2018-01-09 15:07 fiction short-story zoo-tower Benjamin Brood

Zoo Tower, Part One

Hendrik's Leg

Hendrik had been torn apart by an exploding shell while he was inspecting one of the gun platforms. There wasn't much left of him, an arm here, a leg there. Although it was fairly rare that an enemy shell directly hit the roof, chances were necessarily taken by the staff and soldiers of the zoo tower.

There was a memorial service of course, Hendrik had devoted his life to the tower. Respect for his devotion was obligatory.

Kurt took over as director when Hendrik died. It was Kurt who'd gathered up Hendrik's remains and put them into a small handmade casket fashioned from the cheap wood of the crates and pallets used to store the zoo tower's supplies.

The Lieutenant was disinterested in the courtesy afforded to the former director. Kurt assumed the Lieutenant would've just thrown the body parts over the side, where, no doubt, other carnage had pilled up.

On Kurt's first day as director he stood in the back of the civilian level, in a makeshift meeting room created by stringing up old curtains, and gave a slightly fumbling speech to the six civilian representatives. Hendrik had been good at this sort of thing, he thought, better at it than I am. Kurt attempted to reassure them that the tower had plenty of supplies, that their nation's forces were pushing their enemies back, and that any day the civilians who were grouped together on cots and milling around — trading for cigarettes — would be able to leave the tower and resume their normal lives.

The Lieutenant used to attend these meetings, but had stopped, gruffly and suddenly, six months ago claiming his energies were better spent elsewhere. Exactly what this meant and exactly where this could be, Kurt wasn't sure. Hendrik briefed the civilians on the military situation using scraps of overheard knowledge, then glossing over or omitting the worst parts. Hendrik told Kurt, you must never let the civilians know how grave the situation is, keeping up morale is worth whatever lies are necessary — never let them forget that they once had normal lives, Hendrik told Kurt with a deeply serious inflection, a body language that was shaking with tension, almost ready to break down.

Lucky Hendrik, Kurt thought involuntarily, it was all over for him instantly. Not so quick for us.

The Ibex

In the morning he fed the ibex. The ibex was once kept in a wide area with rocks and branches and other ibex, on the grounds of the now destroyed zoological gardens. But in here, in the cramped pen of the tower, her companions gone, the ibex was depressed, half starved and losing weight. Her coat was dull. The ibex's eyes once looked at him with anger or fear, now they moistly glared at him with resignation. The ibex would let him scratch her head between the horns but no longer appeared to take any pleasure from this.

He was drawn to the ibex more than some of the other animals. The emus were intolerable. Likewise the baboons. Maybe he disliked the baboons so much because they clearly, in a very human way, disliked him equally. The elephant appeared similarly resigned, although Kurt believed the appearance was misleading, the elephant was much smarter than they gave it credit for. Last month one of the soldiers who had been on duty in the zoo level was taunting the elephant and got close to the pen and the elephant reached out with its trunk and grabbed him, tossed him around for a minute against the walls and floor. If he'd been inside the pen Kurt was positive the elephant would've trampled him. The soldier was recuperating from a broken arm and broken ribs.

After the incident the Lieutenant insisted on shooting the elephant. This created an angry, loud argument between Hendrik and the Lieutenant. Hendrik said the animals were his responsibility, that the Lieutenant had no authority over the zoo level, and since his soldier had been teasing the animal what did he expect? The Lieutenant continued his threat, a threat he'd made several times before, especially when angry or under duress. He said he would shoot all the animals and re-purpose the entire level. Hendrik, having an unknown psychological advantage over the Lieutenant, was always able to counter this threat and talk the Lieutenant out of taking any rash actions. Kurt worried that he wouldn't be able to do this — it was clear the Lieutenant had nothing but disdain for him.

The ibex looked sideways at Kurt, not meekly, but coldly with a complete understanding of the situation. Kurt found himself on several occasions talking to the ibex, then catching himself, hurrying through his task to avoid what he knew was an implicit degree of self-condemnation. I didn't start the war, Kurt thought. For men like the Lieutenant these must be glorious times. An affirmation of the endless training, confirmation of the military hierarchy and roles. Kurt sometimes pondered if there could be enemies and war at all if men stopped loving hierarchy.

The lower levels of the tower held various supplies and equipment but also some of the nation's treasure. How much, Kurt wasn't sure, but he did know there was gold there, stacked in bars. He knew there were cabinets with blueprints and patents and things like that. And he knew there was an entire level devoted to the museum — artwork selected for its importance to the nation, certainly with many necessary omissions. Stored of course were the greatest scenes of victory painted in oils and statues of their most well known heroes. Images of beauty were collected, representations understandable and approachable, executed by the nation's acknowledged masters. There had been a weird burst of deviance by reactionaries just before the war, those things had been destroyed whenever possible. Kurt had seen an exhibition once in the city and he couldn't understand what threat that scribbling, immature art posed — but then he wasn't an expert in aesthetics, he was a zoologist by trade.

Kurt now had unrestricted access to the tower. As an assistant to the director he believed he'd already seen most of it. The museum level was a place he'd been hurried through a few times, clipboard in hand, performing some routine inspection, a general recording of conditions, ensuring that nothing had succumbed to radical theft or wanton destruction. They must keep the habit of protocol.

The lower levels were extensive and except for the artwork Kurt let the specifics slip away, amorphous, undefined. The Lieutenant had threatened to destroy the artwork too. The animals and the artwork weren't worth protecting, he said. On various occasions the Lieutenant said he would change the nature of the tower from defensive to offensive, bringing more troops in, recreating supply chains, and using the tower as an important headquarters for the war. But he wasn't likely to destroy every single piece of art, there was one he'd mentioned, indicating perhaps even a fondness for it.

The Lieutenant was drawn to a large canvas called "The Rape Of The City". The painting read like an epic, from left to right. There were heroes and victims — with a progression of various disastrous states the city in the background began besieged, then was burned, then the rubble leftover was retaken. This, Kurt imagined, was the Lieutenants' vision of himself, as the hero who retakes the rubble and delivers vengeance. The Lieutenant hated nothing more than being stuck in this tower while the real fighting happened outside, in the city, in the neighborhoods — or what was left of them.

Kurt was no soldier, but he could tell the sounds outside the tower had changed over the last few months. The sounds were now chaotic. He did not hear concerted strategic operations, tanks, or targeted gunfire in the way he used to hear. Everything had become sporadic, punctuated by an occasional terrifying scream. And since he'd been to the roof with Hendrik where the flak gun platforms were, he could look out over the city and see the landmarks he'd known since he was a child reduced to skeletal forms, bones of timber and of brick and stone, dotted with columns of smoke. At night he could make out the demarcations of the old neighborhoods by the lines of fire that constantly raged.

He wouldn't report this to the civilian representatives. He would tell them their nation's gold and artwork was safe. He would tell them they were safe as long as they remain in the tower. He would tell them they would return to their shops and apartments and friends — soon.

Magic And Order

It was said the zoo tower was built according to magical calculations, some perfect proportionality, an enchanted engineering by an architect who was certain this would protect it from both physical and spiritual attack. The two foot thick reinforced concrete walls helped.

There were rumors that the blood of a virgin had been mixed into the foundation. There were rumors the architect had been part of The Secret Order. The Secret Order's power, Kurt thought, was that everyone assumed The Secret Order existed but thought speaking about it meant certain death. It was purely conjecture. It might be possible there was no Secret Order, at all, and that the production of the idea was just the talent of a frightened populace.

Regardless, the story was that The Secret Order believed in meta-magical concepts of numerology, astrology and design. The zoo tower was placed in such a way that the orientation of the level's tall thin windows — modeled after medieval arrow slits — allowed light on solstices to shine in geometrically significant configurations. Kurt didn't know why it was significant, or what it meant, but he noticed it, everyone in the tower noticed it. Those days were special, he thought, because everyone saw the startling patterns the light created but nobody mentioned it. If it had to do with The Secret Order then it would never be mentioned. But everyone knew, everyone saw it.

Kurt wondered if each level's relationship to the other floors had also been meticulously planned — each level's epistemological distance, for example, described in an philosophical blueprint. Perhaps blueprint wasn't the correct term. Tract. Hymn. Treatise. But obviously he wasn't going to talk to anyone about this.

He recalled a moment with Hendrik, an odd moment, the kind of thing you overlook at the time but sticks with you and gets muddled and lodged in your mind — they'd been grudgingly discussing the Lieutenant and ideas to keep the zoo level safe, and Hendrik suggested "changing the locks on the zoo levels so the Lieutenant couldn't get in". Kurt laughed at this plural reference and said "Ha, ha, just how many zoo levels are there in the tower?". Hendrik's eyes met his, then snapped back, wider than normal, the edges watering and strained. If eyes are windows to the soul then Hendrik's soul was tired and prone to mistakes. Kurt assumed existential fatigue. Hendrik tried to defuse the awkwardness by saying "all levels are zoo levels". Kurt laughed again uneasily, he understood the pointed lack of subtlety.

A year ago Kurt believed in the end of the war. He thought it was cynical to suggest that people were merely animals — months later Hendrik's aside had seemed much less cynical. But his slip of pluralization, misspeaking or not, kept crossing Kurt's mind. The hesitation in Hendrik's reaction… what was that, what did it indicate? Hendrik knew things Kurt did not. He couldn't help thinking about it.

The zoo level was where Kurt spent most of his time. As a zoologist this was where he was comfortable. But it was sad and grueling. He didn't believe animals should be constrained in environments designed for humans. He believed this due to observation however, not training. Animals were hard to keep alive in small concrete cells. He made his rounds, he did that the same way every day although now he could have someone else do it if he wanted. But he had a spiteful reaction to any method supported by the Lieutenant. If the Lieutenant would've delegated the task then Kurt chose instead to do it himself.

There was a soldier guarding the entrance of the floor most of the time. Since the elephant attack the soldiers were told not to wander around the floor at all. Most of the time the guard wasn't paying attention. Kurt always worked as loudly as he could, hoping to keep the guard alert.

Once, a couple of civilians had crept past the guards on their own floor — and the soldier on duty on the zoo level was missing. Hendrik caught the two civilians as they were about to open the emus' cage. Later, when questioned by the Lieutenant, they said "They're birds aren't they? Must be good to eat, and there's so much of it, much better than all the cans of beans and dried meat you give us." The two men were taken up to the roof and shot.

Special Specialist

Kurt constantly worried about how he would manage the Lieutenant. He could sense the boundaries shifting in the Lieutenant's favor, little by little.

A week after Hendrik's death the Lieutenant called him to his office on the troop level. Kurt hated visiting his office since he had to wind his way through countless bored and angry soldiers — then through the infirmary where some men lay dying, often loudly. It was no accident that the Lieutenant put his office back there, so that anyone he called upon would have to witness the raw reality of soldiering.

The Lieutenant treated Kurt with a distracted, dismissive attitude, since Kurt wasn't worth his complete attention. Kurt stood there for quite some time. Finally the Lieutenant looked up.

"I need to inform you — so that you may inform your people and the civilians — that tomorrow The Specialist arrives."

"The Specialist?"

"That's right. And it is of the utmost importance that everything is running as smoothly as possible, we don't want any incidents with the animals or the civilians. I need to stress how important this is."

"I see. Of course."

Kurt made sure to tell his people and the civilian representatives about the imminent arrival of The Specialist. Nobody asked him what The Specialist did or why. Kurt wouldn't know what to tell them if they did ask.

The next day the Lieutenant called him back to the office.

"I need to inform you that The Specialist has been delayed. It seems the normal route was recently under heavy attack by enemy forces. As soon as we have them swept away, The Specialist will be arriving. Tomorrow night, at the latest."

Kurt said he understood and repeated this information to the same people. The following day he heard nothing, but the morning after that he was once again called to the Lieutenant's office where he was told: "The Specialist is still delayed by what seems to be a fortified enemy entrenchment. Our forces have suffered some light losses but without a doubt the enemy position will be broken in a few days then The Specialist will arrive. Until then I expect you to keep on top of things since that could happen at any moment."

"Certainly," Kurt said.

Another week went by. He was not called into the Lieutenant's office, this time he was approached by a sergeant who told Kurt that The Specialist would be arriving that afternoon. Afternoon came and went. And the next day. Kurt proceeded with his rounds without concern, in fact for the last week he'd discarded any sense of priority and importance, or even possibility, attached to the so-called Specialist's arrival.

He was shoveling elephant dung when the Lieutenant and The Specialist walked up behind him.

"And this is our current Director engaged in his duties. Unfortunately our previous Director, who delegated such tasks, had the misfortune of being killed by random enemy fire on the platforms."

Oh God, he thought, of course it would be now, providing more fodder to the Lieutenant for Kurt's denigration. Kurt wiped the sweat from his brow and put aside the shovel, turning to face them.

The Specialist stood taller than the Lieutenant. She wore a uniform he didn't recognize, although he knew there were a lot of changes in the organization in the last couple of years. Was she a scientist from an elite military group? Was she a soldier for some inner circle? He was in no way equipped to discern. Her glare indicated an icy, transcendent lack of interest that made the Lieutenant's constant belittling seem like a box of love letters.

Kurt held out his hand, "very nice to meet you". Then he withdrew it, suddenly aware he'd been shoveling shit.

"Yes," she said. Then she and the Lieutenant continued their tour.