Note: The following piece was written as part of the "A Day At the Zoo" flash fiction challenge hosted by Patti Abbott. Patti has published numerous short stories in various literary journals and crime zines and recently released an anthology entitled Monkey Justice. She blogs about writing, books, movies, politics, life and music at pattinase.
Keightlin's gaze swept across the enclosure -- once, twice, three times -- and when she spoke her voice held an edge of disgust. "There aren't any babies. They said there'd be babies."
"Perhaps they're hiding, dear," Fourtuna replied.
Frowning, Quenten moved to intercept a nearby keeper.
"It's not, mother. There's the female. There are the males. No babies. They can't even perambulate this early."
"No need to use that tone with me. I may lack your zoological education, but patience has its rewards. Perhaps we've missed something."
Quenten cleared his throat. "Uh, apparently not. Seems the new additions, ah, passed on just a short time ago."
Keightlin stamped. "Not fair, we come all this way, I take time off school, and the best thing this zoo has, the thing they advertise, is dead, and now the only worthwhile exhibit in the whole place is gone."
Quenten shifted uncomfortably. "Keightie, sweetie, why don't -- "
"Okay, then," Fourtuna interrupted, "our dear Keightlin doesn't get to see what she wants, and -- I quote -- ‘that's it.' Nothing else could possibly inform her." She motioned at her daughter. "So here's the real exhibit -- a pristine example of rigid, immobile thinking."
Keightlin gaped, then glared.
"Not very nice, dear," Quenten said.
"Unfortunately, it happens to be true, and I intend to stay at this exhibit until our young scholar admits it."
Waving them both off in annoyance, Quenten said, "I'm going to get a snack. Have fun."
He promptly vanished.
"Like that's going to happen," Keightlin muttered.
Fourtuna ignored the jibe, studying instead the information posted above the enclosure in seventeen languages. "Seems they're an endangered species."
"Big surprise there."
"Also that they're bilaterally symmetrical and sexually dimorphic."
"You don't need a notice to know that. Just look at them."
"And, most interestingly, they breed by uniparous reproduction and seem to possess a Euclidean spatial awareness."
Keightlin sighed. "Trivia, mother. That's all it is." She waved dismissively. "Sure, they're an odd specimen. But if you've seen one of them, you've seen them all. You want to talk about something interesting? The babies would've fit the bill. Live births in captivity are so rare."
"Now, why is that a problem?" Fourtuna's expressions were too benign to be safe.
"Because they die, for starters. It's part of the reason why they're endangered."
"Was there no mourning around your birth bed?"
"I know my name, mother, and what it means."
Fourtuna curled five fingers into in toward her palms, extending the remainder. "Seven of your birth siblings went into the soil that day, and yet we suffered no protestations that everything good was ruined."
"They give birth to one baby at a time. You said it yourself."
"Aren't they capable of multiple conceptions?"
"Yes, but ..." Keightlin flushed in frustration, a faint mauve filigreeing her cheeks. "It's difficult for them. Some experts posit various psychological factors. An unfamiliar environment impedes ovulation or gestation or ... Well, there are as many theories as academics."
Fourtuna smiled dextrally while simultaneously smirking sinistrally. "Why can't they just travel to a more suitable locale?"
Keightlin stared at her as though she'd grown a fifth eye. "Because of the keepers' countermeasures. They're on every enclosure in the zoo."
"Really? Look closer."
Yet again Keightlin examined the unvarying parallelepiped that enclosed the creatures -- once with standard visual spectrums, twice on infrared, three times searching for quantum irregularities -- and when she spoke her voice was quiet. "Why would the keepers do that? Couldn't they escape at any time?"
"Theoretically. But could a species that perceives a mere three dimensions really grasp all the wrinkles in space/time? I don't have a degree, but it seems unlikey. Plus, zoos must face budgets, and it makes little sense to secure an exit their charges can't see."
"Rigid thinking, indeed," Keightlin murmured. "No wonder they're endangered. I'm sorry about my attitude earlier, mother. You were right."
The air itself seemed to shudder, and Quenten reappeared, chewing with both mouths.
"Dear," Fourtuna exclaimed, "I thought you were getting a snack, not a three-moons feast."
"There was a two-for-one deal on Tartarian grubworms, and you can hardly expect me to resist those."
"Why don't we visit the spider sloths?" Keightlin said. "I haven't seen those since I was a youngling."
Quenten eyed her. "Are you sure you'd like to do that? It wouldn't be boring for you? It's your university break after all."
"Yes, I'd like it," Keightlin said, smiling. "I'd like it very much."
Then they were gone.