3

“How the hell do you lose a fully functional SHIAM from a high security location!”

Zak couldn’t believe what they were telling him. He had expected stolen technical drawings, or a secret formula, or some outrageously valuable software that had been stolen. Something electronic that could be obtained by hacking into the Grimrok network through the company’s public link to Comm Net. A SHIAM unit was simply not what he had expected.

“What in a demons curse am I doing here? You need a detective, not a computer consultant. I work with network security. I don’t do cops and robbers!”

He got up and began pacing. After Grimrok was certain that Zak signed the nondisclosure agreement, he had made an abrupt exit, claiming to have an important meeting to attend. Vennhim and the security guard, Jonas, then accompanied Zak to one of the building’s many conference rooms, where Dr. Tabitha Rose was waiting. Once there, the three Grimrok employees provided Zak with the details of the break-in and theft. That is, if you consider the limited information they provided as details.

“You guys have nothing!” Zak said, sweeping his hand through his hair in frustration as he continued to pace. “You don’t know how they got in. You don’t know how they got out. You don’t have any physical evidence that a break-in even occurred!”

“But Derek is missing,” Jonas said with a puzzled look. “Is that not evidence that someone took him?”

Zak glared at the SHIAM, trying to determine if it was really that clueless or if it was simply yanking his chain. He was pretty sure he wanted to hit the android. He decided to continue with what he’d been saying instead. “There were no alarms tripped, no indication of intruders on your security cameras or your internal sensors. And your fancy-ass SHIAM security guards didn’t see a thing!”

The room they were now in was as luxurious as the other parts of the building Zak had seen. The oversized conference table could easily accommodate two dozen people, complete with plush leather cushioned chairs. There was a wet bar and a small food processing unit in one corner of the room. The bright and cheery atmosphere, combined with the expensive decor, did nothing but further sour Zak’s mood.

“Perhaps if you would calm down we could...”

“I don’t want to calm down!” His glare cut Tabitha Rose off short. “You’re telling me you had a fully functional SHIAM stolen. There is no sign of how the thieves got in or out, no sign of how they breached your security, no witnesses. Your circuit head was fully activated, but apparently didn’t put up any struggle, just waltzed out with whoever took it. You don’t have one single clue. And I just signed an agreement that I’ll solve this break-in and recover the unit. All without telling anyone what I’m doing, who I’m working for or what I’m looking for.”

Everyone was silent. As Zak paced he looked to each of them in turn. Dr. Rose sat straight and proper, refusing to lose any appearance of dignity to his tirade. Jonas sat hunched in his chair, as though he was attempting to make himself as small as possible. And then there was Vennhim. The smug look on his face was not unfamiliar to Zak. Vennhim was enjoying Zak’s tirade. But there was something more, something in those cold and calculating eyes. He couldn’t pin down what it was about Vennhim’s expression that bothered him.

Zak locked onto Vennhim’s gaze and added, “And this is what I have to work with...a cut-throat and two circuit heads.”

“Look, Harris, I don’t need this shit!” Vennhim’s voice maintained a threatening chill. “Grimrok wanted you, so I agreed to work with you. But if you can’t maintain a professional attitude, I’ll tell Grimrok this isn’t going to work and you can go back to that pathetic network security company of yours and continue trying to scratch out a living.”

“Mr. Harris,” Tabitha Rose interrupted before Zak could reply. Her voice was calm, without any trace of anger over his use of derogatory slang towards Jonas and herself. “You’ve already agreed to help. Are you going to live up to your agreement, or are you going to spend this time insulting us all?”

He shot the android an angry look, but her words made him feel rather foolish in his over-reaction. His anger diminished somewhat as he watched her. It would be easy to forget that she wasn’t Human. She quite naturally portrayed the well-educated Human scientist. And she was easy to look at. But that would never change what she was, he reminded himself. With a sigh of annoyance he sat down at the table again.