Neela’s eye stalks drooped in a sad arch to either side of her head. They drizzled ooze in a cool trail down Zora’s back. She let it slide. The sonic shower could take care of the slime later.
“It’ll be okay.” She rubbed a section of pink neck and sighed. “I’ll come back to see you.”
She had to be imagining the depression behind that. Teepo and Neela would be fine. The Emperor had granted them one sweet set-up under his champagne domes. Though the pair’s mating frenzy had slowed considerably, there still should be a small horde of slug babies to romp with shortly.
“I’ll come back as soon as I can.” She patted the gelatinous hide again and sighed. When would that be? It wasn’t like Ignatius was prone to leaving. If she ever came back, it would have to be for a quick visit, or after enough time had passed that it didn’t matter anymore.
Footsteps pattered against the grass behind her. She turned to find her sister, still glowing from the night before and with her hair down for the first time in about fifteen years.
“You ready?” Murray asked.
“Yeah. What’s with the hair?” She looked over Mur’s shoulder, back toward the main building and to either side. No one else wandered in their direction.
“You always said I should try it down.”
“Huh? Oh, right. It looks good.” She frowned and looked toward the hangars. Nobody stalked them there, either.
“You ready to go?”
“Yeah. More than ready.” She sniffed and pulled her hand away from Neela, trailing goo and not caring. “Time to boogie.”
They trekked to the hangar bay and found the Slug One prepped and ready for take-off. Zora scowled at the buttoned up cargo hatch and followed Murray to the passenger ramp. No one tried to stop her.
“Rook has the clearance filed and our first stop programmed,” Murray said. “We should have the first batch of eggs to their new home in two days.”
“You all right?”
“Of course.” Zora stomped up the slim ramp. “Why wouldn’t I be?” She continued to the bridge, letting her footfall echo through the short corridor and stamping a good deal of her frustration into the trip. She was better than all right. She was fan-freaking-tastic.
“There you are.” Rook spun his chair around when they entered. “Tower’s given us the okay, already.”
“We’re good,” Murray said. She slid into the chair beside him and secured her restraint. “You good, Zor?”
“Sure.” Zora dropped into a couch on the wall and buckled up. “I’m good.”
“Everyone good?” Rook’s voiced echoed through the cabin. He’d switched on the ship’s comm. and his order to “Strap in.” reverberated through the whole bloody vessel.
“Yeah,” Zora snapped. “We can hear you.”
Rook gave Murray a look, and they both turned back to the navigation screens. Murray’s hand reached out and settled on Rook’s thigh. He worked the controls, toggled up the engines and signaled the tower that they were ready.
She felt invisible—not something she’d experienced before. Her spine pressed back against the couch padding and she twisted her lips together. This trip would basically qualify as their honeymoon. They’d deliver the slug eggs, they’d let her tag along, but the newlyweds would focus entirely on one another.
“I think I’m going to enjoy take-off from the couch in Cargo,” she announced. Her hand moved to unhitch her straps, but both her shipmates spun on her.
“No!” They hollered in stereo.
“We don’t have time,” Rook said.
“It’s not safe for the baby,” Murray added.
Zora narrowed her eyes and frowned. “What the hell?”
“Slug One you are go for lift off,” the comm. brattled.
Rook’s hands flew across the console and the whole bridge vibrated as the engines roared to full. The cabin lurched and jiggled as they left the pad. So much for escape. Zora settled back against the wall and sighed. The room tilted and then quickly leveled out.
“Nice flying there,” she said.
“Sorry.” Rook switched to thrusters and they shot forward. The force pressed them all against their seats, and any further comments died in the howl and rattle of leaving the atmosphere.
At least they’d gotten away. At least she didn’t have Ignatius I to worry about anymore. She could handle the honeymooners. She could hide in her room if necessary. Her stomach gargled disagreement.
“Hey!” She shouted over the noise. “Hey! Mur?”
“What?” Murray swiveled her chair just as the engines settled. The ship burst free from the planet and the quiet hum returned.
“Did you stock the kitchen before we left?”
“Yeah. The Emperor provided--.”
“Right. Thanks.” Zora flung off her restraints and stood up.
“Wait, where are you going?”
“To get something to eat. Shit, Mur. I can find my way to the kitchen, right?”
“Of course, but--.”
“Give it a rest.” She waved an arm at her sister and turned her back on both of them, heading for the doors. Nobody tried to stop her. “We’re hungry,” she added, tapping her middle with the free hand for emphasis as she slipped out into the hallway.
The doors closed out the bridge and any retort Murray might work up. Damn it. She didn’t need a nanny. She needed a bloody Earth Burger. The hall boomed as she stormed to the kitchen, to the room where she’d met, not so long ago, with a group of revolutionaries to plot the downfall of the Damascan government. That had been fun.
Wouldn’t be many revolutions in her future, would there? She stopped and looked to either side guiltily. Her arm wrapped over her middle again and she gave it a soft pat. Not that she minded. She just didn’t care so much for the over protective routine either. She’d find stuff to do. There would be lots of things she could do with a baby in tow.
She stared at the kitchen doors. He stomach fluttered, and she thought about skipping the snack. She could settle into her room. Heaven knew she’d be spending enough time there. But she was hungry. Despite the little butterflies dancing in her tummy, she’d been starving a minute ago. She reached for the panel and froze. Butterflies?
The flutter came again, gentle and completely foreign to her body. The baby. The little shit was moving. Her arm fell away from the door. Both hands rested on her small belly. She held her breath. She felt it again, like air bubbles, like a tiny little twitch. Her baby was moving, and she could feel it.
What did it want? She felt a surge of panic. Maybe takeoff hadn’t been a good idea. Maybe it was freaked out, or hurt. Maybe it needed something. Her mind scrambled. She didn’t know enough about this. The poor thing was screwed.
It moved again, and her stomach joined it this time, growling at her in complaint. That one, she understood. She was hungry. Maybe the baby was hungry too? She nodded and gave it another pat. She could feed it, at least. She wasn’t that inept. She’d grab a snack and then they’d settle in. If they were going to hide in their room, she could spend some time reading, maybe?
She pushed the door panel. The ship’s data banks probably had a ton of information on babies. She could tap into the Gen-fed library once they were near enough to a relay. She nodded to herself as the door slid open and then she stepped into the kitchen.
It smelled delicious. The scent of fresh coffee mingled with some kind of bread. Whatever was heating in the oven panel called to her hunger, but she completely missed it. Her total attention fixed on the man standing beside the counter.
Emperor Ignatius Superius I leaned against it and sipped at his coffee. He stared at her over the mug, and a grin flashed across his face like a comet trail.