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SUNSET OF FURMANKIND

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 33
Coming Up for Air

 

After Jon stormed away from his argument with Jenni, he didn't go back to their Wing, but instead headed out toward the grounds at the back of the complex. He bypassed other activities going on around him in the late morning sun, completely ignoring the curious gazes of onlookers, some of them wondering about the dark expression upon his face.  Without even realizing where he was going, the mountain lion followed the walking trail around the lake toward the five-acre clearing on the back of the compound, but when he was on the other side, he stopped and looked around. A gentle breeze made soft waves upon the water of the lake, lapping at the shore and the sides of the floating diving platform anchored out near the middle.

He could hear voices and the sounds of tools used upon whatever tasks they were set upon, but that was back toward the compound. Out here at the lake, the breeze tousled the branches of the surrounding forest. Limbs rubbed upon one another, boughs creaked, and the chirps and tweets of birdsong were all around him in a setting that should have been peaceful.

Jon closed his eyes and tilted his head back, breathing in snorts through flared nostrils in an effort to calm down. He seethed in anger, mad at Jenni and mad at himself. He had become complacent about the changes going on within his body over time, but it seemed that someone always managed to bring that crashing back down around his fuzzy ears. He was trying to get used to being Fur, he really was, but his colleagues wouldn't leave him alone.

What was wrong with them?  Jenni knew who he was, why he was there, and she was more than familiar with his feelings on the matter. How was he supposed to live the new life of Jonathan Sunset if she or his housemates continued to hurl the old Brian Barrett back into his face at every opportunity?

Jon opened his eyes and looked at the sunlight reflecting upon the ripples of the water. It looked inviting and he made a quick decision. He took three great strides and then dove into the lake without removing his shorts. He knew that the depth dropped off sharply on this end, but he had no intention of diving deep. He had always loved swimming, was well experienced and he intended to see how quickly he could make it across the lake and back, simply for the purpose of working off the stress of anger.

However, this was the first time he had swam since his arrival at the institution, and he immediately realized that the changes in his body over the past months had altered the way he moved when swimming.  The size and shape of his lower limbs operated differently in the water, and his thick rope of a tail created drag where there had been none before. He treaded water for several moments before he figured out just how to adapt to his new configuration. Although he was now partially feline, he had no intention of using a dog-paddle simply on principle.  He experimented with short swims back and forth until he felt he found a technique that worked for him.

The distraction had served to calm him a bit, giving him something else to think about, but once he began swimming out across the middle of the lake in powerful strokes, his mind returned to the reason he was out there in the water.

Over the months they had lived together at the Furmankind Institute, Jon had grown closer to his housemates. Dante could still be annoying at times, but the pain of transformation had mellowed him somewhat, making him more bearable to be around. Jenni seemed to be more caring and protective of everyone around her, but that could simply be due to her compassion as a formerly registered nurse. Although he had initially resisted Kristen, she had become a good friend. She seemed to have a curiosity in the things that interested him and the two of them often had lengthy and somewhat animated conversations. It was true that he spent a great deal of time with her, and although he had developed a great fondness for the intelligent woman, it had nothing to do with the fact that she shared his furman species.

In fact, Jon had thought nothing more of their friendship beyond the friendship in itself. He knew she'd once had an infatuation with him that undoubtedly had stemmed from that first time that he had warded off Travis' attempt to drag her off against her will. However, that was almost six months ago – that was plenty of time for such an infatuation born of trauma to fade away, right?

He had grown fond of her, but he had been truthful when he told Jenni that he had harbored no desires for Kristen beyond that of a friend. Over the course of his stay at the Institute, Jon had never considered himself to be anything more than human, no matter what the mirror reflected back at him each morning, so his feelings toward a relationship with a Fur had never changed.

However, Jenni had surprised and shocked him with her argument. Although he still felt like the man he had always been inside, he could not deny that he was now indeed a Fur. He had either become oblivious to this fact over the months since the injection or he had simply suppressed it from the forefront of his consciousness. True, he had known all along that his body was changing, especially with the very real, painful reconfiguration of his limbs, internal organs and everything else about him, but since his mind was unaltered, his sense of self had never truly accepted the fact that he was no longer fully human.

No matter how much he hated this fact about himself, he could no longer have a normal relationship with a woman – a human woman – ever again. If he tried, he would be no better than Henry Parker.

Jon swallowed hard at that thought. Is this the way Parker had felt about himself? Apparently he'd had no qualms of an intimate relationship with a human woman, so it was possible that just like himself, Parker had not actually thought of himself as a Fur despite the transformation he had gone through.

Despite that the late cougar had stolen his fiancé, Jon thought he now understood the guy's motivation; Rebecca had been an attractive dark-haired beauty. Human or otherwise, though, this didn't change the fact that Parker had ruined his life by messing around with another man's woman.

He mused a bit and came to the conclusion that he could no longer use Kristen's existence as a Fur for his reason to remain friends-only with her. When it came down to it, it was not prejudice that kept him from getting intimate with her – he was simply not interested in a relationship. Perhaps that part of his psyche was burned out after the incident with Rebecca. Whatever the cause, he preferred her as a close friend, but nothing more.

His mind still on these thoughts, Jon reached the opposite end of the lake and immediately pushed off an outcropping of rock back toward the way he had come without consciously thinking of his swimming. He was moving purely on automatic while his mind focused on his dilemma.

If Rebecca had only been friends with Parker and had introduced him to Brian simply as a new acquaintance, he might have become friends with him himself. Instead, Barrett's first encounter with a Fur had been to catch one in bed with the woman he was about to marry. Had Parker been just another man, he'd have faced a jealous fiancé just as countless others had throughout time itself, but since he was a Fur, the horror and hatred escalated for the man whose mate had been taken from him, growing and mutating into a tremendous prejudice against the creations of genetic tinkering.

Jon suddenly bumped into the floating dive platform; he hadn't realized that he was already halfway back across the lake. He began to haul himself up onto the wooden planks, but paused when he noticed the amount of fresh water already upon it. He looked up into the face of a grizzly bear. Primal fear of suddenly facing a wild animal flashed through Jon's mind and he swallowed instinctively, but when the bear gave him a wide, human-like grin, the sudden rush of adrenaline began to fade in the cold water.

“Need a hand up?” the wet Fur asked with a massive outstretched hand paw. The bear wore only a pair of black furman shorts like himself. Rather than crawling out, Jon relaxed against the platform with crossed arms upon its edge, but lightly shook his head with a smile.

“Thanks, but I think I'll stay in the water a little longer,” he said to his new companion.

The grizzly nodded, rolled off his knees, and then sat down near the middle of the small floating platform, letting the water drip from his golden brown fur. “It's a good day for a swim, isn't it?” he said in idle conversation. There was a rumble beneath the low-pitched voice, but it was not threatening.

“Yeah, the water feels good,” the cougar agreed, willing himself to relax. “I don't think we've met before. My name's Jon Sunset.”

The bear looked over at him. “I am Hiamovi Avonaco. I was in Class Fifteen.”

“Haya... movie?”

The grizzly laughed. “Hee-ya-moe-vee Aay-von-ah-ko…” he pronounced.  “I was originally Cheyenne before I became Ursis. If it helps, you may call me Avon like everyone else does.”

Jon couldn't help but grin. “Avon, eh? Are you about to give me your door-to-door sales pitch?”

The bear snickered and shook his head, used to a lifetime of jokes along those lines. “Not unless your fur needs a floral scent.”

Jon chuckled and put his chin down upon his arms before him. “Thanks, but no,” he replied.

“I've seen you around, but this is the first chance I've had to talk with you. Do you mind if I ask you something?”

Jon looked up at him, moving only his eyes. “Feel free to ask,” he responded, “but I'm not in the best of moods right now. I don't guarantee an answer.”

“Fair enough. I wouldn't expect you to spill all your secrets upon a first meeting anyway.”

“Okay, what is it you wish to know?”

Avon sat cross-legged and put his hands upon each knee before looking down at the feline. “I don't know if your class has covered the colonial hierarchies yet,” he began, “but every time the AHCP prepares to send out another starter colony, a committee establishes the leader of that group long before its ship ever sets out from Earth. That leader is appointed by the committee, so that job is not up for a vote by the other colonists. Months before the ship goes out, that selectee is given extra training needed for leading his or her people through five years of survival. No matter what happens, that leader is to remain impartial without playing favorites, keeping the colony's best interests in the foreground at all times, and making sure everyone stays healthy as long as possible.”

“Yeah, one of our instructors covered that,” Jon confirmed. “That's got to be quite a task for whoever is chosen.”

Avon nodded. “Exactly. Although we still have no assignment, the director has confirmed that the next group to go out will be made up of Ursis volunteers taken from all four Furmankind Institutes.”

“Are you going to be their leader?” Jon asked lazily, beginning to feel calm from both the hard swim and the sun warming the fur of his back.

The grizzly chuckled. “As a matter of fact, I am. I have already begun my administrative training and the current Ursis volunteers around the world already know it will be me.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks. As you said, this is going to be a tremendous task with a lot of responsibilities. It also takes the cooperation of the rest of the group to make it work.”

“Don't I know it,” Jon replied drowsily. “I've been an administrator, myself. It takes a lot of skill, leadership and a great deal of luck to corral a group of dissimilar people into a team, especially if you're going to be saddled with Furs transformed at other locations around the world that you won't know very well – if at all. I wish you all the luck.”

Avon smiled. “Thank you. Yes, that's all true and this is why I wanted to talk to you.  I would like to recommend you as the leader of the Felis group when it finally gets its assignment.”

Jon looked up at him in surprise, now fully alert, but then he began to laugh. To suggest that a convicted killer and a confessed hater of Furs be put in charge of a group of them would never be accepted by Stockholm.

“Why are you laughing?” the bear asked with a puzzled look. “Is the idea so preposterous?”

Jon shook his head and then dipped one hand into the water. He splashed some of it into the fur of his face and upon the back of his neck before he responded. “Yeah, I think it would be,” he told him.

“Why?”

“Let's just say that the others would never accept me as their leader. I get along with them okay most of the time, but there's friction to be sure.  I just had a heated argument with one of my housemates, which is why I'm out here instead of back there building a dome. I needed a time-out to cool down.”

Avon looked back at him in amusement. Jon didn't understand the look and it showed on his face.  “Jon,” the grizzly said, “I don't mean to make light of your situation, but I've heard good things about you from others in your class that suggests that you might be the right one for the job.”

“Oh really?”

“Yes, really. You've stood up for a housemate when she needed it, prevented a rape, you've befriended the whole Ursis Wing of your class and have been instrumental in helping one of them who's had a tough time with his transformation. A young fox away from home for the first time was frightened of a Wing full of females when he got here and you invited him to join you in your activities. You're courteous to anyone you speak to and you never refuse help to anyone who asks.” Avon gave him another smile. “Jon, those are all the qualities of someone that others look up to, and that's the kind of things Stockholm looks for in their leaders.”

The mountain lion ducked his head beneath the water momentarily and then resurfaced, snorting water from his nostrils. “There must be a lot of wagging tongues since you seem to be well informed, but are you also aware of how many times I've gotten into trouble with management and one of the other volunteers? I can't seem to stay out of trouble down here or even while I was up on the space station, and I've been anything but impartial. My record here is far from spotless, Mr. Avonaco, and neither is my past life as a human.”

Avon waved a hand idly through the air. “Trouble follows even the good people, Jon. No one is expected to be perfect, not you and certainly not me.”

“I have dark shadows in my past that the AHCP knows about,” Jon mumbled. “That alone would keep me out of the driver's seat you want to put me in. It's probably for the best, though.”

“For the best?”  Avon wouldn't give up.  “Come on, Jon. It's not like you've killed anyone now, is it?”

Jon ducked his head beneath the water again so his companion wouldn't see the expression on his face for that comment. He resurfaced after a long moment, again snorting water from his nose and then wiped a hand across his face fur. He looked up at the grizzly and shook his head. “Thanks, my friend, but it's not going to happen.”

Avon finally sighed. “You're really adamant about not wanting to lead your group,” he said. “Was today's argument with your housemate really that bad?”

Jon looked up at the sky over the lake. The breezes down at the ground level were slight, but up higher in the canopy the winds were causing the treetops to sway. He listened to the rustle of limbs for a moment so that when he answered a moment later, he was more relaxed.

“Just because one of my housemates is of the same species of feline that I am, everyone's trying to play matchmaker,” he explained. “It's not enough that the two of us are good friends, but everyone else wants us mated, and I do mean that in a physical sense. My argument was with my other female housemate, who is just as adamant about getting us together as I am to keep things as they are.”

“What does Kristen think of this?” Avon asked curiously, showing his hand that he knew more details that he had let on. Jon let it slide and just put his chin down on the wooden platform.

“From what I've been told, she's all for it.”

“So what's the problem?”

Jon gave him a look of frustration. “Did Jenni put you up to this so you could lean on me too?”

The grizzly looked affronted at the accusation. “No, she didn't,” Avon retorted. “I'm just curious.”

“I thought curiosity was a feline trait,” Jon responded with a smirk.

Avon shook his head. “We're going to be explorers of an alien world, Jon. We've all got to be curious.”

“Right.”

“So, what is the problem you have with Ms. Kristen? I was under the impression that the two of you were already a couple, just as the Amaranths are a mated pair.”

Jon sighed. “You noted that I had stopped Travis from pulling Kristen away against her will, possibly preventing a rape. It was because of that incident that she ultimately chose to take on the same feline form that I was taking. It wasn't something I'd agreed upon, and we aren't a mated pair; I even tried to talk her out of if before she got her shot. She's the one who thinks we should be more than just friends, and with you it seems like she's got the whole institution on her side.”

“You're lucky,” Avon commented. “Even combined, the Ursis classes are lopsided. We have more males than females, so that when we finally get out there somewhere to set up a starter colony, we're going to have tension right off the bat. One of our girls here isn't too picky about whom she cuddles up to, but the other is just as resistant to the males as you are with your female.”

“She's not my female!” Jon complained.

“You know, for someone who claims to have no interest in a relationship, you do spend a great deal of time in her company. You two are always seen together around the complex.”

“We're just friends!” Jon complained again.

“But she wants more, is that right?”

“Right… that's right.”

Avon shook his head. “Are you afraid of a pregnancy?” he asked in a lowered voice. “Your doctor should be able to provide you with —”

The cougar held up a hand, stopping the bear's comments in their tracks. He knew he couldn't reveal his longstanding prejudice against Furs to Avon, and he certainly couldn't tell him about his true background, so he had to think fast to come up with a plausible explanation.

Without realizing why, the face of Lloyd Gibson suddenly sprang to mind. He blinked at the unexpected memory of the minister who had visited him in prison and grasped at the lifeline presented to him. It would be an outright lie, but it should serve his purpose.

“Mr. Avon,” he said tentatively, “it's simply a matter of personal upbringing.  I like Kristen a lot, but I'm old fashioned and my religious beliefs prevent me from engaging in premarital sex. She and I may have chosen the same Felis species and have grown to be close friends, but despite everyone's attempts at matchmaking, I'm not willing to push our friendship to that level.”

Avon nodded with a new light of understanding.  “Such family values are indeed rare these days, Jon, but I understand and even admire you for them.

“Finally, someone sides with me!” Jon muttered. “Now, can you spread the word so everyone will stop trying to get us together? We aren't married, but I'm not ready to make that kind of a commitment, to her or anyone else.  I simply wish we could be left alone to be friends.”

The grizzly bear nodded. “I'll see what I can do,” he promised, “but that aside, I do wish you would reconsider letting me recommend you as leadership material to Stockholm.”

Jon gifted him with an easy smile. “I really appreciate the honor you want to bestow upon me, but for now all I want to be is just another Fur. I've had painful difficulties with the transformation, both physical and mental, but I'm trying to come to grips with the changes without having additional responsibilities thrust upon me. I don't mind having duties, but I have no aspirations for herding cats as their leader.”

“Ah well, at least I had to try,” Avon acquiesced, looking around. “It looks like the groups have let out for lunch, so I'm going to head back in. You coming?”

“No, not just yet.”

“Well, good luck with your housemates, Jon.”

“Thanks, I'll need it.” 

The large Ursis gave him a nod and then slipped off into the water to begin his swim back to shore. Jon watched him idly until he got to the bank and then pulled himself up onto the diving platform. He heard a few nearby voices, but he paid them no mind. He rolled over onto his back and closed his eyes, letting the sun warm his fur.

The voices erupted into laughter and then he heard several splashes in the lake.  Jon was relaxed and kept his eyes closed, but after several minutes, he felt the platform sway in the water beneath him. There were giggling whispers all around and even with his eyes closed, the mountain lion knew he was surrounded.  Remembering the big snowball fight back in the winter, a water battle seemed imminent.

NEXT CHAPTER

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