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SUNSET OF FURMANKIND

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 23
Above the Windswept Heights

 

When the bus full of partially-formed anthro-Furs pulled in to the Jacksonville Aviation Authority terminal at Cecil Field, there was a noticeable absence of the miscellaneous personnel that had been present the day before. Mr. Caldera wished to prevent a repeat of the previous evening's incident and had arranged to keep out all but the necessary workforce present for the day's special launch.

The ride from the hotel only took twenty minutes, and since everyone had gotten a good night's sleep, conversations were more animated on the ride back out. When they had all loaded up on to the bus, Jon maneuvered himself to sit next to Norman Grey, deciding it was time to get to know the bear. As with others, he had seen him around the Institute, but he had not actually interacted with him. Eventually, they would all likely be assigned out to separate colonies, but for now they were all part of the same class.

Jon introduced himself and Norman had seemed surprised, although pleased. Likewise, the ex-linebacker had seen Jon around the grounds, especially on the red-headed man's excursions around the complex on his own. He had even followed him covertly one afternoon to see where he went, but Jon's trails had only meandered back and forth along the outer perimeter, much like an animal trapped in a cage. He didn't divulge this bit of clandestine tailing to his new acquaintance, feeling their association would work smoother without it.

They told one another of their respective housemates and Norman admitted that he thought Kristen was cute. On the other hand, however, one of Norman's colleagues was having trouble dealing with the physical changes of his body. Whelan Nolan had been hesitant about signing up in the first place and he had almost taken the escape clause in the contract, but through the encouragement of the others in the Ursis Wing despite the reflections staring back at him every morning in the mirror, Whelan seemed to be coping with it all. Nolan was not a weak-willed individual by any stretch of the imagination, but losing some of his humanity had been a personal demon to contend with. It was he that was closest on Norman's mind when he had confronted the airfield technician the previous evening.

When the long vehicle pulled up to a set of restricted gates at Cecil Field, conversations on the bus quieted to whispers while the driver showed her identification and a list of her passengers. Armed guards waved her through and the bus continued through a different section of the grounds than the volunteers had seen the previous evening.

Voices evaporated altogether when the bus pulled up to a huge white hangar building with huge stylized letters “VG” painted in white across what resembled the iris of a large blue eye. That in itself was not what held everyone's attention, but the massive craft that rested on the tarmac just outside the hangar door.

“Is that it?” Kevin asked in an excited voice above the quiet. No one answered, as they were all fascinated by the special vehicle that would take them all into space.

Nearly one hundred fifty feet long with a wingspan fifty feet wider than its length, it was a sight to behold. Mothership was a matched pair of twin aircraft fuselages mated together by a gigantic set of dihedral wings with a smaller craft mated below the apex of the conjoined wings. The central fuselage made up the Branson, the actual spaceplane that would take twenty-four passengers and a crew of two all the way up to Space Station Sebra. Numerous round windows punctuated its curved sides, each ringed with painted blue stars.

The SS Branson was nearly one hundred twenty feet in length of its own right, with folded wings tucked up together at its sides that would be deployed only when the bullet-shaped vehicle returned to earth. The upper half of the spaceplane was white, but the lower section was covered in dark, heat-resistant tiles that would dissipate the tremendous buildup of friction heat upon reentry into the atmosphere.

It seemed impossible that this massive combined set of aerial vehicles could ever get off the ground together, but three gigantic engines were mounted beneath the outer wings on each end. It would take the craft almost the entire twelve thousand foot runway to get up enough speed to take off even with the assist of anti-gravity repulsors, but once the SS Mothership left the earth, it would proceed up to fifty-two thousand feet before the Branson would separate and drop beneath it to ignite its own engines for orbital insertion.

The bus followed a striped avenue marked on the tarmac that took it around to the central nose of the humongous craft combination, but no closer than a hundred feet to the vehicle. When it came to a stop, Ms. Kane unbuckled herself, stood up from the driver's seat and gestured toward the door.

“Please watch your step when you exit the bus. I will be just outside to lend a hand to anyone who needs it. Mr. Caldera is waiting and will give you a few instructions before you board the Branson.”

She gave her passengers a smile and then disappeared down the steps to the tarmac outside. One by one, the volunteers and their medical attendants stood up to depart, but it would take time for everyone to get outside.

A few of the volunteers had somehow procured walking canes back at the hotel and were using them to stay upright against gravity's incessant pull. When it became his turn, Norman stepped down first, and then turned to help Jon if needed. Fortunately, the feline furman was able to negotiate the steps without aid, but the person behind him stumbled. Cheryl might have landed face first on the tarmac, had Jon and Norman not reached out simultaneously, each snagging one of her arms to keep her upright.  She smiled with embarrassment, but thanked each of them with a quick peck on the cheek.

Ten minutes later, the bus was empty and the small crowd stood together in the crisp morning sunlight. Barry Caldera stood in front of the group with a bright smile beneath his mustache, Doctor Aristotle standing just behind him.

“Good Morning, everyone,” Caldera said cheerily. “I hope you all had a chance to rest up last night, as you have a full and exciting day ahead of you.” He stepped back and indicated the vehicle behind him. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is the SS Branson. Spaceplanes have been in use for decades, but there have been none like this one. The largest of its kind, the Branson and its Mothership is often utilized to ferry personnel to and from Space Station Sebra, although it is rarely ever filled to capacity as it will be today. Captains Young and Fullerton will pilot the Mothership, the large twin-fuselage craft that will get you off the ground. Captains Crippen and Truly will pilot the Branson from high altitude up to Sebra, as well as its homecoming flight to earth with personnel returning from orbit.  I assure you that you will all be in safe hands with these four dedicated pilots.”

Caldera pulled a folded sheet of paper from an inner pocket of his suit coat. “As with your hotel rooms last night, you will all have assigned seats on board the Branson. Please don't be upset if you don't get to sit with someone you would like, since the selections have been made strictly due to weight distribution. The seats are standard airline-style comparable to First Class accommodations, though fitted with specialized harnesses.  Once everyone is seated, your medical staff will give each of you a medication that you should take immediately. In your current delicate conditions, this will help you to relax during the four hour ride up to Sebra. For those who may be concerned with the gee-forces associated with the Branson's acceleration for orbital insertion, you may be relieved to know that this special vessel has been equipped with the same inertial dampening system used on slip-drive ships that travel to other star systems. You will barely feel more acceleration than you would on a commercial airliner when the rocket engines light up!”

He checked his watch and then glanced toward the small travel bags that each of the volunteers carried with them.  “One final thing and then we can get started. If you have any loose items in your pockets, necklaces or any other loose jewelry that you might be wearing, please place them all inside your travel bags now.  There will be no gravity in orbit and all loose objects have the potential to turn into a hazard floating around unchecked. Also, for the duration of today's flight, you will be unable to use your Personal Business Juxtapositioners, so please stow them in your travel bags as well. You will be able to use them again after you have arrived on station.”  At once, everyone began digging into their pockets and putting everything they found into their bags.

A moment later, a tall man in mirrored sunglasses and blue flight coveralls approached the group from the massive ship. He stopped beside Caldera and nodded with a smile toward his soon-to-be passengers.  “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Robert Truly.”

“Good Morning, everyone,” the captain said in a smooth baritone voice. “If you will follow us to the Branson, your seats are ready. Once inside, Mr. Caldera will guide each of you to reserved seats according to name while Captain Crippen and I begin our pre-flight checklist in coordination with the flight crew of the Mothership. Welcome aboard!”

Dante was at the front of the group and was the first to follow after the two men. Voices were silent as they all approached the awe-inspiring vehicles. They walked past the nose of the Branson and beneath the overhead wings, right up to a moving handicap escalator ramp with hand rails that had been brought in specifically for the tottering furman volunteers who felt more like the infirmed with gravity's uncaring attraction on their softened internal skeletons.

Dante was about to get on the moving steps first, but Travis Tyndall elbowed his way past him, following Caldera up toward the open hatch. The feline furman growled beneath his breath, but did not have the energy to do much more than that, so he simply followed him up.

Jon and Norman were directed to seats on opposite sides of the plane cabin, no doubt to distribute their weight evenly. The compartment resembled nothing more than a commercial airliner, except there were no overhead luggage bays. He assumed their meager travel bags would be stowed elsewhere, as they had been directed to leave them on the floor just inside the hatch.

The curved walls and ceiling were all covered in beige padding and the softly carpeted floor was a neutral earth tone, though there were several plastic-covered rails on the walls and the ceiling running the length of the cabin. The airline style seats looked comfortable, but they were not specifically designed for passengers with tails. Without any slots for the tails to slide through, the furman volunteers were forced to arrange their partially formed rear appendages beneath them as best as they could.

Jon struggled to find a comfortable way of sitting on his feline tail and bumped elbows with a lupine woman seated beside him. “Excuse me,” he mumbled, his attention still focused upon his dilemma.

“You're excused,” his neighbor replied, adjusting the stiff flight harness that crisscrossed her chest, just as distracted as he was trying to figure out the non-standard seat belt.

Jon finally arranged his tail along the seat cushion and then back up beside his right leg. It would have to do for now. He looked up just as the seat buckle beside him clicked and the woman sighed in relief.

“I'll be glad when we get our strength back,” she said, looking over at him with a weary canine smile.  “Hello, Jon. I'm Ellie Amaranth.”

The large feline gave her a warm smile and held out his hand. “Hello, Ellie. I'm Jon Sunset, though you obviously already know that.”

The lupine woman shook his hand with a grin. “Two of my housemates can't seem to stop talking about you,” she told him.

Jon searched his memory. “I'm assuming Cheryl is one,” he replied, “but the other would have to be either Travis or Carl. Since I've never actually met your husband, I would have to assume the one mouthing off about me is Travis.”

Ellie laughed, her eyes narrowed in amusement. “That's deductive reasoning, Mr. Holmes, and correct on all accounts.”

Jon shook his head. “Cheryl and I first met the day we got our DNA injections,” he said, fumbling with his own seat harness; the buckle was oddly arranged. “I can't seem to stop meeting Travis.”

Ellie stretched out a hand and tapped a part of the buckle down-turned beneath his fingers. “Flip that up and the tongue will slide right in.”

Jon did as directed and was rewarded with an audible click beneath his fingers. “Ah, thank you,” he said.

“You're welcome, Jon, and I am pleased to meet you.” 

Ellie Amaranth was older than he was by a decade and although her golden lupine eyes were warm with hospitality, it was easy to see that she had faced a great many of life experiences. Despite weakened by softened bones and gravity's whim, she was in great physical shape and carried herself well. Just looking at her, Jon knew that she and her husband would likely be a great set of assets for whatever colony they wound up being assigned.

“I've heard that you and Carl are explorers,” he said conversationally. “Is this why you signed up with the AHCP?”

She nodded, idly scratching at the fur on the side of her cheek. “We've been across so much of the surface of the earth, up in the skies, beneath the ground and beneath the seas, so we figured it was time to see what we could see on another world.”

“Wow, that must be expensive to do so much traveling.”

“Yes, it can be, but Carl made some wise investments when he was younger and the returns have paid for everything. We're planning to transfer everything over to our AHCP account into Credits before we leave the Earth. It will be nice knowing the money's there even if we're no longer fully human and may never need it again living on some other world.”

“Do you have any children to share it with?”

“Nope, no family but ourselves,” she replied with a shrug.

“Yeah, it's the same with me. Why choose wolves, if you don't mind my curiosity?” Jon asked.

Ellie smiled over at him. “We've served as longtime volunteers with the Jim Dutcher Wolf Education and Research Center in Idaho and fell in love with the animals long ago. When we signed up with the AHCP, it was only natural that we would choose wolves. We know so much about them that it won't be too hard to adopt their instincts as we grow to become more like them.”

Jon frowned. “Marcelo once told me that they tried to discourage those who wanted to join simply because they liked animals,” he said, “but you have many other skills that would make you two valuable to your colony.”

“Thank you, Jon,” Ellie replied. “What about yourself?”

The broad-shouldered man shrugged. “Just looking for a new life on a new world,” he answered vaguely, “hoping that I can be of use to someone.”

“I'm sure you will be, Jon.”

Their conversation was cut short when Marcy approached Jon's seat at the end of his row. She carried a small stack of paper cups in one hand, a large squeeze bottle in the other and had a beige cloth bag tied to her belt sash. She held out the cups toward Jon and Ellie.

“Take one,” she said with a friendly smile. Jon pulled a cup from the end of the stack and Ellie took the next. Each of them up-ended the cup and then Marcy carefully measured out a portion of pale brown liquid from her bottle. It had the look and aroma of apple spice tea.

“Drink up!” she instructed.

Jon lifted his cup to his nose and sniffed cautiously. “What happens if I don't drink this?” he asked with an upraised eyebrow.

“Right now in your current condition,” Doctor Aristotle said from behind him, “I don't think you could keep us from holding you down and simply pouring it down your throat.”

Jon and Ellie looked up over their shoulders at him in unison. Jon blinked and then gave the doctor a lopsided smirk. “That… wasn't what I meant,” he replied, holding up his paper cup as if in salute.

Aristotle inclined his lean chin slightly and looked down his narrow nose at the feline, the lines in his face standing out in the artificial lighting of the plane cabin. Jon upended his cup and swallowed the spice tea in one gulp. His eyes widened for a moment and then he coughed once before looking back up at the doctor. Aristotle gave him a sardonic smile and walked away.

“See, not so bad,” Marcy told him.  “If you would, Jon, please put your empty cup in the bag at my belt.”

Jon took his and Ellie's now-empty cups and placed them in the bag. “Seriously,” he told her, “what would happen if I hadn't taken it?  What is that stuff for?”

The platinum-haired nurse simply gave him a satisfied expression. “It will make the trip up to the space station more pleasant for everyone.”

“Happy juice?” Ellie wondered aloud.

“Not quite. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have more to distribute.”  Marcy gave them both a nod and then got the attention of the two Vulps sisters sitting on Ellie's other side.

Jon settled into his chair a little more and said, “That was a little more cryptic than usual for her,” he whispered to the lupine woman beside him.

“Whatever it was,” Ellie replied, “at least it didn't taste bad; a little warm going down, perhaps.”

Jon closed his eyes and gave his arms a languid stretch. “I always fall asleep on long flights,” he said. “I don't suppose this one will be any different.”

Ellie chuckled. “I doubt you'll be sleeping when that rocket engine lights up,” she told him with half-lidded eyes of her own. “I'm sure that will give us all an adrenaline boost!”

“Perhaps, but I'm already feeling relaxed,” he mumbled with a long, satisfying yawn.

Ellie could not help herself and yawned back at him. She snickered at her own reaction, and then did it again.  She stretched out her legs beneath the seat in front of her and then readjusted her fluffy tail.

She looked over at Jon to ask him another question, but her companion looked as relaxed as she was feeling, the fast-acting medicine soothing the furman passengers quietly into unconsciousness. It only took a moment longer before both of them were breathing deeply.

Ten minutes later, the spaceplane cabin was silent. The Furs were all dozing quietly and their attendant doctors and nurses were buckling into their own seats. One of the pilots checked in on everyone once more before securing the hatch and then she disappeared through a pressure door into the cockpit to begin preparations for departure.  The Branson was secure, but it would be another hour before its engines would be ignited. For now, even the spaceplane's flight crew was nothing more than passengers.

A few minutes later, Doctor Renwick could see flight line attendants outside with bright orange glowing sticks making signals to the Mothership.  Six huge Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines started up and shortly the triple-fuselage aerospace craft began to taxi out to the runway.  It would need nearly the entire length of the strip to get off the ground, so it would still take some time to get to the starting point from the hangar.

Marcy leaned over to Renwick and whispered, “Perhaps I should have taken some of the spice tea myself.”

“Nervous?”

“Of course I am,” the nurse admitted. “I've never been in space before and this is also my first time in a rocket plane.”

“That makes two of us,” Renwick told her with a sigh. “Unfortunately, as the medical staff, we have to be awake for the whole trip to keep an eye on our patients.”

“You don't sound too happy to be going.”

“Oh, I'm looking forward to the research up there,” Renwick whispered back, “but like you, I'm not so relaxed about the trip getting there. I can already feel the cabin pressurizing on my eardrums.”

“If you'll pull out the last of the spice tea, I won't tell if you won't tell,” Marcy offered.

“Maybe you won't, but then I'll have to tell,” Aristotle whispered from the row behind them.

Marcy coughed into her hands and then scrunched down into her seat, feeling embarrassed. Although she did not have the benefit of making the flight unconscious as the Furs, she closed her eyes and tried to think of pleasant things.  

*** 

The takeoff and subsequent flight had been accomplished without a hitch, and after nearly an hour of steadily increasing altitude the Mothership leveled off at fifty-two thousand feet above sea level, almost ten miles above the earth. The multitude of round windows at odd intervals around the curving walls of the cabin allowed the medical personnel to see the curvature of the earth, even though they knew it would be more pronounced the higher they went.

The rest of the passengers still slept, completely oblivious, a few of them snoring in their slumber.

Marcy craned her neck to see out one particular window. “I wonder how much longer…”

“This is Captain Crippen,” said a feminine voice over the cabin intercom. The voice spoke quietly, as if afraid to wake her living cargo. “The Branson will be dropping in precisely three minutes. Once clear of the Mothership, our engines will ignite and we will begin a steep ascent. It will not take long to enter orbit, but in all it will take three hours to reach the proper altitude and then catch up to and rendezvous with the space station. The inertia dampers will absorb most of the forces of launch, but you will still feel a sudden jolt when we take off. Please prepare yourselves accordingly.”

“I guess that answers my question,” Marcy muttered quietly.  Although she was strapped in with a heavy-duty harness, the nurse pressed herself into the seat cushions and put a death grip upon the arm rests. She closed her eyes and awaited the launch with shallow breathing.

Before long, Crippen's voice intoned over the intercom, “We will drop in five… four… three… two…”  In place of the final number in her countdown were several muffled thumps of the explosive bolts, and then the bottom fell out. The Branson became a large, missile-shaped rock rapidly falling tail-first through the upper atmosphere that left Marcy wondering just how far they were going to drop.

“Ignition in five… four… three… two…”

There was a sudden roar as the engines ignited and the nurse suddenly felt the seat she was in try to lurch past her. The pressure eased off almost immediately as the inertial dampers activated, but the sudden cessation gave her a sudden case of vertigo. Fortunately, even that only lasted a moment.

Marcy glanced frantically out one window and suddenly wished she hadn't. The curve of the earth suddenly tilted crazily and she realized they were nosed up sharply toward space. The roar of the engines drowned out everything in the cabin and she looked nervously at the furman passengers seated in the row in front of her. Aside from a little jostling, they all continued to sleep.

The windows darkened quickly and the earth dropped farther below and behind them. Marcy swallowed with difficulty and closed her eyes. If this were to keep up for the next three hours, she felt like she might not make it.

An eternity later, the vibration eased off, although the roar of the engines continued on for some time. They had passed the boundary of space, but still needed to attain the altitude of the space station. In the early days of orbital space stations over the earth, it had taken a day or two for a craft to catch up to and reach such a station, but with modern technology the time was reduced to mere hours.

“Welcome to space, ladies and gentlemen. Our burn will continue for another six minutes and then you will be free to move around the cabin to check on your patients. If this is your first time, be advised that you will be in complete zero gravity. A gentle push off from the floor or ceiling may be all you need to shoot across the room, so gauge your movements carefully. Our current ETA to Sebra is… two hours, fifty seven minutes.”

Ten minutes later, the doctors and their nurses floated out over the patients to check their individual vital signs. Marcy, however, first practiced zero-gee maneuvering by pushing herself toward a nearby window. She misjudged her launch velocity and hit the wall beside it hard with a thump. She shook her head as if to knock loose a few lodged marbles and then tried again. It took her three tries before she felt comfortable enough to push off the length of the cabin. When she landed, it was with a light touchdown upon the padded wall that did not bounce her off into another direction this time.

For several moments, she clung to a piece of the molding around a window so she could remain stationary long enough to peer out the window.  From her position, the earth was above her, and although she had seen many satellite images in her lifetime, it could not compare with seeing the blue, green and brown world covered over with white swirls of clouds with her own eyes.

“Marcy!”

The nurse blinked and looked across the room at Doctor Renwick. “We have work to do,” he reminded her. “We will have plenty of time to sight-see once we get to Sebra.”

“Yessir,” she replied obediently. She looked out the window once more with a smile and then pushed off to look after the Furs.  

*** 

Jon opened one eye groggily and had to force himself to focus on the face hovering in the air before him. “C'mon, Jon, wakey-wakey,” nurse Marcy said to him with a slight pat upon his furry cheek.

“Rrr we there yet, mommy?” he asked, closing his eye again.

“Almost, son. Now, open your eyes like a good little boy and wake up.”

Jon yawned, curling his tongue in over itself, and then forced his eyelids apart one at a time. He blinked several times and smacked his lips. When his eyes focused, he was looking straight into the top of her hospital scrubs, the light material bloused open in the absence of gravity. He admired her beige lacy bra for a moment before her finger touched the tip of his chin and guided his face up toward hers.  She was grinning at him and gave him a gentle shake of her finger.

“Tsk, mind your manners, Jon,” she admonished with a light chuckle.

“Why are you shtanding on the sheiling?” he asked around a dry tongue. “That was potent spysh tee. Can I haf shom moah?”

“No more spice tea for you, mister.”

“Drat… da's good stuph.”  Jon stretched his arms, fingers and toes while Marcy maneuvered herself so that she was not straight above Ellie Amaranth while giving her similar waking ministration. He used his tongue to swish around the inside of his mouth, wishing for a sip of water.

“How long were we out?” he asked, finally feeling more cognizant of his surroundings. He watched several others floating around the cabin, tending to the volunteers, and then his eyes flicked to a nearby window. He saw only stars out that one and instantly surmised where they must be.

“C'mon, Ellie, time to wake up,” Marcy said, lightly patting the woman against a cheek. Without looking away from her, she answered, “You’ve been out about three and a half hours. We're still forty-five minutes away from the space station.”

“May I get up now?”

“We will start letting a few of you out of your harnesses at a time get to acclimate yourself to zero gravity,” Doctor Renwick said from somewhere behind him. Jon started in surprise, quietly wishing the physicians would stop sneaking up on him.

“Probably a good idea to get my space legs before we go careening around the space station, huh?”

“That's the idea,” Renwick answered, “but you will have plenty of time on Sebra to learn how to get around. We also have fast-acting meds available if your stomach flutters in the absence of gravity.”

As if in response to his statement, another voice from across the room cried out in a panic. “Quick! In the bag!”  There was a rustle of plastic and then the sickening sound of someone tossing up their breakfast. Renwick looked down at Jon in concern. The feline volunteer looked a little green around the eyes.

“You need a bag?” the doctor whispered into his ear.

Jon shook his head and managed to keep his stomach contents where they were supposed to be. After a moment, he swallowed and looked back up at Renwick.

“It's not the weightlessness,” he whispered after clearing his throat. “It was the sound of someone getting sick that almost got me started.”

He felt a hand of fingers suddenly grip his arm. He glanced over at Ellie, and she looked a little greener around the gills than he had a moment earlier.  Mrs. Amaranth might have had more life experiences than most anyone else on board the spaceplane, but her first time without gravity was not kind to her.

She barely got the bag up to her mouth in time, and Jon suddenly felt as if he needed one himself. He was going to need the doctor's offered meds.

NEXT CHAPTER

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