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SUNSET OF FURMANKIND

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 35
A Shot in the Dark

 

Dante wiped his eyes and reached out for the coffee pot on the kitchen counter. Despite all the changes he had endured over the past months, he was glad that he had never lost his taste for coffee. So many things were different now, but he needed his wake-up in the morning, especially after a restless night. 

He poured the dark liquid into a white cup decorated with a smiling black kitty, and when the aroma caressed his feline nose, his expression quickly mirrored the one on the cup. His appearance may have altered, but he still enjoyed his coffee. All it needed was a touch of cream and it would be perfect.

He no longer resembled the 'before' photograph of himself hanging in the entry hall of the Wing, but that didn't bother him. He had always known that no matter what he went through, he was going to enjoy being a Fur. Although he had originally joined the AHCP as a desperate attempt at life when things were bleak, he had grasped the concept of a Fur wholeheartedly. He had regular meals, a place to stay, new friends, a job for life and a future. The changes had given him robust stamina like he had never had in his life, he was taller due to digitigrade legs and feet, his sight and hearing were many times more sensitive than any human's, and despite even the worst of the pain from the transformations, he was a good sight healthier than he had ever been too.

Dante Capanari liked being a Fur, and although he knew that he would ultimately be going out into deep space to some strange new world, he planned to make the most of his life. The white tiger that stared back at him in the mirror each morning was a welcome friend.

In recent weeks, he and his housemates had been taking regular sessions with Professor Angelina Flynn, the Furmankind Institute's resident psychologist, but he never felt he had any real issues to work out with her. He spent most of his time praising the people and methods of the place, always looking forward to learning new things that would be helpful in starting up a new colony.

He had to admit that some of his nights were not exactly peaceful, though. He could never recall any details the next morning, but his sleep was often disturbed by terrible, nightmarish dreams, much like the one he'd had last night. Professor Flynn always pressed him gently for details of the nightmares, but he could never recall them. She was afraid that he was purposefully repressing them, but Dante simply could not remember what they were.

What did it matter? he often thought to himself. His waking life was full of wonder and discovery, and Dr. Renwick had already explained that the chemical imbalances in flux in their brains were the cause of the bad night visions. Dante had taken his word at face value, knowing the physician was long familiar with the furmankind process. He didn't feel threatened by them, so merely brushed them off each time.

“There he is again,” said a smooth voice behind him, “hogging all the coffee.”

He turned around and looked into the smiling face of a mountain lioness. “I'm not hogging it,” he replied, cradling his precious cup to his chest, “I'm protecting it from consumption by heathens such as yourself who don't appreciate good java as much as I do.”

“Put the cup down, back away from the coffee pot and no one gets hurt,” Kristen told him with a grin. “I have great appreciation for magical morning elixir. I need it to get my motor purring.”

Dante smiled and gave her a short bow as he stepped away with his cup, granting her access to the pot of coffee. A moment later, Jenni stuck her head into the doorway, her blonde human bangs falling into her eyes. She brushed them aside and then tapped on the wall.

“Hey guys,” she said with a guarded look on her face.

“G'morning,” Dante replied. 

Kristen noticed the leopard woman's expression. “Hi, is anything wrong?” she asked.

Jenni looked as if she wanted to bite her bottom lip, but just managed to avoid that mistake. “Uhm, how are you feeling about yourself today?”

Kristen raised an eyebrow. “Now that I have my coffee, I'm good.”

“Same with me,” added the tiger.  “Why?”

Jenni swallowed. “Marcy just informed me that it's time for our next appointment with the black wall.”

Dante frowned at his companion, but the cougar chuckled and took a sip from her cup. “Is that all?” she asked. “What time do we begin?”

Jenni looked puzzled; Kristen's dislike for the digital measuring process was legendary across the compound. “Jon's just started his session. I volunteered to go next.”

“Jon’s already started?” the mountain lion asked in obvious disappointment. “Oh-kay, I’ll go after you then.”

Dante reached out and put a hand on Kristen's fur-covered forehead. With a solemn expression, he looked over at Jenni and shook his head. “I don’t feel a fever,” he said. “Perhaps she’s a doppelganger sent to infiltrate our numbers.”

“All right, who are you and what have you done with the real Kristen?” Jenni demanded in mock seriousness.

The cougar laughed aloud and took a sip of her coffee. “Okay, I confess. I’m the real Kristen Eisenberg, but I’ve been sent back from the future with a message for the Kristen of this time,” she replied with bright golden eyes.

Dante snickered. “What is the message? We’ll get it to her so you can skedaddle before she sees you and causes a universe-imploding paradox.”

The feline woman grinned at her friends. “Tell her the black wall is a good thing and that it’s nothing to be afraid of. She’s been feeling better about her self image more than she ever has in her life. Besides, she’s fully covered in fur, so it’s not like she’ll be up there naked anymore.”

Jenni giggled and clapped for Kristen’s performance. “That wasn’t Oscar material,” she laughed, “but convincing enough.  If you want, you can go next.”

The botanist affected a short bow. “Thanks, I think I will. Maybe I can talk Jon into staying behind.”

“Still trying to get him interested?” Dante mused aloud.

Kristen nodded. “I’m still hopeful.”

“I think he made up that story that’s been circulated about his beliefs being the reason he’s not sleeping with you,” the tiger snorted. “That may work for everyone else, but I still think he’s got Fur-issues.”

“He won’t admit it anymore,” Jenni added, “but I think you’re right.” She looked over at the cougar. “He never joins us in a cozy feline nap pile in the pit, but are you two still sleeping in the same bed?”

Kristen shook her head. “No, he keeps making up excuses whenever I bring it up, so I think I’m about ready to give it up.”  She sighed and looked down at her robed body. “I’m not a stick-figure like some of the females here… I mean, I’m no longer overweight like I was, but I’m still a little meaty. Maybe that’s why he…”

Dante interrupted her with a wave of his hands. “It has nothing to do with your figure, darlin'. Believe me when I say that from a guy’s perspective, you’ve become a knockout! If I wasn’t already involved with Jenni, I might go after you myself!”

Jenni gave him a smirk and reached out to lightly pinch his cheek. “I feel flattered you’ve singled me out, but I thought you weren’t planning to limit yourself to a single female, oh roaming male cat!”

Dante grinned openly. “Are you suggesting that I go after both of you?” He looked over each female and waggled his eyebrows meaningfully. “It’s an intriguing idea…”

Kristen laughed aloud and took a step back away from both of them. “Thanks, but no thanks. I appreciate the flattery, but Jon’s the one I’m interested in. Despite his past, I think I’ve always been attracted to him.”

“She has a thing for muscle-bound redheads,” Dante quipped.

Jenni crossed her arms and shook her head. “I think it’s time to cut your losses, dear. There are plenty of other single males on the grounds who are watching your new figure with interest. If you give one a chance, I don’t think you’ll be alone for long.”

“Yeah, I know…” Kristen replied. “He hasn’t bothered me in a while, but Travis still watches me. I don’t think he knows I see him, but he’s been there.”

“I didn’t mean him,” Jenni scoffed.

“Want me to introduce you around to some of the guys from Class Fifteen?” Dante offered. “They may not be the same species, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get some enjoyment out of knowing them.”

Kristen shook her head. “Thanks, I appreciate the offer, but I think I’ll keep trying with Jon for a while longer. Sooner or later, he’ll come around to my way of thinking.”

“I don’t know,” Dante said somberly. “He’s been on edge like the rest of us have been, but I think it’s hit him harder than anyone else. He probably won’t be any more receptive than he already has… probably less so.”

Kristen closed her eyes for a moment. “Maybe, but surely he’s as lonely as I am.”

“Do you think he might prefer guys?” Jenni wondered aloud.

Dante shook his head. “No, the big lunk likes women all right. I think he's still hung up on that girl he was supposed to marry.”

“I don't know about that,” Kristen replied. “I see anger in his eyes anytime she's mentioned.”

“Yeah, but he's the one who keeps mentioning her,” Dante retorted.

“Well, then, Kristen,” Jenni said, “I wish you all the luck.”  She looked up at the kitchen clock and gestured toward it. “He should be done shortly, so if you want to be next, you should probably finish your coffee and get over to the lab.”

Dante slipped in beside the botanist and surprised her by sliding an arm around her waist. “If you don’t have any more luck with him, you know where to find me, darlin',” he said with a sly expression. “Jenni just gave me permission to play around if you want it.”

Kristen patted him lightly on the cheek and gave him a wink. “Thanks, I’ll keep your number on file.”  They all knew she was only kidding, but Dante slid his hand down her back toward her tail. Before he could reach it, however, she slipped out of his grasp and headed for the door with a giggle. She was pleased with the flattery, but she still felt left out with Jon’s refusal to get close. She’d thought they had become good friends, but if anything, he seemed a little more distant lately with each day. Perhaps it was the chemical imbalance that the doctor had told them about, but just possibly it was her.

She didn’t see Jon on her way to the lab, so he might still be in the back room. She found a cool spot on the wall beside the double doors and parked herself to await her turn. Several long moments went by and idle thoughts returned to the conversation with Dante and Jenni.

What if they were right? Perhaps it wasn’t her after all, but Jon’s original feelings toward Furs that kept him from accepting her? She doubted that anyone but he could ever change that, so her hopes may be groundless.

Perhaps Jenni and Dante were right. Maybe she should give up on Jon and look to one of the other males for company. It was anybody’s guess how long it might be before any of them were called to serve on another world, and since she was lonely now, it might be time to look around.

She began to picture the other males in her mind and the first ones she thought of were the cousins, Aaron and Gerard. They might be brown bears, but both were charming and had always been nice to her. She smiled to herself and shook her head. Aside from Kevin and Rose, Kristen was one of the shortest volunteers and the thought of her up next to someone as large as those two made her chuckle inwardly; it would be like cuddling up to a massive stuffed teddy bear won at a county fair.

Ideally, she should probably make friends with the two feline males from Class Fifteen, a lion and a cheetah. She'd only met them in passing and subsequently couldn't even remember their names. Likewise, there were several male foxes in Class Fifteen that she thought were handsome in their vulpine way, but she was sure that Jasmine and Dahlia had already singled them out in private. There was a red wolf and two other canines she could also consider. She didn’t know any of them as well, but had spoken with them all only briefly during the last few months; each of them seemed nice at the least.

Before she could stop herself, even the face of Travis sprang to mind. She had no doubt that he would take her with just a single kind word. Perhaps now that he was no longer actively trying to take her by force, should she give him a chance? No, the answer jumped up immediately. He’d been working just as hard on some of the other females lately and hadn’t exactly enamored himself to any of them. He wasn’t looking for a relationship, only a conquest.  No, no matter how lonely she got, Travis was not an option.

Kristen sighed aloud and rubbed her eyes. She was a cat, and while cats can be solitary creatures, they also tended to congregate for company and even napped together in piles. Jon seemed to be one of those who would be solitary no matter which species he might have been. Was he repulsed by the outer furmankind ugliness he saw in them all, or was it she herself that he didn’t want to get close to?

The door to the lab finally opened and Jon walked out. He glanced over at her with a solemn expression and merely gestured with a thumb over his shoulder that it was her turn. Aside from that, he didn’t speak or otherwise acknowledge her. He merely left her beside the door and headed across the saloon toward the exit.

“Good morning, Jon,” she said quietly.  Without looking back at her, he lifted a hand and waved over his shoulder. She watched him with a frown until he disappeared around the corner into the entry hall and then she turned toward the lab. Facing the black wall would be nothing compared to the cold shoulder she had just received.

She heaved a heavy sigh and pushed through the door. After Marcy and Dr. Renwick were through with her, she thought it might be time to set up another unscheduled session with Professor Flynn about her latest bout with depression.  

*** 

Jon stepped outside and stopped beneath the awning. He waited until the door shut behind him and then he looked back at it with a sigh. He didn't like treating Kristen so frostily, but it was the only thing he could think of that might derail her pursuit of his affections. He was actually rather fond of her, but as he had told Avon, he simply didn’t feel attracted to her as anything more than a close friend. If that was not enough for her, then he had no choice but to ignore her as much as he could. He'd had no plans to give her a complete silent treatment, but just after being made to stand spread-eagle up against the wall and exposing himself for the doctor’s measurements, he hadn’t felt like chatting – especially since he was well aware of her thoughts concerning that black wall.

He didn’t feel like hanging around the Wing for breakfast, so he headed across the grass toward the cafeteria. On his way over, he spied Kevin Rockwell and Michael Lynch sitting beneath a nearby tree with both of their PBJs open in front of them. They seemed to be engaged in an animated conversation, though neither of them seemed angry.  Curious, he felt breakfast could wait a little longer, so he turned toward them to see what was going on.

“Hey, guys,” he said, coming to a stop beside their tree. Both foxes looked up at him with friendly expressions.

“G’morning,” the Swift fox replied to him.

“Hi, Jon,” said the fennec.

“You two look like you’ve discovered a secret of the universe,” the feline said with a smile, kneeling down beside them.

Michael chuckled and tapped the screen of the Personal Business Juxtapositioner in front of him. “Kevin was giving me an example of the things he’d learned from an online meteorology course he’s been taking. Although he’s had no formal hands-on training, he’s been learning weather prediction using radar and satellite imagery and nationwide reporting stations, and he was giving me his personal predictions for the next couple of days.”

“Yeah, that sounds cool,” Jon said, nodding toward the smaller fox with the large ears. “Those skills will come in handy out there on some remote planet, and I’ll bet you’ll be top notch with the enthusiasm you’ve had learning about it.”

Kevin looked as if he really wanted to enjoy the praise from the large feline, but he also looked embarrassed, as if he’d been caught passing notes in school. Jon noticed and tilted his head slightly.

“Yeah, I thought so too, until Mike pointed out something that I hadn’t thought of,” the fennec replied.  Michael snickered, but patted his friend as if in consolation.

“What was that?” Jon asked.

“When I’m on some other planet where my group makes up the entire sentient population of that world, I won’t have access to radar equipment or geosynchronous satellites and there won’t be any nationwide reporting stations.” Kevin looked pained and then put his hands together in his lap. “I’ve been learning the wrong things. I need to learn weather forecasting without remote instruments.”

Jon twitched an ear and matched it with an unconscious swish of the thick rope of a tail behind him. “I can see where that might be a problem,” he mused aloud.

Michael pulled up a few blades of grass in the morning sun and held them up. “You’ll need to go back to primitive methods,” he said. “If the grass is wet, it’s been raining, or if your weather beetle is upside down in its box, it might be too hot!”

Kevin gave his friend an evil eye, but then snickered.  Jon smiled, but then looked up at the sky where lazy clouds floated overhead. The summer day was starting out nice today, where it had been hot and humid for the past week. He silently wondered if the young fox's predictions included a cool front.

He looked back down at Kevin and said, “The folks here at the Institute keep saying how much they’re going to take care of us, to make sure we have the training and supplies we need to survive on another world. I don’t know if it’s already on their manifest, but I’m sure Stockholm would be willing to send along some local weather sensing equipment.” Kevin and Michael both looked at him in interest.  “I know from our instruction classes that technology at a colony site will be limited and powered equipment might not be available. However, you may be allowed the equivalent of a home weather station with a dry-bulb thermometer, which is standard for actual air temperature, a wet-bulb thermometer for the evaporative or felt temperature, a barometer, an anemometer, wind vane, hygrometer and a rain gauge… possibly even a solar radiation sensor for evapotranspiration.”

“Evapo—what?” Michael asked with a raised eyebrow.

Jon smiled. “Evapotranspiration,” he repeated. “It measures the potential for evaporation of moisture from the soil – a handy thing to have in a place where you plan to grow crops as a food source.”

“Did you used to be a weatherman?” Kevin asked in surprise, thinking over Jon’s list in his mind.

The cougar chuckled and shook his broad head. “No, but I used to have a home kit like that when I was in college. Of course, I didn’t take it all seriously, since I never figured I’d ever need the stuff with all those available weather satellites, radar and reporting stations. It was just a passing interest during one semester. By time the next semester came around, I’d already moved on to other interests.”

“What kind of interests?” Kevin asked out of curiosity.

Jon looked at the young fox and grinned showing all his teeth.  “Girls,” he replied. His companions laughed at his expression and then he stood up again.  “Kevin, don’t get yourself down about what you’ve learned so far,” he said. “Even learning weather patterns and models through modern equipment, I’d wager you’ve already discovered a lot of knowledge that can still help you out there on an uninhabited world. Go talk to the director and request a home weather kit like I had. They should be readily available and I doubt it would be much of an expense for the Institution to request of Stockholm. The director can probably also help you get the right kind of instruction for what you need, too.”

“Thanks, Jon,” the fennec fox said in appreciation. “I will.”

“I’ll see you guys later,” Jon told them. “I hear breakfast calling my name.”

“Actually, I think that’s Manny calling your name,” Michael said with a smile.

Jon looked up and realized that someone was calling his name.  He looked around and saw an arctic fox approaching them from the direction of the Institute’s main offices. Jon had seen the older individual around the complex, but they had never actually spoken to one another before now.

The mountain lion waited until the other fox stopped before the little group. “Good morning,” the white Fur said with an accented voice. He nodded to all three of them, but looked up at the taller cougar.

“Might I have a word with you, Mr. Sunset?” he said, extending a hand. “I am Manny Frigh, Class Fifteen.”

Jon stepped around his friends. “Excuse me, guys,” he said, taking the white fox’s hand. “Jon Sunset, Class Sixteen. What can I do for you?”

“See you. Thanks again, Jon!” Kevin called while Michael cheerfully waved.

Jon followed Manny out across the lawn, but the fox didn’t say anything until they were out of earshot of the others. “I have just been to the director’s office and it was he who suggested I look you up.”

“Okay,” Jon replied. “What can I help you with?” Although his companion did not seem to be leading him anywhere in particular, the cougar gestured toward the Clark Savage building, still intending to get some breakfast. Manny followed his lead with a simple nod.

“As you know, one day we will all find ourselves on a strange, new world where very little is known about the place and the potential for hostile danger may lurk around every rock and tree.”

“Yeah, I don’t think some of our volunteers have fully grasped what we’ll be facing,” Jon agreed.

“It is this I am hoping to change,” said the fox. “The director has granted approval for me to hold a class instructing all our Furs in gunmanship. In addition to our teeth and claws, all starter colonies are equipped with a small armory of rifles, handguns and ammunition for protection, but putting such weapons into the hands of the inexperienced often increases the danger to everyone around them. I want everyone in our two classes to have some experience in handling the firearms we’ll be taking along. I wanted to make this mandatory, but Marcelo would only agree to let us hold it for anyone who might be interested.”

Jon nodded and opened the door to the building they had approached. “The class sounds like a good idea. I know I’d be more comfortable knowing that one of my colony mates wasn’t going to shoot me or his own foot by accident.”

Manny followed him into the building and across a busy room up to the serving line. The fox selected only a small cluster of grapes while Jon loaded up a tray with breakfast items.  Their conversation paused until they found a small table to themselves. Humans and Furs alike were all in their own private discussions over their meals.

As Jon began to eat, Manny continued. “Marcelo tells me that you grew up around firearms and are a skilled hunter, Mr. Sunset. Since you have such experience, I would like to invite you to assist me instructing a shooting class to be held on the back side of the compound where a firing range can be set up at a natural embankment perfect for use as a back stop.”

The cougar looked up at him and swallowed his food. He took a sip of orange juice and then nodded. “Please, call me Jon,” he said. He held up a hand paw and flexed his shortened fingers. “I haven’t fired a weapon since my body changed, so I could probably use the practice myself. However, such a class sounds like it could be important to survival, so sure, count me in. I’ll help out as I can.”

Manny smiled, looked very pleased. “Thank you, Jon. Do you have any plans today? I would like to start this very afternoon beginning with gun safety.”

“If Marcelo is the one who sent you to me, I’m sure that alone will get me out of whatever tasks might have been set out for me today. I haven’t looked to see what the schedule is on my PBJ task list yet.”

Manny popped a grape into his mouth and savored the flavor after chewing on it a moment. He smiled and gave his companion a nod. “Thank you for your willingness to help. I had hoped you might assist me.”

“We should have Sissy include this bit of information in her daily news,” Jon suggested.

“Good idea, but she’s already sent out today's morning edition. You and I will need to go around and individually spread the word if we’re to have anyone show up this afternoon. The director won’t make it mandatory that everyone attend, so we’ll have to convince everyone personally that it’s in their best interest to take our course.”

“Okay, give me some time to enjoy my breakfast and then we’ll case the compound for students.”  

*** 

The day had gone well. The first session had consisted of eighteen students, and counting Manny and Jon as gun safety instructors, they fully equaled more than half the Fur volunteers on the compound. Most were from the previous class and it was the first time that Jon had met some of them personally.

All in all, there were two Canis, four Vulps, and six each of Felis and Ursis volunteers who were in attendance. Counting the instructors, there were twenty in all. Marcelo had entrusted Manny with a key to the armory and inside had been more than enough firearms and ammunition for the size of group attending.

They started out with basic gun safety, and then moved up to simple target practice using pellet air rifles. There were a good number of them who already knew how to fire a gun, but the instructors were patient with those who had little or no experience. Once Manny and Jon were satisfied with the safety and practice, they moved up to small caliber rifles.  For the most part, everyone did well, though felines Sissy and Kim grew nervous handling anything more powerful than the pellet guns.

Kim flinched hard each time she fired her rifle, and Jon had his hands full keeping the lynx from tossing it to the ground after every shot. Sissy seemed just as nervous handling her rifle. The orange cat kept closing her eyes just before squeezing the trigger; her shots were almost never on target, but she had volunteered for the class and was determined to stick with it. Unfortunately, that did not improve her aim, but Manny encouraged her and Kim to keep practicing.

Before an hour had passed, though, the white fox put Sissy and Kim back on the pellet guns to practice their aim. There would be plenty of time to fine tune their accuracy with subsequent sessions, and everyone else seemed relieved when the two small females were no longer handling live rounds.

Of the rest, neither Dante, Kevin nor Ivan Dimitri had ever handled rifles before, but they all seem to pick up on it easily enough. None would be crack shots anytime soon, but each was comfortable with their firearms and seemed to enjoy learning to shoot.

All of the Ursis Furs had handled guns before, Avon, Alicia Kuiper, Hank Danagar, Whelan, Aaron and Gerard, but the one with the greatest accuracy turned out to be Whelan Nolan, followed closely by Alicia. A competition rose up between the two black bears, and although Whelan had previously only known Alicia in passing, he soon developed a great deal of respect for the ursine woman. However, she treated him merely as an obstacle to overcome, since his scores were continually one or two points better than hers. 

This continued when the rifles were swapped out for handguns, but this time there was more competition, as there were others who seemed more skilled with pistols than rifles. Unfortunately, while Arne Kohler and Dahlia were fairly accurate with rifles, neither of them could hit their paper targets with a pistol. Carl and Ellie were both excellent shots, though Carl complained that his shortened fingers had difficulty with an easy squeeze of the trigger. It didn't seem to bother his accuracy, though. He nudged Alicia and Whelan both out of the top spots, although not without competition from Raine Terrance and Ken Wilder, each proficient with the handguns they'd been given.

Manny had to rein them in after a while. What was supposed to have been an instructional class to have everyone familiarized in gun handling had devolved into a shooting match. Those who were not as experienced were left behind in favor of those trying to show off their expertise.

After several hours on the shooting range, Manny called it a day and released everyone for the evening. He pulled aside those who were in actual need of his training and apologized to each one personally, promising to spend more time with them if they would come back for another session.

Once the crowd had dispersed, he and Jon began picking up the area, gathering up the ammunition, spent cartridge casings and the remnants of the paper targets they had been peppering with bullets all afternoon. Whelan stayed behind and gave them a hand with the cleanup, admitting that he'd realized just how much he had stolen focus from the purpose of the training. He admitted to having a recent bout of depression but that he'd simply enjoyed the target shooting and had let things get out of hand.

Manny accepted his apology with a smile and asked him to help take the firearms back to the armory. Making sure all the guns were unloaded properly and the safeties were on, the arctic fox took the rifles in his arms, allowing Whelan to carry the pistols while Jon carted the heavy box of ammunition back across the compound. Manny let slip that he planned to spend the rest of the evening giving each of the firearms a good cleaning, so Jon and Whelan both volunteered to give him a hand after they'd all had a good supper.  

*** 

Jon padded quietly across the darkened saloon of the Felis Wing, skirting around the pit to his room. It had been a long time since he had last stayed up for hours simply chatting with other guys, and although he missed his usual evening session in the exercise room, he felt tired from the events of the day and wanted nothing more than to slide in between the sheets of his king-sized bed.

The room was dark, but even before he pulled back the covers he knew she was there. The deep breathing of her sleep reached his sensitive feline ears and he stopped before his fingers touched the bed covers. Frowning, he straightened up and turned back toward the door. If she was so adamant about sleeping in his bed tonight, he could simply go crawl into her bed in order to sleep alone.

The cougar listened to the breathing a moment longer before he padded quietly back out of his room to slip inside Kristen's room. When he approached the bed, however, he paused. In the soft glow of a butterfly night light, he could see her form beneath the covers of her bed.

Jon rubbed his eyes, but she was still there.  If Kristen was asleep in her own bed, who was in his?

Just as quietly as he could move, he returned to his room and stopped at the foot of his bed, listening to the sounds in the darkness. Aside of the quiet breeze of air from the vent, the room was silent, completely devoid of other sounds. Confused, he made his way over to the nearest nightstand and reached for the lamp. He hesitated for a moment but then clicked it on.

Jon's bed was untouched. The covers were just as wrinkle-free as they had been since he had made it up the previous morning. He turned slowly to look behind him, but the recliner and the desk chair were both unoccupied. Had he imagined that someone had been in his room? He took the time to look in the closet and under the bed, just to satisfy his paranoia, but he was still alone in his own room.

“I'm more tired than I thought,” he muttered to himself. He pulled off the dark green vest he'd worn all day and dropped it into the hamper he kept in the back corner of the room. He hesitated before pulling off the matching shorts, casting another quick glance back toward the bed, and then shook his head as if to clear out the cobwebs. He added the shorts to the hamper and then grabbed a pair of sleeping trunks from the dresser.

Ready for bed, he reached for the lamp, but hesitated. Once again doubting himself, he looked at the well-made bed. He outstretched a hand to the covers and spread his fingers out on the material, and then slid it back and forth over the top of the light blue blanket he usually slept beneath. There was nothing there but two pillows. There was no invisible body asleep on his bed, and he silently chided himself for imagining things.

“Chalk it up to my unbalanced mind,” he mumbled. He pulled back the covers, and satisfied there was nothing there but sheets, he finally slipped into the bed and turned out the light. Even though he had checked everything, he could not help but spread his limbs out from one corner of the large bed to another as a last measure to convince himself that he was indeed alone.  Finally assured he had no roommate in the darkness, Jon closed his eyes and turned onto his side, wrapping a thick arm around his extra pillow.  

*** 

CRACK!

Jon opened his eyes and blinked rapidly to focus his vision. When he could finally see, he was facing the illuminated numbers of his clock.

03:32. He had only been in bed for a little over an hour.

Yawning widely, he stretched and closed his eyes again. Something had awakened him from a deep sleep, but he was so drowsy that he couldn't even remember what it was. He fluffed up the pillow beneath his broad feline head and settled in, drifting off into dreamland within moments.  

*** 

The clock shouted out its alarm, waking Jon immediately. Although he had not had as many hours of sleep as he normally got, he felt rested and ready to start the day. He crawled out of bed and quickly changed into his exercise shorts so he could begin his daily routine. He would make a quick visit to the toilet and then he would decide whether to spend his time in the exercise room or outside on a jog around the compound.

When he emerged from his room, however, he found all three of his housemates on the couches down in the pit, accompanied by Marcy and Dr. Renwick. It was odd to see all of them up together at five-thirty in the morning. He approached them and immediately noticed that Jenni and Kristen had been crying. Marcy looked down as well, but Dante appeared absolutely miserable. Dr. Renwick seemed just as unshakable as he normally did.

“Uh oh,” Jon said from the top of the pit. “What happened?” The two feline females swallowed in unison and wrapped their arms around one another on the couch to sob together. Dante looked up and opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.  Finally the cougar looked up at the doctor.

“Whelan Nolan has died,” the physician said quietly.

“Whelan? How?”

Renwick looked at the sobbing females and sighed. “It was suicide. He got hold of a handgun somehow and used it on himself out by the lake about two hours ago.”

Jon was stunned. He took two steps down into the pit and then sat down on its edge. “He helped me and Manny Frigh clean the firearms we'd used during our gun safety class last night,” he told them. “Manny locked up the armory right before we left, but Whelan must have slipped one of the guns beneath his vest beforehand when neither of us was looking.”

“You'd better go report that to the director,” Renwick told him, “although I'm sure Mr. Frigh has already talked to him.”

Jon swallowed and nodded. He stood up numbly and returned to his room to change clothes. A few moments later, he was out the door and running in the early morning darkness across the grass to the director's office. The door was unlocked, but when he went inside there was no one there. He frowned, but realized that Marcelo must be over at the Ursis Wing.

He stepped back outside, but before he could head for the other building, he happened to glance out toward the lake and in the full moonlight saw several people gathered on the far side. That must be where Whelan…  Jon shook the thought from his head and altered his destination.

Trotting across the grass, he recognized several faces among those gathered by the lake. Marcelo and Avon were there with Manny Frigh, in addition to Whelan's housemates, Aaron, Gerard and Norman. The local sheriff and his dark-haired deputy were there too.  He didn't see Whelan, so someone must have taken him away already.

Marcelo looked up when the cougar stopped beside the lake on the far side. Jon was momentarily unsure if he should approach any closer, but the director waved him forward.

When the large mountain lion approached, the sheriff watched him warily, but Jon merely gave him a nod and walked right to the director. “Marcelo,” he said, with another nod toward Avon and Manny, “Am I allowed to be here?”

Marcelo seemed puzzled. “Of course you are,” he said quietly. “You were one of his friends. How much do you know?”

“Only that he must have swiped one of the guns we were cleaning last night and that he used it on himself a couple hours ago.”

“That's what I told him,” Manny said morosely. “He must have taken one when I wasn't looking. I thought I'd done a complete inventory of the firearms we'd checked out.”

“He could have taken it after you'd already accounted for it,” Jon said. “He was the one helping you with the inventory.”

Manny nodded, his pelt of white fur almost glowing in the full moonlight. “Yeah, that's possible,” he replied. “I feel awful that I didn't pay better attention.”

Marcelo cleared his throat. “Suicides usually tend to leave notes explaining why, but he didn't leave one behind that anyone can find,” the director said. “None of the guys from his Wing were able to find anything in his room either.”

Aaron approached them and wiped at the fur beneath his eyes. “I can't imagine why he did this,” the bear mumbled. “We all thought he'd finally gotten over his girl abandoning him to the AHCP. He seemed to really enjoy himself yesterday competing against Alicia in the target shoots.”

“There was no reason for him to take his own life,” Gerard grumbled from the darkness, “especially without even leaving anything saying why.”

Jon sighed and looked up at the moon. Like the others, he'd thought Whelan was doing better in recent weeks. He'd started to laugh and joke around with his friends, and had even taken an interest in their colony training. Jon had noticed that he seemed a little down over the past few days, but with his enthusiasm during the target shooting, he hadn't thought anything more about it.

The cougar suddenly looked over at the director. He pointed toward a nearby section of the tall iron fence that surrounded the compound and said, “I saw him meet a girl with red hair at the fence a few days ago. She handed him a manila envelope and kissed him on the cheek through the bars before she left.” Jon wrung his hands together with a deep frown.

“Was the envelope big enough to hold a gun?” Marcelo asked.

“No, I remember it was flat and he took it from her using only his fingers. She was crying when she left and Whelan didn't look any better. I was going to go talk to him, but then I got distracted by an argument with one of my housemates. I forgot all about it after that, until now.”

Gerard stepped closer. “There must have been something in it that he didn't like,” he said. “He barricaded himself in his room a couple nights ago, refusing to eat or talk to any of us, even Dr. Lacross. He came out the next morning, a little down in the dumps, but he wouldn't say why.”

“We didn't want to press him,” said Norman, “so we let him alone, only saying that we were there for him if he needed to talk.”

“Have you seen this envelope?” the sheriff asked, joining the group.

“No, but it may be in his room,” Aaron replied.

Before anyone else said a thing, Jon and all three of his housemates took off at a run back toward the Ursis Wing. He heard Marcelo shout something at their backsides, but he didn't hear what it was as he raced across the lawn.

Despite their physical fitness, all four of them were panting by the time they got to the Wing. Jon followed the others inside and across the saloon to Whelan's room. Although he had been there many times over the past months and the floor plan to the building was identical to the Felis Wing, some part of his mind had never noticed until now that Whelan's room was in the same place as his was in his own building.

They all crowded together at the doorway of the room, but suddenly no one wanted to go inside. Norman finally steeled his nerves and pushed open the door, leaving Jon with his other housemates standing outside.

He turned on the light and began looking around the room, but it didn't take long to find what he sought. A large manila envelope lay on one of the nightstands next to an empty tissue box. He picked it up, but before he could look inside, the sheriff stepped into the room and said, “I'll take that, please.”

Norman looked up in surprise, but handed over the envelope without a word. He followed the grey-haired man outside and found that Marcelo, Avon and the sheriff's deputy had joined them in the saloon.

The sheriff took the envelope down to the table and chairs in the pit and then opened it carefully. Inside was a newspaper clipping and a well-handled letter. Setting the envelope and the letter on the table, the sheriff held up the clipping and began reading. Everyone gathered around quietly, fidgeting and hoping there might be some clue there to explain why their friend had taken his life. After several moments, he handed the paper to Marcelo and then looked at the faces around him.

“This news article was posted in the New York Times a few days ago,” he said. “I remember reading it myself. It's a report about a woman who had been missing for months being found in a shallow grave in Elkmont, Tennessee on the site of an old abandoned hotel. Forensics confirmed that she had been brutally tortured and then murdered.”

“Who was she?” Gerard asked. “Do you think he might have known her?”

“He may have been the one who killed her,” suggested the sheriff's deputy. “Joining up with you critters might have been his method of hiding out from a manhunt for him.”

Gerard gave the young woman who had spoken an unkind glare. “Nonsense!” he exclaimed. “Whelan was no killer!”

“The woman's name was Celia Sevier,” Marcelo read aloud from the article. Jon and all three of Ursis Wing bears gasped in unison. The director looked up at their response, as did the sheriff.

“That was his girlfriend,” Aaron answered, “the one who talked him into joining the AHCP with her.” He looked over at the sheriff's interested expression and explained, “They were supposed to join together, but when the bus arrived to transport them up here to the Institute, she never showed up. After he got here, he contacted several mutual friends to see if they could find out why she didn't show, but they found that her phone had been disconnected and her apartment vacant without a forwarding address.”

“The phone and apartment issues were no big surprise, since she would have done that prior to coming here anyway,” Gerard added. “He later assumed she'd found another boyfriend and convinced him to join the AHCP to get rid of him.” He looked at the director and the news clipping in his hands. “Do you think someone abducted her before she could meet him and that's what happened to her?”

“Possibly,” Marcelo muttered, still poring over the article.

“What you've just told us about them and coincides with this,” the sheriff said, holding up the well-handled letter. “This is a letter from Ms. Sevier to Mr. Nolan, detailing her plans to settle her affairs with her job and family before the appointment to meet a bus from the Anthro Human Colonization Program.” He looked over at Jon. “Did you know this red-headed girl who gave him the envelope?” he asked.

The cougar shook his head. “I didn't recognize her, but he often spoke of a younger sister. She might have seen the article in the paper and brought it to him.”

“No wonder he was so depressed,” mumbled Norman, sitting down heavily on one of the curved couches in the pit. “Since Celia never showed up as scheduled, I was called in to replace her to fill out the volunteer roster. Because of that, he's not been quite as friendly to me as he has been to the others. They were supposed to go through this together.”

“It looks like with this news, he may not have felt like he had anything left to live for,” suggested Avon.

The room fell silent. Marcelo placed the newspaper clipping on the table next to the envelope and the sheriff picked it up to place it inside with the letter. He looked around at everyone present and cleared his throat.

“I'll turn these over to the proper agents,” he said, “but before we go, we'll need to get signed statements from each of you about what was just discussed. If the investigation concludes that this scenario is what happened, it could provide closure to the case.”

“Sure,” Marcelo replied for all of them. “We'll cooperate in any manner that needs to be done.”

Jon wiped a hand across his face, swishing his tail behind him. “What happens next?” he asked quietly.

“Whelan's family will have to be contacted,” Marcelo replied, “but I'm afraid his body cannot be released to them.”

“Huh? Why not?” asked Gerard. “He's got to have a decent burial – he was a decent guy!”

Marcelo looked uncomfortable. “AHCP policy clearly states in the written contract that you all signed, that the body of any Fur who dies while still on Earth is to be cremated to destroy all genetic material.”

Why?” Aaron asked with outstretched arms.

“You all became legal AHCP property when you willingly signed your contracts,” Marcelo explained. “I don't know the reasons behind it, but I suppose they don't want any of their genetic property out of their hands for others to research while it's still on Earth.”

Gerard snorted loudly, startling the sheriff, but he didn't look at him. Instead, the bear approached the director. “What about a memorial service?” he asked. “Surely his family will want to have one for him.”

“I'm certain they will.”

“Can we go?” Gerard asks. “With the transformation and intended future together out on some forsaken planet, we'd become his family too!”

Marcelo sighed. It was bad enough that Whelan had taken his own life, but the situation just got a lot more complex with this request. “We shall see,” he answered. “First and foremost, it will be up to his family whether or not you will be welcome to attend a memorial service with them. Although the concept of furmankind is a little more widely accepted now than it has been in the past, there's still a lot of prejudice against Furs in general.” He looked straight at Jon when he said this last and the cougar swallowed with difficulty, turning away. “They may welcome you as his friends, but you must understand that they may feel that you are all partially responsible for his death simply by association with the kind of life that took him from them.”

“Marcelo,” Aaron said in a huff, “if Whelan had taken the escape clause and never accepted transformation, he still would have learned of Celia's brutal death just as he did here. If not with a gun from our armory, he might have killed himself some other way.  Being a Fur had nothing to do with his suicide!”

The director looked pained. “Yes, I know that, my friend, but it's his family we're talking about here. I will give them your request after they've had a few days to deal with the shock of their loss, but if they deny it there's nothing I can do about that. You'll be free to hold a memorial service for him here if you wish, and we'll be sure to have Dr. Flynn available to any who might need counseling after this.”

“What if his family says yes?” Avon ventured.

“Then it becomes a session in logistics,” Marcelo replied. “We would have to arrange secure transportation and lodging for those here who wish to attend, since his next-of-kin information lists his family in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. The nearest airport to Rehoboth for the Osprey to fly into is in Maryland; otherwise it would take about nine hours straight through by bus to get you there from here.”

“I still want to go,” Aaron muttered.  There were other mumbles of agreement, but after a moment, the group fell silent.

The sheriff spoke quietly with his deputy, giving her instructions, and then he returned his attention to the group.

“Listen folks, I know this is a rough time for all of you, but if you'll allow Deputy Loggia to take your statements, we can wrap this up as quickly as possible.”

NEXT CHAPTER

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