Chapter 15:- The Martian Fox
When Zander laughed, his eyes flashed like a Martian fox during mating season. Murray leaned her chin against her palm and watched him take another drink. He tipped his whole head back, swallowed twice and came back down grinning.
“Iggy throws a good party,” he said. “But I’m not usually this intrigued by his choice in guests.” He inclined his head in her direction.
“Iggy?” Murray blinked and widened her eyes. “You mean the Emperor?”
“Right. The…” Zander made quotations with the fingers of his free hand. “‘Emperor’ is my cousin.”
“Then shouldn’t you be at the head of the table?” Rook’s voice sounded more metallic than normal. “If you’re a member of the royal family.”
Zander stared at the android, then shrugged and focused his attention back on Murray, favoring her with the lop-sided grin that seemed to be second nature. “Yeah, well Iggy’s little freak show here is something of a family secret, if you know what I mean.”
“I’m not sure I entirely understand,” she said. “We’ve only just arrived, and I’m not familiar with…”
“Let me tell you all about it over drinks.” He interrupted her, but something about the way he leaned forward--the smile again--made her forget to be offended.
“I’m afraid that Doctor Murray and I have an appointment after dinner,” Rook said.
One of Zander’s eyebrows rose a tad higher than its partner.
“I’m sorry,” Murray said. “It’s just…”
“Maintenance,” Rook said.
“Maintenance,” she said. “Sorry. Maybe if you’re free later?”
“Tragically,” Zander said. “I have an early departure tomorrow. Can’t you just program it to wait for us?”
“Rook.” Murray placed a hand on the metal fist before it rose above the tabletop and into view. “Maybe we can reschedule?” She gave him a look, tried to communicate with her eyes, to tell him that they couldn’t afford to miss a chance at this kind of information.
Whatever her theories about his abilities, she scratched telepathic right off the list. His chest whirred at a pitch she immediately labeled: pissed off. When he spoke, any doubt about the diagnosis vanished.
“Would you like to program me to wait?” He said. He might not be psychic, but sarcasm he could manage in spades.
“Rook,” Murray tried the eye thing again. “I just think it’s a good idea…”
Zander pushed his chair back and stood up from the table. Murray looked between them—her mysterious, severely annoyed android and the dashing, over-confident spacer. She wasn’t designed to handle this. She belonged in a lab. This sort of thing only happened to people like, people like…
“Zora,” she said. She ignored Zander’s outstretched hand long enough to turn and whisper to the android. “She’s not acting right, Rook. I think one of us should keep an eye on her.”
His eyes flickered, looked over her shoulder to where her sister sat, still staring at Ignatius the First. Zora trite and silent definitely registered high on the weirdness radar. The hostile whirring stopped, but his voice still came out in a less than friendly tone.
“Agreed,” he said.
“Thank you.” She almost relaxed, nearly let the guilt wash away completely when he whispered.
“I’m more than happy to spend the evening with Zora.”
“Excellent!” Zander snagged her hand across the table and lifted it over the other diners’ heads. “Shall we?” He tugged her in the direction of the door.
“But…” Murray took a step along the table, her arm held aloft in Zander’s grip. She dodged out around Rook, tried to catch his expression, but he refused to look up as she passed. “But.”
“Come on, Doctor,” Zander called across the top of two Reptilian diners. “Let’s blow this party.”
Murray couldn’t continue to crane over her shoulder without risking a collision with one of the still-politely-seated guests. She tiptoed and stretched her arm enough to swing around each chair as Zander followed the curve of the table toward the main doorways. When they finally reached a gap in the diners, he stepped up and across the table to her side without missing a beat.
“Better,” he said, oblivious to any social faux pas involved. “After you, my dear.” He bowed a fraction and swept his free arm toward the exit.
Murray felt the heat in her cheeks, the subtle shiver along her spine, and blamed the wine. She needed fresh air. She needed some information on Emperor Ignatius Superious I. As she left the dining room, and Zander’s thumb traced a soft circle over her palm, she set her jaw against her body’s reaction. Fresh air, information--she chanted silently—the only things she needed.
“I haven’t done this since college,” Murray said. She leaned back into a pile of pillows and sighed.
“Try this one.” Zander slid a new cartridge into the vaporizer on the table between them. He pressed the atomizer button and the glass petals glowed blue and purple.
Murray slid the mouthpiece of her line between her lips and inhaled the scent. “Chocolate?” she asked. “And something floral.”
“Good.” Zander nodded while he inhaled from his own line. When he’d exhaled the excess vapor he waved the pipe approvingly. “It’s desert lavender,” he said.
Murray took another, longer drag of vapors. They lounged in a circular recession in the center of his quarters. Stacks of pillows surrounded the small table where the glass vaporizer rested. Its body mimicked the floral motif, with translucent petals that glowed brighter as the user inhaled.
“So tell me,” Zander said. “How did a nice doctor like you end up in a place like this?”
“We crash landed,” Murray said. She propped herself up on one elbow and tried to keep her voice casual. “What did your cousin do before he became Emperor?”
“Iggy?” Zander shrugged. “He did a lot of field work. The man’s a brilliant bio-engineer.” He reached under the table and pulled out another cartridge. “Wait a minute,” he waved it in the air, “you aren’t the ones who showed up with a Space Slug in tow?”
“I’m afraid so.” Murray watched him slip the cartridge in the secondary lot. “What’s that one?”
“Hmmm. Well…” She focused on the task at hand. “How did he end up with the clones?” She inhaled the new mix and felt a whisper of the secondary aroma…unfamiliar, but pleasant.
“He bought them,” Zander said. “What do you know about them?”
“Nothing,” Murray said. “My sister thinks they are fashion savants, but…”
“Space Slugs,” Zander interrupted. His eyes flashed in amusement. “What do you know about the slug?”
“Almost nothing.” Murray shrugged and took another drag. “This is good. Why would he buy a planet full of clones?”
“Who knows with Iggy,” Zander set down his line and leaned forward. He picked up her free hand and ran a finger across the palm. “Maybe to go with his collection.”
“His…huh?” Murray felt a tremor of nerves as he turned her hand over and stroked the back. “I think she’s the last one—the slug,” she said. “Neela.”
“Haven’t you met my cousin’s collection of alien slave girls? His wives?”
“They’re slaves?” She knew it. She’d smelled a rat the minute that Emperor said ‘hello.’
“Hello?” Zander’s voice broke her concentration. She looked up and frowned. He looked a bit fuzzy around the edges.
“Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t put much study into extinct species. My specialty is macro-plank…macro-platy, planktoi…planktons.” Her tongue twisted around the familiar term.
“Oh they’re not extinct,” he said. His face seemed closer, larger than it had a moment ago.
“Obviously not,” she said. “We have the last one.”
He shook his head, and the movement left tracers in the air. Murray could see dozens of after images hanging to either side of his strong jaw.
“Wow,” she said.
“Actually…” Zander’s eyes flashed again, and this time Murray could see sparks of fire surrounding them. A fox. A Martian fox. “You don’t,” he said.
“Don’t what?” She reached out and passed her hand through one of his faces.
“Don’t have the last one,” he whispered.
“Huh,” Murray said. “That is so weird.”