Michael drew the horses to a halt before the capitol building a half hour before they were to meet Governor Hollis. He’d timed it just right. “Okay, all. The governor has arranged to meet us out here, but we’re early enough that we can tour the building first. You may wait here if you don’t wish to go inside.”
Michael climbed down from the driver’s seat and walked to the back of the bus as several others jumped off the platform. He climbed up to the sturdy canopy which was designed to hold additional luggage. Sure enough, his dragon heads were right where Kayden had put them. He tossed them down to the concrete.
“You should warn people, Michael,” Kayden chastised from Sam’s back, but she wore a slight grin. “Not everyone is used to dissected dragons.”
Michael jumped off the wagon as Kayden dismounted. “I didn’t dissect them, dear. Didn’t Collin teach you better than that?” He kissed her cheek. “I just need to deliver these to Hollis,” he told the group. “You may join me.”
James jumped off the wagon, grinning. “Okay, this I must see.” He leaned over and ran his hand along the un-mutilated half of the orange dragon’s head. “Soft.”
Michael shifted his pack from his shoulder and held it out. “This is what it feels like after it’s processed. You’ll all have the opportunity for souvenirs later. The tanner’s main shop is in Alexandria near the hospital.” Rose and Kelsi took their turns feeling the processed and the unprocessed hides.
Kayden jumped up on the bus and showed Charles and Tori her pack.
Thom kicked at a dragon head. “Where’s the rest?”
“The hides are probably in Alexandria by now. The caresses, washed out to sea or on the beach.” He gave James a small smile. Michael grabbed the strap between the two heads and lifted them up so that his hand was level with his head to keep them from dragging. “Coming?”
Kayden ran to him and walked beside him. He noted that everyone followed except Tori and Charles. Michael started up his monologue on the building, what was done there, the offices, the election system which comprised of the city and village mayors voting for the planet-wide governor every five years, although the weight of the vote was determined by the size of the city, so that the villages really didn’t have any say at all even if they all voted together. They usually just added their votes to the choice of whatever large city mayor they had the closest ties with.
Michael stopped before the desk of Hollis’ secretary. “Hello, Andrea.”
“Oh, Hans! More dragon heads already? You’re so efficient.” She giggled. “I’m sure he’ll see you.”
Kayden jabbed him in the ribs.
“Andrea, have you met my wife, Kayden?”
“Oh, no. You just can’t be married,” Andrea said with mock disappointment. He knew she was already married and had even met her husband when they both stopped in at the same time. She grinned at Kayden. “Congratulations on the catch.” She stood and opened Hollis’ door. “Hans… I mean, Michael is here.”
Michael strode in, his entourage following.
Hollis kept his gaze on the paper he was reading. “I told you one o’clock, Michael.”
Michael reached the desk and let the heads thump to the floor. “You requested the Medon Beach murderers.”
“It’s about time.” Hollis stood and shook his head as he glanced over the rest of them. “I said I’d meet you downstairs.”
“They wanted a tour of the building, and I know you’d want to assure one and all that the dragons were indeed dead when you went out in public.”
Hollis looked like he wanted to say a few more choice words about Michael’s delay, but then he smiled. “Well, welcome to Capitol,” he announced. “Six of you? Did you enjoy your stay at the beach?”
“There are seven. Kayden is my wife, remember? Two others are waiting on the bus.” Michael introduced each of them.
The governor led them through the building. Michael stopped at the treasurer’s office, and the rest of the group stopped with him. Hollis looked back, clearly annoyed. “Can’t this wait?”
Michael looked as innocent as possible. “Can’t what wait?”
Hollis strode back and got his 200 gold for the Medon Beach heads and another 400 that he’d refused to give Michael a few days ago. Then they continued on.
At the building’s entrance a security guard joined them, and they went outside. Hollis slipped into his solicitous political charm, and Michael decided that any more antagonism would work against him. He’d only made the show of things, because lately Hollis had been very sour every time he came, and he hadn’t wanted to part with the money he’d promised. Hollis wanted dragon slaying for political advantage. Not only did Michael despise that game, he had no control over the dragon slaying. That was completely Collin’s, Quinn’s, and Jake’s decisions. He was only a beneficiary of their good will.
Michael almost hoped Hollis would tell him not to bring the heads anymore. He had enough coins, and he’d still collect his salary as tech spy. That is unless Zemmer fired him also because he hadn’t reported any illegal tech at all in his year on the planet. Or because he botched the tourist assignment. Either way he still had his work at the hospital and with Collin. He didn’t need to work for the government anymore.
The governor told Michael to take them to Palmento’s, a large restaurant near the recreational docks. The working docks were actually a smelly and busy industrial center and not as scenic as the affluent docks of the rich.
Michael drew the horses to a stop, quite pleased that he’d picked up enough skill to avoid jerking by the time Hollis was with him. Everyone dismounted the bus wagon except Tori and Charles.
“You must eat,” Rose said.
“Is anyone going to stay with our luggage?” Roger asked. “After all those thieves….” He glanced at Hollis.
Hollis smiled. “Don’t be concerned. Michael will stay with the bus. It’s his job, after all.”
Michael wanted to protest, especially at the smirk Hollis’ security guard gave him. That man would be dining with Hollis and the group, but Michael decided he better do it. Tori had said their luggage contained things no one else should have.
He jumped back up to his grandfather. “Let me help you down. You and Tori enjoy your meals. I’ll stay here.”
Tori gave him a tentative smile. “Thank you, Michael.”
His grandfather grabbed Michael’s arm with his wrinkled hand, and his grip tightened. For a moment Michael thought he would say something as he stared up into Michael’s face, but then he stood and followed Tori to the steps instead of jumping off the side as most did.
Michael waited until they were inside and then he moved the wagon away from the restaurant’s door. Kayden walked Sam along with him until they both settled back to wait and to eat some of the additional fruit and meat Hope had sent along.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The long, deeply polished wooden table sat in a glassed off and screened alcove which opened on three sides to the water of the bay. James suspected the water was below them also. The room attached to one side of the restaurant. Hollis was in full political charge now, directing waiters and waitresses, telling jokes and highlighting details which put himself and the City of Capitol in a good light.
James smiled at Rose. They’d seen a lot of political maneuvering in their time together as Roscha Zemmer rose through the ranks to become the Director of Austin. Although Austin was not a highly sought position, Roscha was sent because she did know how to maneuver politically. And she knew how to make liabilities into assets.
The food arrived in stages, and James recognized a superior chef. This was a far cry from the abundant yet simple meal provided last night. Not that either meal lacked. Living in space, one definitely couldn’t fault fresh food of such caliber, but he could tell that Hollis’ main objective was to impress them.
“So, what does Michael do here?” Thom asked. He sat across from Roger and between his grandfather and Hollis’ nameless security guard. James found a bit of humor in that the guard was never introduced to them. He’d often been treated as a nonperson as he performed his duties. But by watching this young guard, he guessed that he thought Hollis’ invitation to eat with them put him above his fellows. Experience would teach him it meant nothing more than Hollis had something against Michael. But now he focused on Hollis’ answer to Thom.
“He doesn’t do anything here except collect money. Kills dragons in the mountains and leaves the ones in the city. You’re Thom Granger, right? So where are you from?”
“CentiOne. I’m Michael’s cousin. Did you meet our grandfather?” He motioned to his right. “Dr. Charles Jamel, premier AI scientist.”
James smiled as Hollis struggled to find a way to cover his gaff. He hadn’t even taken the time to be introduced to Charles and Tori, obviously dismissing the older man immediately.
“Michael kills many deadly dragons. You won’t have to worry about being killed while you’re with him.” He glanced at the guard beside him, now obviously wishing he’d made a different choice.
Rose touched James’ knee under the table. She wanted him to stir things up a bit, so they could learn more about the situation.
“So, do you have many dragon hunters here?”
Hollis gave only the slightest scowl before he answered. “I have petitioned Director Zemmer and Director Raleigh before him, but Michael is the only one they have sent.”
James noted Charles glance at Tori in surprise, as he tried to hide his smile over the mis-impression that Director Zemmer was a man. “No native hunters?”
“No. There’s a rumor of a Hans Trapper – legend really. A seven foot man dressed in blue dragon-hide, but it’s an old legend, and probably developed back when the directors would actively send men to help us. We really don’t have the technology to kill the beasts. Guns anger them. You’d need about five to ten men with guns to back each other up, and still one is bound to be injured or killed if not more before the beast finally dies.”
Thom shook his head with a snort and grabbed his wine glass. “Michael is the last person I’d hire to kill dragons. Wouldn’t doubt his wife does it for him, the way she jumps around on those flying deer.”
James wondered if Thom was right. Kayden certainly had shown them her agility. He’d given someone the laser Director Raleigh had entrusted to him.
“So you’d say this planet’s greatest need is more dragon slayers?” James asked.
“Medical facilities are adequate? That was my biggest concern with this holiday,” James said.
“Yeah, we’ve got clinics all over the place. It’d be nice if Capitol’s hospital was recognized by Director Zemmer. In fact we have two hospitals here and clinics of various sizes, many who take overnight patients. It seems unreasonable that Alexandria is the only hospital who receives supplies and then they have the power to deny them to everyone else. If any of you see Zemmer on your way out, you could tell him that.”
James grinned. “Aren’t you a nurse, Roger?”
Roger nodded. “I am most interested in discovering the state of your medical facilities. Perhaps I could tour several of them.”
“I’ll remember to tell Michael to put that on your itinerary.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Tori and Charles followed the others back outside. Hans Trapper. That was who she’d met. That was who she couldn’t stop thinking about, even in her humiliation. She knew Michael hadn’t killed those dragons. She’d seen that man do it – Hans Trapper. The robot, Jamel, had said in his report that he also killed dragons. She didn’t think Governor Hollis knew as much about the dragon slaying going on as he thought he did.
Governor Hollis commanded Michael to take him back to the Capitol Building and then to give them a tour of several medical facilities.
“I had planned to go to Alexandria.”
“No. I want them to see the ones in Capitol.” He rattled off two addresses.
“But….” Michael clamped his mouth shut, and this time Tori knew he was angry. He stopped before the Capitol Building with a jerk. “By the way, where have you planned for us to stay tonight?”
“I thought you had that all worked out.”
“I did. But you’ve changed the schedule.”
Hollis glared at Michael, but didn’t answer, instead striding up the steps and into the building.
Michael urged the horses forward. He didn’t speak again until they stopped before a clinic. “Before we go in, I’d like to remind you all that we must find a hotel before dark….”
“Michael?” Kayden asked timidly from her wingdeer. “Do you want me to go ahead and get a room close by?”
“Actually,” James said. “I think Roger is the only one who really wants to see the medical facilities. We could skip them if it is a problem.”
“Oh, then it isn’t a problem,” Kayden said. “I can wait here until Roger is finished, and then bring him on Sam. We have room for two more to stay that way also. You could ride Bambi. She’ll follow Sam anywhere so it’s not a problem.”
Roger eyed the beast and then shrugged. “Why not? Coming, Kelsi?”
Michael led them inside and then returned a short time later, telling Kayden where to meet them. He seemed in a better mood, and again began telling them about the sites they passed. He rolled to a stop near a pit larger at the bottom than at the top. “Aussie’s form of capitol punishment. Repeat offenders, violent offenders, large ticket theft. Punishment’s the same. Throw them in the pit and let them starve and dehydrate until the dragons come to dismember them. Then they wonder why the dragons keep coming back for more. The villages don’t have pits, but most criminals are lucky to get this far. They’re usually lynched or otherwise killed before the trial.” Michael glanced back. “You kill someone here, you die. You attempt to kill someone, you die. You try to rape someone, maim someone, attack someone which results in serious injury, you die. There are no extenuating circumstances. Except maybe if both fighters are dead drunk, but you still might die. Crime rates are actually quite low,” he concluded.
“What if someone kills a robot?” Thom said with an icy voice.
“No robots here to kill.”
“What about Cee?”
“She malfunctioned. I ordered her destroyed.”
“Her? What’s this her? Did you lie in your report to keep it here?”
Tori was afraid Thom would attack Michael right then. She saw James tense also.
Michael set the reins and turned to face him. “It insisted on being referred to as a female. I told you the unit malfunctioned. I ordered it destroyed.”
“You ordered! But it wasn’t, was it? It’s alive, and Butler’s dead.”
Tori bit her lip to keep from speaking out. Butler wasn’t dead. That’s how Thom knew Michael was lying.
Michael stared at Thom. “I do not have the unit. I ordered it destroyed. I can only assume it is destroyed. Cee can no longer tell you my secrets.”
Thom glared at Michael and then gave a strangled laugh and looked back at Charles. “He gives it away! Did you hear that, Gramps? He gave away a unique prototype. He’s the one who malfunctioned.” The laugh became a bit manic. “He isn’t so intelligent after all, is he?”
“May I continue on to the hotel, or would you rather stay at the pit and watch the dragons take a snack?”
“Oh, go on, Michael. We’ll find your missing Cee unit and kill it. Can’t have the little girl going berserk and hurting someone, can we?”
“You better watch your temper, Thom. I’ve warned you about the justice here.” Michael grabbed the reins and jerked them moving again, rushing the horses through the streets. They made it to a small inn right as the sun hit the horizon. They grabbed their bags and the stableman took the wagon and horses to the back.
“Okay, we need one, two… Are Roger and Kelsi together or separate?”
“Together,” James said.
“Michael, do you think Charles and I could have one room – two beds or an extra couch if possible.”
Michael simply nodded.
Thom snickered. “Don’t you think I should share with Gramps, and you should get your own room?”
Charles Jamel straightened and pierced Thom with a glare. “You would do well to adjust your manners. I’m becoming tired of excusing them. You talk of matters that have no bearing on this tour, and you threaten people like a petulant child. I do not wish your company. I will have my own room.”
Tori bit her lip, but with a look begged Michael to understand. He walked to the counter, but she couldn’t hear his soft negotiations. James stood beside him, but faced the room.
When they returned, Michael handed them small metal objects. James grinned. “I haven’t seen a key like this since I visited a museum on Balor.”
“What are our plans for tomorrow?” Rose asked. “Will we see the other medical facility?”
“It’s seven blocks north of here. We can stop on our way out of town.” Michael led them through the building and pointed to the doors of their assigned rooms.
Inside her room, Tori was relieved to find a door between hers and Charles’ room. She’d be able to protect him after all.
She reentered the hall. Thom was passing through. “Going for a walk?” he asked. “You can come with me.”
Tori shook her head. “I am too tired.”
Thom snickered and then left. Tori followed and looked around the corner until she saw him leave the building. Then she ran to the door she’d seen Michael disappear into. Kayden answered her knock.
“I need to talk to Michael.”
Kayden admitted her. “Of course, Tori.”
Michael sat on the bed, but he stood as she entered. “Something on your mind, Tori.”
“I couldn’t tell Charles. It tore him apart, seeing how Butler almost killed Falice and how he crushed my….” She bit her lip again and stared down at her right hand. Why had she admitted to Michael that she’d been injured. “It just hurt him, Michael,” she ended with a whisper. “And two cores were destroyed, but we couldn’t read their identification tag.”
She raised her eyes to Michael’s again. “I met Hans last night. I took a walk and….”
“You met Hans? Hans who?”
“Really?” Kayden said. “I thought he was sending Rock.” But then she shrugged at Michael’s sharp look.
“He told you he was Hans Trapper?” Michael asked.
“No, but he wore blue dragon-hide just like Hollis described.”
“Hollis told you about Hans Trapper? I was under the impression he didn’t believe he existed.”
Tori tried not to let her exasperation show. “He was relating a legend. Now will you listen! As he spoke, a voice cried out from his pocket that Butler was attacking. Do you know what that means?”
She expected he would, but she didn’t expect his violent reaction.
“That bastard android is here!” He reached up and grabbed behind his ear, jerking something from him. He threw it to the floor, a bloody bug of some kind. He raised his foot, but Kayden pushed him away from it.
“No! Let’s save it for later.”
“If he’s got these frequencies, he knows everything we say now.”
“But he might not, right?”
“Cee probably told him everything.”
“Hans hopped on his blue dragon and flew away.” Tori covered her mouth, realizing how incredible that sounded. She shrugged meekly. “He really did.”
“See, Michael. Quinn got her away in time. And Jake was there. He wouldn’t let Butler get anything from Cee.”
“I’m not taking that risk.”
“No,” Kayden said softly. “Remove mine, too, and let’s put them where they can’t transmit anything.” Kayden shivered. “It’s been in a long time, Michael. He’s always been with me.” But she kneeled before the bed.
Michael looked like he’d rather do anything else. Anguish etched his features. But he finally grabbed his pack from the bed and withdrew a pouch. From the pouch he took a small silver knife. “Hold still, Love,” he said softly. He gently brushed away her hair, and then slid the knife along her skin.
Kayden gritted her teeth but made no sound as a small black dot was removed. This one did not have a piece of skin trapped in its legs. Michael applied cream behind Kayden’s ear from a small jar.
The moment seemed too intimate, and Tori inched toward the door. She noticed blood running down Michael’s cheek. Then he took both black dots and sealed them in the jar of cream.
Kayden stood and grabbed her own pack. “Now let me look at your ear. You’ve really hurt yourself.”
“I… I should leave. I just wanted you to know.”
Kayden gave her a brief smile, but it held a haunting sadness. “Thanks, Tori. And you met Rock Trapper. Rock and Jake.”
Michael rubbed a cloth along his face, but the blood was persistent. “What can we do? I can’t take Thom to Hope.”
“Lie down here, and let me look at you. You probably need a stitch or two, Apprentice Doctor Jamel.”
“Well, Nurse Jamel. Get to it.”
Tori slipped into the hall. She’d just unlocked her door when James stopped her. “Tori, we need to talk,” he said, keeping his voice low. He pushed her door open the rest of the way and motioned her inside.
“Something wrong?” And then she shook her head at the stupidity of her question. Of course, something was wrong, and it didn’t take the head of security to figure it out. “What do you suggest?”
“Actually I’m here for two reasons. I’m passing along a warning, and then we’ll discuss Thom. Our host has discovered I’m a security officer from the station and that I have a laser. I did not tell him that you did. Was it common knowledge that you carried one before?”
“No. I normally worked as Charles’ clerical assistant. I don’t think anyone suspects more except Thom knows now because I had to fight Butler.”
He nodded. “You fired the killing shots, didn’t you? You should be his number one target.”
Tori bit her lip and then chastised herself for doing so. When had she acquired the habit? “I think we didn’t kill him. I don’t know how or where, but I think he has the core with him. It’s a little black rectangle, three by four inches and less than half an inch thick. Did you see anything like that on him?”
James shook his head and sat in the one chair. “Is it dangerous? Does it have a laser?”
“It doesn’t have a laser, but it can invade any other processor almost at will. He sealed us in by accessing the communications panel remotely. Then he tried to disable life support, but we anticipated that move, and Charles had written an override beforehand.”
“The data files! Right before we left, our Archive was tampered with. Files were downloaded.”
Tori felt ill as she nodded. “You’ve just proven my suspicions are right. Oh, Charles will be so devastated if anyone else is hurt.”
“That’s why I brought him down. I suspected Thom, but I figured he couldn’t steal too many files down here.”
“But he could kill Cee, Michael’s little computer. That’s how we knew he was malfunctioning. Michael’s report detailed incident after incident of Butler raping Cee’s neural net. Only when Michael was away from Butler, was Cee able to admit to the abuse.”
“You make these robots sound human.”
Tori couldn’t help the slight smile. “He did do it,” she whispered. “He succeeded!”
James tilted his head. “And you will inherit the plans to these little black boxes.”
“Me?” Tori asked in surprise. She almost admitted the truth but then decided she better keep that secret. “They were destroyed. It was in the news report also.”
“Okay,” he agreed, but Tori suspected he didn’t believe her. “Now how do we stop Thom and his bodiless android?”
“I wish I knew.”
“You had no plan when you recalled it?”
“We planned to dismantle and destroy the core. We obviously failed.”
“Unfortunately that means we have to let him make the first move.” James sighed. “That’s the part I hate about this job. Of course, I could adopt planetary justice and execute without a trial.” He shook his head. “Nope. The conscience won’t let me.” James stood and walked to the door. “You do know this means none of us can return to the station until that black box is destroyed. I can not risk the life support systems up there. Let me know if you find out anything else.”
“Oh, and as I was about to tell you earlier. Michael plans to take us to the Village of Hope. Apparently they have some kind of rare mammal dragon as the village protector. Citizens get murderous if you try to kill it. Just thought I’d warn you. Sky blue, Michael said.” James slipped out the door.
And then he was gone.
Tori reached to open the door to the adjoining room, and it swung open. It had been ajar. Tori panicked. The lamp was not lit, but moonlight entered the room. “Charles?”
She crouched beside his bed and saw the glistening on his cheeks. His breathing was slightly heavier than when he faked sleep, but he was doing so now. She kissed the salty wetness. Then she sat on the bed and rubbed his shoulder. There were no words, and soon he allowed the darkness to be the only shield as he wept for Thom and for all of them.
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.