Kayden awoke, the panic subsiding the minute she saw Collin sleeping in the recliner across the room. A robot moved, the Jamel unit. She'd tried to get him to talk two days ago when she was alone, but he wouldn't say a word to her. But now he was active. He came to the side of her bed. "May I get you anything?" he whispered.
She loved his voice. Even yesterday when she'd been so tired she could hardly move, she'd noticed it. How could she answer him? She didn't want to send him for breakfast. That seemed too mundane for a voice like his. Mauve would get breakfast. "Collin said you . . . you know me."
"He said we are friends. We came to the planet together."
"Where did we come from?"
"You came from Frontier Base 28." He didn't whisper now, and Kayden noticed Collin was awake.
"I did? Didn't you?"
Robots were frustrating. She hated robots and machines. She liked animals. She knew that much about herself. "Then how did we meet?" she asked, sitting up. She was sure she'd catch him in a lie somehow.
Collin told Mauve to bring them breakfast, but stayed seated, watching them.
"You entered the shuttle I was on."
"Why? Where was I going?"
The robot remained silent.
Kayden rolled her eyes and looked at Collin. "Did he just break down again?"
"I am not broken," Jamel said.
"Then answer me."
"I do not wish to."
Kayden held up her hands in surprise. Why was Collin grinning? "Isn't he supposed to do what I ask?" she demanded. "He's mine, right? He came with me, you said."
Collin walked over to the bed and sat on the foot edge. "Jamel is more of an independent unit, Sweetheart."
"Robots aren't independent." Her head was starting to hurt. She raised her hands to rub it.
"I will assist you whenever I can," Jamel said sincerely. "Do you require pain medication."
"Jamel," Collin said, his voice sounding firm. "Medicine is my job. You must apprentice for seven years before you can practice and dispense medication on your own. It's the law of this world."
"I didn't realize medicine was in the same category as procedures. I require an itemized list of restrictions." Kayden was surprised that he actually sounded annoyed.
Collin, though, smiled as if he was pleased. "I'm sure you have the information in your files. Anything that is restricted to someone with special qualifications, you should know, you don't have them. Having a textbook knowledge is not the same as having experience with a mentor."
Jamel wheeled back to his corner.
Collin watched him. "What most people need is just a friend, Jamel," Collin said softly. "You were my friend last night, and I appreciated it."
"You appreciated me? I didn't do anything but tell you what you already knew. And you laughed."
"Yeah," Collin said with his soft smile. "Laughing is a good thing. You didn't do anything wrong. Remember, I'm watching out for you. That's my job. And you'll learn. It's all part of being an apprentice."
Jamel came back to the bed. "An apprentice? I'm your apprentice?"
"You said you wanted to be like me."
"You desire an apprentice who can do nothing but listen?"
"I wish more apprentices would take the time to listen before they start acting."
"But I'll never be able to do anything," Jamel said a little dejectedly.
Collin laughed. "I don't always work out there. In fact since we have time we could do some lab work and design a plant with the genetic properties of Tinira but will grow in a low nutrient soil."
Kayden rolled her eyes. She could finally speak again, and Collin only wanted to talk to the stupid robot. Mauve arrived with their breakfast, so she scooted out of bed and walked between Collin and Jamel to her chair. When she turned Collin was grinning at her. She scowled. She didn't want to be seen as a cute amusement to.
Collin came to sit in the chair beside her. "Looks like an excellent job again, Mauve."
"Yes, Dr. Hansell."
Collin laughed and scooped up a spoonful of his re-hydrated mush. "So, Kayden, were you able to look at any of those texts?"
She shrugged. "Some."
"And how far did you get?"
"You want me to read all of them?"
"Maybe. How much did you read?"
"Rocks and minerals are boring. I skipped to the animals. Is there a test?"
Collin gave his deep amused laugh. "I'm glad you can read, Sweetheart. But now that it looks like your speech has improved, maybe you can tell me what you like. Maybe we can find a course of study that isn't so boring for you."
"I don't know what I like. The stupid robot won't even tell me who I am."
Collin's smile left. He wasn't frowning, but he was serious. "You can call the others idiots or stupid or whatever you want, but Jamel is not to be treated that way. He does have feelings."
Kayden rose from her chair and tried to run from the room. He didn't like her anymore. He grabbed her around her waist. "No! No! Don't hurt me! Stop!"
"Whoa! Kayden. Calm down. You know I'm not going to hurt you."
But she couldn't think. Someone was hurting her. "Not my hands. No!" She screamed. "Michael! Michael! He's hurting me."
"Jamel, get me . . . ." The voice cut into her mind, but then she saw a horrid face leering at her.
She awoke slowly. Her body felt too stiff to move. There were voices weaving in and out of her dreams. "The hole is healing, Jamel. We're actually lucky it could be repaired, since her speech center was damaged."
"But she's still hurting."
"Memories heal, Jamel. They just take time... time and friends. Scars remain, but friends make them easier to bear."
When she awoke again it was silent. She opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling. She wasn't sure what had happened. All she remembered was that Collin had gotten mad at her. Her eyes filled with tears again. She wanted Collin to love her. He was all she had.
Jamel was beside her. He handed her a cloth for her face. "You are safe here."
She took the cloth and turned away from him toward the wall Burgy and Mauve sat against.
"I will always be your friend, Kayden. I'll protect you."
She rolled over. "You won't even tell me the truth about how we met."
Jamel was silent for a long time. Kayden rolled her eyes and plopped back on the bed to look at the ceiling again.
"Collin?" Jamel asked.
"I suppose the truth is best, Jamel."
"But I don't know the truth. I don't know who she is."
"But you know how you met her. You may summarize."
"I was being transported to a new owner. Charles Jamel left me on the shuttle. You were brought on by a man I did not know. He tried to kill you. I killed him. Collin?"
"That is fine, Jamel."
Kayden sat up. "You killed someone?" She closed her eyes as images flashed through her mind. 'You're safe now,' the voice had said. 'He won't hurt you anymore.'
She felt as if she wasn't quite there. Nothing was real. She was in a garden and a leering boy slopped on her face right before a sandy haired, blue eyed smiling hero came to tease her. And then he was gone, and she was in a plain room with cream walls and pictures of sea creatures she'd never seen, seas she'd never seen, and robots, and the concerned gaze of a god with rich brown hair and hazel eyes.
"I think I need to sleep," she mumbled.
Kayden felt better the next day. Collin started her on an exercise regiment which exhausted her. She knew Collin and Jamel worked on their plant project as she slept. She tried not to be jealous of the time Collin spent with him. It was ludicrous anyway, to be jealous of a robot. But Collin loved that robot, she could tell. But then why wasn't she jealous of Tabitha or Angie? It was just as silly, and she tried to hide it.
When she needed far less rest than they spent in their lab, Kayden would go see Angie. She loved the huge wingdeer and begged Collin to take her out again. He complied and they would take a short flight almost every afternoon. At least Jamel was not with them then.
But then one day Collin flew them to a cabin with a large barn and a garden.
"Who lives here?" Kayden asked when they'd landed. Suddenly she was afraid of meeting anyone. She wouldn't know what to say, and her scars on her face weren't healed, and her hands . . . She tucked her hands under her armpits.
"This is one of my homes. It's where I keep my experimental garden." He walked over to a garden that looked like a bunch of dead plants.
"Why is everything dead?"
"It's almost winter. It'll grow back in the spring. He knelt down and fingered the soil. "See, Jamel, this is what I mean. There's nothing like the minerals most planets have. Why do you think Reese Austin was able to buy it outright? Nothing here."
"How were food crops introduced?" asked a tiny voice.
"We bioengineered the food and animal crops first, but then just ignored the rest. But we need the variety of more medicinal plants."
Kayden watched in disbelief. He actually was talking to him. She walked back to Angie and put her face in her neck to hide her tears.
"Kayden," Collin said softly, a moment before his hand rested on her back. "What's wrong, Sweetheart?"
How could she tell him she wanted him alone -- that she hated dumb robots -- that she was jealous. She couldn't. He wouldn't love her at all if he knew. Instead she just let him hold her, because it felt good to have his strong arms around her. She was always safe with him.
"Do you want to go inside?"
She shrugged, and he led her inside, keeping his arm around her. The only light inside the building came from the windows. Wood dominated the room -- wood walls, wood floors, wood furniture, wood shelves. There were several pieces of art, but they weren't as varied nor as captivating as most of the art at the lab.
"What do you think?"
"It's like . . . being inside a tree."
Collin laughed. "Never thought of it that way, Sweetheart."
"Wood is very expensive. You must be rich." And then she blushed. Of course he was rich. He owned that whole lab.
Collin laughed again, making her feel like an even bigger idiot. He rubbed her back. "I'm afraid wood is one of our few natural resources which is easy to reach. Wood is the poor man's choice." He grinned. "Poor and rich. Houses aren't made of much else. A few try brick and concrete in the larger cities, but we don't have a lot of ore on the planet, so metals are most precious. I heard they were doing some remarkable things with a steel-glass compound in Melbin though. Expensive stuff. One of these days I'm going to have to go get a sample and chemically analyze it to see what the fuss is about, and then discreetly raise any safety concerns."
"You're showing me this so I won't be too surprised when we go to Hope."
"Well, I guess that's a good reason. I really hadn't expected surprise, but I'm starting to think you've never been on a planet at all before."
"No," she said, turning and looking at every corner of the room. "I don't think I have." She didn't bother trying to remember where she'd lived before. It was only frustrating. She'd never know for sure, and it'd probably be better from now on to just go with her gut instinct when dealing with her past. Less headaches that way, and no one would ever know the difference. She'd never get back. She wasn't even sure she wanted to go back. Except for one person . . . one . . . Jamel . . . Jamel.
"Did Jamel used to be a person?" Kayden rolled her eyes, realizing how stupid she sounded. But having a robot who had feelings was just as stupid. "I mean . . . well, is it possible he was a man?"
Collin seemed surprised, his eyebrows raised.
"No," came the tiny voice. "I was never a man."
"And Jamel is a person," Collin added. "Probably the most complete artificial intelligence in the universe."
Kayden walked away from him and looked into the adjoining room. She felt stupid again. There was just something about that name. But she'd promised herself she wouldn't try to remember, and here she'd done it again. "Why are all these plants hanging upside down in here?" All over the room different plants hung from rafters. Jars, bottles, and pouches lined the shelves which surrounded three sides of the room. The only furniture was a high table in the middle of the room, with two stools.
"This is my pharmacy. It's where I make many of the medicines I use."
"Why here and not in Hope?"
"I have a room in Hope also, but those are all well known plants there."
Kayden turned to him. She wanted to get off the subject of plants before Jamel piped up with his tiny little voice. It was more annoying than his other voice. But the only thing she could think of was to change the subject to what she liked. "Do you have many animals in Hope?"
"Just Angie and Tabitha. Quinn has a horse. And I have two mares."
"A horse with wings?"
Collin smiled. "No wings, Beloved. There aren't too many pegasus left." He took a step to the window and looked up. "Used to be the sky was a menagerie of flying creatures. But now . . . ." He shook his head. "One of my biggest regrets. I'd hoped to add to the color and beauty, but I destroyed it."
"No! You didn't! You never did anything wrong."
Collin walked outside, and Kayden followed him to the garden. She watched him as he pulled at some plants and gathered others together.
He sighed. "You're going to hear it everywhere, Kayden. The name Hansell is a curse, or I'm regularly cursed to hell. They don't know it's me, but it's just a part of life. I designed the dragons. I'm responsible for the destruction." He seemed almost hard then, but . . . .
"Yes, Kayden," came the tiny voice from Collin's pocket. "You can hug him."
How did Jamel know she wanted to give Collin a hug? But Collin's deep, rich laugh filled the garden. He grabbed Kayden into a hug and whirled her off her feet until he set her back down. "The gods must be smiling on me to give me you two."
Kayden loved his happiness and couldn't help smiling back.
"I will ask you about gods later," Jamel said.
"It's just a figure of speech," Collin said, dismissing it. "Let's get this work done."
Kayden wanted to help, but it was difficult without her fingers. She had to clasp both palms over the plant, and she mangled them several times before she got it right. She expected reprimands, but he never said it. Instead he spoke soothing, encouraging words.
The sun was getting low when she stretched. Her back ached from bending over. A moon hung in the sky, barely visible. And then she saw it, glistening off the setting sun. Reds, violets, and golds. Shimmering and coming straight toward them. She kept her eyes on it, admiring it, wanting to see how the flashes of color fit together.
"Collin!" came Jamel's voice, louder than before.
But she didn't care about Jamel, the disembodied voice. The colors were close enough to see its gleaming white teeth. "It's so beautiful. I want one. Collin, I . . . ." A red laser beam shot out from beside her, ripping through the beautiful beast as she was knocked to the ground.
"No! No! Don't!" Blood was everywhere. He was holding her down. "No! Don't hurt me! Stop! Please stop."
"You're okay, Kayden." She heard Collin's voice a long way off. "You're safe, Kayden. I won't let anything hurt you." She was drawn into a hug, and she nestled against him until the panic left.
When she opened her eyes, she still saw blood, on her, on him, on the ground. "Who . . . whose blood?"
"No ones. We're safe."
"But . . . but the laser."
"I had to kill the dragon."
"No!" She twisted to look into his face and then saw the glimmering lump on the ground beyond them. Kayden jumped up and ran to it. Her stomach churned. The beast's eyes stared vacantly at her, its head severed from its body right before the forelegs. She tried to ignore the severed ends as she kneeled beside it. "It was so beautiful. Oh, Collin, why'd you kill it?" She touched the head. Cool but soft. So soft.
Collin kneeled beside her, and then he drew her into his arms. "It is beautiful, isn't it?" he whispered. "That's why I didn't kill the prototypes."
"Why this one? Why?"
"Kayden, Love, it would have eaten you in three horrendous bites. The beast is a killer." He turned her to look into his eyes. "Promise me, Sweetheart, you will not stand there admiring the colors while he devours you."
Kayden shook her head. "It wouldn't . . . ."
"There are over fifty human deaths every year from dragon attacks, and another two hundred or so injuries. This doesn't include all the horses, cows, sheep, wingdeer, pegasus, and other animals they devourer. Listen, Kayden. These beasts are the most dangerous thing on the planet, and they must be killed. We can not be swayed by their beauty."
Kayden clutched on to him and cried. It wasn't fair. Why did it have to be a killer? Why couldn't it be as friendly as Angie, and she could soar into the sky on its back? Why? Why? "Maybe if we raised one as a baby, it'd let us . . . ."
Collin clutched her to him so tightly she couldn't move. But before panic set in, she heard his ragged breath. She remembered Jamel's words, and she hugged him back, hoping to somehow make things right again.
When he released her, he didn't look at her face. Instead he focused on the beast. "We'll need to stay here tonight. Go take Angie into the barn, and I'll draw some water for you to clean up."
He stood and walked over to the water pump. Kayden saw Angie cowering near the barn door. As she helped her inside, Kayden realized that Angie was terrified, and she tried to sooth her, but the blood on her hair and clothes didn't help. She couldn't remove the saddle and halter. Giving up in frustration, she left because she knew Angie didn't want the smell of blood near her.
Collin stood over the dragon. ". . . everything I felt all those years ago, Jamel. She sees what I saw back then. She wants what I wanted."
"They are a beautiful beast," Jamel acknowledged. "You made an excellent creature."
"Excellent killing machine."
"No. A creature. On Earth there are many deadly creatures, and they served to keep the herd animals from overrunning their available food."
"Jamel . . . I was short sighted. Back then none of us thought of the whole ecosystem. We were just playing god and working on our own little visions. Those who did recommend restraints and project restrictions eventually left because no one else wanted their project to be voted on. We all wanted to do what we wanted to do."
"And everyone did what was right in their own eyes."
"That's what I said." Collin twisted to look back toward the barn. "There's water, soap, and some clothes that are far too big for you in the house, Kayden. Clean up and go to bed."
"What are you doing?"
"I've got to clean up this mess. Go on. You'll be safer in the house. The dragons usually hunt at night."
"I don't want to be alone."
Collin hesitated. Then he reached into his pocket and removed a black rectangle. "Jamel will keep you company."
Tentatively she reached for the tiny slab and held it with the stump of her thumb. "This is Jamel?"
"Yes. The rest is just appendages. This is his brain. Be careful with him. He's your best friend."
She looked up at Collin. "You're not?"
"I'm your Daddy, remember? Although I guess technically we're both your best friends. Now get to safety."
Kayden looked up at the dark sky. "You'll be all right?"
"I have a laser, remember?"
Kayden hesitated. She didn't want to leave him. He still seemed too quiet. He wasn't happy, and she wanted to make him happy. She glanced at Jamel, and then took the two steps to Collin, wrapping her arms around him. "I love you, Daddy," she whispered. And the phrase seemed so right. She'd said it before, somewhere, but she didn't remember when. Perhaps she had a real father somewhere.
Collin hugged her tightly. "I love you, too. Now please stay safe for me."
She ran toward the door, but Jamel slipped out of her grip before she reached it. She followed his voice to find him, picking him up with both palms together, and they made it into the house. A fire in the fireplace lit part of the room. She found the water on the table. It was more difficult to wash, and she knew she'd need Collin's help to remove all the blood. But he never came back in.
The lights dimmed as the fire became embers, making the house dark. She couldn't remember darkness except on the edges of her nightmares. The facility was always lit up, even throughout the night. "Is he ever coming back?"
"Yes. It takes a long time to harvest the hides."
"Is he mad at me?"
"No. He loves you."
"He . . . he was . . . it looked almost like . . . like tears."
"You understand why he loved his dragon so much he couldn't kill it. He needs that. We are the only ones who know his secret on the entire planet, and we love him. I think that made his tears."
"You love him, too?"
"Yes. I wish I was a human and could be a son."
"Then you would be my brother."
"I never had a brother. I don't think. Except . . . ." That memory, that person, kept trying to intrude again. She pushed the vagueness away. She didn't remember, therefore he wasn't there. "No. I have no one. I'd like a brother, I suppose."
"I will try to be a good one."
"You are. You saved my life, didn't you? I'm sure that's something a brother would do."
It was even darker now. She wished Collin would come inside. What could Jamel, the black rectangle, do to protect her? "I'm scared."
"It's safe here, Kayden. You're safe now. No one will hurt you again." His voice, although not the rich tenor she loved, finally allowed her to sleep without panic.