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SUNSET OF FURMANKIND

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 27
A Taste of Death

 

Jon looked out through the large window and mused quietly as he stared down at the Earth below. He kept himself stationary in the weightlessness with a hand up on a grab rail just below the window, letting his mind get lost amongst the white swirl of clouds over the blue, green and brown world of his birth.

He had just spent a couple of hours in the company of all four furmen of the Ursis Wing. Not for the first time, Whelan Nolan had experienced traumatic nightmares about his transformation after an especially painful night, and his housemates were doing all they could to calm and soothe the black bear's fears.  Although the absence of gravity had helped to reduce some of the stress and pain of skeletal transformation, vistas such as the observation window had only served to remind him that soon he would leave the Earth behind forever.

Whelan had been coaxed into joining the AHCP by a sweetheart who claimed she had signed up herself, but when the bus had arrived to take him to the upstate New York location, she was nowhere to be found. Subsequent attempts to contact her had revealed a disconnected phone service and a vacant apartment with no forwarding address. Due to this, Nolan had planned to take the escape clause in the contract to go find her, but his housemates had convinced him to stay in, a decision he had since regretted.

Jon was in a unique position to sympathize somewhat with the younger male. Neither was entirely there of his own free will, and both had no love of becoming a creature that would soon be banished from his home. Even though he could not reveal his true background, Jon did what he could to encourage Whelan to make the best of his situation, to learn new skills and look forward to seeing new lands. They were to be explorers as well as settlers. Once they had established their colony, it would be up to them to investigate their new home and learn as much about it as possible.

These were the kinds of things he had also tried to convince himself to believe.  It was too easy to get wrapped up in the educational sessions they had all been required to attend several hours a day. Jon loved learning new things and he relished discovering new knowledge just as much as he had back in his college days. Still, there was that bothersome thought in the back of his mind that once he left the Earth for someplace farther away than the orbit of a man-made satellite, he would never again return. He was contracted for at least five years, but it was extremely rare than any of the outbound Furs ever saw Earth again.

He, Norman Grey, Gerard Nicholas and Aaron Bleys did what they could to keep Whelan's mind on his studies, encouraging him to move on and take life by the tail, but afterward, the whole thing kept haunting Jon for its similarities to his own situation.

These thoughts rolled over and over in his mind while his eyes became lost in the clouds below. Jon was not an explorer, and he would have never considered the life of a Fur to do so even if the whole mess with Rebecca Collins and Henry Parker had never happened. It was a strange twist of fate that was pushing him out toward the stars, and every time he listened to Whelan's concerns, he could not stop thinking about his own situation.

“Hey, old man.”

Jon jumped, blinking rapidly. Had he not been holding onto the grab rail, he might have begun to tumble, so violent was his startled reaction.

“Whoa, hold on there, big guy,” Dante cackled in amusement when Jon stared back at him wide-eyed in surprise. “I didn't mean to scare you, but I have to admit it was worth it!”

Jon gave him a deep frown, but then the white tiger's bright-eyed grin finally elicited a chuckle out of him.  “Okay, I admit it, you startled me. I was lost in thought.”

“Those must have been some deep thoughts,” Dante remarked, putting both hands on the rail and pressing his feline nose up to the clear pane. Despite the climate conditioning of the orbital station, the young furman had always felt a chill in front of this window. He could not wait until his monochrome fur was thick enough to keep him warm. Tigers loved lounging in water and playing in the snow, but Dante would need tougher skin and thicker fur before he would feel comfortable doing such things.

“Was there something you wanted?” Jon asked, looking up as the Amaranths floated by on their way back to the common room from wherever they had been. Ellie looked ill as her husband pulled her along; it seemed she still had issues being weightless.

“Nope, just hanging around,” Dante replied, his nose still pressed up against the cold window pane. His breath was making a foggy spot on the thick glass and he moved his head around, using the tip of his nose to write his name in it. “I just got out of Dr. Lacross' lecture on colony cooking. I've worked at a few restaurants as a kitchen cook, so maybe this is something I can do once we get to where we're going.” Jon pulled his wristwatch from a pocket of his furman robe and looked at the time. “It also gave me the opportunity to admire the women; I was the only guy there!”  Dante said the last with a smirk, pulling back from the window to look at his companion.

Jon gave him a sideways glance. “Was Cheryl there?” he asked.

Dante grinned. “Yup, how did you know?”

“Ever since she started going around topless, you haven't been very subtle gawking at her whenever she's near you.”

The tiger shrugged. “It's not like I can see anything, y'know,” he retorted. “We've been growing fur for less than two months and already hers is longer than anyone else's!”

“Most Border Collies are long-hairs,” Jon reminded him.

“I can't tell without a physical examination,” Dante added, groping the air with his fingers and a waggle of his eyebrows, “but I also think her chest has shrunk; if that's so, her long fur hides her chest even more than it did before. Still, even if she's all covered up, I think she's hot and sexy parading around without a top!”

Jon shook his head with a smile. “What does Jenni think about you staring at another woman?”

The tiger tried to look innocent. “I don't know what you mean,” he said in a quieter voice.

“Dante, you aren't fooling anyone,” Jon informed him. “Either the two of you are fooling around or you're doing some awfully heavy flirting with one another.”

The monochrome feline swallowed, but was unable to break eye contact with the larger male. “Uhm…” he mumbled.  “It's just flirting,” he admitted after a moment. Jon simply nodded and Dante suddenly felt the need to explain. He leaned his head in closer to the mountain lion and said in a whisper, “She's nothing but a tease. She gets me all worked up but won't put out, if you know what I mean.”

Jon merely looked back at him in amusement. “That must really torque your ego,” he replied with a look of satisfaction. He didn't really dislike the younger feline, but Dante had been so self-assured of himself when they had all first arrived that Jon was enjoying the moment.

Dante seemed oblivious to the mountain lion's pleasure and looked back out the window. “You ain't woofing,” he said. Then with a snicker, he added, “or meowing, as the case may be with us!”

Jon snorted. “I've not felt the urge to meow at anyone once since we got the injections.”  He looked again at his watch with a frown. “Listen, I don't really want to go, but it's about time for Aristotle's lecture on the colony chain of command in the common room. You going?”

“No, I think I'll skip that one and go take a nap.  My lower back has been sore since my episode this morning.” Dante pushed off the grab rail and followed after his housemate. “I know cats are supposed to have limber spines, but mine felt like it was trying to tie itself into a knot!”

Jon felt a twinge in his knee and he winced from the sudden stab of pain. It was gone just as quickly as it came, so he continued into the corridor in the direction the anthro-wolves had gone.

“Although this weightlessness is supposed to help with the aches and pains,” Dante continued, “there are times I really miss having a soft mattress to squish into when I sleep.”

Jon couldn't argue with that. “I miss wrapping my arms around a pillow,” he remarked. “I've always slept with two, one under my head and the other up next to my chest.”

They reached the open pressure door into the common room, but Dante pulled up alongside him and whispered into the cougar's ear. “You could always wrap your arms around Kristen. I know she wouldn't mind.”

Jon suddenly reached out and grabbed the front of Dante's loose robe. Literally floating nose to nose with the tiger, he growled low in his throat. “Listen, I tolerate your chatter because you're part of the Cat House,” he said just loud enough for him to hear, “but mind yourself when you're talking to me. I like Kris, but not in that way – do you remember why?”

Dante swallowed, suddenly recalling that he was staring into the eyes of someone who had killed another. “Beeee-cause she's a… a Fur?” he squeaked. He did not move or even try to struggle out of Jon's grasp. He wanted to appear as non-threatening as he could to the angry mountain lion, so he lowered his ears and looked down at Jon's chin instead of into his eyes.

“Ah, so you do remember,” the cougar replied. “I don't care if she chose the same cat as me; you can stop trying to pair me up with her.”

“Yessir,” Dante replied automatically.

“Is there a problem, Mr. Sunset?”

Jon released Dante's robe and gently pushed him away with a fingertip. “No, Dr. Aristotle. No problem whatsoever,” he replied, looking across the room at the group of Furs bobbing in the air in front of the Canis Wing's physician.

“In that case, you may wish to join us. We are about to begin.”

“Coming,” Jon replied. Fortunately for Dante, the push had put him near a wall, so the tiger used the tips of his claws in the carpeted covering to pull himself to a grab rail. Aristotle glanced over at him when he passed the group and kept going toward the sleep chamber. By the time the physician had returned his attention to those gathered around him, Jon had joined them.

Kristen gave him a smile when he lightly grasped her shoulder to keep from floating on across the room. “What was that about?” she whispered as Aristotle began his lecture in a louder voice.

“He hasn't gotten on my nerves in a while and decided he was behind on needling me,” was Jon's whispered response. He shifted his irritated gaze past her to the doctor and she merely shrugged. Ever since that night the botanist had given Dante an exhibition in the shower room, she had thought a little more fondly of the man she used to think of as oily.

Remembering that night also reminded her of Jon's rejection of her willing offer. Kristen frowned and sighed inwardly, but then shook herself. Thinking perhaps he might accept contact that was not quite so intimate, she reached over and simply threaded an arm around one of his. Almost immediately, he extracted his arm without looking at her, keeping his attention on the start of the lecture.

“The chain of command in a colony probably does not sound like an important issue to you right now,” Aristotle was saying, “but even in a small group trying to survive out in the wild, it is necessary to know ahead of time who it is you can turn to in a crisis. Every settlement has its leader established before the colony ship ever sets out from Earth. This leader is appointed by Stockholm, so the position is not up for a vote by the colonists, but the leader is free to choose his or her own second-in-command.  Now, in the event that the leader is incapacitated….” 

*** 

The pain was intense, nerves throughout his body feeling like primer cord that had been set on fire. This agony was not centralized at any particular spot in his system, but was all over, through all places within that had nerve endings. Jon's eyes were squeezed tight, but tears leaked out onto his cheek fur while he gnashed feline teeth. Even his hide seemed to be on fire, so that anything that touched a hair of his fur triggered waves of torment.

The mountain lion thrashed around, kicking the sides of his sleeping capsule with extended toe claws, shredding the padding material that expelled insulated fluff out into the weightless environment.

His throat constricted tightly, suddenly leaving precious little passage for air and he clawed at his neck frantically in some effort to get oxygen to his brain. He couldn't cry out for help, so he pounded on the wall of his capsule in a weakened attempt to draw someone's attention.

Sparkles appeared before his eyes and some part of him knew that his brain was dying from lack of oxygen combined with the burning hellfire raging throughout his body. He wanted nothing more than a release from searing agony, but even as he died, the torment only intensified.

The muscles of his throat finally released their choke hold and he gulped in great gasps of air. His lungs full, he cried out shrilly in a voice that was far from human, a cougar's scream rending the night as transforming tendons and blood vessels throughout his body were shredding in a tremendous eruption.

Something had gone wrong, and even as his spirit wanted only to die as an end to the suffering, he remained conscious of every excruciating burst of pain. The spine in his back tightened up and tried to curl in over itself, wrenching another feline scream from his throat, and it was only then that he felt hands upon his feet. He vaguely had the impression of being dragged from his capsule, but the Angel of Mercy finally pulled the plug on his tortured mind. The pain and agony stopped abruptly, all went black, and then Jonathan Sunset was no more.  

*** 

“JON!”

A frantic hand patted his checks, the contact with his whiskers sending tiny jolts of feeling to his brain. He could hear several hushed voices around him and then something like a solid rod of alertness shot up both nostrils, causing him to inhale sharply.  He opened his eyes wildly to a dimly lit room, his arms, legs and tail flailing about until hands grabbed each in an attempt to keep him immobile in the absence of gravity.

“What —?”

“Easy now, Jon.  Just take it easy,” Doctor Renwick told him in a soothing voice. The doctor was in a pair of dark blue pajamas, quietly capping a small vial of ammonium carbonate smelling salts.

The cougar furman looked around and saw a number of concerned faces looking back at him. Dante, Norman, Aaron and Gerard each had a solid grasp on his limbs and even Kevin had a hold on his thick rope of a tail. Surrounding them seemed to be the rest of the Adirondack Furs and all but one of their faces looked worried.  Travis was openly smiling at him from the fringe of the crowd that had gathered outside the mountain lion's sleeping capsule.

“Whu… what happened?” Jon asked hoarsely.

“You were screaming in your sleep,” Jenni answered from behind him.

“Are you sure that was him?” Whelan asked a little unsteadily. “It didn't sound human at all.”

“It was the scream of a mountain lion,” Carl remarked with a look at the black bear beside him. “I've heard them in the wild before, but Jon's was different.”

“Were you having a nightmare,” Kristen asked, “or was it the transformation?”

Jon looked embarrassed as Dr. Renwick looked him over. His companions released his limbs one by one now that he was no longer thrashing about. “It must have been a little of both,” he muttered. “My whole body was on fire from the inside out and I couldn't breathe.”

“Your lungs were working just fine,” Rose Fleur told him. “Your screams woke me from a deep sleep, setting my hackles on edge! Then all of a sudden, you just — stopped.”

Jon looked over at the vixen with a long face. “Rose, I — died…”

“You died?” whispered Dahlia, her hands up to her mouth.

“I felt myself die, but then you pulled me back,” Jon replied, looking at the doctor.

“Your mind likely just shut down,” Marcy explained. “You probably woke up from the nightmare and immediately passed out in a measure of self-preservation.”

“The big bad cat fainted from a bad dream…” Travis said with immense pleasure. “Oh, that's rich! Hey, you'd better check to make sure you didn't wet yourself!”

“I don't think it was entirely a nightmare,” Renwick interjected before Jon could retort.

“You mean he really died?” Dahlia squeaked.

The physician studied Jon's face. “I had a good look at you yesterday when you'd asked me about the courses that Sylvia will be teaching you when we get back. Looking at you now, I can see that the shape of your head has changed since then. It's broader and a little longer, too.” He reached out and traced a finger across a bone at the top of Jon's bare chest. “However, your clavicle looks thinner and your shoulders seem to be narrower. I've no doubt that several internal changes took place during the night and the resulting pain affected your dreams.”

“I don't think I've heard any of us scream in pain like that,” Kevin said with a lump in his throat. “Are the rest of us going to go through that kind of agony?”

The Vulps physician had remained silent throughout the exchange, allowing the mountain lion's personal doctor attend to him, but with the fennec's question, Dr. Ramirez answered aloud.

“I'm afraid it's possible, Kevin,” she told the short young male. “Every individual reacts to the transformation differently, some experiencing more stress and trauma than others.”

“I thought being weightless was supposed to prevent that kind of pain,” Cheryl Dalton remarked.

Ramirez shook her head. “Being weightless only reduces the stress of gravity upon your softened skeletal systems, that in itself a major effort, but when your bones are reforming, moving and reshaping muscles, tendons, blood vessels, glands and nerves, that's something you're going to feel. A few of you have already experienced some of these changes while others still have them to go through.”

“The worst of it will take place while we're up here in orbit, and we'll help you through it as we can,” Renwick added, “but by the time we return to the Institute, you will all still have another seven months of changes before the transformation is complete. I won't lie to you – even after we get back down to Earth, there will still be some pain involved in your changes, but by then you'll be able to handle what comes with those times.”

“I wish we were asleep in the float tanks instead,” Dante mumbled. “I don't want to be conscious to feel the kind of pain that would make Jon scream!”

“The Institute believes you'll handle it better here in zero gee,” Dr. Ramirez replied softly.

“I doubt those who run the Institute have ever gone through this kind of pain before,” Gerard said. “I'm with the tiger. If this is what we have to look forward to, I would rather have slept through it suspended in a tank of jelly. I think Stockholm should reconsider sending any other groups up here.”

Jon quietly massaged his shoulders while the conversation went on around him. He was embarrassed to have had such an episode at the center of attention, but he was also glad to be alive. He didn't know whether or not everything he had experienced in the night was real or nightmare, but if that was only a taste of what was still to come, he silently wondered if he would survive the changes after all.

He had a brief exchange of worried glances with Whelan and wondered how this little episode would affect the bear's thriving fears of transformation. Despite his best encouragement, Jon knew this may have unraveled Whelan's resolve. Unfortunately for them all, there was no turning back.

NEXT CHAPTER

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