rom the safety of his office, Val watched as Pat wandered through the jungle outside. She was intelligent, pretty and sexy -- a combination Val'Con had difficulty resisting. But she mustn't know he was interested in her, in any way. She shouldn't know that he watched her, now.

Then he saw the ch'rama stalking her.

What the hell? Why was she alone? Where was that robot that was supposed to be taking care of her? Should he call to the robot?

There wasn't time! The sneaking ch'rama was getting too close. Quickly adjusting the vacuum portal, he popped into the area between the beast and Pat. The girl spun to face him and gasped as she saw the ch'rama charging.

There was no time for fancy gadgets. Val pulled out his knife as the beast launched itself. Both fell to the ground, rolling over and over. One claw ripped into Val's arm before he could use his knife. Desperately, Val slapped at the beast's arm that was coming at him again. It deflected the blow, but the snarling ch'rama was as large as Val.

Twisting, Val finally was able to use his knife. When he stabbed the beast, it let out a shrill whine that chilled Val'Con to the bone. Drawing up his legs, he brought his feet up to the beast's chest and kicked, launching the ch'rama three feet away. It was to its feet immediately, and charging again.

With all his strength, Val sliced his knife up under the ch'rama's neck, and slashed off the beast's head.

Breathing hard, Val got to his feet.

"What. . .what are you doing here?" Pat gasped. "How did you -- Where did that beast come from? Where's Debby?"

Forcing a grin, Val said, "I'd like to know that myself. That robot is supposed to be taking care of you."

"Well, you did pretty good yourself," Pat said. She touched his slashed arm. "You'd better get that taken care of," she said, moving closer to him.

A strange feeling washed through Val'Con. Without thinking, he reached out and pulled Pat to him. "There's something more important than that," he said, and kissed her.

Embarressed, he stepped back. "I. . .I'm sorry," he said. "That wasn't -- I mean, I didn't --" Lost for words, he stood there, and thought back to his lab on Earth.

+ + +

al'Con cut power and set the brake on the vacuum generator. It would take ten long hours for it to completely slow and come to a halt. As operations handler, inventor, and his own administrator, he had complete control over when and who could travel by his conveyer machine. Based on the vacuum created by the coveted black crystal out of Ballybran, Val'Con had invented something beyond reason, yet it worked. And he protected his inventions with every available safe-guard he could come up with, most of them known only to him.

But he was tired from the day's encounters, having sent the last of the wealthy travelers through, and thank the stars they were all gone. He didn't care for the boring people who hungered only for their own self aggrandizement. His invention was a small, quiet venture of temerity. But he was left now with only his own thoughts. No more vacuous calls for a last minute request to call a loved one, or a forgotten gadget that would make little or no difference in their new destination.

These customers went to well developed planets, anyway. PPPGs, he called the destinations of the wealthy, the places he sent the rich: Pampered Planets for Pampered Guests.Nothing but glorified tourist traps rather than primitive places that were, to say the least, hard to survive on. Life-challenging was not in their repertoire. Places that he liked and enjoyed to the fullest. Val'Con could get them to their PPPGs in the wink of an eye as opposed to gravity ships that could take weeks, months, or years in hibernation to achieve land-fall. His was a leaked technology he'd allowed to circulate, temporarily, in the upper echelons of wealth, for some needed capital.

As far as the out-lands went, the wild planets he enjoyed, his exclusive places and worlds that were known to him alone and not set up for anything other than receiving, nobody went there but him. He could discover new worlds and had explored them with little more than a slight modification of his vacuum generator without ever setting foot on them, via remotes that brought back information with a timed visit. In a week's time, he would disappear for good into one world he had chosen. He would be alone, there, never to return, except in an emergency or out of need for supplies, or to market another invention. There he could invent and build at his leisure without the government leaning over his shoulder. With no intelligent beings there, it was a mineral and biologically rich jungle world, remote and quiet for an inventor like himself.

For six months he had searched for tbe planet and for two years he had been sending items of survival, tools, food stuffs, transports, materials, machines of ever kind, and power grids that would protect all those items. It was a region that would not be traveled to for many, many years at man's current rate of exploration and development. It would be his place, his world, his kingdom, to do with as he wished.

Invention was a tricky business on any civilized world. If someone, or a corporation, didn't out and out steal your ideas, then it could be confiscated by the local planetary government for a multitude of reasons, or they just called it unsafe and hid it from its inventor while secretly reaping the benefits. And then there was the licensing of said invention. Exorbitant fees, waiting lists, disputes over usage.

No more. Val'Con had had his fill of the five different worlds he'd been on in the last twelve years. Brilliant, but scared, he'd had enough.

He checked the speed of deceleration of the Vacuum Generator Conveyor one last time and went down stairs, to his enormous basement lab where he lived and worked, for supper.

"Moroccan Beef over rice, figs, and a chocolate shake," said Debby, his female robot. She did most things domestic and helped him out in his daily work.

"Great!" he said. "I'm starved."

"Go wash your hands," she told him, and he obeyed like a good boy as she dished up his food.

She had been with him for seven years and he now recalled her price tag, for some odd reason, as he let the soap slip through his fingers and then rinsed, remembering, probably because the money slipped through his fingers for her, like that soap. It was a small fortune he'd paid, even used as she was, but he felt she had been worth every penny he'd laid out to the pirate captain for her. She'd been an arms tech on a military ship, from some competing solar system, and had been 'emancipated' to this worlds underground auction blocks.

Debby was beautiful by any standard. Tall, built for durability and strength in a variety of fields, though one would never guess it at sight of her. Her frame was slim and her skin was silky white, and made to look slightly flawed, to seem more human, and an exceptionally lovely thing to behold. Val'Con masquerade her as a domestic house servant. Also, as a girlfriend and even a pleasure unit, but her main functions was being his assistant in the lab. But she was much more than that. She was, in her own right, brilliant. Her frame was made for war but had been adapted to science by that other military, as well as him, in deeper ways, and her skills were envious. Val'Con wished he could do many of the things she could, but regardless, she was an excellent assistant. And one couldn't tell her apart from a real female, unless you knew where to look.

"Have you finished up with your passengers yet?" Debby asked. "We'll have a tight schedule till next Friday."

"I have one more. Some spoiled brat out of the east. The daughter of a titanium mogul, from New Belgium, I think. She wants to go to the Saline system. She's supposed to meet the man of her dreams there."


Val'Con looked at her askance, adjusting the napkin in his lap. "You should know me better than that."

"Oh, I know about your scams, how you fool everyone into thinking you don't care about women, love, or romance when I know you do. You've been scanned by me, remember? Or those times you use me as a screen to someone trying to put the make on you. I'm a pretty convenient girl-friend when you want me, aren't I?"

"Work comes first. And why does that always bother you? I don't put any demands on you other than work."

"If you can't figure it out, then why do you think you're so much smarter than everyone else? Why should I bother to bring it up except in the most civilized, private way, like this, when I do? Don't you get it?"

"Debby! I know your feelings seem real," he said, a bit callously, "but you also know they are only programs taken from one or more females in some other solar system. Your logic is beyond reproach, so, how can you possibly be swayed by artificiality. Those feelings are someone else's. You're a machine and you know it. Why torture yourself? Turn them off."

She looked down into his eyes and bored into his mind with her bio-sensors. Without a word spoken via compression waves, pushed through the atmosphere of their discussion, she told his conscious mind as clearly as if she had verbalized her feelings, "Because it hurts, Val. It hurts very deeply."

The robot stood upright and walked off. Val'Con stared after her cute, trim little figure walking away, as he tested his food, slowly.

Maybe I should pay a little more attention to her, he thought, stabbing without purpose at his rice. I'd hate to have her turn on me, with all her strength and military background. -- Damn it! I hate bending branches for every little wind that comes blowing through. He didn't think it right, taking drugs so he could satisfy his robot, but as he re-thought it, he nearly concluded, Maybe I should sleep with her once in a while? Then logic overtook his mind. She's just a freaking machine. Yuk! -- But of course -- his reasoning said, the pills could make him want her.

The next day, Val'Con briefed the last of his wealthy patrons in the supposed technicalities of his vacuum generator, before babying them in front of its miracle of design. Debby stood nearby, assisting.

Looking into his customer's robin's egg eyes, not being exactly moved by her human beauty, or that fancy looking electronic gadget on her waist belt, or that luscious figure, but not exactly untouched by it, either, he told the rich customer, "Then at the end of your Spatial Time Jump, (the fancy name for the customers), at the moment you've specified, you'll be transported almost instantly back to your focal point, the coordinates you've supplied me with. Now, are you certain there won't be any obstructions other than the flooring in that location? No plants, walls, furniture or people?"

"No, it's nothing but an empty, locked room, in the upper apartments of the mansion."

It was just a precaution Val'Con practiced to fool the patrons from knowing too much. The conveyor would push anything aside or open any kind of wall to air, say, if an insect were anywhere near the coordinates, or the customer were in a wall or another body like a tree, or even a mountain side. It would open a big enough hole for anyone to exit standing upright.

"Alright then," said Val'Con. "Step right in and relax. Close your eyes now. The light's rather intense," he said, as he closed the door to the vacuum machine, an elaborate door of different polished metals and crystal that was for show alone. The beam is what took them. Nothing else was needed. Val'Con pressed the hidden fingerprint I.D. button and the beautiful, and seemingly beautifully-spoiled little rich girl, in her mid twenties, disappeared into the ether and the targeted world.

Good! That was that and done. Now he could concentrate on his own escape. He flipped off the conveyor listening to its beautiful humming noise.

Debby stood close by, staring at his profile, loving the look of her Val.

A week later, Val'Con set the mirror vision for a seven second delay with his hand held calibrator and multi-function tool. The mirror would pull the sending equipment in after he and Debby went through to the planet. They'd have to step away, lively, to avoid it's appearance if they didn't want to land up on their butts. With this little jewel of an invention, nothing would be left behind but building and furniture. Everything of worth and value to this and his other inventions, had already been sent through. Buildings and revenues, investments and securities were all funneled into their proper locations and managed accordingly. The house, in case he ever required it, again, would remain behind so he could return to it and this civilized planet for any raw materials he might need, in the future. And he probably would. He'd have a secure and quiet place to stay. 'No man,' as someone said, Val'Con thought, 'is an Island.' John Donne, wasn't it?

There was a bright flickering of light sensed beneath his closed eyelids, and a slight compression felt in the ears, then, they were there. "Step away," Val'Con said immediately, extending his arm towards Debby. Seconds later, the Vacuum Conveyor appeared. Everything was working out.

They both set to work arranging the equipment inside the smooth as glass floor of crystallized silicon, a combination of earth, sand crystals, and flora that had been formed on the atomic scale of engineering over all the dome bottoms, along with the enormous domes themselves, situated there on a bluff overlooking the jungle planet. Val'Con called the place, 'Keh'louge,' after the little French town he was born in, back on old Earth.

The domes were interconnected by tall crystal tube passage-ways and were enormously strong. More than strong enough to repel any life form on this world, or possible violent storms. They were one of his little ideas that the governments hadn't gotten hold of. Most domes were already set up for work and after a day of arranging, in his main research station, he went to work on a new idea he had to help him live longer than the expected 200 years of most people. If his thoughts were clear, and they usually were, he would never die, at least of a natural death. He was only thirty two but every moment counted in ones life, didn't it? He didn't want to waste any of that time.

"Val," said Debby, the following day. "I'm afraid we've got company."

He strode purposely to her side and was, to say the least, surprised. His lips pressed together in anger when he saw the movement in her hand-held detector screen, used to locate possible small animals from outside the domes.

How in the world did something get in here?

The animal was female, Debby pointed out, and human, in the third dome over to the north. She was moving around, slowly. "That better not be a government agent or I'm putting her outside the complex. The jungle can decide if she's going to live, or die," Val'Con said. "I've had it with spies. Come on."

They ran down the isles of equipment, machines, and tooling needed to manufacture and grabbed a couple of blasters to take with them, along the way. Nothing too powerful to destroy anything, but weapons strong enough to hurt and or stun a person.

Val'Con slipped his multi-function tool from its holster and with it, switched off the lights in the dome, and using Debby's detector screen, threw a spotlight on the intruder from high overhead, via remote control. It was all too obvious that the woman couldn't hide from him and they heard her footsteps coming, but almost inaudibly, towards them but come they did.

It was the last person he'd sent through, the spoiled rich girl. It had been a clever deception. Val'Con holstered his multi-function tool, surprised, and quickly pulled his weapon from its holster, aiming from his hip.

"Explain yourself," he said, noticing she was still wearing that little contraptions on her hip belt. It must have been a stasis device that blocked and delayed her arrival, awaiting the next jump, figuring correctly, for his sending other equipment through. Clever bitch.

"Something must have hap . . ."

Val'Con cut her off. "You're a spy but for what planet? Don't lie to me again. You're no more a tourist than I am a general. What is your objective?"

"I don't know what you're . . ."

Val'Con shot her. She fell back, electricity sparking and skipping all over her torso and between it and her limbs, and then she passed out. "Take her outside and dump her."

"Val," said Debby. "You can't do that. She's a human being . . ."

". . . And a spy. I told you what I would do and I meant it. Do it or I'll deactivate you," he growled, and walked away.

She knew he wouldn't and couldn't deactivate her. It would take a small nuclear explosion to do that. Besides, half his work depended on someone helping him with various experiments.

Debby looked down at the woman, evaluating her face and figure. She was beautiful and Debby remembered the eye movements of Val'Con when he'd sent her through, supposedly to another world, but here she was, the most hated thing in all the worlds, to Val'Con, but awfully attractive to him, too. She did not want to kill her, which putting her outside in this primitive, dinosaur ridden, world would surely do. She instantly made up a plan and effortlessly picked up her human burden and tossed her lightly across one shoulder.

Debby went to stores and took a few pieces of gear from the shelving and exited the dome. She walked some distance from the dome and laid the woman on the ground beneath some foliage. Setting a cube on the ground, she activated it and stood back. A tiny dome about the size of a camping tent bloomed into being and with a special kind of light placed in front of it, she lifted and placed the woman inside as if it were a doorway. She left a metal bucket, for waste, a package of food pyramids, and three bottles of water, and a sleeping bag with the woman. Debby removed the light source and the dome was sealed. A meteor could strike that little dome and not penetrate it, much less any kind of animal.

The domes were magical stuff, able to withstand extremes of heat and cold, and still pass breathable gases through their self cleaning filtration system, even though it was perfectly clear material. She would tell Val'Con what she had done but she would not allow him to kill the intruder. She was human and had done nothing, yet, to warrant her death. She would tell him, but maybe not until tomorrow.

Val'Con was furious. "I told you to throw her out, not pamper her."

"I saw how you looked at her. You need someone, Val, a woman, to help you cope and adjust to frustrations. Life is going to be pretty hard and lonely on this planet without someone to comfort you. She can be softened up and turned to your needs, especially since you find me so disgusting."

"I don't . . ."

"I kept up-linked to your consciousness, a week ago. I know what, ‘Yuk,' means."

"You shouldn't have done that."

"Maybe not, but you shouldn't think of me as a machine. If anything, I'm superior to any woman you're ever likely to meet. But if you want that woman, someday, she'll be there for you. I don't want to discuss this any more nor will I allow you to harm her."

Val'Con looked at Debby's face. She was certainly determined and he didn't want to confront her. Deep down, he was faintly afraid of her.

A week passed and they continued their work. Debby tended to the woman, whose name, supposedly, was Patricia Valle, who begged not to be put back in the little dome, but Debby did. She got her out each day and took her for a long walk around the perimeter of the domes, all eleven of them. The bluff they were situated on had a wonderful view of the jungle below. They even had sightings of some dinosaurs, on occasion, foraging on the upper reaches of the canopy. Herbivores, of course. But at least it was some kind of exercise.

Debby was extremely alert when she took Pat, as she preferred to be called, out for her walks. She carried a compact but very serious rifle with her at all times and was prepared for any eventuality.

"Why won't he listen to me?" Pat asked.

"He thinks you're a government spy. He's been taken advantage of by every government and planet he's ever worked on. He doesn't trust them and hates you because you represent that."

"But I'm not a spy. I can't help it if his machine didn't work."

Debby stared at her for a moment, not knowing whether she was lying or not, and took her thought in hand, after glancing at her little device attached to her hip. "Come with me," she said and led her to the big dome complex. Maybe, just maybe, she could let her stay with them tonight.

The robot pushed Pat up against the outer wall of the nearest dome and told her to, "Be still." She probed her mind with her biologic interrogators, looking straight into her mind through those beautiful blue eyes of the stranger. It was something left over from her military days. And -- she discovered her true identity.

About the only thing that she'd said that was true was her first name. She was indeed a plant by the last local government. Debby removed the belt and the electronic item on her waist and flung it over her shoulder, then took Pat's upper arm and almost dragged her back to the dome tent. The woman was half crying and kicking back when they reached the little dome. Debby flipped on the light and tossed Pat back in. Flipped off the light and the magical door to the dome tent closed, the prisoner secured.

"Don't ever lie to me again, young lady. Or to him," she jerked her head towards the big dome. "If you do, I just might kill you as he ordered me to."

On the way back to the domes, Debby reflected on Pat and her lying to her. She was not good at reading people, at face value, and when people lied to her, it really made her mad. The only way to tell was to use those rude probes, and she didn't like doing that. Besides, there was simply too much information in human heads. Too many incidentals.

Debby walked to where Val'Con was working. Her feet slid to a stop with a sandy scraping sound and she knew that he knew she was present.

After a few moments, he asked, "Did you want something, Debby?"

"She's what you suspected, Val -- a spy. They were after your Vacuum Generator. The last planet we were on. I don't think it would be a very good idea to convey back there, again. They'll probably have the place surrounded just waiting for you to dare and return. That's just simple tactics."

"Alright, thanks. How did you find out?"

"Military stuff. A bio probe. It's built in."

"Oh, that." He remembered.

Debby stood there, watching the genius, her master, work. She wanted to feel loved and she was tired of their current and sustained kind of existence together. It was driving her half-mad. What he had said about her emotions was true enough but they were part of her make-up. She did not want to shut them off. At the very least, it helped her anticipate his needs in work and nutrition. She honestly loved him.

A diabolical thought suddenly arouse her mind. It would be a betrayal to him, in one sense, but it would bring him happiness, too. They would all be happier, the three of them. She thought through the decision, once more. Yes. It was an innocent thing to do. No harm could come from it, not really, and it would be good for them all.

Out of curiosity, Debby traced the emotional decision to its source. It was one of the donors to Raybetts Robotics, a geneticist at the factory, where she had been built. She knew the woman's name and her background, her loves, her desires. It seemed like an intelligent decision to Debby.

She silently stepped forward lifting the underside of her invisible wrist seam and extended two, physically intimidating, needle-like probes into the skull and brain of her master. In a few minutes, he was thoroughly indoctrinated and she was about to turn and leave when he spun and pulled at her arm.

"Where're you going, gorgeous?" he said. "This is my planet, and we can do what we want!"

She had removed his hatred for Pat and his preconceived notions about robots. She decided against instilling desire, but. . . .

They made love three times, and Debby was overwhelmed with the feeling of it. Copulation was like nothing else in life. She loved it. She loved Val'Con.

He was sleeping as she slipped into her clothing and left to go indoctrinate the woman. She would do as she was told, now, and be a perfect lover for him, too. And -- a good assistant. Why hadn't she thought of this before? They would take turns keeping themselves, and him, occupied, satisfied, and happy.

Not a bad idea, Debby concluded, if I do say so myself.

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