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By Ethan Strathdee

An Alleyway - Hong Kong

“And for the claws… do I hear 200 yen?” shouted the auctioneer, desperately. The crowd around the tiger-cage had dwindled to almost nothing, except for a few diehard Chinese apothecaries, who had taken the boat here to Hong Kong, and were vying to buy the last of the tiger. The tiger, almost all its parts promised to various people, gave a feeble snarl.

“How much for the whole animal?” asked a tall figure at the back. Cloaked in a greatcoat and fedora, the figure was almost invisible in the evening gloom.

“Alive?” asked the auctioneer.

“Yes.” Grabbing the cage, the figure hauled it up the alley past several scrawled lines of unintelligible graffiti and through a rusting iron gate.

“Stop,” shouted the auctioneer, concerned at this loss of merchandise. Greatcoat Man flipped a small black pistol from his pocket with practiced ease. Dropping the cage, he tossed a few yen on the ground in front of the auctioneer.

“Take this,” he snapped contemptuously “and if you try to set those second rate bullyboys on me,” he gestured at the pair of gangsters slouching behind the auctioneer's stand “you'll go in for some involuntary brain surgery. But, be warned, my scalpel is something less than sterilized.”

The auctioneer backed away nodding, heedless of the customers' anger. “And I'd get out of here,” said Greatcoat Man. “You appear to have offended your consumer base.”

One of the apothecaries produced a knife. The others were unarmed, but looked ready to attack the auctioneer anyway. Meanwhile, the man heaved the cage onto the back of a motorbike and stepped into the seat. He spun the bike away into the street.

WOD Chemicals Asia Main Office, Hong Kong, 3 hours later

Andrew Stern, CEO of WOD Chemicals, stood with his back to the window, black suit perfectly smooth, tie arrow-straight against a snow-white shirt. His blonde hair was streaked with white at the temples, and his piercing blue eyes were fixed on the door. He was standing in front of the small window that was the only source of natural light in the conference room. Rhino-foot lamps provided more light, but they were thickly shaded, and had obvious on-off switches. That was the way Andrew Stern liked things: in moderation, and under control.

Preferably his control.

The room was paneled in mahogany, and the chairs and table were teak. The chairs were covered in clouded leopard skin, and the rug was panda hide. A pair of rifles adorned the mantel of a decorative fireplace. Stern was an avid hunter, and if the game he liked was protected… well, money could solve any problem.

A desk sat at the head of the long conference table. The letter opener on the desk was a Yemeni jambiya with a rhino-horn hilt. The lamp there was a stuffed golden tamarin - the lightbulb and shade clutched in its outstretched hand. The custom electrical design and taxidermy, along with an illegal “license” to hunt the monkey, had cost $5,000,000. But to Stern it was worth it - the panicked look in the tamarin's soulful eyes made him chuckle every time he sat down. He sat down now as an imperious rap on the door heralded the entry of the executive board of WOD Chemical. Stern sighed as he watched their eyes flick to the object in the centre of the table - a cage containing a filthy, emaciated male yearling tiger. Now seated next to the cage was a gangly man in jeans - Stern's genetic expert. Professor Francesco Carpanetto was Italian. He had been hired for Stern's project just last year. He was toying with a cattle prod in an almost offhand way. His eyes shone with the brightness of zealotry. In his other hand, he was holding a syringe containing a clear liquid. A large apparatus was built over the cage and looked like an X-ray machine.

The board sat down. One member looked down at the leopard-hide seats in disgust.

“People,” began Stern, “for millennia, human beings were hunted, eaten, killed, by creatures like this tiger. So-called environmentalists say that this was natural: predation, the food chain, survival of the fittest. Now, when we begin, justly, to prey on them in return, we are stopped by more of these so-called environmentalists. But predators like these kill thousands of livestock every day. Environmentalists say we are encroaching on their territory. But it is our territory. This is our planet. We feed livestock and they feed us. We let them live on our planet because they are our food. But creatures like this tiger,” he filled this word with complete loathing “do not help us at all. So I have decided to remove them.”

There was silence in the room. Some executives appeared disgusted – others were clapping. One looked enraged, a kind of fear-anger that would have made almost anyone quail. Stern, however, didn't quail, unless you meant the bird. He'd shot something around twenty. Stern brought his fist down on the tiger's tail. The angry executive's rage ratcheted up.

“Now, watch,” said Stern. “My colleague, Mr. Carpanetto, holds in his hand a needle that contains a bioengineered virus. It was concocted from a combination of rabies, mange and anthrax. It has been programmed to affect every single wild animal on the planet. The virus is contagious and kills the subject in less than a day. It can withstand water and extreme temperatures, and affects reptiles, birds, fish, and mammals. Mr. Carpanetto will inject it into this creature, and in three hours we will release it in its supposedly natural environment, which is truly stolen from us. Soon, the virus will have raged across the world, and then imagine. All national parks, woodlands and jungles – the entire planet – will be ours! Mr. Carpanetto, inject now. One tiny movement for you, one immense movement forward for mankind.”

Suddenly, the angry executive dove at Carpanetto, who sent 200 volts crackling through the cattle prod into him. He was thrown to the ground unconscious.

Carpanetto drove the needle into the tiger's tail without any expression, anything to show that he was committing the greatest crime in the history of the planet. Then he switched on the X-ray machine. “Virus online, sir,” he said. “But, sir… there's a problem… The virus appears to be modifying the subject”.

“What,” growled Stern “do you mean?”

“The virus has been contaminated with human DNA. From when you hit the tiger's tail, sir. The virus is modifying the subject's brain to make it compatible with its programming. It doesn't know if it's in a tiger or a human.”

“And what does this mean?” shouted Stern.

“The tiger's getting smarter, sir,” said Carpanetto, just before the cage door burst open, and a smashing paw threw him against the nearby wall, breaking through and plunging him onto the street far below. The occupant of the cage sprang out in one fluid motion.

Stern leapt at the tiger, his jambiya flashing in a deadly arc toward its neck. The tiger slapped his wrist with bone-shattering force, and the dagger shot into a couch. The tiger hauled Stern over to the hole in the wall. Then it spoke, in fluent English albeit with a strange, inhuman accent which left the executives collapsed on the floor.

“I must admit, Stern, this really was a groundbreaking experiment,” said the tiger as he shoved Stern out the hole. The tiger shrugged as Stern shattered the asphalt.

Meanwhile, the angry executive had woken up.

“Hello,” said the tiger. “Thanks for your attempted intervention earlier. And in case

you're wondering - Stern took a little trip”. He gestured out of the hole.

“What happened?” quavered the executive.

“Stern's scientist managed to inject me just where Stern hit me which contaminated the virus with human DNA. It modified my brain structure so that I fit its instructions,” the tiger explained.

“So you're saying they made you smarter?” asked the executive. “Yep,” said the tiger.

“How come you speak English?” asked the executive.

“I guess my subconscious reconstructed the language from conversations I heard before the injection,” replied the tiger.

“They didn't make you average smart, they made you really smart,” muttered the executive. “So, what happens now?” he asked.

“I'm immune to the virus,” said the tiger “and they don't have another sample. That tube probably cost a lot.”

Did You Know

TumbleBookCloud is an online collection of read-along chapter books for students in late elementary to high school. In addition to the same content previously found in TumbleReadables, TumbleBookCloud includes videos from National Geographic, new Audio Books, and 44 additional chapter book titles. TumbleBookCloud?