Michael stalked into the house, but as soon as he set foot in the waiting room, Kayden hugged him. “You’re back!”
Michael gave her a brief hug. “I need to find Collin.”
Collin was in the pharmacy, and he smiled as they entered. “How’s Michael Trapper today?”
He always teased when Michael went to Capitol with dragon heads, ever since Michael had confessed that Governor Hollis’ secretary still thought he was Hans Trapper. “He’s still whining about those dragons at Medon Beach. Been a year, he said. I told him the people were idiots for skinny dipping at night. So then he tells me that I’m taking a vacation there, orders of Director Zemmer.” Michael rolled his eyes as he reached into his pack and withdrew the official notice from Roscha Zemmer and handed it to Collin. “Tourists. And I’m the tour guide. Stuck for I don’t know how long, traipsing about the planet, trying to think of fun things for them to do. All for a magnetic imaging machine. Dr. Ithica better appreciate this.”
Collin grinned as he read over the briefing which outlined Michael’s duties and how important tourist money could be for improving conditions.
“Yeah. You should be the guide. You know this place better than anyone else.”
“Bring them here. That is after the little festivities Hollis has planned.”
Michael relaxed. “You’ll help me?”
“All you had to do was ask, Michael. I love showing this world to the appreciative.”
Michael hesitated. “And about Medon Beach?”
“I’ll send Quinn and Jake over. Won’t be for a few days though since Shanika’s got that little play she’s in.” Collin focused on Kayden. “I really think you should help Michael out with this – a beautiful hostess greeting our guests with a bag of gifts.”
Kayden had read the paper after Michael. “Wait a minute. You have to be back there day after tomorrow, don’t you? There’s no way to organize anything that quickly, Collin.”
“Sure there is. Go to Mayor Talbert – right after dinner that is.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Mayor Talbert somehow contacted everyone, because by the next evening they had far more items than they could use. Kayden filled ten sheepskin bags with fruit, vegetables, dried beef and mutton, a leather money pouch, and more. She’d wanted to keep each donor’s name with the products, but realized it’d be impossible, and settled for the more ambiguous “Compliments of the People of Hope.”
Then they started for Capitol and the immigration intake office. They rode their wingdeer, but Michael had assured her that Governor Hollis planned to have a horse drawn shuttle at the Intake Office for their use.
When they arrived, they spotted the canopied wagon with cushioned seats hooked to four draft horses. “The note said ten at most. This thing can seat twenty and luggage,” Kayden whispered as they approached. “Does Governor Hollis know something we don’t?”
“Not likely.” As Michael dismounted and greeted the driver, Kayden wondered who the pretty little white horse belonged to. The wagon almost hid the animal from view, and she walked over to get a closer look.
“Good. I’ll be on my way,” she heard the driver say.
“Wait a minute. Where are you going?”
“Back to the stables. My orders were to deliver the bus to Michael Jamel. I’m done here.”
“But who’s going to drive this thing?”
The man grinned. “Told the governor he needed to hire a driver, but what do I know. I’m just a stableman.” He hoisted himself up onto the white horse and kicked him to a trot.
Michael watched him leave. “Great. I’m going to look like an idiot again. I don’t suppose you’ve driven something this big.”
Kayden grinned. “Not quite, but it looks like fun.”
Michael smiled then. “Okay. Let me check on the shuttle’s ETA, and then we’ll practice.”
Michael disappeared into the building, and Kayden transferred her gifts and her overnight luggage to the wagon, freeing up Sam and Bambi. Sam had shed his antlers several weeks ago, and she missed them. They had made him look so majestic.
They practiced driving the wagon around the nearby streets until they heard and saw the shuttle in the sky.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Michael waited just inside the dark office. He wished they’d find a way to lighten things up inside the building, but every time he’d come the waiting room had been scantly lit, the brightest light coming in from the open door to the concrete parkway.
Kayden stood beside him, fidgeting. He smiled and kissed the side of her forehead. She hated to be inside, and she hated to wait. But then the clerk came back through, leading a man and a woman. Then another man and woman. Michael stepped forward. “Welcome to Austin. I’m Michael Jamel and this is my wife, Kayden.”
The man, about his height but broader, smiled and held out his hand. “James Bell and my wife Rose. Roger Bunting and Kelsi Pornic, and we have three others.” James glanced back toward the door as another man strode through.
Michael stepped back. That couldn’t be Thom. His face held an expression he’d never seen there before – one of extreme irritation or anger. “Thom?”
Thom’s face changed to a slim smile. “Michael. I see you remembered me. So this is the girl you lost all that sleep over.”
Michael reached for Kayden and drew her closer. “You didn’t bring Butler, did you?”
“Of course not. Grandfather took your word that all the units were malfunctioning, and he killed him.”
Kayden tightened her grip on Michael right as Michael noticed the wild white hair beside Tori’s smooth black hair. “Grandfather?” He felt his heart beating harder inside his chest. He had to tour with these three?
His grandfather gave him a slight nod and then slid into one of the chairs along the wall. He met Tori’s gaze; she’d take care of Grandfather. He’d always suspected his grandfather had hired her more as a nurse than a clerical assistant, and she did both well. But then he knew what this meant. They were after Jake and Cee. He should never have let Collin send back those reports.
Michael refocused on Thom. “Where’s Falice?”
“Divorced me after Butler killed the baby. He wasn’t malfunctioning. It wasn’t his fault you didn’t know how to handle a robot.”
Kayden raised her hand to her mouth, and then glanced at Michael.
Michael realized he was right all along about Butler. He also realized Thom blamed him for the malfunction. And his other four tourists were watching them as if this was some holomovie.
He turned to include them all. “Well, welcome to Austin. The citizens call the planet Aussie though, and if you want to fit in, you’ll do the same. And here’s your luggage. Governor Hollis has reserved rooms for us on Medon Beach, and then tomorrow we’ll go to the Capitol building.”
“Sir, we have a large item for the hospital,” said the clerk.
Michael hesitated. “Don’t you just ship the equipment out there with the rest of the supplies?”
“It’s large. When something this big comes through, we usually wait until the hospital sends someone with shipping money.”
He should let it be. It wasn’t his concern if the hospital waited another week or two. He strode to the counter and pulled out his money pouch. “How much to ship it?”
“With two security guards – required,” she added. “Two hundred gold.”
“You’d think we were shipping it to Melbin.” He counted out two hundred. Then he grabbed a piece of stationary from the desk and scribbled a note to Dr. Ithica. “Send this ahead, airmail.”
Michael gave it to her. Then he turned back to the group who had gathered their belongings together. He noticed Tori struggling with two large duffle bags and a trunk. Michael strode over and grabbed the trunk from her. “Looks like you’re moving here,” he said with a slight smile.
“We are,” Tori said. “At least Charles and I hope to.”
“Really?” Kayden said, grinning now. “I think my father would love to meet you, Dr. Jamel. Michael has mentioned you often. Of course my father wants to meet all of you. He has agreed to help us get the most out of your visit.”
Michael was thankful for Kayden’s interference to cover his shock. Just what had Collin written in his sealed report? But he followed up brightly. “Dr. Collin is a walking database of every obscure plant and animal on the planet. If I can’t answer your questions, I’m sure he can.”
“A regular android, is he?” Thom asked as they exited the building into the bright sunshine.
“No, he’s not an android,” Michael said, immediately irritated. “He just loves the place.”
James and Rose stopped to stare up into the sky with its fluffy white clouds. “It’s been a while since I’ve been on a planet,” he said.
“Beautiful,” Rose agreed.
Michael smiled. “If you like this, you’ll love the rest of the continent. This is definitely not the best.”
He hoisted his grandfather’s trunk into the back of the wagon, and then helped the others set their luggage in also.
“Forgot yours,” offered the nervous young woman, Kelsi.
“Actually, around here, everyone carries a pack similar to this with their money and anything valuable. You should probably do the same. Which brings me to those bags on the seats. When I discovered two days ago that you were coming, Mayor Talbert of the Village of Hope helped prepare these gifts for you – a sampling of what it is like here. It’s harvest season, and you’ll find fruits and vegetables, dried meat, and a few non-edible items, all compliments of the Village of Hope.”
“Not through Governor Hollis’ office nor the city of Capitol?” James asked, glancing at his wife as she withdrew a plum.
“We can eat this?”
Kayden grinned. “Yeah, but it’s juicy. Make sure you have a cloth.”
“We live in Hope. They know I work for the government now, and the people have been very receptive to the possibility of open trade and tourism. As I said, Governor Hollis has arranged this bus and our stay at Medon beach which is a resort area.” They were all seated. “We better get moving.” He started for the driver’s seat and then paused. “You were briefed about the dragons, weren’t you? Stay together and don’t go outside after dark. In fact there are reports of two dragons, an orange and a bronze flying around the beach area.”
“First day here and we’re going to be dragon bait,” someone muttered. Michael thought it was Roger Bunting. He gave a slight smile, remembering his own early fears. He settled into the driver’s seat and took the reins.
“Oh! It’s one of the flying deer!” exclaimed Kelsi. “Aaagh. He’s trying to eat us.”
“No, Sam. You can’t climb into the wagon. Oh, bother. He’s not going to eat you. He wants some attention. Michael, I’m going to have to fly over. Sorry, all.” Kayden jumped from the wagon and onto Sam’s back. Then Sam leapt into the air and Bambi followed.
He grinned, realizing what a spectacular show she’d just given the newcomers. “My wife raises the beasts. They seem to love her.” He snapped the reins and the four horses before him jerked forward. He turned them into traffic and toward the beach.
“Learned some new tricks,” Thom said from behind him.
“I’ve learned a lot of new things since I came. One of the first was how to ride a horse. Kayden breeds both horses and wingdeer, and I’m sure everyone who wishes to ride will have the opportunity.”
“That sounds like fun,” said Rose. “Don’t you think, James?”
He chuckled. “Fun and dangerous. Yep. Sounds like something you’d love.”
“It’s really safer to ride the wingdeer than the horses. You strap yourself on the wingdeer so you can’t fall off. I’ve never seen anyone strap themselves to a horse, and I’ve seen a few thrown off. But if you ride, I know Kayden will start you out on the gentle horses.”
Michael tried to stay focused on his main job as a tour director because if he thought about his grandfather riding silently behind him, he’d never be able to fake his upbeat social mood. As they rode through the streets, he pointed out buildings, talked about the city, the architecture, the social structure, and anything else he could think of. He was sure at least one of these tourists would report directly back to Director Zemmer on how well they enjoyed their trip, and that would determine how much equipment the hospital received in the future. It’d also determine how much influence he had when he went to bargain for trade on behalf of the people of Hope.
Why did Thom and his grandfather have to be here? He’d left them behind and he hadn’t regretted it. He also felt the small niggling of guilt at Tori’s presence. Hopefully she didn’t fill Kayden in on that one evening where his hormones had raged out of control. But then again, Thom knew it. It was one of the things Cee had let Butler know, and therefore Thom. With Thom’s own marriage in shambles, he’d never keep that secret quiet.
As he spotted the ocean through the trees, Michael realized he’d inadvertently neglected his duty after all. He quickly started up a running monologue about the ocean, its resources, and the native versus engineered life ratio that he’d learned from Collin.
They had two bungalows at the far end of the beach – the most remote end. Michael silently cursed Governor Hollis. He was making sure they’d come in contact with the beasts he wanted Michael to eradicate. Michael hoped Quinn came tonight and got both the beasts so he could carry the bloody heads into Hollis’ office tomorrow.
They unloaded, James, Rose, Roger and Kelsi taking one bungalow, and his grandfather, Tori, and Thom taking the other. “You and Kayden will be with us, won’t you?” Thom asked.
“Aah, I guess so.” He saw Kayden closer to the water, roasting some sort of beast, probably lamb, over an open pit fire.
She jogged to them. “Compliments of the Governor. He left a note for you.” She pulled it from her pack. “I didn’t think you’d mind if I started dinner.”
Michael grinned, but decided not to mention her erratic cooking abilities. “Better keep an eye on it,” he said, kissing her cheek. “Whenever you’re ready, come out to enjoy the beach,” he told the others. “Food is plentiful.”
Michael walked away from the group with Kayden. At the roasting pit, Kayden looked back toward the houses and then hugged him. “What are you feeling now, Sweetheart?”
“Thom blames me. He’s going to try to break us up.”
She pulled away from him. “You’re sure? How would he do that?”
“I dated Tori a few times. He’ll tell you that. Might embellish a few details.”
“You told him?”
“No!” He stalked away from her. “I don’t kiss and tell the world. Cee told Butler, and Butler told the world. I hate those damn machines.”
“Butler hurt Cee, Michael. Please don’t blame her.” She settled into the sand and ran her hands through it. “I can’t believe Butler killed his baby, and he still thinks he wasn’t malfunctioning.”
Michael wrapped his arms around her. “You see what they’re capable of?”
Kayden raised her eyes to his. “I know what human beings are capable of, but that doesn’t mean I hate them all. If they’re after Cee and Jake, then I must know you’re on our side. You will hide them, won’t you?”
Michael kissed her. “I won’t let Thom destroy them. I promise.”
She stared out into the water for a while, and then said, “Do you ever think about her?”
Kayden punched his arm. “Tori.”
“I only went out with her three times, Kayden. I never seriously dated anyone.”
“So what details will Thom torture me with? Was she your first?”
“My first? You were first. She was… a temptation that I got over.”
“Do you think she’ll flirt with you?”
“Tori?” Michael laughed. “No. She dated less than I did. I think most of the guys were afraid to ask her out. She keeps herself so closed, no one sees the girl beneath… I mean….”
Kayden grinned. “Okay. You noticed her. You still think she’s a nice girl. But she wouldn’t go out with you anymore.”
“I didn’t ask her out anymore. I wasn’t ready for a serious relationship. She probably wasn’t either. She never approached me again either. Now you’re not jealous, are you? About as jealous as I should be over Gaben.”
“Nothing happened with Gaben. I never loved him.”
“And I never loved Tori, so don’t let Thom bother you. Get the facts from Tori, if he does. I’ve never known her to lie.”
“What about your grandfather?”
Michael couldn’t help the short laugh. “I doubt he even knows we dated. It wasn’t a big event until Butler and Thom made it into one.”
“I thought you and Thom were friends.”
Michael stared back at the bungalows. James and Rose emerged from the one on the right. “Guess we were. It was just a few times he annoyed me like that. Guess it’s hard to explain. When he got married, he wanted me to get married, too. Now that he’s divorced… and he blames me for it. Didn’t you hear him?” Michael shook his head. “I’m not sure what to think right now.”
James and Rose sat on the sand beside them. “This place is a paradise!” Rose exclaimed.
“People often go swimming or wading in the water,” Kayden said. “It’s pretty fun. And shell hunting.” She jumped up and ran to the edge of the pit, bringing back a handful of shells. “I found these while I was waiting.”
“Oh, look at the colors. I want some of these for my office.”
“Of course you do, dear,” James said, planting a kiss on her upturned face. “Will we have time to shell hunt?”
“Right now, if you want. After dinner and again in the morning. If you show them to Dr. Alex Collin – Kayden’s adopted father – he’ll tell you all about each one.”
Rose noticed Kayden’s bare feet. “Is it safe? I’ve got sand in my shoes already.”
“Fairly safe. Just watch where you walk. The shells are sharp, but the sand is soft, especially the wet stuff. Roll up your pants.” Kayden showed her how and then dragged her to the water.
Michael grinned. “Just like Kayden to forget she’s cooking.” He stood and turned the meat.
Roger and Kelsi joined them. Finally Thom came out. When Kayden and Rose returned from shell hunting, they began eating. Kayden nudged Michael. “Maybe you should take your grandfather some food. Tori, too. Maybe he’s too tired to come out.”
“Yeah, probably.” Kayden helped him prepare two plates, and then he walked back to the house.
Inside was dim and quiet. Tori turned from the window and smiled. “Thank you, Michael. I’ll see if Charles is ready to eat.” She strode past him and through a doorway, as lithe as a kittle.
He set the plates on the table and turned to leave. “Michael,” Tori said. “Please stay for a few minutes.”
He turned back. His grandfather slid into a chair at the table, and Tori sat beside him. Michael sat across from his grandfather. “Look, I know you’re probably mad about the units. I….”
Charles held up his hand and shook his head. “Forgive me, Michael. Your life is worth more than machines. Please, let me work with you and Dr. Collin until I die.”
Michael felt his mouth open, but it was a moment before he could do anything about it. “Aaah. We’re medical doctors. He is. I’m just an apprentice. Not sure there’s much work for you, unless you want to process medicines. But I’m sure Collin will let you stay.”
Charles’ eyes glistened bright blue, as blue as the ocean at sunset, and he gave a slight smile. He glanced at Tori, and she went back to the window. At her nod, Charles said, “He did it! He understands my work. Don’t let Thom know. I told him both units were destroyed. He’ll kill them if he finds out. That trunk….” He waved toward the bedroom. “264 inactive 4000’s. For Dr. Hansell,” he whispered.
“He told you! I can’t believe he told you that.”
Charles smiled. “He left the clues. And the little robot. I can’t wait to meet him.” He shook his head. “Not until they’re gone. Don’t let anyone know. If I die on the way, take all my books and my trunk to Dr. Han….”
Michael shook his head. “Collin. Alex Collin. You can get him killed. And yeah. If that’s what you want, I’ll do it.”
“No one else. He knows all the safeguards I need to install. The manufacturers wouldn’t take the precautions we need.” His grandfather gripped his hand, one of the few physical contacts Michael had ever had with him. “Please, Michael. You’re the only one I can trust besides Tori.”
Michael stood and pulled his hand away. “I said I’d do it,” he snapped. He’d come to him to protect his stupid AI cores. Any other sentiment was strictly to further that end. “What’d you bring Thom for anyway, if you don’t want him to know?”
Tori left the window. “It wasn’t our choice.” She watched Charles go back to the room without touching his food. Tori motioned Michael outside on the porch. Then she faced him. “Please, Michael. He needs you to care. None of you care about him at all.”
“He’s never cared about anything but his damn robots and androids.”
“Please, Michael. He just doesn’t know how to express himself.”
“He was doing quite well in there. Protect his work over everything else.”
“No. Oh, please, listen,” she touched his arm, a gesture she had never used before, and her voice shook with an emotion she’d always kept hidden except for that one night. “He’s hurting so much inside. I can’t stand to see him dying a little more every day. Please give him something to live for. Let him know you care. Your father, your aunt, Thom, they’ve all cursed him. No one understood that he killed the robot as soon as he knew it was dangerous. They all thought his work came first, but it hasn’t. He’s tried to help Thom recover, but Thom doesn’t see it. He misinterprets everything, just like you are. Please, Michael.”
Kayden came around the edge of the house. Her eyes widened as she approached. Tori noticed her and dropped her hands from his arm. “Is something wrong?” Kayden asked.
Tori took a deep breath and focused on Kayden. “Just catching up.”
“Don’t lie to her!”
Tori jumped and stared at him with wide eyes. “I wasn’t, Michael.” She glanced at Kayden and then back at Michael. “I wanted Michael to know how ill his grandfather has been. He doesn’t believe me.”
“You didn’t say he was ill.”
“I did so! He’s dying inside. I can see it. You’re as angry as Thom is, and he didn’t do anything wrong!” She turned and had disappeared into the bungalow before Michael realized she was leaving.
Michael scowled. “She thinks he wants to reconcile with me. He wants Collin to see his work. Has nothing to do with me.” He lowered his voice. “After the others leave though. And Thom doesn’t know. We better get back to the group. Just like him to interfere when my life has straightened out.”
Kayden slipped her arm around his waist, but said nothing.
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.