Chip wasn't overly pleased by the shape of the hole in the wall, but he had to admit it was impressive. It was very long, sure, but also low to the ground, low enough that Chip's cotton wool bedding would be able to hide it. Of course, this also meant that when the time came to try and get through it, he was going to have to do so by shimmying flat on his stomach.
And that time was now.
Lisa the frog had scaled the wall behind the camera, and was in the process of licking it to blur the lens. It would probably give them away but hopefully they'd be off by the time anyone came to check.
Chip was last to go through, crouched carefully to push Juliet as gently as possible. Behind the wall was a fairly wide air duct, which they were entering side on, but for a dog who couldn't squeeze through on her back, the getting there was tough. Chip could hear the others pulling Juliet over into an upright position as Lisa leapt past him and through. He lay down on the ground side on to the hole and readied himself.
He turned his head to the side, preferring not to hit his nose against the jagged upper edge of the hole. Reaching his left limbs out, he grabbed hold of his friends' paws, pushing himself across the ground with his right. Then he was through, into the enveloping darkness of the air duct. And still no sign of Haldane, MacLean or, worst, Crothers.
The trip was hardest for Chip, who hadn't spent much time travelling on all fours in the past year. His back felt stiff, like it was locking into its curled up position as he padded slowly forward, and the slight incline was just confusing in the dark. Every so often a vent in the floor of the air duct meant they had to slow down practically to a standstill, inching forward as gradually as possible.
But finally they were faced by a grate directly above. Sue the mouse delicately balanced one of Dexi's chicken bones into the screws in the furthest away two corners, with Lisa catching them as they fell. Then Gerry the toucan nudged the grate upwards with his head as he flapped as smoothly as he could into the air. Chip was all the way at the back of the queue, unable to get past Juliet. He'd have offered use of his opposable thumbs if he could, but he was stuck watching nervously as Gerry poked his head out the duct. He froze.
"Thank God you came this way," said the jumpy, nervous voice of Tracy MacLean. Chip still couldn’t see much, but he imagined she was wringing her hands. "Haldane assigned Crothers to the other end."
And that was that, Chip guessed.
By the time all six of them had dragged themselves glumly out of the grate, nobody particularly wanting to shuffle backwards down the air duct into Crothers' arms, Haldane had been summoned. Chip looked up into the sun behind her head - at least they'd made it outside - and was glad that it was too bright to see her expression. She had to be gloating, and gloating looked so much worse on her face than Crothers'.
"I'm impressed, genuinely," she said, hands on hips as she towered over them. "MacLean hadn't even quite convinced me that you'd get this far."
Chip hung his head and pawed gloomily at the soft green grass underfoot.
"What do you mean?" Dexi groaned. "Have you been watching us this whole time?"
"We have." Haldane nodded. She paused, then snorted. "Please tell me you didn't think we weren't going to notice you boring a hole in our walls? I'd really have to mark you down for that."
The animals were all silent. Finally, Juliet said, "Well, take us back to our cell then."
"Not today, ironically," Haldane said. "This way."
She started to walk off away from the building, which Chip now saw appeared above the ground as a squat grey concrete cube. It could have been a toilet block.
Haldane turned around when she realised they weren't following. "What, do you want to stay in there?"
Chip looked to Dexi, who looked to Gerry, who looked to Juliet. There was little division.
So that was how they had ended up cramped in the back of a van rumbling down the M74. Chip couldn't stop staring at the dog sitting directly across from him. Not Juliet, another dog. The six of them had been bundled into the van a few hundred metres from the squat concrete building, and it was only when they were inside that their eyes adjusted to the darkness and they realised they were not alone. They were joined by three more animals: a dog, a rabbit and a mouse. Only Dexi hadn't seemed shaken, but Chip didn't have the nerve to ask her why. In fact, nobody had really had the nerve to say anything. It had been hours, it must have been, and not a word had come from the frowning mouths of the animals assembled in the van. They all sat on the tops of cages, or if they were small enough on the head or shoulder of a friend, staring at the ground and saying nothing. Finally, the silence was broken. "Anyone have any idea where we're going?" said Juliet. Chip shuddered. She had spoken from a few spaces away on his right, but he found himself looking right into the eyes of her doppelganger as she spoke. It was very dissonant. He looked around at Juliet, and so did the dog. "No idea," Henry the rabbit muttered, "But it's not like it can be worse than there." "Hey, they haven't even started doing experiments on you yet!" Dexi snapped. "It was a matter of time!" Henry shouted back. He was directly to Chip's left, while Dexi was sprawled out on the floor of the van. Unfortunately her head was at the other end, almost up at the driver's seat. "Time!" shouted the other rabbit, who was also sitting near Chip and Henry.
Chip glanced at Henry, who twitched his ears.
"That's how we all started talking, right?" he asked. “One word at a time?”
Chip nodded and turned back to the other rabbit, who was sitting next to the other dog, directly opposite Henry. It had to be something to do with their presence, something to do with Treego's presence in Aurora's hut too. Somehow this was like an infection.
But there were no more words from the other rabbit.
"Time?" Henry prompted, leaning forward a bit.
"Tim," the other rabbit replied.
"Tom," Henry said, screwing up his nose.
"Tomb," said the other rabbit.
"Maybe it's a road trip game," Dexi called over her shoulder. "You know, word association?"
"That'd sure be fast learning," Chip mumbled. "Who knows if they've even been introduced to the concept of roads."
"They haven't," Dexi replied. She sighed. "They were kept in rooms just like ours, but behind one of the walls - not the one we tried to tunnel out. Haldane showed me. I think she was trying to see what would happen with different levels of... infection."
Suddenly there came a shout from the driver’s seat, in the unmistakable barking voice of Frederick Crothers. "You probably don't want to go gossiping about Haldane. Never know what she's filming, or when it'll come back to bite you!"
Chip sighed and flopped back, leaning against the wall of the van. They could investigate their new friends wherever they ended up.
Chip had long ago fallen asleep by the time the van finally came to a stop. He looked anxiously towards the doors, fixing his eyes in the centre, where a sliver of light would surely soon appear. Then the doors would swing wide open, and they’d meet their fate. But a moment later the van jerked forward and they crept along at a slower pace than they had before. It was still enough to make Chip feel sick as he blinked and blinked to wake himself up. He'd never moved this fast before, except maybe through the air, but even then you had plenty of fresh air and you were the one doing the moving. In a car the world was just sliding by beneath you.
Finally, after a bit more stopping and starting, the engine went silent. Chip heard the driver's side door open, some steps on what sounded like gravel, then the door flew open. Crothers' yawned. "Right, out with you all," he muttered. They exited the van with varying levels of grace. Gerry, of course, was able to fly smoothly all the way out into the open air. Poor Dexi on the other hand had to lower her front feet down onto the ground, edge forward, then spring forward and let her back legs land a few centimetres in front of the van. "Shouldn't we be careful?" Dexi asked, shaking her legs to presumably get rid of the tremors from landing. Her eyes flicked upwards, just as Patrick's always did whenever he told anyone they were acting suspiciously. Crothers snorted. "Protected air space. You could start a video game tournament out here and nobody would bat an eyelid."
“What kind of place has protected air space?” Gerry asked as he drifted back down to the ground.
Crothers waved a hand with more force than was really necessary in the direction of the other side of the van. Chip hung his head and started to walk with his friends around the van and towards the front. That was why it took Lisa climbing up onto his head and pulling at his ear for him to look up and see where they were.
Wide, luscious grounds of green grass spread out before them, with their feet padding along what he realised now was not gravel but some beautifully shiny stones that made up the garden path. The path disappeared down a few dips and up some hills, but he could just make out its faint, thin brown line coming to a stop outside a house. A mansion. He’d never seen such a sprawling expanse of walls and windows. And he could only see the front of it. Who knew how far back it reached, or maybe it curved to the side and he couldn’t see that either.
“That sort of place has protected air space,” Crothers said, somewhat unnecessarily by that point, in Chip’s opinion. He went on anyway, “Google Earth aren’t even allowed over here. This, you freaks of nature is where we finally part ways. Welcome to Chetterly Manor.”