A/N: I think Patrick might be too much like a teenager again here. Just imagine him being a bit more quiet and subtle in his sadness and nerves. Like, any time I describe an emotional reaction in a first draft, usually scale it back by 60%. It's sort of me trying to get momentum to happen, which I think might be a result of trying to capture attention with every 1000 words in the way publishing on YWS entails. Idk. I'm hyper after finishing exams so I could easily be talking nonsense.
Also I don't remember why I focus quite so much on Patrick balancing the laptop. I think it's because I had a specific manoeuvre in my mind that I often go through when getting from one room to another. You know when you have a really specific feeling of an action and you just want to get that across... that. Feel free to skim that first wee bit; I'm just leaving it there in case anyone finds the detail particularly immersive.
The laptop nearly slipped out of Patrick's grip as he eased the door to the lounge open. He had to pull it in towards him, which involved crouching down and hooking an outstretched index finger around the handle. The rest of his fingers gripped the hinge of the laptop, and for just a moment as he pulled with his right hand his left tipped upwards and the laptop slowly started to slip across the top of his knuckles.
He gasped, letting go of the door, and clutched the laptop tight. The fate of his zoo depended on that laptop. The door had swung almost shut again, but he hooked his foot around and back-heeled it open.
When he stepped into the lounge, nobody was playing Mario Kart. The TV screen was black, and the room's only inhabitants, Rita the crocodile and Phoenix the parrot, were sitting quietly playing cards on one of the wooden tables. They looked up as they entered, both with wide eyes.
"Hi, Patrick," Phoenix said.
"Hi, friends," Patrick murmured. He set his laptop down on the nearest table to the one they were playing on. "Don't suppose either of you are good at making blogs work?"
Phoenix's head tilted to the side and bobbed slightly. "Nobody uses blogs anymore, do they?"
Patrick smacked his forehead with his palm, his shoulders shaking up and down with laughter. "Right, yes, 'vlogs' are the thing. Or streaming, I'm sure. However, I would like to make the watching of footage optional as much as possible."
Rita cleared her throat. "Yeah, it's not fun viewing."
Patrick raised his eyebrows. "You've seen it?"
"Your password is ScottHolly08. Everyone's seen it," Rita said. She stared down the tip of her snout at him.
"You hack my laptop?" Patrick exclaimed, whacking his screen as he waved his hand.
"No!" Phoenix shouted, frantically opening and closing his wings. "It was just that time. To see, you know."
Patrick sighed. He looked about the calm, quiet colours of the light grey wallpaper and pastel pink couches. The calm decor of the place, as well as his comfort in it's familiarity, was helping his heart not to thud. But he did feel a tug in his chest. He gulped. "Did... did Rosie see it? The bit with Chip's dream about her?"
Rita shook her head. "It was just a couple of us."
Patrick nodded, facing his head firmly towards the laptop. "So, wordpress, any thoughts?"
"What seems to be the problem?" Phoenix asked, springing over to Patrick's table. He scooted round and shimmied down into the chair next to Patrick.
Patrick pointed to the screen. "There's this message..."
Phoenix craned his head forward, twitching a little.
Invalid action. Please contact NM IT administrator.
Phoenix frowned. "What else do they filter? Can you get on Facebook?"
Patrick frowned. "Huh? Who filter what? And I only have Facebook for that farm game."
Phoenix giggled. "Sorry, I forgot you were old. I mean that 'NM' is probably Neuromax. They're filtering - preventing - some of what you want to do."
Patrick's eyes widened and he stared around at Phoenix. "They're hacking me?"
Rita coughed loudly. "We, my friend, hacked you. Sounds like Neuromax have you on some sort of LAN or private server. They've been monitoring you."
Phoenix pushed himself up out of his chair, hovering at the edge of the table, then swung his body forward so he could tap the trackpad with his talons. He clicked on the link to contact the administrator. It took them to an automatic email box where Patrick could send a message to seemingly just one address.
"How do you have only one email in your inbox?" Phoenix muttered. "I have like five hundred spam notifications at any one time."
Patrick frowned. "I'm not really in the habit of giving my email address to spam... notifiers... Actually let me just check that."
Patrick clicked the little red number one on the corner of his inbox icon, which opened a very short email from Haldane. Patrick's jaw dropped open; Phoenix stopped twitching.
"Guys...?" Rita asked, looking up from the game of solitaire she'd assembled.
"It's, uh, from Neuromax," Phoenix said, "It says if Patrick keeps trying to post that video they're going to... take him down."
"How so?" The tension rang out in Rita's voice.
Phoenix gulped. "Because if Patrick tries to ruin them, they’ll take him with them. They have Patrick's record on file. He's been working to turn us back into dumb old animals for this entire year."
Patrick stared at the door Rita and Phoenix had filed out of for a long, long time. Their eyes had been so shifty, Phoenix's tail twitching out of control. The door was so drab, so grey, so quiet in contrast with the blood that roared through Patrick's brain in his panic. He suddenly shot up and tripped over the spindly chair legs, his stomach flipping as the ground started to rush up towards him.
But his instincts, unflapped, kicked in and kept him steady. And in the clearness of the moment that followed, he knew he had to go talk to them. Maybe they wouldn't want to see him, but time was limited. If he couldn't post this video and take down Neuromax... who knew how long they had left together.
He strode out the door, then let his feet start to accelerate as he headed for the surveillance room. His fury propelled him along the empty corridor, fury at Crothers, at Haldane, at everyone at Neuromax. At MacLean because he still wasn't sure he believed her. At himself for being too scared to tell everyone the truth that Neuromax thought he was trying to remove the animals' consciousness.
Treego wasn't in the surveillance room. In fact, nobody was. How long had he sat in the lounge feeling sorry for himself? Had Rita and Phoenix already told everyone that the game was up, that soon there would be no zoo left to guard because Patrick couldn't post the video without his own reputation going down? He glanced at the screen, flicking through a couple of different feeds. There they were, all the animals in the wide, expansive crocodile enclosure, totally abandoning any pretence that they were a normal zoo.
Even if Patrick was paranoid, this was madness.
He scrambled up the ladder, his fingers fumbling on the fraying rope that hung slack on the pulley. It had never been in the best shape, but now it felt scratchy and messy, like it was decaying in his hands. Panic set in along with the anger bubbling in Patrick's chest and he screamed at the mechanism, bashing the heel of his palm against the cold metal of the pulley.
But brute force got him nowhere. His breath wheezed out as he tried to calm himself, and went as meticulously as he could manage through the process of unlocking the trapdoor. He shoved it upwards and wriggled out, then replaced it along with the imitation plank that always slipped off to the side. But he wasn't going to let himself make the same mistake his friends had. He double checked that everything was in place, then slowly walked around the twisting paths of the zoo.
About a minute and a half later, he was approaching the crocodile enclosure at the northern end of the zoo, the farthest point from the entrance if you walked in a straight line.
"Rita!" he hissed. But she didn't hear him. She was standing towards the back of the enclosure, balancing on her hind legs with one foreleg on the side of a tree. Craning his head forward, Patrick saw that she was also standing on a thick tree stump, like a town crier on an upturned bucket. The rest of the animals of the zoo - except the bigger animals, oh Lord had they told the bigger animals yet? - were sitting in front of her in a big clump, many of them huddled tight together.
"It's true, Rosie!" Phoenix squeaked. Patrick spotted his little red form hovering around Dexi's left shoulder. Phoenix paused for a moment, then shouted, "No, no, this isn't coming from Rita. I read this myself... Oh, shut up, Clover, you know I can read!"
Patrick giggled nervously despite himself and slowly eased open the bolt of the gate, then slipped into the enclosure. There was a low level of chatter even when nobody was actually addressing the audience - an audience of monkeys, crocodiles, penguins, tropical birds, and every other species small enough to easily move around the zoo - so nobody seemed to notice him. He started to walk along the perimeter towards the front of the crowd.
"Everyone, please," he shouted, "get back to your own enclosures!"
Rita immediately jerked her head round and glared at him. Her eyes were amber and beady, perfectly framing her long pointed snout, with short sharp teeth jutting out all the way along.
"We don't belong to you anymore, Patrick," Rita said, her voice low, menacing.
Patrick winced. He looked around at the assembled animals. Some eyes were slitted towards him, some open wide and afraid.
"You never belonged to me," he said, his own voice quiet, but for different reasons. "Please, just let me explain. Go back to your enclosures, then I promise tonight I will explain."
He looked from Rita to Phoenix, who looked at each other. But his heart was too strained; he couldn't wait for their answer. He whirled around and dashed out of the enclosure, then headed back towards the planks and the ladder to the surveillance room. Going through the motions calmed him down a little, but when he reached the bottom of the ladder he crumpled in a heap and knealt on the floor with his head in his hands.
After a moment, he looked up at the surveillance screen. The crocodile enclosure was emptying. He pushed himself to his feet and dragged his feet over to the display. He flicked over to the monkey enclosure, and there were Rosie and the rest of the monkeys filing back in. Then the penguins, the frogs in the pond, the birds... they were all coming back.
They were giving him a chance.