Michael found a seat on the edge of the small, dim auditorium and ran his finger under the collar of his new clothes -- wool, dyed blue. Cee assured him that pure wool did not generally cause irritation, it was the processing -- the dye in this case. That did little to comfort him as he tried to pay attention to his surroundings and ignore the urge to scratch his chest and back.
"What did you do, Mister?" asked the little girl next to him. "My daddy stole a million credits by sellin' happy pills."
"Oh, Lilly!" her mother exclaimed, reaching to pull the girl into her lap. "Please, please excuse her. She doesn't know any better."
Michael gave her a brief smile to let her know he wasn't upset. He glanced over the rest of the room. He was probably the only person in there who knew exactly which person in each family had committed the crime, and what they'd done, if he cared to ask Cee.
"Where's your family?"
"It's okay," Michael assured her. The planet was reserved to keep families together. But he knew of one man who had gotten on alone, Kayden's father. So he used his story. "My family left me at Frontier Base 28. Changed their mind at the last minute. Too much trouble to take me back to prison." Michael had always thought that a little cruel of Kayden's mother. In prison, Niles Pannier would have been free in five, ten years at most. He was stuck on Austin alone for the rest of his life now. Michael planned to find Niles Pannier first. Kayden had surely sought out her father when she found herself on Austin.
The lecture began. The speaker, a public relations warden, warned the people about the dragons, telling them that they should never go out after dark, as that was when most attacks occurred. She flashed a picture of a magnificent creature on the viewer in the front of the auditorium. Some in the audience made appreciative comments. Others gasped in fear.
"Don't ever, ever, ever stand out there and admire the pretty colors," the warden warned. "Or you'll be admiring those colors from inside the beast's stomach."
Michael was afraid the comment was aimed right at him. He loved the way the light seemed to make the animal glisten, and he wondered if he could get that on canvas.
From behind him he heard a man whisper, "That Hansell must have had a warped sense of humor, making a beast so pretty, you want to watch it eat you."
Michael was forced to agree.
"As new convicts you are limited to a ten year probation before you can register for a projectile gun. But I'll warn you now, the records indicate it seems to be a disadvantage. The victim takes time trying to shoot that he should be using to hide. The bullet rarely kills, and if it does, it waits until after the beast has had its final meal. Some citizens on the farms like to have swords, but the rumors of dragons killed by swords is unsubstantiated."
"Why doesn't the Council just go down there and blast them?" called out a man in the second row.
"We tried that. The people we sent were not only killed by the dragons as lasers still require a strong and steady athletic personality to avoid death, but the actual citizens of Austin attacked our people, stealing the lasers and their communication devices. So, I'm afraid that the people have decided their own fate on this one. We will send no one else to be slaughtered by friend and foe alike."
Several voices cursed their predecessors.
Michael gripped his duffle bag with all his belongings and a small, high powered laser -- the only one that would legally be on the planet. Somehow in his earlier briefing with Director Raleigh, the chief warden of the penal planet had just given him a "keep it out of sight or they'll steal it" lecture, and not "attacked by friend and foe alike" for it. Director Raleigh had made it sound like a completely benign fact finding operation with a little undercover investigation thrown it, which he'd turn over to the authorities when he came close to finding anything. If a dragon interfered he'd simply kill it with his laser. Neat, tidy, no mess.
There was nothing mentioned about being an "athletic personality". He'd tried to limber up with exercises each night since he accepted the mission, but right now he felt exceedingly fragile against the beautiful creatures.
"Let's be honest, people. You are not going to be welcomed with open arms. They don't know anything about you, except you're a bunch of thieves."
Murmurs rose through the room, and Michael was glad for the armed guards surrounding it. That woman sure didn't mince words.
"You're offended? But how many times have you welcomed strangers into your homes and communities? Why are most of you here? You wanted a fresh start where your past wasn't an issue. Well, you have to earn that fresh start here also. Hard work and good citizenship go a long way in any culture."
"We were told there'd be jobs!"
"The lists are posted. There are factory positions, farming, mining, and a couple medical positions for those with qualifications. All positions come with family living quarters. Consider the talents of your whole family, and when you speak to the counselor, give her your top preferences and tell her if you have relatives here you'd like us to place you near. Accept one of these jobs even if it is not your ideal. I seriously caution against an independent stand. You will need shelter at night, and your initial living grant will quickly be used up. You don't want to witness your loved ones devoured by Hansell's nightmare."
After the meeting was over, Michael waited for the counselor as was required, and he received a printout of his assignment. "51 Circle Court. Personal Aide -- Capitol Building. Contact: Gov. Osha Hollis." Then he went back to his temporary bunk to wait for the morning. He was not the only one sleeping with his three foot duffle bag under one arm.
Everyone was taken to Capitol no matter what city they would work in. The shuttle landed, and soon the guard ushered them out. The brightness stopped Michael at the shuttle exit.
"Keep moving," the guard said.
Squinting, Michael made it down the ramp to the ground. He'd only been on two planets before, and those were only for two week vacations. He was quickly herded through a dark building and then back into the blinding sunlight. As his eyes adjusted he scanned the horizon. In the far distance a mountain rose, but closer were small houses surrounded by patches of grass and other plants. He turned and the houses were closer together. Less trees. And coming toward them were horse drawn wagons.
"Ride to your house? Ten silver. Get you there safe," he heard a wagon driver offer the family near him. It was a large chuck of their scant money, but they took him up on his offer.
Michael was glad that he'd been assured of collecting a wage from Governor Hollis, but still he wanted to be careful. "Cee, you have the map?" he whispered.
"How far is our destination? Can we walk?"
"You can walk. Go south, away from the mountains."
The walk was longer than he thought. The streets became crowded with people and horses. The odor of the animal droppings rose in a putrid cloud as the afternoon sun beat down on them.
51 Circle Court was the governor's home address, a large house compared to the others on the street. The garden supported a small herd of sheep. He knocked on the door.
A woman answered, her long hair wrapped around her head. "The governor isn't in right now," she said, before he spoke. She gave him a slight smile. "You'll have to see him at the Capitol. I'm sorry." She started to close the door.
"Wait." He dug the paper from the top of his bag. "I was told to come here."
The woman glanced over the printout and frowned. "Oh, no. This won't work." She looked at Michael again. "Oh, dear. And you're famished with no place to go. I guess you'll have to stay until he makes other arrangements. But why didn't he tell me." She opened the door for him, and Michael slipped into the relative cool of the room.
His eyes adjusted to the dimness, and he looked around the room, studying the plush furniture, the vase of flowers near the window, and the paintings of space. The paintings did not hold his interest. He'd painted himself out of space-scapes a long time ago. His hostess seemed nervous, and he remembered he was a thief. She probably thought he was casing the place.
"Why don't you rest in the guest room?" She led him down a short hall to the right and pointed inside a doorway. "There's a bathing room across here. Feel free to freshen up. Dinner is served at five; Osha will be home then."
Michael took her suggestion and washed the sweat from his body, still keeping his bag with Cee, his laser, and his electronic notebooks with him. His bag also had extra clothing, his paints, and a pad of thick paper, since canvases would have been too bulky to carry.
Michael was resting on the bed when he heard voices. He quietly walked to the end of the hall and then through the living room. The voices were coming from the next room. ". . . love apple pie. I see your sister made it."
"No, she didn't. Oh, Osha. How could you?"
"How could I what?"
"A convict? I asked for a housekeeper, and you apply for a convict? How could you?"
"A convict? I didn't . . . ." He paused. "Where is she?"
Michael took that as his cue. He held out his hand as he entered. "Hi. I'm Michael Jamel."
Osha shook his hand. He was a well-built man with large shoulders. His mouth was barely visible between his beard and mustache. "Governor Hollis. Welcome, Mr. Jamel."
"Michael, please. I'm afraid it looks as if there has been a misunderstanding, hasn't there." He reached into his pocket and gave Governor Hollis his paper. "If it is a burden, I may have a friend in Capitol, but I was told you had a job for me."
Osha's face remained impassive, but when he looked at Michael again, he had the appearance of a happy man. He turned to his wife. "I see the mix-up, dear. Michael Jamel isn't a housekeeper. He's the aide I requested my first year as governor."
"But I don't remember . . . ."
"Don't worry about it, dear. We'll talk business after we enjoy your fine dinner."
As they ate, Osha asked about his background. He kept it vague, mentioning that he worked as a computer programmer and system designer.
"Oh, my. Not a lot of call for that here," his wife said.
"No. Afraid not. I'm thinking of becoming a wanderer. I like to paint and have never had time to enjoy the beauty of a planet."
"You're an artist? Oh, that sounds fascinating."
After dinner, Osha took him to a book-shelved study. As soon as the door was shut, he burst out. "I can't believe they actually sent me someone. After all this time." Osha motioned him to an armchair. He pulled the other one closer. "You're here to kill the dragons, aren't you?"
Michael's heart sank. "Aah, that's not exactly what they told me."
"Oh, yeah, look for tech, too. But our people are getting killed all the time. And the beasts don't just stay in the mountains. There was a child killed just down the road last month."
Michael tried to think fast, using the diplomacy he'd watched his grandfather and Thom use. "I'm here to study the issue, and present a report with . . . with options and suggestions. Feasibility studies and . . . and determine where additional assistance is needed." Part of it was true. He was to give reports about everything, his impressions, if they could lift some of the restrictions without destroying the fragile peace and sending the people rioting.
"What about all those reports I gave Director Raleigh?" he asked.
"Did we get reports?" he asked, hoping Cee would respond.
"I sure hope so."
"Yes," Cee said in his ear. "Notebook three. Fifty-seven reports over five years."
"I received a lot of reports that I haven't had time to read yet. I'll make sure I start on them tonight."
"You aren't a convict, are you? I mean . . . how did they come to hire you?"
"I applied. I've been in artificial intelligence for five years, and I decided I'd rather do something more . . . exciting. A friend in the Planetary Protection Corps told me about this job. Mr. Gaither."
Osha leaned back in his chair. "Then they were looking in the right places. Good."
"Director Raleigh said you'd issue me an Executive Permit."
"That's make you an Executive Sheriff. I'll do the paperwork and get you a badge when we go into the capitol."
"Sure. I'll get you a horse and supplies. Where will you be working first?"
He almost blurted out his plans, when he decided that wouldn't be best. "I have a report from the satellite of stray power surges that I'd planned to follow up on, but I'm open to suggestions."
"For dragon-slaying I'd suggest the outskirts of the city. Get them coming in. For tech, our people in Capitol are doing a good job of keeping things under control. We inspect the factories regularly. But you are free to make any inquires you wish."
Michael decided not to mention the other cities. He hoped that Kayden's father knew where she was, and he didn't have to go anywhere else.
Osha stood. "You should turn in, Michael. You look beat."
Michael said good night and went back to his room. He searched through his bag and pulled out notebook three. Then he lay on the bed and began reading. Report after report requested aid against the dragons. Additional reports requested medical assistance, more technology and medicine for hospitals, these signed by the chairman of the hospital in Alexandria also. Osha wanted more of everything for his people -- more technology, more medical help, more mining equipment, communications equipment, and a sure fire way to kill dragons. In one report he even suggested sending a geneticist to study the dragon's makeup to design a poison for it. Michael had to admit he was creative in his requests, but he'd never help him find tech hidden on the planet, except through his title as Executive Sheriff.
The next day Osha took him to the capitol building and gave him his badge. Then they went down to the pasture behind the building where a herd of horses grazed, and they waited while a stable tender brought him a bay mare. She threw her head back and pranced to him. "Now she's a fine one, Sheriff. Need me to saddle her up?"
"Ah, yeah," Michael said, thrown off by the use of his new title. "Better show me what to do. And what do I feed her."
The stableman's face went blank. "Let me get you a different horse."
"Didn't they train you at all before you got here?" Osha whispered. "Now he knows you're a new lander. Probably suspects you're a convict. Fine day when we give convicts the rights of executive sheriff."
He brought Michael a grey horse. This one eyed him in a disinterested way and then lowered its head to grab a few pieces of grass.
The stableman went over the saddle and bridle in a neutral monotone, but something told Michael that the man would have a fine laugh when he got home that night. Then he tied Michael's bag behind the saddle. It seemed larger than the animal should be expected to bear.
And then Michael saw a huge winged animal land. "What's that?" he asked. Too late he realized the question confirmed his new status.
"Wingdeer," Cee told him.
"Oh, a wingdeer. Sun in my eyes a moment."
Osha rolled his eyes. "You're gonna be dragon bait," he muttered.
"A wingdeer is faster and can carry more weight than a horse," Cee suggested.
"Think I could get a wingdeer instead?"
The stableman turned away from him, and Michael heard a sputter of laughter.
And Osha was no longer looking like he was so pleased Michael had deigned to come to the planet. Now he appeared a bit exasperated. "You prove you're going to do more than get yourself killed, and I'll give you one."
Michael hesitated, but then decided to ask. "What would prove that to you? Time?"
"A dragon hide. A full hide with bits of dragon meat still stuck to it. You bring me a hide, I'll think about spending the citizen's dollars on a wingdeer for you."
Michael looked at the huge winged beast again, and then at the now weak looking horse, who'd probably have trouble carrying both him and his belongings. "Well, I guess I go hunting first."
Osha's face brightened, and he slapped Michael's shoulder. "That's the spirit." He led Michael and his grey steed from the pasture. "Now you have enough money for the inns, and I look forward to seeing that hide when you get back."
"Sure thing," Michael said. He watched a man dismounting a horse and then leading it back to the pasture. He looked back and forth but no one was mounting a horse. "Aah, don't think you could give me a hint here, do you?"
Osha had that look of exasperation again. "Put your foot in the stirrup and swing your other leg over."
Cee gave him detailed instructions and warnings. Next time he'd ask Cee first so he didn't look like such an idiot. He managed to make it into the saddle and said goodbye to Osha. But the horse didn't walk off.
"Cee?" he whispered.
Osha handed him the reins. "I'll make sure I send my condolences to your family."
"Yeah. Wait a few months on that? Don't want to upset them."
Cee finally told Michael how to operate the animal, but it didn't want to work the first time he tried slapping the reins and leaning his knees into the beast's blanket covered shoulders. When it did move, it was going in circles.
Osha shook his head and went inside the building, obviously too disappointed to watch anymore.
It took over an hour by Cee's calculations before they were moving in the right direction.
As he rode toward Niles Pannier's home, he asked Cee to relate any information about horses that he could find in his data files, specifically how to care for them and how to get them to do what you wanted.
It was almost dusk when he reached the home that the property records indicated was owned by Niles Pannier. According to the files he'd owned the house a year, buying it as soon as his seven year convict probation was up. Additional records said he'd been taken into a clothing factory as soon as he'd arrived.
Michael carefully followed Cee's instructions on dismounting, and found he could barely stand upright and walk to the door. "I didn't know this was supposed to cripple you."
"Riding requires muscles that you have not used much."
"And why didn't you warn me to exercise them."
"How could I anticipate your need?"
"That's your job, isn't it?" Michael grumbled. He forced his legs to straighten. He had to focus on why he was here. To get Kayden. His grandfather's agenda, Director Raleigh's agenda, and Governor Osha Hollis' agenda, all meant nothing. He'd made sure it was in his contract and sent back to his grandfather. He could leave whenever he wanted, and as soon as he found Kayden, he was leaving to take her back to a hospital for reconstructive surgery on her hands. He wouldn't have to worry about dragons or horses or lasers or anything else.
The door opened while he was trying to pull his thoughts and his muscles into order, and a woman emerged. "May I help you, Sir?"
Michael's heart sank again. He'd gotten the wrong house. "I'm looking for Niles Pannier."
"He should be home any moment. Is he expecting you?"
"No, but I was hoping I could spend the night in your guest room."
She gave a bright laugh. "Sorry. No guest room. But you could stay with your horse in the barn." She pointed behind the building. "We don't have a horse so we don't have anything back there though. You might be able to buy some feed from the store yonder, if you hurry."
Michael sighed. "I'll be back." He decided to walk the horse down the road. When he returned he set the horse in one of the empty stalls of the Pannier stable and took off the tack as Cee gave him instructions.
"We don't have a brush." He looked around the stable and would have jumped in surprise if his muscles hadn't been so sore. He'd have to get after Cee. He should have warned him they had company. "Niles Pannier?" He only vaguely resembled the eight year old photo.
"Yes, I am. My wife says you asked for me?"
Michael held out his hand. "Michael Jamel. I'm a friend of Kayden's."
He broke into a smile. "Kayden? How is she? Wow, she must be a fine young woman by now." He shook Michael's hand.
But Michael knew instantly that his search wasn't over as easily as he'd hoped. "You haven't seen her?"
"Seen her? Is she here? How did she get here?"
Michael took a deep breath and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Mr. Pannier. I'd hoped this would be a happy reunion. I knew Kayden on Frontier Base 28, and I'd like to renew the relationship."
Niles shook his head. "I left her there as a ten year old child. You obviously had no relationship with her before that to assume she'd be with me."
It was getting dark, and Michael could barely see. He wanted to sit down -- to put his head in his hands and try to block out the weariness and Niles Pannier.
"Come on inside," Niles said.
Michael grabbed his pack and followed him inside. The kitchen was lit by a glass lamp which held flames. Niles indicated that they sit at the table. Michael slowly lowered himself into the chair. "First time on a horse," he admitted.
"You just got here yesterday?"
"Yeah. Look, Niles, about Kayden . . . I don't know how to say it, cept right out. She was kidnapped about five and a half years ago. The investigators just traced the shuttle here, but no one knows if she made it off the shuttle before it exploded."
"Five years ago? They think she's been here five years?"
"But she's never looked me up."
"Not exactly easy without a planetary directory though," Michael said, trying to give him hope. "Either way, I'm going to find out what happened to her."
"And you'll let me know?"
"Yeah. I'll check in before I leave."
Niles leaned forward and whispered. "You can leave? You don't just say that around here. You'll get killed."
Michael put his head in his hands. "Seems I can get killed for breathing wrong. I hate this place already."
He heard Niles leave the table and then whispering to his wife. Michael lowered his head to his arms on the table, closing his eyes. He was hungry, but didn't care at all if he ate.
"Hey, Mike. Why don't you take our bed tonight?" Niles helped him from the table, and Michael was too weak to protest, except, "my pack."
"I got it." And then when he was lying down, Niles set the large pack beside him. He understood, and he wouldn't take advantage of him while he was weak. Kayden had been right, Michael thought, as he drifted off to sleep. Her father was a nice guy.