Chapter 1

Frontier Base 28 -- Year 2559


There she was, just as he'd first found her three years ago between the blooming azalea trees. She sat on the bench and leaned against the garden wall, the space station wall, staring out of the windows at the stars. A blue and white kittle sat on her lap, purring in contentment. Michael watched her hand rub the small cat's ears, run down its neck, and then caress its right wing to its tip. Michael wished he could paint her like that.

He sat on the bench beside her, and the kittle slunk back toward the wall, hissing. "Where'd you find this unfriendly guy?" She had a way with the few station cats and kittles. Once she'd even found a crippled mouse and nursed him -- the beasts the kittles were here to eradicate, able to squeeze into areas most cats were too big for.

Kayden didn't look at him, and he couldn't even see the side of her face through her long waving, chestnut hair. "Is he here?"

"Pretty soon."

"Why do you want to go into artificial intelligence?"

"I don't know what I want, except I'd like to know my grandfather." They'd talked about this before. Kayden just didn't want him to leave. But he had to. His father insisted, and he couldn't tell Kayden that it was because of her.

They'd argued again this morning. His father wouldn't accept that Kayden was still like a little sister to him. "You're a man now, Michael. You can't be hanging out with twelve year old girls."

"She'll be thirteen next week. She's like my sister. I'm not going to date her." Both his parents had been very receptive to the little sister idea three years ago, thinking it helped him with the lost of his own real sister. And it had. It still did. Kayden was like Hannah had been, and almost the same age she would have been.

"It'd be better for both of you if you left for a university or apprenticeship program. There's nothing here for you anyway."

His father's second point was true. This star base was an outpost near the far unexplored edge of space. There wasn't a whole lot beyond it, but Austin's Playground which was a penal world and its keepers, and then further out a system with a lush planet which intercepted and processed mineral traffic from the frontier beyond. His father was an engineer who made emergency repairs to the variety of ships which stopped, including Austin bound penal ships.

Kayden's family had been destined for the penal world, but here her mother changed her mind, deciding not to accept her husband's fate. Kayden's father went on alone to Austin, and Kayden's mother worked at one of the cafeterias on the base.

"You're my only friend," Kayden insisted.

Michael tried to suppress the slight smile. He knew that was an exaggeration. He decided to tease her with what he'd seen the other day. "What about Jason? What a kiss!"

Kayden wrinkled her nose and then pretended to gag. "Please, don't remind me. I thought he just wanted to talk. I'm so glad you came by." She faced him with a smile. "My hero. What am I going to do when you're gone?"

"Learn to say no?"

She scowled. "He didn't ask. He just leaned over and slobbered." She twisted a grin up at him. "Wish I knew what a real kiss was like."

Michael's breath caught in his throat. Maybe his father was right, because now he wanted to show her. "My grandfather should be here any minute. Why don't you come with me."

"I don't know. Your father doesn't really like me."

"Grandpa's brought me a present. Something he wants to show me."

"He did?"

"Yeah." He grinned. Curiosity really would be her downfall. He stood and grabbed her hand. "Let's go."

As she stood, the kittle jumped from her lap and flew away through the garden. Then they ran through the almost empty corridors of the space station like two children. They stopped just inside the receiving lounge of Shuttle Bay Three and leaned against the wall, smiling and taking deep breaths. He'd miss her. There wasn't really anyone else he could act so outrageously with.

The room had two rows of chairs parallel with the back wall. Above them hung a fanciful painting of a Hansell's Dragon, the most bloodthirsty bio-engineered creature of Austin's Playground, being slain by a sword-bearing, loin-clothed heathen. Michael admired the painting but wondered if such things really happened on Austin or if the artist was trying to instill a sense of adventure or dread in the prisoners who came through.

On the far side of the room was a tall, muscular stranger. Michael knew almost everyone who lived permanently on the base. This guy was new or visiting. He straightened and held out his hand. "Michael Jamel."

The man ignored his hand and nodded. "Just passing through."

Michael shrugged and dropped his hand. "Never hurts to have friends throughout the galaxy." Kayden inched toward the door which led out to the shuttle bay, backing off as she did whenever Michael talked to anyone. She was also positioning herself to get the first look at his present.

The stranger's sardonic grin taunted Michael and took his attention from Kayden. "Most times friends are worse than enemies."

Michael tried to ignore his uneasiness. "You must be looking for Shuttle Bay One. This one's just bringing in my grandfather."

"I know. We're old friends."

Michael's uneasiness grew, but before he could decide how he should respond, his parents entered the shuttlebay. His father eyed Kayden with disapproval, but was too polite to speak his displeasure in front of her or a stranger.

And then the door to the shuttlebay opened, and his grandfather strode out. He grinned as he saw them and the blue of his eyes seemed to stand out of his face which was surrounded by white hair.

As they stood there hugging, Kayden peeked into the shuttlebay. Michael saw the stranger advance to Kayden. Before he could comprehend the movement, the stranger pushed her into the bay and followed her.

"Kayden!" Michael rushed to the closing door, landing against it. He jabbed the button to reopen it, but the door wouldn't budge. The whine of a laser could be heard, and the door heated up under Michael's hand. The bastard was melting and sealing it shut.

"Kayden!" he called again.

"What's happening?" his father demanded.

The video screen beside the door lit up, showing the stranger with his arm around Kayden's neck, the laser pointed to her head. "I need the shuttle's password."

"Let her go!" Michael shouted. He struggled with the door, again, but it was useless. He'd need a laser to cut it free.

"The code or I kill her. And it won't be quick."

Michael glanced in panic at his grandfather, wanting to beg him not to let her die.

His grandfather took a deep breath and then approached the screen. "And where will you leave the girl so she won't be vaporized when the shuttle leaves."

"The girl comes with me. When I've safely delivered your new creation to its buyers, I'll release her."

"Where?"

"So you can have the authorities waiting for me? Enough games. She lives or dies slowly. Your choice."

Michael stared at his grandfather. Kayden's life was in his hands, but he wasn't speaking. Why didn't he just give the code?

On the screen, the stranger grabbed Kayden's hand and held it up. Then the laser sliced off her smallest two fingers with a section of her hand. Kayden's scream filled his ears. Michael hurled himself against the door.

He vaguely heard his mother's shriek of horror.

Then his grandfather dictated the code.

The monitor darkened.

Michael stared at his parents and grandfather. "We have to do something!"

His father pressed the control panel. "Station security." The panel remained silent. "He's sabotaged our communications."

They could hear the shuttle leaving the bay.

"How is he getting out?"

"Maybe an accomplice. Michael go down to security. I'll check the control room."

Michael obeyed his father instantly, running down the hall. Then the station rocked with explosions. The beast had planted bombs by the other three docking bays. By the time all the bodies were counted and the holes in the station's exterior blocked, Kayden couldn't be followed.

Later when they were in the Jamel apartment -- Michael's home -- the head of the station's security force stopped to talk to Michael's grandfather, Charles Jamel.

"Do you have any idea why someone would go to so much trouble to steal your shuttle?"

Michael sat beside his mother, but his father remained standing next to the security officer. His grandfather answered from the overstuffed chair. "I've had several offers from manufacturers for my newest prototype in artificial intelligence. I told them I didn't want to mass market this unit. The 4000 was marketed without extensive testing, and there are problems. My latest unit, the 5000, was on the shuttle. I planned to give it to my grandson to test for me."

He had spoken in a matter of fact voice, but now he glanced at Michael. Then he pierced the security officer with an ice blue gaze. "The unit is worth millions of credits, with its potential in the billions. Even without the bombs and station damage, this is a high value crime. If not for that girl, I'd have never given him the code."

"But how could he know Kayden would be there?" Michael protested. "I just invited her." And he tried to ignore the bile in his stomach. He'd invited her, and now... now he wished he could block out the image of her hand being severed apart.

"He probably planned to kidnap you or your grandfather, but Kayden just got in the way," his father said. "It's a miracle we're all safe."

Michael retreated to his room. They weren't all safe. Kayden was somewhere in space trapped with a killer.



Austin's Playground -- Two days later

Doctor Alex Collin let his ax sink into the wood one more time, and then he stretched his back and shoulders toward the ever darkening sky. Sweat rolled down his forehead, and he wiped the back of his hand against it, pushing aside the lock of hair which curled down almost to his eyebrows. He didn't have much time left before the dragons came looking for food. He better get Angie inside. He called to the huge wingdeer, and she trotted obediently to him, nudging him and then licking the sweat from his bare shoulder.

Collin laughed and pushed her nose away. "Hey, that tickles." He rubbed his face against her smooth neck, her mushroom brown hide the same color as his own hair. "Time to get you inside, Girl. You don't want anything to happen to the little guys." Angie still had three months to go before her calves were due, and Collin looked forward to the event. Births were always fun. Angie had been with him ten years now, and this would be her first calving.

After he left Angie safely in the barn, he began stacking his new firewood behind the old. He didn't really need the firewood, but chopping the trees back was the only way to make sure his garden received enough light.

Flapping wings caused him to glance toward the sky. He smiled as his kittle landed beside the woodpile, a newly hatched dragon as big as she was, dangling from her mouth. "Tabitha, my dear, you're going to get us both eaten. If you steal a baby, you should at least hide until you devour it."

Tabitha ignored him, digging into the soft underbelly of the dragonette. Purring mewls rose from her throat. Dragon blood spurted up along the side of her soft, grey face. Collin watched his best and worse creations together. Too bad there were no predators for the adult dragons.

Collin stacked the last of the wood right as a shriek filled the sky. He whirled around and scanned the heavens, expecting to see a dragon attacking one of the few wild Angela's wingdeer left. But there were no dragons outlined in the reflection of any of the three moons now visible. Instead something sped toward him -- a boxy something.

Tabitha darted to him and clutched his shoulder with her claws, shrinking against his hair in fear. "Tabby, it can't be, can it? Not here. Supplies aren't due for a few more weeks." And supply shuttles only landed in Capital. This pilot was going in the wrong direction and flying too low to safely make it through the mountain range.

As the shuttle descended, it zoomed almost over him. He turned to watch it streak toward the mountain, but before the crash could come, a light blazed from the heavens. The shuttle disintegrated with a blast. Tabitha cringed against him.

"Now who would want to smuggle themselves onto a penal world, Tabitha. Hey, you're getting dragon guts in my hair." He reached up and removed her from his shoulder, caressing her tiny head behind her ears. She snuggled against his chest, her wings settling against her back in complete trust.

Collin glanced up. A large umbrella shaped object dangled a small cylinder, floating slowly toward the treetops. Someone may have escaped the shuttle.

"Tabitha, my girl, I think we have work to do." Hopefully the shuttle blast frightened the normally fearless dragons back into their dens for the night. He jogged into the cabin, pulled on his shirt, and then grabbed his pack with his first aid supplies.

As he left the house, the escape pod disappeared into the trees. He didn't bother going for Angie. Her fourteen foot wingspan made it difficult to maneuver below tree level, and she was also an easy nighttime target for the dragons, especially since she was pregnant. Instead he ran between the trees and climbed over the rocks. If he didn't get to that pod before the tech sensors in orbit, anyone inside would be incinerated as the shuttle had.

He ran until he knew he must be close. The air smelled hot. Too hot. As the light of the orbital laser blasted near him, he fell to the ground to shield his eyes. The pod disintegrated. He was too late.

Collin lay on the ground for several minutes, waiting for his eyes to readjust to the darkness. He rolled onto his back and felt inside his pocket, his hand closing on his own piece of illegal tech he always carried. The small pen-like object had been a medical laser from the underground lab until he'd modified it. Unlike the rest of Aussie's citizens who had no real defense, he would not be killed by the dragons, although many people would think it poetic justice if he was.

Something moved about twenty-five yards off his left shoulder. He listened intently. Most of the forest dwellers hid at night, knowing it was hunting time, although Jackson's pitboar liked the night, as did several smaller lizards and the teasels.

He smiled. The teasels were the second best thing he'd ever created, or rather recreated. Looking and acting just as their earth cousins, the mink and ermine, they snuck into dragon's nests and sucked the eggs dry or killed the very young. Kittles, like Tabitha, didn't have the bloodthirsty stealth required to make a sizable dent in the dragon population, but since he'd introduced the teasels seventy-five years ago, the dragon population seemed arrested at its current size. Before they'd been doubling their numbers every three years. Still there were too many -- even one would be too many, and he wished he could tackle that final problem.

He heard the movement again, this time beyond his head. Collin rolled to his feet, grasping his laser. Carefully he followed the sound. And then he saw it as it heard him. A robotic unit held a limp naked female body across its metal arms.

"Don't come any closer," said a rich tenor voice. The machine had no face. It was simply a rectangular unit on a triangular wheel base, currently sporting arm-like appendages.

Collin leaned against the tree. "So you made it out of the escape pod in time. Does your owner normally pilot in the nude?"

The annoying thing about computers, Collin thought yet again, was that it was impossible to judge their reaction to your words in the normal way. It raised no eyebrows, indeed had none to raise, nor any eyes to study him. All it offered was silence, as the pathetic woman hung from its arms.

"Or are you an independent machine?" he ventured. Perhaps someone had automated him for some purpose, and the woman was his victim. It was impossible to tell without getting closer, and he didn't think it would make demands if it didn't have defense systems to enforce them.

After five seconds, an eternity for a machine, it replied. "I am independent. Unit Jamel 5000A."

"I'm Doc Alex Collin. Looks like your friend could use a doctor. Or a burial."

"A doctor." The unit whispered.

Collin couldn't help being impressed by the simulated emotion. "I'm a doctor, Jamel. I thought someone in the cylinder might need a little help."

The unit rolled over the rough ground and then lifted the woman to him. Collin took her and instantly knew several things. The woman was a child, twelve or thirteen at most, she'd been brutally raped and tortured, and she wouldn't live if he didn't get her to a decent medical facility. Fortunately the best was the closest -- his underground lab.

"Follow me," he commanded Jamel. He'd never taken anyone to the lab. He never trusted anyone with his secret, not even either one of the wives he'd had, but Jamel would be destroyed if he wasn't hidden, and the girl would die also. The way the blood matted her hair, he suspected he may need to operate to release the pressure of a sub-dural hematoma. But he'd never be able to do that kind of work with any of the primitive equipment the Planetary Council allowed him to use at his office or even at the teaching hospital in Alexandria.

He didn't bother looking back to see if Jamel followed or how he managed the steeper sections of the mountain. He wouldn't mind updating his computer files with Jamel's to fill in the last hundred and fifty or so years of advancements in science and the arts, but the girl couldn't wait. Besides, if the satellite that blasted the shuttle and the escape pod suspected Jamel had survived and was right out in the open for any new convict to dismantle and reuse, he was only minutes from disintegration.

He paused a moment to see if the robot was following. Jamel's arm-like appendages lifted his tractor-stripped wheel base over the tree root and rocks to the relatively flat clearing.

"If you have any sensors or communications equipment, you'd best keep them on a tight range or you'll end up like your shuttle."

"I am aware that any electrical technology beyond a few essential medical exceptions are forbidden on Austin's Playground."

"Good. I don't have to worry I'll be blasted if you get too close to me." As he spoke, he brushed his fingers along the girl's cheek and checked her eyes. They didn't respond, and her pulse was weak. He arranged his hold on her and continued.

"How long ago was she attacked?"

"The attack started thirty seven hours, sixteen minutes, and eighteen seconds ago."

"And you bring her here?" The computer was definitely malfunctioning. "Who attacked her?"

"The man is dead. She is safe now."

"She may be dead. Head injuries need immediate attention."

"I released the pressure."

Collin whirled around to face Jamel. Then he crouched so that he could rest the girl against his legs and free his hands. Indeed Jamel had performed crude, but perhaps life saving first aid -- aid that only someone with a full range of medical files and at least one laser could have accomplished. He lifted her into his arms again. "Well, Jamel. We'll see if it helped."

Ten minutes later he made it to the lab entrance. "No one is to ever know of this facility, Jamel." If he didn't need to get this girl stabilized right away, he would have taken greater precautions with an armed and unstable machine, but he just didn't have the time. He pushed the rock aside that concealed the security panel, entered his password, and allowed his DNA to be scanned. The concealed door slid open.

As they stepped into the lighted hall, Tabitha flew past his head and into the stables to the right of the door. Collin glanced back at Jamel, deciding to continue his lecture in hopes that he could prevent a violent meltdown. Maybe Jamel would simply stop working, and he could dismantle him at leisure. "Are you programmed to understand trust, Jamel?"

"Yes."

"I'm trusting you with this lab. It needs to be preserved to help all of Aussie's citizens."

"It wasn't destroyed in the riots of 2421."

"Aha. You know our history, my friend. Good." He took the girl down the main hall, directly into the x-ray lab to get a couple pictures. Her hands were horribly mutilated. He'd have to grow new ones.

"Mauve," he called out to a mauve-colored robot shaped as a medical cart with appendages which appeared when needed. "Get the main operating room ready. Have Burgy assist."

"Yes, Dr. Hansell," Mauve replied in a soothing alto. She rolled out of the room to do as she was bid, and Collin set to work.



After a shower and clean clothes, Collin settled into the recliner beside the hospital bed. The room was large so that the medical robots could move efficiently, and the bed sat in the middle. The wall behind her head displayed her statistics in black numbers. There were two recliners, and behind them a shelf of books, vases, and sculptures lined the wall. Before him, on the other side of the room, were several paintings of undersea life. This had been Tema Larson's room. When she hadn't been operating, she'd filled Aussie's ocean's with her creatures. Austin's oceans. She'd been dead for quite a few years before the citizens began referring to their world as Aussie.

He let his tired gaze fall to the girl in the bed. She had survived the operations, and now received an intravenous solution to help with infection, loss of blood, and nourishment. He had started the cultures for her hands, but those wouldn't be ready for almost two months. She'd have to live with the mutilation until then and wouldn't regain her strength and dexterity without extensive therapy.

Collin slept for several hours until he heard Mauve check on her. "Report," Collin said in a low voice. He closed his eyes as Mauve rattled off statistics. He considered them and then nodded.

"There is a kittle in the room," Mauve stated. "Shall I remove it?"

Collin was a bit surprised that Tabitha was not on his lap if she were near. He opened his eyes and finally found her curled up by the girl's side, snuggled in the curve of her left arm. Tabitha looked up at Collin, but didn't leave her post. He smiled. "No, Mauve. The patient will need a friend when she awakes."

"As you wish, Dr. Hansell." Mauve rolled away and settled into the corner of the room.

Collin noticed Jamel between his chair and the wall. His arms were gone, apparently retracted inside the unit. "So you're still with us, Jamel."

"Yes." An immediate response. Perhaps he'd righted his internal problems.

"What's the girl's name, Jamel?"

This time he paused for a full three seconds. "She said Kayden. I have no confirmation."

"Just Kayden?"

"She did not speak coherently." His slight pause before he spoke worried Collin. The machine wasn't right.

"Jamel, do you need assistance also?"

He didn't answer the question.

Collin reclined the chair and watched Jamel through half closed eyes. How could he get those data files before they were fully corrupted? Brute force would accomplish nothing and perhaps injure himself, destroy the lab, and lose all the files. "I've been known to write a few programs. I might be able to help."

"Not according to my files."

Collin sat up and chuckled. "Really? And what do your files tell you about me?" He watched the machine as he waited. There were no telltale lights, no slight sounds, nothing to indicate Jamel was indeed a functioning unit. After a minute Collin sat back. "So do you or do you not have files to base your opinion of my programming skills?" He didn't know how he could. Collin had never left the planet, not even before the riots of 2421.

"I have files."

"And what do they tell you about me?

"My files seem to be somewhat corrupted. You do not appear to be 178 years old."

Collin laughed. "Yes, that has been a problem all my life. I look too young to be taken seriously."

"Humans don't live that long."

"Unless their father was a geneticist experimenting with longevity. I was his only success with a human embryo." He hadn't told anyone that in over a hundred and twenty-five years. And the woman hadn't believed him in his not quite adolescent body, even if he had been fifty years old.

"That is not in my files."

"No. I don't imagine it would be. It doesn't sound like your files tell you much of anything about me. Are you lying, Jamel?" Collin settled back in the chair.

"You bioengineered several additions to the planet's wildlife. The dragon creature that kills the citizens of Austin and caused the riots . . . ."

"There were more complex reasons for the riots. The dragons were just an easy and sympathetic rallying point." Collin stood, surprised at his irritation. He'd heard the citizens of Aussie, even his own wives, blame him for the state of affairs on the planet, not knowing he was actually Collin Hansell. But that the outside world had so simplified matters and discounted any good work that might have come from their labs was a blow to his pride.

Collin grabbed a slim electronic notepad from the shelf and thrust it at Jamel. "Could you please download all your files that have anything to do with Austin's Playground? I'd like to see how the outside world views us now and in the past."

Jamel seemed to ignore him as he rolled to the side of the bed. It was as if he was studying the girl. Then he turned his upper torso and an arm extended to retrieve the book from him. "Do not lie to me again, and perhaps I may trust you."

Collin couldn't help the start of surprise or his grin. Jamel had a bit more going on inside than he'd thought. But Jamel was mistaken. "I never lied to you."

"I'm Doc Alex Collin," his own voice repeated back to him, but with a hint of accusation.

"But I am. I haven't been known by the name Collin Hansell since the riots. I was first Collin Alexander . . . ."

"The founder of Alexander Medical University."

"Aah, yeah. That was a long time ago."

"They named the city after you when you died."

"You're perking up, Jamel. Perhaps you don't need a general diagnostic. Anyway, several names later, I'm now Alex Collin. So, I did not lie to you. I can be trusted. Now who are you?"

"Jamel 5000A."

"Yeah, but what does that mean?"

No response. Collin sighed. Something was wrong with the machine. "How long have you been in service, Jamel?"

"632 hours, 12 minutes, 18 seconds at the tone." He toned.

"A baby." He'd been in service less than a month. "How'd you become an independent?"

No response.

"Was the man who attacked Kayden your owner?"

Again no response.

"Are you malfunctioning?"

"I . . . malfunctioned. I am . . . recovering."




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