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Chapter 20:- The Exhibits
The thirteen, Giant Teringian Beetles didn’t look happy. Neither did the Shadow Cats from the second moon of “Eclipsis.” Murray had never heard of Eclipsis, but the pair of felines sulking in the rear of this particular filthy enclosure looked an awful lot like ordinary Venusian house cats to her. She scowled at the detritus littering the cage bottom, furrowed her brow at the gunk stuck in the cracks around the window and silently cursed Zander’s evil hide.

“Come on, Mur.” Zora whispered near her ear and tugged on the loose sleeve covering Murray’s arm. “We’re losing the crowd.”

She let Zora drag her down the hall in the wake of their fellow patrons. Zander had brilliantly lined the shuttle port corridor with “preview exhibits.” They hadn’t even reached his zoo yet, and Murray felt the first stirrings of rage tug at her. The creatures here, at least in the hallway, suffered from poor nutrition, lack of sanitary conditions, and general depression. To her mind, Zander’s Xeno-Zoological Adventure needed to be put out of commission—permanently.

She dragged her feet a little, examined the following cages as they wound down a subtle ramp to the port’s wide, double doors. Not only did they need to rescue their slug, Murray thought, they needed to rescue the whole damned zoo. She looked to see if Zora had reached the same conclusion, but her sister’s gaze remained fixed on the crowd from their shuttle. She picked up speed, and Murray was forced to focus on her steps to keep from tripping over her huge coat.

“Slow down,” she hissed. “We need to…”

They reached the rest of the group just as someone up front pushed open one of the doors. The odor that slid in from the other side stopped even the most eager of the patrons from diving immediately through. A collective groan wandered around the throng.

Murray heard Zora gasp in front of her. Her hand flew to cover her nose, but the stench of too many creatures in too little space would not be denied. She tried not to gag on it. The running lights along the hallway gave out to the brilliant planetary atmosphere as the bravest of their fellows shoved the doors all the way back. In silent agreement, the press surged forward, seeking the larger space outside in hopes that the stench might be more bearable in the open.

They flowed into a circular patio, ringed with high, synthetic rock cliffs and hemmed in at either opening by puffy velvet ropes. The patrons milled about inside the area while a pair of thinly smiling humanoid women waved for their attention.

“Nice outfits,” Zora said. Her voice held no trace of sarcasm despite the lack of material in each of the women’s dresses. The khaki, adventurer-themed ensembles ended high up on each shapely thigh and swooped low over each well sculpted breast.

Murray grunted and waited for the group to quiet enough to hear the women’s’ instructions. The pair had produced a couple of primitive looking baskets from behind a synth-bush and, as the crowd converged on them, they began to distribute the contents among the patrons.

Their shuttle mates dispersed through the ropes in a slow, chattering stream. The area cleared quickly and their busty tour guides finally plucked two tiny, metal devices from the basket for Murray and Zora.

“Enjoy your visit,” Zoo Bimbo on the left said.

Her partner pantomimed installing the device for Zora, who stared at the woman as if she’d grown a fifth breast.

“You put it in your ear,” Murray said. “It’s a radio.”

“That’s right,” Zoo Bimbo agreed. “We’ll collect them at the end of your visit.”

“In case we try to hide out?” Zora asked. She still eyed the radio suspiciously.

“Of course not.” The tour guides both laughed.

“I’m sure they scan the premises in case anyone gets left behind,” Murray said. She snaked her arm through Zora’s and tried to pull her away from the khaki-clad duo. “Come on, Zor. We don’t want to miss anything.”

“Right,” one of the guides answered. “We do.”

Murray didn’t like her tone. She tugged harder on Zora’s arm. “Thanks!” She smiled at the women and levered Zora away from them. “Come on. I want to see the planktons.”

She didn’t look back until they’d rounded the rock wall. Thin pathways wound through the artificial canyon, and they stood at a fork in the road. A rickety stake at the center held an arrow that pointed downhill, away from the shuttle port and the suspicious guides. Murray pushed Zora in that direction.

“Ouch. Lay off, Mur.”

“What happened to not being conspicuous?”

“Huh? They wanted me to put this in my ear.”

“So what?” Murray stopped walking and pointedly installed her own device.

“It’s really unattractive,” Zora said.

“Just put it on.” Murray growled and headed down the path. The rest of the group had drifted far enough ahead of them that the only sound in the air was a soft humming. The distant sun warmed the planet enough to be pleasant, and the horrid scent had either dissipated or Murray had gotten too used to it to notice.

It this hadn’t been a covert operation, if the animals imprisoned here hadn’t been so miserable, she might have found the visit relaxing. As it was, her brain chewed on one of many impossible ideas for total Zoological shut-down.

“There has to be a way,” she mumbled. “We can’t just let him get away with it.”

“What are you saying?” Zora pushed up beside her. “You keep muttering under your breath.”

Murray stopped walking and turned toward her sister. She raised one finger, was about to repeat herself, when Zander’s voice shouted in her ear.

“Welcome!” The radio device squealed. “To Zander’s Xeno-Zoological Adventure.”

“Ugh,” Murray said. “It’s him.”

“What? Who?” Zora looked to either side of them, as if the bushes concealed an ambush.

“Just put the damned radio in your ear,” Murray said. “It figures he’d use his own voice.”

In her ear, Zander continued his welcome message, announcing the new wing in the aquatics exhibit and building in pitch to a fanfare finish—the zoo’s exclusive, breeding pair of Space Slugs. Zora got her radio working just in time for the last bit. She glowered in Murray’s direction.

“Come on, Zor.” They followed he path and Zander’s continual directions until the fake cliffs fell away and the largest portion of the zoo grounds spread out in front of them.

Murray didn’t need the recording to know where the slug exhibit stood. She didn’t need the huge, waving banners that some idiot had hung every ten feet—each depicting a pair of cat’s eyes atop two waving stalks below the word “NEEP.” She didn’t even need to see the crowd, twenty deep, all bustling for a better view of the the enclosure. She could have found Neela blindfolded. Anyone could have. The steady, teeth-rattling hum of the sonic emitters would have led the way.

“Shit,” Zora said.

“Yeah.”

They merged into the back of the crowd. Zora bounced up onto her toes every few seconds and craned over the masses. Murray scanned the buildings around the huge pit where she could only assume Neela and the other slug waited for their admirers. Shoulders bumped her from both sides, and an elbow gouged at her on more than one occasion. She suspected at least one of the latter had been intentional.

“I can’t see anything,” Zora complained.

Murray ignored her and picked out at least three smaller buildings, any of which might house the sonic emitters. She sighed and looked down in time to catch a flash of metal. Someone’s foot shifted, and the item danced out of view again.

“Zora!” Murray shuffled closer to her sister. “Keep me from getting trampled, okay?”

She didn’t wait for an answer, just folded her knees and slid to a crouch amidst the sea of legs. Squinting, she leaned to either side and scanned the ground. The glint came again, and she dove, half crawling and half crab-walking around a tall leather boot. Her hand reached out. Her fingers brushed metal at the same moment a child’s voice started wailing.

“I don’t know!”

Murray stood up. She found Zora standing with both arms wide, trying to keep their little pocket of space as clear as possible.

“Where did you drop it?” A woman’s voice chastised the child. “How could you drop it?”

Murray’s hand slid into her jacket pocket. She nodded to Zora and took a step away from the Slug Exhibit. “We’re leaving,” she said. “I want to check out the aquatics wing.”

“What?” Zora followed her out of the crowd before putting her hands on her hips. “We haven’t seen Neela yet.”

“I know.” Murray looked back over her shoulder. “We’re not going to either.” There problem wasn’t slugs any longer. Murray had bigger fish to fry.

“Are you insane?”

“I need to look around the aquatics wing,” she said. Her hand found the tiny ear piece nestled safely in her pocket. She suspected Rook could modify it. Hell, she’d bet good money he could do it. One of those sheds had to house the emitters. If not them, then one of the nearby buildings would.

“Mur!” Zora grabbed her shoulders and shook her gently. “Hello! Earth to Murray.”

“We’re nowhere near Earth,” Murray said. She smiled and patted the device she’d stolen. “And I think I have a plan.”

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