Michael awoke to the smell of food -- some kind of meat. It wafted around him, and his stomach echoed the longing. He rolled from the bed, his back, butt, and legs all protesting. He was in a small room with just a bed and a dresser. Grabbing his pack, he found the bathroom beside it. Although there was no electricity, the home had running water.
In the small kitchen, Niles and his wife sat at the table. His wife jumped up to the wood stove and brought him a plate. Eggs, ham, and shredded potatoes, Cee told him, all fresh. When he sat as they'd motioned him to, he noticed there wasn't a chair left for Niles' wife. He tried to protest.
"Oh, don't worry about me. I'm about finished. You and Niles need to talk anyway."
"Thanks. Never meant to push you out of your bed and your chair and all."
"I remember what it's like to come to Aussie alone," Niles said, leaning his arms on the table. "You'll be staying a few days, won't you?"
"I need to find Kayden."
"If she's been here five years, a couple days won't change things, and it may keep you alive. I've got to get to work though. We'll talk again tonight."
After Niles left, Michael finished his meal and then went out to the barn to see if he could figure out how to take care of that horse.
Niles' wife already there. She smiled when she saw him. "I love horses. Ma and Pa had a whole barn full when I was little." Her face lost the smile. "But things happened. Niles promises someday we'll have a horse or two." She held her face to the horse's neck. "What's his name?"
"I didn't even know it was a he."
She laughed. "Actually a gelding. He has no name? Can I name him?"
"Sure. If you tell me your name and promise to teach me everything you know about horses, you can name him, ride him, and be his best friend . . . until I leave."
"Deal. My name is Marta. And his name will be Twilight."
Marta spent most of the day teaching Michael about Twilight, taking him to the store to buy a brush and more food, showing him how to ride, giving him tips. By late afternoon he felt much better informed.
"Oh, I forgot dinner. I have to go to the store." They rode double to the general store, and Michael bought the day's groceries as well as another bag and saddlebags so that he could divide up his belongings into things he could not afford stolen and things he didn't care to carry with him everywhere. He also bought Niles and Marta another chair for their dining table, as it appeared that he really had been given a large wage compared to most here. Besides they had not requested any payment, and if he'd been forced to stay at an inn, he would have spent the money anyway.
As they ate dinner, Marta told Niles about her day with the horse. And then Niles and Michael sat on the floor of the furnitureless living room, two lamps casting shadows into it.
Michael set out his new bags and began sorting.
"You're really looking for Kayden?"
"Yes, I am." He pulled out his three notebooks, and then reached in for his electronics kit. He'd convinced them he'd need it. If he found a facility too big for him to destroy, he was to neutralize the equipment and then call in reinforcements. As he realized now, those orders were rather naive. No one would let him blithely nullify their secret project and then let him go back for the authorities to arrest them.
"Yikes, Man. You are trying to die. How'd you smuggle those down here?"
Michael grabbed his new back pack. "Obviously I'm making a lousy spy," he said in a lowered voice. "I hope I can trust you with my secrets, because I really wasn't prepared for this job."
"You said Kayden . . . ."
"My reason for applying for their job is Kayden." He withdrew the badge Osha Hollis had given him. "Governor Hollis has another reason, although he now thinks I'm a walking dead man because I don't know much at all. Director Raleigh has yet another reason. And my grandfather yet another. Kayden is alive, and I will find her. Now whether I'm able to bring back that dragon hide for Hollis, I'm not sure."
"Hollis wants a hide? How are you going to do that?"
"I'm open to suggestions."
Niles shook his head. "No way to do it. Kids killed every year trying it. Swords, guns, nothing works."
Michael pulled his small art portfolio from his large bag. He hadn't been able to bring any of his originals, but he had paper prints of his favorites with him. He glanced at Niles and then opened and handed him the portfolio. "First time I saw Kayden." He let Niles study the picture and then turned to the back of the book. "This was right before she was taken."
"You do know her, don't you? Marta."
Marta came from the kitchen, and Niles showed her the pictures. As they looked through the rest of the drawings and paintings he'd brought, he decided to move his badge into the small bag that Cee was in, along with a photo of Kayden. Those he'd keep in his front pocket. The laser and a reasonable amount of money would be kept in his pants' pocket. The notebooks, his toolkit, his artwork, his art supplies and the rest of his money he kept in the back pack, along with a clean shirt to cover the notebooks. The rest of his clothing went into the saddlebags.
"When you leave here, you keep all that hidden. All the tech and all the money. Don't go talking or flashing. Yeah, there are laws here, but if no one is going to miss you, there's no telling if you ended up in the dragon's maw before or after death and robbery. You be careful."
Michael stayed two more days, gleaning any piece of wisdom he could and then decided he needed to get moving. He wanted to try the hospital in Alexandria first. Niles told him there were guided groups between the cities, and he'd be wise to join one.
The next morning as he rode Twilight with a little more confidence toward the northeastern edge of the city, he passed a large pit with smooth sides inverted in so that the top of the pit was smaller than the bottom. The whole pit was larger than a shuttlebay. "What is it, Cee?" he whispered.
"The execution pit. One of the original research facilities was located here. When the people formed their own government, they made this the place of punishment. If you are convicted of a crime punishable by death, you are left in the pit overnight, or for several nights. Most are eaten before they die from lack of water or food."
"They want to keep the dragons away, yet they feed them tidbits to whet their appetite. How clever."
Michael found the group as it was getting ready to leave. With all Niles suggestions, Michael managed to blend in far better than he had when he first started. One other family stood out, and even though he recognized them from the trip down, he could see their inexperience now and cringed with their gaffes. They moved at the pace of the walkers, and the trip took three days, the group stopping at small villages each night. The road was well traveled, and if Michael had known how simple the journey would be, he would have taken off ahead, cutting both overnight stays from his money.
The medical university was on the northern edge of the city, and Michael arrived at noon. The building was three stories tall and spread out with many wings. Michael made his way inside, glancing around. The first thing he noticed was that it had full electric lighting, which appeared to be a rarity on the planet. Except for the capitol building and Governor Hollis' home, this was the only other he'd seen.
The receptionist sat across the room. Above her head was a large portrait of man with steel-grey hair and hazel eyes, his arm around a white-haired, kindly-looking lady. Michael dismissed the artist immediately for "touching up" the man's features leaving his skin too smooth for his age, and not being fair to "touch up" the wife. He should have given both their real look or both smoothed up. He focused on the receptionist.
"I see you're admiring our new painting. It's our founder, Collin Alexander and his wife Vita. We're very lucky to have it."
Michael leaned against the counter and looked up at the painting again. The artist was good, just not fair. "Famous artist?"
"Actually no. But apparently Dr. Alexander never wanted any portraits done, and we're lucky this one survived at all. His last apprentice painted it, and when he -- the apprentice -- died of old age last month, his family donated the painting." She giggled. "My family."
"So how long has Dr. Alexander been dead?"
"Oh my, let's see." She sorted through papers on her desk. "Here it is. He died in 2499. Sixty-five years ago." She smiled up at him. "And this is our only picture of him. Can you imagine? I can't believe Grandpa had this hidden away all this time. I'm sorry. Surely you came here for some other reason. I just think it's so exciting about the picture."
"It is a nice picture," Michael conceded. "And so generous of your family to donate it. Actually I'm here to talk to someone in records." He withdrew Kayden's picture from his pocket. "I need to know if this woman was admitted here five years ago."
"Five years ago? I'm really sorry. We have a patient confidentiality policy, and we couldn't tell you even if you were her husband."
Michael tried to come up with a way to get beyond the wall. He couldn't be thwarted yet.
"Show her the badge," Cee suggested.
"You'll earn your keep yet," Michael mumbled.
"Excuse me?" she asked.
Michael reached for his badge and showed it to her. "Will this help? I do need that information."
Her eyes widened. "Oh. Oh my. How exciting. Let me get you the Chairman, Brunice Ithica." She rushed from the room. When she returned she ushered Michael down the hall, through a door, and down another hall until she stopped at the last door. She peeked in. "Here he is, Dr. Ithica."
Dr. Ithica rose and shook his hand, but he didn't seem too pleased. When they were seated he said, "If you are looking for tech, why don't you go bother some of those miners with their new metallic alloys that make better weapons, than those of us trying to save lives."
"Let me assure you, that I fully agree the hospital should have the most up-to-date facilities available, and I will recommend that in my report. However, I'm currently working on the investigation of a five year old shuttle crash, and it has come to our attention that there may have been a survivor. May I beg your cooperation for now, and I'll do my best to present any data that would give credence to your requests?"
Dr. Ithica relaxed into his chair. "You just can't imagine how frustrating it is knowing what's available to the rest of the galaxy and watching our people die because we are so tech dead we don't even have a sonar scanner. And then when we do get one, we don't have any technicians who can fix the thing."
"It's broken? I'll make a deal. I'll take a look at it, and you look through your records to find out if a girl, thirteen years old, with severed hands and internal injuries, was admitted five years ago." He handed Kayden's picture to him. "I need that back though."
Dr. Ithica studied the picture. "Severed hands and internal injuries?"
"And probably a sub dural hematoma which had been opened with a laser."
His gaze shot up from the photo. "All that and you think she made it here?" He shook his head. "You even think she survived."
Michael tried not to let his emotions show. He should be so good at hiding them by now. "I'm sure she's alive," he said, but his voice sounded weak to his own ears.
Dr. Ithica tapped the picture on his desk. "You any good at all with electronics?"
"Fifth year apprentice to Charles Jamel, premier scientist in artificial intelligence, and before that my father taught me warp-drive engineering."
Dr. Ithica rose, and Michael followed. "I'll let you take a look at the sonar scanner while I check into our back records."
He took Michael to a large room that reminded Michael of his grandfather's lab, except the equipment consisted of microscopes and vials of blood. He introduced him to Dr. Snavey. "Mr. Jamel is the technician we requested from Capitol. Please show him our scanner and attend to his needs." He glanced at Michael. "You probably need a room, don't you?"
"And a place for my horse."
After he and Twilight were settled into their new temporary homes, he was given lunch and taken back to the hospital lab, where he began work. He fixed the scanner and was taken to a second malfunctioning piece of equipment. "Why don't you advertise for a new convict with tech experience?"
While Dr. Snavey just rolled his eyes, Cee answered, "Laws prohibit new convicts near the hospital equipment. Even doctors must go out to the smaller villages and work without it. They must screen everyone very carefully before they make it into this section of the hospital."
Michael turned from Dr. Snavey and whispered to Cee. "But I got in with a little badge?"
"I think you have quite a bit of equipment to fix."
With that understanding he was not surprised when Dr. Ithica sadly informed him that he needed more time to go over the records as it was such a long time ago. But he was welcome to enjoy the hospital's hospitality.
It was not dark yet, and Michael decided to go for a walk to stretch his legs. The buildings of the city of Alexandria were not as close together as in Capitol, and there were fewer factories. The shops sported concrete or wooden walks, and Michael looked into several windows, stopping when he saw the most extraordinary jacket of shaded violets. As he stared at it, it seemed to reflect the sun behind him and glisten. He stepped back and read the sign. "Ulan Tole, Tanner, Marget Tole, Tailor."
Michael stepped into the shop and immediately felt dazzled by the array of fine dragon-skin jackets, packs, vests, ties, halters, and even a saddle. He ran his hand over the swirling-violet jacket. It was so smooth and soft, he longed to pull it to him.
"May I help you?" asked a broad man.
"Are you Ulan Tole? How do you get all the dragon-skin? I thought they couldn't be killed."
"I have a supplier."
"Who? Where is he?" Maybe he could just get an unprocessed hide from him and avoid all that dangerous hunting and messy skinning.
"He comes to me. Like most hunters, I imagine he lives where his prey is."
"How does he kill them?"
"I do not ask about his job, and he doesn't ask me the secrets of hide preservation."
"But I've heard bullets just anger them, and if it kills them it's not until you're inside them."
"And swords require a whole lot of luck, and a very strong arm."
"So how does he do it? Does he have a laser?"
"Sir, I'm afraid I can not answer your questions."
Michael knew the man was becoming irritated, but he needed to know. Osha Hollis expected him back with hide in hand. Well, actually Osha Hollis expected him dead, but if he could get a hide from this hunter . . . . "When is he coming again? I need to talk to him."
"He is a hunter. He comes when he has hides to sell. Now please. I must close the shop." Ulan began ushering Michael toward the door.
If he didn't step back, he was sure Ulan would walk right over him. "But it's important I see him."
"I'm sorry. I don't know how to contact him."
"But . . . ."
Ulan herded him out the door and closed it. The lock clicked into place.
"Great." Michael decided he could accomplish nothing more at the tanner's but tried to come up with a plan for the next day. He smelled food, and his stomach growled. He decided to stop into "Harry's Grill" and pushed open the door.
The place was dark, lit by low flame lamps along the wall. A few families sat at tables in the middle and front of the room, and in the back, men sat at a counter, their voices and laughter filtering through the restaurant.
Michael decided to go to the back. Maybe he could strike up a conversation with someone and learn something about the town, the hospital, or the tanner. He slipped into a stool at the end of the counter and ordered a mutton sandwich.
"So you're new around here," the man next to him said, giving him only a sideways glance.
"I'm from Capitol. I just noticed that leather shop up the road. He's got some nice stuff."
"Yeah. Hans Trapper gives him an exclusive."
"Hans Trapper? That's the dragon killer? Think I could talk to him."
The others at the bar laughed, apparently listening in on their conversation. "No one knows where he goes or where he lives."
"When is he scheduled back?"
They laughed again. "No one puts Hans on a schedule."
"Yeah. The guy's something like six foot nine and dressed in blue dragon from head to toe."
"Regular wall of a guy."
Everyone felt free to voice their opinion now. Perhaps while they felt so uninhibited, he'd find some answers. "So, he's the only dragon hunter on the planet?"
"Far's I know. You know any, Nake."
Nake shook his head. "Not that I know."
The third man smirked. "Oh, there's hunters all right. Till they come up against their first dragon."
Michael's sandwich came. He took a bite and thought of his next question.
"Hans Trapper is not listed on any of the property manifests, nor as a convict," Cee informed him. "He either owns no property or the name is not his legal name."
Michael noted Cee's comment, but decided to pursue the hunting question first. "So . . . if you had to kill a dragon...."
His companions sputtered with laughter. "Who has to?"
"Someone got a gun at your chest?"
"I'd face the gun. Leastwise you got a chance the guy's a bad shot."
"So about killing dragons," Michael began again. "How would you do it?"
"Stand in a field tonight, and choke the beast as it swallows you."
"Take a gun and discharge it as he bites off your arm."
"Swallow enough poison to kill him."
"Got any suggestions that don't involve my death?"
They laughed and slapped their hands against the counter or their knees. "You really are the funny one. What you gotta kill a dragon for?"
The man next to him sobered. "Hey, I don't know you, friend, but suicide isn't the answer. No one -- lover, wife, parents, work -- no one's worth that."
"Don't worry. I was hoping to avoid suicide. That's why I want to see Hans. He has to have an answer."
He shook his head. "Naw. We asked him. He just grins and says it's a trade secret."
"Gustav says it's his swords."
"But I heard Hans himself say he never killed with Gustav's swords. Bought one for the art, he says." He gave a smirk. "Man can buy anything he wants. Him and Ulan Tole are getting rich off the stuff."
"Yeah, but who blames him. I ain't takin' his job, and every one he kills is one less in the sky."
"Deserves to be rich, Hans does. Ulan, he's just lucky."
"Yeah. I ain't got no quarrel with Hans Trapper. He can do what he wants." He flagged the counterman for another drink.
Michael decided to see if he could narrow down the name. "So what's his real name?"
"It is his real name."
"Hey, I'm calling him whatever he wants to be called."
"Yep. He says Hans Trapper, who am I to say it's not."
Dead end. Michael ate the last of his sandwich, and his thoughts turned back to the means of the kill. "Think he has a laser."
"Lasers are illegal."
"You don't be spreading no lies about Hans now. You want to set the spies after an innocent man?"
"Maybe he's a spy. Hell, he asks enough questions."
His companion jumped off his stool and grabbed the front of Michael's shirt, raising him to his feet. "You trying to kill a man who saves lives with every beast he kills?" The other two guys gathered around him now.
"No! I never meant any harm. I just need a hide. That's all."
"No one just needs a hide." He shoved Michael back onto the stool. "You're a spy, aren't you?"
Michael tried to think fast, but couldn't. He'd never been surrounded by three big guys ready for a fight. "Not a spy. I'm a . . . ."
"No!" Cee shouted into his ear. "Don't tell them you're a sheriff."
"You're a what?"
"I'm . . . I'm an artist. Love the colors. I want to paint Hans as he works. A tribute. But I won't put a laser in the picture. No. Wouldn't do anything to get him in trouble. Wasn't thinking there. I'll just put a sword . . . You think a sword in the picture will do it?" He quickly stuffed his hand into his pack and brought out his portfolio. "Look! I'm just an amateur artist. Really. Just got off the ship. Want to make my way painting pictures before the allowance runs out, you know."
"Ah, leave him be, Vince. He's too yellow to be a spy."
"Make great dragon bait though."
Vince chuckled. "Yeah. Why don't you stay here and paint for another hour. You'll be fine."
His companions laughed as they moved toward the door. Michael noticed the rest of the restaurant was empty. The counterman said nothing.
"It's getting dark," Cee warned.
"I was starting to guess that one." Michael stuffed his artwork back into his pack. "Think they're waiting for us."
"Probably not in the dark."
"Right." Michael tipped the counterman and then walked back to the hospital complex, jumping at every unexpected noise. When he was finally in his room, he leaned against the door. "You saved me back there, Cee. Thanks."
"You are pleased with my company?"
"Ah, yeah. Yeah, I am." He was surprised Cee had asked. He was, after all, just a robot. He didn't have feelings.
Michael readied himself for bed and then stared at the dark ceiling. He thought about the A, Butler, and Cee. None of them really had feelings. Thom had just encouraged Butler to express himself in emotional ways, but it wasn't true feelings, just a pompous mode of expression.
Now the A . . . the A had killed because of a programming conflict. It was all programming, and Kayden had been maimed and tortured because someone wanted emotional programming. The units didn't need to be coddled with courtesy and platitudes, and he didn't know why he'd done it now.
Michael had even read over his grandfather's coding to better understand why someone would kill to get it. But the coding was practically identical to the 4000. The core was just different. Of course the 4000 had problems also, but they all stemmed from programming priority conflicts, and those had been solved. Well, at least they'd thought they had, until they heard the A's testimony.
The main advantage of the 4000 and the 5000 units was that they learned as they lived. They adapted their behavior to their surroundings. Which was good. Michael couldn't have stood a pompous psuedo-human like Butler. But he did wish Cee had been a bit more . . . more something and less like an ordinary robot.
He sighed. It was a good thing he hadn't gotten the A. He'd be dead. Michael shivered and pulled the covers closer. No. Better he was killed outright than to hear Kayden's screams.
Michael slept little that night, waking twice in a cold sweat, the image of Kayden's blood running down his face. But it was just his own tears.
Michael worked three more days at the hospital, going straight back to his room each night after briefly stopping at the stable to make sure Twilight was being cared for. He knew Dr. Ithica and Dr. Snavey were purposely not giving him the information he desired to keep him working on their machines.
At the end of his fourth day, Dr. Ithica again approached him. "We need a few more days . . . ."
"Let's cut the games. I'm working on your equipment because I know you need it, but be honest with me, will you? Did you find anything at all?"
Dr. Ithica turned to stare into the lab over Michael's shoulder. "How long will you stay? We could use someone with your skills full time."
"I've worked for four days. If I'm not killed by dragons, I'll probably stop back. When I do, we can make another deal, but for now, I need to find Kayden."
Dr. Ithica reached into his pocket and gave Michael back the picture of Kayden. "I'm sorry. As far as I can tell she was never here. I wish I could have helped you as much as you've helped us."
The longer he had waited, the more Michael had anticipated this answer, but it was still a blow. He still had nothing. He took the picture, slipping it into his pocket. Right now he only had one more lead, and he wasn't pleased with it. He'd have to go out to the crash site.
Dr. Ithica met his gaze. "Let me pay you for your work here." He shrugged. "Know Capitol probably does, but I want you back, if possible."
Michael's internal debate was brief. He took the money, as he knew he wouldn't be going back to Capitol unless he had a dragon-hide or Kayden. He didn't even consider giving up. She had to be somewhere.
He left Alexandria the following morning, stopping only long enough to stock up his saddlebags with supplies and buy a couple blankets.