Centauri Research University
Tori welded the last 4000 core in place. Now she needed to slide the core walls into the durable box made of the same material. The cores would line the box, forming an interior wall which would then be lined with soft cloth. Each 4000 core was inactive, and the empty areas inside each had been filled with miscellaneous data chips and processors. The box was three by two by one foot with a handle and would be used to transport Charles’ clothing.
Charles lay on the couch in Tori’s living room sometimes sleeping, sometimes watching her work. Now his eyes were closed, and Tori let down her emotional guard. She didn’t want to leave him. He had officially retired last week, and she’d received her final paycheck from the University. Now she’d receive half as much salary from Charles as long as she stayed with him or until his money ran out or he died. Although he’d created several of the most popular AI units in the known world, he had done so on the University’s payroll and had received only a modest bonus at each innovation while the University prospered. He was not a rich man, and he’d shown her his records so that she would fully understand her options with him.
But she had yet to give him an answer. He wanted her to go to Austin with him – not that there was much of a chance that they could even get to the planet’s surface – but she had encouraged him to try. It was that or watch him die slowly from depression. If she left him now, she knew he would spend his last days regretting his life. But on Austin was his greatest achievement, a little robot calling himself “Jamel”, and a man who had certainly known the pain Charles felt over Butler’s final hours. If anyone could help Charles find a reason to live, a purpose in life, it would be these two.
Maybe even Michael could help his grandfather, but Tori wasn’t sure about that. Maybe if she spoke to him alone and told him just how Charles was suffering right now, he’d try to help. He’d always been sensitive about Charles’ need to rest during the day.
Tori glanced at Charles, but his eyes were still closed. Why was she thinking about talking to Michael? She couldn’t go down to the planet even if Charles did. Her father would be upset enough that she hadn’t informed him of her decreased wages. She didn’t intend to say anything until her next paycheck, and then she knew he’d call her back to the Ryu. She’d have to leave Charles.
She tried to fight the small thread of anger. For all her father’s principles and his decision not to train students simply if they had money, nor if they showed potential to abuse the training for money, she found this the greatest irony. Her training was now for hire to the highest bidder – a mercenary to serve her father’s need for money.
No, no, no, she corrected herself. He’d never hire her out to do evil. He’d thoroughly reviewed Charles’ record and determined him worthy before he sent her. But now that Charles did not have the money, did that make him less worthy? It just wasn’t right. Tori was sure someone would be after him until he died. Already several manufacturers, hearing of Charles’ retirement from the University, had sent head-hunters offering him his own lab and as much money as he wanted. But it was the fear of another Butler which kept him from that challenge, and Tori had been intercepting and turning away the persistent for several days.
The chime sounded on Tori’s apartment door, which was odd. Most went to Charles’ door. “Who is it?” she asked, and the monitor on the communications panel lit up showing a man she did not know and a woman with scars along the right side of her face. “’Miko! I’ll be right there.” She hadn’t seen her sister Emiko since she’d come to the University. Quickly she shoved the 4000 core panels under the couch. Charles sat up, but kept the light blanket around him.
Tori stood before the door as it slid open and then grabbed her sister into a tight hug.
Miko laughed, a beautiful sound. She had been so despondent after the fire and mother’s death. “Oh, Tori, you haven’t changed a bit. Meet my husband Bernard.”
Bernard was a large man, with not just muscle, but a stomach which protruded a few inches beyond his chest. His light, short hair clung to his head in tight curls. Tori was sure her father would never approve of the man – he had no apparent Japanese ancestry, nor did it appear he even attempted to control his body, as their father so strictly required. “You eloped!”
Emiko grinned. “Not quite, but it was quick. We’re on our honeymoon. Are you going to invite us in?”
“Oh, of course. Come right in.” She stood back for them to enter.
Emiko sobered when she saw Charles. “Excuse me, Sir. We don’t wish to interrupt you, Tori.”
Charles struggled to stand. “Not interrupting. I’ll just take my nap in my own room.”
“Sir, I….” Tori began, torn between her duty to Charles and her delight at seeing her sister again.
Charles didn’t look back as he shuffled through the door connecting their apartments. “You visit, Tori, dear. Don’t let me stop you.”
Tori glanced at Emiko. “Just a minute.” She ran after Charles and helped him settle into his bed. Then she brought him his notebook computer so that he could read his journals if he desired. The couch from the office had been moved into his apartment with all his papers still inside, but they had only opened it once to make sure his work and books survived. He’d read his books from Dr. Hansell so many times, she thought he must have them memorized.
“Go on, Tori. Don’t keep your sister waiting,” he chastised.
“You call for me when you need me,” she said, making sure the communication link on his bedside table was active. She touched the small pin on her shirt to activate that also. Often they turned it off so that no one could tune in on the frequency and overhear them when they spoke of Dr. Hansell.
She kissed his cheek, a liberty she’d continued when she realized that he needed the little bit of closeness it provided. He really did have no family. His daughter had come up right after Butler had killed Falice’s child, and after shouting at Charles about how he never cared about anyone, she broke into tears and never returned. She stayed with Thom for another week, but refused to speak to Charles again. “I’ll check back in a little while,” Tori promised.
He gave a feeble wave to shoo her away. “Stay with your family.”
She almost protested that he was her family, but she bit her lip. Instead she did as he asked and returned to Emiko and Bernard. They were both sitting on the couch Charles had vacated, the light blanket, now neatly folded on the back of it.
Tori offered them both refreshments, but then finally settled in the chair across from them. “How long are you staying? You can use my room. I often sleep on the couch in Charles’ apartment.”
“We have our own hotel room,” Bernard said, his voice richer than she’d thought it’d be. He leaned over to kiss Emiko’s cheek. “Why don’t I go look up that friend I was telling you about? I’ll be back in a couple hours. That won’t interfere with your work, will it, Tori?”
“No. Of course not. You can stay here as long as you want,” she lied. She’d lose the apartment in two weeks when Charles left for Austin. Either she’d take the first part of the journey with him or go home to her father then.
Bernard smiled and stood. “Then you girls visit. I’ll see you both later.”
Emiko watched her husband leave, a gentle smile on her lips, softening the scars left by the fire. Tori noticed the lavender dragon-hide neckband and hair piece she wore – one of the two colors Tori had sent her. “Why haven’t you married, Tori?”
Tori jerked from her thoughts. It wasn’t the question she expected. “I’ve been busy with Charles.”
“He gives you no time to date?”
“I’ve dated.” But she didn’t want to talk about her pathetic love life. She shifted to sit on the couch, turning to face Emiko. “So how did you meet him? What did Daddy say? He didn’t approve, did he?”
Emiko scowled. “There’s nothing wrong with Bernard. He’s perfect.”
Tori immediately sensed what she’d known. Her father had said something. “I didn’t say there was anything wrong with him. He seems very nice.”
Emiko was stiff a moment, but then her lips twitched into a smile. “Oh, Tori, he is perfect. He thinks I’m perfect. He loves me. He even thinks I’m beautiful! Can you believe that? He treats me like I’m a treasure.”
“So you eloped.”
“We were going to,” she admitted. “Until Bernie offered to give Daddy an old fashioned dowry. Then Daddy finally gave in. But we’d waited so long, and we didn’t want him changing his mind and causing trouble again, so that’s why we didn’t contact you to come. Honest, I really wanted you there.”
“You never said a word in your letters.”
Emiko stared at the door her husband had disappeared through. “I was afraid you’d say what Daddy did – that he really didn’t love me. How could he, when I had nothing to offer him, but a scarred body.”
“Oh, Miko, I’d never….”
“You just don’t know what it’s like, Tori! All these years, and Bernie is the first one who really looked past the scars.” Tears escaped from her eyes but she ignored them. “He’s such a kind, kind man,” she ended in a whisper.
“It sounds like you’ve got the perfect husband,” Tori said softly. “I wish I could find someone as kind and gentle.”
Emiko wiped her eyes and studied her sister. “They all flocked to you, but you’re right. Not many of them were worth tying yourself to. Oh, Tori, he’s so wonderful. He gave Daddy over ten thousand credits just to get his blessing, because he knew how it was tearing me up to go against him. And then after we were married, I clumsily said the only thing that could make me any happier was to lose these scars, and, oh….” She brought her hand up to run her fingertips over the scars on her cheek. “That’s why we’re here. He’s giving me the operations I begged Daddy for, remember?”
She’d remembered. “But how? He must be rich.” Tori raised her hand to her mouth at such bluntness. “Forgive your too inquisitive sister. It is enough that he loves you so much.”
Emiko grinned. “Oh, don’t be sorry. I plan to ask you all kinds of nosy questions we avoid in our letters. Yes. Bernie comes from a fairly wealthy family. They run a dairy farm on CentiOne. His father started with two precious acres and five cows thirty years ago. Now he’s one of the richest men on CentiOne, and he has a hundred whole acres, the maximum allotment for a farm. Daddy was trying to get him to invest in the Ryu, but of course, the way Daddy runs it, it’ll never really make money. Daddy thought Bernie was just a scoundrel, rich boy. He’s not, though. His father works hard, and so does Bernie. He mostly keeps the robots and all the machinery working good. I’ll work on the farm, too, when we get back. I think that’s the part Daddy hated most. I can’t work for him and Bernie. What are you going to do now that Dr. Jamel has retired?”
The subject change was jarring, and Tori stood and walked to his apartment. “I should check on him.”
Charles’ eyes were closed, and he breathed evenly. She didn’t disturb him.
She returned to the doorway back to her apartment and hesitated just outside it. How could she keep her turmoil away from Emiko? After a minute she entered the living room. “So have they said how long the procedure is? What do they have to do to remove the scars? Will you need to stay at the hospital itself or can you stay with Bernie at the hotel?”
“You know Daddy expects you’ll be coming home soon,” Emiko said, ignoring all Tori’s questions. “The President has requested a female body guard and companion for his wife because her current guard is getting married soon. I expect that will be your next assignment. It sounds exciting. You’ll get to travel a lot. And it pays more than Dr. Jamel did. Stand up to Daddy, and you’ll get to keep a bit more of your paycheck.” She glanced around the apartment. “Of course if he had ever come over here to see this, he’d have thought you were keeping too much already.”
“I have no control over this. It is where Charles wishes me to live.”
“But if he’s retired he doesn’t need you anymore, does he?”
“He has requested I stay,” Tori said firmly. She wouldn’t get into Charles’ needs, because if she did, she knew he needed her not so much for protection, but for care. But Emiko and her father wouldn’t see that. They’d tell her to leave his physical and emotional well being to someone more qualified. She was hired to protect, and that was the end of it.
“Did he? Well, Daddy won’t break the contract, but he’s going to be upset.”
Tori bit her lip. He’d really be upset when she sent half the money she normally did and then disappeared for months to the outer reaches of the galaxy. Maybe she shouldn’t even go to the guard station, but would he go without her? She was afraid he’d stay right here and die alone, his body found by some manufacturer’s head-hunter.
Emiko glanced toward the door. “Do you like working for him?” she whispered. “Is he decent?”
Tori didn’t speak. She didn’t want to be chastised for emotionalism.
“Tori? If things are bad, you can come home. Daddy will use some of the money he got from Bernie to break the contract. I’m sure working for the president’s wife will be a lot more fun.”
Tori closed her eyes. If she did what she wanted, she’d be left alone in a few years when Charles did die – alone with no family. There was no curly haired knight to offer her a new family. There was no money to buy her freedom. All she’d have were Charles’ scant remaining finances after probate to start over. And if he lived as long as she hoped he did, then it’d be very little indeed to buy her way back into her father’s good graces. And even if her father did eventually let her return, he’d never let her forget her disloyalty.
“Tell me about the Ryu,” Tori said. “Tell me how everyone is.” She began naming off specific people, and her sister was forced to drop the subject. They spoke continuously about the people until Bernie came for Emiko.
“Come to dinner with us, Tori,” Bernie offered.
“I should be cooking for you. Tomorrow evening I’ll cook.”
“I am late with the meal.”
“Bring Dr. Jamel along. We have several of his 3000 type robots, and I’d love to talk to him.”
Tori did check on Charles, but he claimed he was too tired to go out tonight. After Bernie and Emiko had left, Tori began their evening meal, while planning for company tomorrow. She entered her ingredient requests in the computer and was assured the items would be delivered in the morning.
Charles settled at the table as she placed the food on it. They began eating in silence. Half way through Charles pushed away his plate and raised his clear blue eyes to meet hers. “Go with your best career choice. I always did. Never thought of anything, but if staying here would give me the best working conditions. It’s no fun watching someone die. A young woman like you should be where the fun is, where the prestige is. Working with the first lady is an honor you are more than worthy of.” Then he stood and slowly made his way from the kitchen.
He’d heard them through the communication pin, she realized.
Silently she straightened the kitchen and then readied herself for sleep, settling on the couch outside his room after she checked to make sure he was comfortable. But she couldn’t sleep. She didn’t want to do what was best for her career. She didn’t want a career. She wanted a family, and she wanted that family to love her whether she was clumsy and crushed her hand or she rescued them from death. She wanted the unconditional love that Emiko had found in Bernie, that she had been given by Charles. He did love her. He never spoke of it, except that one time he said she was like his granddaughter. And he hadn’t even been disappointed by her failure. She doubted the president’s wife would be so forgiving.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The next day Tori worked on the modified trunk in Charles’ room, where they knew company would not see it. Charles sat in his chair and watched her while pretending to read. All this work to go see Michael, and yet he knew Michael would not want to see him. If he knew what had happened to Thom, how he’d bungled Butler’s recall, how Thom walked around the University complex scowling and glaring instead of teasing and joking.
But he would go to make it easier for Tori. He’d never experienced loyalty like hers. She stayed with him through his bungling, and even two weeks after her salary was cut in half, she still cared for him as gently and as sweetly.
If he were fifty years younger… but then a girl like Tori deserved someone much better. She deserved to be out having fun, like her sister had implied, and not stuck watching an old man die.
She finished placing the cores along the perimeter of the trunk and then covered them with cloth. 264 of the 4000 series cores waiting to be modified and activated. Hopefully Dr. Hansell would be able to use them along with all his research hidden on data chips inside the units. There was no one else he dared trust with the additional 5000 research. The manufacturers were notorious for skipping steps and not understanding the true danger that could result from mishandling. But Dr. Hansell understood. He’d been right in all his predictions of Butler.
Bernard and Emiko arrived not long before Tori finished the evening meal. They’d been at the hospital all day, preparing for Emiko’s surgeries.
Charles did try to remain sociable for the duration of the meal, answering Bernard’s questions about his work as clearly as possible. But the effort drained him. All he could think about was that Tori would leave him, perhaps going back to CentiOne when Bernard and Emiko left next week, almost a full week before they planned to leave for Austin.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
A week had passed, and Emiko had come every evening, even when her face was so sore from the procedure to remove the scars, all she could do was lie on the couch and listen to Tori relate stories from their early childhood. But tonight would be their last night. Tori ordered the food for their meal, splurging and spending the last of her extra money for a ham. Meat was scarce, and they usually received their protein through the breakfast cereal rations.
They came early, while Charles was still taking his afternoon nap, Bernie and Emiko, both. When told he was sleeping, they settled on the couch, and Emiko leaned forward. “Come back with us. You’re not happy here.”
“Yes, I am,” Tori countered quickly. Charles had been asleep, but perhaps he was listening through her communications link again. She reached up to turn it off, but hesitated. He might need her. She let her hand drop.
“But Tori, I heard some awful things. Dr. Jamel retired because of a berserk android who killed his great-grandson.”
Tori gave a slight shrug. “I came here to protect him. I failed him that time, but he kept me anyway.”
“But….” Emiko grabbed Tori’s right hand.
“He insisted. I wouldn’t have spent Daddy’s money for my mistake. He did it from his own resources. I protested, of course, but somehow I was not thinking clearly at the time, and the surgery was performed.”
Emiko covered her mouth and shook her head. “No, Tori. Don’t live like that.” Bernie rubbed his wife’s back.
“Do you think I should re-crush it?” Tori asked, not really believing that’s what her sister meant, but able to put no other logical meaning to her reactions.
“Tori, don’t.” Emiko said firmly. “We try so hard to please him, and he’s never, ever satisfied. Don’t think about it being Daddy’s money. You earned the right to be treated.”
“It was my own mistake.”
“It doesn’t matter!” Emiko shook her head. “I don’t blame you for not wanting to go home. But you won’t be there long, and then you’ll be at the Central Estate. Oh, the gardens, all the flowers and the pond. It’s so beautiful, Tori. Bernie took me through last month. It’s much more than the little strip of garden they have here. Come on. He’s retired. He doesn’t need you anymore, and we’ll see each other all the time. Bernie often goes to Central on business.”
“And if I don’t?” She walked away from them, unable to face them.
“What do you mean, if you don’t?”
She whirled around. “What if I am disowned? Would you accept me if I returned to CentiOne?”
Emiko sprung up. “What are you saying? What could you possibly do to make him that angry?” She glanced toward the door to Charles apartment. “No. You haven’t. That’s just a mean-spirited rumor.” She became paler as she spoke, sinking down on the couch. “Say it isn’t true,” she whispered.
Tori studied her. She’d expected a reaction, but not quite that one. “It is true that I’ve agreed to work for Charles for half the salary the University paid me. Daddy will be furious that I accepted another contract without deferring to him.”
Emiko’s eyes widened briefly. She glanced at her husband.
He gave a small smile. “Just a mean-spirited rumor, Sweetheart.”
“What exactly are you talking about?” If it wasn’t her rebellion which had caused the reaction, what was it?
Emiko shook her head. She glanced at her husband one more time and then leaned forward. “You accepted less pay! What did Daddy say?”
“He doesn’t know yet.”
“Half your salary?”
Tori scowled. “I’d rather not discuss it.”
“Daddy will kill you. You better come home now before he finds out.”
“I made a commitment to Charles.”
Emiko’s humor left. “You didn’t have the authority to do that. It isn’t binding.”
“He doesn’t own me!” Tori almost shouted, but then bit her lip. “I am legally responsible for my own decisions,” she amended in an even voice.
“But surely you can’t want this more than working with the First Lady. She’s such a nice woman, also. She was at the Ryu for several hours, and she treated me with such courtesy. If it weren’t for Bernie, I would have begged Daddy for the position, even though I’m scarred and should not be representing us.”
But Emiko’s words just flamed the anger that had been threatening ever since she’d known the day of decision would come. It was just like her father, making Emiko think she wasn’t good enough – none of them were good enough. “I’m not going back.”
“You won’t be back. You’ll be at Central Estate.”
“No. I’m going as far from CentiOne as I can get. I’ve given him all my salary except for a bare living allowance, and what do I have? It’s not good enough. It’s never good enough. I’m staying with Charles. At least he appreciates the work I do and wants the best for me. At least he cares.”
Emiko stood. “I can’t believe you’d do that! He’s as old as the stars, and you… you just can’t! Daddy will kill you if he finds out.”
“I doubt he’ll take time from the Ryu to drag me back.”
Tears formed in Emiko’s eyes, making them bright as she shook her head and backed toward the door. “No. He won’t drag you back. He’ll never let you come back now.” And then she bolted from the apartment. Bernie followed, and when the door slid shut, Tori was alone.
She sunk into the chair and leaned over, elbows on her knees and face in her hands. Her worst fear had come true. She’d lost her family. Her father would never forgive her for going with Charles when he wanted her to take a much more lucrative position. Her disloyalty to her father and the Ryu was now a matter of record.
She heard the breathing of another, and registered it as Charles. The rich odor of the ham filled the room, and he was probably hungry. She stood in one motion and gave him as cheerful a smile as she could. “Bernie and Emiko have gone home early. We will feast on ham until we leave.”
Charles reached over and turned off her communications pin. “Tori, dear, you are sacrificing too much for me.”
She walked into the kitchen so that she wouldn’t need to see him as she lied. “There is no sacrifice. I am eager to meet this 185 year old man and continue your research.”
“I will probably die on the journey.”
Tori’s eyes stung as she lifted the ham from the oven. “If you cannot complete the journey, I will find a way to carry your research to him.”
“You should not be hurt, also.”
“I am not hurt. This is my decision, my career. Someday I will be too old to fight effectively, therefore I have chosen a career in AI. Will you deny me the status of apprentice?”
“No,” he said, his voice almost a whisper. “I can deny you nothing.”
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.