“Now, boy, show the nice man like you showed me. Go on.”
The Manager stood behind glass and watched as the primate glanced around, dark eyes uncomprehending.
“Go on now.” The woman in the white coat was visibly nervous; though she couldn’t see him on the other side, the Manager had a reputation. She crouched to the ape’s level and made a strange gesture with her hands, raising them up and down, turning the palms from floor to ceiling.
The ape looked from her to the steel balls scattered around the floor, its gaze wandering. Then it slowly cocked its head, eyeing the balls with something like concentration, a frown appearing on its solemn face.
One of the balls began to move. It trembled, shifted on the floor, and then rose completely, ascending up above the heads of those watching. The others gradually followed suit, until five silver balls hung suspended in the air. The ape yawned and scratched itself; its attention wandered elsewhere, but the balls stayed where they were, still and peaceful.
The young woman clapped her hands, looking at the glass with a smile.
The Manager’s expression did not change.
The young woman approached the glass and pressed a button on the wall, her voice emanating through speakers.
“As you can see, Subject Seven has reached a very advanced stage. His relaxed state in performing such a monumental task shows that, to him, it is as simple as tying a shoelace. He is one of only three subjects to reach this level.”
The Manager nodded. “Continue with your work.” He turned and walked away down the corridor.
Three, yes. Only two of which were this co-operative.
“Okay, we’re in. Quiet, now.”
The laboratory was almost impregnable, a fortress. But like
the best of them, it had one weak spot. After months of planning, the activists had found it. Now two of their best, codenamed Q and A, snuck in through the backyard. It was used for disposal of waste products, of which there were many from a laboratory this big, but was not heavily guarded due to the overpowering smell.
Q and A wore masks as they crept through, keeping low in case of stray guards and security cameras. The doors were locked and could only be opened by security key cards. All the staff had one, except the one Q had seduced in a pub the previous week. One swipe and they were in.
“Which way now?” A asked.
“Look for the blue signs.”
The corridors were colour coded, this much they knew. A hacker friend had found an online map system which they had both memorised. Their torches searched the ceiling and walls as they moved through the empty corridors.
“Here, this way,” Q said.
“Watch out for cameras.”
The same hacker had also identified all the places containing security cameras and told them where to be careful. Not that they needed to worry. At this time of night, the man on watch in the CCTV room was never at his most alert.
“I think this is it.” Q swiped the card again and the steel doors slid open.
They crept into a vast room lined with glass chambers. Behind each of the glass walls were animals. Dogs, cats, birds, apes, reptiles…all were represented save fish and insects. Some were asleep. Some weren’t. All were deathly silent.
“Here we are, you beauty.” A crouched by a steel panel set into the wall and took a screwdriver from the bag around his neck.
Q stood looking through one glass window. The ape was inside, awake and watching her calmly. The interior of the small room was bare, no bars or material.
“Why do they keep them behind glass, instead of cages?” she
“Who knows what these creeps are up to,” said A, exchanging screwdriver for scissors and getting to work on the wires behind the panel.
Q laid her hand against the glass while the ape gazed back at her, its dark eyes meeting hers. “What have they done to you?”
The ape turned its gaze elsewhere, toward the cell next to it.
Q felt something come over her. It was a strange feeling, as if some presence were tugging at the back of her mind. She moved, almost automatically, from the ape’s cell to the next one, the feeling growing stronger with each step she took.
At first she thought the cell was empty, but then she saw a wooden perch was set into the back wall, and on it sat a raven. It looked at her unblinkingly, and she looked back, eye to eye. Q felt a stirring in her stomach, almost sickly. It was as if the raven was not just looking at her, but looking into her.
“Just a minute.”
There was a spark and A leapt back as the wires flared. The lights flickered for a moment and then went out. They heard a loud clank, a whirring, and then the doors to every cell slowly swung open. Alarms sounded, red whirring lights piercing the darkness.
Q stood very still. Nothing moved, and more confusingly, none of the animals made a sound. Then she caught a movement at the edge of her vision. A dog walked out before her and stood looking straight at her. It was a Staffordshire bull terrier, solid and strong, flashing lights bringing out the bright orange of its coat. It stood alert, ears up, watching her. Like the raven it seemed to scrutinise her carefully, its mind working.
Q slowly lowered herself to the dog’s level and put out her hand, fingers extended.
“It’s alright,” she said. “I won’t hurt you.”
The dog growled.
It opened its mouth and instead of a bark, a wave of fire flared out and hit her straight in the face. Q was knocked on her back, screaming as the flames licked at her clothes. The dog strode up to her, almost casually. It looked down at her with eyes far too intelligent for any dog. Its mouth gaped and bathed her in fire.
A ran, but before he could reach her something came flying out of one of the cages and knocked him over. He fell on his back and felt claws pierce his flesh. He opened his mouth to scream, but the creature had already sunk its teeth into his face.
The dog stood by the burning girl unconcernedly and looked up. The raven now sat in the rafters, surveying the room. Other animals came out of the cages warily. The dog pricked up its ears and looked towards the exit.
Boots sounded in the corridor outside and a group of guards came running in. They had guns.
The raven flapped its wings and disappeared into the rafters
as the guards halted a short distance from the animals. The ape was the first to react. It lifted a paw and two guards in the front went flying back through the air. The others raised their guns, taking aim.
Then one of them began to tremble. He felt as if something had strolled into his brain and taken control. He was aware of everything, but someone else was making the decisions.
Helpless behind his own eyes, he felt himself turning to face the other guards, saw his gun pointing towards them.
“Hey, what the hell are you…?”
His finger pressed the trigger. Too surprised to return fire, the
other guards were shot down where they stood. When none were left, the guard slowly raised the gun and pressed it to his own head. He looked up with difficulty and saw the raven looking down at him, its steady gaze piercing right into him.
The gun went off and he fell without a sound.
The dog strode up to the bodies, eyed them with distaste, and for good measure lit them up with one breath, leaving them to burn.
In the corner, the most independent-minded sheep in the world was gazing curiously at a brick wall. It opened its mouth and a shrill whine pierced the air. The other animals squirmed in discomfort at the overpowering noise. The wall in front of the sheep vibrated, cracks spreading all over it until finally it shattered, leaving a gaping hole. The sheep closed its mouth and shook itself, then trotted out over the rubble.
The dog followed, then the raven, flying away into the night, and all the others in quick procession. Soon the room was empty save for the bodies of the victims, lying amid rapidly spreading fire.
Within hours the whole laboratory was alight. Fire engines fought the flames, their sirens piercing the air as jets of water sprayed the ruined building. The Manager stood far back and watched the inferno. Another staff member came up to him, flustered and unwashed. Like most of them, he had been summoned from his bed.
“The police are here, and the press,” he said. “They’re asking questions. I can’t put them off forever.”
“And the subjects?”
“What men we have left are out looking for them.”
The Manager’s glasses reflected the fire, his face
expressionless. “We have to shut it down.”
“Shut everything down. If this gets out we’re finished.”
“Sir…the subjects will have to be destroyed.”
He waited, expecting more. When the Manager said nothing he turned and walked away, taking his phone out for what would be the first of many calls.
The Manager, now that he was alone, removed his glasses and wiped away tears.
The woman skimmed over the newspaper. It was a tabloid exaggeration, its populist headline, “Family slaughtered in animal horror,” offering a typical lack of interest in real news. She folded it up and lowered it with disdain, and looked over at the Manager sitting opposite. He watched her silently, his face showing nothing as usual. She met his pokerfaced gaze with her own.
“What of it?” she said.
“I believe it’s one of ours.”
She sighed, not bothering to cover the contempt in her tone. “You’re still pursuing this madness.”
He removed his glasses and wiped them, the merest hint of weariness in his actions. “If there’s the slightest chance…even the slightest…I want you to do this for me.”
“You’re the only one who can.”
“Your faith in me is touching.” She looked again at the newspaper, her hand passing over the headline briefly. “If I agree, what can I expect?”
“All the support you need.”
“I don’t need support. Just a few strings pulling.”
The Manager restored his glasses and met her gaze evenly. “Like I said, whatever you need.”
She smiled. “Well… I do so love a challenge.”
The dog crept silently through the undergrowth, the scent of rabbit filling her nostrils. She could just see it in the bushes ahead, grazing innocently. She felt herself salivating, but waited. All the time in the world.
The voice was in her head, as clear as day. The dog rolled her
eyes. Then again, perhaps not all the time in the world. She sprang. The rabbit bolted, but surprise was on her side. It tore through the bushes and she chased after it, shooting through the forest. She felt the wind against her flanks, the blood pumping, and she relished it. At last she caught up to the rabbit, and with one snap of her jaws it lay dead. She reached down and picked it up in her mouth, glanced around her for signs of danger, then trotted off with the dead rabbit through the forest.
Couldn’t you have waited?
Hungry, she thought, unnecessarily. Old misery guts could hear anything, even so base a feeling as hunger.
She came out of the thick bush into a small quarry. Past the piles of rubbish, past the small brown stream, to a makeshift shelter of old wood and cardboard. Through the entrance, the shabby outside supported by metal poles. Blankets on the ground, piles of books in the corner, and an elderly radio hooked up to a battered generator.
As she dropped the rabbit on the floor there was a flutter of wings above.
Welcome back, Bracken.
Bracken. She’d chosen the name herself, the first word she’d learned to read unaided.
Nice to see you too, she thought.
Say it out loud.
Bracken growled in her throat. “I brought dinner,” she said in clear English. “But you knew that already.”
It’s good for you to say it.
“You can hear everything I’m thinking anyway.”
That’s not the point.
The bird called herself Raven. It was the human name for her species, and she liked it. Though names were a human concept, they were useful and Raven insisted on them, just as she did on learning the language.
Raven fluttered to the pile of books and picked one up with her claws. She dropped it in front of Bracken and turned the pages with her beak. She herself did not often speak out loud, preferring to communicate mentally. She’d still had to teach herself English, but had picked it up quicker than Bracken, corvids being more intelligent than dogs.
Today’s lesson, said Raven, is cars. How they work and how they are used.
“Are they electric?” asked Bracken.
There are some powered by electricity, yes, but we’ll come to that later. The main thing to know about cars is they use oil.
It’s a thick, black liquid, sometimes called petrol. You’d recognise the smell.
“What does it matter how they work? The important thing is
to remember to dodge them, and avoid places where they’re likely to be. I wouldn’t think a bird would need to worry about them.”
Raven tapped the book with her beak. You’re missing the point. Cars are an integral part of the human way of living. Evolution has gifted humanity with great intelligence…
“Not to mention an opposable thumb.”
…but at the same time they have been stripped of various advantages, so they use their intellect to make up for the skills they lack. Clothes replace fur. The invention of cars means they don’t have to worry about not running fast, or not being able to fly.
“I can’t run that fast or fly, but you don’t see me using noisy metal monstrosities.”
“My stomach is far too empty for this kind of information.” Bracken returned to her rabbit. “I suggest a pause for dinner.” She breathed on the corpse and, within seconds, the flesh was steaming, the fur burned away. “Want a bit?”
No, thank you.
“Suit yourself. I suppose you’ll pick at the bones after I’m done, that is what you carrion birds do, isn’t it?”
Raven shook her wings angrily. What’s the matter with you today?
“I’m tired of these lessons,” said Bracken between mouthfuls.
“Isn’t it enough we speak their language? Why do we have to
study every ridiculous detail of their lives?”
I’ve told you, said Raven. Know your enemy. Their experiments raised us to their level of intelligence. That makes us a threat. The human response to any threat is to destroy it.
“So if we see a human, we kill it,” said Bracken. “No need to say hello first.”
There are a lot of humans. They’re not the dominant life form for nothing. One day we may have no choice but to communicate with them.
Bracken finished off the rabbit, licking the bones clean. Then
she pricked up her ears and looked towards the entrance. Raven sensed it too. A voice in distress, close by. A human voice. And beneath it, something else. Something animalistic. Bracken crept to the entrance and looked out. Raven flew over and perched on the dog’s head.
A boy was running through the quarry. He was about nine years old, clothes torn and covered in scratches. Not far behind was the thing pursuing him. It was shaped like a cat, but far bigger than any cat they had seen. Its fur was ragged and grey, teeth and claws huge and razor sharp. The boy ran to a steel bin and, seeing no other escape, climbed inside. The cat soon reached it and attacked the bin, digging its claws deep. The boy’s screams echoed from within.
“What is that thing?” said Bracken.
We have to stop it, said Raven.
“Sorry, did your thoughts get a bit mixed up entering my head? Are you saying we should save him? A human?”
I’m not thinking of him, I’m thinking of us, said Raven. You know what humans are like. If one of their offspring turns up half-eaten they’ll come looking, and they’ll find us.
“So we’ll wait until it’s finished with him, then burn the remains.”
There will still be traces. And that thing might kill others, we can’t let it go free.
“Alright, you bring it down with a mental attack then I’ll light it up.”
I want to know more about it, said Raven. It might be from the laboratory.
“So what’s the plan?”
I’ll take care of the boy, you handle the cat. Don’t kill it, just incapacitate it.
Bracken growled in her throat. “You have an interesting notion of shared responsibility.”
Raven flew off without an answer. Bracken crept through the quarry towards the cat. Close to, it was even larger than she’d thought, at least twice her size. It was scrabbling wildly at the bin, teeth and claws making deep dents in the metal. Bracken came as close as she dared and let out a deep bark. The cat turned, fixing a pair of mad red eyes on her.
“Here, pussy cat.”
It sprang. Bracken spat fire in its face and it darted back, growling. It swiped a claw at her but she kept a steady sheet of flame between them, circling until the bin was at her back. Then she pushed forward, still spitting fire, and the cat retreated.
With the cat distracted, Raven flew down and landed on the bin. She could hear frantic thoughts coming from within. She concentrated. Human minds were more complicated than other animals, and the smarter they were the harder it was to control them. Fortunately this child wasn’t too bright. She reached out and calmed him, and gently suggested he get out of the bin. Arms, legs, the muscles knew what to do; she didn’t have to worry about them. Just get out of the bin.
The lid moved and she flew off. The boy climbed out, his face vacant. Raven circled above. That’s it. Now move your feet. Away from here. He began to walk steadily away from the quarry, Raven leading him.
Not so far away, Bracken and the giant cat were still facing off. Though it was scared of the fire, the cat was constantly lunging with its claws, trying to get around her, searching for an opening. Bracken had it on the retreat for now, but one blow from those claws and she would be finished. Bracken closed her mouth and charged. The cat was taken by surprise as she body slammed it, knocking it on its back. Then she was up and running. The cat was faster, and she could hear it close behind her. She came to the edge of the quarry where the ground sloped in a steep drop. The cat was almost on her. She turned to face it as it leapt up in the air, claws out. She shut her eyes and her whole body erupted in flames.
The cat screamed but couldn’t fight gravity. It collided with Bracken, and she turned into its pounce, letting the cat’s momentum carry it over the edge of the cliff. It tumbled down and lay sprawled among the rocks at the bottom. Bracken let the flames flicker away and peered over the edge.
So they don’t land on their feet. That’s worth remembering.
She went round the long way to the base of the cliff where the cat had fallen. When she saw it she halted, shocked. The huge cat lay unconscious, but it was changing. The claws were shrinking, the fur growing less ragged. Before her eyes the limbs contracted until a normal-sized tomcat lay before her. If Bracken had known any swear words, she would have used one.
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