Tori couldn’t sleep. She lay on the floor just outside Charles’ room. Michael and Kayden had the room beside it, and Thom slept on the couch in the gathering room. She heard movement and sat up.
“Oh, Tori,” Kayden whispered, crouching down. “What are you doing on the floor?”
“Trying to sleep.”
“But I thought you took the couch.”
“I’d rather sleep here.”
“It’s okay,” Tori assured her. “I really am content here.” She lay back down to prove her point.”
Kayden let out a sigh of exasperation. “Next time I’m going to tell Michael to make sure Zemmer sends down exact numbers and the sleeping arrangements needed. Not that they gave him but two days’ warning this time. Really, Tori, Michael and I will take the floor.”
Tori jumped up and grabbed her arm, and although they’d been whispering, she lowered her voice even further. “Please, don’t. I need to be here so I can hear if he needs me. He is ill, even if Michael doesn’t believe me.”
Kayden’s expression changed. “Collin will know what to do,” she said in a reassuring voice. “We’ll be careful tomorrow.”
Tori waited until Kayden went back to bed. Then she silently made her way outside. She didn’t think Thom would attack with Michael and Kayden near, but she felt guilty wanting to feel the ocean breeze against her face. She hadn’t been on a world in almost seven years, and the domed community of CentiOne was nothing like this real open air environment. She had longed to join the others at the water’s edge that evening, but she couldn’t leave Charles. Especially when Thom hovered near.
She stood on the small porch for a moment, savoring the cool night air, the salty aroma of the ocean mixed with the sweet scent of the flowering bush beside the porch and the lingering odor of their evening meal. The water lapped against the shore, and Tori wanted to see it, to feel it, to walk through the sand barefoot as she’d seen the others do.
Tori slipped off her boots and socks, ignoring the small part of her mind which said this was irrational, she needed to be with Charles. And then she ran lightly to the water. Her feet sunk into the cool sand with each step, and when she reached her destination, the wet sand before the water, she stopped to stare up at the three moons, one full and bright. With a tiny rush, water ran over her feet, tickling her with ice cold fingers. She didn’t move, but she smiled, now understanding the strange dances she’d seen from the window, as Rose and Kelsi ran to the water and then jumped back from it.
They’d been looking for something, and Tori scanned the beach as they had, hoping to find the tiny things they would hold up. All she saw was sand, some seaweed… Kelsi had grabbed a handful of that and taken it to Kayden. Tori reached down and picked up an oblong, white object. Smooth and swirling and hollow. She longed to see it in the light. She slipped it into her pocket. She caught a glimpse of another as the water rolled over it. She dipped her hand into the water, but it came up empty. On the second try, she pulled up the object, curved like half a circle, ridged on the outside and smooth inside. She gave a chuckle. She’d gotten it.
“You shouldn’t be out here,” said a low, but firm male voice.
Tori whirled around, dropping the shell, ashamed that she hadn’t heard him approach. She really was losing her edge. But her self-loathing could wait as she focused on the speaker. He dressed in clothing that sparkled with a bluish cast in the moonlight. His hair was as dark and as long as hers, worn in the same braided style, but there the resemblance ended. Whereas Tori’s face was rounded, clearly showing her Japanese roots, his face was longer with angles, and his nose longer. As a child she’d learned to respect her own ancestry and as a result she could identify other major people groups. She was sure this man could trace his heritage back to the Native Americans, although the bloodline was not pure as hers was.
“You should go back inside,” he repeated. “It isn’t safe.” He angled his head to stare into the sky down the beach. “Get down,” he commanded.
She followed his gaze and saw the glint of fire off a huge, dark object. Fascinated, she tried to determine what it was. When it was almost to them, she suddenly realized the beast had incredibly large teeth, and this was probably the dragon she’d been warned about.
A laser beam shot from near her, up into the beast, cutting into its head, severing it from its neck. As it fell, the man rose from a crouching position and pocketed his laser. “Can you hear me at all? You almost got yourself eaten, and they don’t make allowances for beauty nor idiocy.”
She wanted to be outraged. He’d called her an idiot. But he had such a tender expression on his face as he watched her, she could only be shocked.
“Are you real?” he asked, his gaze now running over her whole form.
But then she saw another dragon coming from behind him. She’d have the opportunity to prove she wasn’t a complete idiot. She drew her laser and raised it toward the silvery beast. But his laser blasted into her hand so quickly, she didn’t even have time to react before her laser dropped to the ground, and she could only stare at her hand which was still intact.
He rushed to her. “Are you okay?” He grabbed her tingling, numb hand.
His laser had a safety, she realized, as the tingling from the energy bolt traveled up and down her arm. She wanted to shake awake all her stunned nerve endings, but instead she remained stiff, watching the silvery dragon land in the sand only a few inches from them.
“I’m sorry,” the man whispered. “I couldn’t let you kill him. I wish you could tell me how it feels. Is sensation returning? Is it numb?”
“Why does she have a laser?” asked a rich, tenor voice, coming from the dragon. The dragon grabbed her laser from the ground with one forepaw and held it up, looking at it. “Who are you?” it asked.
The dragon whipped his head around to her. “Charles’ assistant? Is Charles here?”
The man dropped her hand, his gaze losing its tenderness. “You’re not deaf. Why aren’t you speaking?”
The dragon chuckled. “I think the same reason you didn’t when you first met me. She’s in a bit of shock.”
“Not enough that she couldn’t kill you.”
“Cee says she’s a gentle person. I believe her. Tori obviously didn’t know I was a mammal dragon. She might have thought I was attacking you.” The dragon focused its large head on her again. “Am I right?”
Tori gave a slight nod, but inside the humiliation remained. She had failed. She hadn’t heard him. He’d been faster, and even her presence on the beach meant she’d failed in her duty to Charles. She’d lost her focus. She’d lost everything. Her father was right. Rebellion often killed the rebel, or in this case it could kill Charles. She lowered her gaze to the ground, unable to meet his eyes or the accusations in them.
“Hey,” he said softly. “It’s okay. I know this is a big shock. How’s your hand? I’ve never aimed at a person before.” He took her hand in his again, and this time she felt the gentleness as he examined her hand and arm thoroughly. “Can you feel my touch?”
Tori closed her eyes. She couldn’t attack to get away. He was not an enemy. And yet he had witnessed her humiliation. He’d saved her life from a man-eating dragon and then saved his dragon friend from her. She felt his hand touch her chin and his thumb caressed her cheek.
“You need to go back inside,” he said softly. “We’ve got two beasts, but there may be more.” His finger moved on her skin once more.
“Butler is here!” came an alarmed voice from the man’s chest.
Tori started and backed away a step as the man’s hand left her cheek and clutched his pocket.
“Where?” said the dragon. “I’ll show him he can’t….”
“He’s invading. Help me.”
“Quick. We must get her out of range. She’s not strong enough,” the dragon said. He tossed Tori’s laser to her, and she caught it automatically.
The man rushed to the dragon and jumped onto its back. Then they shot away through the night sky.
Tori watched them disappear and then crumbled to the sand, trembling. What had happened? She’d totally failed her training, but… Butler was dead, wasn’t he? Oh, no. No one was safe.
Tori ran back to the bungalow. She stopped just outside the door and listened. Movement. Slowly she made her way inside.
“Having a night time stroll?” Thom sat at the table.
“I didn’t get out earlier.” She tried desperately to cover her disappearance, her failure. If Butler was alive, Thom knew everything Butler knew. Did Butler know she’d been with… with Cee! The man must be Cee’s new owner. Cee had known who she was and told them.
She slipped her hand into her pocket to reassure herself that her laser had been returned, and she felt the shell. “I found a shell,” she said, pulling it out. “But it’s hard to see at night, so I only kept this one.” She didn’t know if he’d accept it or not. All the statements were facts, so hopefully Butler would not detect her deceit. How much did Butler sense of that scene on the beach? Had he just stumbled upon Cee then? He had to have, Tori concluded. From the report she’d read, she was pretty sure Cee wouldn’t remain silent any longer when the object of its terror arrived. It had sensed Butler, sounded the alarm, and Butler had invaded, trying to silence her. Her… They’d called Cee a she. Odd. That wasn’t in the report.
“You didn’t see anyone else outside?”
“One man. He might have been from one of those houses we passed on the way in.” He’d catch an outright lie. She had to be careful. “I am tired.” She moved to Charles’ doorway.
“See any of those dragons Michael was whining about.”
“Matter of fact, I think I did. Pretty in the moonlight.”
“But you’re alive.”
“Guess I wasn’t part of its dinner plans.” She reached Charles’ door and paused, not wanting to make herself more vulnerable by lying down.
“Go on in. You know you want to.”
Yes. She wanted to check on Charles. And she’d sleep easier with a door between her and Thom, that is if she slept at all. Silently she entered the room and closed the door behind her. She made her way to Charles and then listened for the sound of his soft breathing. He was alive and breathing as he normally did when he faked slumber.
She kissed his cheek, and then sat on the floor beside his bed. She wouldn’t burden him with Butler. He could do nothing about it now, and it would just tear him apart. Who could she tell? Michael? She wasn’t sure anymore. He was as angry as Thom. No. Not quite as angry. Dr. Hansell’s – Alex Collin, she must remember that. Dr. Collin’s report had said he wasn’t as bitter as he’d been. Was it bitterness? But poor Charles. His worst fear was that Michael wouldn’t want him, and here it appeared he was right. And if that little computer, Jamel, was not true to the words in his report, if Jamel did not forgive and welcome Charles, he would have nothing left, except her – a pathetic excuse for a body guard. She wished they were sharing a house with James and Roscha. James… she should tell James. But how could she explain that she knew?
Tori curled up on the floor and didn’t sleep until the room began to lighten with the dawn.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Quinn had secured his straps as they flew, and after assuring himself that Cee had suffered no more damage, he rode in silence. His thoughts went back to the woman – the beautiful woman, moving lithely through the sand, dipping into the water for shells like a fragile bird. Tori Yasuo, Cee had called her. “Butler can’t hurt her, can he?”
“I do not know,” Cee said. “I do not think they would let his android body come down, but I am not certain.”
“But does this means Michael’s grandfather is here?”
“And perhaps his cousin. Butler was always with Thom. Thom loved Butler.”
“Tell me more about Tori.”
“There is not much to say. She is Charles’ assistant, hired right after Jake was stolen and Michael and Thom were declared apprentices. Right after I was activated. Michael dated her three times. She came back to the room with him once.”
Quinn felt the jealousy rouse through him.
“Do not tell Michael I told you that. He was very angry when Butler took that piece of information from me. But Butler and Thom said she stayed the whole night, and she did not. Michael never had anyone stay the night. I think he did not want them to hear the nightmares.”
That didn’t answer the most basic question in Quinn’s mind, but he supposed it did not matter. Michael was married to Kayden. But then Quinn chastised himself. As if a girl that beautiful would consider dating him. Besides she was one of Michael’s tourists; she probably wasn’t staying. And he knew nothing about her to even think she’d be worth spending more time with. She hadn’t even spoken to him.
But then his thoughts returned to the bigger problem. Butler. What would they do about Butler? “Is Charles here to take you back?”
“I do not know.”
“I invited Charles,” Jake said. “He’s probably here to see me. But I will not tolerate Butler. I told Charles what he did. He should not have brought him. I will not reveal myself as long as Butler is around.”
Ten miles outside of Capitol Jake dived and entered a cave, landing lightly on the floor. The cry of bats and the rustle of wings caused Quinn to dunk. “Is there a reason we’re here?” he asked into the darkness.
“We must finish our job for Michael.”
Quinn wasn’t all that enthused about leaving two perfect dragon hides behind either. “But Cee…..”
“We can leave Cee here and then return when we are finished, or I can finish alone.”
“Will you be safe here, Cee?”
“I would not have suggested this spot if she was not,” Jake said.
“As you wish, Quinn. I can do nothing without you. I must trust you.” There was a thread of fear.
Quinn dismounted. “Make sure Tori made it back to shelter safely.”
“I will examine the stomach contents of any additional dragons I kill,” Jake said solemnly.
Quinn let out a sigh of exasperation. “Could you at least scan to see that she’s still not outside?”
“No, I will not.” Jake whirled around to leave.
“Wait! What is it? Why are you angry? What did I do?”
Jake swung his head back to Quinn and rubbed against him. “You didn’t do anything wrong, my friend,” he said softly. “It is not you I am angry with.”
“I am angry at Butler for attacking Cee. I am angry that Charles allowed him to come. I am angry that I can not fly back to Medon Beach and tear into the bungalows until I find Butler and kill him. But if I do what I want to do I will destroy all we have achieved in Hope; I may start another riot; and what is even worse, is that if Butler is stronger than I imagine, then I will risk Collin, his lab, and anything else that I have been entrusted with. I am angry because I cannot execute justice without potentially damaging thousands of people.”
Jake faced the cave’s mouth again. “I do not plan to do more than determine which barn the wingdeer are kept in. I cannot risk detection and jeopardize Collin’s work for my own satisfaction.” Jake jumped into the air and flew away.
Quinn made his way outside. He preferred that to the blackness of the cave with its invisible scurrying creatures. He had his laser and Cee to protect himself from stray dragons. As he waited, he knew Jake was right. Whatever they really wanted to do, they must always consider how it affected Collin and his work at the lab. In Hope alone dragon deaths had been stopped. If Collin could continue to make a few more good dragons, the whole planet would be safer.
As it turned out, Quinn killed two dragons and was still skinning them when Jake returned and the sun rose. With four full hides, they needed to go to Alexandria just north of the cave they hid in to take them to Ulan Tole. Jake could not fly directly into the city during the day since too many people did not know of him. They would have to wait for nightfall, as it was impossible for Quinn to carry eight bundles of dragonhide from the woods to the tannery on the north side of the city. They wouldn’t be able to warn Collin until after they delivered the hides sometime during the following night.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Michael stretched as Kayden ran back into the room. She’d gone out to the small barn at dawn to check on the four horses and the two wingdeer. She grinned. “Two dragon heads, as ordered,” she whispered, climbing onto the bed and pushing him over with kisses.
He kissed her and then rolled away. “We’ve got company,” he said with mock chastisement.
“Yeah, so you better get up, lazy. Rose and James are already at the beach. And if Kelsi asks me if one more piece of stinky seaweed is edible, I’ll scream. With all the fruits, vegetables, grains and meats, you’d think she had enough.”
Michael laughed, but kept his voice low. “But fruit trees are hard to grow in space. Kelp on the other hand, can be produced rather easily in most cases. She’s probably looking for food she can reproduce.”
Kayden scowled. “Then they won’t need the trade from Hope.”
“And you’d be happy eating kelp for every meal?” he teased. “So, Quinn came through for me again, did he? The orange and the bronze?”
“Yep. The heads were sitting right beside the bus. I swung them up to the roof for you, so you don’t alarm our guests until you need to.”
“Very thoughtful of you. Did you think of breakfast?”
Kayden groaned. “Where’s Wilma when I need her?” Then she smiled. “We’ll have fresh fruit and dried mutton.”
“You’re such a great cook. And resourceful, too. Did I tell you how glad I am you’re with me?”
“Not yet today. About twenty times yesterday.”
They met the others outside, gathered on the porch of their bungalow. Even his grandfather came outside for a short time. When he went back inside, Tori followed immediately.
Thom snickered. “She spent the night in his room.” He focused on Michael. “She’s milked him of all his money. Your dad told me she is now his sole heir, and Gramps said he’d already given it all to her.”
Michael was a little surprised at the news, but it was like hearing of a labor strike on some distant colony. It didn’t really have any immediate application to him.
“She slept outside his room.” Kayden said. “I saw her when I got up once.”
“She went in later.”
“He’s sick. You always stay in the room with a sick patient,” Kayden said.
Thom gave a patronizing roll of his eyes. “You know what I mean, Michael. She’s probably kissing him as passionately as she kissed you. That was a night you had, wasn’t it? Surprised it doesn’t give the old man a heart attack.”
“Thom, don’t embellish my past, nor Tori’s present. If she wants to care for him, then let her. You didn’t volunteer.”
“On the contrary, I did, and that’s when he informed me he’d already given it all to her.”
Michael shook his head. He could not see Thom as a nurse no matter how hard he tried. “I’m sure you’d be such comfort in the sick room.”
Thom gave a chuckle. “No. Not as much as Tori is, I’m sure of that.”
Kayden shivered and backed away. Then she ran out to the beach. A second later Sam winged down, and she jumped on his saddleless back.
Michael stood as she rose into the air. “She’ll kill herself riding bareback.” He whirled toward Thom. “You keep your perverted opinions away from her, do you hear? No one hurts her again.”
Michael turned, stalked from the porch, and almost ran into James. Michael took a deep breath and then forced a small smile. “Nice morning today, James. Anything I can help you with?”
James smiled. “Just wondering how long we had.”
Michael pulled the watch from his pocket and glanced at the hands. “Three hours. Then we need to pack up.”
James nodded. “Walk?”
Michael agreed. Anything to get away from Thom.
Thom stood and came to the porch rail above them. “Aren’t you going to do anything? You can’t let that woman take all his money.”
“What difference does it make?”
Thom leaned down. “Because he probably gave her those 5000 plans, too, and she’ll sell them as soon as he dies. Then what will happen? Millions will be killed. We must save many lives.”
Michael shook his head and walked away at Thom’s use of their grandfather’s favorite argument.
They were down to the wet sand before James spoke. “Do you believe him?”
“About what? That he wrote Tori into his will? If he did, she deserves it more than anyone else. She’s been taking care of him for about seven years now.”
“About the computer plans.”
Michael shrugged. “Doesn’t concern me here, does it? Besides, I think Tori’s a smart girl. If the plans still exist, I doubt she’d sell them without extensive modifications and safety features.”
“So you had an affair with her?”
“What’s this twenty questions? We had three dates years ago. I’m a married man now, and I take that commitment seriously.”
James chuckled. “Sorry. My wife thinks I should write serial dramas. It’s a bad habit of mine to search out motives.”
Michael relaxed a little and decided to steer the conversation toward art. “Ever write any?”
“Bits and pieces. Nothing that’ll shake the known world.”
“With painting, I do more or less depending on how busy I am, but even my father’s criticism couldn’t keep me from it for long. If you got the itch, shaking the world probably isn’t a priority as much as following the muse.”
James smiled. “I didn’t know you painted.”
“And you’re drawing the conversation away from yourself again, aren’t you? Who are your worst critics?”
James laughed. “No one. I don’t show anyone my scribbling except Rose. She always laughs at the right spot and cries when she’s supposed to. My audience of one. Actually I have an audience of two. Our android Trea is probably my strongest critic. She catches all those little inconsistencies like changed hair colors and impossible room layouts.”
They spoke companionably for a few more minutes until James halted in mid sentence and pointed to a large, grotesque shape washed up on the shore. “What is it?”
Michael stepped closer. His stomach churned. He hadn’t seen many, and never wet. “A dehided, deheaded, waterlogged dragon carcass. The tide must have brought it back in before the fish could clean off the skeleton.”
James walked along it. “The thing must be thirty feet long with a head.”
“Wish I’d seen it alive.”
Michael shook his head. “Look.” He lifted his shirt and turned his back to show James his scars. “You don’t want to see them. I’m lucky to be alive.”
James gave a low whistle. “How’d that happen?” He glanced up into the sky. “Are we safe here?”
Michael felt the apprehension return which had slowly dissipated over the last year. “Yeah. I was in the mountains alone. But let’s get back with the group. They rarely attack during the day, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful.”
When they made it back to the group, Kayden had returned safely. He hugged her, and they took a few steps from the others. “Thom is lying, Sweetheart. I warned you about that.”
Kayden clutched him tightly. “It wasn’t that. It’s his eyes, Michael. Something’s missing. I can’t explain it. They just reminded me of….” She clung to him, her face against his shirt.
Michael held her and took a deep breath. He’d noticed it, too. Thom was different. It wasn’t just depression over his divorce.
“He wants to hurt someone, Michael. Just like he’s been hurt,” she whispered. “He scares me.”
Michael kissed her forehead. “Always stay with the group. Take someone with you when you tend the horses.” He saw James glance their way and motioned him over. “James, was everyone screened for tech? Did they make sure none of you have lasers or weapons of any type?”
James’ casual stance became tense. “Why do you ask?”
“Damn. They let you people have lasers?”
Kayden shook her head and tears began falling. “No. Please no.”
Michael held her. “Sssh, Sweetheart. I want you to go straight home. Stay there with Collin.”
“But they’re all coming, and Jake and… and he’ll hurt me.”
“Not everyone has a laser,” James said. “I’m a security officer by profession, so they charged me with security.”
“No. He wasn’t allowed to bring anything. No tech at all. You don’t trust him?”
Michael shook his head. “He’s looking to hurt someone over the android. He was quite close to it. They were together constantly for over six years. He blames me, and probably my grandfather. He may attack those we love for revenge. If you’re security, then I need your help. I no longer carry a weapon. I’m ill suited to it.” He hesitated, remembering the afternoon he had planned. “That fact doesn’t need to be mentioned, especially in front of Hollis, does it?”
“No. Not at all. I don’t anticipate a reason to stand up and declare that you’re weaponless.”
Michael gave a slight smile. “You may be tempted before the day is out. Oh, and in Hope the town has a protector. A mammal dragon. A rare creature that from a distance looks just like the deadly reptile dragons. This one is a sky blue color. Don’t kill him. The village will hang you with its customary quick justice, probably not giving you even the benefit of a mock trial.”Michael studied the group instead of James’ surprised features. “Anyone else I should warn about small town justice?”
“There’s only one other person in the group who, for security reasons, will remain anonymous. I will pass on your warning. The rest are techless, except that I was told your grandfather was allowed to bring several palm notebooks, as he planned to retire here. I think they assumed you would just add the machines to your collection when he died.”
Michael smiled. “You’re more than a security guard,” he stated. “You’re a guard from the station, and you’re the one reporting my actions to Zemmer.”
James inclined his head slightly. “I tried to remain anonymous. Perhaps we do not need to tell Hollis about this either.”
“Perhaps not.” Michael focused on Kayden. “You should fly home, Sweetheart.”
“I’m staying with you.”
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.