“You idiot!” The tone was venomous, “it’s still alive.”
“What? No! It was absolutely dead when I pulled it.”
As if on cue, the prone form twitched, and gave a gasp as it sucked air into its lungs.
“Quick! Hand me that pole!”
There was a hollow “thunk”, as the pole connected with the round head.
Daniel groaned as he came around. Surely being dead shouldn’t hurt this much. His eyes shot open as soon as he realised that, contrary to his expectations and careful planning, he wasn’t dead.
He had been convinced he had executed the deed perfectly, and that no margin had been left for error. He snorted. His mother was right, he was such a loser! Who else could get jumping off an abandoned water tower – in the middle of nowhere – this wrong?
“Er… Sorry, please don’t try to..”
Daniel thumped his abused head on the metal bars of the tiny cage.
“.. Move.” The voice was apologetic. “Sorry, it’s a bit tight. It was the best we could find under such short notice.”
“For goodness sake!” The owner of the second voice was not in the least bit sorry, “Don’t talk to it! How many Regulations are you going to break today?”
The cage was a tight fit. Daniel had been rolled into a fetal position and squeezed into it so that he was lying on his right side. The voices continued their argument behind him.
“It was just a little error in timing,” the first voice started, defensively.
“Well, a live specimen is not a little problem! We are only authorised to take dead specimens! We don’t even have forms for the kind of stuff up you’ve just made. And here I am, just months from retirement! You really are the worst kind of incompetent!”
“What if we…”
“No! Let me think!”
There was the unmistakable sound of paperwork being shuffled.
“We have another collection scheduled in twenty minutes.” More rustles of pages being flipped through. “Our only choice is to insert this one as we extract the next one. We can make up the missing specimen at the following extraction. See?” more rustles. “It’s a multiple. Who is to notice if we take five and not four? And that gets rid of this one.”
Daniel could only admire the neatness of the plan. From their perspective of course. From his, it just plain sucked. Back to square one: the same joyless, pointless existence.
Since he had not been included in the discussion, he decided to hold his tongue, and quietly mull over his options. Not that there looked like there were any, but mulling would entertain his mind while he waited.
“Not the sharpest tool in the shed, our Daniel.” Mum would make no bones about it, especially to anyone lucky enough not to have been afflicted with knowing the agonising details of his pitiful existence.
No point in making a break for it, even if he got the chance. He didn’t think his odds for success and future prosperity were high anywhere he was considered a mere ‘specimen’.
Endless minutes were punctuated with the loud ticks of a slightly jaundiced clock that hung on the grey wall he was facing. It was one of those with just the hands: the type that disdainful, superior, know-it-alls hung in their equally objectionably arrogant offices. “You shouldn’t need numbers to read the time”, again, Mum’s voice in his head. Well, he did. What was worse, the long and short hands were just about the same length. So, it was either about ten minutes to three, or it was a quarter past ten. Give or take a few.
He heard a single set of footsteps approaching from behind.
“Er, sorry. This will just take a moment.” It was Apologetic. Daniel and his cage were enshrouded in a musty, grey tarpaulin. He could feel himself being wheeled along a rather unevenly tiled floor. It was impossible for him to guess how far he had wobbled before the hum of a large machine became quite insistent against his eardrums.
“Right. Here we are.” A pause. “Look, I am really sorry about the …”
“You never learn, do you?” It was Irate. “Stop talking to it!”
The tarpaulin was pulled off the cage, leaving a slight haze of dust. Daniel was facing an unprepossessing steel tray, wedged against the intersection of two equally dismal walls.
“Un-latch the cage.” There was a fumble of keys and chains, which rattled through the cage bars. “Three, two, one… push.”