I hope none of you minded the wait too much. I did warn you, as I do all my readers, that the updates will likely be sporadic. But here's another chapter for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!
Part of him wondered if he truly escaped once. Batty could clearly remember flying blindly through the building, making it to the outside and traveling away from any sounds of humanity, reaching a rainforest, and living there quite happily. He could remember seeing Hexxus attack Fern Gully and be defeated, though he was unconscious during most of the final action. He remembered calm days among the vegetation, observing the fairies encourage growth and flying between the trees without fear. He remembered Crysta, Pips, the obnoxious Beetle Boys, and even the semi-decent and short-time-present Zak. But he also remembered insane scenarios that his brain concocted when a spark leapt between the pieces of wire. Perhaps all those happy memories of freedom and safety were merely the product of his fried mind. After all, he was right back where he started. He was in a cage, doomed to his fate. Hoping for anything better or clinging to memories of better days only made reality more painful to face. It might be easier to believe it to be nothing more than a dream from his broken mind.
Batty stared out as a group of mildly-younger humans filed into the room behind one of the scientists. Not one he remembered, but a new one they must have hired more recently. Regardless, he knew exactly what was going on. It didn't matter if you call them interns or graduate students, these bright and promising young people were the future of Shred Choices. They would be shown the facilities and possibly witness an experiment or two, but they wouldn't learn the full extent of what was occurring until they were truly hired and could be trusted not to blab about things like using poachers to gain specimens.
He watched them for a few moments, making certain they weren't planning to use him for demonstrative purposes. Once he felt mildly confident that he wasn't about to be injected with something toxic, the bat wrapped his wings around himself tightly. The cage didn't offer many opportunities to sleep properly by dangling upside-down, but he spent most of his life with similar restrictions. The mammal could manage to sleep huddled in the corner if he had to.
Flying was harder than he thought, but most animals probably weren't trying to learn while blindly smacking into any obstacle they might encounter. Not to mention most of his life was spent inside a building and he possessed no way to tell where he was going. But he didn't have a destination, so directions didn't really matter. As long as it was away from humans, he couldn't care less. Though he wouldn't say wouldn't say "no" to a direction with fewer obstacles like trees to run into.
It actually took him a while to locate trees. Escaping the building merely brought him to a city or a town of some sort. The sounds certainly matched those the television produced regarding urban environments. And the number of human voices present further supported that theory. Every time he heard one, the bat sharply switched directions to the point where he might very easily be going in circles. But soon the unnatural sounds died away and the impacts with man-made objects were replaced exclusively by trees. Not that he knew what they were initially. It took him a few hits to even recognize them.
"I can't see the forest for the trees," he muttered before hitting another one.
He lost track of time as he flapped blindly, knocking himself unconscious a few times with his less graceful collisions and occasionally getting completely turned around by strange hallucinations that he often provoked by causing an electric shock from the exposed wire. A day or two might have passed since his escape, at least judging by his growing hunger. Locating food was another challenge since he couldn't see his surroundings and he'd always been fed in the past by humans. Granted, sometimes the "food" included another chemical cocktail experiment, but at least the blind and insane mammal could always find it. And even the calls of other animals in the area, some sounding friendly and others less so, couldn't convince him to stop and ask for help regarding his hunger. The nature programs on television taught him plenty about predators and his less-lucid moments tended to be off-putting to more helpful creatures.
A less-insane part of his mind would keep trying to point out that he couldn't fly forever without stopping to eat and only sleeping when knocked out by a crash. That his wings, unused to the act of flying, were growing wearier by the minute. That he was sore from continuing to smash into tree trunks and branches and that he was lucky not to have broken anything yet. That he would die of exhaustion or hunger if he didn't figure out another plan. But another crash would always blank out his mind by completing the circuit of the exposed wire and he would forget temporarily. Besides, death was a long-time companion to the lab animal and the fear of humans greatly out-weighed that of dying. Returning to Shrewd Choices would be worse than merely dying.
Finally, he did begin slowing his desperate flight through the humid and warm rainforest. The lack of signs of humanity for hours began to soothe his nerves. The occasional hallucination made it difficult at times for the blind bat to be certain, but he was beginning to feel safe from them. The smell of ripe berries, something he barely recognized without the over-powering scent of disinfectant trying to mask it, led him to a small meal and a relatively safe perch for him to catch his breath. As he rested, his ears picked up tidbits of conversation from the unseen inhabitants of the forest, allowing him to infer that he was heading for a location called Mount Warning.
"So is it called 'Warning' because it's dangerous and we need to be warned about it," pondered Batty to himself, "or because it's somewhere safe and you'll have plenty of warning about trouble?" Unable to decide, he shook his head, "As long as I don't have to bump into any humans, I'll be happy."
Zak listened carefully to the fairies, perched on the edge of the bird bath, explain the events that led them to his home. Through the entire description, he was struggling not to interrupt except for the most confusing parts. Trying to translate in his head something understandable from the descriptions of certain human inventions and actions by individuals with no concept of technology or jobs could challenge even the best minds. Metal cages, trucks, and even a poacher were fairly new ideas for them. At least the Leveler gave them a starting point for their descriptions and referring to a net as a non-sticky spider web was easy enough to understand. But he almost wished that he couldn't understand what they were telling him.
He liked Batty. Yes, the dude possessed a real dislike for humanity and made certain that Zak knew it. But even though he tried to convince a jumbo lizard to eat the shrunken human, he also saved him when Hexxus and the Leveler almost killed him. Not to mention he was a decent bat when he wasn't advocating against the evils of humanity. Zak was rather happy to see him survive the attack on Fern Gully. But now…
The best case scenario, and also the least likely one, would be for the poacher to sell him to a zoo or something. Yes, Batty would be miserable living with humans, but at least he'd be alive. Zak's research and experience at protecting the environment was teaching him of some of the less kind fates that awaited animals captured by poachers. Time was of the essence if they wanted to save Batty. Of course, that was assuming that it wasn't too late already.
"Okay, was there any writing on the truck or anything?" he asked once Crysta and Pips finished talking.
"Yes," the black-haired fairy answered excitedly. "The 'cages' did. I remember seeing it. Batty even mentioned it when I showed him."
"Great, what did it say?"
"It didn't say anything," Pips responded, staring up at the blond young man like he was crazy. "They don't seem to be able to talk."
"I don't mean what it literally said. I mean, what did the writing…," he trailed off. "Neither of you can read, can you?" When both fairies shook their heads with vaguely-confused expressions, Zak sighed, "Well, there goes that lead."
"Does that mean you can't help us?" asked Crysta, using a familiar tone of voice.
It was the exact same tone that made it nearly impossible for him to imagine telling her that humans were the ones destroying the forest back when they first met. He didn't personally care about the trees or the rainforest back then, but he couldn't even consider letting down the beautiful and unbelievable girl with wings he'd just met. When she used that tone of voice with him and stared at him with her big expressive eyes, he couldn't even consider letting her down. Back then, he'd lied flat out to her in response to her voice and her expression. He told her that the Leveler was a monster that humans were combating with the use of spray paint to trap it. He told her that he would never have anything to do with something that "ate" trees like that. He told her anything he could in order to keep her happy and ensure that she liked him. Not to mention he needed to stay on her good side at the time if he wanted to ever regain his real size.
It was only afterwards that he truly started to see how much destruction humanity was causing and to honestly mean that he didn't want to harm the trees. But he was there yet when he first faced Crysta's expressive voice and her powerful gaze as she asked. He didn't understand when she first tried to learn how he was connected to the Leveler, so he lied to avoid hearing her upset. Perhaps not his smartest plan in history considering that it led to her being furious about his lies later, but that was back when he was ignorant and just plain stupid at times.
But he regained her trust and friendship after the truth came out, along with at least ending up on better terms with Pips. That meant he couldn't risk lying to her again, even if she was using the same tone of voice and expression on him as before. It was mildly surprising to learn, however, that the look on her face was just as effective when she was small enough to fit in the palm of his hand as it was when they were the same size.
However, just because he couldn't simply lie and tell Crysta exactly what she wanted to hear, he also couldn't destroy her hope either. He couldn't tell her how slim the chances of just happening to find where Batty was without any real clues were. He couldn't point out that there were untold numbers of places he could've ended up and that wasn't including locations outside this country. He might be on a boat or a plane to another continent right at this moment.
And that was assuming that he was even alive at this moment. If the poachers were collecting animals to sell as pets, to hand over to private zoos, or for some similar purpose, then the flying mammal was even worse off than what first occurred to Zak. Those types of people would want animals in perfect condition that looked healthy and picturesque so that the customers would buy them. A crazy bat with a wire stuck in the side of his head would fall under the category of "damaged goods," something that he learned plenty of thanks to his father's business. Even the most careful companies would occasionally have few individual products that were either faulty upon production or were damaged during shipping. These losses were expected and even predicted during the projections concerning profit. And you might be able to recycle parts or something, but most of the time these items were a lost cause that would be disposed of. Whether that would mean releasing Batty back into wild or using him for other purposes, like taxidermy, Zak didn't know.
On the other hand, the type of customers that wouldn't mind a damaged bat with a tendency to pick up different stations with his messed up mind was even worse to consider. The people who wouldn't care what condition their purchased wildlife was in probably weren't concerned with maintaining the health of the animal.
No matter how he thought about it, Zak knew that the possibility of finding Batty alive in time was very small. Without clues, it was nearly impossible. But he couldn't tell Crysta and Pips that. They flew all the way to his house because they were going to take even the slim chance of finding help rather than give up. And if there was even the slightest possibility that they could find Batty, the blond young man knew he would have to take it too.
"I'll help," he responded finally. "I don't know where to look yet or how we'll find him, but I'll do everything I can. Don't worry." When the black-haired fairy rewarded his words with a bright smile and even Pips gave a slight nod, Zak added, "Follow me into the house. I'll start making some calls."
A particularly loud screech of terror woke Batty, sending him instantly into panic mode. It was a nightmarish sound, which was fitting since this was a place from his nightmares. He'd almost forgotten how to sleep when living in a biology lab. Screams and crying were part of the general background noise, something he'd grown less used to after his time in the rainforest. The sounds were different than those he heard in Fern Gully. And they sounded louder thanks to being in a confined space.
Pressing his ears down against his head, the fruit bat peered out of his cage to see if there was a particular reason why someone was extra afraid at the moment. A quick glimpse sent him huddling near the back of his metal container again.
The tour with the students wasn't quite complete apparently. It would seem they decided on having a demonstration after all. The scream came courtesy of a rather skinny clump of fur being pulled out of his cage and carried over to the examination table. Batty couldn't even identify the species before he was hiding near the back of the cage. He didn't want to see who or what was being experimented on. He didn't want to see what was happening. He just wanted to avoid being the encore performance.
"I'm not here. Just ignore the crazy bat in the cage," he muttered under his breath. "There's nothing interesting over here. Just forget about me. Plenty of other things to do besides dragging me out for testing too."
It wasn't that he didn't pity the poor soul who was about to suffer. It was just a little too familiar for his comfort and he wanted more than anything else to avoid what was coming for as long as possible. The longer it took for the humans to start trying to play mad scientist with him, the better.
On the other hand, waiting for them to strike might actually be worse. He knew it was coming and that there was no escaping the fact that needles and scalpels were in his future. It was inevitable. It might be easier to just get it over with.
Still, he wasn't quite ready to just jump right into another vivisection. If the choice was horrifying dread and terror each time a human walked by in case his tiny delay was over and going ahead with the actual suffering, Batty was still willing to accept the mortal terror for a while longer.
"Gather around, grad students," the human remarked casually. "You're in for a real treat. We've been developing a new line of health care products and we're just about to start testing our anti-acne cream. To ensure that it is perfectly safe for our customers, we need to work on some worst case scenarios with our test subjects. That includes using a far higher dosage than what is required. After all, people never seem to read the labels correctly anyway."
Batty didn't even need to see the scientist to know he was wearing a slight smirk on his face as he said that line. The polite chuckles at the man's attempted joke were all the evidence he needed to know that. Ears pressed tightly against his head, eyes squeezed shut, and pressed against the back of his cage, the small mammal did his best to ignore what was happening in the room. As the squeals of panic from the current test subject grew louder, he tried to cover his ears further with his wings, but he accidentally brushed against—
"Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to serve as back-up as I obtain the microfilm from the safe," he announced solemnly before leaping into action.
Dodging the laser beams was easy. He quickly performed that feat without setting off a single alarm. It was almost as if there weren't any there.
Upon completely that particular set of obstacles, he was horrified to discover that he'd somehow managed to end up trapped. There were walls on all sides and the safe was nowhere in sight. There was only one explanation. The information from their spies must have been false and it was all a trap to capture one of their best agents. Any second now, the walls would come together and crush them to death.
"Don't worry, I've escaped hundreds of death traps before," he assured his partner, who seemed to be mysteriously quiet during their mission. "I can handle this."
Intending to employ the classic explosive bubble gum, something slammed into one of the walls repeated.
"Quiet down in there," a voice ordered, barely noticeable above the banging. "Your flapping about is distracting."
Before he could yell at the individual for interrupting an important mission with world-wide consequences… the noise managed to pull Batty out of the shock-induced hallucination. Reality reasserted itself. He wasn't some sort of secret agent. He was a trapped lab animal.
And then he noticed the source of the voice and the one who was banging on the front of his cage. The scientist was glaring at him slightly; his current test subject firmly gripped in his other hand. Apparently Batty's attempts to avoid attention and to ignore everything around him ended up accidentally capturing the human's attention. It was official: he possessed the worst luck in the world.
"Don't mind me," he whimpered quietly. "I'll be quiet now. You won't hear another peep from me. Not a squeak. Not a squawk. You won't even hear a yelp unless you come near me with a needle. You might hear some begging though. Or a little bribery. Would that work? I'll give you anything you won't if you let me go. Gold. Jewels. A nice bridge in Brooklyn. What do you say?"
Apparently satisfied that the bat wasn't going to continue to flap around the cage at random, the scientist walked over to a different cage and shoved his test subject in. It would seem the hallucination lasted long enough for the human to finish whatever he was doing with the unidentified mammal, who was a lot quieter now.
"Well, that completes that demonstration," the man remarked to his audience, heading towards the door. "Next, I'll show you where we record the data from our tests and how we calculate the necessary adjustments."
Upon reflection, Zak decided that inviting the fairies inside was not his smartest idea. Even with the threat to Batty's life hanging over them, the natural curiosity of Crysta and Pips fascination with technology thanks to his introduction to the stereo, the blond young man spent several minutes trying to give a brief explanation about some of the odder devices in his combination kitchen/living room. It was either tell them these things or risk them setting themselves on fire with the stove when they investigated on their own.
He couldn't blame them for being overwhelmed and curious about "human magic" and technology in general. Considering their only past experience with these things was the stereo and the Leveler, things like the lamp and faucet had to be impressive. Zak could remember some his own reactions to the glowing mushrooms growing on the side of a tree or the water-filled cave with a ceiling that glittered like stars. Being immerse in a whole new world was almost guaranteed to shove all other thoughts out of your head for a time. Eventually the novelty would wear off and they would be back to focusing on the emergency, but Zak could let them explore a little first.
Pulling out a phone book, the young man began to consider different ways he could try and narrow their search. He knew a few people who might have some ideas about where poachers might be moving animals. Anyone involved in protecting the environment tended to keep an ear out for rumors like that.
"What's this?" asked Pips abruptly, yanking Zak's attention towards a rectangular object.
Smiling slightly, he answered, "That's the television. It's a source of information and entertainment. But mostly entertainment. It's sort of like the stereo, but better."
"It doesn't look better," muttered the red-haired fairy, floating a little closer to it. "How does it work?"
"You turn it on and watch the screen." When both Pips and Crysta, who'd been inspecting one of the window plants that was now boasting a few more flowers, stared at him blankly, Zak picked up the remote and said, "Just watch."
When he hit the "on" button, both of the fairies flinched and flew back a short distance in surprise when a commercial about peanut butter appeared on screen. A moment later, they'd recovered enough to start investigating the colorful image and sounds emerging from the box. Pips appeared utterly entranced by the device, but even Crysta seemed curious by the piece of technology.
"Pretty cool, right? This station tends to have some fairly rad shows later in the evening, but I'm not above a little channel surfing when I'm bored."
"What?" asked the black-haired fairy, turning to look at him in confusion.
Shaking his head, Zak responded, "Never mind. Don't worry about it. Just enjoy it."
Apparently accepting his advice, she turned back towards the television set. Pips didn't even respond the slang in the first place. The red-haired fairy was completely absorbed in watching the traffic report, even if he'd undoubtedly had no idea what traffic was. All that apparently mattered to him was the television itself. The screen was hypnotizing to him.
"Great, I've invented the fairy couch potato," Zak muttered under his breath.
After a second of consideration, he switched the station to a nature channel. At least it should be less confusing to his friends than the other programming. If it kept them distracted while he made a few inquiries about where Batty might be, he wouldn't mind too much.
He started contemplating his options. He could try Eliza. She was practically an expert in locating someone involved in animal trafficking. Some of her friends considered her talents at it legendary. On the other hand, the poachers were beginning to catch on and were getting better at avoiding her notice. Gordon, on the other hand, was actually involved in black-market stuff in his younger days. The grizzled old man loved to tell stories to some of the younger volunteers of his past, mostly as a warning not to be like him. He still possessed a few connections he might be able to use. But that would only work if the poachers were trying to sell to the highest bidder rather than having a specific buyer in mind. Of course, Eoin's cousin kept track of most of the ships moving in and out of the country. They might be able to figure out if a shipment of animals were being transported. And Eoin owed him a favor for that one time…
"Zak!" yelled Crysta abruptly, yanking him out of his thoughts. "Look at this. I know this."
"What?" he asked, glancing up at where the television was showing a commercial about a kitchen cleaning product.
"That," she urged, flying closer to the screen. "The blue shape. I've seen it before. It was on the 'cages.' Batty called them a logo."
"Wait, the cages had a logo on them with the writing?" He hurried over to the television, where both Crysta and Pips were now pointing. "Are you sure that's the right one?"
"Yes, I remember it," she nodded right before the commercial ended and the program about chimpanzees resumed. "Do you know what it means? Do you recognize it?"
"Will it help us find Batty?" asked Pips.
He did know the symbol. The company produced just about any type of household item you might need, which meant the logo and name could be seen everywhere. He also knew that there were plenty of vicious rumors concerning the safety of their products and even a few dark whispers about their testing standards. They denied everything, but some people wondered how many corners they were cutting in order to have their items on the shelves so quickly after testing and what was the limits they would do to make a profit.
Environmentalists knew them for a different reason. The chemicals in plenty of their products were of questionable safety and were likely to have nasty side effects on both nature and even some of the consumers. The company would deny these claims, and maybe even bribed the occasional person to look the other way, but several individuals felt that all it would take would be one last major infringement for the whole corporation to come crumbling apart. And the more paranoid people thought that discovering such an infringement might just be on the horizon if their theory about how the company saved time and money with their testing procedure was true.
Zak yanked open the phone book and started turning the pages frantically. There was no real reason to assume the worst yet. It was possible that the poachers merely bought their cages from the company rather than having any real connection to them. But if the conspiracy theory was true, it would make sense for the poachers to be carrying their products. And the phone book might not prove one way or another if it was true, but it could make the wild idea more plausible…
He finally stopped and looked at the page. There was the name, the phone number, and the address. He pulled out a map from one of his junk drawers and opened it up to confirm the location. The idea was beginning to look more and more possible. And that wasn't necessarily a good thing.
"Zak, what is it?" asked Crysta, a concerned look on her face.
"That logo is for a company called Shrewd Choices," he explained slowly and carefully, not yet willing to confirm or deny the possibility. "There are… stories about them. Not all of them good. I just checked their address and they have a testing lab not too far from rainforest and Mount Warning is. Definitely within a reasonable driving distance for a poacher who wants to avoid too much attention by staying on back roads as much as possible. I don't know for certain yet, I'll have to check out a few more things first before I can know either way, but that might be where Batty and the other animals are."
"How bad is that?" Pips asked, flying down to peer at the map curiously.
"It depends on how many of those stories are true," he stated. "But if he is there, it is almost certainly not somewhere he'll want to be."
Batty refused to move from his corner of the cage. He didn't want to accidentally cause another hallucination, even if being trapped in his fried-brain was preferable at the moment. The poor test subject for the anti-acne cream was starting to cry a little louder and even covering his ears wasn't quite enough. He'd forgotten how loud someone could be during their first procedure. He half-way recalled the skinny mammal arriving with him, though the bat wasn't paying the best attention at the time due to pure panic. That meant it was the poor fellow's first experiment. And it didn't sound like it was a particularly fun one.
The skinny guy, just a few cages away, started shrieking earlier about how his skin was burning from the stuff they used. The best advice that Batty was able to offer at that point was not to scratch at it, but the frightened and in pain test subject didn't seem to notice. By the time the yelling about his fur falling out started, the bat was starting to try and block out the sounds. This particular mammal possessed quite the set of lungs on him. Most of the animals in Batty's experience couldn't keep up this volume for this length of time.
When the test subject started crying about his skin bubbling, the fruit bat just gave up trying to block it out. If the product was causing blisters, it was highly unlikely that the noise would stop anytime soon. The poor animal was hurt, panicked, and new to the glamorous life of a lab experiment. He was going to be upset for quite a while and nothing was going to distract him from making everyone else aware of his misery.
Taking a deep breath, Batty tried to focus on something else. Anything else. Dreams. Reality. Some confusing mixture of both. He needed something to keep his mind busy so he didn't have to think about how it was only a matter of time before he was the one freaking out about his fur falling out or his skin bubbling.
Flying. He liked flying, even if he ended up crashing most of the time. Flying was something that could only be enjoyed outside of a cage. Flying could only be accomplished far away from labs and needles and experiments. You needed space in order to fly. You needed freedom and safety.
Memories, solid and real memories of actual events that his mind did not just craft due to electrocution, fluttered through his head. Flying through the rainforest. Flying after Crysta as she explored beyond the safety of Fern Gully. Flying her and the admittedly half-decent Zak out of danger from the Leveler. Flying after two racing fairies, the pair just a pair of glowing lights. Flying without even the slightest idea of where he was going and not caring. It might be easier to pretend it was all a dream and to give up even the slightest hint of hope that it was real, there was no way that he could deny that he would be able to imagine flight unless he actually experienced at least once. The only way he could remember flying would be if he was actually free to fly and that meant those memories were of real events.
He sank deeper into his memories of flying, of the wind beneath his wings and the humidity of the rainforest as he moved through the air. He ignored the crashes and focused solely on the sensation of flight itself. These were from a better time and place that was far away from here. Far away from the screaming, the fear, the pain, and the humans. They were memories of everything he ever wanted out of his life, but could never hope to have.
He was remembering so that he could forget. He latched onto those memories, using them to block out reality for just a little while. Just trying to pretend that he was still far away from this place and back somewhere that he could be happy.
He was focusing so strongly on those memories that it took him quite some time to realize that the shrieking stopped and it was a little too quiet in that direction now.
Well, I hope that this chapter was everything that you wanted it to be. Our heroes have at least an idea of where to look, but Batty definitely needs to get out of there before he loses what's left of his sanity. Or ends up as the next test subject.
Let me know what you think. I love feedback. Thanks.