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Zoo 2

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Zoo 2

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  Table of Contents


  Copyright Page

  Hachette Book Group supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.

  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

  Chapter 1

  I’m running for my life.

  At least I’m trying to.

  My clunky rubber boots keep getting stuck in the fresh snowfall. Fifty-mile-per-hour Arctic winds lash my body like a palm tree in a hurricane. The subzero-weather hooded jumpsuit I’m wearing is more cumbersome than a suit of armor.

  Mini-icicles crust my goggles. Not that I could see much through them, anyway. All around me is a wall of white, a vortex of icy gusts and swirling snow. I can’t even make out my triple-gloved right hand in front of my face.

  But that’s because it’s tucked into my front pocket, clutching a Glock 17 9mm pistol. My one and only hope of survival.

  I keep moving—“stumbling” would be more accurate—as fast as I can. I don’t know where the hell I’m going. I just know I have to get there fast. I know I can’t stop.

  If I do, the seven-hundred-pound female polar bear on my tail will catch me and devour me alive.

  But, hey, that’s life above the Arctic Circle for you. Never a dull moment. One second you’re tossing a net into an icy stream, trying to catch a few fish to feed your family. The next, one of Earth’s deadliest predators is trying to kill you.

  I glance backward to try to see just how close the bear has gotten. I can’t spot her at all, which is even more terrifying. With all the snow swirling around, her milky-white coat makes the perfect camouflage.

  But I know the animal is near. I can just feel it.

  Sure enough, seconds later, from behind me comes a mighty roar that echoes out across the tundra.

  She’s closer than I thought!

  I push myself to move faster and tighten my grip around the freezing-cold Glock, wishing I had a larger gun. Do I empty my clip at the bear blindly and hope I get lucky? Stop, crouch, wait for her to get nearer, and aim for maximum effect?

  Neither sounds promising. So I decide to do both.

  Without slowing, I turn sideways and fire four times in her general direction.

  Did I hit her? No clue. I’m sure I didn’t scare her. Unlike most animals, typical polar bears never get spooked by loud noises. They live in the Arctic, after all. They hear thunderous sounds all the time: rumbling avalanches, shattering glaciers.

  But there’s nothing typical about this polar bear whatsoever. I didn’t provoke her. I didn’t wander into her territory. I didn’t threaten her young.

  None of that matters. She wants me dead.

  The reason? HAC. Human-animal conflict. My theory that has helped explain why, for the past half-dozen years, animals everywhere have been waging an all-out war against humanity—and winning. It’s why this abominable snow-bear picked up my scent from over a mile away and immediately started charging. I’m a human being and, like every other animal on the planet right now, she has an insatiable craving for human blood.

  Another roar booms behind me, revealing the bear’s position—even closer now.

  I twist to fire off four more rounds. I pray I’ve hit her, but I don’t count on it. With only nine bullets in my clip remaining, I start psyching myself up to turn around, kneel, and take aim.

  Okay, Oz, I think. You can do this. You can—

  I suddenly lose my footing and go tumbling face-first onto the icy ground. It’s hard as concrete and jagged as a bed of nails. My gun—shit!—goes flying out of my hand and into a snowdrift.

  I scramble on all fours and hunt for it desperately, feeling the permafrost beneath me start to tremble from the polar bear’s galloping gait.

  I could really use that gun right about now.

  By the grace of God, I find it just in time. I spin around—right as the bear emerges from the white haze like a speeding train bursting out of a tunnel.

  She rears up onto her hind legs, preparing to pounce. I fire four more shots. The first hits the side of her thick skull—but ricochets clean off. The next two miss her completely. The fourth lodges in her shoulder, which only makes her madder.

  I shoot twice more, wildly, as I try to roll away, but the bear leaps and lands right on top of me. She chomps down on my snowsuit hood with her mighty jaws, missing my skull by millimeters. She jerks me around like a rag doll. With her razor-sharp claws, she slashes my left arm to shreds.

  Pain surges through my limb as I twist and struggle, trying to break free with every ounce of strength I have. Images of Chloe and Eli, my wife and young son, flash through my mind. I can’t leave them. I can’t die. Not now. Not like this.

  I’m still getting tossed around like crazy, but with all the strength I can muster, I shove the tip of my Glock against the bottom of the polar bear’s chin, just inches from my own.

  I fire my last three shots point-blank.

  A mist of hot blood sprays my face as the bullets tear through the behemoth’s brain. She stops moving instantly, as if she were a toy and I’d just flipped her off switch. Then all seven hundred pounds of her slump down next to me.

  Seconds pass and I begin to catch my breath, relieved beyond belief. Slowly, with all my effort, I reach up and manage to pry my hood from the bear’s locked jaw.

  I stagger to my feet, instantly light-headed from the adrenaline crash. Or maybe it’s the blood loss. My left arm is gushing from easily a dozen lacerations.

  Removing the polar-bear-blood-soaked goggles from my face, I survey the massive animal that nearly took my life. Even dead she’s a terrifying sight. Unbelievable.

  I thought my family and I would be safe up here. That’s the whole reason we’re living in Greenland in the first place, to avoid the sheer hell of constant deadly animal attacks. So much for that.

  I just have to remind myself: the rest of the world is even worse.

  Chapter 2

  “You could have died out there, Oz! What the hell were you thinking?”

  My wife, Chloe Tousignant, paces the cramped quarters of our tiny galley kitchen, anxiously twisting the cuffs of her thick wool sweater, biting her bottom lip.

  Chloe’s furious with me, and I don’t blame her. But I have to admit, I’ve forgotten how awfully sexy she looks when she’s mad. Even scared or angry, my French-born wife is both the most beautiful and most brilliant woman I’ve ever met.

  “Come on, how many times are you going to ask me that?”

  This would be number six, for those of you keeping track at home.

  The first was when I came stumbling back inside covered in blood—the polar bear’s and my own. The second: when Chloe was helping me clean and dress my wounds. The third was when I went back outside again, the fourth when I returned dragging as much of the carcass as I could. The fifth was while she watched me butcher it. (I think, but I was focusing pretty intently on the YouTube video I was watching, via our spotty satellite internet connection: How to Skin a Bear ~ A Guide for First-Time Hunters.)

  “I just don’t understand!” she exclaims. “How could you—”

  “Shh, keep your voice down,” I say gently, gesturing to the tiny room right next to us, where our four-year-old son, Eli, is taking a nap.

  Chloe frowns and switches to a harsh whisper. “How could you take such a risk? It was completely unnecessary! You know it’s prime mating season all across th
e tundra. The animals are even crazier than normal. And we still have plenty of food left.”

  I take a moment to weigh my response.

  The reality is, we don’t have plenty of food left. We’ve been living in this abandoned Arctic weather station for nearly four months now. Originally settled at Thule Air Base, twenty-five miles away, with President Hardinson and a group of government officials, we had been on our own since they returned to the United States to manage the animal crisis more closely.

  Chloe and I had decided to stay. We thought it would be safer. We hoped that living in such a harsh climate, home to fewer wild animals, would mean fewer wild animal attacks. And for the most part, it did. It also meant we were left to our own devices.

  Yes, Chloe is right that it’s prime mating season—because it’s late “summer” and, relatively speaking, fairly temperate. But even colder, more brutal weather is just around the corner. Every day I don’t go out there and trap a wild caribou or haul in some fresh fish to tide us over through winter threatens our survival.

  As I stand over our little propane stove, stirring a gigantic pot of simmering polar bear stew, I decide to keep all of that to myself. Instead, I extend an olive branch.

  “You’re right, honey. It was pretty dumb of me. I’m sorry.”

  Chloe probably knows I’m just trying to play nice. A highly educated scientist, she’s well aware of the Arctic’s weather patterns. And I can guarantee that, as a deeply devoted mother, she’s been keeping a worried eye on our rations. Still, she clearly appreciates my words.

  “I’m just glad you brought that gun along,” she says.

  “Are you kidding? That thing’s like American Express. I never leave my three-room Arctic hut without it.”

  Chloe laughs, grateful for a little comic relief. Which makes me feel happy, too. There’s no better feeling in the world than being able to make her smile.

  She comes up behind me and nuzzles my neck. I wince as she brushes against my bad arm, the bloody slash wounds throbbing beneath the bandages.

  “Sorry,” she says, backing off. “The pain must be awful.”

  It is. But Chloe’s got enough on her mind. I don’t want her worrying about me.

  I turn around to face her. Her concern, her love, her beauty are all too much.

  “Not too bad,” I reply. “But maybe you can help me…forget about it for a while?”

  She coyly arches an eyebrow. We start to kiss. Before long, things are heating up faster than the polar bear meat cooking behind me.

  Until Chloe suddenly stops. She pulls away. “Wait. Oz, we can’t.”

  I sigh, disappointed. But she’s right. Stranded deep inside the Arctic Circle, there’s not exactly a corner drugstore we can run to for some condoms or the Pill.

  I simply nod and hug her. Tightly.

  This isn’t a world that either of us would risk bringing new life into.

  Chapter 3

  “Yuck! Daddy, this is gross!”

  Eli has just taken his first bite of my latest culinary creation: oatmeal mixed with chunks of braised polar bear. He spits it back out into his bowl.

  Chloe folds her arms. “Eli, where are your manners?”

  How adorably French of her, I think. The world is falling apart and my wife is still concerned about etiquette.

  “Oh, go easy on him,” I say. “I know it’s not exactly the breakfast of champions. But you do have to eat it, buddy. Sorry. We all do. Need the protein.”

  “No way,” Eli says, shaking his head. He proceeds to shovel only the mushy oatmeal into his mouth, avoiding the meat. He uses his fingers, not his spoon.

  I don’t have the energy to put up a fight, and neither does Chloe. We consume the rest of our meal in silence. All we can hear is the eerie, howling wind outside, whipping against our weather station’s aluminum walls. It sounds like something right out of a horror movie.

  At least it’s not an animal, trying to claw its way inside. It might be soon.

  Chloe and I had come to the same chilling conclusion the night before. Because I lost so much blood out there on the ice, leaving a trail leading right to our front door, it’s only a matter of time before other creatures pick up the scent and come after us. Like a charging herd of enraged musk oxen. Or a throng of feral foxes. Another polar bear, or an entire pack of them.

  “All right, who’s ready for story time?” Chloe asks, starting to clear our plates.

  “Me, me!” Eli shouts, his face lighting up bright.

  “Okay, then. Go wash your hands and get ready. I’ll be in in a minute.”

  With a grin practically half the size of his face, Eli disappears into the other room.

  When we first moved into the weather station, it was all so rushed and chaotic. Our main focus was making sure we had enough canned food and warm clothing. Toys, games, and books for Eli were the last things on our mind. Thankfully, we discovered the previous inhabitants were voracious readers. They’d left behind a giant library—everything from Charles Dickens to Philip K. Dick, though not exactly young children’s literature. Still, Chloe and I have been reading selections to Eli every single day since. Most of the stuff is way over his head, but he loves it.

  “Anything new in the world we left behind?” Chloe asks me, rinsing our plates.

  She sees I’ve started skimming the New York Times homepage on my laptop. More than half the lead headlines are about the ongoing animal crisis, which shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, it’s only getting worse.

  I summarize some stories.

  “Let’s see. Researchers in Cameroon were testing a promising animal pheromone repellent spray when they were mauled by a horde of rhinos. President Hardinson just signed a controversial executive order to set controlled fires in federal parks to destroy thousands of acres of breeding grounds. And the Kremlin’s denying it, but apparently a school of blue whales just sunk a Russian nuclear submarine in—”

  “Enough!” Chloe snaps. She sighs deeply. She runs her hands through her auburn hair. I feel bad for adding to her stress, but she asked.

  My laptop pings with a notification—a new email. But not just any message—this has been sent via a classified U.S. government server.

  Its subject line reads: “Urgent Request.”

  I immediately slam my laptop shut.

  “Now don’t be ridiculous,” Chloe says. She’d read the screen over my shoulder. “Open it, Oz. It must be important!”

  “As far as I’m concerned,” I say, “there are only two things in this crazy world that are important—and they’re both inside this weather station with me. I’m done helping the feds, thank you very much. Remember what happened last time? How royally they screwed everything up with their so-called solutions? The idiotic bombing raids? The bungled electricity ban?”

  Chloe puts her hands on her hips. Of course she remembers. We lived through every minute of that nightmare together.

  But then she snatches my computer away.

  “Fine. If you’re not going to read it, I will.”

  She opens the laptop and clicks on the message. She begins to skim it, and I can see her eyes grow wide. Whatever she’s reading is big. Very big.

  “Let me guess. The Pentagon wants me to come back and try to help solve this thing again. But what’s the point? They’re not going to listen to me.”

  Chloe spins the screen around and shows me the email. I read it myself.

  It was sent by a Dr. Evan Freitas, undersecretary for science and energy at the DOE. He explains that the powers that be in Washington have finally acknowledged that the animal crisis must be dealt with scientifically, not militarily. The Department of Energy is now overseeing America’s response, not the Department of Defense. Dr. Freitas is spearheading the new response team personally, and he desperately wants me, Jackson Oz, renowned human-animal conflict expert, to return to the United States and join it.

  “This is our chance,” Chloe says, grabbing my shoulders, “to get out of this icy hell
. To actually stop this thing this time. It’s what we’ve been waiting for!”

  I can see tears forming in the corners of my wife’s big brown eyes. It’s obvious how much this means to her. I’m still skeptical, but I know I can’t refuse.

  “You’re right,” I finally reply. “It is what we’ve been waiting for. It’s hope.”

  Chapter 4

  The metal walls of our little weather station are rattling like a tin can. Outside, something’s rumbling, something big. And it’s getting louder. Closer.

  “Daddy, look!” Eli exclaims. He’s standing in front of a triple-paned glass window that looks out across the icy tundra, jabbing his finger at the sky. “It’s here!”

  The rumbling grows to a crescendo as a gunmetal military transport plane roars overhead, flying dangerously low to the ground.

  Which is a very beautiful sight. It means it’s about to land. Right on time.

  As it touches down—on the snow-covered airstrip about a quarter-mile from our hut—Chloe and I quickly gather up the few small duffel bags we’ll be bringing with us. Mostly clothes, toiletries, and a dog-eared copy of A Tale of Two Cities we’re halfway through reading to Eli.

  Other than the hooded jumpsuits we’re already wearing, we’re leaving the rest of our extreme cold-weather gear behind. I’d started packing our thermal underwear last night, until Chloe saw me and practically slapped the long johns out of my hand.

  “I hope you’re joking,” she said, crossing her arms. “We’re done living in this damned Arctic wasteland. Forever. We’re returning to civilization, remember? And we’re saving it. For real this time.”

  “Right,” I said. “Of course.” Then, under my breath: “No pressure or anything.”

  But my wife had a point. We’d decided to leave our safe little hideout at the edge of the world. We both knew there would be no coming back.

  “Okay, bud, time to go,” I call to Eli, who eagerly jumps into Chloe’s arms.

  We assemble by the front door, which we haven’t opened in nearly a week—not since I tangled with that polar bear and left a trail of her blood and mine right to our doorstep. Chloe and I were afraid more wild animals would pick up the scent and come calling.

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