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Chapter 5:- The Groom
Doctor Murray slid into a crouch behind a grav-sled piled with crates. Her custom android already hunkered behind it. His back flashed in the sparse light as he twisted to see the platform beyond their position. We really should get him some clothes, she thought. Soon. Her sister waited with that thing behind the rock spire she’d just left. She could hear Zora fidgeting, but nothing else broke the heavy quiet.

“I think we may have lost them,” she told Rook.

“We’ve bought some time at least,” he said.

The mammoth rocket cast the yard around them into deep shadow. Murray pressed in closer to the grav sled and prayed their reptilian pursuers had trouble seeing in the dark. When Rook turned back to her, his metal body gleaming even in the low light, she held her breath and listened for the shouts that would indicate they'd been detected. Instead, she heard quick footsteps as Zora joined them.

"Tell me your metal man can fly that thing," Zora whispered close to Murray's shoulder.

"It's a standard model," Rook said. "But the passenger compartment is rather small." He looked past Murray, and his metal features creased into an angular frown.

"I'm not leaving Neela here," Zora said. The defiance in her voice was unmistakable. Murray turned to fire off a retort, but the words choked in her throat.

"Ahhhhhg!" She stumbled backwards into Rook, who wrapped on steely arm around
her waist, balancing her and preventing a sprawl.

"Isn't she huge?" Zora said proudly. Behind her, and looming over her shoulder, a towering pink blob blinked cannon-ball eyes that waved back and forth at the tip of its eye stalks. The thing stretched behind Zora in a slimy cascade ending in a glistening point seven feet away. A wide mouth gaped below two yellow, frond-like nostrils.

"Neep," it said.

"Hawagh?" Murray managed. She leaned into Rook.

"I don't think we can..." Rook started, but Zora's hands flew to her hips. Murray new that stance. She twitched in irritation.

"She's coming with us," Zora demanded. Her bottom lip slid out, and one foot tapped a rhythm against the paving. Murray found her voice.

"You can't keep that thing," she said.

"Yes, I can."

"Can't."

"Can too."

"Excuse me." Something about Rook's voice insisted on silence. He possessed an aura of authority that Murray had never encountered in an A.I.before. Definitely a custom job, and an expensive one at that. "Doctor Murray," he continued, and the tone softened into a standard, subservient program. "I think our priority should be the ship."

"Can we steal it?" Murray looked away from the monster shadowing her sister. The android still held one arm around her. She slipped out of it's grip and smoothed her lab coat.

"It may be advisable, considering our present situation," he said.

"Right, but can you fly it? What about security codes?"

"Neela's coming with us!"

"Shut up, Zora."

"I suspect, I can handle any encryption," Rook said. "If Crantok is involved."

"So we're stealing the ship, great," Zora said. "Let's get to it." She flipped a cascade of hair and veil back over her shoulder and walked around the grav sled. The space slug heaved after her like a giant, squishy puppy.

"Is that thing still growing?" Murray asked her android.

"I'm not entirely certain."

"Great."

They followed in Zora's wake. Murray cringed at each step across the open platform. Even in the ship's shadow, she felt exposed and vulnerable. Any minute now, she thought, and there will be shouting. Any second, we could be surrounded, captured, and shot. She could hear the faint clicks of Rook stepping along behind her; anyone could hear it. The pink planetoid sliding along in front of her wasn't exactly covert. She felt certain that they would be discovered, but somehow, her heart still jolted in shock when they were.

"HALT!" A chorus of voices chimed around them.

"Neep?"

The sound of many weapons charging drove Murray's feet to perfect stillness. Her heart kept trying to stall on her. When the alien stepped out in front of them, she nearly fainted.

"Where do you think you're going?" It said.

"We're getting the hell out of here!" Zora shouted back at it.

"We have a date, remember? The minister is charging me overtime."

Murray leaned around the slug's bulk and stared. The creature facing off with her sister--had she said handsome? "That's Crantok?" Murray asked.

"Later, Mur."

"But he's...."

"Come on Zora," Crantok bellowed. He stood in front of the rocket's causeway, all four hands resting on his hips. The resemblance between stances almost made Murray smile. "Don't make me do anything painful to your friends," he said.

"Piss off, Cran." Zora said too quickly for Murray's taste.

"Neep," the slug echoed.

One of Crantok's arms waved a signal, and an arc of armed reptiles stepped out of shadow. The laser rifles all riveted on their position. Murray had seen laser burns. She held her breath.

"You're coming with me," Crantok said. He took two long steps forward and grabbed for Zora's arm. She took a swing at him.

"Neep."

The guards stepped closer, and Murray started praying.

"Neep."

Crantok grabbed a handful of veil, tugging Zora's head back. He wrapped two think limbs around her waist and pinned her against him. Zora screamed and kicked both legs frantically in the air.

"Neep?"

"We have to do something," Rook whispered next to Murray.

"I know, but..." Murray eyed the ring of guards. They still held the weapons, steady and pointed at the party, but a few had taken steps backward and the arc gaped in a ragged line. She turned to where Crantok struggled with a still-kicking Zora. "He has four arms."

"Help!" Zora squealed between kicks.

"NEEP!"

Both Zora and Crantok froze, staring together at the giant slug. Murray caught the flutter of movement as the ring of guards turned and fled back into the shadows. In slow motion, she too swung her gaze around onto the pink behemoth.

Its body shook. Convulsions rippled from the thick tail to the tip of the broad nose. The eye stalks danced above the yellow fronds, and the huge eyes narrowed. Rook's arm came around Murray's waist again. She gave in to his pull, and they backed away together, but her eyes stayed on the slug. She saw the ripples quicken just before the eyes closed and the creature went suddenly still.

It took Murray seconds to realize that the hissing sound didn't come from the creature. When she tore her gaze from it, she caught the blur of Zora diving away from her captor. Crantok's mouth hung open, a forked tongue that Murray didn't even want to think about, hung from his slack lips. The hiss erupted from his mouth like a siren. The fire started from his fingertips. All four hands burst into flames that engulfed his entire figure within a heartbeat. When the smoke cleared, nothing stood between them and the ship's ramp. Silence settled over the platform.

Murray stood leaning against something solid--Rook, with both metal arms supporting her this time. She pushed away gently and stared at the slug.Its eyes opened.

"Neep?"

"Mmmmmnn." Zora sat up and brushed at her hair with both hands. "What the hell was that?"

"Neep."

"Mur?"

"Over here." Murray walked forward, making a wide circle around the slug whose body had reverted to a normal, squishy ambiguity.

"Where's Crantok?" Murray pointed at the charred mark on the pavement. "Seriously?"

"He had four arms," Murray said.

"Um, yeah." Zora shrugged and stood up. She looked around the empty platform and then sauntered around Murray to pat the slug at a point around shoulder height. "Good girl, Neela," she said. "Let's get a move on."

"You can't keep..."

"You gonna tell her she can't come?" Zora asked.

Murray shook her head. She watched Zora turn and start up the ramp, followed by her deadly, pink mollusk. Rook stepped up beside her, shrugged and headed for the ramp as well. She stared after all of them--the slug, the android, and her harlot sister. She looked down, to the black mark that had been the groom, and then back up to see the tail end of Neela disappear into the ship they were about to steal. He had four arms, she thought.

"Doctor Murray?" Rook called from the ramp. He waited, like some shining Greek statue come to life, and waved down to her. She shrugged and started toward him. After all, she thought. After today, what else could possibly go wrong?
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