SUNSET OF FURMANKIND
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Kristen was having trouble of her own, but it had nothing to do with an upset stomach. Although it was a strange sensation, the weightlessness did not bother her. The problem she had was named Travis.
Little by little, the volunteers had been allowed to leave their seats to get acclimated to the weightlessness, and now the passenger compartment of the spaceplane was congested with those who were no longer burdened by the stress of gravity upon their softened skeletal systems. For many of them, it was the first time in days that they had not felt the constant pain of holding up their own bodies. It was a relief that lightened their moods and soothed their fears, and there were smiles and laughter all through the group.
The Branson was still a quarter hour away from the space station and Doctor Aristotle had realized his mistake at letting everyone up and about. The air was literally crowded with people and he was frustrated trying to get everyone back to their seats. The spaceplane had already begun braking, and that in itself was causing a bit of consternation with free floating passengers trying to walk on the walls, spin about in mid-air or pull themselves along the grab rails.
In the confusion of the crowd of volunteers attempting to get back to their assigned seats, Travis had cornered Kristen near one of the windows on the opposite side of the cabin from where she needed to be. The canine male had snuggled up to her from behind, trying to steal a kiss, and when she politely refused his advances, he simply pushed off and then maneuvered himself in the air so that he was slightly below her, lightly gripping a handhold. It took only a moment for her to realize that he was blatantly peering up into her loose furman top, and since she no longer wore an uncomfortable bra over her fur-covered flesh, there was nothing to obstruct his view while her lightweight garment bloused open wide for anyone to see.
When she crossed her arms close to her chest to prevent his viewing and asked him to go away, he merely pushed himself lower so he could peer up into the ample leg openings of her shorts instead. He grinned at her triumphantly when she growled in frustration and tried to push him away with her bare toes. With his grip on the grab rail, all she managed to do was push herself up against the curving wall.
When they got inside the station, her first order of business would be to find someone in charge for an alternative to the furman garments. In a zero-gee environment, they provided no more privacy than if she had been floating about naked; Jenni might not care about such things, but she certainly did.
“We're going to be floating around up here for two months, darlin',” he told her, still grinning. “You aren't going to be able to keep yourself covered the whole time we're here, so you may as well relax and let me enjoy the view!”
“Please leave me alone, Travis,” she pleaded with him, crossing her legs. The motion had the effect of making her do a slow pirouette in midair.
Tyndall merely shook his head. “I don't even have to touch you,” he said with a smirk, “but you can be sure I'll be watching you.”
“We don't need any stalkers here, Travis,” said a voice behind him. A hand grabbed the back of his robe collar and pulled him away from Kristen. The canine volunteer growled and swung around at the person behind him. He was sick and tired of Sunset sticking his nose where it did not belong, but when his fist connected with a human jaw, he realized his mistake with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Doctor Aristotle's head rocked back from the blow, but he maintained his grip on the young rebel's collar. Anger flashed in the physician's eyes as he slid his tongue over a newly split lip, but he was not authorized to strike back at his patients. Instead, he tightened his grip on the fabric collar, lightly choking Travis as he pushed off from the wall and pulled the canine volunteer back to his seat where he would buckle him in personally. However, with all the confusion in the room, it was doubtful if more than one or two pair of eyes saw the exchange.
Kristen blinked in surprise at how quickly the altercation had transpired, but even though Travis was no longer peering up into her clothing, she was reluctant to uncross her arms or legs in fear of someone else seeing her. She closed her eyes and floated quietly by the wall until someone came near.
“Here, let me help you back to your seat,” said a familiar voice. She opened her eyes and saw Jenni beside her. She was neither laughing nor condescending, but merely concerned.
“Help me, please,” Kristen whispered.
Jenni allowed the other woman to cling to her as she floated back to where they had been seated together, taking a route near the floor of the cabin so no one else could peek up into their open garments.
Once finally in their seats and buckled in, Kristen leaned upon her housemate. “I don't think I'll ever get used to anyone looking at me that way,” she whispered.
Jenni looked at her, suppressing a smile. “You may have to get used to it,” she whispered back with a neutral expression, “especially since you've been slimming down. Before long, you'll have guys everywhere you go trying to sneak a peek at you. I suggest you try to enjoy it and take it for the compliment it is.”
“What about Travis? Doesn't he creep you out, even just a little bit?”
The nurse shook her head. “He may go after you and the other women, but he doesn't even look at me, dear, though I agree he does seem a bit of a stalker. I don't think he's going to get away with hitting his doctor, though.”
“You saw that, huh?”
“May I have your attention, please?” called a feminine voice over the din of conversation. Most of the Furs had finally been corralled back to their seats, but a Hispanic woman stood at the front of the cabin, floating effortlessly near the forward bulkhead. It was the attendant physician of the Vulps Wing, Doctor Maria Ramirez.
“It has come to our attention that certain… unforeseen difficulties… have been brought on by our weightlessness, so when we dock with Sebra, all of the men will disembark first.” There were several puzzled comments, but Doctor Ramirez held up a hand and called for quiet. “We've been told there is not much room just inside the hatch, so an attendant of the station will guide you all to a gathering chamber. Once inside this other compartment, the men will congregate together on the far side of the room, and the women will follow in shortly and gather together on the near side of the room. It is here we will receive the orientation for newcomers.”
“What happened?” the youngest of the Fleur sisters wanted to know. “Why are we being separated?”
“This will be covered once we have been oriented to the station, Rose.”
Before any further instructions could be given, Captain Crippen's calm voice sounded over the intercom. “Ladies and gents, we are three minutes from docking. For the safety of all, please be seated and buckled in until the all-clear has been given. Thank you.”
“You heard the captain,” Ramirez told them. “Buckle up and stay put.” With that, she pushed off from the wall and did an easy somersault in the air before dropping into her own seat. Several of her spectators clapped and she gave them a sudden grin at their response.
Jon and several others craned their necks to look out the nearest window on the ship's port side. They had all been so absorbed in their zero-gee gymnastics that none of them had bothered to watch their approach to the space station.
At this close proximity, all any of them could see was an extension arm guiding the craft toward its soft-seal hatch, and then a soft thump indicated their cessation of motion. With the cabin totally silent, they could all hear a high-pitched hissing sound just outside the main hatch as a pressure seal was being established against the side of the spaceplane.
“Docking maneuvers have been completed,” announced the captain's voice. “Please remain in your seats until your medical crews have established egress protocols with the station personnel. On behalf of the crew of the SS Branson, thank you for joining us on today's flawless flight. Welcome to Space Station Sebra.”
It was another ten minutes before the hatch was open and the men were allowed out of their seats; the women were still confused why they were to be separated when they had all been forced to live together under coed conditions in their Wings back at the Institute.
Jon got up from his seat gingerly, but the doctor's meds had done well by his stomach. He still felt a little disoriented, especially if he was floating away from any handholds. He clung to the rails as if he was a new swimmer in a public pool staying close to the sides. As he followed the single-file of men out through the hatch and along a narrow, padded corridor, he discovered grab rails there for their use as well. Lighting in the pressurized tunnel was from recessed panels placed at what appeared to be a random pattern, so there did not appear to be any official direction of 'up' or 'down' here.
The tunnel from the station to the spaceplane was only about thirty feet long, and at the other end they passed through a heavy pressure airlock that was currently open for them. Beyond the hatch was a larger, spherical compartment where Doctor Aristotle was gathering the group of men at the far end. “Large” was a relative term, however, as the room was only slightly twice the size of than the cabin of the spaceplane they had just vacated.
Since 'up' was a concept lost in the physics of zero gravity, all of the walls, floors and ceilings in the vicinity seemed to be covered in short carpeting in earth tone hues. Jon hoped there was padding beneath that carpet, as he was sure he would be bumping into it a lot while learning to get around in such an environment.
A short, buxom young woman in blue coveralls, who wore her curly brown hair caught up in a bun on the back of her head, was waiting patiently near one wall, soft-sided booties equipped with tiny plastic hooks upon the soles to keep her in place against the carpet. She locked eyes with Jon only briefly and he nodded to her with a nervous smile. Her brown eyes narrowed briefly in amusement and he ducked his head to keep from bumping it upon the ceiling, or the nearest wall, whichever the case may be here.
The female passengers of the plane floated in next, but Doctor Ramirez kept them gathered away from the males in mysterious segregation. There was the sound of a dull thump from inside the access tunnel and then Captains Crippen and Truly appeared just inside the airlock hatch.
“Good afternoon and welcome to Space Station Sebra,” said the woman that Jon had seen on his way in. She had a distinct Texas drawl that generated a few smiles among the group. “I am Commander Sami Holden, station manager for the zero-gee section of Sebra. I have experience working with the Furs of the Anthro Human Colonization Program, as this is the departing launch point for all colony ships. I have been fully briefed on the current conditions in your transformations and it is my duty to see that your stay with us is as trouble-free as possible.” She put her hands behind her back, but kept her feet firmly in place to keep her stationary.
“All visitors to Sebra typically have two weeks of training Earthside prior to arrival, but since none of you have had this luxury, your first day will be spent in orientation for everything from getting around, eating, drinking, sleeping, showering and going to the lavatory.”
“What kind of training do we need for going to the bathroom?” Travis asked with a smirk. Doctor Aristotle shot him a sudden glare, but the German shepherd ignored him.
Commander Holden was unfazed by the interruption. “Sir, when you go to pee, does your urine drop into the urinal?”
“Well, yeah – or wherever I happen to aim it,” Travis answered with a cackle. He looked around his peers expecting a few chuckles, but no one bothered to look at him and everyone remained silent, apparently hoping he would simply shut up.
Holden merely nodded and purposely walked up the wall to what was oriented as the 'ceiling' to the newcomers. She took a few extra steps and was then standing 'upside down' before them. Ellie Amaranth felt her throat constrict as the commander played with her sense of direction and she had to force her stomach not to follow suit.
“In the absence of gravity, your urine will not simply fall into a receptacle of water,” Holden said, pulling an ink pen from a pocket. She released it and the writing utensil hung stationary before her. “There is no down… no up. All liquids and solids simply hang in the air where they are released.” She blew gently on the pen, making it slowly tumble. “Air currents floating around the station will move these materials along with them, so anything you release into the air could wind up anywhere — on your clothes, in your bed, in the breath you inhale or even in the food you eat.”
“Eww…” said Dahlia Fleur, wrinkling her nose.
“Exactly,” continued Commander Holden, retrieving her pen. “A vacuum system for toilet containment is involved, and you may each have to get over a bit of personal embarrassment in order to use them, but due to the physical differences between men and women, there are very specific lavatories for each gender. What works for one will not necessarily work for the other, so there are no gender-neutral facilities here. Once you leave this compartment, that will be the first order of training for each of you.”
“How different can it be?” Travis asked with a smirk. It was now his intention to humiliate this stoic woman in front of everyone for singling him out.
Holden raised an eyebrow, instantly recognizing his tactic. “Sir, I do not intend to give you a demonstration,” she told him. “Your personal instructors will give you insight to the function of the facilities shortly.”
“But —” he started again. Aristotle leveled a finger at the man and Travis finally closed his mouth. He grumbled beneath his breath, but by this time all eyes had returned to the commander.
“Thank you, Doctor,” Holden said quietly. “Now then, I know you all have had a long day, but this basic training is a necessity you will each need before we can release you for a rest period. However, before we begin, let me tell you a little about this station. Space Station Sebra is a multinational effort primarily built as a scientific research station and a docking port for incoming and outgoing space vessels, as well as drop ships to and from the Earth's surface and supply ships bound for Galilei Station on the moon. It can be likened to a train station or airline terminal, with surrounding hotels, convention centers, restaurants and entertainment, with the predominant personnel mostly all transitory.
“The station is divided up into two major sections, Z-Gee and E-Gee, or rather, zero gravity and earth gravity. The E-Gee, or earth-normal section is located inside the perimeter of the large wheel rotating around the central axis that you may have seen as the Branson approached the station. The centrifugal revolutions provide a one-gravity environment necessary for some operations here at the station. The main offices are located out around this section, as well as numerous labs, quarters for the station staff, convention halls and support facilities.
“Then, balanced within the interior of the wheel are compartments like this one where no gravity exists. Research laboratories, your sleeping quarters, the computer mainframe, exercise rooms and other facilities are located in these areas. Due to the very purpose of your visit, the E-Gee section of the station is off limits to all Furs for now. Everything you need for daily living will be provided for you, in addition to the instructional requirements of your continued education for colony settlement. Your AHCP Personal Business Juxtapositioner units have been designed to interface with our onboard network, so you may continue to use them as necessary.
“Station stewards will periodically patrol the Z-Gee section to assist you with any necessity. We are sympathetic to your purpose and needs, but make no mistake, we will suffer no tomfoolery.” She said this last with a pointed gaze directly at Travis, who averted his eyes. “Each of your Wings will be under the same command structure as it was on Earth. You will go to your attendant doctor first for all things, and then Doctor Aristotle will handle issues relating to your group as a whole, coordinating all your activities through the Institute on Earth. However, should the need arise to elevate any incident beyond his influence, he will come directly to me, and if necessary, I may take it to Commander Archibald Grant, the ultimate authority for this orbital facility. Once a situation reaches our attention for anything but supply requests, the Institute's rules will no longer apply. You will then be under international law.”
Holden stopped for a moment to let this sink in and then she gave the group a warm smile. “However, so long as you try to behave and follow the rules set before you, there should be no trouble whatsoever. You are scheduled to reside here for seven weeks, and despite that your bodies are currently in a malleable state for genetic transformations, each of you will be required to perform daily low-impact exercises to keep your muscles from atrophying in the total absence of gravity. All Z-Gee section personnel are required to follow this routine, so please don't feel that you've been singled out. As with everything else, you will receive basic training on the use of exercise equipment in a weightless environment. Then, one week before you are to return to earth, your skeletal structures will have hardened again well enough to begin re-acclimatizing, so the lot of you will be moved into the E-Gee section of the station into standard hotel rooms.”
Holden could see individuals in the group fidgeting, so she decided to wrap up her lengthy introduction. “Located a few compartments further in from where we are now is a chamber larger than this one. It is just outside the area where your sleeping quarters are located and can be used as a common gathering site for whatever purpose you may need it for. At times, it will be used for your instructional classes that the Institute has mandated, though there are smaller compartments available for the same purpose. It is understood, however, that you will all be undergoing hard physical changes at a rapid rate accompanied by transformation pain, so your class schedules will be fluid and may depend upon individual situations at all times.
“As you can see behind me, most of the walls in the Z-Gee section are padded and carpeted. Sticky booties like the ones I am wearing are available to you if you wish to wear them for a sense of stability, but I'm afraid that we have none to fit the digitigrade furman feet that you will all develop during your stay. There are several pair for each of you already stowed in your individual sleeping quarters. You are welcome to use them or not, as you wish. Any questions?”
Cheryl raised a hand. “I have a question,” she said. “Why were our men and women separated when we disembarked the Branson?”
Holden looked puzzled and shook her head. “I wasn't aware of this,” she replied, looking aside to Dr. Aristotle for an explanation.
The middle-aged, white-haired physician smiled at the group around him. “It was discovered with some embarrassment to a couple of our ladies that typical furman clothing was not intended for use in space,” he said. “Designed to be worn loose over fur, it now provides no privacy to the wearers, flaring up wide and open in the absence of gravity.”
Several females suddenly crossed their arms over their chests, expressions of surprise across their features as most of them hadn't been aware of whom they might have exposed themselves to inadvertently. A good number of the men, on the other hand, suddenly looked with interest over at the women.
“Until we can work out a reasonable fix for this shortsightedness,” Aristotle added, “the sexes will be segregated for now.”
The commander smiled in understanding with a nod. “Okay, that's all I have for now. Thank you for your attention. From the looks I recognize on some of your faces, this should be a good time to split you up into smaller groups for zero-gee lavatory instruction.” She gestured toward another hatch to the side where Doctor Aristotle quietly floated. “There will be several stewards in the next compartment who will begin your basic training. After they feel you have mastered the lavatory, you will all be directed to another compartment where you will learn zero-gravity dining. Believe it or not, there is a special technique to something so primal, but I'm sure you must all be hungry and ready after your long trip. After you've eaten, you will be shown to your quarters where you may rest until the next training session.” She looked over at Aristotle and nodded. “Doctor, if you and your people will follow me into the next compartment, we can begin.”
“After you, Commander,” Aristotle replied courteously.
Jon floated into the sleeping area that had been designated for the Adirondack Furs, as they were now being called by the station personnel. Quite by chance, he had been the first male selected to undergo training in the use of the zero gee toilets, and although he had been successful in its operation, the method was downright degrading. Fortunately, each small lavatory was a self-contained compartment so no one had to use the equipment in front of anyone else, but he could almost predict the fun that someone like Travis or Dante would have joking about the intimacy of the apparatus.
The toilet seat itself was comprised of a vacuum system to whisk away fluids and solids, but since it had been designed for a bare human posterior, there was some difficulty maintaining a good seal with a furry rear end and a tail instead. The effect was an embarrassing whistle caused by the suction against a surface that still allowed the passage of air through the hairs of fur. There was no way to hide this from someone in the next compartment over and his first use of the unit had garnered snickers from those outside the enclosed stall.
Since there were still nearly a dozen men to finish that training, Jon had a little bit of time to kill before they were shown how to eat without gravity. He had to admit that he had not kept up with modern space travel information, so he was almost certain that everything they ate would be in little silver paste tubes like the ones used in the early moon missions nearly a century earlier.
To occupy his time, he decided to pay a visit to the sleeping area. He was not sure what he had expected to see, but when he entered the compartment, it almost surprised him. The closest description he could put to it was that the area strongly resembled a Japanese capsule hotel. One full wall of the room consisted of a honeycomb of approximately seventy hexagonal capsules. The door at the end of each consisted of nothing more than a fiberluminum shade that could be pulled down for privacy. One nearby was open, so he floated over to it and clung to the side of the aperture to peer inside.
The compartment was approximately four feet across and about seven feet in length, just enough room for one person to occupy. Five walls of the six-sided capsule were thickly padded, but one side was a fiberluminum wall with a flush-mounted light, a few storage drawers, and a pull-out shelf below a monitor screen with a keyboard, likely tied into the station's computer system that could be used instead of an individual's PBJ unit. A headset was clipped to the wall, no doubt available so the occupant of the capsule could keep from disturbing someone in the surrounding compartments. A personal cooling and heating system was also provided in case the station-wide climate was not enough for personal comfort.
He pulled himself up into the open capsule and peeked inside one of the larger storage drawers. He found what looked like a typical blanket, but when he pulled it out and unrolled it, he was momentarily puzzled by its design. It resembled nothing more than a cloth tube with one open end. Then it dawned on him that for someone who floated free above a mattress, it was probably the only way to keep oneself covered on all sides. Grunting at the realization, he rolled it back up and stuffed it back into the drawer. In another compartment, he found what appeared to be a small back pack, but when he read a multi-lingual label stitched into its side, he discovered that it to be one of the emergency inflatable balls he had heard about. Not wanting to disturb such a potentially important object, he put it back where he found it.
Pulling himself along with a couple of handles mounted to the single fiberluminum wall, he backed out of the capsule and then pushed off to the opposite wall, which was smooth and blank of nothing more than the typical padded carpeting of the station. Jon was not much of a home decorator himself, but even he thought the wall could have used some kind of woven pattern to keep it from looking uniformly bland.
When he glanced back at the capsules, he noticed that some of them had small, handwritten labels affixed to their closed shades. He pushed himself toward one to read the note and saw “Ursis, Gerard Nicholas” written upon it. He looked to a label on the next capsule over and read “Ursis, Norman Grey”. In all, there were six capsules grouped together with the labels, all for the Ursis Wing, but no others nearby. He glanced around and saw another group of six capsules up higher on the wall with labels on their shades.
Still curious, he pulled himself along the wall up to them and the first one he came to was labeled “Canis, Cheryl Dalton”. Quickly, he read the rest of the names and then he realized what had been done. With more capsules available than what was needed for the number of Furs and their medical attendants that would be living in them for just under two months, each Wing had been given six of the compartments grouped together, but in different parts of the room.
Determined to find his own capsule now, Jon pulled himself along the wall to the remaining two labeled groups. As luck would have it, the next name he read was his own, “Felis, Jonathan Sunset” located in a group near what he would normally assume to be “floor” level.
He was about to open the shade and pull himself inside when he heard voices approach from the direction of the open pressure door into the sleeping area. He looked back and saw the faces of Dante and Kevin peer in at him.
“There you are!” Dante exclaimed in amusement. “We've been looking for you.”
“They're going to show us how to eat and I'm starving!” Kevin added. “That Continental breakfast I had at the hotel didn't last long.”
“Wow, what room is this?” Dante asked after getting a good look at the wall of capsules.
“This? This is home,” Jon told him. “Come on, let's go find out how to eat. I'll tell you about our rooms over supper.”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.