Chapter 12:- The Palace
"They're women," Zora said. The disappointment in her voice couldn't have been less subtle.
"No." Murray smiled as they passed another cluster of identical girls. "They're gorgeous women," she said.
The group of clones giggled and flashed them suspicious yet curious peeks from behind long blonde eyelashes. They continued down the wide, amber tiled street past the Bob escort and the unhappy pink hulk of Zora's space slug.
The emperor's city impressed Murray even more from inside the champagne bubbles of its domes. The streets sparkled between immaculate facades, separated by manicured patches of park and patio. The few hover vehicles that drifted along the avenues moved silently and with no trace of odor or age. His people, the emperor’s children according to Bob, went about their smiling, well-tanned ways alone or in groups and almost always on foot.
The populace seemed to be fairly divided amongst the sexes, and considering that every face they passed belong to the same genetic material, Murray noted a surprisingly wide variety of dress and style. Not only did the clones express their individual tastes through their appearance, they seemed to draw from an unlimited mish-mash of uniforms, time periods, and planets.
In all of Murray’s travels, she’d never seen a cleaner, better organized city. She’d also never witnessed such a discordant, chaotic array of personal attire.
“Look at their clothes, Mur,” Zora whispered at her right. The Bobs had them marching down the main thoroughfare in the direction of what could only be the center of town.
“I know,” Murray said. “Wild, isn’t it?” She tried not to stare at the clones approaching them. The male had dressed in a full set of second century Plutonian battle armor, and the woman wore a string bikini, fur boots and a feather headdress. Both smiled politely and continued down the sidewalk.
“It’s brilliant,” Zora said.
“How do you figure?” Murray twisted left to watch the couple further, but Rook’s tall metal body blocked her view. He marched along beside her, but his head had swiveled to follow the unique pair. He shrugged and his face pivoted to the front again.
“Complete fashion freedom,” Zora continued.
Murray ignored her and focused on the android. He’d remained silent since they abandoned her travois and followed the Bobs into the dome cluster. Every four steps or so, however, Murray heard the faint ping from his external sensors that declared the metal man was, in fact, hard at work.
“What do you think, Rook?” Murray whispered.
His chest pinged once more before he answered. “The city is fully industrialized,” he said. “But most of the advanced processes are hidden from immediate detection. There seems to be a fully functioning port here, Dr. Murray. I’ve detected at least two departures and one arrival since we entered the domes.”
Murray nodded, but her jaw tensed and she kept her gaze fixed forward. Rook’s sensors, like the rest of him, functioned far above the ordinary for an android. His report also confirmed her suspicions that his gift of the hand-held computer from their crashed transport had been entirely symbolic.
“And the clones?” she asked.
“The Emperor’s children seem to exhibit one of two distinct genetic patterns.”
“Two flavors,” Murray said. “Bob and…”
“Boob.” Rook stared straight ahead. His geometric features didn’t so much as twitch, but Murray could have sworn he looked amused.
“Was that a joke? That bit you just did there, was that humor?”
“Did you find it funny, Dr. Murray?”
“Not remotely,” she answered. “I think you and I need to have a little talk.”
“I’d like that very much,” he said. This time the metallic mouth turned up at one corner.
She didn’t like it. Primarily, it bothered her that Zora might be right about anything. More seriously, she couldn’t deny Rook’s odd behavior any longer. Nothing about her custom android fit with her scientific understanding of artificial intelligence.
“Hey!” Zora poked her in the ribs with one bony elbow. “I think we’re here.”
“Where?” Murray stopped and stared at the monumental building directly in front of them. It curved up over the street, stretching skyward until its mighty pediment nearly brushed the dome overhead. The street ended here, merging into the long stairs that angled up half a story to the colonnade at the building’s entrance.
Behind them, the Bob army stopped marching, and the clatter of their sandaled feet left a silence in its wake that made Neela look small.
“The Emperor’s palace,” Zora said.
“How do you know that?” Murray snapped on reflex. What else could the bloody building be?
When Bob—she was almost certain that it was Bob—joined them and proudly announced, “This is the Emperor’s palace, may he dwell in peace and splendor for all time,” Murray chose not to glance in her sister’s direction.
She followed Bob, with Zora and Rook a step behind her, up the staircase. They left the clone army in the street, surrounding Zora’s thoroughly unhappy space slug, and climbed through the mammoth columns into the amber shadows under the first tier of the palace.
They passed through two courtyards and were questioned by three of Bob’s twins before they finally entered what the clone informed them was the palace proper. He pushed open the double doors with the help of his most recent double, and led them into a hallway the size of most spaceports.
“Nice place,” Zora whispered beside Murray. “You could park three planetary destroyers in this room.”
“No way,” Murray said. “It’s way too clean in here.”
Zora laughed, but she’d meant it. Every surface, each brilliant stone tile on the floor, each ornate chandelier, and every fat, painted column that ran down the edge of the immense room gleamed and sparkled as they passed. The clusters of Bobs and…Bettys hovering around the room’s perimeter all wore immaculate, newly pressed lavender togas that went perfectly with the ivory tiles and the slant of blush light that filtered through unseen openings far above the floor.
These must have been progressively larger toward the far end of the room where a raised dais stood completely bathed in sunlight. The throne atop this sat empty, but a group of creatures lounged in a circle on the floor nearby. As Bob led the way to the throne, several of them stood up and watched the party approach.
“Which one is the Emperor?” Zora asked under her breath.
Bob stumbled and nearly fell on his face. When Rook had steadied the man, he scowled at Zora and shook his head. “Those are the Emperor’s wives,” he said. “May they entertain and delight him in all ways.”
“But,” Zora said. Murray planted a heel on her toe and shouted over the resultant squeal.
“How lovely they are!” She nodded fiercely in Bob’s direction and wrapped an arm around Zora’s waist. “Aren’t they lovely, Zor?”
Around the throne, the Emperor’s wives blinked bulbous, toad eyes, waved long snaking tentacles, or shifted from one flipper to the other. No two looked alike, and not one of them looked like anything Murray would have catalogued as “humanoid.”
“They kind of look like a lot of your ex-s,” Murray whispered. “Doesn’t that scaly one seem kind of familiar?”
Before Zora could answer, the sound of horns exploded through the hallway. The Grecian clones all dropped to their knees, and, on the dais, the Emperor’s wives fell to the floor and pressed their alien foreheads against the tiles.
Murray pulled Zora down with her until they both knelt beside Rook. She followed the clones’ lead and stared at the floor until the soft rhythm of footsteps echoed across the dais and Bob’s whisper drew her curiosity back to the throne.
“The Emperor Ignatius Superious I,” Bob said. “May we live to see his splendor etched upon eternity.”
Murray peeked at the Emperor through lowered lashes. On her left, the sensors in Rook’s metal chest pinged softly. She let go of Zora sat back on her heels.
“Huh,” she said. Beside her, Zora only nodded.