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Chapter 18:- The Slug One
“I do not want to know what you did for him.” Murray tilted her head, craning to see the top of the ship. It nearly brushed the hangar ceiling, towering over the smaller vessels in the surrounding bays. “Why is it so big?”

Zora snorted and pushed by her, marching up the angled ramp as if she owned it—which--apparently, she did. She’d chosen to speak to Murray only when unavoidable, and then only in single word sentences.

“This ship,” Rook said. He stood beside her on the hangar floor and had continued to pointedly forgive Murray her transgressions. She didn’t know which of them was annoying her the most. “Has a cargo bay large enough to accommodate Neela comfortably.”

“Right.” She nodded and frowned at the hull, sporting its share of rust and more than a few dents. “For when we rescue her.” She stood on tiptoe and tried to read the letters stenciled on the side of the vessel that would designate its model, affiliation and age. Before she could see more than another spattering of rust, Rook took her by the elbow and steered her onto the ramp.

“We’ve had your things loaded already,” he said, playing the tour guide and, quite obviously, keeping her busy and away from Zora.

Murray frowned but let him guide her through the ship’s ample hallways, impressed despite herself. There were quarters for half a dozen crew members as well as a galley or common area—more than most private vessels could boast.

She figured they’d put themselves a little too far in the Emperor’s debt for comfort. Neither of her companions would listen to her theories about Ignatius; however, and she’d grudgingly dropped the subject. Still, as her footsteps rang out a hollow rhythm through the ship’s interior, she couldn’t help but think of the vehicle’s origin.

“What about a crew?” She asked Rook. “This vessel must require at least…”

“Most of the systems are automated,” he said. He opened a metal door and gestured for her to enter the room beyond. “Under normal conditions, I should have little trouble piloting her on my own.”

“What about non-normal conditions?” She stepped into the quarters and looked around. “We’re still planning on sneaking into an illegal zoo and stealing back our forty foot Gastropod, right?”

“Yes.”

She stared at him. He didn’t exactly grin, but the metallic mouth twitched in a way that she’d describe as amused on any biological humanoid. It looked good on him—genuine—and she marveled at his programming for the thousandth time.

“What’s this then?” She waved an arm at the pack lying on the slim bunk. She’d assumed the room was hers, but the pack and the blast pistol beside it gave her second thoughts.

“Your pack,” Rook said. He stepped inside the room, which barely accommodated both of them. “The Emperor has provided supplies and weapons.”

Murray could almost hear the “may he live in splendor…” hanging on the end of the sentence. She’d had about enough of Ignatius worship from the clones, and now her android—Rook—had apparently joined the man’s disciples.

“Huh,” she said. “That was nice of him.” Her lab coat hung on the wall. Though still a bit tattered, it looked newly laundered. When she flipped open the canvas pack, she found her hand-held computer resting on top of the gifted supplies. As far as she knew, those items were the only two in the room that qualified as “her things.”

She picked up the pistol and turned it over, examining the weapon in a fashion she hoped didn’t make it too obvious she’d never held one before. It felt different than she’d expected, lighter but also more sinister in her hands. Keeping the barrel safely pointed toward a wall, she lifted the gun to shoulder height and experimented with sighting down the barrel.

“Doctor Murray.” Rook stepped even closer, and their shoulders brushed. “I believe you’d be more comfortable around…” He leaned in and his hands covered hers. The smooth, metal fingers flexed, and the gun lowered until her elbows bent into forty-five degree angles. “here,” he finished.

He was right. The posture took the weight, or the tension, off of her shoulders. Holding the gun at this level almost felt natural. So did his hands, she realized—warm and nearly as soft as skin. She’d expected cold, cold metal and a lack of…something. The room, her room, had not been designed to hold two people.

She cleared her throat, and his hands dropped away. He stepped back into the threshold.

“You shouldn’t need to use it,” he said. “I believe Zora and I can handle the rescue.”

“Does she have a gun too?” Murray didn’t like the idea at all.

“Yes.” He turned in the doorway, and she caught sight of the grin again. “But I’m confident I can keep her from using it inside the ship.”

She smiled, but didn’t mean it. She’d never seen Zora quite this pissed off before, and she knew the woman better than anyone. Rook’s confidence aside, Murray didn’t feel the least bit reassured.

***

“Slug One, what’s your status?”

“We’re ready to go,” Zora tapped her fingers against the side of her chair and leaned over the padded arm to peek around Rook’s elbow. “Tell them we’re ready.”

“Holding our designated orbit,” Rook said. “All systems check out for departure.”

“Tell them we don’t have time…”

“Emperor Ignatius Superius I wishes to bid you a personal farewell,” the clone speaking over the com announced. “May you remember his generosity, even as you leave his presence.”

Murray rolled her eyes and watched Zora relax back into her chair’s restraints. For the Emperor, she could wait, apparently. May he live in self-imposed glory amidst his slave followers with his freakish harem and never get a wart. She snorted, and Zora’s head spun in her direction.

“You have a problem, Mur?” The tone said, don’t have a problem. It said, keep your mouth shut, traitor.

“Yeah, I have a problem.”

“Doctor Murray.” Rook’s voice purred, soothing, also silencing her.

“I have a big problem,” she continued undeterred. “My sister and my friend have been completely hornswaggled by a megalomaniac with an alien fetish who thinks he can play God to a bunch of mentally challenged, clone zealots!”

The last word echoed through the cabin for a few seconds. When it stopped reverberating, Zora nodded and turned back to Rook. “Are you sure I can’t shoot her?” she asked.

“What is the matter with you?” Murray’s nerves couldn’t take any more weirdness from either of them. “Zora!” She unbuckled her safety restraint and stood up. “You’re acting like that nut job is…”

“Shut up!” Zora flew out of her chair, unbuckling in a single sweep of her hand and closing the gap between them. They stood nearly nose-to-nose in the center of the cabin. “You shut up about him,” Zora snarled.

“Control,” Rook’s voice hummed in the background. “This is Slug One. We are no longer clear.”

“Why?” Murray clenched her fists and dared her sister to swing at her with one arched eyebrow. “Why are you so smitten with this bastard?”

“I’m not...you don’t…God, Murray!” Instead of landing a right hook in Murray’s middle, Zora deflated. She dropped her aggressive stance and stepped backwards.

“The Emperor is waiting to address the crew,” the clone at Control spoke across the com.

“You are smitten with him,” Murray whispered. “Oh my god, Zora.”

“Can you ask him to hold on a minute?” Rook said.

“I’m not.” Zora shook her head. She stepped back again.

Murray’s jaw dropped. Her sister was lying—she knew her well enough to recognize the signs. Even so, she’d never seen Zora smitten with anyone, not even her string of bizarre fiancés. She looked—she looked terrible.

“You’re a mess,” Murray said. “Look at your clothes.” Not only were they wrinkled, they covered a substantial amount of Zora that usually remained bare. “You look like a nun and your hair…” She stared. Maybe this wasn’t Zora at all; maybe this was a clone impostor. “Why is your hair messy?”

Zora made a noise deep in her throat—a strangled, desperate growl—and Murray braced for impact. This was more like it. She could handle angry Zora, pouty Zora, primping Zora just fine. But instead of attacking, the pseudo-sister in front of her spun on her heel and ran for the exit.
That was it. She’d definitely been saddled with a clone replica of her sister. The evil Emperor had snatched Zora and replaced her with this whimpering, submissive…The impostor stopped at the edge of the hallway. She turned back over her shoulder.

“You know what, Mur,” she said quietly, not like Zora at all. “You can be a real bitch sometimes.”

Murray watched her leave, pretended it hadn’t felt like a punch in the gut. In truth, she’d have preferred the latter. She sighed, and turned to Rook. He played at inspecting the controls, as if he hadn’t heard a word, as if she hadn’t acted like a real bitch.

“Why is her hair messy?” she asked him.

“She traded her nanites for the ship,” he said.

Of course she had. The guilty knot in Murray’s stomach swelled. She’d assumed the worst, but damn it, that was Zora’s standard operating procedure. Just because this time she’d grown some scruples—did that make Murray the bad guy?

“Did you mean it?” Rook asked.

She’d managed to miss the thread of the conversation. “I’m sorry, what?”

“You said your sister and your friend had been hornswaggled.”

“Maybe hornswaggled was the wrong word.”

“I meant friend,” he said. “Did you mean it?”

God, she was the bad guy. She stared at him, remembered that she owed him a huge apology. “Of course I meant it,” she said.

“Sit,” he said, waving toward her vacant chair. “You need to read something.”

She obeyed automatically. She had little other options and no desire to continue on the outs with them. Her chair faced across the room, but Rook waved her toward the screen behind it. She swiveled around and examined the data he’d retrieved.

She read the headline twice before really looking at the article. “Unrepentant Philanthropist, Ignatius Mund, Rescues Yet Another Indigenous From A Fate Worse Than Death.” She scanned the article, noted the picture of the Emperor wearing a much more subdued suit and posing with what looked suspiciously like one of his “wives.”

Below the first, a second article read: Iggy Mund, Alien Savior, Wanted for Interference With Intergalactic Treaty. The parade continued as Murray scrolled down the screen. The final headline nailed her to the wall.

IRC closes cloning facility.” She read it out loud. “President of famed cybernetics industry quoted: All IRC cloning operations have been discontinued. All samples have been destroyed.” She looked at Rook. “Samples?”

“The clones,” he said. “He bought them, at a considerable price, I expect.”

“If he hadn’t?”

“Disposed of.” Rook turned his chair to face her directly. “Doctor Murray,” he said. “If Gal-Fed knew about them, if they knew the IRC clones still lived…”

“I get it, Rook.” She knew Gal-Fed even better than she knew her sister. “She’s really in love with him, isn’t she?”

“I couldn’t begin to guess,” Rook answered.

Murray could. She knew the answer without confirmation. The hair thing, however, confused her. “Why did she trade her nanites?”

“I suspect for Neela’s sake.”

“She actually cares about the Slug?”

“Sometimes,” he said. “The people closest to us are the easiest to take for granted…and the quickest to surprise us.”

Murray got the distinct impression that he wasn’t just referring to Zora. She nodded, turned back to read more about the Emperor, It-looks-like-he-really-is-a-nice-guy-after-alls, long list of good deeds and tried as hard as she could not to feel like the biggest asshole in the universe.
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