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SUNSET OF FURMANKIND

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 22
South Flight

 

“The Bell Boeing Osprey can hold a crew of four plus twenty-four troops. This one only has a crew of two, but with sixteen of us and the eight who make up the medical staff, the troop carrier will be full,” Dante informed his companions, reading from a pamphlet that had been included in their initial orientation material for the Furmankind Institute of the Adirondacks. “Luggage is limited to a small travel bag, no heavier than ten pounds weight.”

“I can barely lift ten pounds right now,” Kristen muttered from behind him, “and I think that's all in my legs.” She shifted the travel bag at her feet several steps forward on the grass with its strap, lightly shivering beneath the Turkish robe she wore. She was so tired that she did not feel as if she even had the strength to scratch the itch at the back of her neck where her microchip had been inserted earlier that morning.

Jon saw the shiver and pulled her to him, lightly wrapping an arm around her for a little extra warmth. Jenni saw this and snuggled up to Dante in the same way, pulling one of his arms across her shoulders. He looked momentarily surprised, but then put the pamphlet away and wrapped both arms around her shoulders. A moment later, he pulled her nearer to Jon and Kristen so that the entire group stood closer together.

The Felis Wing personnel were the last ones in line to board the Osprey. Copilot Tom Williams was helping each slow-moving Fur mount the short steps up into the troop compartment in the back of the plane, each of them dropping their travel bags at his feet to be stowed in another compartment. Marcelo was wrapped up in his parka at the front of the craft watching idly while pilot Wayne Mooreland began his pre-flight checks.

There had been a light frost that morning while all four Wings engaged in medical examinations, but the frost had evaporated by noontime, though the air was still chilly. The sky was overcast, but there was no threat of precipitation expected for the southbound flight from upper New York to Florida.

Just about all of the volunteers were moving slowly. Holding themselves upright for long periods of time was exhausting, and standing out in the cold did not help. There were only two or three like Dante who were chatting idly, but most of the group was quiet as they hoped to get on board before they were too cold and tired to reach a plane seat.

Just in front of the felines was the Vulps group. Kevin looked back at Jon enviously, wishing he had another warm body to snuggle up to for warmth, but despite all the flirtation of the past weeks, his housemates now ignored him. All three of the sisters were wearily grouped together, but the eldest Jasmine was the only one speaking, her weary voice irritated at Travis, who stood in line just ahead of her.

“We're just fine without you,” she told him with a shake of her head.

“C'mon, Jazz,” the canine volunteer replied at her refusal, “We're all cold out here and it just makes sense to snuggle up for warmth. I'm not asking you to bed, although that would be preferable, but just let me bundle up with you and your cute sisters.”

Jasmine Fleur fixed him with a set of narrowed vulpine eyes of orange with feline slits, a snarl curling up the end of her lips; the black whiskers against the white fur around her mouth were quivering in frustration. “Just turn around and look at the plane,” the vixen growled. “The line's moved on in front of you.”

Instead of looking forward, he glanced behind the taller Vulps woman and gestured with just a rise of his chin. “Even the stinkin' cats behind you are all huddled together, but you and your sisters have ousted all guys from your little circle. You've even left your little mascot out in the cold!”

Jasmine blinked and looked back at Kevin, who had his eyes almost closed, standing with his nose buried in the upper folds of his robe, his arms wrapped around his middle with small shivers running through him.

She exchanged a brief look with her sisters Dahlia and Rose, and then the three of them turned in unison toward Kevin. They quickly surrounded him and wrapped their arms around one another without a word. The young fox opened his eyes in surprise, but the compassionate look in Dahlia's eyes informed him that this was not a tease or a joke, but that they really were there for him when he needed them.

Travis scowled at the lot of them and turned around, only then noticing that the line had moved ahead of them. He started to trot forward to close the gap, but his legs complained and threatened to buckle beneath him, so the German Shepherd pulled the collar of his robe up around his canine ears and shuffled toward the plane with dark thoughts.

It took another twenty minutes to get everyone inside, seated and buckled in, Jon Sunset being the last one inside. Travis tried to trip him with an out-thrust foot when he shuffled by him in the aisle, but the larger man merely brushed it out of the way without a second thought.

After Jon sat down and got his tail arranged in a seat not designed for one, the medical teams moved around the compartment to make sure their charges were buckled in and settled. Marcy gave each of the Felis volunteers a travel blanket and a pillow and checked to see if there was anything else they might need. They were all so cold and worn out from the short trek from the Wing to the plane that each of them looked as if they could go right to sleep.

Doctor Renwick spoke quietly with Jenni, offering the leopard a sedative for the upcoming flight. Despite her numerous outdoor experiences, she had never liked flying or great heights and was dreading the four-hour journey.

When the medical staff finished up and then were seated and strapped in themselves, the copilot finished stowing the travel bags and motioned out through the door. Marcelo stepped up into the plane as the engines outside began to power up.

“May I have your attention, please,” the man said, his dark eyes shining from the interior lights as he pulled off his parka hood. “Thank you. I just wanted to wish you all a safe journey. I wish that I could join you on Sebra, but as director of the Institute, there will still be a lot for me to do here while you are away.  I wish you well, and although I know your time in orbit will not be all fun, I know you will be happier there than here while your bodies assume new shapes. Even once your skeletal structures are stable, there will still be many other internal changes taking place over the next months, but when you get back you will be in a better frame of mind to learn the skills we must teach you in order to survive on an alien world.

“Now, during your time away from the Institute, Doctor Gabriel Aristotle of the Canis Wing will be your direct authority. If you have any problems, first go to your Wing's attendant physicians, but should events escalate and need to be brought to a higher attention, you will then take your concerns to Dr. Aristotle. He will have the authority to deal with what comes up, but he will also provide me with daily reports of your progress and alert me to anything of express interest. Please give him your respect and cooperation.”

He looked aside at a signal from the Osprey's copilot and then reached up to pull his hood back into place. “My time is up, so I must bid you all goodbye for now.  I will see you in two months. Farewell!”

With that, he thumped down the steps and out of the aircraft, and then Tom shut and locked the hatch behind him. No one said a thing, either too weary or too nervous to begin any new conversations.

Jon could feel the familiar pressurizing of the compartment and he looked around him with a small private smile. The last time he was inside the Osprey had been the day of his salvation. He still felt like a prisoner undergoing a life sentence, but that other flight had saved him from a terrible death and for that he was grateful.

As he could hear the rotors powering up for liftoff, he put his travel pillow behind his head and pulled the blanket up to his neck. Jenni looked over at him with a tired smile and he gave her a subtle wink to let her know he was okay. 

When the craft left the ground moments later, Kristen suddenly reached over and grabbed his hand. He did not resist her need for comfort, but when he looked down, her eyes were tightly closed. He glanced over at Dante, but the younger male was yawning and seemed not to give the flight a concerned thought.

Jon settled in and prepared to relax. It would be a long four hours, but he expected to spend most of it asleep as he had on the trip from Colorado. He closed his eyes and let his mind drift away.  

*** 

When the Adirondack personnel disembarked from the Osprey, many of them had to shield their eyes from the sun beating down upon them from a cloudless sky. There was a forty degree difference in temperature in Jacksonville from what it had been at the Institute, and many of the volunteers shed their thick Turkish robes to let the sunshine warm their bodies. Granted, the plane's troop compartment had been heated, but it could not compare to the feeling of actual sunlight. Fortunately for the humans in the Cecil Field terminal, the volunteers still had on their typical furman garments beneath the heavier winter robes.

For many of the humans populating the Florida location, this was their first time seeing anthro-humans. Some were disappointed, since the volunteers had not yet transformed fully into their final furmankind shapes, and their disillusionment was evident in the unkind comments muttered beneath their breaths. Unknown to them, however, some of the new furmen already had a heightened sense of hearing and the comments of freaks and monsters did not go unnoticed.

Despite his aches and pains at gravity's whim, one individual left the ranks of his Ursis group and approached a blonde-haired guy in flight line coveralls who had made such remarks to his buddies. The dark-skinned man who was becoming a brown bear had been a large individual even before the changes had begun to transform him. A decade as an NFL linebacker confronting opponents across a scrimmage line had taught the imposing man the art of “controlled intimidation”.  Norman Grey carefully measured his reach and then took a swipe at the human where his claws just missed the man's nose. The flight line personnel around him scattered, but the technician who had just missed getting mauled stood rooted to his spot, frozen in fear with a sudden wetness growing low on the front of his coveralls.

“You can say what you want out of earshot,” he growled nose-to-nose at the man in a voice loud enough to carry to the surrounding crowd, “but some of us hear better than you think we can!” He held up his claw-tipped almost-paw again and added, “The next time I hear you making remarks like that against me or my friends, I might not purposely miss!”  He snorted for good measure and then turned to go, only to stop and turn back toward the crowd.

In a somewhat calmer voice, he said to them all, “You may not realize it, but what we're doing here will help save us all by finding new worlds that you and your descendants can move to. We’re not freaks and we're not outcasts. We—all of us—” he said with a sweep of a massive arm toward his furman companions, “are volunteers doing a job just as important as any other on this overcrowded planet. It’d help if you remember that.”

Norman finally turned away and shuffled back to his waiting group. It was hard to tell who was the more surprised, the Adirondack group or the humans that the Ursis furman had confronted.  Likely fearful of sensitive furry ears overhearing more comments, the crowd was completely silent while the furman group made their way across the tarmac to the air terminal.

Jon glanced back at Norman, and when their eyes met, he gave him a nod of approval. The two of them had never really met during their time at the Institute other than in passing, but Jon remembered him as a quiet, gentle mountain of a man - that nobody messed with - before his transformation. Norman had been a last-minute arrival, replacing a volunteer who had not shown up at the appointed time, and it had moved him up in the furmankind program by a year.

Once inside, the Adirondack group found themselves in a waiting room that was empty for all save themselves and the one man who had led them from the Osprey to the building. He was a short man in his mid-thirties with a thick head of dark brown hair and a matching mustache. He looked comfortable in a dark suit with a blue and silver silk tie, but his attitude was business casual. Waiting patiently until everyone was inside and the door was closed behind them, he studied the various beginnings of furmankind forms, clearly fascinated with what he saw.

He had already been briefed on the type of visitors he would be met with, but it was another thing to see them in person. The incident outside had the potential of disastrous repercussions, but the anthro bear had been wise to refrain from actually touching the man he had confronted. Worldwide public relations between the furmankind project and the rest of the human race was already a tenuous matter without such a conflicting episode to shatter the understanding of their importance.

“May I have your attention please?” the man said in a loud voice over the light conversations that had begun. Once the room quieted, he clasped his hands together in front of him.

“Good afternoon, folks,” he said with an easy smile. “My name is Barry Caldera, the Public Relations director for the Jacksonville Aviation Authority, and I will be your host during your stay with us. I know you are all tired from your flight so I will keep this short. We have rooms reserved for you at a local hotel that has been appraised of your situation, where you may rest and dine tonight. A bus will transport you to the hotel, where you will all have assigned rooms for the night. I am afraid that there are not enough rooms for each person have his or her own, so you will all be paired up together according to a list that Dr. Delgado has supplied to us.”

He looked at all the weary faces staring back at him quietly and he unconsciously rubbed his hands together.  “I am in complete understanding of your needs, but due to the, uh, nature of your appearances, Dr. Delgado has instructed me to keep you separated from the local population as much as possible. As the incident outside just a moment ago proved, there are likely to be those in the area who are not sympathetic to your situation, and in your weakened states, it would be best if we could reduce the prospect of conflict as much as possible.”  He had said this last with a sidelong glance at Norman Grey, who returned his gaze with a deep frown.

“While you are at the hotel, meals will be served to each of your rooms, and we ask that you not wander the halls if at all possible. A bus will be waiting for you at nine o'clock tomorrow morning to return you to Cecil Field, where you will then be prepped for your special flight. The Branson will take off at precisely ten-fifteen, so please don't miss your bus.”

He turned to a tall, thin man with a shock of silver hair who stood at the front of the group. “I understand that Dr. Aristotle is in charge during your field trip, so if there is anything you need tonight or in the morning, you can take it to him, and in turn he will contact me for anything that may come up. For now, however, you are free to go.”  He gestured to another door on the opposite side of the room where he came in. A young, red-headed woman dressed in a dark blue skirt and a white blouse stood by the door with her hands clasped together in front of her.

“If you will follow Ms. Kane out through that door to the bus, she will help you get on board and then will take you to your hotel. Have a good evening.”

Caldera handed Dr. Aristotle an envelope as the crowd of furmen volunteers moved toward the woman driving their bus and then spoke with him quietly for a moment before departing out the door they had all come in. It seemed he had some damage control to perform outside with the flightline workers.  

*** 

The old charter bus arrived at the local hotel after a short ride along a freeway where the passengers of passing vehicles gawked and stared at the travel-weary Furs through the windows. Reactions were not much different at the hotel, but the furmen visitors were now too tired to care. Even Norman Grey ignored the looks and whispered comments, primarily because he barely had the energy to walk upright from the bus into the building. Gravity was not his friend today.

Ms. Kane directed them into the lobby courteously and stood by the registration counter to get everyone signed in. She had chatted idly with Marcy on the bus ride from the air field, finding out a little more of those who were now in her custody. The hotel staff stood by silently, most in wonder and awe at the event that interrupted an otherwise mundane day at work.

“May I have your attention, please?” she asked pleasantly.  “My name is Susan Kane, your chauffer and overseer for tonight. We already have your rooms reserved and I have a list of names of everyone who will be paired together.  If you will hold up a hand when I call your names, we can hand out the key cards to your rooms and then you can go rest. Supper is currently in preparation and will be served to your rooms in an hour.”

While the names were called, Jon stood with his housemates near the wall next to the registration desk. After several moments, he felt someone's eyes upon him. He turned toward the counter and saw a young, dark-skinned woman studying him, but as soon as she noticed that he was looking back at her, she dropped her eyes.

He stepped forward quietly and then motioned her toward him as the other registration clerk helped dole out room cards. The girl was hesitant, but swallowed deeply and approached him, remembering that no matter what he looked like, this was a customer.

“Do we frighten you?” he whispered just loud enough for her to hear, keeping his expression completely neutral.

She almost seemed surprised that he spoke English, though the whispered pronunciation of his words through an altered jaw gave him a strange bit of accent. She swallowed again and nodded hesitantly.

Jon gave her a gentle smile, remembering not to show his feline teeth. “Please don't be,” he told her quietly. “If it helps, just think of us as a bunch of science fiction fans dressed up for a convention. Have you ever been to one of those?”  The girl nodded, the hint of a smile behind her eyes.  “See?” he said with look of amusement. “There are always ways to look at people without being afraid of them.  We aren't dangerous and you won't have any trouble out of any of us,” he promised.

“Thank you,” she whispered back to him. “May I ask a favor?”  She looked hesitant, but Jon already figured he knew what she wanted.  He gave her a quiet nod and she reached out a tentative hand toward him. “May I… touch you?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

The young woman gently touched the fur on the arm he rested upon the registration counter and lightly stroked it from elbow to wrist several times, petting him.

“Your fur is soft,” she whispered with a smile.

“I use a special shampoo and conditioner,” Jon replied, extending his hand toward her. “Take a sniff.”

The woman raised an eyebrow and then leaned forward. She sniffed in hesitation and then a larger smile spread across her face.  “It smells like cinnamon,” she replied.

“Jonathan Sunset!”

Jon looked up at his called name straightened his shoulders. “That's me,” he said aloud, both to Ms. Kane and to the young clerk behind the counter. He gave the girl a wink and then stepped toward his caretaker. “I'm Sunset,” he told her.

Ms. Kane nodded and handed him a key card. “You will share room 109 with Dante Capanari.”

“Thank you.”  He took the card and gestured for Dante to follow him.  The white tiger furman was weaving on his feet, so the larger man took him by the arm and guided him down the hall. As he walked away, the irony of his personal interaction with the woman occurred to him. Of all people in the group, it had been he who had calmed someone else's fears about Furs. Not long ago, he would likely have grumbled beneath his breath at the sight of a Fur, and it might have been him eventually confronted by someone like Norman Grey.  

*** 

“How long are you going to stare at yourself in the mirror?” Dante asked from across the room. The younger furman was splayed out across the second bed in the hotel room he shared with Jon, his eyes barely open as he peered at him. “You're allowed to collapse, y'know.”

Jon frowned and narrowed his eyes at his reflection.  “Is it my imagination or is the fur on top of my head getting longer?  To my knowledge, mountain lions don't have human-type scalp hair.”

“You haven't looked at the furman portraits hanging in our Wing, have you?” Dante muttered.

Jon looked at him. “I suppose I haven't,” he admitted. “Parker's picture is there, so I've had no desire to look at them.”

“Parker?  Wasn't that the guy you—?”

“Yeah.”

Dante paused, but then he continued. “Remember when we lost all our hair?”

“Yeah.”

“Then our fur started to come in all over our bodies.”

“Right. Your point?”

Dante sighed. “My point is that now that our fur has been established and is in place, our human hair follicles are coming back on our scalps. I did some reading up on my PBJ after our fur started coming in and found a report on the return of human scalp hair, a byproduct of our hybrid DNA.”

Jon looked back at his reflection and noted that the longer hair on top of his head did indeed have a rusty-red tint to it, although it was not yet prominent. “Huh,” he muttered.  “What about the rest of our facial and body hair?”

“Nope, that's all gone for good,” Dante replied, closing his eyes. “I looked at the portraits hanging in the entrance hall of our Wing and saw various hair styles and colors on the Furs who came through before us. Just think of it as getting part of your old look back.”

“I think a furred animal with human head hair is just silly, but at least the women will be happy.”

“The first Furs didn't have human scalp hair at all, but later volunteers complained so much that the geneticists started including that feature in the formula.  In my opinion, it makes about as much sense as a furred animal wearing clothing over its fur.”

Jon snorted, sitting down upon the edge of his bed. “Y'know, I'm awfully tired of these furman robes.  I feel like I'm in hospital scrubs all the time.  I'd give anything for a flannel shirt and a pair of denim jeans – if I could wear them over my fur, that is.”

“Just wait until we get to whatever world they're going to strand us on,” Dante mumbled. “I understand most Furs eventually shed everything but the shorts once they've set up their colonies, and sometimes even those.”

“I doubt Kristen will ever go that far, but Jenni should be comfortable with that,” Jon said with a yawn, finally allowing himself to stretch out upon the mattress.  Dante merely nodded without giving a verbal response. When neither one of them ventured further comment, it only took moments for them both to drift off to sleep.  

*** 

Morning came too early for the Adirondack Furs. Doctor Renwick knocked hard on their door and it was only then that Jon and Dante realized that the room's alarm clock had gone off without either one of them waking up to it. Renwick made sure they were up and showered in time for the continental breakfast that was delivered to their room, while Marcy did the same with Kristen and Jenni.

“Today's the big day,” Renwick said with a smile, sitting in Jon and Dante's room chair while they all ate their breakfast together. He sipped a cup of coffee, already having had his own breakfast earlier.

“Why are you so cheery about getting shot into space?” Dante grumbled around a tough piece of sausage that even his feline teeth had trouble cutting through.  Seeing the normally officious physician with a smile was almost disconcerting.

“Space Station Sebra is a medical research station, among other things,” Renwick replied. “I have long hoped for the opportunity to join the orbital teams for research, but until now the chance has always eluded me.”

Jon frowned. “Are you going to abandon us to join the research team while we're in orbit?”

Renwick shook his head. “No, not exactly. I will still be your attendant physician, especially during this critical phase of your transformation, but during the times while you are involved with your extended studies and I'm not needed, I will be in another part of the station as a temporary research partner.”

“Probably the part that has gravity,” Dante said after swallowing the tough-as-shoe-leather sausage.

“Part of the time, yes. The central core of the station is a rotational disc that provides one gee of gravity.”

“I hope you don't run off too quickly,” Jon added. “I understand that with or without prior training that some folks can't handle weightlessness too well. At least stick around until you know we aren't going to add floating chunks to the air handling system up there.”

Again, the doctor shook his head. “There's nothing to worry about, guys. I won't be able to join their team for another week, but you'll know well enough later today how well your systems will handle the zero-gee; we will check you over one at a time. We have meds to counter zero-gee sickness and it will be just as well you find out how you'll deal with it now than later.”

“Why now?”

Renwick took another sip of his coffee before replying. “The large colony ships that take Furs out to the worlds for settlement do not have onboard gravity excepting only certain areas where it's vital.  The closest colony world can be reached by slip-drive in a matter of weeks, but wherever you may wind up going could be farther. That's a long time in weightlessness, longer than the time you will spend here, but at least by then, you will know how to handle life in zero-gee.”

“I thought everyone goes into a cold sleep on those voyages,” Dante mused. “Are we going to be awake instead?”

“No, you will sleep most of the trip in cryogenic freeze, but you will typically spend the last day or two of the journey awake.”

“Ah, okay.”

The doctor stood up, looking at his watch. “Okay, guys, if you will finish up with your breakfasts, you will need to get your personal things packed up in your travel bags and be out in the lobby in thirty minutes. The hotel will clean up after you, but try not to leave too big a mess behind.  We'll be boarding the bus and heading back to Cecil, and this is one flight you don't want to miss.”

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