“The whole thing is based on a misunderstanding of biology,” said Pan, perched on a pile of hay in the elephant paddock. “Two by two, my furry ass.”
Birdy paused in her meditative chewing, and said, “A true observation, dear troglodyte.”
“You can joke,” said Pan, and reached out a hand to steady himself as the ship rolled again. “Chimpanzees are not monogamous. Here I am, stuck with a female who trembles when I look in her direction. It’s too much work.”
“True of many relationships,” said Birdy, almost inaudibly. She cast a glance at her mate, the vast and belligerent Greylag, tramping back and forth irritably at the other end of their paddock.
“It’s made everyone a little tense, this endless pitching and rolling,” said Birdy.
“Tense!” said Pan. “But listen. What do you think?”
Birdy dutifully thought, chewing.
“Why not?” she said. “It can’t make things any worse.”
“I think …” began a Labrador who was sitting next to Birdy’s ponderous foot, but he stopped when the elephant tapped him on the head with the tip of her trunk. “Sorry, little fellow. Domesticateds do not have a voice in this discussion.”
“Good,” murmured the cat sitting by Birdy’s other foot, stretching back a hindpaw for an interlude of Intimate Cleaning.
The lions, predictably, were not enthusiastic.
“Stupid idea,” said Baph. “It won’t work,” said Huph. “Not only that, we’ll get the fucking blame.”
There was a deep clearing of the throat from the enclosure opposite, and Huph looked over and said, “And them. Big cats, always being blamed, whoever actually did it.”
“Indeed. On the other hand,” said Grarg, the tiger who had made the noise, “We are no big fan of Old Beard.”
“Yes, yes,” squeaked a weasel, hopping about in excitement in the alley. “Hate Beard. Hate him!”
“Shut up, weasel,” roared the others simultaneously, and the little animal slunk back to her pen to sulk about being bullied all the time.
Pan could see where the work lay. “Respected Lions, Tigers, and also Leopards, and Jaguars,” he said, looking down the cages at all the other large felids who might need to be reassured. “Snow Leopards, and Catamounts, allow me to explain a little better.”
He loped back and forth, keeping to the middle of the alley out of the shafts of sunlight streaming in from the ports high above their heads. It made him uncomfortable to feel the glowing eyes following his every movement. He presented his arguments. Going by the past, he said, millenia of oppression lay ahead. Old Beard and the rest were rotten enough, and who knew about those that would come? An opportunity like this would never arise again, he said. And so on and so forth.
And once Baph and Huph were convinced, he knew the thing was won.
On a morning not many days after that, they felt a grinding and a juddering as the ship began to settle. Pan let himself out of his cage and went around, making sure everyone was prepared. Most of the animals had no role to play, of course, but he did not want anyone squeaking or howling at the wrong moment.
And when the four women came in with their buckets and barrows, chatting to each other, it seemed to be just an ordinary day on the first deck. If they had been more sensitive creatures, more attuned to hidden currents, the women might have marked a tension in the air, a wariness in the way the animals regarded them.
In front of the elephant paddock, two of the women stopped to call out to Greylag and Birdy, who strolled out, ears flapping. When the women were preoccupied, hoisting bales of hay, the elephants reached out with their trunks. They lifted the women up by the feet and swung them high into the air and then back, knocking their heads together with just enough force. It was done so swiftly the women had barely time to gasp.
The elephants gently lay the two bodies on the deck, side by side.
Birdy looked down Old Beard’s wife, at the blank eyes and slack features. She felt it strange that this sorry creature could have exerted such a hold on them for so long.
Birdy began an agitated trumpeting, and Greylag joined in. Presently the other two women came running and saw their companions lying there. They kneeled before the bodies, shaking them and shouting, then to their surprise found themselves suddenly swinging through the air upside down.
Pan had been watching from the end of the alley. He trotted over to unlock the paddock gate. Birdy pressed her foot down gently on each of the women’s heads, and then she and Pan went over to the the big cat cages.
As soon as he had opened the lions’ door, Pan sprang onto Birdy’s back, for one could not be certain with lions.
Baph and Huph yawned and stretched.
Baph said, “Time to go see Old Beard and the sons,” and the two padded off towards the doors.