The Bomorian twins took the ramp and vanished inside Iggy’s ship. Zora caught their escape as the Pescine shoved her into the open again. Ignatius hunched over the top of Rook, who still hadn’t moved. She didn’t want to think about the weapon gorilla man had shot him with, or about the fact that his body wasn’t invincible any longer.
Zander met them half way. He showed her his teeth and jerked one hand toward where the Emperor waited. “Come on, Red. Time to say our goodbyes.”
“To you?” Zora tossed her hair and sashayed as calmly as she could manage. “Finally.”
“Very clever. Now move.”
He pulled her by the elbow, and Zora heard the fish bitch chuckle behind them. She guarded their rear while the grey goon waved his weapon side to side at the jungle, firing on what she hoped were random intervals. If he shot Murray…God. One more thing she didn’t want to think about.
“Get on their ship,” Zander said. “Make sure those idiots get it in the air and then take her into orbit and wait for us.”
“Yes, Cap’n.” The gray face scrunched into a smile. He turned it directly to her and his pin eyes glinted. “Think I got her with that last one, anyway.”
“Just go.” Zander dragged her up beside Ignatius while his goon marched to the cruiser’s ramp. “So sorry about this, cousin. But then, you asked for it when you didn’t follow directions. Trauni, have we checked the security codes?”
“They worked, Cap’n. He gave us the real ones.”
Zora frowned. She tried to will Iggy to look at her, to give her some sign that he had another ace up his sleeve, that he had some plan besides leading Rook and Murray to their deaths here. His head remained bowed over her brother-in-law, however, and the knots in her stomach were left to kink and tighten. Sometime soon, a planet of peaceful clones was about to be hijacked. They’d have no recourse without a ship.
Zander’s hand had won.
“Well, Red,” Zander said. “Thanks for everything. It’s been real fun.”
When he reached for her, Zora sprang. He’d meant to imply something, to twist one more knife into his cousin’s side, and she’d had about enough of him anyway. She slapped the side of his face so hard his neck wrenched and tilted his head away. He grinned, despite the fact that a crimson imprint of her hand already raised along his cheek.
Zander straightened and gave her one last, dagger sharp grin. “Enjoy your solitude.”
The cruiser finally finished pre launch in time to lift off. The back wash of atmosphere pressed like a warm wind against Zora. It threw her hair back and made her stumble, and she turned her back to it, to the emperor on the ground who wouldn’t even look at her, and watched Zander and his Pescine board her ship.
The Slug One’s engines whined, coughed and then howled to full thruster power. They retracted the ramp slowly, after the landing gear was straining to lift from the planet’s surface. If Mur had done that, Zora would have never let her live it down. Now, it brought tears to her eyes. That was her ship, damn it. She’d paid for it with her nanites. It belonged to her.
In some ways, she’d paid for it with her heart as well.
The cargo bay closed, and her slug babies went with it. She hadn’t hit the right dials, but then, she’d been trying it blind. The idea had been a desperate, last-ditch plan. The Slug One roared and readied itself for take-off, and overhead, the ship Iggy had brought grew smaller and smaller. The cruiser reached altitude at the same time Zora’s ship broke contact with the surface of Little Vega.
She turned from the Slug to the higher, lighter ship. Iggy had given them the right codes. He’d given them a ship too, and now, they had hers, fully loaded with Space Slug embryos.
“Zora, Zora?” Ignatius called her. Now he wanted to look at her. Well, she was busy watching his asshole cousin steal her ship, her slug babies. “Get down, Zora!”
“What?” She watched the Slug One. It hovered just over the trees, waiting for the cruiser to head for orbit first.
He got her attention that time. She turned to find him still hunching, draped across Rook’s body but now with a concerned expression turned on her. “Hurry, Zora. To the ground.”
She hugged her belly and made it to her knees before the keening of engines blared overhead. That noise meant things had gone very wrong with a starship. It was the kind of noise that sent crew running through corridors looking for escape pods, a noise that would make even the best pilot take his mother’s name in vain.
“What’s going on?” Zora sat on one hip on the scorched ground. “What’s the plan?”
Because there obviously was a plan. She could see it, or rather hear it, now. The cruiser’s engines were overloading, and whatever efforts the Bomorians and their ape companion were making hadn’t slowed down the howling in the least. Ignatius looked, as ever, calm and smoothly pressed despite the fact that he leaned over an injured man. Even Rook suddenly groaned and twitched as if he’d only been waiting for his cue to move.
She didn’t have a clue what was going on. It was exactly as if she’d shown up on the day of her astrophysics exam without having read the book…and she should know.
Before she could ask Iggy, the howl silenced. The atmosphere inhaled a single breath, and then the sky exploded. Zora hit the dirt, almost face down. She curled around her baby and listened to the echo of a ship exploding. Her ears rang with it, the sky turned dark, and the rain of partially vaporized debris began to fall around them.