Tabitha greeted him as he settled Angie back into the lab's stable. Collin hoped that Kayden would come also, but she didn't. He tried not to let that bother him. She was probably sleeping, not expecting him back in not quite a day and a half. He gave Angie another nuzzle, and then left her.
She wasn't in her room. Jamel still sat in his corner. Burgy and Mauve sat on the opposite side. "Where is she?" Then he remembered he must specify which unit he was addressing. Annoying idiot machines. "Mauve?"
"Yes, Dr. Hansell?"
"Where is Kayden?"
"She is not in the room."
"Yeah, Genius. Where is she?"
"I do not have that information."
"Archive. Do you see another human in the complex?"
After silence, Collin prompted. "Where, Archive?"
"Room 410." Over in the apartments.
"Thank you. Jamel, I'm surrounded by idiots here. Come on."
"You wish the unit to follow?"
Collin hesitated and then shrugged. "Yeah, sure." He obviously had never been deactivated, and he hadn't caused any trouble over the last three and a half weeks. "Kayden wants to see you."
An appendage protruded from the unit, reached into the top, and replaced the cube. When the arm retracted, the unit approached Collin.
Collin left the room anxious to find Kayden. Room 410 was quite a distance. She was apparently feeling much better. Tabitha clung to his shoulder. "You were supposed to watch out for her," he chided, but Tabitha just purred in his ear. He led them to the lift.
"Dr. Hansell?" came Jamel's expressive tenor voice from the unit, not a tiny voice from his pocket.
"You may call me Collin, Jamel."
"Collin. My data from this unit indicates that Kayden left her room late yesterday afternoon and never returned -- not even for sleep or sustenance. I suspect she may be injured."
Collin's emotions tumbled between fear for Kayden and the fact that Jamel was drawing conclusions -- conclusions in a voice that sounded as worried as he felt.
They left the elevator on the fourth floor, only two up from the floor they'd been on. Collin thought to ask Archive what state Kayden was in when he passed a convenience station, but then continued on. "No use wasting time getting to her," he muttered.
The apartment was on the east end of the facility, almost as far from the west entrance they'd been using as Kayden could have gotten. Collin walked through the open door and glanced around the room. Two chairs and a couch. A desk under an archive outlet. A small kitchenette to the far right. No Kayden. Collin crossed the room and entered the bedroom.
Kayden lay on the large bed, unmoving. Collin sat beside her and reached to feel for her pulse. Kayden jumped up, screaming and hitting out with her mutilated hands. "No! Stop! No! Please, someone help me."
"Kayden! Kayden, it's me. Collin. You're safe."
Kayden threw herself against him and wrapped her arms around his neck. Sobs racked her body.
Collin held her and rubbed her back. "It's okay, Sweetheart. No one's going to hurt you. You're safe with me."
Slowly her sobs subsided until she simply rested in his arms. He grabbed a cloth from the small stand beside the bed and wiped her face. "Could you throw this in the laundry chute in that bathroom, Jamel?"
Jamel took the used cloth from his hands and rolled away.
"Yeah. The sneaky guy was never actually off. He just let me think he was."
Jamel returned from the adjoining room. "Are you safe?"
Kayden seemed to nestle deeper into his arms. "Yeah," she said quietly. "I started looking at paintings, and I got lost. I couldn't find the steps. And then I went down, and it was different, and I'd find more stairs and . . . and up and down and room after room."
Collin rubbed her shoulder. "I'm sorry, Sweetheart. I didn't think you'd get lost here. Didn't Archive help at all?"
"I didn't think I'd get lost."
"I mean, when you were lost. Didn't you ask for help?"
She pulled away from him. "From who? No one is here. All these homes. Hundreds of homes and no people."
"Yeah," Collin said. "When I was young, they were all used, too."
"Where'd they go?"
Collin gave a slight shake of his head to try to dispel the melancholy. "They're all dead. Over a hundred years ago now."
"But . . . but how?"
"Did the riots kill them all?" Jamel asked. "The historians are divided."
"No, not right away. Most of the survivors boarded the last shuttle we had here. But the rest of us were naive and kept thinking if we explained things, everything would right itself. So groups would go out and never come back. Finally there were about twenty of us here, and we'd gotten so discouraged we were fighting among ourselves. They had a plan . . . ." Collin clenched his jaw, as the old emotions washed over him, betrayal, anger. He stood. "Look, it's all past. I should have told you more about Archive, Kayden. Any monitor you see on the wall is connected to Archive. You could have asked anywhere for help."
Kayden cringed on the bed.
"Kayden?" asked Jamel, his voice deep with concern. "What frightens you?"
"I . . . Collin. I . . . I'm sorry."
"For what? You didn't do anything wrong."
"But you . . . you're mad."
Collin shook his head, weary from the unaccustomed emotions. He was surprised they'd hit so hard. "I'm the one who's sorry, Kayden. It's not you. It's . . . just the past," he admitted, realizing there was no other way to reassure her, but with the truth. "Things happened and . . . and I left the base. When I returned ten years later, they were all gone. Archive has a record of their last years. It's not very pleasant."
What had started out as actual fact reporting at the beginning of the riots which took into consideration Reese Austin's penchant for hiring petty convicts for cheap labor and his insistence on no outside contact so that they could perform their experiments in peace, ended years later in tirades against Collin Hansell for not killing off his defective experiment. That Collin had disappeared and refused to act as a sacrificial peace offering had made him a selfish coward.
But Collin knew the people were upset before the dragons. He'd heard reports of other experiments going awry, causing injuries or death to the unsuspecting households. And then there was so much anger over the way the supplies were apportioned. Back then it seemed expected. The scientists and those working in the labs were like royalty. The planet was theirs as long as Reese Austin and later his son Harmon and grandson Victor received the rights to any commercial use coming out of their research. It was a researcher's dream to work like that on whatever he wanted, his father said. But the others who farmed and fished and made clothing and basically supported the labs with fresh food and animal wombs for the experimental new creatures had been treated as non-people, as commodities. And when the researchers became too busy with their own experiments to the point that serious injuries and diseases in the populace remained untreated, it caused a resentment that no one time sacrifice would appease. But . . . .
Collin sighed, realizing both Kayden and Jamel were watching him. "I don't come to this side often. Nothing here but memories."
"May I see the records," Jamel asked.
Collin wanted to say no. He wanted to keep them hidden. But why did it matter what a silly computer thought. "Yeah, sure," he said, but his voice cracked. "Look. I bet Kayden is starving, and I'm pretty hungry, too." He strode out of the room. In the front room, he spoke to the wall monitor. "Archive. Have Mauve prepare dinner for Kayden and me. We'll be served in Clinic room 257 where Kayden is staying."
"Yes, Dr. Hansell."
He turned to leave, but then saw Jamel. Let Jamel blame him also. He was just a machine after all. "And Archive? Prepare a download of all the information you have on the riots. Jamel will receive it in Clinic 257 also."
"Yes, Dr. Hansell."
He led them from the apartment -- Shalla's apartment. One of the convicted women Reese and Harmon Austin gave refuge to so that she could be used in experimental trials . . . experiments like he had been. But Shalla was not his womb mother. She was too young.
Trying to force his mind from the past, he glanced at Kayden. Her eyes were closed, and she weaved as she plodded one foot before the other. She was too weak for this.
"Kayden," he said softly, so he didn't startle her. When she raised her weary eyes to his, he bent down and lifted her into his arms.
Kayden hugged him and rested her head against his shoulder. "I love you, Daddy," she said sleepily.
Collin's throat clogged. He tried to remind himself that she was often delirious when she wasn't quite awake, but it didn't matter. She'd become his daughter, and he'd care for her until she died of old age -- or until she married.
No, he told himself. He wouldn't let her marry a violent malcontent like Burke. She'd have to wait until he found her a good one who'd treat her right. Too bad Quinn was already married. He'd be gentle. No, Tara's been a fair wife, and she's settling down. No use speculating in that direction any longer.
When they were back in Kayden's room, she woke long enough to eat the dinner Mauve had prepared. Jamel received his download from Archive and then stayed in the corner, as silent as he'd been for weeks. Kayden glanced at him occasionally, and Collin could tell that it was only tiredness that prevented her from asking about him.
After Kayden was in bed, he paced the floor. He was restless. He needed to do something. Jamel was sitting in that corner, and he was probably mulling through every mistake he'd ever made, etching it permanently into his memory. Why did it matter what an idiot machine knew or thought it knew?
Collin felt the laser in his pocket and glanced at Kayden. She'd probably sleep soundly for hours. Tonight was a good night to play Dragon Bait, and it'd work off the frustration that always occurred with he came too close to the past.
He walked down the hall, and then let the large rock door close him outside. He started climbing the mountain that hid the lab. Hand over hand, one foot jammed into a rock crevice, and then the other. Higher and higher.
Collin pulled himself up on a twenty foot shelf on the side of the mountain. Grass grew in the scant dirt covering it, and a scrawny bush huddled in the corner, clinging to the mountainside. He sat on the edge of the ledge, letting his feet dangle. Then he lay back and looked at the stars.
Only one of Aussie's four moons graced the sky with its light, and stars were plentiful. He could also see the brighter gleam of the space station where the Planetary Council's director and guards lived. They rarely came down to the planet, preferring to do their job remotely. There were rumors of spies sent down with the prisoners to make sure no one was building tech, but Collin had never met anyone he remotely suspected of being a Council spy. The only time he'd dealt with the Council director at all, was as Collin Alexander, and then he was establishing the medical standards and requesting relief supplies.
"After careful and thorough review of the data, I believe your former friends were scared and began making illogical accusations," Jamel's tiny voice said from Collin's pocket. "You are no more responsible than any of them. No one person caused the situation or could have prevented it."
Collin felt laughter welling up inside him, but his throat was too tight to let it out. How he'd longed to hear someone say what he suspected was the truth, and here a little black rectangle, smaller than a kittle, was telling him he was absolved of guilt. He sat up and leaned over with his face in his hands, trying to sort out the emotions and respond to the little black rectangle.
Jamel continued as if he'd said nothing momentous. "Riots such as this one have occurred on many planets throughout history, including Earth. One very similar riot was the peasants revolt during the Reformation in the sixteenth century. The lower classes rose up in revolt against their feudal authorities, causing the loss of many lives."
Collin wanted to laugh, the weight on his heart was gone, instantly gone, because a little black rectangle had made a careful review of the data -- both sides. The history of Austin as the rest of the world saw it, filtered through the eyes of the surviving "peasants", and the history of the geneticists who had been the "feudal authorities" of the planet.
"Collin? Do you need assistance?"
The laughter finally welled out of Collin, and he fell back to the ground, holding his stomach as the hysteria continued on. After while he was still, a peace pervading his being.
"Collin?" And the voice sounded timid this time.
"How may I assist you?"
Collin smiled up at the stars. "You already have, my friend. How's Kayden?"
"I'm afraid I am unable to transmit between here and the shielding that covers the base."
"Of course. If you could, then the satellite could, wouldn't it?"
They were silent then. Collin knew he should get back.
"Doctor Collin Alexander Hansell?"
Collin sat up at his full name. "What is it, Jamel?"
"I am very honored to serve you."
The black rectangle was good. Too good. Collin's throat tightened again, and he couldn't respond.
"You still want me, don't you?"
Collin gave a soft chuckle at the insecurity in Jamel's voice. "What makes you think I'm going to be such a wonderful guy to hang out with?"
"I've been in your pocket for almost four weeks. I've seen every move you've made, heard every word you said, even felt every beat of your heart. I've watched you care for Kayden, and I've seen you with your friends. I want to be like you."
Collin again hid his emotions in a chuckle. Charles Jamel was good. He'd never had a machine evoke any emotion other than frustration. And now this little rectangle made him feel like he finally had a friend who understood. And the next thought stopped him cold -- a friend who would outlive him.
"We'll do okay, Jamel."
"I wonder how Kayden is," Jamel said.
Collin smiled at the hint and stood. "Yeah, we should . . . ." He heard the rush of wings almost too late. And he didn't have his laser ready.
Collin dived to the ground, just missing the dragon's sharp talons. After rolling into the corner, he pulled his laser from his pocket. One thing about the dragons, they were predictable. The beast came back in for the kill, knowing he was cornered. Collin pressed the button on the laser. Red light sliced up into the air, piercing the dragon's throat and then cutting its body in two as its momentum flung it forward into the rock wall. Collin managed to scramble away right as it splatted where he'd been crouched.
Collin leaned against the wall and breathed deeply. The odor of burnt meat filled his nostrils, burnt meat and the metallic smell of blood. He was covered with it. And his heart raced with victory. He'd won again, and he couldn't help the war whoop that came out of his lungs. "Ah, Jamel. How about that? Did you see it?"
"You're not hurt?"
Collin laughed. "Victory, Jamel. This is victory."
"Have you had 'victory' often?"
Collin chuckled. "Always. I'm still alive, right?" But he knew what Jamel was asking. "I do this maybe three or four times a month or so. Depends on how moody I'm feeling and if I can get away. Nothing like conquering your cursed enemy to pull you out of a bad case of melancholy."
"I...." Jamel stopped.
Collin sobered. "You what?"
"I felt victory when . . . when I killed him."
Collin sat and then let himself lay back again. The work could wait. Jamel had just made a major confession.
"Did you ever kill a man?"
"You know the files say I killed every one the dragons do."
"But that's not the same."
"No. No, Jamel. I never have. Not by intent. I hope I never do."
"I hope I never do again either. But he just kept hurting her. Again and again, Collin. He wouldn't stop. She kept screaming and when she'd stop, he make her scream again."
"I would have killed him, too, Jamel," Collin said softly. "He was a killer. Just like the dragons. He had to be stopped." He looked up at the stars, wishing there were easier answers. Wishing no answers were needed. "You were there when Burke attacked Quinn. If Burke hadn't left, I would have stopped him. I wouldn't have needed to kill him. I can stop him without going that far because Burke's not like Kayden's killer. And yeah, Jamel, the man was a killer. You know he was killing her."
"I know. I was designed to help people, to care for people, to make their life easier. And she kept begging for help."
Collin rose to his feet and walked back to the dragon. It was skinning time. He took out his laser, and started stripping the hide from the muscle beneath. He tugged at the hide. The beast was already cut in two, so it made the process easier than trying to preserve a seamless hide.
"I just don't understand everything well enough," Jamel conceded.
"Neither do I, my friend. But I know I won't let the innocent suffer if I can help it. You were protecting the innocent. I don't think anyone would hold your crime against you." He rolled up the first half of hide and set it near the slab's edge.
"But what I did to Kayden. It even touched her speech. I hurt her just like he did."
"It wasn't 'just like'. I forgave you because you wanted to help. You were just too naive to know you weren't. I want you to promise me you won't take on any kind of surgery or procedure on a human without consulting me first."
"I promise," he said meekly.
"And never kill unless you're absolutely certain there is no other way. I'm sure in this case, there wasn't. But in the future, just keep it in mind."
Collin pulled the other half of the dragon to the middle of the rock slab. The beast was heavy, and his sweat mingled with the blood on his face and back. When he got it into position he took a second to stretch. Then he chuckled. "Of course the only way you can go near people is in my pocket so I guess we don't have to worry too much about that one."
"Or Kayden's? I would like to serve you both."
"I suppose that's possible," he said, although he found he didn't like the idea of relinquishing his new pocket friend.
"What are you doing?" Jamel asked.
"Salvaging the hide. People will pay quite a bit of money to wear the strongest, softest leather around. And it's pretty. If it was light, you could see the iridescent colors. I spent almost a year designing the hide alone. A work of art, it is. But does anyone say that?" He shrugged. He'd better change the subject because he felt the resentment brewing just below the surface. "I sell it to a tanner in Alexandria. He thinks I'm Hans Trapper. I dress all in dragon leather before I fly over."
He finished with the second half, and then started stripping the wings. He wrapped the hide into bundles and then threw them all over the edge of the slab. "Ready to go home, Jamel?"
Collin lowered himself over the edge and started down. "What are you thinking about, my friend?"
"I'm studying my philosophy. Why do some texts seem to say the opposite of others?"
"What you are studying are schools of thought, the ways of thinking about the world. You learn what you can, and discard what doesn't fit."
"How do I decide what doesn't fit?"
Collin jumped down the last five feet from the mountain wall. Then he pushed in the security code. "Some people start with presuppositions about the world, or with the idea that one text is more true than others, and then line everything up with that."
"What do you think is a true text?"
He carried in the two bundles to the stables. "The laws of nature, of creation. At its essence it doesn't lie. People misinterpret the laws of nature, but nature itself doesn't lie."
"Sure, if you want to think of it that way."
"I'm afraid I haven't read him, yet."
"She's still sleeping." Jamel informed him.
He contemplated his bloody, sweaty body. "Then I'll go take a shower and change. I wouldn't want to scare the poor girl."