SUNSET OF FURMANKIND
— by Ted R. Blasingame
“You look like a holiday parade balloon,” said the ursine furman that floated up to the large observation window overlooking the Earth far below.
Jon looked over at his friend with a chuckle and then glanced down at the length of twine around his waist; the other end was tied to the grip rail beneath the window. The mountain lion sat cross-legged as he floated a couple of feet from the thick pane, where he had been in quiet contemplation while letting his eyes focus on the planet beneath them.
“I didn't feel like bobbing around the room like a soap bubble,” he replied, returning his attention to the window.
“Where'd you get the string?
“From the hydroponics garden,” Jon answered. “They use it to tie up the plants to keep them from growing all over the place. So, how are you doing, Gerard?”
The brown bear pulled himself up to the grip rail and looked over at the feline. “Not too bad right now,” he admitted, “although breakfast was a nightmare.” He held up a massive hand paw and examined the large claws at the ends of his fingers. “I could swear all of my fingers were bending backward while I was trying to eat, and my thumbs felt like I had been hanging from them all night with my full weight in double gravities.”
“Ouch, that can't have been fun,” Jon replied distractedly.
“Not at all.” Gerard flexed his fingers, grateful that they were no longer hurting, although the joints still felt sore. He wondered if that was what arthritis felt like and hoped it would feel better soon. He glanced over at his quiet friend with a frown.
“Are you okay?” he asked quietly.
Without taking his eyes off the Earth below, Jon answered, “Sorry, Gerard. Something happened to me on this date and I can't seem to get my mind off of it.”
“Do you need to talk?”
The cougar looked over at his companion with a wan smile and shook his head. “I appreciate the offer, but this is one I would rather keep to myself.”
“No problem, just thought I would lend an ear if you needed it,” said the bear. “You've listened to Whelan enough and the rest of us appreciate it.”
Jon returned his attention to the white cloud swirls below. “How is he?”
“He's been in a better mood since the girls gave him his present back on Christmas day. Despite his own transformation pains, I haven't heard him complain once about his situation all week.”
“Listen, a bunch of us will be getting together in here tonight to ring in the New Year. We're on Greenwich Mean Time, so we'll be the first ones to celebrate when the clock strikes midnight. Dr. Lacross agreed to supply us with some beer in zero-gee packs if we promised to keep the festivities from getting out of hand. We've gotten some dance music and the girls want to try some zero-gee dancing. You want to join us?”
On this occasion, Jon didn't really want to party, but he also didn't want to sound like a curmudgeon, so he looked over at the bear and shrugged his shoulders. “I'm not a beer drinker, but I might put in an appearance to watch the dancing. Don't hold me to it, though,” he told him.
Gerard gave him a big smile and patted him lightly on the shoulder. “I hope you can come, Jon. We'd all like to see you here with us.”
“Thanks,” the mountain lion replied with a sincere smile.
“Well, I need the spread the word around some more, so I'll leave you alone with Mother Earth.”
“See you, Gerard.”
After the bear had gone, Jon sighed. A New Year's Eve party was the cause of his very presence on the space station, and if he looked at the window glass just right, he could see Henry Parker's feline face staring back at him in the reflection.
Two shots had rid the world of the furman who had taken Brian Barrett's mate from him. Now Jonathan Sunset was serving a life sentence in repayment of the cougar's death.
Jon held up a hand in front of him. His fingers were a little shorter than they used to be, there were now permanent claws extending from their ends, the palms had thick pads, and the musculature in his wrists and arms were sturdier. Fur grew uniformly over his body, though his red scalp hair was coming back in on top of his head, and there were patterns of different colors in his pelt. His ears had crept up higher on his skull, and he sometimes had a constant ringing and aches as the inner workings of his ears moved up too. His head was broader, his nose had widened and the whole lower half of his face had taken a new shape below a pair of large golden eyes. The shape of his feet had changed, becoming more digitigrade by the day and his upper legs was bulking up to allow his new limbs to sustain the weight he would resume once he returned to the gravity of Earth. He now had a thick rope of a tail protruding from his backside, an extension of his spinal column, and although it was barely over half the length it would grow to be, he had already gotten used to its presence and knew how to use it as a counterbalance in movement.
He resembled a photographic morph of images that was not quite one or the other, and although he was getting used to the daily changes, his reflection in the mirror sometimes seemed alien in its strangeness. Inside, he still felt like Brian Barrett and he believed that his mind, will and emotions were still intact, but he often wondered if his soul was fading.
He closed his eyes and shook his head. No, it's been too soon. It's only been two months! At what point in the transformation would he lose his soul? Six months? Nine months?
Two gunshots had changed his life. Initially, he could probably claim that his life actually changed the moment he discovered Rebecca's infidelity with that cursed furman, but up until he had fired those shots into Parker, he'd still had choices over what he could have done with his life. With the irreversible incident on that fateful New Year's Eve, Brian had lost all control over his future and his path narrowed to one lane.
He sometimes wondered if they would commemorate a New Year's Day on whatever world he would wind up on, but he doubted it would ever be a time of celebration for him.
Jon resumed staring out over the Earth, idly wondering what Rebecca was doing now. He thought he had known her well, but he had been proven wrong. He snorted and heaved another sigh, feeling the full weight of all he had done even in weightlessness.
No more thoughts about her, he promised himself. Rebecca Collins was no longer in the equation of his life. He would never see her again and she would never know of his continued existence. It was best that she and everyone else he had known believed him dead.
After several moments with his eyes closed, he felt someone take hold of the grab rail beside him. He opened one eye and looked to his left. A short furman with large ears and sandy brown fur was floating beside him, staring down at the Earth.
“Hello, Kevin,” he said quietly. The young Fur turned to him with a smile.
“Hi, Jon,” he replied. “You looked like you were praying, so I didn't want to disturb you.”
The cougar laughed. “Praying? No, I've not prayed in some time,” he admitted, “though I probably should. Just lost in thought, is all. How are you doing?”
Kevin shrugged, but retained a smile. “All things considered, I'm doing well.”
“All things considered?”
“You know, the changes and all. I was stuck in the toilet just about all day yesterday, and that was embarrassing.” Jon looked over at him, both eyebrows raised. Kevin shrugged, crossed both arms upon the grip rail, and then put his chin on top of them, gazing out the window. “Dr. Ramirez said my internal organs were probably moving around to make room for changes to my ribcage. It had a nasty side-effect.”
Jon shook his head. “That's not something I've ever thought of,” he replied. “Were you sick to your stomach?
“Not really, but I'll bet I have the cleanest colon on the station now.”
“Now there's a happy thought.”
“I'm glad I had my PBJ with me,” Kevin remarked. “At least I had something to read.”
The mountain lion returned his gaze to the Earth below. “I haven't even looked at mine for two days,” he admitted. “Was there any news worth repeating?”
“It's not really news, but Sissy said she's heard some rumors about one of the extrasolar planets Stockholm has been monitoring that may be opened up soon for colonization.”
“Oh really?” Jon remarked in interest. Although he was in no hurry to leave the Earth, he knew that a settlement on some distant world would be his eventual destination. He also knew that the long processes for opening up a world for colonization weeded out a lot of potential planets.
There were literally thousands of extrasolar planets that had been discovered out in the vast reaches of space, but the number of them with Earth-like conditions with just the right axial tilt and distance from their parent stars were rare. Once such a world was discovered in this Goldilocks zone, unmanned slip-drive probe ships were dispatched to deploy satellites to begin an orbital study of the planet. Several landers would be dropped to the surface of the new world in random locations to take air, water and soil samples for analysis, and sensor flobots would be dispatched to look for and examine the life forms that may have developed.
To the surprise of the scientists that studied the information sent back to Earth, such planets that matched the criteria for life on our own world tended to be similar in chemical makeup. The configuration of vegetation might be as diverse as the myriad of variances on Earth, but the similarities could not be ignored. Trees on a planet ten light years away were still recognizable as trees. Flowers were identifiable as flowers, and the life forms that flew through the air might still be called birds and insects. They had discovered mammals, reptiles, sea life and many other forms of life that were comparable to Terran life, but so far the only world where intelligent, sapient life seemed to exist was Earth herself. Intelligence and sapience might take on other forms on those distant worlds, but with the other similarities of life that were comparable to home, there had been expectations to see some signs of civilization, past or present. As yet, there had been none.
The automated two-year examination of a new Earth-like world could only scratch the surface of all the information to be found and explorations to be done, but if promising habitable conditions were found to exist, only then would a planet be considered for colonization.
That's when furmankind was sent in. Colonization was a misnomer for them, however. The Furs were sent in to establish a foot-hold on a new world, to 'test the waters' over a five-year period to make sure that Earth-based life could exist in a new ecosystem. Only when sufficient knowledge and experience of successful living on the new world was gathered would the real colonists be sent in to take over and take the Furs' place as the new inhabitants.
The sheer numbers needed for a successful colony did not exist in furmankind, so the small groups that were sent ahead were little more than advance scouts a step above the automated probes, landers and flobots. For peaceful coexistence, only one of the furman races were sent at a time, typically thirty or forty to begin a five-year task of learning as much about the place as possible, if possible. Furmankind on a distant world was considered expendable, and every Fur knew this before signing a contract. The monetary prize enticed many, but for those who survived the five-year contract, there were more incentives to lure them into further endeavors.
Furmankind as a whole was still a young existence and the number of veteran Furs from previous successful settlements were yet few, so each new group that was sent out was typically made up entirely of inexperienced new recruits. Jon had never met a veteran, nor had he ever seen one in the vids. There had been several successful furman starter colonies, but none of the survivors ever came all the way back to Earth. Would any of those veterans be sent to this new world that Sissy spoke of, or would the entire group be new Furs such as himself?
“Did she have any information on the planet?” he asked his companion.
Kevin shook his head. “She didn't give a name, but Sissy said there are whispers that it might be one of the original worlds where humans were sent to but didn't survive.”
“That sounds morbid. Are they going to investigate the original settlement or start up a new one elsewhere on the same planet?”
Kevin frowned at all the questions. “She didn't say. She admitted she didn't have much evidence, just rumors, really, but she did mention that she thought the Ursis would be the next group sent out to begin a starter colony.”
“Well, I suppose that means we'll have more time to prepare before getting shipped out.” Jon twitched his whiskers and then seemed annoyed by the action. “They haven't even told us what jobs we'll have when we get sent out.”
Kevin looked at him. “I thought we were supposed to decide ourselves what we were going to do for the colony,” he said with a frown. “If they choose for me, I might not get to do what I really want.”
“What do you want to do?”
The young fox looked back at the Earth and tapped the glass lightly with a claw. “I want to be a meteorologist, to study the weather patterns of the place we're going.”
Jon smiled over at him. “You want to be a weatherman, er, weather furman?”
Kevin shook his head. “There's more to it than that. I've always enjoyed weather shows, documentaries and broadcasts, but I've most admired those who do the work behind the scenes, compiling the data, modeling scenarios and making the predictions that can save lives or even crops. Where we're going, the weather patterns may be unique on their own, and learning to recognize what's coming could be one of the keys to surviving.”
The cougar nodded and looked back down at the Earth. “You have a point,” he said quietly, “and a better idea of what you want than I do. I don't have any skills or education of importance to a colony, so the Institute's going to have to teach me what they want me to know before they send me out there.” He reached over and patted his vulpine friend on the shoulder with a smirk. “We'll be taking along our own livestock, so perhaps it will be my job to feed the chickens and scoop the cow manure over into Kristen's gardens.”
The young fox grinned back at him. “I may be doing that too,” he said, “as I doubt that even as a weather-fur they would let me just sit around and study the sky all day.”
“I'm sure we'll all have to have multiple talents,” Jon replied. “Those who have specialized careers and skills have an advantage over regular guys like us, Kevin, but we'll make ourselves useful one way or another. Even the lowly pawns on a chess board have their importance.”
“I don't mind being a pawn,” Kevin admitted, “just as long as I can be useful instead of just expendable.”
Jon gestured toward the blue and white planet below. “You keep studying the weather and learn how to predict it, no matter what else they want to teach you. I'm sure the foxy settlement you go to will value that talent. You never know when your people might have to run from a Martian tornado.”
The young fox laughed and pushed away from the grip rail when he saw several women pass through the compartment. “I just hope it's not Mars where they send me – that place is desolate! Listen, I need to go, so I'll see you later, Jon.”
“Sure, take care.”
Jon watched him push off toward the cluster of women and smiled when he noticed that his destination seemed to be Rose Fleur. He had seen the two young foxes frequently hanging around together since they had arrived on the station and suspected there might be an attraction there. While watching, Marcy Lagrange happened to look over his direction, so Jon waved and beckoned her to join him at the window. The nurse said something to the others and then pulled herself hand over hand toward him when she neared a grip rail. A moment later, she parked herself beside him, smiling at his tether that kept him near the window.
“Hi, Jon, what can I do for you?” Her green eyes were bright and alert, and the older woman seemed to be in high spirits. She wore a pair of the station booties and placed the sole of one foot up against the wall beneath the grip rail to park herself in place. She wore a lavender set of scrubs with a common tee-shirt beneath it for privacy, and she had her shoulder-length, platinum blonde hair tied up in a ponytail that floated lazily behind her. She also wore a light floral scent that tickled at Jon's enhanced olfactory senses.
“Hi, Marcy,” he said quietly. “Whenever you have about twenty or thirty minutes to spare, could you meet me in a private room?”
The woman raised a thin eyebrow and gave him an impish smile. “Why Jon, are you coming onto your nurse?” she asked in a whisper.
The mountain lion suddenly swallowed. “Uh, sorry… no.”
Marcy giggled and lightly touched his furry arm with her fingers. “I'm teasing you, Jon,” she told him with delight in her eyes, “although I am curious.”
“Er, are you curious about what I need, or curious about playing with a Fur?”
Marcy narrowed her eyes at him and slid her tongue across her lips. “Take your pick,” she teased.
The feline male gave her a look of exasperation and privately wondered if she had sampled the fare with past volunteers.
“Perhaps I should ask someone else,” he muttered. This only served to make the woman giggle again. She shook her head and held up both hands in surrender. The cougar was beginning to think she had already gotten into the beer packets that Gerard had mentioned.
“I'm sorry,” she replied with an innocent expression. “I'll behave.” Jon looked at her in doubt, but she sobered up and let out a little sigh. “Should I assume it's something personal in nature that you can only tell your physician?”
“Something like that,” he answered. “It doesn't really have anything to do with my transformation, but I was hoping I could ask you for a small favor.”
The nurse nodded. “Come with me to the Infirmary,” she told him. “We can use one of the private rooms there.”
Moments later, they entered into the empty medical compartment. The red panda who had been there once before was nowhere around. In fact, the lights were all out in the Infirmary, so they had the place to themselves. Marcy led her patient to the first available room, tapped on the light, and then shut the door behind him once they were both inside.
“Now, what may I help you with?” she asked, all business.
“Do you have a tape measure?”
Marcy blinked. She pushed herself up to a cabinet higher on the wall, unlatched it, and then reached inside. There was a small click and then she pulled out a cloth measuring tape rolled up in her hand.
“Okay, what am I supposed to measure?” she asked suspiciously, floating back down to him.
Jon smiled nervously and tugged at his garments. “Marcy, I'm tired of these furman robes you've given me. I've been giving it some thought and I want to special order some new clothes down on Earth and have them delivered to our Wing by the time we get back.”
The nurse tilted her head a little. “You want some new clothes?” she asked. “That's what this is about?”
“Yeah, I need your help to take all my measurements. I know what I have in mind, but I will need my sizes when I put in the order.”
Marcy shrugged. “Sure, I can help. Why me?”
Jon looked embarrassed. “You're a nurse and have seen me in the nude before,” he replied, remembering the black wall. “I need someone who can look at me merely as a patient and simply take my measurements. I can't do this by myself and there's no one else I can ask.”
Marcy studied his face for a moment and finally gave him a nod. “Okay, I'll give you a hand with your special project, although I'm sure there are plenty of others you could ask for help that would be more than willing to assist you.”
“That's what I'm afraid of,” Jon replied as he began peeling off his robe top. “I'm sure they would be a little too willing to give me a hand.”
The nurse watched him strip down with interest, and when he finally let his shorts float off across the room, she had to force herself to meet his eyes. “Okay,” she said at last, “face the other way and spread out your arms.” Jon almost asked her why she needed him to turn around, but suddenly realized that she might actually be embarrassed by his request. It was all innocent, he reminded himself. Nothing to be concerned about.
Making herself focus on what she was doing, Marcy pulled her PBJ from the side pocket of her scrubs and opened up a note file to take down his measurements. Once set up, she let the unit float beside her.
“What kind of clothes did you want?” she asked, stretching out the tape from the apex of his left shoulder to the tip of his fingers. “You know you'll have to allow room for the shape of your digitigrade legs to get into them; it would be my suggestion to end the pant legs just a little below the knees so they don't interfere with your extended heels. Also, don't forget a tail flap. You haven't finished your transformation, so you'll have to allow for some alterations.”
Jon smiled. “Yeah, I remember, but what I want made is a secret,” he replied. “If this works out as well as I hope it will, I'm going to have most of the guys envious, wanting to order some of their own.”
“In that case,” Marcy replied, recording the first measurement into her note file, “I want to be the first one to see you dressed in your new outfit.”
Jon looked down at her. “I think you're entitled,” he said easily.
She glanced up to return his smile. “Thank you. If your new clothes prompt the other guys to make a run on the store, I sincerely hope you get a commission on their sales!”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.