The next morning, Collin stopped Kayden on the stairs down to the living room. "Do you trust me?"
"Yes." She studied his face. Of course she trusted him.
"Good." He continued on down the stairs.
Kayden followed. Wilma had already arrived and was working in the kitchen. Kayden sat nervously next to Collin and across from Quinn and Tara. Wilma brought in a large omelet, ham, and a loaf of fresh bread. "Join us, Wilma," Collin invited.
"I . . . ." She glanced at Tara.
"You can take time to eat. Doctor's orders. Good for your health and all that."
She hesitated, staring at the food. Then she took a deep breath and sagged into the chair closest to the kitchen. "Maybe just a little," she murmured. Tara frowned, but didn't say anything. Collin must not know that Tara had told her she was never to eat there.
Collin grabbed the omelet and cut a fifth of it off to slide onto Wilma's plate. Then he served himself and Kayden before passing the plate to Quinn. He began eating right away, but as soon as they were all served, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a crinkled taped paper. He smoothed it out on the middle of the table, and Kayden saw her crude dragons.
She glanced at Tara, afraid she'd say something stupid again, but she wore a satisfied smirk. She thought Kayden was in trouble. Was she? Kayden studied Collin. He'd asked her to trust him. She trusted him.
"Quite a nice drawing, Kayden. Your hands are healing quite well. Have you ever thought of going into art?"
Kayden shook her head, her nerves warring inside.
"She'll have to find a less obnoxious subject," Tara said.
"Obnoxious? Hardly. The dragon is one of the most aesthetically pleasing creatures on the planet."
"Whatever are you saying, Alex? They're killers, and Hansell was a pathetic boyman."
Kayden felt her teeth clench together, and she knew if she unclenched them, she'd say the wrong thing. She reached under the table and touched Collin's leg.
"I think, Kayden, since you are so interested in the planet's diverse wildlife, we should have a little history lesson."
"Yes," Tara said. "Teach her the truth about those beasts."
"I will, Tara. Rest assured, I know the history of our world." He glanced around the table. "Have you heard any of our history, Wilma?"
"Tom and I studied all we could find when we knew we were coming here."
"Aah. An educated couple. Good. I wish more people would do so. Let's see, where to begin. A long, long time ago a very rich man bought a backwater planet so that he could do as he pleased. We'll call him the king. The king had many princes and princesses under him, and he let them do whatever they wanted, as long as their exploits kept bringing more money into the king's already bulging coffers. And the king brought many peasants to the planet to serve the princes of the world. But the only people willing to come and serve as peasants were people who were in dire trouble, people who for one reason or another were ready to go to prison."
"What are you talking about, Alex? Kings and peasants."
"The princes are the geneticists, Tara, and the peasants, well, were the peasants."
"The original settlers were not convicts!"
"Afraid so, Tara. But they weren't sent by the government after conviction like they are now. They were helped to escape the inevitable. And they weren't screened like they are now to weed out the excessively violent."
"You're lying! You're twisting history."
"I just started, Tara. Please. I'm teaching my daughter history. Now Kayden, the princes of the world filled the skies and oceans with scores of animals. Every time you looked up, you'd see another fascinating creature. The first King eventually passed his empire on to his son, who followed his tradition. Both of them did monitor the situation, and let the peasants have a little of the supply ship's bounty. But when the grandson took over, he was not interested in a little backwater world with a situation that was considered illegal and unethical in the rest of the galaxy. It still brought him money though, so he left it, not bothering to check that even the most basic supplies were had by all.
"Hansell was born during the second king's reign, but performed his research during the third's. Like the other geneticists, he wanted to make fascinating and beautiful creatures. His first effort was a sweet little creature called a kittle."
"Hansell did not make kittles!" Tara said, her palms on the table. "You're lying."
"Actually," Wilma said, not meeting anyone's gaze, "he did. I belonged to the Interplanetary Kittle Club for a few years, and his work is highly regarded."
"Is it?" Collin asked. "Interplanetary Kittle Club? Kittles actually made it off the planet?"
Wilma gave Collin a small smile. "Kittles are everywhere. They're the most fascinating pet. And you'd be hard pressed to find a star base or even a tiny mining outpost without at least one kittle to keep the vermin at bay. The range of colors far outranges the cats they were bred from."
"That's true. Color was prized, and Hansell wanted to leave the possibilities almost endless so that the creatures would delight for years to come."
"He certainly succeeded. I hoped to be able to have at least one kittle here, but I haven't seen as many as I thought I would."
"Tabitha is due next month, and you are more than welcome to enjoy a kittle with my gratitude." He glanced around the table. "My gratitude for your help around this house and practice."
Tara stood. "You're wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Collin Hansell was a pathetic manboy, he had some awful disease that stunted his growth and his brain. He was evil."
"Stunted his brain, you say? Tell me, how simple is it to genetically engineer a creature, even one as small as a kittle. Hansell was a genius."
Kayden grinned. She loved Collin, and he was a genius. He'd get no argument from her, although she decided to tease him. "I'm sure he was very humble about his vast intellect also."
"I'm sure he was," Collin said dryly. "And he never skipped his turn to help at the free clinics set up to help the poor peasants."
"How can you say that? How can you . . . . You're lying.
"As a man of science and a lover of art, I've always admired Collin Hansell. Too bad his work didn't survive the riots to benefit the people."
Quinn met Collin's gaze. "It sounds like you're a regular Hansell worshipper."
"I recommend you study his work yourself, Quinn."
Tara ran from the room and then up the stairs.
Collin glanced over his shoulder until the door slammed upstairs. "Think it worked?"
Quinn smiled. "Not sure, but you've almost converted me."
"I'd like to find out more about the kittles off planet, Wilma."
Jamel's voice sounded in Kayden's ear and she imagined in Collin's also. "Records on the Interplanetary Kittle Club were a part of the information I first downloaded for you. Did you not read them?" He was hurt.
"Probably didn't have time," Kayden said, under her breath.
"Yeah," Collin said, keeping his attention on Wilma and then encouraging her to talk about her knowledge of kittles. He sent Kayden out to see if she could find Tabitha.
Later, when Tara came down, she yelled at Wilma, and then fired her. Kayden watched Wilma walk away toward the village. She lifted her hand to her eyes several times, and Kayden suspected she was crying.
When Collin finished with his patient she entered the pharmacy with him. He started to explain how he wanted the dried plants prepared, and she tried to pay attention, but she couldn't forget Wilma.
"Okay. What's wrong, Sweetheart? Did I do something I shouldn't? Did Tara say something nasty when I was out of hearing range?"
"She fired Wilma."
Collin stalked to the kitchen, and Kayden followed. He stopped before Tara. "You said you couldn't do all the work here, yet you fire a perfectly capable helper."
Tara glared at him. "I won't work with a Hansell worshipper."
"This is my house, and I'll decide who works here and who doesn't. If you don't want to work here, I'll give Wilma a full time housekeeping position."
"Oh, just kick us out, will you? After Quinn looked after this place for two months alone while you played. He worked almost straight through with hardly any sleep, and what thanks?"
"I am not kicking anyone out. I am making sure you know that you do not own my house, and you will not ever speak ill to my daughter again. You've overstepped your authority too many times since I've been back."
"You wouldn't have any place to come back to if it weren't for him, but Burke's right. You walk all over him."
"I will tell Wilma that she may return in the morning. Will you still be working or shall she do the whole thing."
"She can do it all. I'm going to be lazy like your daughter."
"Then I don't want you to say one word to Wilma. She will report directly to me."
Collin whirled around and caught Kayden's arm as he left the room, almost dragging her along. "Go saddle the horses. I'll be out in a minute."
Collin couldn't sleep. He couldn't get Kayden's picture out of his mind. If only he could make his little girl's dream come true. Silently he slipped into Kayden's room and slid his hand under her pillow until his fingertips grasped the slim rectangle. Then he went outside. He paced to the barn but decided not to go in. Three moons were visible tonight, one of them full. The weather was mild for winter. He walked until he was beyond the pasture in a small circle of pine trees. Laying down on the pine needles, he looked up into the stars.
"My friend wants to kill a dragon tonight," Jamel said in a soft voice, not through the transceiver, but directly into the air.
"No. Not really. I just wanted to be with someone."
The next voice was in his ear. "If it does not matter to you, pretend you don't know Kayden has followed us until she reveals herself."
"I wish I could go back to the lab and design again."
"What do you want to design?"
"I'm not sure. I get this urge every once in a while. One time I made the teasels to go attack the dragon's eggs. About ten years ago, in between my home in Shade and Hope, I created a little dog-like creature, similar to the kittles, called doggles. Very loyal. I introduced them in New Haven."
"Why don't you have one here?"
"I don't want to be the first one in the village to own one. I have to keep my disguise. I really want to design something big again, but that'd be too obvious."
"Yeah. Can't let them know there's still a lab here, can we?"
"I see. What if you redesigned a creature that already existed. Improved it in some way that the average person would not detect at a glance."
Collin sat up. "A new dragon?" Oh, heavens above, he could never even attempt such a thing. Not after he'd killed so many people.
"Yes!" Kayden walked out from behind the tree, she'd been hiding behind. "Make a friendly dragon." She plopped down on the ground near him.
"But what if I fail?" But already he knew he'd only make one at a time. They'd be sterile. They'd -- it would be a mammal. Reptiles had little to no loyalty. "We need to change its whole structure, but somehow give the fur the same iridescence as the original dragon. We could focus on only one color at a time instead of the whole palette."
"Blue. Make him blue to match your Hans Trapper outfit. And I want a Hans Trapper suit, too." He loved the excitement in her eyes.
"But how will we make the beast completely loyal?"
"Have you ever worked with bionics?" Jamel asked. "Installing micro or nano technology to work with living flesh?"
"What are you suggesting, Jamel?"
"I want to be a mobile unit again. I could be the brain, and I promise you complete loyalty."
Jamel had stunned him last night. Collin had admitted he needed time to think, and they had gone back to the house. Jamel as a dragon? It was such a radical concept, and yet even as he said he needed to think it through, his mind mulled over each obstacle and began solving them. Such a challenge.
Even Kayden had been stunned by Jamel's proposal. She hadn't said a word all the way home, clutching the pocket she'd placed Jamel in as if she didn't want to lose him.
Wilma was in the kitchen when he went down for breakfast, and he greeted her with a smile.
Quinn came down to eat with them, but Tara remained in her room. "I'm sorry, Collin. She says she's sick, but she really isn't."
"Don't be sorry. She doesn't need to do anything. Wilma has it under control. I've hired her full time, so Tara can spend as much time as she wants preparing for your baby."
Quinn set down his fork. "You did that for her? She sounded like . . . like you were punishing her."
Collin gave Quinn a small smile. "She can take it as she likes. She does not control me, and I do not need her contribution if she refuses to give it." He winked. "Does she hate me yet?"
Quinn laughed. "Yeah. She really hates you. Wants us to move out."
"What do you want?"
"As far as?"
"Should we move?"
"That's up to you. I know you may prefer to have your own household, but you are welcome here as long as you'd like. You've kept this place up well while I was gone, and I know I can rely on you."
Quinn began eating. He didn't speak again until he pushed his empty plate away. "That was good, Wilma. Do you think you could take something up to Tara?"
"Yes. I will, Dr. Stone." Wilma went back into the kitchen.
"It's okay, isn't it?"
"Sure. Until Tara harasses her. Then she loses the privilege."
Quinn seemed about to speak, but then he just stood and left the room.
He got the message from Jamel that evening, as he sat in the chair before the fire, his head back and eyes closed, mentally going over the skeletal changes from reptile to mammal. Kayden needed him in the barn. Angie was in labor. Quinn was reading on the couch. "Hey, Quinn. I think we may have a calving. Care to come?"
He dropped his book. "How do you know that?"
Collin shrugged. "Let's just take a walk and find out." He rose from the couch, and they walked outside together.
"Was she in mild labor earlier?"
"Perhaps," Collin said to ease Quinn's mind about his apparent new psychic ability.
Kayden and Jamel were right. Angie was in labor. Angie did most of the work, however, and Collin just leaned against the stall wall and supervised. Kayden stayed near Angie's head, offering soothing noises of comfort, and Quinn kept Collin company.
"Okay, kids," Collin joked, as the first nose started out. "Who gets the first one, and who will go second?"
Both Quinn and Kayden stared at him, neither speaking.
"Come on, you two. We've got twins, and you're going to have to bond with them. The sooner, the better. One of you get over here and take a towel to the little guy as soon as it's out."
Kayden's eyes were wide. "I . . . I don't know how."
"Okay, Quinn. You show her how it's done."
Quinn obeyed, and soon he had a female calf half on his lap. Angie helped clean him off, and then Quinn moved the baby so that Kayden could work. She ended up with a male.
Collin examined both calves and was pleased to confirm they were both healthy. When the calves were taking their first meal, Kayden, still sitting on the floor, and covered with the bloody mucus of the birth, looked up at Collin. "What did you mean, exactly? We each get one. We each get to deliver one?" She reached over to stroke the hind end of "her" calf.
"I mean, you both have a wingdeer now -- a special friend."
Kayden jumped up and hugged Collin. "You're the best dad in the whole world!" Collin decided not to mention that she'd gotten him as slimy as she was.
"I . . . ." Quinn stared at the calves. "Thanks." He said little, but when the calves were done eating and ready to sleep, Quinn held the little gal's head on his lap.
"Kayden," Collin whispered. "I'd like to go for a walk while you two are busy." He walked through the moonlight, down along the edge of the pasture.
"The birth was fascinating," Jamel stated in his ear.
"I always love a good birth. There's hope and joy and . . . ."
"But you're melancholy."
Collin gave a small laugh. "Just reflective. Beginnings are a time to look forward, determine our direction."
"What will our direction be?"
Collin chuckled again. "Oh, you know I love a challenge, don't you?"
"Your history appears to support that conclusion."
"Did you manipulate me, Jamel?"
"Into the dragon project."
"I did not know you desired a large project. You stated a desire. I helped you explore options. I saw an opportunity. Will you allow me the opportunity?"
"Yes, Jamel. I think I'd like to."