“Who goes there?” A voice accosted her from the shadows.
“Excuse me?” Murray stared at the ship’s ramp, squinted to make out the idiot shouting at her. “This is my ship.”
“My ship. Want me to spell it?” She took a step to the side and tried to catch him in the angle of light slanting from the ship’s interior. “Who the hell are you?”
“Uh.” The sound of heavy feet against the ramp rattled through the landing bay. Murray heard the mystery guard whisper. “Watchdog to Big Red, come in.”
“It’s Red One.” Zora’s snarky tone answered back. “Red One, not Big Red.”
“Somebody’s out here.” Watchdog leaned down and peeked at Murray. She caught a flash of shiny cranium, the curve of a metal shoulder. “She says it’s her ship.”
“Does she look like a geek?”
Murray ground her teeth together and stepped up the ramp. She’d spent the last fourteen hours pouring over Damascan legal records with a less-than-enthusiastic Bull. Her brain hurt, her back hurt and she needed coffee more than air. If he intended to shoot her, she’d let him. “Tell her it’s me, and I need coffee,” she snarled and advanced on the startled Damascan.
At least he didn’t share Rook’s body model. One idiot twin to her incarcerated boyfriend was all she could take in a day, and the damned lawyer had already fulfilled her quota. This, Watchdog, jackass had picked out a skinny, lanky frame with a bronze finish. He wore loose pants and a vest over his bare torso. Murray growled at him and kept moving forward. He didn’t look dangerous. He looked like a metal hippy.
“Halt,” he whispered.
Murray ignored him, but winced when his metal chest pinged softly. She stopped and stared at him. “Tell her it’s Murray, and the coffee had better be hot.”
“It’s Murray and--.”
“Just let her in.” Zora had apparently monitored the exchange. She met Murray at the top of the ramp. “You look awful, Mur.”
“What’s new?” Murray snatched the mug of coffee out of Zora’s hand and slammed it like a shot of Martian tequila. “Thanks. Is there more?”
“Technically, it’s my ship.” Zora smiled and spun on a heel. “The coffee’s in the common area, Mur, and be nice, okay?”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Zora failed to elaborate, and Murray followed her swinging hips down the hall. “How are the mollusks?” She glanced at the ooze accumulating near the cargo bay as they passed it.
“Everything okay in there?”
“I think they’re getting used to each other.” Zora stopped short of opening the commons door. “Listen, Mur. I’ve got company, and we’re kind of busy. I can get you some coffee, but I’m not sure you should stick around.”
Murray stared at her. She might have argued, might have tore Zora a new one, accused her of abandonment, of kicking her when she was down. All of the above took too much energy. “I just need to grab my hand-held and get back to Bull.” She sagged and leaned against the bulkhead. “And I’d like some coffee before I have to go back.”
Zora stared at her a moment longer, as if she were calculating something, as if she could. Then she nodded and turned to the door. Instead of opening it, she rapped out a ridiculous series of long and short taps against the panel. A staccato of three sharp knocks answered before she reached down and pressed the controls to open the door.
“You have to be kidding.”
“Fine.” Murray shook her head, but kept her mouth shut. The aroma wafting from the room helped with the effort. She followed Zora in and then sidestepped toward the counter and the sizzle of liquid stimulus.
She ignored the four Damascans huddled around the tiny table. She tuned out the whispering and refilled her mug from the dispenser. Fourteen hours with Bull, and nothing but water to drink—Damascan culture might be rich in technology, but they sucked when it came to things like sustenance.
By the time she’d drained two more cups, her attitude managed to lift a touch. She needed a cookie, but she felt much better. She turned to the group in the room’s center. Zora leaned over one of the men’s shoulder. All five of them focused completely on whatever they had on the table. A stack of assorted duffle bags parked around the table’s base.
“So,” Murray slid over. “You guys don’t really eat at all, then? I mean, not even for fun.” She tried to peek, even stood on tiptoe, but the Damascans made a gleaming wall around the surface. “What’cha doing?”
The guy Zora leaned against stood up and twisted, using his mass in an attempt to block the table from view. Zora stumbled away, and the other three closed ranks over the tabletop. The whole maneuver might have worked if Zora’s foot hadn’t snagged in the strap of one of the bags. She stumbled, threw her arms wide and sprawled forward. Two of the seated Damascans jumped to help her, leaving the only woman to cover their secret. She spread her metal arms and lay across the table.
Even so, Murray didn’t see what they hid. Her eyes fixed on the contents of the duffel bag, now spilling across the common room tiles. A surge of terror wrapped cold fingers around her spine. “Who are they?” She pointed an accusing finger at the glowing, blue spheres.
“Nobody.” Zora had survived the crash. She sat on the floor with her legs stretched to one side and tossed her hair back as if she’d meant to end up in exactly that pose. “They’re nobody.”
“Blanks,” One of the Damascans answered from the table. “Cloned blanks. Lobotomized.”
“That's disgusting.” Murray watched one of the glass vials roll to a stop against the far wall. Each tube contained one pulsing blue Damascan. “Zora, what are you doing?”
“She’s not authorized,” The Damascan at the table warned. He still stood in the same position, but his fellows had re constructed their living barricade. “Secrecy is vital to our success.”
“Excuse me?” Murray took a step in his direction.
“Mur.” Zora jumped to her feet. She grabbed Murray’s arm in a grip that pinched. “Come on. I’ll help you find your hand-held.”
“It’s in my room.”
“Good. Then we can find it in your room.”
She let Zora lead her. When the door shut out the revolutionaries, she turned to her sister and waited for the mother of all explanations. She crossed her arms and waited. She tapped her foot.
“I can’t, Mur.”
Murray raised her eyebrow. It always freaked Zora out.
“Cut it out, Mur. I can’t. Really.”
“What would the authorities do if they knew about those clones?”
“Damn it.” Zora eyed the door and nodded down the hall. When they reached Murray’s room, she caved. “Listen, it’s the authorities that are doing the cloning, okay? Leer thinks they’re trying to sell the blanks. Do you get that, Mur. Do you understand what that would mean?”
“No. And I don’t care to.” Unfortunately, she could calculate. She imagined quite suddenly what a non-Damascan might want with a lobotomized clone. “You mean they could--.”
“Yeah. For enough money, you could buy immortality.”
“But how would you? How would it?”
“The blank imprints on the first host. It doesn’t have a personality of its own, so the host becomes the dominant individual. After that, well, you can imagine, right?”
“How did these blanks end up on our ship?”
“The movement had an agent in the laboratory that developed them. He smuggled out a few as evidence.”
“The movement? Evidence? Listen to you.”
“It’s the whole government, Mur. It’s the big-wigs who’ve been buying these things. This isn’t just about getting off the planet. It’s about an inter-galactic conspiracy.”
“It’s about Rook, Zora. That’s all it’s about as far as I’m concerned.”
“You don’t get it. That’s why they don’t want any Damascans leaving. Rook supports the movement, Mur.”
“He also plans to die, remember? Your friends want him dead.”
“No, they don’t. Not really, Mur.”
She stared at Zora. Whatever this Leer had told her had done its damage. Her sister had the wild-eyed, fired up aura that only looked good on the young and impetuous. Mur understood it. She’d had it once or twice.
“No, Zora. Please. Not now. Let this thing go and help me save Rook, okay. I need you. Me. No movement, no Leer, just this once, okay?”
The fire only dimmed for a second. Then Zora shook her head and the spark returned. “We’re trying to save him, Mur. I promise.”
“Sure you are.” Murray had no illusions where Leer and his “movement” were concerned. As for Zora, she hadn’t really hoped for anything more. “I’ll just grab my stuff and get out of your hair.”
“You gonna be all right, Mur?”
She pressed the door panel and watched the flat metal slide aside. She had expected Rook to help. His lack of self-interest was the real problem. She didn’t have a clue how to counter that, and try as she might to convince him, he’d set his mind on playing the martyr for Leer’s movement.
She stepped into the room and turned in time to catch the guilt on Zora’s face. “Don’t worry about it, Zor.” As the door closed between them she sighed. It was Rook she’d hoped would fight beside her. Right now, she’d settle for convincing him to fight at all.