Zoo Tower, Part Two
Kurt wasn't sure he'd chosen the right assistant. However there were no candidates left with any zoological training. The other zoologists had fled long before the tower doors were closed. There were a few civilians in the tower who'd been associated with the zoo, in one way or another. There was a man who had managed to run the zoo's concession stands, although Kurt didn't understand how, since the man was always drunk. There was a woman who'd been a ticket seller. Another man they'd given random "fix it" jobs around the buildings for years. But Kurt needed an assistant. So he chose someone he'd met on the civilian level, someone who'd been a manager for the city's trolley system. He assumed this was a reputable position that required a responsible person. Walter was highly recommended by several of the other civilians. Who knows, Kurt thought, maybe he just bribed them with cigarettes. Kurt made Walter his assistant. The position allowed slightly better rations and maybe some respect from his fellow denizens. At the time he believed he was doing Walter a favor, but since it hadn't been going well, he regretted this misplaced benevolence.
Walter refused to do half the work Kurt asked him to do, saying he'd never done it before, saying he didn't know how to do it. Carting hay from one level to another shouldn't be something you need training for, but Kurt showed him anyway. Everything Walter did actually do, he did poorly and half-heartedly. Once Kurt overheard him boasting, perhaps leveraging, his new found position to his neighbor citizens. It was currency, and Kurt wondered if he was also making something off of the extra rations. Walter became irascible, moody and difficult immediately after Kurt appointed him.
But one day Walter lost his mind. Kurt was in his corner, a small semi-private space in the back of the storerooms, going over his index cards, the records he kept of each animals feeding routine, health, and so on, when Walter burst through the boxes stacked around the space, boxes that provided a luxurious admittedly small amount of isolation. Walter simply crashed through them — stumbled, or flailed — the boxes tipped and fell to the floor with a defeated leaden quality. Some of the boxes broke open, spilling their contents like vomit. Kurt jerked up off his stool, yanked upwards by the shock. Standing in front of him was Walter — red, sweaty, and very agitated.
"DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA?" Walter yelled.
"What's wrong? Just calm down."
"Yes, rats of course, the rats. What's wrong?"
"THE RATS HAVE FACES!" Walter nearly shook.
"Faces you idiot! Didn't you know the rats have faces!?"
"I don't… I mean… You mean rats have rat faces?"
"NO YOU IDIOT THE RATS HAVE HUMAN FACES!" Walter screamed.
Kurt tried to calm him down, tried to get more information, but Walter was delirious. Kurt guessed Walter had been bringing up supplies from one of the lower levels, somewhere down there he must've come across rats. This was completely reasonable, Kurt knew, where people and food are, there will always be rats.
Suddenly, and as chaotically as he entered, Walter left. He spun around, clutching his head with both hands, turned and ran, pulled by an unseen manic force. Reluctantly Kurt went after him, yelling "WALTER! WALTER!" but he lost sight of Walter on the stairwell. He didn't hear any doors slam, so he couldn't understand where Walter went. Kurt retraced his steps, going up and down several times, but there was no sign of him.
The stairwell was a shaft directly in the center of the concrete tower. The well itself was much larger and wider than anything he'd normally seen in other buildings. At the top was a huge set of iron doors built into the roof between the flak gun platforms. The ground level had a loading platform that lead to the shaft — they could winch up large items, artillery for instance, up to the roof. Or, likewise, lower heavy crates and supplies to levels below. Kurt had never been to the bottom of the stairwell. The farther down the tower you went, the darker it became. Over time, the task of replacing bulbs was neglected, and there was a shortage of bulbs because of the war. Where people rarely went, there rarely light. Eventually everything would go dark as the bulbs failed, then they'd sit around with their spears and clubs in a dark cave waiting to be attacked.
Rats down there? He was sure. But they also needed to eat, and they were certain to be spotted somewhere near food supplies. Kurt wasn't able to say he'd ever seen a rat. The more he thought about it, the odder that became — why hadn't he seen a rat? He believed he was becoming irrational and distracted.
And where had Walter gone? In the lower levels somewhere? Kurt went to his cabinet and got his flashlight. It was a cumbersome, knurled heavy metal tube with a big, difficult to operate button which hurt his thumb. Like light bulbs, batteries were also in short supply, so he used the flashlight sparingly. Soon it too would be useless. He paused slightly and wondered if he should tell the Lieutenant — then he hated himself for thinking it. Ridiculous. He put the flashlight back in its cabinet. The entire thing is ridiculous and I have work to do, I have to clean up the emus cage, he thought. He would look for a new assistant as soon as possible, then remembering he'd resolved to do the same thing the week before.
He quietly hoped Walter had fallen down the stairwell. It would solve the immediate problem. Other problems would surface, but perhaps they wouldn't be as dramatic.
In the morning he was scheduled to give The Specialist an in depth audit of the zoo level. He wasn't looking forward to this. He'd spent most of a day getting his records in order, filing, re-filing, then organizing the re-filing — in case she wanted proof that resources were properly allocated and exhausted.
This busy work was defensive. He had no idea what her intentions were, or what her goals here were. He made assumptions that the Lieutenant's hatred of the animals was a core doctrine and that she'd find some way to have them all shot. Then what would happen to him? What use would he be in a world of soldiers and guns and war? He thought of the angry elephant, bidding his time. He'd be about as much use as any other civilian. Just like the batteries and light bulbs, soon they would all be gone and there would be only soldiers left.
Here he was, thinking of himself again. It was no consolation to the giraffe. The giraffe who was too big to fit on the zoo level and instead of leaving it outside to be eaten by the enemy, or desperate civilians, or God knows what, they killed it. Kurt cut it in two — for burial since they couldn't find a single area of bare ground large enough to hold the corpse.
As a zoologist Kurt had a deep interest and love of organizational principles. The possible taxonomical classifications for a giraffe, shot, and cut into two was disappointing to say the least. Giraffe Duo-camelopardalis, now a deviant species, two parts that needed occult powers to recombine. Perhaps some peoples in the far future, finding the war-torn archaeological relics will presume this split giraffe deserves two separate classifications entirely.
That night Kurt woke up on his cot in the stifling, airless chamber, a cell exactly the same size and layout as where the ibex was kept. His cell, or cage, also of course windowless and concrete, had a small air vent in the top left hand corner covered by a metal grate that should be identical throughout the tower — although he'd identified four distinct varieties, maybe due to supply demands or contractor variability or something like that. He woke up choking and covered in a sheen of fear, in silence. Some nights the reverberations of the war, the POOM POOM POOM of the flak canons above, or the crackle of incoming fire hitting the tower's impenetrable walls, kept him awake. Now he was sleepless for lack of something. The weight of a universal Nothing was suddenly worse than the war, which at least had life and death, chaos and order. He awoke suffocating, unable to mentally fix on anything at all, a desperate puddle of negation and terror.
The bare, dim light bulb above him was covered with a large piece of translucent wrapping paper. It gave the cell a tolerable hue. A few other people in the tower had done the same thing — he liked to think because they'd noticed he'd done it first, that he had a good idea, but he wouldn't be surprised if he had nothing to do with it. The half dozen torn strips of paper he'd attached to the top of the vent with mucilage, lay limp and dead. When the air was on they fluttered like the wings of little birds. When the air was on the cells were survivable, at least for a few hours. Although now in a silence that was inching on like decay, he wouldn't sleep and he couldn't remain still.
Unlike civilians, he slept at the back of the upper supply level, where the administrative offices were located. This placed him between the zoo level and the civilians and soldiers. The subtle psychic pressure of this was well known to Hendrik who'd advised Kurt to keep his cell covered with as many pictures as he could find. What kind of pictures? Kurt asked. Whatever you can get, Hendrik said. But pay attention to the light, in the pictures I mean, put the pictures with the rising sun on one wall, pictures with western light on another, and any pictures of nighttime on the ceiling.
Kurt heeded the advice. It helped temporarily. Yet like everything else here the images soon felt brittle and oppressive, so he took them down, reducing his cell to a monkish sparseness that, if at least not comforting, was a thing he could control.
But for the moment he couldn't sleep. If only he could stand outside, cool night air inching down the back of his collar, maybe having a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Simple idiotic pleasures, once cheap and common, almost impossible because of the war. He could try to get onto the roof. He could make up an excuse. He didn't know what. He wasn't a good liar.
He left his cell and briefly looked in on the zoo level. The guard there, half asleep, seemed confused by the intrusion. In the baboons' cage a single monkey stared at him menacingly through one open eye while the others slept. And perhaps the elephant slumbered somewhere in the back of its space, or there in the dark it was awake and planning — regardless, he couldn't see. The ibex, like himself, was awake. But the ibex was also in a stupor, it came closer to him with small short steps, head down, nostrils twitching. It didn't want anything from him, it was just an acknowledgement. There was a mutual tolerance.
Kurt didn't know what he'd accomplished, but he'd tricked himself into thinking that he could sleep. As he left the level, stepping out onto the stairwell, he heard footsteps below. He peered over the edge, the irregular surface of the metal railing was shockingly cold in his hands and he pulled back a moment. Down below, a few levels below, he saw light and heard a door open and close. He waited. It happened again and this time he believed he briefly saw a man in a white coat entering a doorway. Since the eruption of light was quick and the rest of the subterranean stairwell was pitch black, it was like a camera flash going off, sharply and instantly. The door slammed shut with a bang that was dulled by a million tons of concrete.
He understood there was no possibility of going to sleep. With an unnatural lack of caution he placed one foot in front of another, moving down the stairs. He didn't think about what he would do when there was only darkness. He held onto the railing as he moved down the steps, noting the minute irregularities in its surface. He wondered when they would remove it to meltdown into bullets.
Except those few places with the medieval-styled arrow slits, perhaps architecturally adapted for snipers, there was no natural light in the tower. Soon he was gripping the railing with one hand and with the other feeling the wall for the shape of a door. How many flights down it might be, he had no idea. Then in front of him, not more than a few meters, there was an explosive rectangle of light and he was blinded as a door near him opened. He froze where he was, standing and wincing. Someone walked out of the door and moved away from him, down the next set of stairs. The door closed and his eyes, traumatized, were useless. He inched forward, his palms against the wall, groping, until he felt the impression of the door. Sliding his hand down and across, he found the doorknob. Squinting, he turned the handle and stepped inside, shielding his face with his other hand. As his eyes adjusted he saw a wide space painted white with work tables and benches, and Bunsen burners, and other scientific equipment. This was a laboratory. He had no idea this tower contained a laboratory. And for what, he wondered. Research for the war? He was under no illusions that he understood the high command, but he'd been lead to believe that he would sooner or later be privy to the purposes of the tower itself. Perhaps later instead of sooner.
The lab made his skin crawl, he didn't precisely understand why. He turned immediately to leave. There was more to see but he would see no more. And he wasn't sure if the person he witnessed leaving the lab would return. Not that he was doing anything wrong. He had every right to be here, he told himself. After all, he was the Director now, he had every right to be here. He should stay until they returned and inform them. But he wouldn't, he knew that.
What if it was Walter? This is where he'd been going, what if this was where he was going? Yet when he saw that person leave, perhaps Walter, he didn't see any flashlight. How would that person, perhaps Walter, get to the next level in the dark? It occurred to him that there must be something else, maybe something like this lab, on the level below. Or on the level below that.
He was preoccupied with a wrinkly disquiet — a comprehension of how little he knew about the unpleasant reality, or the vastness of scope, controlled by a violent mechanism, this war engine that trapped them in a horrific, unassailable tower. No one could produce war without desire, he supposed, no one would continue to let atrocities happen without some form of satisfaction, he assumed.
He went back to his cell. For a deliriously brief moment he thought of going farther down the stairwell but he was overcome with fear. Once again he tried to sleep and once again failed. When morning came, as indicated by the clock, he tidied himself up as best as he could — although the stubble and black circles under his eyes remained. His face was a thing he was losing control over the longer the war went on. Perhaps it was simply age, perhaps this is what getting older meant.
He walked wearily to his office — that makeshift space Walter had knocked down — where he waited for The Specialist. He rearranged the boxes, repacking what he could and taping a few corners back together. It still looked shabby but it continued to serve its purpose. He sat down with his index cards and then an incredible sleepiness came over him, his eyes burned with heaviness. He shut them for a moment, just a moment, and his head sank down onto the desk.
Kurt was awakened by a sharp, loud slap on the desk which rattled his head and nearly deafened one ear.
"We are taking two baboons for study now, the rest we will take soon." The Specialist said. She was standing next to him, having lifted a stack of folders and slammed them back down hard enough to wake him. His mouth hung open and he tried focusing his vision. The words didn't make any sense to him.
"Yes," she said, not bothering to hide her contempt, "some time today. You can help or you can not help. I don't care, but I was obliged to tell you."
"But why? For study of what?"
"Perhaps you've noticed, there's a war."
"War? With baboons?"
Her face flushed red. "No, you idiot. We need the baboons to study the effects of experimental drugs that could help the troops."
So that was it. That was why she was here, and that's why there was a laboratory.
"No, you can't take any of the baboons."
Her head moved back and her eyebrows arched. A peculiar grimace involuntarily leaked out of her skin and muscles. It was joyous and cruel.
"Say anything like that again and I'll have you shot. The only reason we're keeping you is because you know the animals and that might make it easier for us." She terminated the conversation with a moment of awkward silence then walked away with a self-conscious and vaguely dangerous stride.
He sat for a while in the resulting emptiness without a clear idea of what had happened, or what he should do. He would mentally run down the possibilities, his own actions and counter-actions, and every outcome ended with a bullet in his head. He would discard the scenarios then build them up again, but every time, the same thing. He was just an exhibit in the zoo. His thoughts became desperate, then some survival instinct cropped up and he gradually believed he would help The Specialist.
Hours passed. He had the sense that he should be hungry, but like sleep it was simply unattainable. He would go to the zoo level and wait with the baboons. Maybe he could help them separate the individuals they wanted to take without unnecessary horror. He walked into the stairwell mechanically.
When he got to the door, the small desk where the guard sits was empty. He immediately clucked, admonishing the habitual lack of seriousness soldiers had for the task — then he noticed a hand on the floor, sticking out from behind the desk. Kurt leaned over and saw behind the desk the crumpled unconscious — or lifeless — form of the guard. There was a significant gash on the side of his head that blood had seeped from, now congealed and jelly-like. Kurt's first impulse was to check on the animals, he wasn't concerned with the guard's condition. He entered the level, looking at the usual and obvious collection of dirty boots they used when shoveling out the stalls. The tools, the boots, nothing here was out of place. He entered the corridor that lead to the cells, a passage way that took two turns. But as he came around the last corner he almost ran into one of the emus. The emu was as surprised as Kurt was. He was lucky it didn't attack him, instead, with a panicky scramble it turned and ran, leaving a trail of feathers.
Someone let the emus out. He gulped hard, wondering what else had been let loose. He stopped and listened. Down the corridors he heard a sudden cacophony of animal shrieking, baboons, birds, other things. It was an uproar.
He saw a baboon run across the broad central hallway, lopping in ecstatic freedom. Then he saw Walter.
"Walter!" He yelled.
Walter froze. Kurt noticed that in one hand he held the keys to the cells, in the other he held a crowbar.
"Walter! What are you doing!?"
Walter didn't appear to be coherent. He was pale, disheveled, clothes grubby, his eyes were red. How long had he been hiding in the lower levels?
But Walter ran, ran across the hallway directly down the corridor to the elephant's stall.
Kurt could hear the keys Walter held clanging. How much destruction had Walter done? As Kurt came to the corner of the passage he stopped — on the other side, just beyond the hallway, stood the ibex. It recognized Kurt and walked over to him slowly.
Down the corridor Kurt heard a latch click open. Then he heard the impossibly loud trumpet of an angry elephant. There was a scream, from Walter, a strangled yell that quickly turned wet and broken.
Kurt stared at the ibex, who stood in front of him, head down. "You and I will go now, we'll leave the tower," the ibex said to Kurt. Kurt scratched its head and carefully climbed onto its back.