There were two big white circles in front of Treego, with smaller circles inside. There was a noise up above him, but he didn’t know what he was supposed to do with that. He groaned, straining his eyes forward in a desperate attempt to figure out what was going on. Then the world was spinning and he saw walls of white, with yellow and black patterns confined to a corner. Those black blobs, they just about resembled something.
Words. Those were words. His long term memory kicked in and he knew it was a health and safety sign about wearing protective masks while in the room. The ground rushed towards him, and suddenly he was sitting on a little grey platform. He turned around and looked up at the scientist who had put him there. The big circles revealed themselves to be more elliptical than he’d first noticed. They were Marie’s eyes.
“And you’re back,” she said, elongating the first syllable as his mind came properly back into focus. “How was that, Treego?”
“Yes, yes,” Treego muttered, “I know my name. And it was horrible. Same as yesterday, same as the day before.”
Marie checked some boxes on her clipboard and took a seat in a little spinny chair behind her desk. Most of her face was obscured by the flat screen of her computer monitor, but Treego didn’t need to see her face to know it was frowning, with just a hint of a reluctant smirk.
“Well, I see I can once again confirm that subject’s irritability is not diminished upon cessation of testing,” she said. She tapped the keyboard so much that Treego wondered if she genuinely was typing about his irritation.
“And what does that mean?” he shouted, “My mental faculties are too impaired to understand your vocabulary, Doctor.”
She slid to the side of the desk and glared at him. “It means you’re grumpy. You’re always grumpy.”
Treego snorted. “Patrick says I’m just proud.”
He clenched his jaw. It never went well when he mentioned Patrick.
It didn’t matter though, because a moment later the door flew open. Marie dove to the side, disappearing back behind her computer, as the door whiffed just past where she had been sitting. Another scientist - there were so many of them that other than Marie it was impossible to keep track of all their names - was hunched over the door handle, catching his breath.
“Stop,” he said, his voice hoarse. “Put news on.”
“Why?” Marie asked.
The man didn’t say anything, just leaned so far forward on the handle that Treego could see the bald spot at the top of his grey head of hair.
After a moment, Marie said, “Oh. Treego, get round here.”
Treego glanced up at the lasers pointing towards the X he stood on. “Um…”
“Oh, it’s fine. I turned everything off when I brought you back.”
Treego shrugged and jumped straight from the platform to the edge of the desk. It really wasn’t much of a room, more of a cubicle, so it wasn’t difficult to get from one place to the other. He could probably have got out the window behind the platform if he’d wanted, but the Manor’s grounds went on for acres and acres. He’d never get away.
He padded across the desk as Marie swivelled the screen around for him. There was a news report, with a banner across the bottom of the screen declaring that the man in the picture was called Josh MacKenzie, and that he was the leader of something called the Justice For Tayburn movement.
“What on Earth…” Treego muttered.
“I’ll fill you in later,” Marie said, “But watch the scrolling text.”
Treego focused his gaze on the rolling white text that flew past on a red background. It said that public pressure had become too much for the government, that the attempts to undo the effects of rogue scientist Patrick McAfferty had not been being received well. Trying to revert the animals to their natural state was destroying support for the government.
“Congratulations,” said the man, pushing himself into an upright position. “You have just gained your freedom.”
Marie smiled and folded her arms. “And you said it’d never work, John.”
The other scientist, John, raised his eyebrows but put his hands in his pockets and nodded. “I really underestimated the power of big puppy eyes to overcome the squeamishness of the British public.”
“Puppy eyes?” Treego asked, remembering the dog that had appeared on the footage from the Neuromax headquarters.
“Well, monkey eyes, technically,” John said. “It’s just an expression. But there was a picture of Rosie in her cage leaked to the public and it got everyone fired up.”
Treego glanced at Marie, remembering that photo Marie had taken of the cages on that first day. That seemed like such a long time ago, he realised with a jolt. It couldn’t have been more than a week, but Marie had grown so much in confidence around the animals now. She was barely recognisable as the stuttering young lab technician making silly mistakes like standing too close to the cages.
“We should get going, Treego,” Marie said, “You’re done for the day.”
Treego let the tension melt away from his shoulders as he waddled forward into a close-knit net with a little blue handle that was sitting on the edge of the table. Marie picked it up by the handle and shooed John out the door so she could take Treego back down the corridor.
The idea was that Treego was meant to get some rest after the tests before he reported back to his friends, as the scientists had noticed they’d been doing. But all he ever really spent this time doing was trying to get a look through the big white doors spread out evenly down the corridors that scientists kept slipping in and out of. Every beep of a keycard held an answer tantalisingly close to Treego’s curled up form, but the doors were never ever open long enough for him to get a view.
And thus, he still had no idea where the animals he hadn’t woken up in the original lab with were being kept. He didn’t even know what their states of mind would be like. Did they have scientists working around the clock to keep them in that blurry, half-conscious state Treego kept finding himself in? That would certainly be easier for the scientists, would mean they’d have less questions and demands to deal with.
“Ah, this is me,” John said eventually. Treego twisted round, flopping over a couple of times because the netting was so springy. John was leaning against one of the door frames, digging his keycard out of his pocket. He found it, tapped it to the reader, then opened the door. But he didn’t go straight through. With a lopsided smile, he looked down at Treego. “I believe I’ll be seeing you soon.”
Then he was gone. Treego had no idea what he was on about, but he didn’t really care. What was important was that the door had stayed open for a few more precious seconds, and Treego had felt the sweet, cool air drift in past John. He made a mental note that that door led to the grounds, just in case.
“What was that about?” Treego lay on his back and looked up at Marie.
Marie grimaced as she took him the last few metres to the rooms he shared with his friends. “I think you’ll find out about that soon, I hope. There’s been some new arrivals… No, I really shouldn’t be talking about this.”
All of a sudden Marie was fumbling, trying and failing to keep hold of the keycard she left hanging around her neck on a lanyard. Her eyes shifted around all over the place. Ironic, Treego realised, just as he’d admired her growing competence.
She shoved open the door once the green light had blinked on, and strode right into the centre of the room. The carpet was thin, but a decently subdued shade of blue. The wallpaper, however, was for some reason a sickly pale peach that was broken up at uneven intervals by wavy lines of brown. It was like these people had been working within walls of white for so long that they’d forgotten what colour even was.
Rosie sprang to life, jumping down from the back of a battered blue sofa. “Everything alright, Marie?”
Marie stopped abruptly and lowered Treego’s net to the ground. He scrabbled to the rim, then leapt over onto Rosie’s foot. With a few muttered curses that he hoped her young ears didn’t pick up he climbed up to her shoulder and perched there. She was quite a bit shorter than Chip, but at least he didn’t have to look all the way up from the floor into Marie’s eyes.
“What’s going on, miss?” Rosie said. Her voice piped up even higher than it naturally was; nobody could resist her squeaking any more than they could resist her big wide eyes. And she knew it. Treego suppressed a grin of pride.
Marie took a deep breath and seemed to stop shaking quite so jerkily. “Okay, look. I’ll be right back. I just have to go talk to John. I’ll see what I can do.”
She whirled round and reached for the door handle, which of course wasn’t there because she hadn’t actually closed the door on the way in. With a grunt, she trudged out into the corridor and slammed the door shut behind her.
“Do you have any idea what she was talking about?” Rosie asked.
“Not enough to be worth telling,” Treego said. He took a quick breath to brace himself, then leapt from her shoulder to the edge of one of the couch cushions. As he turned around, the others were starting to congregate behind Rosie, all of them coming towards him. Which wasn’t terrifying at all, of course, even if many of them were big enough to digest him in one gulp.
“What do we do now?” Rita mumbled.
Treego shrugged. When he spoke, his voice cracked a little. “Wait for her to get back, I guess.”
They all whipped their heads around to face the tall, peach-painted door. Well, except Rita, who had to go through a laborious three point turn. They sat there for a while, just sitting and breathing, waiting.
But after a while it became clear that Marie had either forgotten in her frantic rushing around, or hadn't managed to get John to do whatever she wanted him to do. Treego sighed as the others all started to disperse around the room, back to the small groups they'd been sitting and chatting in. There were no televisions, not even cards to play. Treego supposed those weren't really common items to find lying around in a government contracted lab complex.
Finally, after at least four hours if Treego's maths was correct, the door eased open and Marie poked her head through the door.
"Hi everyone," she said, her voice and breathing back to a very much steady pace. "I promise it's worth it."