Chapter 16

Centauri Research University -- Year 2565



Michael Jamel went over the expense statements for the last month, trying to determine where in the AI Research Department of Centauri Research University that they could most accept budget cuts. He hated this part. His grandfather was not as well as he'd been when he and Thom had come five years ago, and he'd passed off some of his duties to his apprentices. Michael got the budget, and Thom public relations, so that Charles Jamel, their grandfather, could spend all the time his health allowed researching, programming, and designing.

Michael stretched and looked at his art supplies across the room in the corner. How he wished he could be staring at a blank canvas instead of a monitor. "What can I cut, Cee?"

"Perhaps public relations," replied the robotic unit Jamel 5000C. Cee's body consisted of a small wheelbase, which could expand to leg like status to maneuver stairs. Its rounded body had two arm-like projections which he usually kept so close to himself they blended into his steel-grey body. A short neck then held another rounded cylinder, full of sensors which acted like a head.

The communication's panel on the wall buzzed. "Michael," came his grandfather's voice.

"Yes?"

The image of his grandfather appeared on the screen, his white-hair wild, as if he'd just been awakened from his nap. "I need you down at the lab immediately."

"Yes, Sir." The screen blanked off.

"Come on, Cee." At least he'd get a reprieve from trying to find a budget cut which would least irritate his grandfather.

Cee followed him, and they walked through the corridors of the university facility. He knew almost everyone and exchanged brief hellos as he went. But Cee was ignored. He was just a robot.

They met up with Michael's cousin Thom and Butler, the Jamel 5000B. Butler had a full android's body complete with an animated face, and Thom had dressed him in a black suit from the time he'd acquired him. "What do you think Granddad wants?" Thom asked. "Hi Sara."

"Hi, Thom, Michael." She gave Butler a smile. "How are you doing, Butler."

Butler's putty grey face under his blond wig creased into a smile. "I am very pleased to see you. How is Ivana?"

"We're in a hurry, Butler," Thom corrected. "See you later, Sara." As they continued on, Thom switched the subject. "Did you ask her?"

He meant JuliAnn. "Not yet."

"Mike, she's going to marry someone else."

Michael ignored him. Thom had been trying to get him married to one girl or another ever since his own marriage to Falice last year.

"You like her. You know you do. Just take her to the banquet. What have you got to lose?"

Michael pushed open the door to his grandfather's lab. It was a large room with shelves of computers, monitors, diagnostic equipment, and desks. A conference table sat on the far side, and they made their way to it. His grandfather's assistant, Tori Yasuo, stood behind his chair. The pretty girl always insisted on standing during the meetings. They had two guests, both men. The older man looked very familiar, and Michael's gut knotted as he greeted Neville Gaither. Michael didn't know the younger man.

His gaze momentarily focused on the monitor beyond the end of the table on the wall. It was lit up, but frozen on a password sequence.

"I'd like you both to meet Mr. Gaither and Mr. Yelinski from the Planetary Protection Corps. As you may recall they are investigating the theft of the 5000A unit."

His stomach twisted again. The case was reopened. They must have new information about the 5000A -- about Kayden. But he needed to hide his emotions on this. No one understood. To his grandfather, the 5000A unit was like a child he'd lost. The B and C units had identical cores, but he'd planned a three prong study, and it'd been ruined. To his family, of course they thought Kayden's disappearance -- to them it was always just a disappearance -- was tragic, but just as he'd needed to get beyond his young sister's death by a freak accident, he should no longer let Kayden's disappearance disrupt his life.

According to them, just mentioning the A unit or the investigation should not cause his muscles to tense nor his hands to become clammy. So he'd learned to hide it in the months following the disappearance as he'd had to go over and over the sequence of events. It'd been over three years since they'd given up the search.

"A communications pod has been recovered by a mining supply ship. It is from the 5000A, encrypted it for my code." His grandfather briefly met Michael's gaze. "I thought I should wait for my apprentices before viewing." He knew Michael blamed himself for Kayden's death, but after he suggested Michael drop his studies and go for psychological counseling, Michael hid the nightmares that haunted him. He had known someday they'd find the unit, and he needed to be here.

His grandfather typed in his password, and the screen lit up. The 5000A was at the center of the screen. "I am the Jamel 5000A unit. This is a factual record for Charles Jamel, so that he may take whatever action he deems necessary. I have malfunctioned. I killed the man. I will submit to destruction as soon as the girl is safe."

Michael's heart raced. He'd killed the attacker, but Kayden was alive!

"The shuttle's communication and navigation panel was destroyed by the laser blast which killed the man. But I believe this pod will be jettisoned through one of the escape pod hatches as they have manual overrides. We were on a course for an asteroid mining operation, but by blasting a hole in the shuttle wall and instantly sealing it, I have altered the course enough to send us to the closest inhabited planet, Austin's Playground. Since communications are out, I am not sure we will make it to the surface before being disintegrated by the orbiting guard satellites. But the girl will die without medical help. If I make it to the surface, my plan is to take the girl to the nearest medical facility. I will include a copy of the events leading up to my malfunction for your perusal.

"Charles Jamel, for future units you may wish to alter the programming specifications. I cannot protect the innocent and simultaneously do no harm. This was not a snap malfunction, and I wish that I had killed him sooner. I am sorry I have disappointed you. Next time, program your units to reflect the ambitions of their new owners, and perhaps he would not be dead. Jamel 5000A."

Instantly his image disappeared. Kayden appeared on the screen, shoved into the shuttle by that beast of a man, her severed hand throwing blood toward the screen, her screams of pain piercing his ears. "Stop. Michael! Michael, I need you." It was all he could do not to jump up and try to answer her cry. He gripped the sides of the table with both hands, and he clenched his teeth to keep the emotions from his grandfather.

The A unit had cut and spliced the images, as time labels appeared at the bottom of the recording. But after a half hour of the recorded atrocities, his grandfather ordered the recording stopped. "We've seen enough," he said, his voice strangely subdued.

Michael lowered his gaze to his hands. His knuckles were white and when he tried to straighten them, his fingers stayed bent from the strain. He put them under the table. "I need to find her," Michael said. "Let me go find her."

Mr. Gaither spoke, his voice lower also. "I will contact Austin to see if a shuttle was intercepted five years ago, and what the possibility is that they survived to planet fall. Given what we've already seen, I doubt the girl would survive, though. The planet is rough with no modern hospitals and a new bunch of convicts with families sent every year. No violent offenders are permitted, but I doubt the place is remotely civilized. And the unit would have been destroyed. Any technology smaller than a vacuum tube is illegal."

"But we don't know that for sure," his grandfather said. "I want that unit back."

"The unit?" Michael wanted to slam his hands down on the table and yell, "To hell with the damn unit. Kayden was tortured and maimed, and you're worried about a damn robot." But he stuffed the emotions inside for now. He wouldn't achieve what he wanted that way. Instead he turned to Mr. Gaither. "What are the chances that I could go down to the planet and look for them?"

"We don't know that they made it down there." Mr. Gaither began.

"But if there's the slightest chance, I want Michael to go," his grandfather said. "Analyzing that unit's data could provide amazing breakthroughs -- and save lives," he added. He always added that when he wanted other people to take his work more seriously. "The girl . . . Michael, I'm afraid you just have to accept that she didn't make it."

"I will accept it after I search the planet."

Mr. Gaither leaned forward. "Give me a copy of that communication to show the officials of Austin when I try to convince them we need permission to search the planet. Michael Jamel, give me a written biography including your qualifications to go on a nontechnical world looking for a robot and a dead girl."

"Right away," Michael said, hoping his anger wasn't apparent. He wished they'd stop calling her dead. "May I be excused."

"Yes."

"Cee." Cee followed him from the lab.

Michael walked straight back to his room, ignoring the greetings of those around him. But once in his room he couldn't write. He fell on his bed and let out the tight grip of his emotions, first pain for Kayden's abuse, and then anger over it. The anger caused him to pound the desk in frustration.

But then someone chimed the door. No, he couldn't face anyone. "Send them away, Cee," he choked out, as he fell back to the bed.

"It is Thom and Butler."

"Send them away."

But Thom didn't go away. Thom's desires as usual overrode his in Cee's actions, and he let them in anyway. Thom sat at the desk chair.

"Go away," Michael said not facing him. He didn't want him to see his face.

"Mike, man, you never said anything. I'm sorry."

"She's not dead."

"The bastard cut off her hands. Let her rest in peace, Mike. Let the authorities go look for the A unit. It's a goose chase anyway."

"A defective unit must be destroyed," Butler said. "The unit is a threat to any it comes in contact with. I have analyzed the data and given my report. The unit was obviously lying about its plans and that the girl survived."

"She survived!"

"She had severe internal injuries, cranial injuries," Butler insisted. "The A unit used the laser on her also, claiming he was relieving the pressure of a blood clot. It apparently changes its own programming on a whim. It is capable of any atrocity. You would be killed as well."

Michael sat up. "Get out of here. Just get out." He took a deep breath. Then another. Another. He had to get control. He could not let Thom see the anger. He couldn't yell and rage as he wanted, because Thom and Butler would use it against him. Thom wanted him to stay here. He didn't want to work on the budget.

Thom stood. "I'm sorry, Mike. I guess that's why you don't date much either, isn't it? But now you know she's dead. It's time to move on."

Michael said nothing, clenching his teeth.

Thom finally moved to the door. "Don't forget the banquet tomorrow night. Want me to call JuliAnn?"

Michael didn't speak.

Thom and Butler finally left.

"Do you wish me to contact JuliAnn for you?" Cee asked.

"Do not speak. Do not make one move until I say so," Michael said, afraid his emotions would snap with the annoying machine. Cee always seemed to agree with anything Butler and Thom said. Several times he felt Thom should have had both machines, because Cee was little more than an ordinary robot where Butler sometimes took initiative in interacting with people and preparing for Thom and his wife's comfort. Thom teased that it was because he was a better robot owner.

The thought brought the frustration back along with everything else. He was sick of computers and robots and androids and microchips and nanochips and programs. He was even sicker of budget reports and expense statements and purchasing requests. He'd stay here until he was certain one way or another about Kayden, and then he'd leave. He wasn't sure what he'd do, but he couldn't stay here anymore.



Three weeks later Mr. Neville Gaither and his assistant returned, and they gathered around the same conference table. "They have records of the shuttle, which was disintegrated in flight. Then an escape pod was blasted within twenty seconds of touching down. They are fairly certain that nothing survived to the surface, especially after seeing the condition of the shuttle's occupants. However, they did read your résumé, Michael, and they do want to talk to you. It appears that they sometimes hire people with science backgrounds to tour for any illegal technology on the planet. The director said that if you were as good as your bio he'd make sure you got the job, which would help them and ease your concerns at the same time."

"I'm going," Michael said instantly.

"Let it drop, Mike. You can't take some job on some tech dead world in the middle of nothing for a lost cause," Thom said. "She's dead. The unit is destroyed. Case closed."

"She's not dead!" At the uncomfortable silence that followed Michael knew he'd let his tensions get the best of him. So he switched the subject, appealing to his grandfather. "We have to be sure, don't we, Grandpa? Even if I can find the charred remains of the core lying on the ground, you can use that. If those people did get a hold of the unit, it's a good guess they don't understand the value of the core. Virtually indestructible, right? Except a direct laser hit. And he's fast enough for a twenty second retreat. In fact, he was rugged enough to survive a fifty foot drop. Knowing that the satellite was after him, he could have opened the pod before landing." He didn't take that far, because although it made it more likely the 5000A unit had survived, it lessened Kayden's chances even more. But his grandfather only cared about the A unit.

"I don't believe a one month old unit had the ingenuity to plan that kind of escape." Butler stood serenely behind and to the left of Thom's chair in his black suit and made pronouncements as if presenting the evening's dinner menu. "Personality and initiative take years to develop, as we've seen. And some never develop it."

"But the A did take initiative already," Michael pointed out. Butler constantly asserted his superiority over any other machines. Although the subject was one he wished he didn't have to debate, he couldn't help feeling a little satisfaction at the dig to Butler.

"The unit said it would submit to its own destruction if the girl died. She died. It probably threw itself in an ocean, and if you did search the oceans, salt water would have destroyed it by now."

"Thom, your friend is getting creative," Michael said. "I think he's afraid we'll find a unit smarter and better than he is."

Butler tilted his head, his hand closing on the back of Thom's chair. "I am not afraid, Michael, but you are trying to hide your feelings of guilt in fantasies."

Michael's jaw clenched. Thom refused to look his way. Yet again, Michael suspected Thom's feelings were being filtered through Butler so that Thom could pretend he'd never be so callous and what could one expect from a machine.

"I want Michael to go," his grandfather said quietly. "I want that core. No matter what you have to do to get it back here, I want you to do. Just the scant review of his report has given us tremendous insight into the 5000's potential. And I must analyze the malfunction in depth to save many lives," he added.

"But I need him here," Thom protested.

His grandfather glared at Thom. "Michael goes. And he takes Cee with him as a core. Perhaps the unit will develop a little initiative out of Butler's shadow."

"I must protest . . . ." Butler began.

"Butler," Thom said, cutting him off. Humans could protest Charles Jamel's decisions, but not machines. Facing his grandfather Thom did log his protest. "You are then risking the loss of two 5000 units on a non-tech world. I've taken the liberty of studying the planet's history. Reese Austin had a bunch of illegal genetics experiments performed there, leaving a plethora of dangerous beasts roaming the planet long after the labs were destroyed and the geneticists killed. The most dangerous is Hansell's dragon, designed by geneticist Dr. Collin Hansell. This beast grows over twenty-five feet long and is responsible for almost two thousand human deaths a year, most of those children and new convicts. This on a mainly oceanic planet whose population is for the most part confined to one small continent. Less than 600,000 people total spread out over five cities and two dozen or so minor villages."

"May I add one more thing," Butler asked. At Thom's nod, he said, "Only forty-four percent of the people sent down as Technical Spies ever return. Thirty-one percent are known dragon deaths, fourteen percent are deaths from illness or injury that could be treated easily elsewhere. Seven percent are accidental deaths resulting from inexperience in an open environment. The last four percent of that number just disappear, presumed eaten, but for record keeping purposes, unknown. I might add that Michael Jamel falls into all those high risk disappearance categories, specifically because he has never lived on a planet and has led a relatively sedentary life as your apprentice, Dr. Jamel. His agility and immune system are most likely somewhat compromised."

Michael sat stiff in his chair. If his grandfather didn't give his permission, he'd leave him and go to Austin himself to talk to the director about the spy position. He didn't need his help or Cee.

His grandfather sighed, looking his years again, and abstractedly Michael noted that he should probably rest for an hour or so. Hopefully, for his sake, the meeting wouldn't last much longer.

"I will not order you into a potentially dangerous situation, Michael, but you know what that core means to my research. I leave it up to you."

"I will go," Michael said.

"If you want the Corps, you must be ready to leave in three days," Mr. Gaither informed him.



Charles Jamel sunk into the desk chair in his private study. He pulled his journal to him, a journal of notes for the one who came after. It'd probably be Thom, now. Although he knew Michael had the keener intellect. He kept hoping that someday one of them would see his vision for the research, but it didn't seem likely. He put his pen to the paper. Somehow, after all was technically said and done, the simple act of inscribing words on paper freed him from the stark restraints of logic and order that his work demanded, and he was free to record his visions, dreams, and hopes for the future.

"Saw Michael off at the shuttlebay entrance. Wish he hadn't gone, but knew he would whether I approved or not. Asked Mike to make hand written reports on Cee's behavior and status throughout mission. Gives Mike a secondary goal he can achieve.

"The A's insights were remarkable. I assumed different body styles would produce personality differences, but I failed to account owner personality. Thom demands a lot from his fellows, and he mostly gets it. Michael demands little, taking things as they come. Perhaps that is Cee's problem, as well as Butler's influence on him. Also failed in initial study to consider proximity of other units and their possible influence. Failed in many ways on my first social compatibility study. Perhaps this is where the 4000 failed. Owner personality differences caused the breakdowns or less desirable responses.

"Cee now has no body. Core will reside with Michael. Implanted datalink which Mike had refused before. Did interfere with Cee's training in case Mike forgets to. Told Cee to constantly monitor for danger, alert Mike immediately. Do not let him die. Made it a priority order while Mike getting physical. Hope the unit can save his life. Do not want to tell Phil and Trish their remaining child is dead."

Charles slipped the pen and book into the top drawer of his desk. Then he pushed against the desktop as he lifted himself to his feet and shuffled to the couch. Just a little nap now, before he went back to the lab.




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