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Chapter 17:- Guilty
“Have you resolved the negotiations for a ship?” Rook’s metallic voice hummed from across the room.

“Yeah,” Zora answered. “It’s done.”

“What?” Murray sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed. “What’s done?”

“How long should it take us to get there?” Zora pointedly ignored her. She leaned over their room’s com and tapped at something on the screen. “Iggy says he’s got the place under heavy guard.”

“Except for the tourists,” Rook said. He had the courtesy to glance in her direction.

“Who?” Murray stood up. “Who has? What are you guys talking about?”

“Right,” Zora continued without flinching. “Except for the tourists.”

“Doctor Murray,” Rook said. He took a step away from the com and waved toward the table, where a bowl of something that looked hot waited. “Perhaps a meal would help alleviate any of the chemical’s residual effects.”

“No thanks.” Her stomach already churned dangerously in response to the smell coming from the food. “The nap did the trick.”

He shrugged and turned back to Zora and the two of them examined whatever data they’d been discussing. She stared at their backs and frowned. Zora was upset about the slug—Neela. Right. Rook… She sighed and put her head in her hands. She’d blown Rook off to spend an evening with the slug-stealing lunatic.

She peeked between her fingers at the android. She owed him an apology, would do it first thing, as soon as they had a moment alone. Until then, she’d just have to live with the cold-shoulder treatment.

“We can’t just walk in.” Zora said. “I’m guessing he’ll remember you.”

“For certain. You might be able to sneak in, at least get us some recon.”

“Recon?” Murray stood up and stretched the kinks out of her spine. “What are you two planning over there?”

“Never mind.” Zora didn’t even glance away from the screen. “You can stay here.”

“I believe Doctor Murray should accompany us,” Rook said. “I’d prefer it if she came along.”

“Of course you do,” Zora snapped.

Murray bristled, but bit her tongue. They blamed her for this whole mess. Fine. But Zora had gotten them into enough trouble over the years that Murray figured she deserved at least a little leeway.

“Where are we going?” She asked Rook, made a point of keeping as much irritation out of her voice as possible.

Before either of them answered, the door bleeped. Zora punched the controls, and it slid open, allowing the Emperor Ignatius Superius I’m-not-such-a-nice-guy-after-all to enter. A pair of male clones followed him, wearing utility packs and carrying sleek, black blast rifles. Murray shuffled across to the com and skidded to a stop next to her android.

Beside her, Rook folded into a crisp, but unmistakable bow.

Ignatius approached the table and waved the clones forward. By the time they’d deposited the packs on the surface, Zora had joined them. The rifles were added the pile, and Zora picked one up, turned it over and held it up to her shoulder, sighting down the barrel.

“Nice,” she said.

“I’m not entirely comfortable sending you into danger.” The Emperor still did his best to sound genuine.

Murray snorted and felt Rook’s hand find her shoulder. Something about the touch discouraged any further comment.

“I can vouch for their safety.” The android’s voice sounded too formal, as if he took an oath and fully expected the words to bind his actions.

“Thank you.” Ignatius opened one of the utility packs while Zora swung the laser rifle around and pretended to know what she was doing. If she aimed directly at Murray a few times, it was probably coincidence. “All the information that I have on Zander’s operation has been downloaded to these.” He pulled out a slim data pad and touched the screen.

Zora put the gun down and leaned closer to the Emperor. She nodded, then looked up and waved in their direction. Rook’s hand fell away, and he joined the group huddled around the gear. They looked like rebels preparing for a terrorist act. Murray wanted nothing to do with them. She didn’t care if Zora blamed her. She wasn’t going anywhere.

“I wish there was more I could do,” The Emperor said. “But Zander knows too much about things here, and I can’t risk the authorities…”

“We understand,” Zora said. She gave Ignatius her best, wide-eyed sincerity.

“Oh please.” Murray groaned. “Spare me. He’s probably in on it.”

Mur.” Zora looked daggers at her. “Shut up.”

“No. I’m tired of this. He came right out and said he wanted Neela.” She made a point of using the proper name. “And according to Zander, this whole Emperor thing is…”

“Doctor Murray.” Rook didn’t exactly yell at her. But his voice didn’t usually echo like that either. “I believe this can wait. We’ve kept the Emperor from his affairs long enough.”

She shut up, but she didn’t like it. Murray didn’t know what sort of spell this Emperor had cast on her friends, but nobody was acting like they should anymore. She glared at Rook while Zora followed Ignatius the Enchanting to the door.

“Go easy on her, Zora,” the Emperor said in her defense. Somehow that irked her even more. “It wasn’t her fault.”

“Like hell it wasn’t.”

“Good luck.”

When the door shut, Zora walked right past her. She stopped at the table and helped Rook inspect the contents of the packs. Neither one of them spoke.

“What the hell is going on?” Murray shouted. She’d had about enough of this abuse.

“I’m going to kill you,” Zora said. “If we can’t sort this thing out and get Neela back, I’m going to kill you.”

Murray’s jaw dropped. Zora didn’t yell, she didn’t even pout. She seemed calm, in fact—too calm. And the matter of fact way she announced it gave Murray the shivers.

“Zora,” Rook said. “The Emperor is correct; Doctor Murray is not responsible for her actions while under the influence of the chemical.”

“What actions?” They were talking around her again. “What? What have I done?”

“I think she did it on purpose,” Zora growled.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Rook waved Murray back toward the com and followed her to the screen. A star map filled the surface, but he tapped at the buttons and the picture shifted. The document that replaced it looked like some kind of cargo manifest. “This is a donation form,” Rook said. “It agrees to relinquish all rights to the designated creature—in this case, one female Space Slug—to Zander’s Xeno-Zoological Adventure.”

“A zoo?” Murray squinted at the document.

“More like a side-show,” Zora snapped.

The image had been scanned, no doubt by Ignatius’ spaceport agent clones, but a fuzzy and frightfully familiar signature graced to document’s bottom line.

“We believe he manipulated you into signing it,” Rook said. A wad of stone-cold guilt settled in Murray’s stomach.

Zora snorted and tossed her hair. “Like hell we do.”

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