A/N: So, the central tension of this chapter is kind of thematically related to the big animals, and for logistical reasons I might in a later draft just have this as a zoo that doesn't have room for big animals or something. That'll make more sense soon. Anyway, let me know if you think this tension is worth trying to preserve and I'll see if I can figure something out.
There was no hut beside the frog pond; Patrick would have found it impossible to explain what frogs could have wanted with a hut, especially a hut that Patrick himself could have conveniently fitted into whenever necessary. There was a ladder there, but only for emergency access. So when he set out to find Treego, Patrick found himself up a ladder he didn't often use. The chamber at the bottom was well lit, but the tunnel upwards was just wide enough for Patrick's shoulders, so there had been no way to get any lamps in. And it ended in darkness, not just the darkness of a hut roof shutting out the moonlight, but the oppressive blackness of a dead end.
When Patrick reached the top of the ladder the fresh scent of mud and grass floated down into his nostrils. He fumbled around in the dark for the little white button he'd installed all those months ago. He hadn't seen it since; it was probably grimy black now. Eventually the side of his middle finger's knuckle brushed against. He twisted his hand round and jammed his fingertips against it.
His breath was ragged. Blackness and silence pressed in around him.
The tinny, fuzzy little voice that the button had activated rang out just above Patrick's head. The children’s frog sound effect was the perfect doorbell: exactly the sound you'd expect if you walked past, never the sound any of the frogs would actually make. So they always knew it was Patrick.
A little patch of light burst into life directly above Patrick's head as a weaved square of grass was moved off the centre of the ladder tunnel.
"Hello?" he whispered.
There was no reply, but before he could try to peer through the hole - not that the angle would show him anything useful - a small, springy weight landed on his shoulder. He smiled, only swaying a little as he held on tight to the ladder. He quickly reached two fingers outside the hole and dragged the little grass carpet back over.
"How can I help you, Patrick?" Treego whispered.
Patrick bit his lip and all of a sudden found himself forcing down a lump in his throat. "I... thank you. Okay, um, there's a tote bag at the bottom of the ladder, full of custom earpieces for each animal. Could you and the rest of the frogs help me distribute them?"
Treego paused, and when he spoke his voice wasn't just quiet, but he seemed to be rushing to get the words out. "I'm not sure how many of them will be up for helping you right now, Pat, but I'll do my best to convince them."
A breath exploded out of Patrick that he hadn't realised he was holding. "So, you're up for helping me at least?"
Treego squeezed his shoulder. "Always. You are a good person, Patrick, one of the best I've ever met. I think it's just... I'm not sure everyone really met you and learned that."
The image of Keira the elephant staring at him in awkward perplexion flashed at the front of his mind. She'd been so confused to see him that time he’d wandered up to the elephants’ enclosure... But he already knew he hadn't spent enough time with the larger animals - it was riskier. Had he really been that lax with everyone else too?
"But that was the whole point of having team leaders," he whispered. “It’s not like you, Chip, Dexi et cetera are just my favourites or anything.”
"Hey, I didn't mean to freak you out," Treego said, a bit louder than before. "But think about it. These animals like Rita, who you know way less than Dexi, are willing to give you at least a chance. And you'll prove them right. You'll explain everything."
Nothing in Treego's voice changed, not his cadence, his pitch or his emphasis. But with those words left hanging in the air, they felt like a question.
Patrick cleared his throat. "Okay, I'll wait for you down at the earpieces, yeah?"
"Sure thing," Treego said. He sprang upwards and a little sliver of light peeked in as he wriggled past the grass patch.
Patrick clambered back down with heavy shoulders and stood waiting by his tote bag for the verdict about whether the rest of the frogs would help.
Patrick readjusted himself on the stool in the surveillance room. It was almost a completely flat surface of black leather, but with a slight plastic lip at one side. It was meant to go at your back but Patrick's eyes had been so glazed as he finally stumbled into the room, after delivering the last of the headpieces to the giraffes, that he hadn't even noticed it was facing precisely the opposite direction until it jammed into the underside of his thighs. He looked down at the khaki trouser-legs of his jumpsuit, which looked grey in the dim light, then back up at the screen. Compared to the stress on his heart - both exhaustion and heavy, horrible sadness - a little niggle in his wrinkled skin felt like nothing.
He saw the frogs pop back up on the feed of the pond - roughly half had come to help, though whether that was because no more wanted to, or Treego thought any more would be a suspicious amount of frogs to disappear at once, Patrick didn't know. Either way, that was his signal to go. Between himself and the frogs the distribution hadn’t taken too long, so hopefully he would be able to explain himself before too much gossip had begun to spread.
“Hello everyone, can you hear me?” he said. There were a few nods from the frogs. Patrick tapped the arrows at the bottom of the screen to flick through a few other feeds: nods all round.
He took a deep breath and pictured the words he wanted to say on the backs of his eyelids. “It is true that I was sent here to return you to your original state, and that that is what most of my experiments have been for. I have told you that it is to understand what happened to you, but do you really think Neuromax would continue to pay me for that?”
At this moment Patrick just happened to viewing a shot of an enormous lion curled up on a long, sloping flat rock. Its top lip curled up in a snarl, showing dark purple gums and long, white teeth. He didn’t think an animal trying to defend its right to consciousness would stoop to murder, but this had to go well.
“And they were paying me a lot. More money than anyone in my family had ever seen. And now that the game is probably up, more money than my grandchildren will probably ever see. Have you ever noticed I only have one set of formal clothing? I’ve worn that to every funeral and wedding I’ve ever attended since the age of twenty.”
He flicked through to the crocodile enclosure, but he could read nothing from Rita’s cool, unblinking gaze at her murky pond.
“But you have to understand… It didn’t take me long to realise that changing any of you without your consent was something I could never, ever do. You are all so wonderful, and unique. It would be so wrong.” He took a deep breath, allowing the slightest hint of a glimmer in his eye as he flicked back to the frogs and focused his gaze on Treego. “The thing is though, they didn’t have to know that. As far as they know I’m still working towards that goal, but I’m not. And I know, it was abhorrent of me to take it in the first place, but I’ve told you my reasons and you can make of them what you will. Please believe me, I would never have harmed you… after the first week.”
He flicked from screen to screen, watching the animals congregate into groups as they conferred over what had been said. The earpieces only went one way, unfortunately, but he probably owed them their privacy anyway.
He watched the elephants for a while, crowded together just as he had been the night he’d gone up to speak to them in person. It was so human, the way they organised themselves like that. They gave each other a very particular amount of personal space, they seemed to be looking at whoever was talking, and they nodded their heads or shook them to indicate their reactions.
When he turned back to watch Rita, she was pacing around the edge of the pond, her snout low to the ground. He’d have given anything to know what she was thinking. But suddenly her head jerked up and she stared at something in the corner of the screen, something inside the hut.
But Patrick couldn’t get a good view. He changed to the monkeys’ camera, which was positioned still quite far away from the hut, but at least it had a front-on view. Inside, hidden away in the corner of that hut, Patrick knew there was a little red LED that told any animals watching football matches to get out there and pretend to be the average, ordinary creatures everyone thought they were. The last time Patrick had seen one like it he had been fixing Dexi’s climate controller.
The little red LED in the monkeys’ hut was flashing.