Chapter 22:- The Mission
The plankton rolled in a cloud around her, glowing, waving feathery appendages and sending tickles of bio-electric shock through her body. Murray sighed and relaxed. She let herself drift without attempting to swim. The water glowed with the planktons’ currents, neon blue and warm as the sea on Mercur Omega. It almost felt like heaven.
Her breather sent a geyser of bubbles toward the surface. They disappeared into the school of Macro-plankton that obscured her vision above, below and to all sides. She reached out with one hand and let the nearest feelers explore her palm. Tiny jolts of electricity danced across her skin.
The cloud parted to her right, sending a denser rush of feelers swarming to the sides. A leg manifested in their place. It kicked out in Murray’s direction. The rest of Zora followed it into view, thrashing and swinging wildly at the surrounding creatures.
Murray grinned inside her mask and wiggled just enough to drift out of Zora’s range. The plankton swooped in to fill the gap, and her sister faded out of view again.
“Dr. Murray?” Rook’s voice chimed through her modified earpiece. “I believe they have finished scanning, now.”
She kicked her feet together and felt the plankton shift away. The water cleared above, and the surface shifted like a dark mirror. Her head pushed through. She tread water and pulled up the breather, taking in a lung full of stale, zoo-scented air on her first inhale.
The exhibit lighting flickered in a tube to the back of the tank, far outshone by the emanations of the Macro plankton. For all Zander’s neglect, for the dirty glass, the poor filtration and the lack of proper salinity, the aquatics wing still glowed beautifully enough to take her breath away.
Murray kicked to the nearest wall and heaved her body out of the water and over the enclosure side. She peeled a few tenacious plankton from her soaked jumpsuit and leapt down, landing in the aisle between tanks in a puddle of filthy water. She crouched there, holding her breath between two walls of glowing blue water.
“Dr. Murray? Report.”
“We’re good,” Murray whispered. “So far.” She tugged at the waterproof purse tied to her waist, pulling out her hand-held and turning it on the neighboring tank.
“I’m concerned about my distance from the facility,” Rook said. “It will take me a full five minutes to maneuver close enough for retrieval.”
“We’re fine, Rook. Just promise me you can get in here when the time comes to…”
A thump to her right stopped Murray cold. She swiveled toward the tank, dropping back into a crouch and raising a hand to the device in her ear. Behind the glass, the plankton swarm framed Zora, still swimming and, from the look of things, not in the least bit pleased. She scowled inside her breather and thumped a fist against the tank wall.
Murray smiled and gave her a thumbs up. She watched Zora kick for the surface and then turned back to the opposite tank where a school of highly restricted striped Sillus planktoniea swirled in a cloud of legal ramifications. She aimed her hand-held at the glass and punched Rook’s altered function key. She heard Zora land in the aisle, but finished her recording before facing her sister.
Zora stood stock still aside from the steady dripping. Her arms extended into frozen wings to either side. Only her face moved, and the expressions that stretched and twisted for Murray’s attention nearly made her drop the hand-held. Zora’s eyebrows wiggled. She rolled her eyes pointedly upward, and her mouth turned into a downward arc.
“What’s wrong?” Murray whispered. She tried to keep the delight out of the words, but the wiggling macro-plankton still clutching at Zora’s long hair distracted her. She almost managed not to giggle.
“Mmmmmmuuurrr-ur.” Zora hummed her name without moving her lips.
“Oh, all right.” Murray clipped the hand-held to her belt and reached for the nearest plankton. “Just hold still.” She pried the feelers from a tendril carefully and tossed the crustacean back into its tank. “I told you to put your hair up, Zor.” She extracted a second creature, working her way around Zora’s head and ensuring that all the plankton returned to their swarm.
“I hate your plan,” Zora snarled.
“It got us through the scan didn’t it?”
“Maybe.” Zora stomped her feet and shook the last droplets from her hair. “I think those tour tarts remembered us.”
“And your little sea friends were shocking the crap out of me.”
“It’s how they interact with their environment.” Murray scanned for reception and pressed the broadcast button. “I think it’s sort of pleasant.”
“What? What are you doing?”
“Transmitting a message.”
“To my favorite radicals. Come on, Zor.” Murray headed toward the glowing exit sign without looking back. Her hand-held beeped softly, transmitting her footage of the Sillius in a repeating loop.
“Are you serious?” Zora caught up with her, and they slipped out the exhibit door together. Stars adorned the sky overhead, and the paths that wound through Zander’s little illegality lay deserted and quiet.
“Yeah.” Murray stopped by the fake boulder where they’d stashed Zora’s pack and waited. “Of course I’m serious. Have you seen the animals in this place?”
“Yeah,” Zora nodded. She pulled her bag from the bushes and checked inside. “I just didn’t realize how nasty you could be,” she said.
“He deserves it. You got the charges?”
“All there.” Zora slung the pack up on her shoulder and grinned. “Sure your metal man can get us out of here when the shit hits the fan?”
“I think he can do just about anything,” Murray said. She looked to either side and then darted down the pathway toward the slug exhibit with Zora at her heels. They hugged the rock wall, following it to the edge of the courtyard where Zander’s patrons crowded during daylight hours to see the rarest mollusks in the galaxy.
“You know,” Zora stopped at Murray’s shoulder, and they both leaned around to examine the open area. “I never realized how kinky you are.”
“What?” Murray watched a red light drift in a line beyond the edge of Neela’s pen. The steady hum of the sonic emitters buzzed in the background.
“First the electric shock thing, and now the android fetish,” Zora said. “You’re starting to worry me, Mur.”
“Can it, Zor. I think that’s a bot.” Murray squinted toward the hovering light. “It’s patrolling the paths.” She checked behind them and then turned back to the courtyard.
“Yeah,” Zora said. “Can we dodge it?”
“Maybe.” The light turned at the edge of the pit and started down the next side. “If it moves on.” She willed it to move on. If the hover bot had been assigned to the slug enclosure, her plan was pretty much useless. She watched it float under a light pole, noted the cylindrical body, the laser scanners, the stunner muzzle. “Maybe this was a bad idea,” she whispered.
“No,” Zora said. “It’s leaving--look.”
The bot hit the courtyard and made a right turn, veering up the pathway toward the string of exhibits that led to the shuttle bays. Murray let out a long breath.
“Come on.” Zora tugged at her sleeve. “I want to check on Neela.”
Zora sprang from cover and ran into the open. She had little choice but to follow, stole a final peek at the spot where the bot had disappeared before hauling ass after her sister. As she ran, she imagined the stunner beam, exploding from behind the curve of simulated rock wall, clipping her across the legs and sending her to her face against the pavement. Murray had never been stunned before, and she didn’t feel like trying it tonight.
She skidded the last ten feet, slammed into the half wall around the cage and dropped into a squat beside Zora. She waited to catch her breath. Her heart raced. Beside her, Zora stood up and leaned out over the pit.
“Neela?” she whispered.
“Zor,” Murray’s chest hurt. “We need to get the charges set.”
“I can’t see her.”
“Zor!” Murray tugged on the nearest leg. “Down.”
“Listen.” She waited for Zora to squat beside her. “We need to get the charges in place on all three shacks. Then you can…”
“Then you can get Neela’s attention before we blow…”
“Before we blow the…”
“Did you hear that?”
“No. Listen to me, Zor. Focus.”
Zora stood up. Over her head, Murray could see two bowling ball-sized cat’s eyes. They waved above the edge of the pit on thick pink stalks.
“Neela!” Zora swung an arm around the nearest appendage.
“Shhh. Zora!” Murray stood up, dodging under a flailing eye stalk. “Keep her quiet, Zor. We have to…”
“NEEP, NEEP, NEEP!”
The slug waved its eyes over the rim, dragging Zora back and forth and bellowing into the night. Murray turned to the courtyard in time to see the red light drift back into view.
“Zora,” she hissed and pulled on her sister’s clothing. “Zora!”
The security bot swung out from behind the rock barrier. Zora let go of her pet and dropped into a slimy crouch beside Murray.
The night echoed with Neela’s joy. The red light started in their direction. Murray decided she hated her plan as well.
“Zora,” she said. “Set the charges and blow the sonic emitter.” She pulled the silver device from her ear and snatched up Zora’s hand, pressing it into her palm. “Take this. Call for Rook as soon as you have Neela free.”
“Set the damn charges and get Rook down here.”
“What are you doing? Mur?”
Murray stood up. She took a deep breath. “Just get her loose.” She stared at the approaching bot. “And if you can get her to do her little fire trick, it might be a good idea.” She took a step away from the cage.
“Murray!” Zora squealed behind her. “Where are you going?”
Murray sighed. She’d never been stunned before. “I’m going to cause a distraction,” she said and marched out across the courtyard.