Chapter 3

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“Hello,” a female automated voice chimed when Martin and Chess walked into the pet shop. “Welcome to Stewart’s Exotic Pets.” The moment he walked in, Martin took in the scent of fresh animal bedding and the sounds of un...

“Hello,” a female automated voice chimed when Martin and Chess walked into the pet shop. “Welcome to Stewart’s Exotic Pets.”

The moment he walked in, Martin took in the scent of fresh animal bedding and the sounds of unidentified calls and coos. He examined the various cages lined up on the metal shelves. Some of the creatures had more than two eyes; others with multiple limbs. One was a levitating ball of blue fur that bobbed up and down within its cage. Many of the creatures became somewhat animated as they were approached, putting on a show for a potential owner.

Martin walked slowly towards the cages with rising trepidation. Something about this store was unsettling. He remembered reading some of the negative reviews about Stewart’s Exotic Pets—how most of the creatures were purchased from black market breeders. He pursed his lips and wondered if the words of the irate protesters had any validity.

While he mulled over the accusations, Martin noticed a rainbow colored snake slithering around in its glass container. Its attention was focused on the three-headed lizard that occupied an adjoining container just centimetres away. The snake swayed back and forth slowly, as if attempting to hypnotize its unreachable prey, before vanishing.

Shit, Martin thought as he swallowed down his rising anxiety. He averted his eyes to the floor, searching behind clear containers to somehow catch a glimpse of where the snake might be. There was no way he was going to alert Chess—one scream from him would get them killed. But to Martin’s relief, the snake reappeared inside its cage, coiled and looking a bit annoyed. While Martin caught his breath, Chess came up beside him, oblivious to what had occurred.

“What do you think, Marty?” asked Chess softly with a contained excitement.

“He’s practically running a menagerie, for fuck’s sake,” Martin criticized in a hushed tone.

“Hello, Gentlemen,” a voice greeted them suddenly. Martin and Chess turned their heads to see a short man with a thin mustache, a forced grin curling his lips as he approached them. Martin soon recognized him as Stewart, the store’s owner. “Good morning and welcome. How may I help you?”

“Well,” Chess started, placing his hand on Martin’s shoulder, “my mate here’s interested in one of your pets.”

“Actually,” Martin corrected, clearing his throat to conceal his discomfort, “I just came to have a look. My friend here showed me your webpage, so I figured I’d come see it for myself.”

Stewart’s eyes widened with quiet enthusiasm. “I take it you’ve viewed our Vid Reviews as well?”

“We did actually—at least one anyway,” Chess replied matter-of-factly. “The one with the glowing rabbit.”

A look of confusion masked the store owner’s face. “I beg your pardon?”

“In the Vid Review,” Martin clarified, “a young boy was holding what looked like a, um, one eyed rabbit? It glowed when you pet it.”

“Ah…I see now,” Stewart said, his face softening once again. “You’re referring to the Kirnorian rabbit. It glows certain hues to convey its emotional state.” The store owner nodded his head towards one of the cages. “Come. Let me demonstrate.”

Stewart guided them to a cage that contained the one-eyed creature. It was enjoying a bowl of lettuce with its eye closed, completely oblivious to its surroundings. The store owner reached out towards the security pad attached to the rabbits’ cage. After he quickly entered the security code, the cage door unhinged.

“Oh, young man,” he addressed Martin. “I suggest you remove your bag. These little ones tend to chew on anything in sight.”

Apprehensive, Martin complied before holding out his arms. Stewart gently placed the Kirnorian rabbit into his arms as if it were a delicate glass statue. At first, it remained still, chewing on the remnants of lettuce. But when Martin stroked his fingertips against its coat, the animal’s white fur transformed into a brilliant rosy shade.

“Oh my,” Stewart spoke as his signature smile widened. “It seems like our little friend is quite fond of you.”

“That’s the most awesome thing I’ve ever seen,” Chess spoke with childlike awe. “I take it these darlings fly off the shelves, yeah?”

“Absolutely! Kirnorian rabbits are one of my more popular pets. You’re holding the last one for the week, so your friend here is just in luck.”

“Where did they all come from, these creatures?” Martin asked as he continued to pet the rabbit.

“They come from all over. Some from dying planets—others from breeders. This species of rabbit is from Planet Kirnos and was on the verge of extinction. While Earth scientists were able to prevent that from occurring, of course, they also discovered that some breeds could be domesticated!”

“Is that right?” asked Chess, interested.

“That’s exactly right, young man,” Stewart replied proudly. “In fact, all of the little ones you see here once resided at the University College London’s Clonology laboratory.”

Chess’s eyes widened with curiosity. “Clonology?”

“Yes. It’s the study of clones and the process of cloning. It’s a fairly new practice that’s just now being introduced into the medical field. The University’s Clonology department clones alien creatures rescued from dying planets and uses the cells of the cloned creatures to create new cells. Occasionally, the lab creates too many creatures. So, the Department launched the Alien Care Program to adopt them out to wonderful families. Similar programs have since been initiated internationally.”

Martin canted his head slightly to the side while his brows descended. “Actually, I have a few questions of my own,” Martin continued. “How are breeders able to gain access to these creatures or even reach the dying planets? And are your customers even aware that they are purchasing clones and how to care for them?”

Though his smile remained, the store owner’s eyes reflected slight annoyance. “All retailers of exotic animals are required by intergalactic law to maintain records of every extraterrestrial species we intend to sell. Information on every single creature we keep is available to our customers either online or in our store brochure. Are there any other questions?”

Martin stiffened somewhat in response to the change in Stewart’s demeanor. He’d obviously hit a nerve. “No sir.” Martin handed the rabbit back to Stewart. He noticed that the creature’s coat reverted to its original color, its large eye staring ahead. It squirmed in the shop owner’s arms as if wishing to distance itself from human contact.

Martin suppressed a rising sense of unease. Something was definitely not right about this man or his entire shop. “Thank you for your time.” He then picked up his messenger bag and hoisted the strap over his head and across his chest. “You have a good day.”

Stewart continued to smile as he held the rabbit. “You do the same, Gentlemen…” His voice trailed off as he glanced through the glass entrance. Suddenly, Martin heard:

“THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING!!! THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING!!! THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING!!! FREE THE E.T.s!!!!!”

“THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING!!! THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING!!! THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING!!! FREE THE E.T.s!!!!!”

“Not again,” Martin heard Stewart mutter under his breath. The store owner then spun around. The smile that once greeted Martin and his friend moments ago had reverted to thin pursed lips.

Martin looked down at the rabbit, whose coat had now changed into glowing neon yellow. Its paws kicked desperately within Stewart’s arms in an attempt to escape the voices booming from the outside. The other animals followed suit, pacing and pounding against the bars of their cages, the blend of alert calls surrounding the three men.

“What’s this about, then?” Chess yelled over the animals’ cries.

“Pardon me,” Stewart said, ignoring Chess’s question. “I have a rather—bothersome matter to attend to.”

Martin watched as the store owner swiftly returned the rabbit to its cage. He then hurried past Martin and Chess and exited through the entrance.

Covering his ears, Martin walked towards the door and peered through the window. A handful of demonstrators advanced towards the shop, holding signs above their heads and chanting irately while Stewart stood on the sidewalk, patiently waiting for them.

The majority of them marched with and behind a short umber skinned woman with black hair. While a couple of demonstrators briefly caught the attention of curious passersby, her voice boomed through what resembled a megaphone, chanting passionately before the majority echoed with the same ferocity. Their signs decorated with pictures of the store owner dressed in a prison uniform or having the sterling credit symbol for eyes.

When the demonstrators finally reached the store owner, Martin watched the scene unravel. “Fuck me,” he muttered, annoyed.

“What’s going on?” Chess asked from behind, confusion obvious in his voice.

“We’re in the middle of a full-blown protest.”

“Christ.”

“My thoughts exactly.” Martin let out a tired sigh while shaking his head. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Right.”

With Chess close behind him, Martin silently left the store, ignoring the irritating robotic voice bidding them farewell. He began to walk swiftly past Stewart and the energetic demonstrators, who had now begun to gather for a small street rally. He focused his attention on the ground as he attempted desperately to drown out the claps and cheers of entertained strangers.

His foot was about to touch the curb when he felt a tug on his sleeve. Martin spun around to face a thin red haired young man who looked no older than twenty—the light freckles on his face made him look even younger. But what put him off was the man’s hair color. The sun shone on his dark red mane, giving it somewhat of a golden hue. Martin swallowed down his grief as memories of Charlie suddenly invaded his mind.

“Here, Mate,” the stranger greeted, pushing locks of hair away from his eye while holding a pamphlet out to Martin. “Read this before you come here again. Don’t feed his pockets—bleed them dry.”

“Leave him alone,” Martin heard Stewart ordering the man sternly. “You have no right harassing patrons in this manner.”

The woman lowered the megaphone and held up her hand, prompting the crowd to grow silent. “We are merely informing him and others of your true practices,” she argued with calm defiance. “He needs to be educated about what kind of business he is unknowingly supporting.”

“His credits would have been supporting a legitimate business, Ms. Peterson.”

“There is nothing legitimate about buying E.T.s from the black market and selling them to the general public.”

The store owner scoffed, shaking his head. “You and your minions come here every week with these baseless accusations. I don’t know anything about the black market and you certainly have no proof of this.”

“Just like you don’t know about Marcus Godfrey, a prominent member of our organization?”

“More like a terrorist group. And as I told you previously, I’m not acquainted with this Marcus person you constantly mention. I’ve seen your Vid Reviews. I do not appreciate what you’re implying and I refuse to allow you to scare away customers with your lunacy…”

The power struggle between Stewart and the female protester known as Ms. Peterson continued as passersby slowed their paces, whispering amongst themselves as curiosity and puzzlement colored their faces. Meanwhile, Red Head and one other protester continued to distribute literature to those who were interested in the conflict, answering questions thrown at them.

Another demonstrator, a woman with gray hair, pulled what looked like a pocket projector out of her pocket and flicked her finger across the screen before placing the device on the ground. Suddenly, a holoscreen emerged, immediately displaying images of distraught extraterrestrials trembling in metal cages as strangers in white protective suits stood around, discussing their “findings,” and how many credits each E.T. would potentially sell for at the black market auction.

Anxiety began to slither through Martin as the chaos unfolded in front of him. This was not what he signed up for and this display was not something he wanted to deal with. The conversation alone resembled a horrible remake of The Edukators and it was only a matter of time before the cops arrived.

Neither he nor Chess spoke as they hurried from Stewart’s Exotic Pets and the swelling crowd. Martin felt the blood rush to his face, staring straight ahead, not caring that he bumped into a couple of passersby.

“That was fucking intense, yeah?” Chess said suddenly, slightly struggling to catch his breath. “I wonder what that was about really. And you know? I think I saw the one with the talkie…Marty?”

“I really do not understand why I let you talk me into that,” Martin finally voiced, his tone clipped with tension.

Chess threw his arms out defensively. “What’s this about?”

“Wha—What were you thinking, Chess?” Seriously. What the fuck?”

“Look. I thought he was legit, Marty. I mean, I’ve done research and all!”

Martin sighed exasperatedly and glared at his friend. “The Video Reviews don’t count as research! Everything about him and his shop is wrong.” He then waved the pamphlet sideways frantically. “The man has protesters going after him, for Christ’s sake!”

“Oh c’mon, Marty. You can’t seriously—look, that was a circus back there. For all we know, those protesters could be bonkers.”

“Even so, there might be some truth to what they’re saying, Chess. His entire demeanor changed when I began to ask questions. If he’s working with breeders to pump out E.T.s for profit, who knows how many environmental treaties he’s broken to look legit!”

“…I’m sorry, Mate. I thought it was a good idea, you know?”

“Remind me not to have faith in your sudden flashes of brilliance.” Martin squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head, instantly regretting his harsh words. When he opened his eyes and looked up, he noticed the despair that shone from his friend’s eyes.

“Look, I’m sorry,” he apologized tenderly.

“Don’t be,” Chess replied, a weak smile ghosting his lips. “I should’ve known better, Mate. Was a shit move on my end.”

“No, no. What I said was uncalled for. You were only trying to help.” Martin chuckled under his breath. “You know? The entire time we were there, I heard Charlie screaming at me in my head. And you know what I was thinking? If she were there, she would’ve punched Stewart’s teeth out.”

Chess snickered, nodding in agreement. “I could see her doing that.”

“Yeah…I miss her, Chess. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her.” Martin’s eyes were bright and full of unshed tears. “I hate that she isn’t here.”

Chess placed his hand tenderly on his friend’s shoulder. “I know you miss her,” he assured sympathetically. “But I miss my best mate. You haven’t been the same since Charlotte died. It’s as if you became a zombie or something. I—I just thought I could do something to make things easy for you.”

“I know and I appreciate it, Chess. I do. But she was my first love since we were teenagers. No E.T. is ever going to change that. And no one can replace her.”

“That wasn’t part of the plan, Marty. I just can’t stand you to be alone all the time. It’s gonna drive you mad and you know it.”

“I know you mean well, but I’m fine. I really am. It may not seem like it, but I’m a lot better than I was.” A crooked smile shaped Martin’s lips. “I’m also famished. Bangers and mash?”

Chess screwed his nose up at the thought of mashed potatoes. “Ugh! How about no?”

Martin grabbed his friend’s arm. “How about you owe me? Let’s go.”

 

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