It was Kayden's second spring, and she loved everything about it. New foals, new flowers, new leaves, a new body for Jamel. She'd avoided the lab since they initiated the process because it was so boring there, but this time she couldn't wait to see the new dragon. And she was to be Collin's nurse. Oh, Jamel would help, too -- his robot self, as his core was planted into the dragon's head.
Gaben voiced a wish to go with Collin to the cabin garden, but fortunately Collin was able to make the refusal more plausible than, "No, we don't want you to see our new dragon." They also had to stop in Alexandria to try to cohere some new medicine from the powers there.
"Are you excited?" Kayden asked Jamel yet again, as they descended toward the mountain door.
"Yes," he said, his voice even.
Kayden felt he was being far too calm for the whole thing. But then he didn't have a body that wanted to jump right off Angie's back. "If only I had wings."
Collin laughed. "No, Kayden. A few people tried that. Unless you experiment from the womb, a human body just doesn't have the muscles for it. And then the poor creature didn't live beyond three years of age."
Kayden tried to twist around to see him. He had to be kidding. He turned her to face forward. "That never happened," Kayden accused. "They didn't try to grow a baby with wings."
"'Fraid so. Why do you think this lab was hidden? Were we hiding the genetic code to the wingdeer? They'd have never understood or cared. But they would care about the human experiments." He leaned closer to her as Angie landed. The wind was no longer rushing by, and his voice was now lower, but clear, right beside her ear. "I was an experiment, Sweetheart. One who lived. One who ages only one year for every four. But even as a pathetic boy/man, I was luckier than some of the other misfit mutants."
He slid off Angie's back and helped her down, even though she didn't need the help. Kayden twisted to hug him. There was something in his tone, the memory of pain, and she wanted to ease it, however little she could, just as he helped her when the black hole in her mind bore in on her.
She couldn't talk to Jamel about the black hole that seemed to be there. He would apologize for absolutely no reason and then quit speaking. Collin wouldn't, and probably couldn't, explain Jamel's behavior, but he said the hole was probably her mind's way of protecting her, of hiding those things that had hurt her most. And he kept insisting it wasn't physical, as if she hadn't heard the first twenty times he'd said that. As if maybe there was brain damage, and he was lying about it. But she knew Collin wasn't lying. She knew the memories were there, because sometimes she'd get a flash, a short picture of another life, and then it was gone again. If it was a real hole, it would just be nothing.
They entered the lab, and Collin took Angie into the stable. "How is it, Jamel?"
"Beautiful," he said with a touch of awe in his voice. He'd contacted his robot unit and now could see through its sensors.
Collin grinned, but kept brushing Angie. He wouldn't rush her care, even for this, so Kayden brushed her other side. After making sure she had fresh water and food, Collin finally let them walk through the halls to the lab.
Kayden stared into the huge vat. It was beautiful -- beautiful and eerie. "It's not a baby. I thought you started them as babies." The dragon looked to be at least twenty-five feet long from nose to tail tip, the lightest to medium sky blue varying and shimmering through the not quite clear liquid.
"It didn't need a full brain, so we could rush it. Brains are the only thing we can't speed up. It just has a simple brain stem for the involuntary functions and a subprocessor which will also redirect all Jamel's desires to movements."
"Wow," was all she could think of to say. She really didn't understand how they could get the eerily beautiful, but dead dragon to be a living, breathing being. She looked from the dragon to her hands, now so much a part of her that she could barely remember the mutilated ones. Her fingernails right now needed filing, the skin had tanned, and she had a small scab on her left palm where she'd cut it peeling potatoes on Wilma's day off last week. They were her hands, and it was only with extreme effort that she could find the line where they had been attached.
"I am preparing the operating room," Jamel informed them.
"The operation won't be until tomorrow after we eat breakfast."
"But we still have half the day . . . ."
"And I'm not at my peak, am I, Jamel? Give yourself the best chances of succeeding and let us have a day of rest first."
Kayden grinned. "You almost had me convinced you weren't as excited as I was," she teased Jamel. "You'll learn that a body needs rest. Even a dragon body. Will your mind learn to sleep?"
"No. I will just do as I do now. Wait until either of you need me to talk."
"Such a hard life, Jamel," she teased again. "Just you wait. The work has only begun. As soon as you're out there, I want to have a dragon ride."
"Perhaps," Jamel said, his voice full of humor also.
"No," Collin said, herding Kayden out of the room. "No rides. I warned you before, Jamel. If this operation succeeds you will have to treat the flesh like it was a newborns. Don't overstretch or over tax it. That's why we're waiting three weeks to even attempt the trip home. And I'll determine when you're strong enough for passengers. I am your doctor, after all."
"Yes, Collin," Jamel said subdued. "You are right."
"Of course, I am. Now Kayden, let's put our packs away, and have Mauve get us some lunch."
"Oh, joy. Re-hydrated mush." Another reason she'd stayed home. Wilma was a much better cook.
"It's good for you." Collin disappeared into his room, and Kayden went to the one which he'd assigned to her during her last visit.
Jamel sensed when Collin installed him in the exo-core which would surround and protect his main core from the moist flesh which would encase it. The exo-core also contained a sound and speech unit so that his voice would be enriched and strengthened enough for humans to hear without having to wear the transceivers Collin and Kayden did. They had decided a voice would be good for emergencies. Collin pressed the core tight into the exo-core. He sensed it from inside the exo-core and from the robotic unit.
"How's the fit, Jamel?"
"It is connected, Collin." He sent the signal to speak through the robot. As he waited for Collin's next command, he admired the large, beautiful dragon body again, which lay stretched out over the table, actually several tables together. He saw Collin cut the back of the dragon's head and pull apart the skull -- his head, his skull, but he was not afraid, except of failure and waiting another year to fulfill the longings and dreams he had.
He'd told Kayden about the dreams, late at night, after one of her nightmares. In a section of the processor that he didn't need for Collin and Kayden's needs, he constantly thought about what he could do or should do if he was human or now what he would do if he was dragon. He had dreams of soaring through the air, and then dreams of rescuing humans from attack. Dreams of rushing Collin to an emergency, flying faster than any wingdeer. And he dreamed of victory. Of crushing the ones that hurt innocent victims like the boy who'd lost his arm. He'd go into battle because he knew who the enemy was, and he knew the enemy was not human and needed to be destroyed.
Collin had talked about the need to eat, and he had even bought a herd of sheep, telling him that they would give him the proper nourishment. But Jamel had a hard time imagining himself attacking the defenseless fluffy creatures. He wanted to attack reptile dragons. They were the killers, and he had to protect the innocent.
Collin set the exo-core inside the dragon's skull and began the slow, tedious process of connecting everything to it. Right now a machine cleared the lungs and was respirating the body. Another circulated the blood they'd made as additional fluids dripped into the body through an intravenous catheter.
The first sensation came as a surprise, conveying a sense of heaviness, of rhythm. Then he felt another rhythm. One was his new lungs, he realized, and the other his heart, as he tentatively explored the new connections. From the robot he saw the dragon's right arm claw out.
"Stop it now, Jamel. Quit moving the beast."
"Did I?" He was too excited to be upset by Collin's sternness. He wanted to feel the stretch again, but contained the impulses by trying to focus himself in the robotic unit.
"Now you know why we put our patients under," Collin muttered. "I'd shut you off if I could. Kayden, clear that blood for me."
The operation took all day, and Jamel could see that both Collin and Kayden needed food. He took the robotic unit to Mauve to request food. Mauve wouldn't listen to him. She only listened to Collin and Kayden. Jamel thought about reprogramming her, not for the first time, but as always he decided he'd better not "operate" without Collin's permission.
"Now, Jamel," Collin said. He was still in the operating room beside the dragon unit. "I don't want you to move until I come back in here in the morning."
"Not at all? But you usually get your patients up sooner than that if you can."
"But they've all had control of their own bodies before. You're going to be clumsy, and you could hurt yourself."
Collin didn't trust him. It stung. He'd studied the old notes and images that Collin had made when he first designed the dragon, and he studied dragons and wingdeer and every other moving creature he could. He knew what to do. "If I am to be clumsy, perhaps I should do it alone so neither of you are hurt."
"You promised to follow my instructions, Jamel," Collin said softly. And then Jamel felt the softest sensation. From the robotic unit, he could see Collin running his hand along the dragon's long neck.
Kayden reached over and touched the dragon's snout. "He's so soft."
"I feel you! I feel you both!" It was all he could do not to send signals back through the connections.
Collin smiled. "Then we have succeeded, Jamel. You just need a little more patience." And in spite of his excitement, he noticed both Collin and Kayden were weary and tired.
"Go to bed. I will follow your orders."
Kayden leaned over and touched her face against the dragon's long snout, her arm on his neck. "I love you, Jamel."
Collin touched Jamel's left ear. "It won't be long now, my friend," he whispered. And then they left the room. Touch. He'd seen them touch each other in reassurance, hug each other to comfort. They even hugged the wingdeer and horses and kittles. And now him. Now he was encased in more than sensationless plastic. He was alive!
Jamel made it through the night by focusing on the philosophy texts. He had dissected many books and kept coming back to the first book he'd examined. He read it over and over in every language, and then he searched archeology records. He'd not studied it as much during the months they'd done the actually designing, but he found himself returning to it now. It was one of the few that explained how he'd felt after he'd hurt Kayden. The defect was in his very core and could not be purged. But it stated the defect was at each person's core. He wasn't alone. Nor was it hopeless . . . if he were human.
The next day after they ate, Collin and Kayden came back to the operating room. "How are you doing, Jamel?" Collin asked, running his hand down Jamel's neck.
"I didn't move."
Collin smiled. "You are a patient man, Jamel. Let's see how you're doing." He examined him and then removed the respirator. "Deep breaths, Jamel. That's it. Keep breathing. Good. Now open your eyes."
Jamel moved his eyes. "I can't see anything," he said, disappointed. He'd hoped to learn the difference between sensors and eyes.
"You must open the lids, Jamel. Sort through your muscles."
Jamel found that he didn't know which connectors moved what. Collin was right. He was going to be a clumsy until he figured out what went where and how strong an impulse he needed to send.
Collin worked slowly through his facial muscles, touching each one lightly so that Jamel could label it. They worked down his neck, and then Collin asked him to move the tip of his left wing.
Jamel sent the impulse. A rush of wind sounded in his ear.
"Kayden!" he shouted, twisting his neck around to see her.
She lay crumbled in the corner.
Collin leaned over her. "Sweetheart," he whispered. "Precious."
She moaned. Only moaned. No, not again. He'd hurt her again. He lowered his head to the bed.
"Wait for me, Jamel. I'm going to take Kayden into the other room."
Jamel said nothing as Collin picked up Kayden and carried her in his arms. From the robot, he saw a wide welt on Kayden's face across her left cheek and down to her chin. He knew he didn't deserve this body. He didn't deserve to live at all. He'd hurt her again, and he loved her so much. Gaben would never leave a welt on her like that. Gaben should marry her and take her far from him. He should marry her and destroy Jamel. Destroy the core.
He heard them talking, Kayden crying in pain, Collin treating her and telling her to rest.
Collin reentered the room, and stood near Jamel's head. "Okay. Let's work on those wings again."
Jamel wouldn't. He didn't want the wings anymore.
"Jamel? Jamel, she's okay."
"No, she's not. No one is safe. The project should be scrapped."
Collin leaned over, took Jamel's snout between his hands, and looked into his eyes. "Don't even start taking the blame for this now, because if you must lay blame, it's my fault. I knew you'd be clumsy, and I didn't heed your advice last night. Now let's get on with it."
"I hurt her. I love her so much, and I always hurt her."
Collin straightened and rubbed Jamel's ear. "Jamel, my friend, Kayden isn't blaming you. I don't blame you. You know you're the only one who can fulfill her fantasy of flying high on a dragon's back."
"I'd probably drop her."
"You won't be holding her. She'd be holding you, strapped on to you, just like we strap on to the wingdeer."
"I'll do something stupid."
"Like wallow in self-pity while we could be labeling these wing muscles. Now come on, Jamel. We're wasting time. I am not taking you out of the dragon's body, and I know you can't let the body die now. You won't kill it. So try to move just the wing tip this time."
Collin worked with him for another hour before Kayden stood in the doorway watching them. The right side of her face was swollen as much as it had been when that beast of a man had almost killed her.
Jamel was now comfortable with his neck and head muscles, and he twisted his neck toward her. "I'm sorry, Kayden," he whispered. "I'm so sorry."
Kayden gave him a crooked smile as she ran a couple steps into the room and grabbed him around the neck, hugging him. "It's okay," she said, holding on to him. "I shouldn't have been so close." She backed away a little, still smiling. "You're looking so good now."
"Maybe tomorrow we'll actually get him outside," Collin said, "but for now we have some more work to do. I prefer you take that stool, Love, and watch from the doorway."
Kayden grabbed the stool and dragged it to the doorway. Then they began working again. By the time Collin and Kayden stopped for their evening meal, Jamel had tested and labeled all his muscles.
After dinner Collin led him through the lab complex to the large examining room that Kayden had been in when they'd first arrived on the planet. The bed was shoved to the side of the room, and instead a large pad was over the smooth floor, making it softer.
The body was requiring larger and large impulses to make the same movement, and he could barely lift his paws to make the final steps to the pad. "I am diminishing in function, Collin!"
"You need to rest, Jamel. Close your eyes and let the body slow down some. Remember how you can tell when we're asleep?"
But it had seemed like such a power drain, he was sure that it needed to be fixed. Sleep would not repair brokenness. But he obediently listened to Collin.
Jamel heard Collin leave the complex that night and knew he was hunting. Several hours later he reestablished contact with the transceiver behind Collin's ear. He was back. And then the metallic odor of blood wafted to him. He felt the edges of his nostrils twitch without his command.
He heard and smelled Collin set the meat near his head, but he didn't open his eyes, obeying Collin's command to rest the body.
"Hey," he heard Collin's voice laced with humor. "I know you know I'm here."
"Yes," he said through the transceiver, "but I am resting."
"And I think it's time you try eating."
Jamel's stomach contracted. "There is something wrong with my stomach."
"Yeah. I know. It's hungry."
Jamel rolled to rest on his chest, his head upright. He sniffed the meat. "What is it?"
"Boy, are we the picky child. This time boar."
"No. Better nutrition this way. Now chew thoroughly. Don't bite your tongue, and make sure you close your windpipe as you swallow."
He looked at Collin who waited expectantly for him to complete the task. "This is not one of the more pleasant moments of a body, is it?"
"Much more pleasant than eliminating the waste."
Jamel sighed. "If there had been some way to make this unit solar powered."
Collin laughed. "You will get used to it. Now try it."
Tentatively Jamel opened his mouth and closed it over a chunk of the meat Collin had cut up before him. Taste was a completely new sensation, and once he started eating, he wanted to try more to see if the sensation returned.
"Slow down. You don't want to choke."
Jamel swallowed the last of his meal. "Is there more?"
"Yes, but you're not getting it yet. Let your system adjust to its first meal before you overtax it. Now try to rest. When things work through, you might try courteously stepping outside the complex."
Jamel lowered his head. "Why did I want a body? I could have been an android. Completely synthetic. But I wanted the pretty colors. Why didn't you warn me I was being stupid again?"
Collin laughed and gave his neck a nuzzle like he sometimes did to Angie. "Because I've always dreamed of having my very own, special dragon. Thanks for making an old man's dream come true."
Jamel leaned his head toward Collin wanting more of his affection, the physical affection he'd watched and envied. "Thanks for making mine possible."
He expected Collin would go to his room, but instead he slept on the bed against the wall, just like he'd sleep in the room with any patient. "How come you stay with me tonight and not last night?"
"I was with you, right in the next room. I even peeked in occasionally to make sure you were still breathing because you took me seriously and didn't move at all."
"You were?" At the house he usually could tell where Collin was by the sounds around him, but here he'd been so concerned with his new body, that he'd assumed and not properly analyzed the sounds. His robotic unit had stayed in his room with him and was with him now, but he realized he hadn't been analyzing its data much either.
"Yes. I'm sorry, Jamel. I thought you knew I was with you last night. I wouldn't leave you to go through this alone." He watched Jamel from the bed.
"I knew I could talk to you or call you. I wasn't scared."
Collin had his soft smile. "I'll be right here tonight. You rest."
As Jamel rested he reviewed the data the robot had collected. He'd missed things. Were humans just as multitasking as he was, but their body took over most of their available ports? He hadn't anticipated being diminished in any way. He spent the night adjusting internal subroutines to alert him of priority situations.
Jamel managed to make it through the night, and the first cycle of his body's functions. Just as Collin had promised the night before, the situation of diminishing power had righted itself.
They went outside after breakfast. "Now don't do too much. Just stretch your wings a bit, and if you think you're up to it, try a little flight. But come back here before you get tired."
Jamel stretched his wings and then arched his back. He felt alive. He was whole. He jumped into the air and let his wings grab the air, just as he'd studied time and time again. And it worked! He was flying. Soaring. Higher and higher. The wind rushed against him, holding him up, caressing his body. He circled and rushed up higher.
"Okay, now, Jamel," he heard through the transceiver. "Don't over do it. Come on down."
"But Collin . . . ." He cut himself off. He'd promised to obey, and he began a downward spiral. As the earth rushed toward him he searched his data files for the landing technique. "How do I land? How do I land?"
"Slow down," Collin called. "Take another circle and slow down. It's all right. You can do it. Now glide in at a twenty degree angle." His voice was soothing, reassuring. And then Jamel knew he could do it. Why had the earth rushing toward his face caused him to lose track of the data he'd researched?
And then he was down, and both Collin and Kayden were hugging him, one on each side, telling him how wonderful he was, how beautiful he'd looked. He loved them both.
The second week at the lab, they flew over to the cabin and spent two days tending the gardens and processing medicines. On the third week, Collin took off for Alexandria, leaving Kayden and Jamel alone. He'd stocked a large quantity of boar meat and reptile dragon in the freezer for Kayden to feed him. He said that when they got home, Jamel would have to learn to hunt for himself, but Jamel tried not to think about that yet.
Collin returned from Alexandra with a satchel of medicine and two swords. "The metalsmith calls these dragon-slayers. I was myself, Doc Collin, when I talked to him, and he was bragging about how many dragons Hans Trapper had killed with his swords. Look at these." He held out one of the swords, a gleaming, reddish metal, the red color swirling in darker and lighter patterns. It was sharp on both edges and the hilt's hand guard was molded to represent a dragon's body while the head threatened menacingly on the opposite side. "It's a work of art. I just couldn't resist. I asked him, though, if Hans knew he was talking about him. I think I made him nervous. I figured next time I'm there as Hans, I'll stop in." He left one on the hall wall of the lab complex and said he'd hang the other in the practice waiting room in Hope.
They headed for home two days later. Jamel thought that as a dragon he would be able to fly faster and farther than Angie. But he had to stop and rest as much as the new calf had last year.
"That's because you are a new calf," Collin said.
"I am not a calf." Although Jamel had been prepared to ask that they try that next if the mammal-dragon hadn't worked.
They made it home at dusk. Collin and Kayden hugged Jamel at the far tree line, saying good night, before continuing on to the barn. When it was dark, Jamel flew into the loft that would be his home.