Solomon knuckle‑walked his hulking body back and forth across the cage, the chimpanzee's coarse black hair raised with anxiety. This was the day it would happen, he was certain. Abby had explained everything and told him it would be all right, but this morning the dread still haunted him. To shake it off, he stretched and yawned, peeling back lips to reveal the formidable ivory canines that helped make him the group’s alpha male. His middle-aged joints ached with the usual collection of twinges, and his muscles suffered their usual morning kinks. His great skull throbbed with its usual leaden headache from hard slumber. But all these would recede with the day; they weren’t the cause of his unease.
With his body hair puffed out, Solomon presented a formidable sight, but he was an imposing animal even when relaxed, hair flat. His broad, mature face, with its sparse, grey stubble, marked him as beyond youth. But his knowing amber eyes, set beneath a prominent brow, glistened with an intelligence that had taken advantage of those years to achieve both wisdom and shrewdness. Although his body had grown distinctly rotund, his thick arms and legs were packed with muscle capable of hefting his weight with practiced agility.
In their sleeping cages, the others went about their morning routines with just a little more grunting and activity than usual, sensing the tension emanating from their leader. Occasionally, they stole furtive glances through the cage mesh at the pacing Solomon. They also warily watched Jonathan for any clues about the status of the ongoing power struggle between the two big males.
The younger muscular Jonathan gave no hint of his plans for the day. He sat stolidly in the corner of his cage, placidly nibbling with prehensile lips on the yam that was part of the chimpanzees’ usual breakfast. He stuck out his legs and stretched easily, grasping the cage mesh with his feet, giving no sign that, only days earlier, for the first time, he had overtly challenged Solomon’s authority in the yard. Abruptly, he had refused to pay the normal obeisance—grunting softly, hair flat, bowing down and covering his head so Solomon could tower over him, hair erect, as an alpha ape should. Instead, Jonathan had stalked up near to Solomon, stiff-legged, his own hair on end, notching up his challenge to Solomon’s leadership.
As Solomon sat in the corner of his own cage, forearms on knees, he contemplated the ongoing struggle with Jonathan—one reason Abby had given for his departure. He examined the healing slash on his hand, inflected by Jonathan's impressive canines during the fight that had resulted from the young ape's challenge. Despite the wound, Solomon had clearly won by enlisting his ally, the fierce Bruno, to eventually chase Jonathan away.
Surely, the volatile Jonathan plotted to challenge him again today when they met in the dusty open compound. Perhaps he’d give Solomon a bump or an insolent stare, or issue a defiant pant-hooting. And just as surely, there would be more fights, perhaps even bloody ones.
Solomon grasped the heavy steel mesh of the cage wall with thick, leathery coal-black fingers. He hauled his mass adroitly up the side, nimbly swinging across the ceiling mesh into the high transfer tunnel connecting all the cages. The sliding door to the next sleeping cage remained shut, separating him from the others as the keepers arranged the night before. Today was surely the day he would leave, but there was no sound, no movement where the people stayed.
He crouched in the wire tunnel, grunting uneasily to himself, peering into the other cages at the animals moving sleepily about. Besides Jonathan and Bruno, the group included young Earle, the handsome female Sandy, old Caliban, and the young mother Wendy and her infant Wombat.
He could see Sandy best, which was good, because he found her deeply attractive. She turned so he could see her face, with her wide eyes and softly contoured jaw. He remembered their last coupling in the yard during her estrous. Despite their appeal to one another, though, they had their quarrels—as had happened yesterday when he had crankily meted out a slap at her. But later they’d made peace; he’d offered a hand as a peace gesture, which she took in her mouth as acceptance, and they’d shared a make-up kiss.
A metallic click interrupted Solomon’s reverie. He instantly recognized the sound of the door to their wing unlocking, and he swung out of the tunnel and over to the cage front. He clutched the wire and pressed his large face against the thick mesh trying to peer down the row of cages to the open door. A low babble of unfamiliar human voices filtered through the open door. Solomon sensed that the whispered commands contained an urgency, a tension. The others began to grunt in jittery curiosity at the strangers invading their home. Jonathan, trying to advance his status as alpha male, began a low pant-hooting that grew into a furious scream, slamming his body with a massive boom into the metal door to the outside. The others leaped and swung about their cages in anxious reaction to the visitors.
But Solomon remained quiet, focusing his senses. Now was the time, he knew. He stared suspiciously at a shadowy figure in the doorway. It was joined by another, and perhaps a third. At first he wasn’t sure, but one of them appeared to be Abby striding toward him down the row.
It was Abby! Their leader, their protector, the most trusted human in their lives. The apes danced and swung about with gleeful hoots of greeting or raucous lip-razzes to attract her cherished attention. But she merely greeted the others in passing, stopping in front of his cage. Solomon pressed himself as close to the mesh as he could, studying her face for clues to the decision he still did not understand. The slump of her shoulders told him it bothered her. He wanted to communicate with her, to go to the machine room to make more talking with the touch screen.
But the hypodermic needle she brought up meant there would be no more talking about this. Now would come the needle-sleep. The others saw the needle, and their raucous hooting and screaming rose in volume to thicken the atmosphere with fear.
She slid a plastic pipe through an opening in the cage mesh—the pipe with the cutout used for taking blood and giving shots. Without being asked, he slid his arm into the pipe, exposing his arm to her, looking into her eyes.
“Okay, Solly, we’ve got to give you a shot,” said Abby. “Just put you to sleep for a while. Got to give you a physical and check that wound. And then. . .” Her voice trailed off. Solomon detected a strain in her voice, not a difficult task after decades of paying rapt attention to her every mood. She didn’t want to finish the sentence. Then she said more emphatically, “Here goes, Solly.”
He hooted softly, in a question. Why was she so nervous? From beyond the door, the strangers’ voices rose again, one calling, “We need to get this operation underway, Dr. Philips.”
Solomon gave a small whimper as the needle entered his arm, as Abby pushed the plunger. He’d had many such shots before, but this was different. Abby was trembling.
A wisp of sleep fog began to curl through his brain. His vision blurring, he turned to see the strangers walking along the row, their appearance producing a new round of raucous eruptions from the others. Jonathan pant-hooted his way up to another piercing scream, and Bruno let loose an alarm whoop, as Earle skittered about in panic, hair raised. Others cowered, barked or slammed themselves against the wall with clattering crashes.
But for Solomon, the sounds faded as the fog thickened and brought darkness. The last thing he heard was Abby saying in the distance of receding consciousness, “It’s okay, Solly. We just have to do this.”