SUNSET OF FURMANKIND
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Jon looked across the compound and let a smile spread across his feline face. Even after four and a half months since they had returned to Earth from their stay on the orbital space station, Dante was still wearing the large dog collar he had purchased from one of the shops in Sebra's entertainment district. Although Dante was not canine, it was the only one he could find that was large enough to fit him and still be loose. From its size, it was assumed to be for one of the large breeds like a Malamute or a Great Pyrenees. No one knew why a pet-free environment like a space station would have a shop with a section that sold pet-related items, but Dante had picked it up on a whim, citing that he missed the gold chain he used to wear around his neck until it began to snag on his fur. Jenni had later presented him with a shining chrome tag with his name on it that she'd had made locally. Marcy reminded them that they would be issued actual military-style dog tags when they were finally assigned to a colony, but now it was merely a novelty.
Other Furs teased him about the collar, but the primary purpose for getting it was to be noticed, so he seemed pleased anytime someone brought it up. It was that tag that had caught Jon's attention, reflecting the early summer sun shining down through the overhead treetops.
At the moment, Dante was working with a Fur from the previous Class Fifteen, learning to tend sheep in a makeshift pen without spooking the poor critters by someone who resembled a large predator. Arne Kohler was a Fur who had finished his transformation into a male African lion the previous year, one of those who waited for the opportunity to join a starter colony. Despite his fearsome, broad-shouldered physique, the man seemed to do well with the farm animals they would eventually take with them out into the stars, so it had fallen to him to help teach the newcomers.
There were many such activities taking place outside on the grounds on that late summer morning. Some tended animals like Arne and Dante, others were down on their knees in the dirt tending to gardens of food plants, and even a couple was learning to dig a latrine, for even that would be necessary in a colony. Several were working to set up solar arrays that would be taken along for power generation, although most of the items that they took with them would be manually operated without dependence upon power.
The life they would live on some distant world would be closer to nature than modern man on Earth. They had been taught that a simpler, more primitive setting would be their home and they were to try not to depend too much upon generated power for more than a few luxuries. Some equipment was deemed a necessity, however, especially for the communication and medical huts. A connection with the Earth through a geosynchronous relay satellite in orbit above their world would keep them in touch with Stockholm on their progress.
Although the volunteers continued to go through a continual state of change through the transformations, they were all now taking more classes for duty specialization for skills that would be needed to survive. Instruction on medicine, geology, botany, animal husbandry, gardening, cartography, tool-making and many others were available and strongly encouraged. No specific duties had been assigned for their roles in the starter colony, but the more wide-spread the knowledge amongst them all could be, the group would be better prepared should anything happen to someone else.
The youngest Fur among them, Kevin had taken a strong interest in meteorology, and although there were no instructors at the Institute for this particular career field, the young fennec fox had taken it upon himself to enroll in online classes that he focused on when other duties allowed him the free time. He had even implored the director to allow him some time away from the Institute to visit the National Severe Storms Laboratory headquarters in the North American Heartland for hands-on training for weather studies. Marcelo was impressed by the young man's enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge, but the transformation progression was only halfway through the process. Granted, most of the changes yet to occur were mostly internal, but until such time as when he was past all potential dangers, he would have to remain at the Institute.
Although meteorology had never been a required skill out in the starter colonies, it was one that Marcelo agreed could be a great asset in survival. Kevin was understandably disappointed to have his request denied, but unknown to him, the director had already contacted the NSSL headquarters to inquire about having someone come out to the Institute instead to tutor the young Fur. He had yet to get an official response, but he had hopes that it could be arranged.
As Jon looked around the activities of the compound, he spied the young Fur beneath a tree, taking a break from his chore to lap up water from a shallow cup. The youngest of the vixens was sneaking up on him from behind, and as the cougar watched, she slipped around Kevin's face to give the fennec a quick kiss on the cheek.
Jon smiled. The two young foxes had become something of an item among the colonists recently, and although Rose was older than Kevin by a few years, they seemed to get along quite well. Kevin had only dated sparingly in high school, but had never had a steady girlfriend before. Although she was his first real sweetheart, he was taking a mature stance about the relationship and treated her like gold.
The mountain lion smiled inwardly and turned back to his work, but then something else caught his eye off in the distance. Out beyond the lake, he recognized the large hulking form of Whelan Nolan out near one of the perimeter fences. The black bear Fur approached the tall iron bars of the enclosure and only then did Jon notice someone else standing on the other side of the barrier. He didn't know who the woman with the long, flaming-red hair might be, but even from this distance Jon could tell she looked upset.
Whelan spoke with her for several long moments before the woman finally reached into a purse hanging from her shoulder and pulled out a manila envelope. She hesitated before handing it to him through the bars and then leaned forward to kiss the bear on the side of the nose when she did. She reached out to stroke the fur on the side of his face before turning away. Whelan watched her walk back across the gravel parking lot. She got in her car, but didn't start it up right away. Jon thought he could see her head down upon the steering wheel, but after several minutes, she wiped her face and then put the car in gear. Whelan continued standing in place until her car disappeared around a bend in the road that led away from the Institute through the forest.
Jon saw the black bear tuck the envelope inside his robe and then slowly make his way back to the walking trail that surrounded the lake; he briefly wondered if he should go talk to him and lend him an ear.
“Hey, big guy, are you going to daydream all day?” Jenni's voice broke him out of his musing. “Give me a hand with this panel, please?”
Jon blinked and looked over at her, still wondering about the mysterious woman at the fence. Was it the girlfriend that was supposed to have joined Whelan becoming a Fur, but who had instead abandoned him at the last minute, or was she a sister or cousin?
Jenni held up a dark green, fiberluminum panel in her hands and Jon dismissed his thoughts to return his attention to his task. Under the direction of their instructor Sylvia Janes, the two of them were assisting Carl and Ellie in assembling a modular geodesic building of the type they would be using in the colony. The lightweight insulated panels were triangular and designed to fit together across a frame with a minimum of fasteners, but would be sealed between each seam with an insulated foam strip so they would be resistant to outside environment. Being modular, they could be refitted into several shapes and sizes, but the default design they were constructing was a dome approximately twenty-five feet in diameter with a triangular door panel on one side.
Larger versions would be taken along for various purposes, but the smaller domes would be their living quarters on the new world. The panels were made in various shades of dark green, in hopes that the structures might blend in better with its intended environment, but four overhead panels were translucent to let in natural light from the outside. Transparent panels could also be substituted within any frame around the curved walls for a window if desired, but there would be no curtains or shades for privacy when used.
Jon reached into a pocket of the blue vest he wore in addition to his shorts in the warm weather and pulled out several of the fasteners needed to secure Jenni's panel to the dome frame. It only required a simple tool to install the mushroom-shaped clips, which Jon also produced from the vest. He lined up the holes while his companion held the panel in place. He popped in two of them and then Jenni was able to retract her shortened fingers from beneath the seam. She continued to press the triangle up to the frame so he could fish out more fasteners.
The leopard female looked up at him for a moment, and then in a whisper asked him, “How are things going between you and Kristen?”
Jon moved only his eyes to look down at her. “No problems, really. We've not had an argument in weeks,” he replied.
Jenni gave him an impish smile. “You know what I mean,” she whispered. “I've seen her slip into your room some nights when we all turn in.”
The mountain lion snorted. “Don't let your imagination run away with you. We sleep, and that's all.”
“Yeah, right,” Jenni snickered.
The woman took another approach, looking up at him with imploring eyes of gold. “C'mon, Jon… Everyone already thinks you two make a great couple. Why keep your relationship with her covert?”
“Y'know, I wish everyone would stop trying to play matchmaker for us,” Jon muttered. “Really, Jen – Kris and I are only sleeping in the same bed together. We both get lonely sometimes, so we sleep beside one another for the comfort. Nothing else goes on.”
Jenni gave him a sly, half-lidded smile. “So how much sleeping do you actually do together?”
“I have to admit that I've listened at your door, but you two must be awfully qui—”
The cougar leaned in close and put his broad feline nose up against hers. “How many times do I have to say this?” he growled, interrupting her. “I have no intention of getting intimate with a Fur – and you already know why, so drop it.”
Jenni frowned and backed away, stung by his rebuke. “Are you telling me that you and she haven't done anything?”
“I'm telling you just that,” Jon told her. “We sleep. That's all.”
“Do you put your arms around her?”
“Sometimes,” he admitted.
“Does she snuggle up to you?”
Jon's frown deepened. “Always,” he confessed.
“…and do you kiss one another good-night?”
“No-we-don't!” the cougar responded in agitation. “Quit interrogating me, Jen!”
“I find it hard to believe that two consenting adults sleep together and do nothing more than sleep. C'mon, Jon – give in!”
“Not… with a Fur!” he growled, glaring at her.
Jenni furrowed her brow and crossed her arms at him. “That's what you keep saying. What if she were fully human?” she asked him. “Hypothetically speaking, if Kristen was a human woman right now – would you even consider getting intimate with her?”
Knowing the furmankind process could never be reversed, he nodded. “I might,” he answered truthfully, “but that's not the point.”
“Don't you see it, Jon – that is the point!”
“What are you blathering about?”
She leaned forward and pressed a finger against his chest fur. “Let me remind you that you are no longer purely human. If you were to bed a human woman now, then you would be guilty of the same bestiality you accused your ex-fiancée of having with that cougar that you killed! I dare you to tell me it's different!”
Jon was stunned; his tongue was suddenly dry and could do nothing more than stare back at the leopard. Jenni glared at him for a long moment and when he didn't respond, she crossed her arms again. “I guess you never thought of it that way before, have you?” she hissed at him. “You won't get closer to Kristen because she's a Fur, but because of your deep-seated hatred of a mixed relationship, you can no longer get intimate with a full-blooded human! Jon, whether or not you're here by choice, you are now a Fur! That means that because of your beliefs or convictions, the only relationship you can ever have from now on is with a Fur!”
“Jon, Jenni,” Sylvia's voice called out from the other side of the dome. “You're falling behind on your panels.”
Jenni stared at her companion for another heartbeat and then she turned to grab another triangular panel from the stack behind them. Jon fished out several more fasteners from his vest and then started popping them into the remaining holes for the panel they had just set up. He worked in silence for several moments, refusing to look at her.
When it came time for her to put the next triangle into place, he leaned in close to her ear as he lined up the first fastener hole. “Just why are you so adamant about getting me to sleep with Kristen?” he asked in a whisper. “She and I have a good relationship as it is now.”
“I'm sure that's the way you think it is, but Jon, she's more than just lonely,” Jenni replied in a quiet voice. “You two get along well these days, and anyone can see that she enjoys your company, but she always seems so sad when she's by herself.”
“Why me?” Jon asked with a sigh, rolling his eyes heavenward. “There are other single guys on the compound, some of them even from the previous class. If all she wants is a physical relationship, I'm sure she could find a willing guy.”
“Oh, you mean like Travis?” Jenni countered with a dark look. “I thought you saved her from him.”
Jon huffed. “He hasn't bothered her in weeks,” he muttered.
“I'm sure it's because he thinks you two are mated! You stand up for her, you and Kristen attend classes together, eat together for lunch, you've taken nighttime walks around the lake together and you sleep together. Jon… everyone takes it for granted the two of you are a couple. It's only natural since you're both mountain lions and I've heard them talking about you. I'm sure she's overheard the comments too.”
“Perhaps I should spend less time with her,” Jon grumbled, putting more fasteners in place.
“Jon, all that's going to do is make her feel worse. Is that fair to her?”
“Is what you're doing fair to me?” Jon complained. “She and I are already good friends and I like it that way. I don't see a need to change a thing.”
It was Jenni's turn to growl. “Typical male,” she said beneath her breath, “and typically blind to women.”
“Jenni, I'm not looking for a relationship beyond friendship.”
“Right, you've made that perfectly clear since day one, but she needs a relationship. Like your friend Whelan, she's here because of a former lover and now she needs to know she's worth something to someone. She loves your company and would love to have you as more than just a friend.”
Jon challenged her. “You're just making assumptions that she wants what you think she should want!”
“Assumptions?” she repeated in a very gentle whisper. “I know it as fact because she's confided in me. She wants you, Jon. Not some other guy in the institute, and not even one of the other felines. You.”
In a display of anger that surprised the leopard, Jon hurled the fasteners in his hand forcefully at the nearby trees, completely startling Carl and Ellie, who had stopped to take a drink from their water bottles.
“Don't say another word!” he hissed at Jenni. “I don't need a manipulative woman trying to force me into something I don't want. I don't care if you think you're doing the right thing. Kristen is my friend, not my lover. Got that?”
Jenni glared back at him, her bottom lip protruding slightly. “No, Jon. I don't get you at all!”
The mountain lion snarled at her, stripped the vest with the pockets full of fasteners from his shoulders and then hurled it to the ground. Without another word, he turned his back on her and stormed off across the compound.
Jenni let out a little shriek of frustration and angrily stomped on the vest he'd discarded. Sylvia, Ellie and Carl rushed over to her in concern.
“What was that all about?” Sylvia asked. “Is he alright?”
Jenni scowled and had to fight back the tirade she wanted to fill the air with; instead, she closed her eyes and shook her head. “Personal disagreement,” she replied with a sigh.
“Disagreement?” repeated Carl. “That looked like a temper tantrum to me!”
The feline woman looked at the wolf and affixed him with a look of irritation. “Yes, Carl, that's exactly what it was. Let the big baby go pout. I'm through with him!” The wolf raised an eyebrow at her answer; Jon had not been the only one to throw a tantrum.
“But… what happened?” Ellie wanted to know.
Jenni swallowed the unkind retort that welled up in her throat. “Forget it…” she muttered. “C'mon, let's get this stupid dome finished.”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.