Chapter 1:- The Wedding Invitation
The sign above the entrance to the main space port read: Welcome to the planet Crag. Dr. Murray shifted her duffel bag into a more comfortable position, resting its bulk against her left hip, and surveyed the chaos. She tuned out the sound of ships arriving and departing, the smack and rattle of hundreds of alien footsteps hustling across the station’s slick tiles, the buzz of chatter in a dozen languages and listened for the next public service announcement.
A mechanical ping echoed through the station’s PA system followed by an artificial feminine voice speaking Gen-ish. Before Murray could catch the message, however, someone tugged sharply at her sleeve.
"Hey, lady," a voice like sludge percolating drowned out the station information. Murray sighed and looked down. "Energy boost? Trancs? Lucid-Max?" The voice continued. It issued from the wide, rubber-lipped mouth of a four foot high toad. Two slimy bowling ball eyes blinked up at her, glowing swamp orange against the thin, blue strip lighting threading between the floor tiles. The creature--Murray catalogued its species and planet of origin for her mental records--wore a rough red vest spotted with bulging pockets. Its fat-padded fingers tugged the front open in a universal, sly gesture. "You got need?" it asked her.
"No," she said. She straightened her spine and cast a nervous look in all directions. "Go away."
"I got Gasmic, Lady,"the creature continued. Murray felt her cheeks heat in embarrassment. "I got what you need."
"I most certainly do not..." she started an indignant retort, but that was, after all, what it wanted, interaction, conversation, an angle to work. "No," she finished and took a long step forward. The creature’s short legs scrambled to bring its body alongside her again.
"Lady, give me a break, I got young to feed."
"God help us."
"Give me a cred chit and I’ll vacate."
Murray frowned, but slipped her fingers into the neck purse she wore hidden under her blouse. "I’m a scientist," she said. "I know what that stuff does to people."
"What’s people?" the toad said. "I’m no doctor. I just give em what they want." His eyes tracked her fingers, blinked faster when she brought out the chit.
"Fine," Murray said. "I want information." She lowered the credit toward its grasping digits. "Where’s the service counter in this bloody zoo?"
By the time it was her turn at the head of the line, Murray’s shoulder had gone to sleep. She’d alternated resting the bag on either side until it hardly mattered. She ached, she was grouchy, and she hated space travel. When the woman manning the counter waved her forward, Murray shuffled up, dropped the duffel in a heap and let out a relieved groan.
Three of the woman’s eyebrows shot up quizzically. She pressed the larger of her two mouths into a thin, customer service, smile and said, "May I help you?" in Gen-ish.
"Yes, excuse me." Murray struggled to recall her Gen-ish.
"Yes," the woman tried to hide her sigh. "What can I do for you?"
"I just arrived." She bent over and slid Zora’s letter from the duffel’s side pocket.
The woman watched, all six eyes narrowing. "Obviously," she said.
Murray ignored the sarcasm. "Yes, well I just arrived and I need transportation to the..." She turned to the letter and read, "Crantok Palace."
"Of course." Murray verified the name on the invitation. "Wait, why?"
"No reason. I can arrange for a shuttle within the hour. Is that suitable?"
"Yes, that’s fine." Something about the woman’s tone made her nervous. She rambled on. "My sister is getting married there."
"Why do you keep saying that?"
"Nothing. You’re sure it’s the Crantok Palace?"
Murray offered Zora’s letter across the counter. The woman took it. As she read it, the lips on her smaller mouth moved silently. The large one frowned.
"Crantok palace, it says so on the invitation," Murray pointed to the embossed, gold lettering.
"It also has: Help, save me, written at the bottom." The woman squinted, a flurry of odd-sized lids and lashes. "In lipstick, I believe."
"Well, that’s Zora for you." Murray shrugged. Not everyone understood her sister like she did. "She has a unique sense of humor."
"Is there a problem?" Murray adopted her no nonsense tone, useful for reining in unruly undergraduate students. She raised an eyebrow back at the women. She only had the two, but somehow the gesture worked better that way.
"No," the woman’s fingers flickered into action across her keypad. "No I’ll just make the arrangements."
That’s more like it, Murray thought with a sniff of triumph. I’m a scientist, damn it. She’d had about enough of the Crag spaceport. She rolled a kink out of her shoulder and nodded to the woman. "Thanks." Still, it never hurt to be polite. "Do you know where I can pick up a gift?"
The shuttle proved little more than a glorified hover cab. Another toad, the drug dealer’s cousin no doubt, drove the wreckage, and Murray attempted to avoid looking at the slimy, wart studded skin. Unfortunately, the view out the dingy window was almost as unappealing.
Outside the port city, the planet turned abruptly into pinnacles of ash-colored rock standing boldly amidst low, bubbling mud pools. Thin strips of solid ground wove between these, but the whole landscape screamed swamp. Murray eyed her driver. The habitat would be a plus for the amphibious set.
The cab slid to a stop. Murray sprang through the sliding passenger door and gulped a breath of soggy, swamp air. It was a step up from eau de toad driver. Her duffel thunked to the ground beside her, tossed from the vehicle by a stubby amphibian arm. She looked from it to the outstretched palm and sighed. Another cred chit down the drain, she thought and passed over the coinage.
Crantok Palace rose out of the muck nearly indistinguishable from any other rock spire. Shadows hovered around the building’s crags, casting its peaks and crevices into eerie relief. A solid pathway wound from where the cab waited between a cluster of smaller spires and up to the distant arch of gate. Murray shivered despite the muggy air. She turned back to the driver.
"Are you certain this is the right place?" she asked.
"Only one Crantok Palace, Lady," the toad answered. Murray stared at the lights glowing green in the slit windows.
"Maybe you should wait," she said. The hum of engines kicking into gear engulfed the statement. Murray spun around as the cab lifted, swung a slow circle and started back the way they’d come. "Wait!" she called, stumbling a safer distance from the maneuver. "Damn."
She shrugged and heaved the duffel back onto her shoulder. Reaching around to the side pocket, she retrieved her invitation, tucked her wedding gift into the crook of one arm, and started toward the gates.
"Halt!" A pair of twin Lizard men stood like bookends on either side of the arch. The one to the left snorted in emphasis while his buddy repeated the command. "Halt!"
"Uh, hello there," Murray said. Her feet obediently rooted to the spot. The guards held no weapons and looked like they didn’t need them.
"State your business!" Lizard on the left said.
"Business. Right. I’m here for the wedding," she answered.
"The wedding." Right guard parroted. Both of them just stared at her.
"I assure you." Murray tapped a foot against the stone path. "I am an invited guest."
"The wedding." Left guard chimed in. "Right."
"Bride or Groom?" his partner asked. Now they were getting somewhere.
"Bride," Murray said.
The Lizard men took a unified step toward her. They spoke together, "Bride?"
"Yes, Bride," Murray snapped. She needed a nap and a bath, vowed to kill Zora when she saw her.
"Yes, I’m sure. Look." She shoved her invitation under two scaly noses. They read it, nodding together as they did so. A tickle of doubt wandered through Murray’s thoughts. The guards exchanged a glance that did little to help. Still, it wasn't until they grabbed her that she thought to be scared.
"Halt!" Left guard shouted.
"Seize her!" his twin yelled, which seemed redundant to Murray considering she already dangled above the ground, gripped by four thick reptilian arms.
"Crap," she said. Her scaled escort hauled her toward the gates. "Oh Crap." Zora was a dead woman.