Chapter 4:- The Wedding Gift
"Doctor Murray," Rook said. He dropped the guards, limp and dangling one in each angular, silver fist, to the landing. Neither body had twitched since the android deftly slammed them together. "I believe we should move quickly."
"Right." Murray stared at the rumpled reptiles and nodded. "Yeah, after you." She stepped around the heap of scaled limbs and followed on his metal heels. Zora brought up the rear, alternately cursing and whining as quietly as possible.
Once they topped the stairs, an arch studded hallway spread to either side, revealing staggered glimpses of the expansive room at the heart of the palace. Zora pushed forward. She slid past Murray and sidled up to Rook, placing a dagger-nailed hand atop his polished shoulder.
"I think I can take it from here, Muscles," she said. "This way."
As she stepped away from the android, her hips swinging within the confines of the tiny skirt, and the froth of veil bobbing at the back of her head, Rook turned back over the shoulder.
"Doctor Murray?" he asked.
"It's all right," Murray said. She took a step up alongside him. "What choice have we got, after all?"
"A valid point," Rook said and followed the two women, through the shadows between the arches.
They'd circled half way round the great room when Zora froze. Murray nearly bumped into her, only managing to skid to a halt at the last second. She batted the veil out of her way and looked forward along the hall.
"What is it, Zor," she whispered.
"The front gate and a lot of guards. We'd better cut across."
"What?" Murray grabbed a handful of tulle and tugged. "Are you insane? That room is huge and wide open."
"We can duck between the tables."
"What tables?" Murray twisted to see through the closest archway. She caught a glimpse of chairs, white paper drapings, and long, banquet style tables. "Let me guess," she said. "The reception?"
"Let's just say you got here in the nick of time," Zora answered. "Now come on."
Zora didn't wait for an answer. She darted into the open, slid across the stone floor and dove out of sight behind a row of folding chairs. Murray gaped after her.
"I am detecting a large number of life forms directly ahead," Rook whispered at her back. "Perhaps we should follow."
Great, Murray thought, now the robot's on my sister's side. She let out a slow breath and darted for the table, hunkering down next to Zora. Zora popped up like a gopher and scanned over the table top, then waved madly toward the arches. Rook came across in a crouch, moving with more grace than an android should be capable of. Only a trace of mechanical awkwardness, and the constant, if faint, humming from his torso gave away his artificial nature. He settled to his knees behind their screen.
"What now?" Murray asked.
"The passage across from the entrance leads to the shipyard," Zora said.
"That would be our best option," Rook stated. Murray nodded and moved to make the next dash. Zora grabbed her sleeve and pulled her back down.
"Wait," she whispered. "This way." She sprang from their shelter and darted to the left, vaulting a stray chair and disappearing behind a tower of multi-colored boxes.
When Murray and Rook joined her, she was pawing at a length of thick gold ribbon which dangled from the top of one of the larger packages. She didn't bother to look up at them.
"What the hell are you doing?" Murray demanded.
"shhhh" Rook said.
Zora turned away from the wrapping long enough to glare at him, but she lowered her voice. "Presents, Mur," she whispered. "Look at them all."
"You're unbelievable, you know that?"
"This is so typical. We're going to die Zora."
"Just one, Mur."
"I think we should keep mo..." Rook stopped speaking when both women turned in his direction. He put up both hands and took a step backwards.
"You never think about anyone but yourself, you know that Zor?" Murray spun back on her sister.
"Oh, and so what, now you're my therapist?" Zora gave up on the ribbon and snatched a smaller, floral print box from the stack.
"That one's from me," Murray said.
"Really?" Zora looked at the box as if it were a bomb, then turned back to Murray.They stared at one another, both breathing hard. Zora ever so slowly set down the package.
Murray's eyes narrowed. "Don't do it," she said.
"I think someone is coming this way," Rook whispered.
Zora's hand twitched. She smiled a big, friendly smile at her sister.
"I'm warning you, Zor," Murray said.
"Shhh." Rook hissed.
Zora's hand reached for a different box.
"Dammit!" Murray swore, then clapped her hand over her mouth.
The room settled into silence for a second before the sound of boots rattling against stone intruded. From the shadowed arches, someone shouted, "This way!"
"Shit!" Rook said.
Murray stared at him. Her mouth hung open. "You swore," she said.
He grabbed her wrist and pulled gently. "Now would be a good time to run."
"Robots don't cuss," she stammered as he pulled her into the open, stumbling across the remaining distance beside him.
"Actually, I'm not..."
"Wait!" Zora hollered and darted from behind the wall of gifts. Rook sped up, half dragging Murray along with him. The sound of a laser bouncing off the wall to their left ripped her attention back to their predicament. She started running. They made a bee line for the far alcove without bothering to duck for cover. Rook pulled her in a serpentine, weaving between the tables and chairs and finally slipping into the darkness of the far hallway. Zora tumbled in beside them in a serenade of laser fire.
"They shot at me!" she spat. "I'm the freaking bride."
"What is that?" Murray asked.
Zora stuffed her hands behind her back.
"I don't believe you!"
"It's just a small one."
"LADIES!" Rook stepped between them. The hum in his chest buzzed over their bickering. Both fell silent. "If you please," he said and motioned to the double doors set in the outer wall. As if to punctuate his suggestion, the flare of a laser blast exploded off the door's surface. "Shall we?"
They rushed together through the exit. Rook pulled the door tight behind them, but failed to find a lock or brace on the inside. Without conversing, they turned and fled down the passage beyond. It sloped at a downward angle and bore little in the way of illumination. Murray trotted through the dark, following the sound of Rook humming, and fuming at Zora's stupidity.
They were going to die here. Even if they made the shipyard, what would it get them? Tossed back into the dungeon and tortured this time, no doubt. She ground her teeth together and imagined the reptilian guards dragging her back down the steps. This time, Zora waved from the landing, smoking a cigarette and sitting on top of a gigantic present.
They'd stopped. Light shone a sickly green around them, filtering in from the cracks in a second set of doors. She nodded, and Rook pushed against the surface. The chink parted and a flood of swampy atmosphere poured in around them. Outside--at least they'd made it outside.
Rook sidestepped through the opening. Murray peeked around the door's edge to find him leaning against a thick spire of rock. A rough-hewn ramp curved away to the wide, paved floor of the shipyard. Here and there a spike of native stone burst upward, and the structures had simply been built around the rocky protrusions. In the distance, Murray could see the slender silhouette of an upright rocket.
She snuck up beside the android.
"There's a ship ready for departure," he said.
"Yeah, but can you fly it, because I can't, and I'm pretty sure Zora's out."
The sound of paper rustling reached them. Both turned and stared at the dark opening.
"I have to agree with you," Rook said.
Zora stepped from the tunnel. She carried a tiny square box trailing an impossibly long strand of curling ribbon. She frowned and fiddled with the box's clasp. Murray felt Rook's hand grasp her shoulder.
"I believe they are following us," he said.
"Great." Murray watched Zora flip open the box lid. "How many of them, do you think?"
"Enough. We should keep moving."
Zora squealed and dropped the box. Murray pulled away from Rook's grip and took a steady step toward her sister. Zora ignored her and dropped into a squat. She shuffled to the side and then stood again, this time with both hands closed around something small, pink and gelatinous.
"What the hell is that?" Murray asked. She frowned at the squirming creature.
"It's my wedding present," Zora said proudly. She held the moving blob out for inspection. The long body pressed and rippled against her fingers, and the end that Murray assumed was the thing's head terminated in a pair of long, upright feelers. She couldn't help herself, but leaned in closer to the thing. The tips of the feelers sprang open, revealing a pair of small cat-like eyes.
"Yuck," Murray said.
"Isn't it cute?" Zora whispered.
"What is it?"
"It's a space slug." Rook answered.
Both women turned to him. In Zora's grip, the pink blog squeaked, "Neep."
"A what?" Zora said.
"I thought they were extinct?" Murray asked.
"They are supposed to be."
Zora turned back to her hands. She cooed at the slug rippling and blinking it's eye stalks at her. Murray felt the urge to puke.
"Is that the last one?" she asked, suppressing a shudder as her sister fawned over a slimy, pink mollusk.
"I suspect it is the only one," Rook answered. "If we could keep moving..."
"What do we do about it?" Murray asked.
"She's coming with us," Zora said. She faced them with both hands on her hips and the space slug wound half way up one arm.
"Is it bigger?" Murray asked.
"They grow very quickly," Rook whispered.
"She's mine," Zora insisted.
"I'm keeping her."
"I'm not sure that's a good idea," Rook interjected. Footsteps clattered at them from the passage. "Time to go."
Rook stepped from behind the rock and moved rapidly down the ramp away from the tunnel. Murray stared after him. "How fast do they grow?" she asked.
Zora passed her, tossing an infuriating grin over her shoulder.
"Zora," Murray whispered. "How big do they get?" She took a step down the ramp. The ring of pursuit grew louder. "Zora?"
She caught up with them, slipping down the ramp as close against the edge and the shadows as possible. There was no cover. They were going to die. She was following a custom android toward a ship none of them knew how to operate. Her psychotic sister sauntered along behind him with a slug the size of a Chihuahua peeking over her shoulder. It waved it's eye stalks at Murray and rippled from one end to the other. Any minute now, the shooting would start. That slug would be the last thing she saw alive.
"Neep," it said.
Maybe it would get big enough to eat Zora before they all died.