Tori sat beside Charles’ bed. There was nothing else for her to do after their luggage was unloaded. Michael had stalked out of the surgery, but left Kayden, claiming he needed to be alone. Kayden had followed, but then came back and sat near Rose. Now the two spoke of James, the clinic and the doctors here.
As usual Tori was alone, even though she sat in the same room with them. She took Charles’ hand, a liberty she wouldn’t have taken if he were well. If only she hadn’t gone with Rose and Kelsi to the out house. She’d failed him, and this time it might be fatal. Her father was right. Rebellion ruined her ability to serve. And he wouldn’t even be hurt if Thom hadn’t wanted to kill her. He’d said it repeatedly as they drove home, trying to convince Michael that he should want her dead also. Michael had ignored him, each time urging the horses into a faster gait until the jarring shook Thom to silence. Tori shivered. She’d never been hated so passionately.
A little girl ran into the room, stopped, looked around and then jumped over to Kayden, grabbing her hand. “Are you done? Did you save him?”
“Ssshh, Sweetheart,” Kayden said in a low voice. “You better not let Collin hear you disturbing the patients.” She hugged the little girl with the long, wild, black hair.
“I missed you,” she said, but her voice was softer now.
Rose smiled at her. “Is this your little girl?”
Kayden gave the girl a squeeze until she squirmed away. “I’ve thought of stealing her away. She’s just like a daughter. I even get to spank her.”
The girl giggled. “I’ve been good.”
“This is Shanika Stone, Quinn’s daughter.”
“Quinn? Oh, the tall man with the black braid. He’s a doctor, too, isn’t he?”
“My daddy’s the best doctor! He’s in there now, isn’t he?”
Tori bit her lip. Why did it matter? Of course he was married. Maybe if Charles was well right now she wouldn’t feel so emotional. If she hadn’t failed him, her only family, maybe… Angrily she rubbed her fist into her eyes to stop the stinging. It was Charles. It was her failure. It was not the loss of hope that the man had stirred up within her.
Or maybe it was. It was the loss of all hope. Hope in her own abilities, hope that she actually belonged anywhere or would ever deserve to have a family, hope that Charles would live long enough to find some measure of joy.
A pregnant woman entered the room. Tori vaguely remembered her being introduced as Gwen Morrell. Was she Quinn’s wife? “Kelsi and I have a buffet dinner ready, and soup if any of the patients….” She broke off and clutched her stomach, clenching her teeth.
“Gwen! Is it time?”
She waved Kayden away. “I’m okay. It’ll wait. Mrs. Bell, Ms. Yasuo, you both should eat.” Then she left the room.
Tori wasn’t hungry. The older doctor emerged from one of the adjoining rooms, and Kayden took her gaze from the door Gwen had departed through.
“Maybe you should eat first, Geoff. I think Gwen’s in labor. And Par’s off delivering someone else’s baby.”
“Collin and Quinn still in surgery?” he asked.
“Yes. And I need to run out and find Michael.” She leaned down to Shanika. “You go with Aunt Gwen and eat now. I’ll be with you in a few minutes. Go on, Tori, Rose. You both need to eat.”
Tori bit her lip again, remembering the last time she’d given in and left Charles in someone else’s care. “I’m not hungry.”
“First thing Collin teaches us: you can’t help anyone if you don’t take care of yourself. You need to eat. Geoff, you talk to her.” Kayden ran out of the room. Shanika and Rose followed.
Geoff Napier lowered himself into the stuffed chair between the two beds that no one had sat in before. “Your grandfather or your father?” He grabbed the folder beside the bed.
“My….” She didn’t want to say employer. That sounded so cold.
“Your what?” he asked gruffly, not looking up. “He’s Michael’s grandfather, isn’t he? Are you related to Michael, also?”
“No. I… I work for him. And he’s like my own grandfather now. I….” How could she explain? Why did she need to explain? She didn’t want them forcing her away when neither Michael nor Thom even cared for him. And she had no one else. “I have no other family.” It was the truth. They’d disowned her for disobeying. She knew they had.
The man’s sharp gaze focused on her. “I can’t promise he’ll be all right. You know that.”
“I know,” she whispered and wished her eyes wouldn’t sting.
“If anyone can save him, Collin can,” he said softly.
Tori bit her lip again, and then stopped when she caught herself. How much did this doctor know? Did he know about Cee and Jamel? Did he know about Collin Hansell?
Michael reentered the room, and Kayden followed. He stopped before Geoff. “How bad is he?” He nodded toward his grandfather but didn’t come any closer.
“Same as he was when Quinn wrote the report,” Geoff said gruffly.
Michael snatched the papers from Geoff.
“Hey. I excuse quite a bit from distraught relatives, but you should know better.”
Michael grabbed one of the chairs near James’ bed which Rose and Kayden had brought in, and he settled in before Geoff. “Sorry. Collin kicked me out also. Man, I hate those machines. Butler’s got himself interfaced into Thom’s nervous system, and then he’s claiming he isn’t responsible for a thing he’s done.”
Geoff leaned forward. “That’s what they’re doing in there? Taking a computer like Cee out of… of where?”
Michael placed his hand over the right side of his abdomen. “It’s a nightmare.”
“And your cousin.” Geoff shook his head. “Family’s always hard.”
“They shouldn’t have come.”
Tori left Charles and knelt before Michael’s chair. “Please,” she whispered. “You’re all he has left. He needs you to care.”
“I care,” Michael growled. “He should have stayed at the University.”
“He couldn’t. Not after Butler. Please, Michael.”
Michael glanced back at Kayden standing behind him. She gripped his shoulder. “Why are you here, Tori?”
“I came with Charles. He needs his family.”
“And are you family? Are you really his body guard like Butler says? You didn’t do too good a job if you are.”
Tori rose and stumbled back as if he’d struck her.
“Michael,” Kayden chastised in a low voice.
“She’s not a body guard. I’m just getting the facts straight here. He hired you as a nurse, didn’t he? Not anything else.” Michael stood and confronted her.
But Tori had never known him so angry, so accusing.
“You’re not a ninja, are you?”
Tori could feel the trembling all the way through her. “I’m his apprentice now. As you noted I have failed as a guard. I bungled Butler’s recall, killing Thom’s child, and now I bungled my duty to Charles. I didn’t need to go with Rose and Kelsi. He would be justified in sending me away. He….”
“It is your fault!” came a voice. She whirled around to see Collin, Quinn, Roger, and another man. Collin held the core, and it spoke. “You killed Thom’s child. You’re killing Thom now.”
“Silence,” Collin commanded. “Tori, did Charles intend this unit to be destroyed?”
“Then let’s get it outside and take care of it. Would you like to finish the job?” He motioned her through the door, and she could only comply like a child to his wishes. Soon they stood behind the house – her, Collin, Quinn, Michael, Kayden, Rose, Roger, Kelsi, and several others.
Collin threw the rectangle to the ground. Jake winged overhead and then landed, sending Roger to hover in the doorway.
Rose stood her ground. “How will the dragon destroy a computer?”
“He’s here as a witness. Any AI unit which cannot be trusted, which endangers the life of human beings will end up like Butler.”
“You won’t kill me. I’m too valuable. I could… It’s the A! How is that possible?”
“Tori, shut him up, or I will.”
Tori withdrew her laser and aimed it at the black box in the grass.
“The A is with the dra….”
Tori’s laser sliced into the black rectangle. She let the beam play over it again and again until Collin touched her shoulder. She pulled up.
“Michael,” he said. “You will examine the remains of the core to make sure there is not any possibility of reviving it. I want Jake’s opinion also.”
The dragon stretched his neck to the patch of melted ground. “Butler is gone. I will bring Cee back.” He swung his nose to Collin.
Collin’s hardness left his features, and he responded by leaning against the beast’s head and rubbing his cheek against it. Then he stepped back. “Come on, Quinn. We need to move the patients.”
“Is he still alive?” Rose asked, following them. Tori followed also. She should be near Charles.
“Yes. Thom is alive.”
“But planetary justice….” Rose began.
Collin whirled around in the doorway to the patient room. “It is not my place to execute justice. I will terminate machines, but I will not kill a man. If he recovers, I will escort him to the Intake Office, and they can execute justice elsewhere. He may encounter a bit more mercy than he’ll receive here.”
Rose stared up into his face, her jaw firm.
Collin touched her shoulder. “I know you’re hurting, Rose. Your husband could have died. Rest assured that Thom will most likely not recover. He has suffered far more physically than James. Butler attempted to kill him, I assume so that he could not serve as a witness against him. I do not know the extent of his neural damage however. He may be crippled; he may not have his mind. There may be some combination of the two. We will only begin to know as the anesthesia wears off and he wakes. Even then, only time will tell how fully he’ll recover.”
Tears rolled from Rose’s eyes, and she let her gaze leave his face. “I just don’t know how he got the laser.”
“It was hidden internally, just as the core was. He’s also now fighting a raging infection from those less than ideal operations.”
She rubbed her eyes. “There will be someone with James all the time, won’t there?”
“Yes.” Collin entered the room and checked James first. Then he checked Charles. “Quinn, let’s put Thom in the private room. I don’t want him in with one of the men he almost killed.”
Quinn did not look at Tori as he silently followed Collin back into the surgery.
Tori sunk into the chair beside Charles. Butler was finally dead. This time it was final. She stroked Charles’ hair and kissed his cheek. “Butler’s dead, Sir,” she whispered. “Everything’s going to be all right now.”
She glanced up to see Quinn watching her. He whirled away and stalked back into the surgery.
She heard Geoff give a grunt as he sat in the armchair. “Gets a little tense after surgery, doesn’t he? Of course, that wasn’t our run of the mill type surgery either. I’ve stitched up scores of lungs in my life, but I’ve never removed a computer from someone’s gut. Is he a friend of yours?”
The question caught her off guard. “Thom? I’ve known him for almost seven years.”
They watched as Collin and Quinn carried Thom through on a stretcher to the spare bedroom. When they reentered the large room, Collin focused on Geoff. “As soon as I finish eating, I’ll be in to sit with the patients tonight. Quinn, are you going upstairs for the night or waiting for Jake.”
“I’m waiting. If you no longer need me, I’ll put Shanika to bed.”
Collin dismissed him with a nod, and Quinn strode abruptly from the room.
“Is he upset?” Geoff asked, as Michael entered the room.
“Quinn?” Collin looked over his shoulder at the doorway Quinn had left through. “Not that I know of.” Collin shrugged. “Probably as angry as I am at that thing trying to pass itself off as a loyal friend.”
“So I can say it this time?” Michael asked, stopping before Collin. “I don’t have to tiptoe around any artificial feelings.”
“Right now, no. But keep your voice down. Our friends are sleeping. And if you had to deal with Butler on a regular basis, I can see how you’ve become so angry over it.” He touched Michael’s shoulder. “Come, eat dinner with me.”
They left as Rose reentered the room and took her husband’s hand. She kissed his cheek. “Hey, Jim! I felt that. You are awake, aren’t you? He squeezed my hand, Doctor.”
“Good.” Geoff stood and examined James.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Collin stretched as he watched Michael examine the remains of Butler’s core in the small box on the dining room table. He hadn’t slept much last night and he wouldn’t tonight, but he knew he would get slightly more rest if they could reinstall the implants tonight. Then he could trust Jake to alert him to any noise he might miss because of weariness.
Kayden stood beside Michael and rubbed his shoulder. “There isn’t any way he could possibly be alive, is there?”
Michael sifted through the dirt and melted plastic pieces one more time. “No. There’s not enough left for anything. What are you planning to do with this?”
“Nothing. You do as you see fit, Michael. Jake should be here with our….” He tapped the back of his ear. “Are you ready?”
Michael clenched his teeth.
“Oh, Collin, yes. I can’t stand to not hear him,” Kayden said. “But Michael hurt himself. I think he’ll need to use the other side.”
Collin gave Michael’s shoulder a quick rub. “You, my friend, need to stop and think before you mutilate yourself. You have run out of ears. But I suppose the site of your original implant is healed, but don’t build up any more scar tissue.”
“If I didn’t need to be able to get messages…,” he growled.
“But we do. With three seriously ill patients, we’re all on alert.”
Quinn reentered the room with a bag in one hand, and his other hand held over the pocket of his shirt.
Collin withdrew the small wooden boxes with the transceivers, each labeled with a name. “Cee, how are you doing?”
“I am fine.”
Collin met Quinn’s gaze. The little voice had been too abrupt. But Quinn’s face was unreadable. “Do you still sense Butler?”
“He’s dead!” Cee said, her voice close to panic. “Quinn and Jake said he was dead!”
“Yes. The core is before you in the box.”
“Yes, Collin?” Cee asked quietly.
“What disturbs you?”
“Well, let’s get these in. Opposite sides.” He opened the box with Quinn’s name. Quinn sat in a chair and lowered his head to the table. After Quinn’s transceiver, he did Kayden’s and Michael’s. Quinn did his, and then he sent Quinn in for Geoff.
“Okay, all. Up to bed. We all need our sleep.”
“You do, too,” Kayden said.
“Tomorrow night. Now move along.”
Collin went into the patient room. Only Tori remained with them. Michael followed him to stand by his grandfather’s side a moment. Tori still sat in the chair beside him. Collin focused on James.
“Look, Tori,” Michael began, but kept his gaze on his grandfather. “About earlier. I was just a little upset over Butler and that I never knew you were a bodyguard. I always assumed you were his nurse.”
“I’m not much of a bodyguard,” Tori whispered. “Hopefully I’ll be a better nurse.”
“You don’t need to do anything right now. Collin will be down here all night. But if you want to help out, I’m sure Collin won’t mind bossing you around also.” Michael met Collin’s gaze. “Seeing as you and Charles apparently were planning to live here or some such.”
Tori blushed and watched Collin. “You said, Sir, in your report, that… that you’d like to work with him. And you understood. But if you don’t wish….” She bit her lip, and she seemed about to cry.
“You and Charles are welcome to stay as long as you wish,” Collin said as gently as he could. The girl had been through a lot today, especially if she indeed felt responsible to protect Charles Jamel from harm. “You should get some sleep now Tori, and perhaps we’ll talk another time.” Another time when they were both rested and alone he’d find out what Charles had intended by coming here. He touched James’ forehead to forestall any inopportune conversation Tori might wish to make. “I see you’re awake, my friend.”
James opened his eyes and gave a slight smile. “You a doc?”
“Dr. Alex Collin. My colleague Geoff Napier and I rooted around inside you a bit.”
“And I’ll live?” he asked with effort.
Collin chuckled. “Yeah. It was a clean slice, and your right lung is healthy.”
“Lung. Burns like… like….”
“It’s about time for more medicine. This time you can swallow for me, can’t you?”
“I’ll get it,” Michael said. He named off the pain killer, and Collin agreed to his choice, adding an antibacterial agent.
After James had his medicine and was settled, Michael left. Collin settled into his armchair and raised his feet to the footrest. “Tori, you really do need to rest.”
“But I need to be here in case….”
“I am here.”
“You don’t understand,” she said with a low cry. “It’s my job. I can’t trust anyone else to do it for me.”
Collin closed his eyes. “Sleep, Tori, or you’ll be no good to anyone.” He listened but she did not leave. Finally he said, “You will find if you stay that I insist on having a benign dictatorship. It irritates Michael sometimes, but he knows it’s for the best. I have emergency situations come through here at all hours, and I cannot risk my patients to someone who is too tired to remember their own name, let alone the proper dosages of medication to give. Right now, you are a guest. Do as you wish. But I assure you, that you will not help Charles by denying yourself food and sleep. You did not eat either, did you?”
He opened his eyes and turned his head to look toward the girl. She bit her lip, and tears streaked her face. Collin stood and motioned her into the dining room away from the patients. He rubbed her shoulder and sat her in a chair. Then he brought the leftover meat and fruit from dinner and sat across from her.
“Charles?” she asked, starting to get up.
“He’s all right. Trust me, Tori. Eat and tell me what you and Charles plan to do. Then you’ll be able to sleep, won’t you?”
She cut into the slice of ham, and ate a small bite. “You understand his work,” she whispered. “He needs someone to understand. He needs someone to give him a reason to live. His family does not understand him. Not even Michael. You did want to work with him, didn’t you?”
“I’m not sure what we can do here, Tori, but yes, I’d like very much to learn more about his research.”
“And Jamel. He wants to meet Jamel. He sometimes holds his book as he rests. He will get well enough to meet him, won’t he? After Butler he so needs to see his success.”
“Does he want to destroy me?” Jake asked in Collin’s ear.
“After Butler, are you positive that you and Charles do not wish to destroy Cee and Jamel?” Collin asked, watching her intently.
“Oh, no! No. Thom will if he’s still able, but no. It was so hard to make the decision on Butler, but after Cee’s report what else could he do? Cee is okay, isn’t she? Butler tried to get her again, didn’t he?”
“Cee says that she is fine.” But he knew something disturbed Cee, and he needed to have a bit of time alone to talk to her. He decided to switch the subject. “Tori, what will you do if Charles dies?”
She bit her lip and her tears fell freely. “I don’t know.”
“You have no family?”
“My father… I….” She shook her head. “You should know everything. When Charles retired, I was no longer paid by the University. Charles could only offer less than half what I’d been getting. I knew my father wanted me to take another position, but I couldn’t leave Charles alone. He has no one!” She grabbed his arm as she spoke, but then quickly removed her hands. “He can’t die yet. Not before he meets Jamel.”
“But you, Tori,” Collin said gently. “What will you do?”
“I don’t know. Stay until you tell me to leave. I have his research to give you. I promised if he died on the way that I’d make sure you got it.”
“Me? Not Michael?”
“You, Dr. Hansell,” she whispered. “Only you.”
Collin squeezed her shoulder in reassurance. “Then it is even more essential that you get your rest, Tori. You risk my secrets when you let yourself become disoriented by lack of food and sleep. You will always have a home with me. Now, finish eating and then rest. I must look in on our guests.”
Collin checked James, then Charles, and then Thom. Thom’s vital signs were slightly improved, but he still did not respond to stimuli. Had he restarted the man’s heart to have it beat in a shell? Only time would give him the answers.
As he left the room, he whispered, “Cee, can you relate every piece of information you have on Tori? Tell me about her family, her work with Charles, and your impressions on her loyalty.” He sat in the chair and closed his eyes as Cee began speaking.
He learned a lot about Tori and decided his first impression was correct. The girl could be trusted, and she could be discrete if she’d hidden her body guard status for almost seven years.
He rechecked his patients and then asked Cee another question after giving the privacy code. “Cee, my friend, what bothers you?”
“I am fine,” Cee said.
“Cee, why are you hiding from me?”
“Please don’t kill me, Collin.”
Collin sat up and walked into the kitchen, away from James’ potential hearing. “Why would you think I’d kill you?”
“You told Jake you’d kill any AI unit you do not trust.”
“That is true, but Cee, I have no reason to distrust you, do I?”
“I have never functioned properly. And Michael will tell you. Jake can tell you. My information can easily be stolen. I can’t be trusted. But Collin, I promise. Next time I will fight until every piece of my core memory is wiped out. Please do not kill me. I will not let your secrets escape.”
“Oh, Cee, I have no intentions of killing you. Please don’t fear me. I trust you to confide in me and in Quinn. I trust you not to harm people when you have the means to do so. That is the kind of trust I expect. I am not angry at a child for not being able to fight off killers. Please, don’t fear.”
“I will never hurt you, Collin. I will never hurt anyone. I promise.”
“Good, Cee. I believe you.”
“Will Charles live?”
“I hope so.”
“Will he ever want to see me, too?”
“I’m sure he will,” Collin assured her, instantly realizing how Tori’s comment about Charles desiring to see Jamel without mentioning Cee had cut into her fragile ego. “You know how much Geoff loves to talk to you. I’m sure Charles will seek you out just as much.”
“Geoff does like me, doesn’t he? He talked to me as soon as he went to his room tonight. He talked to me before he talked to Jake.”
“Yes, Cee. You will always be a valuable part of our team, even if this first attempt at a body does not work out. We will keep trying until it does. Is there anything else I should know?”
“I will alert you if I discover any problems.”
“Thank you, Cee.” Collin rechecked the patients and performed routine tasks. Then he rested. “Jake, alert me if you sense any movement or sound.”
And then he was able to get almost an hour of sleep before he was needed again.
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.