Michael and Kayden were waiting at the Immigration Intake office when they arrived. As soon as they were out of the building Rose felt the chill in the air. Somehow it seemed colder than just the week before. But she ignored the weather. “How’s Jim?”
Michael grinned. “He’s worrying away about you and how things went with Roger.”
Rose rolled her eyes as she reached the huge wingdeer. It was Bambi again, the same one she’d rode to Capitol a week before. “It was routine. He left for Balor two days ago. His supposed connections knew he was just causing trouble and have refused any further contact from him. Now about Jim….”
“Really. He’s doing great. He’s debating with Charles and Collin about what causes a dangerous android. He is using his vast experience with your Trea as his point of reference.”
Rose winced and let her forehead rest against Bambi’s side. She reached inside her jacket and pulled Trea from her pocket, handing her to Michael. “Please, Michael,” she whispered. “You or your grandfather. You’ve got to save her.”
“It was Butler,” Tori said. “She’s in there, but all she can do is tick.”
Michael’s jaw hardened.
“Oh, no,” Kayden cried. “This is Trea? Jim talked like….” She shook her head and touched Rose’s back. “I’m sure Michael and Charles will do all they can.” Then she leaned against Michael and wrapped her arms around him. “Oh, I’m so glad he didn’t hurt Jamel,” she whispered.
Rose faced them. “Jamel?”
Kayden’s face changed from one of compassion to fear. “I meant… We better get home.” She jumped onto her wingdeer Sam.
“She meant,” Michael said evenly, “the 5000A unit. Yes, I recovered the unit as I had permission to do. It has bonded to Kayden and helps her with her nightmares.”
Rose nodded. “I saw the report he sent back,” she admitted, but decided to save her knowledge of Jake the dragon with the AI brain for later.
Michael’s jaw tightened briefly again. Then he swung his pack from his shoulder and reached inside. “I brought you both riding helmets, scarves, and gloves. Flying gets pretty chilly, especially this time of year.”
Rose glanced up at Kayden, and she already had a hat on and was adjusting a scarf, tucking the ends into the collar of her jacket. Michael began putting on his own. Rose and Tori followed their example. Talk was over, and soon they were in the air. After a moment she realized she did not have Trea. She assumed Michael had her in his own pocket.
They stopped half way home, but at a different site than the attack, for which Rose was grateful. They used the out facilities, and then Kayden offered them sandwiches, fruit, and water. They sat at a small table under a large tree with only half its leaves, most of them now yellow.
“How is Thom?” Tori asked quietly.
Michael shrugged. “He’ll be able to travel back with Jim, but….” He shrugged again. “Collin says maybe time will help, and perhaps some modern medical techniques, but Thom just doesn’t seem to be able to control any of his body. We think he’s in there, but he just can’t communicate.”
“Like Trea,” Rose couldn’t help noting.
“Yeah. I guess so. Guess it’ll be your call about his treatment after he leaves. We don’t have any options for nerve restoration in Hope, and they don’t in Alexandria either.”
Rose wanted to ask about that hidden geneticist tech, but then decided that Michael and Collin were right. Why risk that secret for someone who, if left to the planet’s system of justice, was a dead man anyway? She nodded. “Jim and I will file suit against him. Along with attempted murder, he also has to answer to smuggling weapons into a prison, misrepresenting his intentions to government officials with the intent to murder, and accessing, stealing, and changing information in a government archive unit. It will be up to the penal system to treat him as they deem necessary. If you or your grandfather wish to write a paper on his behalf explaining the extenuating circumstances, I will make sure it reaches his lawyer.”
Michael swallowed the last of his sandwich and then drank down his water. Finally he met her gaze. “I suppose it would be only fair to explain Butler’s involvement. But unfortunately, as my grandfather, Collin and Jim have concluded, it was Thom’s initial dishonesty by cheating on his exams, his girlfriends, his wife, and by, we are now almost certain, him ordering Butler to retrieve information from Cee and other University computers that he had no business getting, that destroyed the ethics programming in the unit until it had not even loyalty to him. But I’ll have the report ready for you by the time you go back. Two weeks this time?”
“Three. We have business to conduct in Capitol that last week.”
Rose nodded, but she would not reveal her plan until she had confronted Collin Hansell. “So your conclusion is that it is the owner who must be honorable for the machine to be honorable?”
“Sort of. There were not many malfunctions in the 4000 series, but they seemed to stem from similar problems, ethics conflicts. I’m sure there are many 4000 units functioning fine with owners who are less than ethical, but I think the line must be whether the owner asks the machine to function unethically, or maybe it is if the owner combines unethical requests with a relinquishing of power to the unit, who is little more than a child and needs firm guidance not a license to commit crimes. It is complicated, and I understand that my grandfather has already issued a recall and warning in the media.”
Rose chuckled. “But we didn’t even know Trea was a 4000 so I imagine those not technically inclined might not get the warning.”
“Well, the manufacturer should have sent it on to you, but we know they don’t always do so unless forced to by lawsuits. That’s why he waited to release the 5000 and it’s a good thing he did.”
“But when they perform well, aren’t they almost human?”
“Well, that is the problem. Humans will kill also and will corrupt their innate ethical guide – their conscience. Even a child needs those ethics reinforced as he grows up.”
“But Cee and your 5000A. Are they grown up? Can they be trusted now?”
“Yes,” Kayden said immediately. “I trust Jamel with my life, and you know Cee saved your life, Michael. She’d never try to kill anyone.”
“But me.” Tori stared into her water cup and spoke so low Rose thought they wouldn’t hear her.
“No, Tori!” Kayden said. “How could you even think Cee would hurt you?”
She shook her head, but didn’t look at them. “I’m just tired.”
“Tori,” Michael said firmly. “If Cee has done anything to make you feel that way then you must tell us. We will not ignore any warning signs.”
Tori shook her head. “I hurt Quinn. I broke his rib. Cee hates me.”
Michael glanced at Kayden as if bewildered, but finally spoke, “But why would you do that? Quinn would never hurt you. Does Collin know?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
Rose drew the girl into a one armed hug. “Tori, did Quinn threaten you? You can’t marry a man you fear.”
“No.” Tori raised her hands to her eyes, and rested her elbows on the table. “No. It’s my fault. I can’t sleep. I’m losing it, Michael,” she whispered. “I can’t do anything right anymore. I thought it was Butler chasing me again, and… and… now Cee hates me. She doesn’t want Quinn to marry me.”
Michael glanced at Kayden again, and Rose saw him squeeze her hand before focusing again on Tori. “This was when you weren’t sleeping.”
“She’s still not sleeping,” Rose admitted, wondering how close she’d been to getting a broken rib when she’d chased after the girl. “She said Collin was giving her a tea.”
Michael gave a quick nod. “Then if Collin is treating you, Tori, and he knows about what’s going on with Quinn and Cee, then you can trust him. I was with Cee for almost six years before I gave her to Quinn. I do not believe she’ll hurt anyone.”
“She’ll protect Quinn.”
Michael smiled then and rubbed his jaw. “I guess that’s natural. She’s taking her ethics from him, protector of the innocent. He has a strong right arm.”
Tori’s gaze shot up from the wooden table top to Michael’s. “Quinn really hit you? I didn’t quite believe him.”
Michael gave a small laugh. “Last year. When he thought I was harassing his little sister, Kayden. And again when I tried to run a diagnostic on Cee. He thought I’d killed it. Yeah. He’ll protect about anyone but himself. He didn’t hit you back, did he?”
“No! He wouldn’t.”
“Quinn knows it was an accident,” Kayden said. “I’m sure Cee knows it, too. Quinn will set her straight. He’ll protect everyone,” she grinned, “even you. And he misses you. Bet he’s waiting out at the barn. We better get moving.”
Michael conceded, and soon they were again in the air.
Kayden was right. As soon as they landed in front of the barn, Quinn ran out to greet them, helping Tori down from behind Rose. Rose waited for him to assist her, but instead he unwrapped Tori’s scarf from her face, and then drew her into his arms, kissing her. And as Rose watched, it was evident that the embrace and kiss were mutually enjoyed. Arranged marriage indeed. Collin was probably just agreeing to the inevitable.
Rose swung herself off Bambi’s back as the stable girl, Marta, came for the wingdeer. Michael grabbed her luggage, and they walked toward the porch.
She saw Jim before she was half way there, working his way down the porch steps. But he was dressed and moving on his own. Rose jogged to him, but stopped right before she threw herself in his arms, only because she remembered his healing side.
Jim raised his hand to her face. “My flower. I’ve missed you.” He kissed her and then held her. Rose closed her eyes to enjoy his strong arms, his scent, his endearments. She’d missed him so much.
Michael passed them with a slight nod and smile, taking her luggage into the house.
She kissed Jim again. “I wish we could be alone.”
Jim chuckled. “Unfortunately those three steps are the most I can handle.” He pointed to the porch steps. “And Charles is taking Geoff’s room now until we take Thom back. And of course Thom has the other downstairs room. So we’re stuck out in the open.” But then he grinned. “However, I could ask Charles if we could have a night in his room, and he’d take the outside bed.”
She kissed him, but then wondered if they’d really be alone. If Collin suspected she knew about him, would he have some sort of electronic surveillance? Perhaps he’d even leave Cee in the room to report back to him later.
He could sense her moods too easily, so she teased him. “Are you really up to a night alone with me? Perhaps I need to consult your doctor.”
“His doctor says it’s time to get him back into the house,” Collin said, grinning from the porch. “It’s a bit too cold out here for someone who is not used to an unprotected environment. Welcome back, Director.” Collin came down the steps to assist Jim back up them and into the house. “We don’t want you to get pneumonia in your weak lung.”
“For my wife, I’d sacrifice myself.”
“As you’ve proven,” Collin said amicably. “But I’m sure she doesn’t want you to take foolish risks.”
“Just wait till you get a wife, Doctor. Then you’ll understand.”
Collin said nothing. He simply helped Jim back through the house and to his bed in the infirmary. Except it wasn’t the bed he’d used before near the door to the dining area, but on the other side, near the private rooms – the bed Charles had used.
“Not already,” Jim protested, but his voice wasn’t as forceful as he could be, so Rose knew that Collin had judged his condition accurately.
She went to Jim’s side, as Collin settled him in. “I bet you’ve been waiting since Michael left this morning, and you didn’t rest, did you?”
“I’m well enough to see my wife.”
“Sure you are,” she agreed, slipping into the chair Tori had used almost constantly before. “I’ll sit right here, and you can see me as long as you can keep those eyes open.”
“Rose….” He hesitated, listening toward the private rooms. “Michael said Trea. What’s he talking about?”
Collin no longer was smiling either. He took a few long strides and disappeared into the room where Charles and Michael were discussing Trea. Tori ran through the infirmary and into the room, Quinn following her.
“Rose, what happened?” Jim insisted, struggling to sit up on the bed.
“Hush,” she said softly, trying to hear them. “It was Butler. Before we left.” She held his hand and rubbed her thumb along the back of it. “They’ll save her. He has to save her, Jim.” She kissed his forehead and then left him, going into the bedroom.
Tori stopped talking and then took a deep breath. Charles sat at a small desk, looking over a case of electronic equipment. Tori stood beside him, and Quinn beside her.
Michael was on the opposite side of Charles, closer to the door. He stood beside the desk, his back against the wall. He glanced at Rose. “This is the tool kit I was allowed to bring with me,” he told her, as if she’d deny him anything it took to save Trea.
“I am communicating with Trea,” came a small voice from a core on the desk. “I can not get through the communications channels, but she can hear audio input, and she is responding in Morse code by arcing power over the damaged comm panel.”
“Remarkable,” Charles said softly. “I wonder why he left her in tact, and not Pet.”
“Perhaps he just wanted to silence Trea about his presence,” Tori suggested. “But from Pet he wanted any information on your core design that he could get.”
“Yes, of course, Tori. You must be right.”
“Trea says that she presented herself as a domestic robot – a housekeeper, and he looked no further, thereby protecting her master’s secrets. Very good work, Trea,” Cee commended.
Rose stared at the black box called Cee, lying beside the black box she knew must be Trea. Although Trea had offered opinions as to whether an idea was feasible or foolhardy or dangerous, she didn’t think she would commend another robot for doing a good job. But then they hadn’t encountered many of Trea’s class in their travels, and those had been superficial meetings. Or maybe that was a difference between the 4000 and the 5000.
Charles drew Trea to him. “I’m going to open you up now, Trea.” He ran a low beam laser sealer around the narrow edge of Trea, and then pulled the two halves apart. Then he ran a magnifier over it, looking intently at the parts.
Jim came up beside Rose, and he slipped his arm around her waist, leaning against the door frame and pulling her close. His gaze went to Charles.
Charles shook his head. “Not good. Not good,” he muttered.
“Charles,” Collin said in a low voice. “I’m going to have to give you some doctor/patient relation lessons.”
Charles’ head shot up and around to look up at Collin. “What’s that?”
Collin gave a soft smile. “Don’t scare the poor girl by muttering ‘Not good’ during your exam. Wait to give her your diagnosis when you can give her a full explanation.”
Charles glanced back at the unit and then up at Collin again. “Oh. Yes, of course. Most of my units are not conscious when I examine them.” He focused on Trea again. “Ah… well, Trea, I’m still looking. Don’t… ah….”
“She understands, Sir,” Cee said. “The communications section will need to be replaced.”
“Ah, yes. You’re right, Cee.” Charles glanced at Michael, took a deep breath and then focused the magnifier over the core again. This time he kept his muttering to himself. He then took another of Michael’s tools and did some tests. He shook his head a few times. Finally he pushed the tools aside and met Michael’s gaze, who had watched the progress intently. Then he glanced back at Rose and Jim. He shook his head. “You’ll have to do this up on the station, Michael. This isn’t enough.” He waved at the small tool kit. “To replace everything and keep the consciousness intact is….” He motioned to the room. “I’d need at least a magnification platform with high level precision arms. They might not even have one at the guard station. And you need to find new parts.”
Michael glanced at Rose. “My job is here. I can’t go all over the galaxy to… surely someone else can do this.”
Charles shook his head as he rose from the chair. “Perhaps. I don’t know.” Then he carefully made his way past Tori and Quinn and settled on to the bed. His face was almost as white as his hair as he closed his eyes and settled back on the bed.
Tori adjusted the blanket over him. “He needs to rest now,” she said softly, and by implication, ushering them from the room.
Michael slid into the chair Charles had vacated as Collin helped Tori herd them out. “Yes, you may,” Collin muttered. “Yes, I will. Consult Charles and Michael.”
“What’s that?” Rose asked.
Collin shook his head. “Just thinking out loud. But didn’t I just put you to bed, Jim? What are you doing up? You look about to fall over.” And amazingly the doctor lifted her almost 200 pound husband like he was a child and settled him into the bed. Age had definitely not diminished Collin Hansell’s physical abilities at all.
Michael ran from the room, pack slung over his shoulder. He glanced at Collin, and Collin gave a slight nod. Then Michael took off.
“Where is he going?” Rose asked.
“Perhaps to see his wife,” Collin suggested.
“But I wanted to ask him about Trea. There has to be a way to fix her here. Tori said the manufacturer would probably just replace the core, which means Trea, herself, would be killed. Collin, isn’t there….” She looked up into his face.
“You are asking a country doctor on a techless world. I’m sorry, Rose. I can not help you.” He left the room. She heard his voice again. “Geoff, will you stay with our patients tonight? Thanks, Wilma. I’ll eat on the porch, and then I’ll walk you home.”
“Jake is off somewhere. Don’t worry. We’ll get you home before night has fallen.”
“Rose,” Jim said weakly. Rose retreated to sit beside her husband. But he was too tired to talk, so she held his hand. Country doctor indeed. Why hadn’t she just called him on it? Confronted him right there. But she hadn’t planned to do it in front of an audience. But when he returned, Rose would talk to him. He must have the facilities to save Trea.
He hadn’t returned by the time everyone was going to bed. She hadn’t seen Michael or Kayden either. She caught Quinn and Tori going upstairs together. “Where is Collin?”
Quinn shook his head, one hand on the railing and the other on Tori’s arm. “I don’t know.”
“Does Cee know?”
“Cee is with Michael tonight.”
Rose sighed. “When will he be back?”
“Collin. I need to speak with him.”
“I don’t know. He may have gone to see a patient. He didn’t tell me. What do you need? Perhaps I can….”
“No. I must speak with Collin.”
Quinn’s jaw moved as he stared at her. “I don’t know,” he said abruptly, and then turned, jogging up the stairs. Tori barely hesitated before following him.
Rose shook her head, angry at herself for letting her emotions make her voice sharp. Trea had time. It didn’t appear the injury would get worse. The best thing she could do would be to get some sleep so that she could confront Collin Hansell with logic and not emotion.
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.