Tori entered Charles’ office and locked the door behind her. Then she placed the three books on his desk. “Yes, I agree with you,” she said softly. “Butler may be a problem.”
Charles had known she would agree with him, but somehow the locked door said more than her words. Butler was a threat. “We’ll need to speak to Thom.”
“Yes. Tell me, where is Butler’s most vulnerable spot? Where is the core?”
“Right in the middle of his chest.”
“But if he suspects we wish to disable him, he could hide the core anywhere within the University’s science complex and still use the android body. Am I correct?”
“And yet if we simply attack, we won’t know for certain he is corrupted. He may have been acting on Thom’s orders.”
Charles winced. If Tori had come to that conclusion also, then they must consider Thom as the traitor, especially since he was now certain he’d lied about the implant. Of course, Thom probably wasn’t really a traitor in the sense that he was selling him out to the manufacturing companies. He probably just lied enough to compete with Michael. Someone else had killed Pet – maybe even the same person who had hired that killer six years ago.
“Sir? Shouldn’t we send an alert to all those owners of 4000 units warning them of the potential problems?”
“We already did.”
She rarely protested, but she did today. “But not to the extent that Dr. Collin lists. My father….”
“Yes, of course, Tori. Summarize that section. I’ll edit it and then you may distribute it to the news network. If we can prevent a problem we must do it.”
Tori seemed to relax. “Thank you. I have made a news release. File Alert4000Recall for your perusal.”
Charles smiled. “You’re ahead of me, Tori Dear. Pretty soon you won’t even need me here. And what do you propose we do about Thom and Butler?”
They discussed the matter until Charles became tired. Then he took Jamel’s book to the couch and lay down. He wanted to see if he was as personable as he remembered.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Three days later Charles was ready to talk to Thom and by default Butler. The first two days had been agonizing, trying to determine what he should really do, but once he decided, he spent all the third day – yesterday – preparing for this confrontation. Tori accompanied him to Thom’s apartment. Privacy would be better and perhaps safer.
Butler answered their chime. “Oh, Dr. Jamel. Certainly come right in.” He opened the apartment door and ushered them into the functional family room. Shelves lined the far wall with souvenirs and a few books, while one of Michael’s paintings, a family of kittles, hung on the left wall over a semicircle of five stuffed chairs.
Thom and Falice sat at the breakfast table on the right side of the room. Thom stood. “Grandpa. I thought you said nine. It’s only eight fifteen.”
“I know. I need to speak with you though – finish your meal,” he added, slipping down into the closest chair. “There is no rush.”
“Oh, we’re finished,” Falice said. She stood with Thom and they both came to the chairs. “Have a seat, Tori.”
Tori gave a small smile. “I prefer to stand.” But she moved slightly to Charles’ left.
Thom sat across from him, beside his wife. “Is something wrong? News of Michael?” Butler came to stand between and behind Thom and Falice’s chairs.
Charles wondered if Thom had found out about the package he’d received last week. He decided it was a good opening. “Actually yes. Michael got married and isn’t coming back.”
“Married! On Austin? But Cee and the A….”
“He said both malfunctioned. He destroyed them.”
“Destroyed…?” Thom glanced back at Butler. “You can’t be serious. Sure Cee didn’t advance like Butler did, but to destroy his core….”
“I’ve decided to scrap the whole 5000 project.”
“What do you mean by scrap?” It was Butler who spoke now. “You haven’t done anything with the 5000 design in six years.”
“I’m sorry, Butler, Thom, Falice. But I must ask for Butler’s core.”
“Wait a minute! You can’t do that.”
“I’ll give you a 4000 core to put into the android.”
“But it won’t be Butler!”
Falice glanced at Thom. “Perhaps it would be best.”
Thom stood and glared down at his wife. “What are you saying? You have no idea what you’re saying.”
Falice jumped up, quicker than Charles thought possible for a woman starting to show her gravid condition. “I know I don’t want our children to be as controlled by him as you are.”
“Has it ever occurred to you, Falice,” came Butler’s icy voice, “That Thom may not want to follow your desires. You should not try controlling him.”
“And I’d like once to have an honest disagreement with my husband without you butting your vinyl nose into it.”
“Enough,” Charles said as loudly as he could, not as loudly as Thom and Falice, but they both turned to him. “I want the core.”
“There must be some other way,” Thom pleaded.
“I am retiring soon, closing up my research lab. I must make sure all my work is complete.”
“Retiring? But then I’ll be taking over….”
“No, Thom. No one is taking over.”
“But I thought… all these years….”
“I’m sorry, Thom, but neither you nor Michael caught my vision for the research. And you, Thom, did not even honorably complete your studies, and you know it.”
“I passed every test!”
“With an implant. I could have your degree revoked, but I do not wish to hinder you in your coming job search. You can still perform well enough with a 4000 feeding you your answers. Now I need the core.”
“Thom, must I ask security to assist in my recall of a malfunctioning unit?”
“I am not malfunctioning,” Butler said. “You are not calling security.”
Charles lifted himself from the chair and touched the panel beside the door which regulated communications throughout the University. “Security?”
“No messages can currently be sent from this apartment,” came back the alto error message.
Charles sighed and turned to face Butler. “Are you trying to prove to me that you can not be trusted? Restore communications.”
“I do not see that as a prudent move, Dr. Jamel. Perhaps we can come to some other arrangement.”
“But this is exactly the malfunction I am concerned about. You are not the one who decides what is prudent. I do, or Thom does. But you don’t, unless you are in a situation where you must make a decision without the benefit of either of us. You are never to override our wishes – mine specifically.”
“My first priority is that my life not be ended,” Butler said, moving his vinyl face into a smile. “So, how do you think I should achieve that?”
Falice ran for the door, but it didn’t open. She jabbed the button, and then whirled around to face Thom. “He’s locked us in! Thom, make him let me out.”
“Let her out,” Thom mumbled. “She’s got to go to work.”
“No. We have not come to an agreement about my life. She will simply run down to security and more lives will be involved. Let’s keep the injuries down if we can.”
“There won’t be any injuries,” Thom said, not meeting his grandfather’s gaze.
“Let’s think logically about this, Thom. Your grandfather has been attacked several times by spies attempting to gain control of my design. What if he and his lovely assistant are killed by spies before he can damage your reputation or close his research?”
Thom shook his head. “Enough. They can’t kill you anyway, so just let them go.”
Butler gave an exaggerated sigh and walked toward Charles.
Charles scrambled behind his chair as Tori pulled the laser from her pocket, aiming it at Butler’s heart where his core should be. The laser sliced into him, but he jumped away toward Falice, yanking her in front of him.
Tori amazingly stopped the laser before the energy bolt hit the pregnant woman. Instead she sliced off Butler’s mechanical head.
He laughed. “You won’t kill Falice, will you?” He grabbed a fork from the breakfast table and whipped it at Tori.
Tori dodged, and the fork’s tines embedded into the communications panel. Then a knife just missed her right shoulder. She rolled, slicing the lower legs from the android.
It toppled to the floor, bringing Falice with him. The lights flickered off sending the room into blackness. Charles had suspected the maneuver and written new overrides yesterday. If the lights came back on in five seconds, it meant Butler had just disabled the lighting to put them at a disadvantage. If it took longer, it meant Butler was trying to access the fire safety routine which would take the oxygen from the room.
He heard a thump near the doorway, but then Tori’s laser shot out toward the back. Ten seconds. More scuffling. Fourteen… The lights returned, and the door opened, letting in two security guards. The headless android was upright on his stub legs, and he had Tori’s hand with her laser, crushing it.
The security men had been briefed earlier, but they were late. They immediately sent their lasers into the android’s heart until it fell to the floor and was still.
Thom stood from cowering near the chair he’d sat in. He glanced from Butler’s mutilated carcass to Falice, lying motionless just to the right of the door. He walked over and crouched beside her. “I’m sorry, Sweetheart,” he said softly, touching her cheek.
“Best not try to move her,” said one of the security men. “Let the medics take care of her.”
The other man examined the corpse of the android. “Never thought he’d berserk out. He was always so friendly.”
“Is it completely disabled now,” the first asked Charles when he approached.
Charles met Thom’s gaze. “Where is the core?”
“It was….” He crouched beside Butler’s torso and tentatively pulled away the clothing to reveal the melted mess beneath.
Charles sighed. “I’ll examine it when it cools down.” He made his way to Falice, the woman who carried his great grandchild, and knelt beside her. “I should have sent you away immediately.”
Her eyelids fluttered as the medics rushed into the apartment. Charles caressed her cheek and then moved aside for them.
Thom kicked Butler’s torso and grabbed Tori’s laser from beneath.
Immediately the security guards withdrew their weapons, but Thom ignored them, going to the shelf and pulling one of the few paper books from it. He opened it up, held up a core, and then dropped it to the floor. He shot the laser into it, until it and the floor below it were cut into a mass of melting pieces.
“Thom!” Charles shouted, hoping to jar him from his anger. “It’s over.”
Thom whirled around toward Charles, the laser rising. “You….”
Tori kicked the laser out of his hand, and the security guards grabbed him.
“Let me go! What did I do?”
“It appeared you were going to attack Professor Jamel.”
“He’s my grandfather! What kind of a monster do you think I am?”
Charles felt the weariness again, the weariness which came from knowing that all he’d strived for was in vain, chasing after nothing. If Thom would kill him now, he was ready. He indicated that the guards could release him. “Go down to the infirmary. Let me know how Falice is. I need to rest.”
Thom stared at Butler’s remains one more time before slipping from his apartment after the medics who’d taken Falice.
“Take the remains to vault three,” Charles told the first security guard. “Don’t give the security code you use to anyone. Don’t write it down or enter it in any electronic device. I’ll come for it when I’m ready.” Then he slowly walked from the room, head down, feeling defeat more than any relief that they were all alive.
Tori walked beside him silently. Back in his office he went straight to the couch. Tori lifted the throw with her left hand and snapped it in the air with a quick movement, settling it over him. The snap jarred him out of his lethargy. She’d never done that before – a one-handed snap. It’d always been a quiet movement so as not to disturb his rest.
“You rest. I’ll stand watch.”
She shrugged. “Just in case Thom is still angry. He’ll get over it. You rest now.” She held her right hand behind her – unnatural for her. She always kept her hands by her sides when she wasn’t carrying something.
Charles remembered Butler grabbing her before he was killed. “Your hand, Tori. Were you injured?” And now he could see the tenseness of her features. “You’re in pain.”
“I do not need to abandon you now.”
“Tori!” he said as firmly as he could, although he’d never had to be firm with her before. He realized she was as a beloved granddaughter. “Please, let me see your hand,” he ended softly.
She kept her gaze locked on his as she pulled her hand from her back. “I can still protect you. I do not need sick leave.”
It took extreme effort to jerk his gaze from Tori’s. She didn’t want him to see her hand, and when he did lower his gaze to the crushed and bloody mess, he didn’t know how she could stand there without writhing in pain. “Oh, Tori. Oh, no.” His eyes burned with the tears she refused to shed.
“Please don’t replace me,” she whispered. “Father will be so disappointed.” And he saw a slight loss of control as her lips trembled.
“Your father? Tori….” He stood, shaking his head. “Come. We need to go to the infirmary.”
“But your rest, Sir.”
His throat was too tight to respond. Instead he led her back through the halls of the University, knowing she’d follow him where she would not go alone.
At the University infirmary he’d discovered that Falice had been whisked away to the main hospital on the other side of the complex. When the doctor examined Tori’s hand, he insisted that she go to the University Hospital also.
Tori shook her head. “No. I’ll be all right.”
“No you won’t,” the doctor insisted. “Your hand is crushed, and if you leave it untreated it’ll never function properly again. You need to see an orthopedic surgeon.”
She shook her head. “The pain is under control.”
“You must have the tolerance of a bull elephant. Get to the hospital.”
As Tori shook her head again, Charles took Tori’s left hand. “Tori, dear, we are going to the hospital. I know you won’t let me risk Thom’s anger alone.”
“Sir, you need to rest.”
He couldn’t understand her reluctance. “Tori, I can not rest until I know you have the care you need.”
“But….” she bit her lower lip, as if she needed any more pain.
“Tori,” he said softly. These past six years she’d always silently served him, and he’d never, ever questioned her motives. Now she felt closer to him than any of his biological family. His work had been too important to him, and he’d lost first his wife from neglect, and then both his children. His relationship with both his son and daughter had improved a little in the last ten years, but only to the point that he had been able to convince his grandsons to work with him. And now he had lost both his grandsons just as he’d lost his son and daughter. Thom lied to him and indeed probably had a right to hate him for creating Butler, a creature who’d almost killed his wife and child. And Michael… He’d had such hopes for Michael, but he had never been able to tell him. He didn’t know how to help Michael cope with the loss of his friend, so he had pretended the loss wasn’t as serious as Michael felt it was. He’d refused to acknowledge Michael’s pain and now he’d lost him also. He’d lost them all because his work, his precious worthless work, was all he’d known how to care about.
“You need to rest, Sir.”
Charles shook his head. “Come.” He didn’t know how to acknowledge his feelings for this precious girl who took such gentle care with his life, but he knew how to make her obey his wishes.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Tori followed Charles to the hospital. It took all her concentration to keep the pain under control. She wished he would just go back to his apartment or to his office to take a nap, so she would be free to lose her strict composure.
But he led her to the hospital and insisted she see a doctor immediately. “But Sir,” she protested yet again. “It’ll heal on its own.” But he didn’t believe her, perhaps because she didn’t believe it anymore either. “Listen, who will watch out for you while they’re looking at my hand?”
He ignored her, instead focusing on the nurse who’d come to lead her back into the depths of the emergency unit. “Come, Tori. Let’s go with the nurse.”
“You may wait out here, Sir,” the woman said.
“I’m not leaving him alone,” Tori insisted. “We’ll just go back to our apartment. I’m sorry we wasted your time.”
“Tori! You are wasting our time,” Charles said sharply. “Now come!”
He started through the doors, and Tori had no choice but to follow him. It was bad enough that she’d been injured, but if Charles was killed while she was charged to guard him, her father would never forgive her. If Charles was killed, she’d never forgive herself. She’d been crushed when she realized her father was sending her away to work for some stranger on one of CentiOne’s moons, but she found Charles easy to work for, his words few and his research fascinating. He treated her as a near equal, and for once in her life she met an exacting man’s standards. A few times she thought she might have even exceeded his expectations. Rarely after the first year was she afraid he’d send her back to her father in disgrace.
Tori obeyed the nurse and sat on the examination table. “Sir, you should rest,” she protested again.
Charles gave her a piercing glare and then settled into the extra chair.
When the nurse left, Tori took a few deep breaths to try to stem the pain. Her ability to ignore it was getting weaker. “Sir, I can’t afford this,” she finally admitted. “Please let’s go home.”
“Of course you can, you have insurance….”
“I opted for the extra money.”
“My father… Charles, please. The pain is….” She took another deep breath. Why’d she admit any of that, especially the part about the pain?
A doctor entered the room. “Could you please give her something for pain,” Charles asked. “She refused earlier.”
The doctor was looking at Tori when she opened her eyes. “Will you allow me to treat you?” she asked. “The clinic which referred you said you were uncooperative.”
“I… maybe a cheap painkiller,” Tori ended meekly and prayed Charles wouldn’t hate her for her weakness.
“Give her the best you have. I’ll pay her bills.”
“But….” He couldn’t. He already paid her salary. It wasn’t fair for him to pay twice.
“Tori, don’t fight me. I’m your employer. I want your hand fixed. This is not open for debate.”
“Yes, Sir,” she said, so humiliated she couldn’t meet his gaze. He’d pay her hospital bill and then send her home in disgrace because she could no longer perform to his standards. And her father would not find her worthy to be his daughter any longer.
She was given an injection for pain. Then she signed forms in a blur, not quite comprehending why they were needed. “Charles!” she said, realizing too late that her reflexes, her entire body was shutting down. He’d be unprotected.
She was lying on the exam table now, and she looked up into his face. He brushed his thumb against her cheek. “Don’t worry, Tori, Dear. There’s a security guard right outside our door. You just relax, and I’ll wait here.”
As they pushed her, table and all, from him, she let the tears of frustration fall. How could she have failed like this? How had she let that half destroyed android get her hand? How?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Charles had lied to Tori. No security guard watched over him as he waited for her to come back from surgery. He made it up to the room they’d assigned her and cursed his age as he fell asleep in the chair, exhausted.
“You’re waiting for your secretary instead of being there as your great grandson died.”
Charles jerked awake. Thom stood over him, his face full of rage. Charles glanced around, but no one else was in the room. His grandson wouldn’t really kill him, would he? And as he momentarily decided he didn’t care, he then prayed Thom wouldn’t for Tori’s sake. The girl had so wanted to keep him safe.
“Of course the way she fought for you, I’m guessing you have a bit closer relationship. Is that why Michael quit seeing her? Because she’s already your lover?”
Charles stared up at Thom, his fear changing to amazement. Surely Thom didn’t think…. But then he remembered his first words. “The baby? Falice and the baby. How are they?”
“The baby’s dead, thanks to you. Dead before she got to the hospital. Falice’s back is broken, but they say they can fix it, although it’ll take months. But what do you care? Your lover’s hand is more important than their lives.”
“I’m sorry,” Charles said, unable to defend himself. If only he’d made sure Falice was gone before he announced he wanted to disable Butler.
“You take my best friend, my wife, my child, and my job all in one day, and you say you’re sorry.” He took a step forward, his hands moving toward Charles’ neck, but then he shook his head and backed away. “If you’re sorry, you won’t close up your research so quickly. You’ll let me stay here until Falice is well.”
“Yes,” Charles agreed, feeling it was the least he could do for Thom. He didn’t need to lose his job right now.
Two nurses entered the room. “I’ll have to ask you both to leave while we adjust the patient. You may wait just outside the door.”
Surprisingly Thom offered his hand for Charles to use as leverage to lift him from the chair. Then he followed him from the room.
Tori was on a stretcher in the hall. She looked up at him and then noticed Thom. “Charles!” she whispered, the word barely coherent. She rose to a sitting position.
“Now, now,” said the attendant beside her. “Lie back down just a bit longer. Come on.” They took Tori into her room, and Thom walked away.
“Wait. Which room is Falice in?”
“Stay away from her,” Thom shot back and then stalked away.
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.