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SUNSET OF FURMANKIND

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 34
Nothing But an Animal

 

Jon walked into the Felis Wing, his fur still damp and his jaw rigid and firm. Nurse Marcy looked up from her seat in front of the large video screen where she was reading her PBJ and both eyebrows raised high on her forehead when she realized he wore nothing but his coat of fur. He pointedly did not look at the woman when he walked past her to the linen closet. He grabbed a large towel from the top shelf and then disappeared into the restroom.

Several minutes later, the nurse looked up again when Jenni and Kristen trotted into the Wing, laughing and chatting animatedly between themselves. Like Jon, their fur was damp, but rather than moving with slow deliberate steps, they were rushing to get to the closet towels before they dripped too much water on the carpet. Unlike Jon, however, both were still in their furman garments, though the shorts and tops were soaked.

“Ladies!” Marcy called above their chatter. “What on earth is going on?”

Standing upon a large towel that Kristen had put down for them on the carpet, Jenni gave the nurse a large smirk.  “Jon was being a hothead today, so we dunked him in the lake!”

Marcy put a hand up to her mouth, unsuccessfully trying to hide her smile. “He marched through here a moment ago, naked as the day we put you up against the black wall. I could almost see steam coming out of his ears!”

Kristen grinned at the woman and laughed. “Cheryl got his shorts,” she reported with a smug smile. “She's treating them as a trophy!”

“She was there too?”

Both women wrapped themselves up in towels and then shimmied out of their wet garments, letting them fall to the floor towels at their feet. “Marcy,” Jenni said through a continuous wide grin, “I think all the Furs on the compound were there!”

“Okay, this is a story I've got to hear,” Marcy said with a chuckle, setting her PBJ on the small table beside her.

“Jon had taken a swim and was lying on his back on the platform in the middle of the lake,” Kristen said, patting her fur with her towel. “Jenni said that he'd blown up at her earlier and had gone out to the lake to sulk.”

“What was the issue?”

Kristen shook her head, looking askance at the female leopard. “She wouldn't tell me.”

“That's not important now,” Jenni remarked.

“Anyway,” Kristen continued, “our instructors released us for the afternoon, saying it was getting too humid to do much outside, and when we realized that Jon was out at the lake, several of us agreed that it was a good way to cool off. Jenni, Cheryl, Jasmine, Dahlia and I gathered in the water and decided to gang up on him.”

“Who's idea was that?” Marcy asked with a smile.

Jenni held up a hand with a guilty expression. “Mine. I thought the hothead could use some cooling off, so me and the girls snuck up on him. Cheryl crawled up onto the platform with him to allay his suspicions while the rest of us made our plans.”

“While she kept him engaged in idle conversation,” Kristen supplied, “I innocently crawled up beside her, and then the two of us pounced on him! We grabbed him at the same time, but I think he suspected what we were trying to do. We tried to pull him over the edge, but he resisted until we simply dropped and let our combined weight overbalance him. We all fell off into the water and then Jenni, Jasmine and Dahlia pounced too. “

“The five of us wrestled with him in the water until Jon finally gave in and fought back, trying to dunk each of us.”

“Was he mad?”

Kristen shook her head. “Not really; he seemed relieved to have a distraction, actually.  By this time, others saw us playing in the water and then it looked like a swarm of Furs descending upon the lake as if it was a mass migration!”

“You should have seen it, Marcy!” Jenni laughed. “It was a free-for-all with Furs from both classes! I think just about everybody was there, all splashing, swimming and dunking one another.”

“Wow, I don't think we've ever had that many in the lake all at once before,” Marcy remarked with a smile. “It must have been some sight!”

“I think Sissy took pictures, so it might show up on her daily news report,” Kristen said, squatting down to wrap up her wet clothes in the floor towel; Jenni did the same.

“So… how did Jon lose his shorts to Cheryl?”

Jenni smirked impishly. “She stalked him across the lake like a shark on a hunt. He almost got away from her, but she snagged his shorts by the waistband and he slipped out of them trying to get away.  When he tried to get them back, we all took turns tossing them to one another.”

“Is that when he got mad? He didn't look too happy when he came in.”

“Yeah, none of us would give them back to him, so he finally swam to shore and stalked off across the grounds grumbling to himself in nothing but his fur!”

“He walked bare all the way from the lake to the Felis Wing?” Marcy asked in awe. “Brave man.”

“With his fur soaked with water, there was nothing fluffed up to hide anything from onlookers!” Jenni cackled. “He didn't even try to cover himself up with his hands – he just stormed away as if he didn't care who saw him!”

“Did he go to his room?” Kristen asked. “We need to apologize to him.”

“He grabbed a towel and headed for the showers just a moment ago.”

“Same as us,” Jenni replied. She gestured toward the restroom with a tilt of her head, and then Kristen followed her. Marcy gave them a casual wave and then shook her head with a smile as she retrieved her PBJ. She opened its clamshell case and returned to her reading, but then she heard the outer door of the Wing open again.  Dante sauntered in leisurely, his hands in the pockets of his wet furman shorts.

“Hey, Marcy,” he said casually.

“Dante! You're getting the carpet wet!”

The white tiger looked down at the damp flooring beneath his feet. “Oops,” he replied with a smile. He picked up his pace and headed straight for the restroom with his collar tag jingling, clearly forgetting to grab a towel.  March shook her head again, but this time with a sigh of frustration at the wet carpeting.

She closed her PBJ, set it aside once more, and then walked over to the linen closet. She grabbed up several towels and then got down on her knees on the carpet to daub up water from the carpet before it had a chance to start mildewing in the humid weather.  

*** 

Wandering through the forest on the back side of the Furmankind Institute's during the evening gave Jon the opportunity to leave the others behind. Avon was right in that he had spent a good deal of his time helping others, but that was the way he'd been brought up. Despite this, the grizzly bear's intentions had been groundless, as Stockholm would never allow someone like himself to lead others in a faraway colony. He felt there was little need for Avon to start promoting him anyway.

Planets approved for starter colonies were few and far between, and it was already known that the next world opened for them would be for an Ursis group. It might be several years before other habitable planets were available and there was no guarantee the Felis would be sent to the next one to tame. In all likelihood, Jon would probably be sent to other places across the Earth for further training for that one day when he might be banished out among the stars. Of course, he thought wryly, if he ran up against others out there with the same opinion of Furs as himself, he might never see the stars at all.

Jon walked until he could no longer hear noises from the compound, and as the evening sky grew darker, his enhanced hearing began to pick up sounds of nocturnal critters coming alive in the forest to begin their nightly tasks. He could also detect the gentle gurgle of a stream or brook somewhere close.

The mountain lion crept forward for several moments before he stopped and crouched near a large evergreen tree. Although he had not been consciously aware of it, Jon's digitigrade leg structure had allowed him to get down upon all fours beside the tree and the padding that had developed on the palms of his short-fingered hands protected him from the natural debris of the forest floor.

Looking over a slight drop in the ground level, he peered out over a small brook. He became perfectly still, only his nostrils flaring as he took in the scents around him. The waning sunlight provided his night vision with ample illumination to see a reddish-brown muskrat at the water's edge, its small front feet digging at cattail roots in the soft mud near the bank. The movement held his rapt attention and he caught himself wondering what muskrat would taste like to his new palate.

Taut muscles rippling along his back, Jon crept forward ever so slightly, not making even the barest of sounds, his neck craned forward, feline ears erect and whiskers quivering. The muskrat was unsuspecting for several long moments, but then the gentle breeze wafting through the trees changed direction and the furman's strange scent stopped its movements. The scent was an unfamiliar mix that it wasn't sure it recognized, but caution was so ingrained that it began to move into the water where it would be safer.

Jon's leg muscles sprang into action, propelling him quickly down the short embankment toward the brook. He hit the water with a mighty splash, his head down and his thick rope of a tail out behind him for balance. He darted quickly with his hand paws, but it was his teeth that caught the furred flesh of the muskrat between his fangs. The small creature shrieked and wriggled to get loose, but powerful feline jaw muscles clamped down and ended its struggles with a crunch.

Exhilarated and triumphant, Jon backed out of the water and took his prize back up the embankment. He lay down on a bed of leaves and pine needles and began to eat all three pounds of the aquatic animal. The taste of fresh blood and raw meat on his tongue was like nothing he had ever eaten before and he discovered that he liked it very much. The evening meal settled into his stomach and he wondered why did didn't feel full.

What he did feel, however, was curious warmth in the pit of his stomach that radiated quickly throughout his entire body. He wondered at the sensation, but almost immediately began to grow concerned, for the warmth heated up too rapidly and it didn't take long before he felt like his entire nervous system was burning. Fire shot through his limbs and across the surface of his skin beneath his fur.

The sudden intense pain took him by surprise and robbed him of his breath. He began to pant heavily and tried to get up to his feet, but even his extremities were burning with enough agony that he looked down at his fingers and toes, sure that flames must be engulfing them. The darkness of the night was growing blacker, though sparks were beginning to ping off the internal nerves of his eyeballs as well.

He wanted to scream out in terror, but the muscles in his throat constricted so that the only sound that escaped him was a feline shriek that tore through the night air. He tried again, but the unearthly sound that issued from his mouth set even his own teeth on edge.

The burning intensified and every hair in his pelt felt as if each should be curling up and smoking from the fires within. His muscles quivered in spasms that shook his whole body, and when he looked through the sparks at his right hand, he saw the fingers shriveling up before his eyes as the hand itself deformed into something no longer human.

Despite the fire and agonizing pain, a thought somehow crossed his mind that something had gone terribly wrong with the furmankind process. Over the past six months, the transformation had reconfigured his body into a hybrid of human and feline DNA, but something had triggered an acceleration of mutation and he didn't believe that eating the muskrat had done it.

He screamed again as his body contorted to the reshaping of his entire structure, the agony of reformed flesh, bone and fur reminiscent of what the werewolves of legend must have endured. The difference was that he had already been a cross between man and animal, but now he was beyond that. He was going all the way, transforming completely into a mountain lion!

He thrashed around on the ground in mindless terror. He could feel his humanity slipping away as feline instincts took over and his sense of self faded rapidly into the darkness. He tried to cry out for help, hoping someone would hear him and bring an antidote to quench the fires within, but the only thing his voice could produce was the feline scream of a terrified cougar.

Tears flowed freely from his eyes, born of both pain and despair. He had long feared that he would lose his humanity with the furman transformation and now those fears were realized in the most painful way imaginable.

Moments passed and then the agony had grown too much for his fading cognizance to endure. The cougar's large golden eyes rolled up into his head and then he collapsed against a rotting log. The writhing body became still and the panting wheezes subsided to little more than shallow breaths.

The forest fell quiet in the sudden absence of the commotion. The turmoil brought on by the large cat's pain and anguish had silenced the night sounds utterly, so that only the faint rustle of leaves in the breeze was the only thing to be heard.

Then after many long moments of peace, nocturnal creatures and insects resumed their nightly endeavors. A flying squirrel landed effortlessly on the branch of a tree above the unmoving cougar, studying the great cat with suspicion, but it seemed that whatever danger it might have presented was no longer a concern.  The squirrel launched itself out toward another tree, going about its business.

The night pressed on, unmindful of human clocks designed to mark the passage of time, and soon the mountain lion began to draw in gasping gulps of air into its lungs. The animal opened its eyes and blinked rapidly in disorientation. It chuffed several times to clear its throat and then it got up onto its four feet.  The tawny cat looked around and raised its broad head to sniff at the breeze. Instinct and the smell of blood reminded it had eaten recently, so there was no need to hunt, but there was another, new scent upon the air that it did not recognize.

Leaving the brook behind, the mountain lion set out to search for the source of an intruder into the forest. Although the ground was covered in old leaves and pine needles, the great cat moved quietly through the trees and underbrush, its padded feet effortlessly finding silent avenues in the darkness of night.

The cougar stopped to listen. The snap of a stick reached its ears, its origin up a rocky rise to the left. It sniffed the air and the odd scent seemed to emanate from that direction.  The cat proceeded up the slope, its movement slower but precise.

Another sound, something scraped against rock. The mountain lion crept forward, its body closer to the ground, until its nose topped the rise. Twenty yards ahead was a silhouette outlined against the sky above. The feline did not recognize this tall, bipedal shape, but apparently the creature was not yet aware of the cougar's presence.

Then a sudden illumination from the intruder's upper limbs momentarily blinded the cat and it recoiled in sudden surprise.  The silhouette looked up at the sound and raised the cigarette lighter in his hands. The circle of light revealed the cougar's face peering at him over the rise of the hill and the man in camouflaged clothing scrambled to pull something off his shoulder.

When the mountain lion saw the hunter level a long black stick toward it, something buried in the feline's memory said Danger — Run! The cougar stood up to get away quickly, but a sudden boom louder than any crack of thunder or lightning flashed bright light in the darkness and then something slammed hard into his right shoulder.

The mountain lion screamed in the darkness as another boom came accompanied by searing pain. The cat tried to run away, but something was wrong with its legs. It stumbled down the hill and then fell headlong into a hard rocky surface.

The tawny cat bounced off the immovable object and he quickly cradled his head with both hands, both eyes squeezed tightly shut. Tears escaped into his cheek fur and it was moments before he could raise his head again. When he did, Jon opened his eyes and saw the illuminated numbers of the clock beside his bed. It was just a few minutes past one o'clock in the morning and he was on the floor beside his dresser.

Disoriented and confused, he raised a hand up in front of his eyes and even in the dim illumination coming from under the bottom edge of his room's door he could tell that the limb before him was that of a Fur, not a fully formed cougar.

Jon swallowed with difficulty and pulled himself up onto the edge of his mattress. His throat was sore and dry, so he reached for the bottle of water he normally kept on the lamp table beside the clock. The bottle was empty and he dropped it to the floor in frustration.

He looked across the bed, expecting to see Kristen's sleeping form in the darkness, but he was alone in the small room.  He gathered up his wits and his courage and then stumbled from the bed to the door. When he opened the panel, he saw all three of his housemates at the far end of the saloon, each occupying seats in front of the large screen where they watched a recently made vid into the early hours of the night.  He vaguely remembered being invited to join them, but he had begged off, citing the stresses of the day having left him exhausted.

One foot was tingling, the only part of him actually asleep at that moment, and he stomped it on the floor as he walked around the common area pit and across the large room. The stomping drew the attention of his housemates and Dante paused the vid to look back at him.

“Hey, old man,” the white tiger said over his shoulder, raising the remote in greeting. “You come to join us after all?  It's almost over now.”

Jon rubbed a hand across his face and shook his head. “I've gotta go back,” he murmured, brushing aside the long red bangs of his human scalp hair.

“You're going where?” Jenni asked, looking at him over the back of her chair. When she saw his disheveled appearance, she frowned deeply. “Wow, Jon, what happened to you?”

“I've gotta go back,” Jon mumbled again. He stomped the foot that had fallen asleep, but didn't stop beside his housemates. Instead, he made his way to the double doors of the Felis Wing lab.  When he got to the door, he raised a fist and pounded on the panel.

“I've gotta go back!”  he yelled at it.

“Go back where?” Kristen inquired, suddenly concerned for her friend.

“I can't take this anymore!” Jon shouted as he pounded on the door again. “I don't want to be a stinkin' cat!  I want to be human again!”

Dante shook his head. “Sorry, guy. You know what the Doc told us. This is a one-way street, Jon. There's no going back.”

“I don't want this!” Jon shouted. “I want to be human again!”

Impatient to get back to his vid, Dante growled in frustration. “Hey, just remember that you're here because you wanted to escape a death sentence! You may be part cat, but at least you're still alive!”

Jon ignored him and pounded again on the lab door, but this time it opened and Don Renwick groggily looked out at him in irritation.

“What's the matter, Jon?” he asked, gathering a thin cotton robe around him. “I heard you shouting something about going back.  Back where?”

The cougar furman pushed his way into the lab, leaving the others behind. Renwick looked in at him in surprise and waved a hand toward him. “Jon, stop! You aren't allowed in here.”

“I've got to go back, Doc,” the feline's voice cracked as he paced back and forth across the room. “I can't do this anymore.  Tell Marcelo that I want to try the reverse formula — it didn't work for that canine woman, but it might for me!”

The physician put his hands into the pockets of his robe. “We can't do that,” he replied patiently. “Stockholm won't authorize it again.”  Then after studying his companion's distraught expression, he asked, “Jon, what's happened? I thought you'd come to terms with what you're becoming.”

The feline furman rubbed his face. “Nightmares, Doc; lucid like the ones I had on the space station. I've been having a lot of them lately and they're getting more intense. Tonight was the worst yet, where I dreamed the process didn't stop with me going halfway between human and animal. I became a mindless creature in the woods, with no thread of my humanity left to me.” He shook his head violently from side to side. “I'm afraid that's what will really happen to me!”

Doctor Renwick nodded as if realization dawned on him.  “Jon, this is a time in your development where the chemical generators in your brain are in flux. For months, you've experienced numerous physical changes, but now your brain itself is undergoing chemical alterations. It's a natural part of the process. A byproduct of this action is increased dreaming.”

“No, I don't think it was a dream, it was a premonition! This is where I lose my humanity, isn't it?”

“Jon, you will never lose your humanity, but you will gain more elements of the feline. The chemical imbalance may put you all on edge for a while, and is likely the cause of your recent nightmares, but you will come through it just fine — just as have all the others before you.”

“You're lying! This is what I've been afraid of all along — I'm losing myself!”

“Jon, stop! You're okay — really!”

“I don't believe you!” He looked up with a wild glint in his eyes and then grabbed the doctor by the shoulders. “Before it gets worse — if you can't change me back, you've got to kill me!”

“Jon, that's not —”

Please! I don't want to be a mindless animal!”

“Jon, you're not —”

“I should have been executed anyway!”

Renwick cleared his throat. “Jon, it's long been too late for that.  Too much time and money has been invested in saving you and implementing your transformation. There will be no executions here.”

The mountain lion looked at him sharply. “You knew?” he asked incredulously. “You've known all along who I am, who I was?”

The doctor nodded. “Marcelo thought it best if I was aware of your past and just what it would mean to you while going through the program.”

A look of rage flashed across Jon's face. He rushed forward and towered over the physician. “I should kill you right now,” he said with bared teeth.

Undaunted, Renwick merely raised an eyebrow. “What purpose would that serve? I'm the one keeping you alive.”

“Kill me,” Jon said.

“That's not an option.”

“Kill me,” Jon said again. “Please!”

“No.”

The cougar reached out and grabbed the doctor by the throat with a swift hand, putting his claw tips just over the man's jugular vein. “I've heard the suicide by cop scenario is effective,” Jon growled. “If you won't kill me, then I'll have to kill you. The authorities will have no choice but to shoot me dead!”

Despite the fact that a hybrid of human and mountain lion had him by the throat in a tight grip, Renwick was used to such mood swings by volunteers he had worked with in the past. He knew the potential for danger was there, but he looked into Jon's eyes with a piercing directness of his own.

“If you murder me, don't count on getting your way,” he wheezed through the fingers clutching his throat. “Rather than destroy you, the guards here would sedate you and then an old but reliable surgical procedure would be performed on your brain to wipe your memories, Jon. Afterward, you would simply resume the furmankind process as a simpleton to be retrained as the Institute sees fit.”

Jon relaxed his grip slightly, his eyes growing wide.

“This is typical of convicted Death Row inmates who undergo the process such as you,” Renwick added, “and this would have been done to you had the judge not granted you mercy and left your memories intact. Kill me and I would be dead, but that would not change your future.”

Jon stared at him in disbelief. He literally held the doctor's life in his hands and he could easily snap the human's neck, but yet Renwick betrayed no fear of him. Instead, he coldly gave him the facts on what he could expect, and with the realization that he could be turned into a mindless animal anyway, a chill coursed its way up and down his spine.

Jon released the doctor and stumbled away. He found a roller stool near the wall, sat down on it hard and then buried his face in his hands. It took every bit of the strength he had left to keep from shaking in despair, and that in itself made him feel weak.

A moment later, he felt a gentle hand upon his shoulder. When he peered up through moist eyes, Renwick looked back at him with such compassion that Jon had never seen from him before.

“Jon,” he said quietly in a raspy voice, rubbing his throat, “you have no reason to be afraid. Your past is behind you and you have a long future ahead of you. I have sworn to make sure that the transformation goes as planned and that you are strong and healthy when the process has finished. Yes, you've experienced more pain and agony in the last six months than most people ever will in their entire lifetimes, and I can't disguise that there will be more before it's over, but I promise you that we will all help you become the furman you are destined to be. Your memories, your mind, will and emotions will all be intact — your humanity will be intact. You won't lose yourself to the animal, but you will have to embrace him in order to survive.”

He squatted down in front of the feline and patted his furry knee. “Don't be afraid, Jon. The nightmares may be intense and you are likely to have more of them, but remember that's all they are, bad dreams and nothing more.  Your subconscious is feeding on the fears you've harbored ever since you got here, but know in your heart and in your mind that you're going to be okay. We've been doing this process for many years and we haven't lost anyone in a long, long time.”

Jon Sunset swallowed and cleared his throat. He wanted to believe the doctor's words were true — he really wanted to believe, but it would take an incredible strength to convince himself of this.  He searched the physician's eyes for any sign of deception, but couldn't find any.  Finally, he nodded and sat up straighter on the stool.

“I've never really believed in shrinks,” he said in a raspy voice, “but I think after this, I'm going to need a session with Professor Flynn.”

“That's what she's here for, Jon. She may not have all your answers, but sometimes all it takes is for someone to listen when you need to get things off your chest.”

“I have just one question.”

“Yes?”

“My housemates know of my past, but that was an accident that they found out. Marcelo knows everything, and you apparently know some of it yourself.  Does Professor Flynn know too?”

Renwick stood up and rubbed his sore throat again. There were tiny pinpricks in the skin where the claws had rested, but there would be no lasting damage. “Honestly, I don't know, Jon. It wouldn't surprise me if she did, but if Marcelo has told her, I'm not aware of it. Even if I hadn't been informed of your background, I sincerely doubt I would have ever known it from her. Angelina is completely trustworthy, I assure you. Do you want me to set up a time with her for you?”

Jon let out a long sigh and finally nodded. “I think it's time I got to know her,” he said at last, “but there's no need to bother her tonight. I'll look her up myself tomorrow.  For now, I think I need to go back to bed and see if I can make it through the rest of the night without another panic attack.”

“Do you want something to help you sleep?”

He shook his head. “No, I think I've stressed myself so much today that exhaustion is about to kick in. I'll be surprised if I even dream at all now. I'm about ready to collapse.”

“Okay, then. Why don't you get yourself a cool drink of water and then go back to your bed? We'll talk again in the morning and you can let me know if you've had any more trouble.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Jon said with genuine emotion. “I really appreciate what you did for me tonight, and I'm sorry for choking you. Sometimes it takes a hard reminder to get through this thick skull of mine. Thank you.”

“You're welcome and forgiven. Now, get some rest. You need it.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” Jon replied with a weary smile. “Good night.”

Renwick gestured toward the door and the mountain lion took the direction. The doctor shut the lab doors behind him and then Jon walked quietly toward his housemates, feeling guilty about the scene he had caused, especially with the doctor. The vid was just ending and it was several moments before any of them realized that he had joined them.

“Well, if it isn't the mad cat,” Dante taunted with an eye on an escape route across the room in case the cougar came after him.

After what Jon had just gone through, the large cougar was instantly irritated by Dante's ribbing. He took three steps toward him and the white tiger made a hasty retreat toward the front door of the building. He stopped at the hall lined with past furman portraits and peered back at Jon from the corner wall, but there was no amusement in his eyes now.

The mountain lion stopped and dropped into Dante's vacated chair, feeling weary. Jenni remained in her seat, her hands together in her lap, but Kristen immediately took up a position behind him to give his shoulders a tentative rub.

“Are you okay?” she asked quietly.

Jon looked back at her and nodded. “I will be,” he replied. “I had a nightmare, a panic attack, and the good doctor gave me a stern talking-to.”

“You looked like you were pretty frantic,” Jenni ventured.

He gave her a weary smile and got back up to his feet. “I was frantic, but I think I'm better now. All I need is some rest.”

The mountain lioness stepped around him tentatively, but when he merely looked down at her, she stretched out her arms and then wrapped them around his middle. “You look like you could use a hug,” she told him, resting her head on his shoulder.

The large furman slipped his arms around her in agreement. “Yes, after today, I definitely need a hug. Thanks, Kris.”

“Well, isn't that special!” Dante commented with a cackle. He had snuck back toward the group, and the cougars looked back just in time to see he and Jenni hug one another comically with wide flailing arms and exaggerated grins.

“D'awwwwww…” Jenni remarked in a childish voice. “He wuvs me!”

The levity broke Jon's irritation at the other male. He looked down at Kristen and the two of them chuckled together. He waved a hand casually in the air and shook his head. “All right, you yahoos. I'm going back to bed.”

When he turned to go, Kristen turned with him. He looked down at her and suddenly looked solemn. “If you don't mind,” he said gently, “I think I need to sleep alone tonight.”

The short botanist looked hurt. “Are you sure?” she whispered as they walked across the saloon. “You really look like you need the comfort of someone beside you after your panic attack.”

“Thanks, Kris, but I've got some thinking to do before I drift back off to sleep and I don't need the distraction. Doctor Renwick gave me something serious to mull over.”

“Perhaps you should see the counselor. She helped me through a rough time a few months back, and I've seen her a few times since.”

“Believe it or not, that's one of the things Doc suggested. Now I need to figure out just how much of my background she needs to know when I talk to her.”

“Does Doctor Renwick know?”

“Yeah, he told me Marcelo gave him the details when I first arrived, but I'm not sure about Professor Flynn.”

“I won't distract you,” Kristen tried again.

Jon shook his head and touched her gently on the arm. “Not this time, Kris. I appreciate the offer, but this is an occasion I really need some alone time.”

She didn't look convinced, but she finally nodded. “Okay,” she whispered, “but if you have another nightmare, don't hesitate to crawl in beside me in my room. I'll behave.”

“Thanks. Good night, Kris.”

She looked up at him with a smile. “Good night, Jon-boy. I'll see you in the morning.”

NEXT CHAPTER

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