jacksonville.”

Jon shook his head and waved a few fingers in the air. “Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't a spaceplane still require rocket thrust to get up into orbit, even more so to get up to the altitude of the space station?”

“Correct on all accounts,” Marcelo replied, “but the Branson is a modified Rutan-class spaceplane that has been equipped with starship-grade inertial dampers to soften the gravitational stresses within its generated field during periods of rocket thrust. Everyone within the ship will experience no more than one and a half gees and even in your delicate states, your bodies will be able to handle this amount with no relative danger.”

Jon sat back upon his cushion, looking thoughtful.  “Huh,” he muttered.

“I thought spaceplanes were only designed for suborbital operations,” Kristen remarked, “Altitudes of no more than sixty or seventy miles to the edge of space.”

“Most of them are,” the director informed her with a nod, “but the Rutan class of spaceplane was designed as an orbital vehicle, though not as bulky and non-powered as a space truck or the old shuttles. Like the suborbital spaceplanes in use today, the Branson is part of a fifty-fifty configuration, mounted beneath a large atmospheric carrier that will take it up to an altitude of fifty-two thousand feet. Once there, the vehicles will separate and the rocket plane will launch into orbit. The Branson's powerful engines will push it past the edge of space all the way up to two hundred fourteen miles, where it will match velocity and altitude with Space Station Sebra. You will disembark through a pressurized airlock and then the plane will make a feathered reentry, a slow shuttlecock descent back to Florida, routinely returning station personnel back to Earth.”

“Will we need space suits?” Dante asked in simple curiosity.

Marcelo shook his head. “The Branson is pressure compartmentalized and will be docking with Sebra's airlock, so you'll travel all the way there in your regular clothes.”  He pursed his lips a moment and then looked back out among the volunteers he faced.

“Unfortunately, pressurized space suits for the different Fur anatomies have yet to be successfully developed, primarily due to helmet configuration for creatures with snouts and different sizes of heads, not to mention tail pouches. Breathing for creatures that dispel heat through panting instead of perspiration is also problematic for current space pressure suits.”

“I hadn't thought of that,” Dante admitted. “What happens if there's a puncture in the station?  Everyone runs for their suits, but the Furs are left to gulp for air?”

“Not exactly,” the director replied with a frown. “For the furmen on the station or anyone else who needs one in a hurry, there are the emergency bubbles. They're basically thick plastic balls about seven feet in diameter that someone can climb into, activate the control and then seal up its opening. Within seconds, an internal canister fills up and pressurizes the ball with a breathable oxygen mix. The control box is equipped with a homing beacon in case the ball is knocked out into free space, and a survival kit is included with food packets and first aid supplies. The inside is thermally coated to reflect your body heat and to help ward off radiation and the cold of space long enough for rescue.”

“How long does someone have of food and oxygen while waiting for that rescue?” Jenni asked.

“They are rated for ten hours,” Marcelo stated. “Because they are small, self-contained and need to be light enough for anyone to pick up and carry in a hurry, that was the limit of their construction. Before inflation, the whole thing is about the size of a school knapsack.”  Unwilling to remain on such a dour subject, the director picked up another stick for the fire and gestured around at the volunteers with it.

“However, before you all load up on the Osprey to fly south tomorrow, your medical staff will need to give you a physical.”

Kristen's face grew dark. This was not good news in her book.  “A… physical?” she asked in a low voice.

“Nothing as intrusive as the earlier baseline prior to your transformation,” Marcy assured her. “This one will be a breeze, and it won't even involve your favorite black wall.”

“That's right, Kristen,” Renwick agreed quickly. “This will be a basic medical examination to record your current health status. We will also use this time to insert a tiny microchip just under the skin at the back of your neck, but it will be quick and just as painless as your initial injection.”

“Microchip!” Dante exclaimed in surprise.

“You never told us anything about getting chipped!” Jenni complained.

Jon bared his teeth. “You're going to microchip us like a family pet?” he hissed.

Marcelo rapped his stick on the hearth. “Calm down,” he ordered with a dark look. “The chips were mentioned in the original orientation material you were all given before you signed your contracts. It's standard-issue for all furmankind.” He tossed the stick onto the fire with a shower of sparks. “Over the course of the next month, your physical characteristics will be changing at a rapid rate and you will all need identification that you can take everywhere, including up to Sebra.”

“Considering we're all turning into animals,” Jon groused, “you should just issue military type dog tags instead.”

“You'll have those available for you when you go to a new world, but dog tags can be removed and lost.”

“What about a leather collar with jingling tags around our necks?” Dante quipped with a sudden lopsided grin. “I wouldn't mind something like that.”

“I know you meant that as a joke,” Marcelo said, “but that very idea was presented a few years back.”

“What happened with that?” Kristen asked, still miffed about the upcoming physical.

“It was put to a vote, but was shot down unanimously with a total majority of the volunteers refusing to wear them.” The director shrugged his shoulders. “They claimed that although they looked like humanoid animals, they refused to wear a pet collar as demeaning.”

“I don't blame them. Getting micro-chipped like a pet isn't much better,” Jon grumbled.

Marcelo sighed. “Once inserted, the microchip will be just beneath the skin and completely out of sight under your fur. It won't even be in a place of danger to cause problems when the major transformations start up in earnest. You'll have no outward sign that you're anybody's pet, Jon, but should something happen to you in some dire situation, your information can be identified with any available PBJ scanner for quick help.  It's more than an ID number, your name and perhaps your date of transformation. The chip will contain medical data valuable in an emergency, such as blood type, drug allergies, and much more. A dog tag could not contain the amount of information on you that the chip will.”

He stood up straight and pulled a small plastic baggie from his shirt pocket. “As you can see, these chips are about the size of a grain of rice and they have already been prepared for each of you. The microchip is not an option subject to your approval. It's part of your existence with the Anthro Human Colonization Program and will be with you the rest of your lives.”

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