Hansell’s Hope


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Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

 

Chapter 18

Charles let Tori make their plans, only once taking the initiative to place her name on all his assets so that she could use them at will. When she protested, he calmly stated that it was a logical move. She was his only heir, and she’d need access to the money to care for him if his health deteriorated any further. He remained firm until she stopped protesting. Then several days later he had to insist she use her new rights to his money to pay for their passenger tickets to Frontier Base 28.

The next week he discovered she’d deposited her salary back into his account. “What do I need it for? I gave everything to my father before, and he provided me with nothing during the last seven years. You give me food and shelter and everything else I need.” He tried to argue, but he’d never been good at it, except when he fought for his work. At those times there were specific objectives. This time he was too touched by her loyalty to him and that she’d given up everything for him to respond sternly enough to get his way.

And the sweet child never realized how her reputation had been maligned and her gentle care perverted by the university gossip. He didn’t have the heart to tell her, nor did he want to risk that she’d become remote in an attempt to avoid the cruel words.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

There was no one to meet them when they arrived at Frontier Base 28, not even his son, Phillip, Michael’s father. They settled into their rented room. Tori had explained at the start of their travels that if they shared a room they would save money, and she’d be closer on the second bunk if an attack occurred. He couldn’t argue with her. After all, she’d need as much as possible to start over when he died.

After a full night’s sleep, Charles knew he had to contact Phillip. He’d avoided announcing his arrival because of the damage that had occurred seven years ago when he’d come – when Michael’s young girlfriend had been kidnapped as soon as he’d left the shuttle. He’d also never used a private shuttle after that. Of course, now his reflexes and health were not what they’d been even seven scant years ago.

They ate breakfast in the cafeteria, and then Charles led Tori to Phillip’s apartment. Phillip’s wife, Trish, answered his chime, and the door slid open. “Oh! Charles. I didn’t know you were coming.”

He shuffled in and sat in the first armchair to the right of the door. Tori stood slightly behind and to the left of him. “Didn’t remember the walk being so long. My assistant, Tori. Is Phillip….”

Phillip entered the room. “Dad,” he acknowledged with a slight nod. “Thom said you had disappeared from the University. It’s good to see you’re still alive.” He settled into the other armchair. “So are you planning to retire here? I’m afraid you took our last child, and there is not much entertainment – unless you brought your own again.”

He had expected this, Charles tried to remind himself. Phillip had a right to be upset. “You did receive my message about Michael’s marriage.”

“A month after we received a package from Michael telling us the same thing.”

“Good. Then he can communicate. He must still have his government position. For some reason the information he sent me took almost four months to arrive. I hope you received the belongings we had sent back from his room.”

“Junk. He should be back here, but he made it quite clear he never planned to leave that godforsaken planet. I hope you got whatever information you needed by sacrificing both your grandsons.”

Charles winced.

Tori’s right hand rested on his shoulder in reassurance. “I was at the meeting, Mr. Jamel,” Tori said softly. “Michael would have gone with or without Charles’ permission. At least Charles’ supplied him with the AI unit which saved his life.”

Phillip pierced her with his sharp gaze. “Saved him how?”

Charles straightened in his seat. “It was a minor entry in his report to me. The AI unit, Cee, took the initiative to call for help when Michael fell ill in a rural area – risking its own life, I might add, as the unit would be destroyed in the wrong hands and indeed was,” Charles lied. He didn’t want anyone knowing that any units survived. “Michael, however, was taken to a medical facility, saving his life.”

Phillip scoffed. “Even now you defend yourself as Thom suffers from the loss of his wife and child. I suppose you say it’s his own fault.”

“I did not come to defend myself, Phillip. I came because I felt it only right to inform you of my final decisions.”

Phillip’s gaze went from Tori to his wife who stood in the kitchenette watching them and then back to his father. “Final decisions for your work?”

“For my life. My health is declining, and it is simply aging for which there is no cure. Tori has agreed to care for me during my final years, however long the process takes, therefore you do not need to worry that I will disrupt your life. We will not be here long. My funds are limited, and in return for her devotion, I ask that you not contest my will. If you or Tamara had desired the task as my nurse, of course, I would have made other arrangements. If you wish, Tori will show you my financial statements so that you will understand that the girl is not gaining any great fortune by watching an old man die.”

Phillip shook his head. “Let her have it. I’m sure she’s earning it.”

Charles hoped that only the echo of rumors made him fear more in Phillip’s words. Surely Phillip would not accuse him of such a thing.

“Where are you going then?” Phillip asked, his tone a little more conciliatory.

“I hope to go to Austin.”

“To Michael? Why didn’t you just ask them to prosecute you when Thom’s son was killed?”

Charles sighed. This was so draining. “If I can get permission to go to the surface, I will go to Michael. If he does not wish to see me, I will either find a small home for Tori and I there, or we will find some other place to live. I can always rent an apartment on CentiOne. However I doubt I will live long enough to return.”

Trish rushed over, falling to her knees before him. “Why can’t you just leave him alone? Haven’t you done enough? Please, please, stay away from Michael and Kayden. Let them find what happiness they can without you ruining it.”

Charles closed his eyes to avoid seeing her earnest appeal, but he could not block his ears to Michael’s mother.

“Sir, you need to rest.”

Charles opened his eyes in time to see Phillip’s firm shake of his head.

Tori crouched down and helped him to his feet. Then they slowly walked back to their room.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Tori and Charles only left their room to go to the cafeteria. Charles’ son had not come to see him, and Tori felt his loss as keenly as she felt the break from her own family. Charles had even asked if they should continue, but Tori reminded him that Dr. Hansell had expressed a desire to work with him, and Dr. Hansell was not a man who had any reason to lie about the matter.

Charles seemed to accept it, but the small enthusiasm he had regained with their planning was now gone. If only she could protect him from his own depression. She prayed that Michael would forgive him for any perceived wrong.

That evening a chime sounded on their door. Tori rose from the armchair, noting that Charles’ eyes had opened. He’d been resting, which he did almost continually now.

“Yes?”

“Is this where Dr. Jamel is staying?”

“Yes, Mrs. Jamel.” Tori pushed the button on the communications panel to admit Michael’s mother. She carried a box, approximately eight inches square by twelve inches high. “May I assist you?”

Trish glanced at the single bed Charles slept on and the bunk above it. Then her gaze went to their luggage behind the two armchairs and small table. “I wonder if… You’re still planning to see Michael, aren’t you?”

“We hope to. We have not yet obtained permission to go down to the planet.”

“Oh. But… You sent home his paintings, didn’t you? So eerie some of them.” She pursed her lips and looked at her hands holding the box. “Would you have room to take this? Maybe they’ll let you send it down even if… It’s just that their wedding… my mother, and her mother, and her mother before her. But I have no daughters and Michael, maybe he will. And… Please send it on even if you can’t go.”

“I will,” Tori promised.

“It’s glass, so….”

“I’ll be careful.” Tori set the package on the table.

Trish took a deep breath. “Thom said you dated Michael.”

“He asked me to dinner several times.”

“But you didn’t like him?”

“He quit asking. I realized later he never dated anyone more than three times. I think he always knew she was alive. Would you like to sit down?”

Trish shook her head and backed toward the doorway. “I can’t stay. Tell Michael… Well, never mind. I wrote it all. You won’t read it. I mean….”

“No. I won’t.”

“It’s just that I….” and then she turned and fled, but not before Tori heard the sob escape her throat.

Tori packed Michael’s wedding gift in the trunk among Charles’ clothing to insulate it from bumps and crushing.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

They arrived at the guard station orbiting Austin several days later. Apparently visitors were infrequent, and when the security guards discovered Tori’s laser, they were subjected to a lengthy discussion on the nature of their business. Tori admitted to being Charles’ body guard, but the woman and two men interrogating them did not look as though they believed her.

When they were deemed safe, Charles and Tori were assigned a temporary room until Director Zemmer, who is very, very busy, had time to speak to them. They were only to go as far as the cafeteria, and if caught exploring, they would be sealed in their room until they were removed.

They settled into the ten by six foot room, and then wandered down to the cafeteria for dinner.

The cafeteria was fairly large, but only a small area was lit near the food dispensing units. They ordered sandwiches and sat at the closest table. Someone had painted a mural of trees and flying deer type creatures on the opposite wall, which reminded Tori of the painting Michael had done. The last date she’d had with him, they’d gone back to his room, and she’d seen a few of his paintings. When she’d readied his belongings to ship to his mother, she found dozens of drawings and paintings of hands hidden behind his normally tranquil scenes. There were also a few pictures of Kayden.

A noise brought her attention back to the room. A woman of Scandinavian descent approached them, her straw colored hair hanging straight to her shoulders. Behind her entered a muscular man with dark brown hair and greying temples. The woman smiled and held out her hand as Tori stood, preparing for any potential attack.

“Welcome to Austin.” She gave Tori a smile, but focused on Charles. “Dr. Jamel, it’s such a pleasant surprise to see you.”

Charles gave Tori a glance which meant he’d never met the woman before. He took her hand though and nodded. “I’m afraid my age has caught me unprepared, Ms…?”

She gave a light laugh. “No, we haven’t met. I’m Director Roscha Zemmer. This is my husband, James Bell.”

James greeted Charles with a smile and a handshake. When he turned his attention to Tori, his hand closed on hers in a tight grip. She resisted only enough that she wasn’t crushed. He’d heard from the others that she was a body guard, and he was testing her.

Roscha settled into the seat between Charles and Tori, and her husband sat on the other side of the table. Tori finally resettled into her seat, but kept her weight distributed so that she could jump up if necessary.

“The guards told me that you are related to Michael Jamel,” Roscha said with a smile. “I have yet to meet him, but I’ve been studying his reports since I accepted this position a few months ago.”

“I am Michael’s grandfather,” Charles acknowledged. “I’d hoped to spend my final days with him.”

Roscha lost her smile. “I must warn you that the state of medicine is quite primitive. Michael has sent yet another report requesting some quite basic equipment for the one hospital on the continent. It really isn’t a good planet for the elderly.”

Charles sighed. “I don’t plan to live that long anyway.”

“And yet you have a body guard?” James asked. “A body guard is for a man who wants to live.”

“I was his body guard until he retired. I have requested to remain as his assistant. There are still those who are attempting to acquire the plans to his prototype AI unit.” She met his gaze before continuing. “Dr. Jamel wishes to go where no manufacturer’s agents will hound him.”

“And do you expect to have your body shipped out when you die?” Roscha asked. “All our people on the planet,” she gave a small smile, “just your grandson at the moment, have signed papers forbidding their relatives to request a posthumous exportation.”

“I do not care about my body,” Charles said with a slight scowl.

“And you, Ms. Yasuo, what would you expect?”

“I will accept your guidelines.” She did not add that even if her family had not disowned her, her father would never pay as much as it would cost to ship her back to CentiOne.

“All my guidelines? Most times a visit is considered a permanent move.”

Tori met Charles’ gaze.

“Tori, there is no need for you to suffer.”

“I would suffer no more than Michael. He is apparently happy. I will follow you.”

“Why don’t you wish to stay with other relatives?” Roscha asked. “Please eat.” She motioned to the sandwiches they’d only half eaten before she arrived. “Why don’t I let you get a good night’s sleep, and we’ll talk again tomorrow.” She stood. “Lunch in my office – 1300 hours.”

Tori asked for directions, and James promised to come for them.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The next day James came for them as promised, and he led them through halls to a brighter section of the space station. The section they’d stayed in had been deserted, but here they passed several groups of people chatting and smiling before they reached the Director’s office.

Roscha’s office had three sections. The first housed two clerks, then behind a door were two more rooms, the first held a large wooden desk and padded wooden chairs. Wood sculptures sat on wooden shelves. The whole setting reminded Tori of old wealth. Roscha stood. “Welcome to my inherited office. My predecessors obviously took advantage of living next to such a large supply of wood.”

She led them into the adjoining room which was a conference room. A robot of brass served them. It was almost android shaped except that its head did not try to be human. Instead its face was an oval monitor which now was blank.

“Thank you, Trea,” Roscha said when she was served.

“You are welcome.” Trea brought Charles his plate.

“Thank you, Trea.” Charles always acknowledged Pet’s service, but he told Tori to follow the robot owner’s lead in addressing them. He’d related an incident where he had been chastised by an angry owner for his “meddling”.

“Thank you, Dr. Jamel. At your service, Sir.” Then she backed away and brought Tori her food.

James chuckled. “How has Charles Jamel earned your thanks, Trea? I was unaware that you knew him.”

“I do not. But he designed my core, and for that I am thankful.”

“Really? I didn’t know that. We’ve had Trea over twelve years now.” He grinned at his wife. “We were getting desperate, trying to find a decent domestic robot. Most kept throwing out important papers, but Trea has never made that mistake. And she’s an excellent cook.”

“A 4000 series?” Charles asked politely.

James shrugged and Roscha grinned. “Are you a 4000 series, Trea?”

“4010b; serial number 7821389G5.”

Charles smiled. “One of the best.” It was the last modification before the 5000 – the same as the cores hidden in their trunk.

Trea finished serving them and rolled to the corner to wait for the time when she was again needed.

“Well,” Roscha began. “I have done a more in-depth search on you both. Tori, you will be pleased to note that you’ve kept yourself from public records quite well, except for a small incident about a fire in the Yasuo Ryu.”

James smiled. “We assume you are from that family.”

Tori bowed her head slightly to acknowledge him.

“And you are trained as a ninja?”

“In the Ninjutsu arts,” she acknowledged.

“But you, Dr. Jamel,” Roscha continued. “I found more information than I could reasonable read in a week. One item that I did not see in my preliminary work last night was the report of your censure at the University. An impeccable career tainted by a berserk prototype.”

Charles pushed away his food, not meeting her gaze.

“I am not condemning you,” Roscha said softly. “I am trying to tell you that I can see what you are doing. You’re running as far away from the incident and your work as you can, aren’t you?”

“The manufacturers still wish to market the unit,” Tori said when Charles’ silence continued. “This is the only place that they will not be able to follow him.” Then she realized her presumption. “Unless you grant them permission also.”

“I understand your problem. Tell me, was this prototype of the same line as the one which was stolen, and which Michael had leave to search for.”

Charles lifted his gaze. “I made three identical units. Two are on Austin.”
“Two on Austin!”

“Michael reported that they were destroyed,” Charles amended. “It was his report which prompted the recall of the third – the recall which you read about.”

She tilted her head. “So there are none now on Austin?”

“I must tell Michael he was right. His report has potentially saved many lives. We do not know what the android planned to do after Thom had assumed my position at the University. And I must give Michael his wedding gifts. His mother sent an heirloom vase.” He shrugged with a slight smile. “I could not deny her request, and I ask that you find a way to send it on if you deem my desires too much trouble.”

Roscha gave a small nod and then met her husband’s gaze. He tilted his head slightly to the right, and Roscha smiled. “Well, you’ve come at a particularly interesting time. I am working to determine the feasibility of trade with the planet, particularly food and other useful crops like wood and cotton, as well as livestock, leathers and many other items. I am also thinking about a very limited tourism to bring in even more money.

“The Planetary Council has decided that this world is too expensive, but it fears another mass riot if the restrictions are lifted. From all reports, including Michael’s, the culture is somewhat barbaric in its justice. Trials are often nonexistent or mere formalities with the outcome predetermined. Almost anything can warrant capitol punishment, and even that is not humanely administered.

“In short, the situation could easily become volatile, but I’m hoping that we can ease into opening things up, and also make this station self-supporting through the limited trade and tourism.”

She smiled then. “Here’s where you can help me. I’ve never met Michael, but James and I want to be the first tourists, traveling as James and Rose Bell. But two is a small number. If you two agreed to be tourists and to not tell even Michael that I am Director Zemmer, then perhaps we can decide at the end of our visit if you still wish to remain on the planet.”

“You can’t have it any better,” James said. “You get to see it without the rash forever for better or worse commitment. And by traveling with you, Dr. Jamel, we will know how many restrictions we need to place on the health of our tourists, and if we need to hire a doctor to act as a permanent touring liaison.”

Roscha rolled her eyes. “We probably should anyway, but getting someone who wants to practice out here in the middle of nowhere is the problem. We’re lucky to have Yani here.” She gave a slight smile. “Michael sends up all these requests for Dr. Ithica, and they don’t realize we have to pay for those items somehow. Maybe if we can open trade, we’ll be able to buy the medical equipment they need.”

James gave Tori a grin. “With two undercover security guards in the tourist group, we should be fairly safe.” He tossed Tori back her laser. “Let’s move you two out of the prison section, and then we’ll make our plans.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Roscha sent a message to Governor Hollis for Michael. She expected him to entertain a group of tourists, giving them a full tour. She briefly stated that good relations with tourists would result in more money for the medical supplies and equipment he kept requesting. But she didn’t tell him anything about who would be in the group or how many people. She was trying to recruit one of Yani’s two nurses, but one claimed she was too old to brave dragons. The second was still avoiding a direct answer. Roscha suspected the man was afraid of the dragons also. He had been divorced years ago, so it wasn’t a family that kept Roger Bunting from participating.

And then a breathless young woman approached her in the cafeteria. “I want to go.”

Roscha glanced at her husband. She had seen the woman around, but didn’t know her name. Her dark brown hair was wrapped and held at the back of her head, but strands wisped around her. At James’ ironic smile, Roscha asked. “Go where?”

“To the planet. I work in the hydroponics garden. Maybe I could expand our food selection. Maybe we could take a couple of the prison rooms and refit them for….”

Roscha held up her hand. “Where did you hear about a trip to the planet?”

The woman blushed and held her hand to her mouth. “He didn’t say it was a secret,” she whispered.

“Who?”

“Roger. He said he’d go if I did. I thought we just had to apply. I thought….”

James grinned. “You want the nurse, you get the gardener.”

“Is there someone else to perform your duties while you’re gone, Ms?”

“Pornic. Kelsi Pornic. Yes. I’m actually rather new, but there are so many possibilities.” But then she groaned. “Gail is right, isn’t she? Nobody wants possibilities. They just want the job done.”

Roscha motioned the woman to a chair, smiling. She remembered her enthusiasm to change the world back when she was younger. But it had only been through hard work and a lot of submission to those who felt differently that she was now in a position to perhaps change one world. She decided to include Kelsi in the trip. Six would be a manageable number in a tourist group. Too few and Governor Hollis in Capitol might suspect more than she wanted him to. Too many and the populace might take undue notice of them. And Kelsi would be one more person to call her Rose Bell.

She also briefed her small group that none were to come directly to her for answers. They could go to James if there was a problem. She’d been with James for fifteen years now, and she was still amazed at how they managed to think alike so many times. She had only to look into his eyes and read the slight changes in his expression to gage his opinion. And she valued his opinion over all others. The uncharitable said that James was the real decision maker, but Roscha tried to ignore such thoughts. She didn’t want to lose their closeness by reacting to public opinion – especially such a small opinion as represented by the station’s scant populace.

The day before they were to leave, the shuttle came with one of the large pieces of medical equipment Michael wanted. It also brought another unannounced passenger. James and Roscha had just settled for their evening meal when security interrupted them. “Director? We have another man wanting to see you. He had a laser and a case full of electronic diagnostic tools. He also had a medical case with a laser scalpel and a nerve stimulator, along with several medicines. Name of Thom Granger. He, also, claims he’s related to Michael Jamel.”

Roscha met James’ gaze. James glanced at the food. “Ten minutes spent in a good meal is well worth it.”

Roscha gave in. “We’ll be down in an hour. Detain him without his equipment.”

As soon as they finished they walked down to see Charles and Tori. She trusted Charles and Tori, and had even granted Charles to bring two palm notebook computers to read on and a whole burlap bag full of papers and books relating to his work. Even if someone found them, it’d take years for them to make anything of them, and the old man’s story touched her heart. He was giving up his life long work because his grandson’s child had been killed – Thom Granger’s child. Was Thom now here for revenge?

Tori let them into the three room apartment with a slight smile. Charles sat on the couch, a paper book held close to his chest as he watched them.

James and Roscha sat in the armchairs. Tori remained standing, always on guard to protect the man she treated as a beloved grandparent. Roscha leaned forward. “Your grandson, Thom Granger, has arrived with the shuttle. He had a laser, electronic tools, and a medical kit. All have been confiscated.”

She noted that Tori seemed to tense slightly. Charles closed his eyes, his jaw also tight.

“I can have him detained until the shuttle is ready to return him to Frontier Base 28. You don’t need to see him.”

Charles sighed. “I must see what he wants.”

“Can he be trusted with his lasers?”

“No,” Tori said immediately.

Charles jerked a surprised glance to her. “He won’t hurt me, Tori. He had his chance.”

Tori didn’t meet his gaze, instead focusing on Roscha. “Thom changed after the incident. Even four months later I did not feel he was stable.”

“Noted. We don’t want any potentially dangerous equipment in an unstable person’s reach.”

“Tori, he’s not a criminal.”

“No,” Roscha assured Charles. “I will not treat him as a criminal, but the station rules are that no one carries a laser except qualified security. We have made an exception for Tori that no one else is to know about.” She rose. “Care to come with us?”

Charles put his book away in his trunk and then followed them back to the prison section.

Thom stood when he saw them. “Grandfather. You’re safe. When Uncle Phillip told me you were coming here, I couldn’t believe it.” The guards who had been watching Thom settled against the walls, deferring to their two senior officers, James, who was head of security, and Roscha.

“Why are you here, Thom?”

“I’m here to join you. I’m still your assistant. Apprenticed all the way through. No where else I’d rather be than with you.”

The words flowed from Charles’ grandson, but something in his eyes alerted Roscha that his devotion was not as pure as Tori’s seemed to be. His mid-brown hair was neatly trimmed, and Roscha guessed he had the potential to be handsome if he didn’t have that look in his eyes. Roscha agreed with Tori; she didn’t think he was quite stable either.

“There is nothing I need assistance with Thom.”

“Uncle Phillip said you were giving everything to Tori. Let me be your assistant instead. You owe me that.”

Charles closed his eyes, and he weaved slightly. Tori grabbed a chair from the table and placed it beside him, helping him into it. “I can’t,” he mumbled.

“Sure you can. But we don’t need to discuss it here. Let’s go back to your apartment.”

“I’m leaving tomorrow.”

“I’m going with you. I’ll be your assistant.”

“Thom, I have no money to pay any assistant. It has all been placed in account here in Tori’s name. I have nothing.”

Emotions flickered briefly over Thom’s face, but then it became neutral. “I can still serve my grandfather. I didn’t come for your money. Let me go with you to see Michael. He’s my best friend, you know. I need a friend, after losing Butler and Falice.” He paused a moment. “And my son.” He never took his gaze from his grandfather. It didn’t waver, and he rarely blinked. “You won’t leave me all alone, will you?”

Charles sighed. “It is not my decision. Director Zemmer decides who will be the first tourists on Austin. I must rest.” He turned and shuffled from the room.

Thom started to follow, but James stopped him. “Hey, Thom, is it? We’re going to the planet also. I’m James Bell, and this is my wife, Rose. I’m sure these guys will get you a room while Director Zemmer considers your petition.”

Thom focused on James. He took a couple deep breaths, and then he gave an easy smile, his body relaxing. He shook James’ hand and then Rose’s. “You’re going, too? A whole group then?”

“Just six of us so far. But we can talk later, after you’re settled and rested.”

“Think I’ll get my things back?”

“That’s up to security, I suppose. Heard a small rumor that you had a laser? Is there a reason for that?”

Thom shrugged. “Did my grandfather tell you what he did? He gave me an android and then decided six years later to destroy him. His decision cost me everything.” His jaw tightened a moment and then he relaxed again. “I guess I’m a little paranoid about robot and android attacks now. I wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

“Well, I’m not sure they’re going to let any tech down on the planet, so don’t be too surprised if you don’t get it back.”

“Did you check Tori Yasuo? She had a laser on her when she killed my android.”

“I understand that it has been confiscated already.”

“Really?” His right cheek twitched, but then he said, “Good. I don’t trust that woman. Swindled my grandfather out of his money, and she’s probably just waiting until he dies to sell his 5000 core plans to a manufacturer for millions. She’s not as innocent as she looks. Anyone who’d sleep with a man old enough to be her grandfather will do anything.” He took a deep breath and stretched. “You say they’ve got a room for me?”

“Sure,” James said. “We better get some sleep also.”

Roscha slid her arm under James’ and gave Thom a parting smile. She didn’t speak until they were in their apartment. “And you thought nothing exciting would happen out here,” she accused.

“A security conflict, and I’m leaving.” James frowned and sat on their bed to pull off his boots. “I don’t want to leave him up here. It’ll be a week before the shuttle will remove him.”

“And it’s better to take him with us?”

“Maybe we shouldn’t go.”

“James, this time we aren’t going to agree. I’ve already made arrangements. That is not an option.” And she knew he wouldn’t let her go down without him. He had always taken the job of protecting her very seriously, even before they married.

“Without his tech, how much of a threat can he be below?” James suggested. “Although now I am wondering about Tori’s motives also.”

“Oh, James, I really don’t care if they are lovers.”

“Do you think those papers and books might have that billion credit AI plan of his?” He grinned as he turned out the light. “This could be more exciting than I’d hoped.”

“The news release said he destroyed them.”

“Aah. And you’re too trusting. Where better to hide what everyone’s looking for than on a tech dead world. Remember Michael’s profile. Top of his class and the old man’s apprentice. Yes. He’ll give them to his grandson to someday work out all the problems, because he lost his university approval, and he is getting too old to finish it.”

Roscha cuddled against her husband’s strong back and kissed his shoulder. “You, my dear, should write another serial.”

“Since this is the first excitement in four months, I just might have the time,” he teased back. “And then we have Tori. Will she peaceably let the plans go to Michael, or will she fight it? Is Thom a victim of his grandfather’s ambition, or is he banged up, but sincerely concerned about Tori’s scheming ways? Did he once have ambitions for Tori?”

“Come back next week, for the next exciting installment in ‘AI Lust and Lost’,” Roscha teased.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It wasn’t until the next morning that they made a decision on Thom’s fate. James was briefing his replacement when the Information Technician entered the security office. “I need to report a security breach in our Archive computer. I’m not sure how it was accomplished yet, but the logs show that a number of files were downloaded. Director Raleigh’s old ID and password were reactivated, and all the activity is attributed to him.”

“With that password… what was taken?”

“Employee records, and then files on the planet – cities, mayors, reports sent up, records of shipments, property manifests, and all our banking files. I plan to immediately determine if any of them were changed, but I thought I should alert you first.”

“Thank you, Ben. Keep Harv informed while I’m away.” James waited until Ben left before focusing on Harv. “We’ve got two new AI experts on the station. How much you want to gamble that you won’t have another problem if I take them both to the surface?”

“But you will.”

“Yeah, and I’m not bringing them back until I find who took those files – in fact, I probably won’t bring back the man who did it. We’ll just use planetary justice. Guilty of theft, life on a tech dead world with man-eating dragons and a unique sense of capitol punishment.”

Harv smiled. “Remind me not to mess with you.”

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© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.