If the zoo had security cameras, we didn't see them. That said, our surveillance system on Chapman wasn't meant to be seen, either. Maybe I was being paranoid. I’m not an expert on security cameras, but unless the zoo had sprung for a really good, low-light system, I couldn’t imagine two kids in black fitness apparel at night were going to be easily identifiable. Then again, I had nothing to base that on besides convenience store footage on the news and my own silent prayers that we wouldn't get arrested. These were incredibly rare apes, after all, so if the zoo wanted overnight footage, I’m sure they could find a way to put it in their budget.
In any case, Marco didn't argue with me when I told him to go back to raccoon mode.
The zoo was designed so that right after the African primates, you came to Asian primates. That’s where the orangutans, langurs, and the Japanese snow monkeys were kept. The two buildings were attached by an elevated walkway off the chimpanzee deck, so we went that way rather than out the way we'd come in. The less time we had to spend on the walkway, the less chance we'd encounter security guards.
As Marco and I navigated the next primate building and finally came out the exit, the full weight of what I was doing hit me.
I was here to touch a tiger.
This was arguably the closest living relative to a goddamned saber-tooth, and I was here to pet it.
And to any wise-ass that has the brilliant thought that this is a zoo tiger raised in captivity, I want to tell you to go fuck yourself.
I want to, but that would be hypocritical.
A quick Google search disproved this point very quickly. I read way too many stories of tigers killing zookeepers, not to mention the infamous Siegfried and Roy incident that I was too young to remember from the headlines.
There is no such thing as a tame tiger.
Tigers are one of only a handful of animals that still routinely eat people. It's easy enough for a spoiled American teenager like me to want to save them, but in the remote parts of the world where tigers live, it's way too easy to vilify them as little more than death machines. It has to be hard to wave the IUCN Red List in front of a rural population that lives in fear. There are villages in India where people have to wear masks on the backs of the heads to deter tigers, and Bengal tigers aren’t as large as their Siberian cousins.
So those were the thoughts swirling through my brain as we scurried our little raccoon bodies further into the Asian section. We managed a pretty decent pace, too. We weren't that much larger than a house cat but we moved fairly close to a human walking speed, and if it came to it, we could be much faster.
Raccoons do have good night vision, but not great distance vision, so in some ways, it was like having a built-in flashlight. Anything beyond my immediate area was still very dark and fuzzy, but I had better eyesight as a raccoon than I did as a lizard, so I wasn’t going to complain.
Vision wasn’t the problem. Perspective was. We were less than two feet tall, so we couldn’t see over the enclosure walls, which took away most of our mental landmarks.
<Are we past the tapirs yet?> I asked. Past the Malayan tapir, and across from the snow leopard, that’s where we needed to be.
<Far as I can tell, we’re on the same path we were on,> Marco said. <Follow the smell of popcorn.>
Ah, right, the popcorn stand outside the leopard enclosure.
Much like the gorillas, getting to the enclosure was the easy part. And much like the gorillas, the tigers were kept inside overnight. And once again, I had to switch to my lizard morph to get into the building. And as I demorphed, I noticed that, like the gorillas’ overnight enclosure, this one had the same red darkroom lights.
That was pretty much where the similarities end.
There was less concern here over habitat authenticity than there’d been at the gorillas. Just cinder block walls, straw bedding, and chainlink fencing reinforced by steel bars. Overall, it reminded me of the pen setup at Cassie’s. The zoo had four tigers, and each slept in something like a small stall. Well, smallish. Each stall was about the size of my bedroom. But for a tiger over ten feet long, it seemed on the small side. This was a place to sleep and not much else.
As I moved to open the door and let Marco in behind me, I heard it: the low, unmistakably predatory growl of one of the most dangerous animals on the planet. They knew I was there, and they weren’t happy about it. At least one of them was awake, looking at me. The glow of its eyes bored straight through me.
I could say something terribly cliché, that my blood ran cold or something, and it would be true, but it wouldn’t carry anything close to how I felt. I doubt anyone reading this will have any similar experiences with a captive Siberian tiger, but maybe you got bit by a stray dog on a paper route as a kid, maybe you ran into a bear while camping. And maybe not. I guess my point is that there’s something very primal in the back of your brain, something long forgotten by most, and something only a handful of people in the developed world ever experience: the human prey response.
I hadn’t opened the door to let Marco in yet. Rationally, I knew I needed him, knew I couldn’t do this without backup. Marco who could now become a massive gorilla if the need should arise. I tried not to think about the fact that the tiger here was at least that size, if not bigger. Or that in the wild, these tigers could kill bears bigger than any gorilla.
The gorillas had been curious that someone new was there to see them. And yeah, they could’ve easily turned aggressive, but they didn’t start there.
The tigers did. Once the first one had seen me and started growling, the others were instantly irritated. I could hear them moving in their stalls.
I stared into those glowing eyes, petrified. Literally too scared to move.
I knew I should let Marco in.
But something more than simple fear was keeping me there. I watched the tiger as its face creased into a terrifying snarl. It growled at me again, showing teeth the size of my thumbs in the dim red light.
I was still afraid of the tiger. I would be stupid not to be. But as my adrenaline pumped, and I sat marinating in my own fight or flight instinct, the fear began to ebb. It didn’t go away, it just moved to the side. I wasn’t going to run. I couldn’t leave here until I did this. And if flight wasn’t an option, then that just left one thing.
Primitive humans killed these things. We humans are relatively frail, biologically speaking. I’m maybe a quarter of the size of a tiger. I couldn’t run fast enough to make the football team, let alone outrun a ten-foot cat. I tasted, however little or however briefly, that buried predatory instinct deep in my Neanderthal brain. That instinct that said I could kill the thing that wanted to kill me. That I shouldn’t be afraid of the tiger… the tiger should be afraid of me.
And for a second, if even that long, I knew I could do this.
Finally, I opened the door and let Marco in.
“Dude, what the hell took you-- oh, shit.”
“That’s one of the females,” I said, trying to keep my voice low and even. The second Marco was in, I’d turned back on the tiger, trying to return the stare it leveled at me. In retrospect, I have no idea if it was working, but it gave me confidence at any rate. And honestly, I think the cat lost interest when it couldn’t scare me.
That was only one of them though, and so we inched our way to the far end, past the other two females, to the last stall.
The male was pacing back and forth, snarling and growling.
The good news was that there was no way the tiger could pull me into the cage and rip my face off. But the bad news was that there was no way for me to acquire the tiger without putting my hand in through the bars. So the possibility of the tiger ripping my arm off, leaving me to die of massive blood loss was still a distinct possibility.
And, yes, before you ask, yes. I knew that I could morph away injuries. It was the first thing we’d ever seen Elfangor do with the technology. But that over looks a few key points.
One, that assumption implies morphing is easy. Well, it is and it isn’t, and while we were kinda getting the hang of it, I’d never tried it while in severe shock.
Two, whether or not I was able to regenerate a new arm or not, I think someone might notice the giant splash of human blood and whatever remains of my arm in the morning. It’s probably best for the ongoing human resistance against the Yeerk Empire that I don’t leave too much of my very identifiable human DNA around.
Three, and I don’t think it’s remotely possible to overemphasize this, I didn’t want my fucking arm ripped off by a fucking tiger.
That said, I could do fuck all to change that possibility.
I suddenly had a mental flash to me running the fire hose, desperately trying to wash the blood out of this stall while Marco, in five hundred pound gorilla morph, held this cat down for all he was worth. Despite everything, I fought back a laugh. I could feel my face pulling into a stupid smile.
I put my hand through the bars. I could barely get my hand through the chain link fencing. Getting more than my wrist through was out of the question.
The tiger’s reaction was instantaneous and absolutely predictable.
It was like a car accident. Hundreds of pounds of pissed off tiger slammed into the chain link, the rattling sound surprisingly loud in the concrete room.
I bit down on the scream as the teeth penetrated my hand. My wrist was pulled through the chain link fencing in an instant, the heavy-gauge wire stripping my skin as I was pulled off balance.
The pain was excruciating, and it took every shred of self-control I had not to bellow like an elk. I could feel the powerful jaws clenching down on the bones. When my ulna snapped like a twig, I nearly fainted. I saw nothing but stars for a second. The tiger was trying to pull my arm through the fence.
Screaming was no longer my instinct. I felt the blood drain from my face, the whole zoo spun around like a carousel, and I was vaguely aware that I was leaning on the bars of the cage.
As painful as this was, the tiger was essentially just playing with me. If the tiger had wanted to rip my arm off, trust me, it would have. I was essentially crucified, one of the tiger's huge canines was pierced straight through my hand, wedged between the metacarpals. I could feel that tooth as it rubbed against the bones. I could feel the air flowing through the hole in my hand as the tiger exhaled. The oozing blood felt scalding on my freezing cold hand.
I was crying. Hot, wet tears poured down my face, my breathing tightened and I couldn't scream. I felt like I was choking.. A piteous squeaking sound escaped my throat and nothing more.
All this had taken a mere ten seconds.
I looked at Marco, only distantly aware that he was there. Marco was already morphing to gorilla, the coarse black fur spreading quickly across his skin.
I exhaled, slowly, and the tiger growled.
I closed my eyes, trying to mentally divorce myself from the reality of my situation.
“Mar…” I coughed. “Marco, don't.”
His half-gorilla face looked confused, but he backed off the morph.
Slowly, I shifted my weight against the bars, trying to get better leverage. The tiger pulled my hand just a little harder, and what flesh remained between my ring finger and pinkie separated.
My finger didn't fall off, but it hung down in a weird way.
I think I whimpered. I don't know.
I got to a point where I could put my other hand through the bars. Gingerly, and ignoring the deep growl of the tiger, a growl I could feel in the bones of my ruined hand, I touched the tiger's nose.
In retrospect, I'm reasonably sure I could've acquired the animal with my injured hand through its mouth. But I didn't have that kind of clarity then. Mentally, I just associated touching it as feeling the fur.
And as my shock-numbed fingers brushed the bristled fur of its snout, the wet nose, the cataleptic effect kicked in.
It wasn't enough for me to get my hand free of its mouth, though. There was nearly two inches of tooth through my hand, and I would've needed to physically pry the cat's jaws open to get myself free.
Luckily, while the catalepsis wasn't enough to get the tiger to drop my hand, it was more than enough to suck all the fun out of biting the human. The tiger didn't know I'd just absorbed its DNA, it just didn't want to be stunned again. So it let me go.
Relief flooded through me. I gasped in pain, and I had no sensation at all in my left hand. But it was over. I'd acquired the tiger.
I had to morph. I needed to heal, and I needed to get the fuck out of here.
I was hyperventilating against the tiger cage, waiting for the adrenaline to wear off when I heard footsteps. I whipped my head around to Marco. He heard it too. Humanity’s last defense against the alien invasion, and we were about to be taken down by the goddamn nightguard at zoo. I could feel my heartbeat in my ears.
“What?” Marco asked.
I didn’t answer; I was already morphing.
My injured hand just slurped through the metal fencing like wet pasta as I shrunk. The brown-grey fur spread out over me, and while the red light turned grey, it was suddenly much brighter in the tiger enclosure. Marco was right behind me, finishing his morph just as the door to the tiger enclosure opened. I could smell the meat as the two overnight keepers came in.
The lights came on and I was temporarily blinded. All I could see was white, and my raccoon brain panicked. I was too wiped from my ordeal, I hadn’t put the mental effort into locking the morph’s native instincts.
“Holy shit,” I heard the one keeper, a woman, say suddenly. “Raccoons got in.” She said it like it was no big deal. Like she was complaining someone had parked in her space, or eaten her lunch out of the office fridge. Maybe this wasn’t the first time she’d caught raccoons in a zoo enclosure. Or maybe, being the keeper that fed the murder beasts, raccoons weren’t anything for her to get in a fuss over.
“I’ll get the stick, go hold the door open,” said the other keeper. It was a man, sounded older.
“Ah, damn it all, we got some blood over in the back. Put in a note for a rabies vax, will ya?”
And just like that, we were shooed out of the tiger enclosure. Getting out was the easiest part of the night. I bounded off into the dark and Marco followed.
<Let’s switch to raven and see if we can’t find the others,> I said.
We switched morphs in the bushes off the path, and once again, we were flying along the guide-wires of the sky tram. It was hard to imagine that we’d been at the zoo less than an hour. It felt like I’d lived my last two days in this place.
It took us ten minutes to find Tobias and the girls. All of them were in bird morph again, perched on the entrance arch we’d come in through at the beginning.
They’d had no problems at all, if you can believe it. Cassie, it turned out, had acquired one of the wolves in her barn, so she didn’t need to go anywhere. And Cassie knew where they kept the fish, so getting the grizzly had been easy as pie. Tobias had acquired an elephant, and much like Marco and the gorilla, it hadn’t really been concerned with their presence that much.
<So, tell us,> Rachel asked, <did you have any problems acquiring the tiger?>
The flight back home was a bit awkward, to say the least.
<Jesus, clean through his hand?> Tobias asked.
<Swear to God, man. And what does Jake do? He just winces, catches his breath, and pets the thing on the nose.>
<Marco, it’s not exactly something I’d like on my highlight reel. Could we not?>
<Jake, that sounds bad-ass,> Rachel said.
<It kinda hurt, cuz, and I’d like to not dwell on it, if you guys don’t mind.>
<Alright, brave leader,> she quipped, <what would you like to talk about?>
Okay, that was a good question. We’d had two minor-ish missions. The security camera had been easy. And while I was likely to have nightmares about being eaten alive, the zoo had at the very least been a quick thing, moreorless.
<As far as I know,> I said, <that spy camera in Chapman’s office has been recording to a cloud drive. We’ve been so busy that I haven’t had time to watch it yet. I think maybe we should go through Chapman’s footage and see if it gives us any clues.>
There was a beat of silence as they thought about that. <Okay, but what kinda clues?> Tobias asked. <We already know where the pool is.>
<I don’t know, man. Maybe we can identify other Controllers? Maybe we can figure out what the hell the aliens are doing with all these stolen bodies? There were a lot of people and aliens at the pool, and for a big as that facility was, I have to think they’re doing more than just dropping slugs into people’s heads.>
<Isn’t that bad enough?> Cassie asked.
<It’s plenty bad,> Marco answered. <But Jake makes a good point. Elfangor said they’d been on Earth for a long time by now, and I’m curious what the Yeerks are trying to do that they need so many people.>
<Look, guys,> Rachel said, <We’re trashing the pool tomorrow, so I don’t think it really matters what those brain slugs have been up to. Let’s get home, get some sleep, and we’ll have all of this behind us before we know it.>
All of this behind us...
<Don’t forget, Rachel,> Cassie said, <Elfangor said we’re probably not taking out the whole pool. Some of the Yeerks are still going to be here.>
<Am I the only one that remembers Elfangor talking about a giant pool ship?> Marco asked. <There are more of these Yeerks up there in orbit right now, guys.>
<Yeah, true. There’s that,> Rachel said.
<If we’re lucky, the ones that survive will be too busy with damage repair for a long time coming,> I said. <After we blow up the pool, though, we have to then figure out our deep sea rescue mission to get Elfangor’s brother.>
<And there could be other survivors we don’t know about,> Tobias added.
<Um, hey,> Marco said. <Just a random thought I should have had awhile ago: if we destroy the pool tomorrow, what happens to Elfangor? Does he have a way to phone home, or does Uber offer new services I’m not aware of?>
<We can ask those kind of questions all night,> Tobias said. <It’s not gonna get us anywhere.>
<He’s right,> I said <Look, we all brought up some good points, but I think Rachel’s the closest to the mark right now. We all need to get home and sleep. I think I can watch some of that security footage after school before I pick Rachel up from Melissa’s. And it might not be a terrible idea for us to go to the woods tomorrow after school and practice a bit with these battle morphs.>
<Oh, who could pass up morph training in the woods?> Marco asked. <I gotta tell you, I’m a bit eager to try out the Kong morph.>
<Seriously? You’re still naming morphs?> Rachel asked.
<Yeah, yeah. Sue me, I can’t help it.>
<Speaking of,> Cassie said, <did you ever come up with a better team name than Animal Morphers?>
<Oh, Cassie, not you too.>
<Meh, not really. The only other name I had was just a portmanteau.>
<A what?> I asked.
<He means he blended the two words,> Tobias said. <Like how Pokémon is a portmanteau of Pocket Monsters.>
<I did not know that, cool.>
<Okay,> Rachel said, <So now that you got us all curious, what was your name?>
<Honestly, I don’t know if it’s better or not. What do you guys think of Animorphs?>