1 THE FISH CANNON
I got mixed up in all the cougar chaos the same morning I was shot with a herring.
The herring incident happened while I was helping feed the penguins at FunJungle Wild Animal Park, early on a Saturday morning in late May, before the park had officially opened for the day. My girlfriend, Summer, was also there. I was only thirteen, and Summer was fourteen, but since Summer’s father, J.J. McCracken, owned FunJungle and both my parents worked there, we often got to go behind the scenes.
FunJungle’s penguin exhibit was one of the largest in the world, with 416 birds on display: a mix of emperors, chinstraps, Adélies, macaronis, gentoos, and kings. Normally, I wasn’t a big fan of being in with the penguins. Yes, they were cute, but all those birds generated a lot of poop, and penguin
poop reeks. The exhibit smelled like a latrine full of rotten fish. However, Summer and I were braving the stench for two reasons:
First, a heat wave was frying central Texas. Normally, the temperature in late May should have merely been uncomfortably warm; instead, it was blisteringly hot. The day before, in science class, we had fried an egg on the school parking lot. Meanwhile, the penguin exhibit was chilled to twenty degrees Fahrenheit. It was the perfect way to beat the heat.
Second, we got to use a cannon.
It wasn’t a real cannon. There was no gunpowder or anything like that. Instead, it was a pneumatic plastic tube created by the Zoom Corporation to move fish at high speeds.
Zoom had originally invented the cannon to help salmon get past dams in the Pacific Northwest. Salmon are born in mountain lakes, swim downstream to the ocean to mature, and then, years later, return to the exact same lakes where they were born in order to spawn. Unfortunately, dams often prevent the salmon from returning to their headwaters, and until recently, the only option had been to build expensive fish ladders, which were like giant concrete staircases the salmon could “climb” by jumping from one pool to the next. Firing the fish through a pneumatic tube over the dam was a lot cheaper—albeit somewhat ridiculous. J.J. McCracken
had liked the idea, though. He had invested a good deal of money in Zoom, and while he was explaining the concept to Summer one night at dinner, she had suggested that maybe the tubes could be used for dead fish as well as live ones.
J.J. McCracken was a smart man, but he always claimed his daughter was even smarter; so when she made suggestions, he listened. (After all, Summer had come up with the whole idea for FunJungle itself when she was only seven.) Summer’s logic went like this: FunJungle couldn’t feed the penguins live fish, because it was hard to control parasites in a live food supply and we didn’t want the penguins to get sick. So all their food was frozen and then thawed out for feeding time. In the case of the penguins, this amounted to over 700 pounds of fish a day. Normally, the keepers fed the penguins by tossing little chunks to each of them, which was very time-consuming and promoted abnormal behavior.
“That’s not how penguins get food in the wild,” Summer had told her father. “In the exhibit, they look like a bunch of pet dogs, sitting around, begging for treats. It’s not natural!”
“It’s still awfully popular,” J.J. had argued. “At feeding time, I’ve seen crowds seven people deep at the glass.”
“Well, imagine how much bigger the crowds would be if they saw the penguins actually do something,” Summer said. “Suppose you shot the fish into the water and the penguins
had to chase them down! It would allow the penguins to act more like they do in the wild, and it would be much more exciting for the visitors.”
J.J. had pondered that for a bit, then grinned proudly. “All right,” he’d said. “Let’s give it a shot.”
Which was how, two weeks later, Summer and I found ourselves in the penguin exhibit early on a Saturday morning, loading frozen herring into a fish cannon.
Getting there that early hadn’t been any trouble for me; I lived in FunJungle’s employee housing, which was a collection of double-wide trailer homes not far past the back fence of the park. J.J. owned ten square miles of property in the Texas Hill Country, of which FunJungle only took up a fraction. (So far, at least; J.J. was hoping to greatly expand his theme park empire in the future with additions to FunJungle and new resort hotels.) Out my door there was nothing but forest. Although I liked hiking in the woods, there was nothing else to do around there except visit FunJungle. I had my own employee pass that let me enter the park whenever I wanted, as both my parents tended to be there rather than at home.
My mother was the head primatologist at FunJungle, while Dad was the park’s official photographer (though he still got away to take photos for National Geographic on occasion). Dad had accompanied me to the park that morning,
but Mom had already been at work. Most animals wake up early, which means keepers have to be there early too—Mom was often on the job by five a.m.
Cindy Salerno, the head penguin keeper, lived a few trailers away from us. She was always cheerful and friendly and she baked a mean apple pie. (Although, as an occupational hazard, no matter how much she showered, she always smelled slightly like fish.) Cindy knew me well enough to trust me to help out with the cannon; she didn’t know Summer that well, but J.J. had insisted Summer be there that morning because the whole thing was her idea. Cindy was excited about the fish cannon, but had felt we should give it a test run before the tourists arrived, just in case something went wrong.
This turned out to be a very shrewd idea.
At eight a.m. it was already sweltering outdoors, but inside the penguin exhibit we were dressed for winter. It was actually snowing in there. A special machine had been built for this. An enormous modified snow-cone maker shaved flakes of ice off giant cubes and blew them through vents in the ceiling. The snow then wafted down and piled up in drifts. The machine ran for a few hours every morning, generating over a ton of fresh snow a day. The penguins loved it. They were dancing in the shower of flakes, waggling their stubby wings in delight.
I enjoyed the snow quite a bit myself. I had never lived
anywhere it snowed, and even though I knew this was fake, it was still fun. The only drawback was that I didn’t own any serious winter clothing and had to borrow ski clothes from Summer. The parka wasn’t too girly, but it still had a fringe of pink fluff around the hood. Meanwhile, we were also wearing tall rubber waders to protect ourselves from the penguins. (Penguins aren’t too aggressive, but if you crowded them, they would sometimes peck your shins to make you back off.) FunJungle had only purchased waders in adult sizes—no one had ever considered that thirteen-year-olds might be wearing them—so they rode ridiculously high on our legs.
“You are a serious fashion disaster,” Summer informed me as we lugged the fish cannon into the exhibit.
“You don’t look much better,” I told her, pulling out my phone. “Maybe I should post your photo. . . .”
“Don’t you dare!” Summer warned. As J.J. McCracken’s daughter, she was famous without wanting to be; any embarrassing photos of her would instantly go viral. She dropped her end of the fish cannon and snatched a large, recently thawed herring out of a cooler. “Put that phone down, or I will smack you senseless with this.”
“Aw, c’mon,” I said. “Your fans would love it.”
Summer brandished the herring with fake menace. “Don’t make me use this, Teddy. I once killed a man with a halibut. Put the phone down.”
One of my favorite things about Summer—besides her being beautiful and smart and surprisingly down-to-earth for a really rich girl—was that she had a great sense of humor. We spent a lot of time teasing each other.
However, the penguins had no idea Summer was wielding the fish in jest. Now that it was out in the open, 416 heads swiveled toward her at once. Sensing food, the penguins began waddling toward us en masse, barking for her attention.
“You ought to stow that herring until we’re ready to go,” Cindy warned. “Otherwise, we’ll be overrun.” She stepped between a particularly aggressive macaroni penguin and Summer and told it, “Back off, Fifty-Six. It’s not breakfast time yet.”
Summer quickly returned the fish to the cooler, setting it atop the hundreds of others stored there, then replaced the lid. The little penguin shifted its attention from Summer to the cooler, which it pecked at hungrily. “Why’s he called Fifty-Six?” Summer asked.
“She,” Cindy corrected, then pointed to a tiny yellow band around the narrowest point on the penguin’s wing. There was a “56” stamped on it. “That’s why, right there. She’s the fifty-sixth penguin we got here.”
“You didn’t name them?” Summer asked, surprised.
“You try naming four hundred and sixteen birds and
then keeping them all straight,” Cindy challenged. “As much as I love these guys, it’s awfully hard to tell them apart. Even when you work with them every day.”
“Still,” I said, “you haven’t named any of them?”
“We named some of the king penguins, just for fun,” Cindy said. “King George, King Arthur, B. B. King, Stephen King, Carole King, Chicken à la King. But to be honest, I still don’t really know which is which without looking at the armbands.”
Summer helped me pick up the cannon again and we moved it close to the edge of the water. The device wasn’t too heavy, but it was unwieldy, especially the plastic tube. Dozens of penguins were now crowding around us curiously, and we had to be careful not to knock any of them over.
The exhibit was similar to virtually every other penguin exhibit on earth: The “land” portion of it was in the back, while the watery portion was up against the viewing glass, so that guests could watch the penguins swim. Swimming penguins were quite fascinating; they moved with amazing speed and grace. Meanwhile, penguins on land tended to be less interesting. Usually, they merely stood around in clumps, occasionally waddling from place to place or firing projectiles of poop into the water.
The representative from Zoom, a gangly, excitable man named Sanjay Budhiraja, was observing us on the other side
of the glass. Cindy had invited him to join us in the exhibit, but Sanjay had been a bit skittish about being surrounded by penguins. “I’m not crazy about birds,” he’d explained. Now he gave us a thumbs-up, signaling that the cannon was in the right place. We couldn’t hear him through the thick glass, but we could read his lips well enough to see him say, “Fire it up!”
So we did. The cannon was a relatively simple device. The bulk of it was a small blower that created a differential in pressure in the plastic tube, sucking the fish through it. If we cranked the blower to the highest level, it could actually move the fish at twenty miles an hour, but for the time being, Sanjay had suggested we set it much lower. I flipped the power on and the cannon came to life with a low hum.
It was quiet enough that only the closest penguins took notice. The rest of them remained standing in their little clumps and squawking at one another.
Cindy pried the lid off the cooler. There were two kinds of fish in it: herring and capelin. The capelin were skinnier and more aerodynamic-looking, but for the first run, Cindy selected the herring that Summer had threatened me with earlier. “Let’s start with this. Penguins really like herring.”
“More than the capelin?” I asked.
“Oh sure, they have preferences, just like us,” Cindy replied. “Capelin’s like broccoli to them. But herring is ice cream. Aim that tube toward the water.”
Summer and I grabbed the tube and directed the end of it at the aquatic portion of the exhibit.
Now that Cindy had a herring in her hands, the penguins’ attention returned to us again. They all began waddling our way once more.
A small metal crate held the blower and the loading end of the pneumatic tube. Cindy placed the herring at the end, and it was instantly sucked inside.
The fish moved through the tube quickly, a small bulge rippling down the length of it. It looked like a python swallowing a large meal, sped up a thousand times. The fish shot past our hands and fired out the other end, plunging into the water.
Even though many of the penguins had been bred in captivity, the motion of the fish seemed to stimulate their innate instincts. A dozen of the penguins closest to the water’s edge dove right in after the fish. A battle quickly ensued beneath the surface for it. A few of the smaller penguins got a morsel, but a big emperor labeled “99” won out and gulped the herring down.
“Did you see that?” Cindy exclaimed. “That was hunting behavior! It worked!”
In the viewing area, Sanjay Budhiraja gave a whoop of joy loud enough for us to hear him through the glass.
“Let’s do some more!” Summer said.
Cindy grabbed another herring and fed it into the cannon. This time, I aimed the tube at a spot away from Ninety-Nine, since he’d already eaten. The second fish fired into the water. The penguins that were already swimming darted that way, while a whole new clump of penguins on land plunged in after it.
Cindy scooped up some capelin and we shot these into the water as well. Now all the penguins in the exhibit sensed the presence of food and began migrating toward the water’s edge. Cindy was thrilled, Sanjay was still whooping, and Summer and I were cheering as we watched the penguins race around for the fish. The penguins either didn’t know the fish weren’t alive, or they didn’t care. Whichever the case, it was great fun to watch, and we were all enjoying how well it was all working.
At which point everything took a turn for the worse.
The crowd of penguins along the water’s edge was starting to get very big. They were so interested in the fish they didn’t seem to care about us at all. They were congregating all around us. It was a little unsettling, especially when the emperors, which could be over four feet tall, shoved up against us. A particularly large one—335—actually tried to nudge Summer out of its way. Summer stumbled backward and stepped right on a poor little gentoo that was scurrying between her legs. The gentoo squawked in pain and Summer dropped the pneumatic tube in surprise.
The tube now snapped from my hands as well, just as a large herring was moving through it. Without anyone holding it, the tube whipped around on the ground, writhing like an angry snake among the penguins.
This now startled the birds, who stampeded away from it. Penguins aren’t very adept on land, though. A stampede of them wasn’t threatening so much as slow and clumsy. Dozens tripped and fell on their faces. Their fellow penguins either ran right over them or tripped over their prone bodies. Many who were waiting by the water’s edge were shoved off and belly flopped into the pool.
The whole thing might have been comical if we had been watching it, rather than caught in the middle of it. A surge of panicked penguins knocked Cindy off her feet. She fell backward onto the fish cooler, which toppled, spilling its entire contents into the loading area for the fish cannon. The tube promptly began sucking up the fish and firing them out the other end.
Which might not have been a problem if a passing macaroni penguin hadn’t bumped the dial for the blower, cranking it to top speed.
Now the fish came blasting out of the tube at twenty miles an hour in rapid succession. The fish cannon had become more of a machine gun. And without anyone holding it, the tube kept writhing around wildly, firing piscine
projectiles in random directions. Frozen herring ricocheted off the fake icebergs and plowed into snowdrifts. A half dozen capelin slammed into the viewing glass and exploded on impact, leaving splatters of fish guts. A few unfortunate penguins got caught in the crossfire and were clocked by flying fish. None were seriously hurt, but each strike resulted in a cacophony of pained squawks and a slight burst of feathers.
Now the penguins grew even more panicked. They fled in every direction, unsure what was safe, a surging, chaotic sea of black and white. With their little tuxedoed bodies, it looked like someone had yelled “Fire!” at the Oscars.
Summer and I were scrambling about, dodging penguins as we tried to grab the tube, but as more and more fish shot through it at greater and greater speeds, it was thrashing about more wildly than ever. With one spasmodic jolt, it clotheslined Chicken à la King and sent the poor bird cartwheeling into the water.
Meanwhile, Cindy Salerno was trying to turn off the cannon, but a horde of penguins was crowded around the controls, gulping down the fish that hadn’t been slurped up by the hose. In the midst of the crowd, one of the smallest penguins—a juvenile Adélie—got too close to the intake. With a sudden gasp of air—and a startled squawk—it was sucked inside. Since the little guy was equally as streamlined as the fish, he rocketed through the tube and fired out the
other end, becoming the first penguin in history to fly.
Unfortunately, I was right in its path. The Adélie bore down on me, beak first, screaming in penguin terror and flapping its wings madly, as if desperately willing them to work. I dove for cover into a snowdrift and the penguin sailed over my head, soared the length of the exhibit, and plopped safely into the water.
A flock of frightened penguins quickly stampeded over my back. A few stepped right on my head, smushing my face into the snow. I flailed my arms, scattering them, and staggered back to my feet, spitting out ice flakes. . . .
Which was when the herring hit me.
It was an exceptionally large herring, and it caught me right in the chest.
Summer had finally managed to grab the tube and steady it, but not before realizing it was pointing directly at me. The herring hit me at full speed, hard enough to knock the wind out of me and throw me off balance. I stumbled backward, tripped over a chinstrap penguin—and fell into the water.
Penguins prefer their water very cold. At some places in the Antarctic, due to some interesting physics about ice and salt water, the ocean can actually be colder than freezing temperatures. The water in the exhibit wasn’t quite that frigid, but it was close enough. It felt like my whole body had been slapped. Every one of my muscles tensed at once. And if the
cold wasn’t bad enough, I was also in a maelstrom of agitated penguins and half-eaten fish.
Many of the fish had been too big to eat in one gulp, so the penguins had torn them to bits instead, leaving clouds of white flesh and fish guts in the water. Penguins were darting through it all, gulping down what they could, moving far faster in the water than on land. It was like being surrounded by a swarm of fighter pilots, who dipped and whirled and corkscrewed around me.
My hip-length boots immediately filled with water and dragged me down, while Summer’s ski jacket became saturated and heavy as an anchor. I shrugged everything off as fast as I could. Luckily, the water wasn’t deep, so I quickly broke back through the surface.
Cindy was there, waiting for me, having finally turned off the fish cannon and waded through the penguins to my rescue. She grabbed my arms, hauled me back onto land, and wrapped her own parka around me to keep me from freezing solid. “Let’s get you warm,” she said, and hustled me toward the door.
Now that the cannon was off and the penguins had devoured all the loose fish, the birds had calmed down. The panic was over and they were now milling about, preening themselves as if nothing had happened.
I wasn’t doing as well. The chill of the water had already sunk into my bones. My legs were trembling so badly I
needed both Summer and Cindy to steady me as we hurried through the exhibit.
“I’m so sorry,” Summer told me. “I didn’t mean to shoot you!”
“It’s n-n-not your f-f-fault,” I said through chattering teeth. “It w-w-was an accident.”
The door out of the exhibit was concealed behind a fake glacier. We passed through it into the keeper’s area. This wasn’t much warmer, but after the arctic temperatures I had just been subjected to, it felt like I had suddenly gone to the tropics.
Sanjay Budhiraja was there, holding a large blanket he’d found somewhere. Given the smell, I figured it had last been used to dry off a polar bear, but I didn’t care. It was warm. Sanjay draped it over my shoulders and asked nervously, “Are you all right?”
“Y-y-yes,” I said, shivering. “Just c-c-cold.”
Sanjay heaved a sigh of relief, then said, “I just want you to know, this was not an insurmountable problem. Zoom can make alterations to ensure this doesn’t happen again. And we can penguin-proof the intakes. . . .”
I suddenly realized there was another person in the room. She was a young adult—barely past college age, if that—and short but extremely fit. Her hair was cropped short, almost in a crew cut, and her nose was pierced. She wore a T-shirt and cargo shorts. There was something strangely familiar
about her face, though I couldn’t tell what. She was sitting in Cindy’s chair, quietly observing everything.
Cindy seemed surprised by her presence too; she didn’t appear to know the woman. “Are you with Zoom too?” Cindy asked.
“Zoom?” the woman asked, confused. “I don’t even know what that is.”
“It’s a company that makes fish cannons,” Sanjay said, as if that would make sense to anyone.
The mystery woman gave him a confused look, then told us, “I’m Lily Deakin. Doc’s daughter.”
I suddenly understood why she looked so familiar; she looked like Doc, the head vet at FunJungle. Not exactly like him, which would have been weird. But she was definitely the younger and more feminine version of him.
I had heard of Lily before, but never met her. Or even seen a photo of her.
Summer had apparently heard of her too. “Lily Deakin?” she repeated. “The ecoterrorist?”
“I’m not a terrorist,” Lily said flatly. “I’m a warrior for animal rights. I fight for those who can’t fight for themselves.”
“What are you doing in my office?” Cindy asked.
Lily shifted her gaze to me. “I’m looking for you, Teddy. Something terrible has happened, and I need your help.”