Chapter 1: Metamorphosis CHAPTER 1 METAMORPHOSIS
From the day they were hatched, Seven, Eight, and Nine knew deep in their hindbrains how lucky they were. And not just the three of them. The luck extended to all 17,361 of their brothers and sisters too. The fact that every last one of them was still alive and wriggling right now was practically a miracle, against all odds for a school of young tadpoles.
Typically, after a mere week of life, before they’d even formed eyeballs, more than half of them would have already been someone else’s lunch. But today, on the eve of their fifth week, their number hadn’t dwindled by one.
This was all explained to them by their father. Perched atop the toothy ridge of a massive metal cog, he kept watch over them constantly. Just above him, the moonlight spilled in from a large circular hole in the ceiling, the single opening to a wider world beyond the steel fortress they called home.
“But who would want to eat us?” Nine asked.
The great bullfrog lifted his head to the opening above them all, the silvery light illuminating his lumpy edges. “You must understand, my children, that until you grow, anything and everything in the pond outside these walls will see you as nothing more than food… even other frogs.”
This sent a ripple of shock throughout the hatchery. With every tail aflutter, the dark water churned around them.
“Papa?” Eight asked. “So… does that mean… will you eat us?”
“No! No! For croak’s sake. But any frogs that aren’t your father might. That’s why we hatched you here. Now go and eat your algae.”
At once they obeyed. Thousands of tiny mouths found a spot and began nibbling. The algae were plentiful, creeping across the steel walls that surrounded them. That’s what made this the very best of hatcheries. Not the algae but the walls. They were especially helpful when everything that wasn’t your father was trying to eat you.
It was a sanctuary.
Before it was a hatchery, it had been something called a robot. A very large one. And that robot had died in a charred, smoldering heap. But now its body was filled with life once again—with theirs. Seven, Eight, and Nine could move about the robot’s interior as far as their tails could take them. They were free to go anywhere, except for the Far End, toward the back of the chamber. The Far End was where the water buzzed and tingled for reasons no one knew, where a faint golden glow spilled out between the cracks of a large metal strongbox bolted to the back wall.
“Hey, Seven,” Nine said, “whaddya think’s in there?”
Seven chewed his algae, considering the question, but before he could answer.
“Hide, my children!” the bullfrog croaked.
The command hadn’t been necessary. Instinctively, at the sound of an intruder, everyone darted to the nearest corner, behind a panel, or under a gear. More sounds followed.
Footsteps. Human ones, most likely. The fortress had become an increasingly popular destination for them, usually at night. But the humans rarely ventured inside.
THUMP. THUMP. THUMP.
The tadpoles darted back into the shadows as the footsteps drew closer, then stopped. A brilliant beam of light shot through the opening, glinting off the metal surfaces around them.
“Found it!” called a voice from above. It was a boy.
The tadpoles remained hidden.
A moment later a pair of sneakers dropped through the hole and landed on the cog, just a short distance away from where the bullfrog had been. The boy crouched down, flashlight in hand. He had a light frame and perfectly feathered blond hair that looked almost silver in the pale moonlight. He stared wide-eyed into the darkened cavity.
“See anything good?” another voice called from some distance away.
“Not yet,” the boy called back. “There’s water inside. Looks kinda…”
“Kinda spooky,” the boy admitted.
“Bwak, bwak!” the faraway voice called. “Chicken!”
“Am not!” the boy protested. He wobbled a little on the uneven cog.
Seven, Eight, Nine, and 17,361 of their brothers and sisters watched as the bullfrog took a deep breath and let out the meanest croak he could muster.
R-r-r-r-riiiiiiiibet! the frog boomed. It reverberated off the metal walls for several seconds, filling the chamber with his unmistakable warning.
“Aaa-iiigh!” The boy’s voice cracked midscream, adding a higher pitch to the echoes. He jumped, then stumbled—but didn’t scramble away. This had never happened before. Instead the boy tripped and tumbled forward, moving deeper into the hatchery. He dropped his flashlight. It rolled down the slanted surface and into the water. Now in darkness, he slid down the flat side of the cog, which tilted under his weight, dipping farther into the water at the bottom.
The boy cursed.
“Ya okay in there?” a voice called.
“Scared of a li’l ol’ frog?” a deeper voice added. This was followed by snickering.
“They look a lot bigger up close!” the boy said, trying to keep from slipping.
“Frogs don’t count for a souvenir,” the deeper voice said.
“I know!” the boy shouted, still sliding. “I know.”
Seven, Eight, and Nine watched the boy raise an arm to the ceiling and try to balance himself. As he fumbled in the dark, his finger brushed a switch, activating a cluster of green lights around the strongbox at the Far End of the hatchery.
“Oh,” the boy said.
Caught by surprise, he fell off the cog and into the water, scattering tadpoles everywhere. The boy froze.
“A-a-anybody there?” he called.
All 17,634 tadpoles remained silent.
Now waist-deep, he waded through, making his way closer to the greenish glow.
Some of Seven, Eight, and Nine’s siblings chose this moment for a counteroffensive and swam up inside the boy’s pant leg.
“Get! Outta! My! Pants!” he screamed, kicking and thrashing.
In all his movement the boy’s foot got caught in a groove under the strongbox. Panicked, he tried prying the trapped shoe with the other. When he finally freed his foot, the boy heard something click, and the green lights shifted to red.
“Uh-oh,” he said.
The floor below them began to vibrate. Something in the dead robot had come alive. As if by magic, the strongbox rose out of the water, opening to reveal six large canisters, three of which were filled with a sparkling yellow liquid. In the glow of the canisters’ contents, the boy advanced.
What had the human done?
“I found my souvenir!” The boy whooped. “Just you wait!”
A strange energy emanated from the canisters.
The boy spent the next few minutes trying to pry one of them loose. Eventually he gave up, stomping his foot. Humans were so weird sometimes. The stomping caused one of the submerged cogs to turn and tip again. Snagging the boy’s shoelace, the machinery began dragging him sideways, deeper into the waterlogged chamber. In a frenzy the boy pulled his foot from the shoe and scampered up over the giant gear works. As he crossed over to the upturned side of the main cog where he’d first landed, the whole thing tilted again like a seesaw, bringing the submerged end behind him back up out of the water.
Its giant teeth busted into one of the canisters, releasing the luminous substance. Slowly it seeped from the broken glass into the hatchery water.
Still shaking, empty-handed, and down a flashlight and a shoe, the boy with the feathered hair climbed out of the hole and disappeared into the night. The bullfrog hopped out after him, croaking aggressively to chase him away.
This momentarily left the tadpoles alone with the mysterious ooze. It undulated in glowing ribbons and blobs, calling to them.
Seven, Eight, and Nine wiggled their tails and approached the substance, mesmerized by the way it sparkled—like the stars they’d seen through the opening in the roof.
Was this the Change they’d been waiting for? The portal to froghood?
It was impossible to turn around at this point. Behind them the crush from their siblings pushed the three of them into the ooze, until they were enveloped in its golden glow. Currents of energy pulsed through their tiny bodies. The tadpoles jerked and twitched… and began to transform.
“W-w-what’s happening?” Eight said.
“Is it… the Change?” Nine asked.
“I think we’re metamorphosing!” Eight said.
The water swirled around them, glowing ever brighter, gaining speed.
“Yessssssss,” Seven moaned.
“My nubs!” Nine cried. “They’re growing into legs!”
But their excitement quickly turned to dread.
“Wait!” Eight cried. “I think we need to get away!”
“Something is wrong!” Seven cried. “It all feels wrong!”
But no one could hear them over the buzzing in the water… or the thrum of tails from all the tadpoles that followed.