Zora sat in the back seat of the hover cab and clutched her baby photos tightly to her chest. The data pad was password protected, but she didn’t trust Murray not to work it out. Murray always cracked her best codes as if she could read Zora’s mind.
The vehicle dipped and tilted. The toad at the wheel oozed, and Murray nattered on about something as if the whole world cared. Zora had problems Murray’s science couldn’t solve. In fact, she kind of blamed it for them.
“You can wear that new dress you just bought.”
“Huh?” Murray didn’t talk about clothes. Something was up. “Where?”
“We’re all going out tonight.”
“To celebrate and stuff.”
“And stuff?” Little alarm bells. Stuff was not in Murray’s ordinary vocabulary.
“Maybe some dancing.”
“Maybe I’ll stay on the ship.” She watched her sister’s cheek twitch. Something definitely was afoot.
“Oh. Yeah sure. I bet you’re tired.”
Damn. Murray knew she was on to her. She’d pulled out her reverse psychology. Now what? She could stick to her guns and try to flush her out, or she could play along and let Mur think she’d won. She’d be way more likely to slip up if Zora let her get cocky.
“Still, dancing sounds like fun. It’d be nice to relax a little.”
“They’ve only offloaded two thirds of the eggs. Maybe someone should stay back and keep an eye on things.”
“What are you planning?” She kept her eyes on Murray’s face and registered the reaction, the spark of fear, and the wave of guilt. “Spill it, Mur.”
“It’s nothing, Zora. Jeeze. You think maybe you’re being a little bit paranoid?”
“You know that’s normal at this stage.”
“You’re bound to be a little bit over-sensitive and suspicious. It’s a perfectly natural protective instinct.”
“Protective?” She had been feeling a little bit testy. She’d been so worried, but they hadn’t exactly been strolling safely though her pregnancy. In fact, since she’d found out, they’d been shuffling from one dangerous situation to another. “I am worried about the baby.”
“You have every right to be.”
“And it did feel good to find out she was healthy.”
“It’s a girl?”
“Oh. Yeah.” That much, the gender, Faddle had been certain of. “Sorry. I forgot to tell you.” Something about the extra limb had distracted her. She groaned out loud, but Murray swept right over it and didn’t notice.
“A girl! Oh Zora that is so great. I’ll bet she’ll get your hair. You have such great hair, Zor. And she’ll be smart as a whip too. She’ll get into a good school. Zora, you will get her into a good school, won’t you? I mean as opposed to…well instead of…” Murray paused and rebooted in a different direction. “Dresses! We can buy the cutest dresses for her, Zor.”
“We?” Did they make little baby dresses with the extra sleeve? God. Murray was going to freak out on her.
“I’m going to be her Auntie.”
“Where are we going dancing?” She threw herself into the trap. It was that or confess Auntie Murray was going to have to have the baby clothes custom made.
“There’s a great club on the waterfront.”
“The whole damn planet is waterfront.”
“You’ll love it.”
“Fine.” How bad could dancing be? Whatever plan the rest of the Slug One crew had cooked up for her, it couldn’t be worse than listening to Auntie Murray gush over her soon-to –be freakish niece. Not that the extra limb bothered her. She could even see the advantage of it, but she’d always been the pragmatist in the family.
It worked. Murray laid off for the rest of the ride. The cab pulled through the hangar gates and slowed, weaving its way through the bays and the market stalls that dotted the walkways and courtyards between the ships. The whole spaceport was open-aired, barely walled in and full of flashy little things to buy. The Slug One had a bay to itself, but the security didn’t measure up. If someone really wanted to get at it, Zora could see at least a half a dozen ways they could pull it off.
Maybe she should stay with the ship. The Mercur officials had offered the slug babies safe haven, but had only unloaded what they felt they could safely manage. Something about ecological disasters and environmental safeguards—either way it meant they had a vulnerable ship full of eggs until they could deal with the Zander problem and finish their deliveries.
“Perfect,” Murray startled her out of the security inspection. “We should have just enough time to change.”
“I don’t know, Mur. Maybe I should keep an eye on the ship.”
“Don’t be silly. You need to get out.”
“Why?” The suspicion flared again. A warning bell chimed as the cab door slid open and the toad collected his chit from her sister. Murray had played her, had used the baby to distract her from whatever they had planned. “What’s the deal, Mur?”
“Nothing. I just think you’re really going to want to go out tonight.” She climbed out of the cab, and Zora had no choice but to follow her.
She stood at the edge of the hangar, watching her ship. The Slug One was an impressive beast. It gleamed even through the dents and traces of rust, maybe because it was hers, because it held such precious cargo. Any way you sliced it her ship shone like a star.
The grey hulk impressed her almost as much as the man who appeared at the top of the hatch. He strode like the emperor he was down the long ramp. She couldn’t begin to guess where he’d gotten those clothes. He looked like a spacer, like a man she’d have dated—had dated—before she met Ignatius Superius I. His tight, black pants and loose, white shirt might have suited Zander, or even her brother-in-law now that he had a body that actually wore clothing.
On the emperor, they were deadly.
Zora stared at him. Her legs wobbled and her face grew very warm. She felt drunk, felt like running. Except the flutter in her stomach was more than nerves, and he was more than just an emperor, more than just the man who made her knees weak. The kick reminded her exactly what running would cost. It asked her to stay. Maybe it was time to face the music, to face Ignatius Superius I.
After all, she had a bun in the oven that was 99.97 percent his.