Jake and Hans Trapper landed at the back of Ulan Tole's store an hour before dawn. Ulan answered on his second knock, ushering him inside. "There's a spy in town."
Collin lugged in the hides, and Ulan grabbed one. "Really? How do you know?"
"He's after you."
"Me? I'm just a back woods hunter."
"He thinks you have a laser. Came in here and then went down to the grill asking questions about who you were, how to find you, and how you killed dragons."
Collin tried not to laugh at Ulan. He had a hard time believing anyone seriously wanted to stop Hans Trapper from killing dragons. "Are you sure he wasn't just interested like Dannel is?"
"He's a stranger. Just off the ship. Asked too many questions and then took a room in the hospital's suites. Might still be there."
"The hospital? They don't rent those out now, do they?"
"That's the point! He's not just an ordinary convict. You should probably lay low for a while."
Collin leaned against the counter. "Thanks for the warning, but I have nothing to hide . . . except Jake, and he can't convict me for having a dragon as a friend."
Ulan gave him a piercing look and then returned to studying the hides. "Yeah, sure. I know. Just thought I better warn you in case he tries to cause trouble."
Collin gripped his shoulder in friendship. "Appreciate it, Ulan. I'll keep my eyes open. Got a name on this guy?"
"No. Wish I'd thought of it. But he's got light brown hair just touching his shirt in back. Dressed like a new convict. Issue trousers, I'm sure, but the shirts weren't. Had pockets. Slender fellow. Probably a bureaucrat before he came here."
Collin gave his deep laugh. "Well then he probably won't venture away from the city, will he?"
"And Jake is watching your house as we speak. So we can relax. How's Dannel and the expansion plans?" Dannel had used his air mail route and began an exclusive distribution of Ulan's products to only one store per city. Last Collin had heard, he'd contracted with a shop in Capitol and one in Shade.
"He found a place in Melbin, and he just left with a shipment. New Haven will be harder. They don't have the wealth to support a shop devoted to leatherwear, but he's hoping to find a general store that will be able to devote adequate space and lighting for our product."
"Gave up his dragon hunting, did he?" Collin grinned. It was good the kid had grown up and settled down without getting himself killed.
"Yeah." Ulan rolled the hides back up and set them in his storage room. Then he opened his safe and counted out the money. "You know if it looks bad for you and Jake here, we could arrange Dannel to meet you somewhere, and he'll fly them in."
"I'll keep that in mind. I'll see you."
Collin walked outside, and Jamel landed with a rush of wind. Then they flew to the cave in the mountain directly northwest of the city. Collin changed his clothes, and then let Jamel drop him off on the main road between New Haven and Alexandria. He had to walk back to the hospital to see if he could cohere some more medicine for his practice in Hope.
He walked along the deserted road, watching the sun rise between the trees. Thirty miles further east was the ocean. It'd been a long time since he'd bothered going to any beach. He'd never taken Kayden to the beach yet.
The birds were waking the rest of the planet, but Collin's thoughts were still on Kayden. Gaben had expressed his interest again, and Collin had reluctantly agreed to let him try to court her. But he warned him to back off immediately if she wasn't pleased by the extra attention. He wouldn't tolerate Kayden being harassed.
But Gaben knew what happened last year. Kayden had gone to a farm to check a gash a woman had received tripping over a tree branch while collecting berries. The woman's son, apparently looking for a wife, had followed Kayden from the house. As near as Collin could determine, he'd trapped her against the side of the house and tried to kiss her. Which is when Kayden became hysterical, clawing large gashes into his face. Jamel had flown from the barn in broad daylight, risking his own hide. Fortunately by the time he made it to the farm, Kayden was already flying home on her wingdeer Sam.
But Gaben knew that. And Collin did trust him. He had waited the four years that Collin had asked, he'd worked hard, and he and Quinn had developed a friendship of equals that continually amazed Quinn. Gaben no longer acted as though he was a better doctor because of his study at the hospital, and he now often asked Collin for more to study. Collin hoped he would be careful how he approached Kayden.
Collin passed the small group from Alexandria on their way to New Haven, and then he was at the city's edge. The hospital was not far from the north end, and he walked through the front entrance before the sun was halfway to noon.
He froze as the picture of him and Vita captured his full attention. Vita looked so beautiful. The artist had captured her gentle spirit, her quiet smile. And he knew instantly who the artist was, Trev Burton, his last apprentice as Collin Alexander. He'd asked him not to paint his picture, but apparently he'd done it anyway.
"Nice picture, isn't it?" The receptionist asked.
"Sure," Collin mumbled, keeping his gaze to the floor as he passed her to enter the rest of the hospital. Collin Alexander's grey-dyed hair would not hide the resemblance. And he'd mistakenly thought using the name Alex Collin would be fine after all this time. Trev had retired by the time he'd done so, and there was little chance of meeting him at the hospital.
And then Collin knew. Trev had died. That's why the painting was here. He leaned against the wall outside the pharmacy office for a few minutes. Everyone died, and he was left to grieve.
He forced himself to enter the pharmacy and complete his business. Then he took a tour of the hospital. Not much had changed. He would be able to take the painting tonight.
That night he had Jamel take him to a balcony on the hospital's third floor. The door he unlocked was still unchecked by anyone. But then the hospital kept the security personnel patrolling near their technical equipment on the second floor in the west wing. Collin slipped inside and down the east staircase, coming out near the front lobby. A single man sat at the reception desk, writing in a file. It was his turn to watch for emergencies, and he'd brought his paperwork. Now came the waiting. Collin stood just outside the front lobby for three hours before the man stood, stretched and walked down the hall toward the rest rooms.
Collin rushed in, set the money and a note he'd prepared on the counter, and grabbed the painting. Then he headed upstairs, uncaught. He wrapped it in a hospital sheet before he took it outside and mounted Jamel. "To the lab, my friend, and I'll show you a great picture of my wife."
Kayden whirled around from giving Sam his evening brushing. The stable was full of low mooing and neighing and slurping as the beasts ate, and she hadn't heard Gaben come in. "Oh, I got Tess's water and food set. Are you in a hurry?"
Gaben smiled. "No. I'll brush her down. Thanks." His eyes lingered on her a moment more before he led Tess to her stall.
Kayden tried to concentrate on Sam again. Collin should have been home last night, but he wasn't. She hoped they hadn't had any trouble. She missed him and Jamel.
She finished with Sam and moved on to one of Tess's calves from last year -- One of the four youngsters about ready to sell to riders. She would have to start training them, but she'd been putting it off, because she didn't want to sell any of them.
When she was ready to go back to the house, she was surprised that Gaben was still in the barn. He stood, leaning back against the wall, watching her.
"Is something wrong?"
"No. I just wanted to be with you."
"Dad told you to watch out for me, didn't he? Well, I'm fine. I'm going inside now." Kayden blew out the lamp on the wall, causing all to fall into the shadows of the one small light near the doorway. She started for the door.
"Kayden?" he grabbed her hand.
Kayden snatched her hand back. "Don't touch me."
"Wait, Kayden. Please. Let me help you through this."
Kayden stopped at the doorway. "You're not making sense. Are you staying out here? Should I leave the lamp lit?"
"I want to marry you."
Kayden whirled to face him. "You're crazy. You saw what happened to Ty. Do you want scars on your face also?"
He smiled and leaned against the stall divider. "Are you threatening me? You're beautiful when you're angry, you know."
"Gaben!" Kayden sagged against the door frame and looked up into the night sky. "Just don't do this. Please."
He walked to her and stood inches from her side. Kayden wanted to run, but she couldn't let him see the panic rising up in her. "Please, Kayden," he whispered. "Let me help." He leaned toward her, and she felt his lips, slightly moist, against her cheek.
Kayden ran from the barn toward the house. Not bothering to light a lamp when she entered, she ran straight to her room and slammed the door, falling on her bed. He wouldn't follow her here. No one should follow her here. She got up and shoved the chair in front of the door and then lay down again.
She slept intermittently, a strange dream coming near dawn. A young boy, maybe thirteen, had sat beside her in a small garden. Then he slobbered all over her cheek. And as she jumped away from him and into the wall behind her, she saw a sandy haired, handsome hero smiling at her -- teasing her. And a strange ache filled her body. She wanted the sandy haired man to kiss her. Only he held the answers to love.
She awoke abruptly to knocking on her door. "Kayden, we need you in surgery." It was Quinn, and she had work to do.
The first two days of the journey, Michael stayed on a rocky and rutted road that led to Melbin. Twilight plodded along steadily up around the mountain and down again. Every so often Michael would see a run down barn or cabin nestled between the trees along the side of the road. From his trip up to Alexandria, he'd learned they were overnight houses for those needing shelter at night. It was considered honorable to contribute in a minor way to the maintenance of whatever building one stayed at.
At dusk Michael stopped at one of the trail barns. Dismounting, he led Twilight to the shelter. "Come on, Fellow. That's it. You can rest here." In the dark building he took off the horse's tack and gave him a brushing. Water came from a small pump, and he gave him grain from his saddlebags. He leaned against the horse as he ate his own trail ration, food that did little more than keep him alive. "We've got a ways to go yet, fellow. You've been great."
The horse raised his head and twisted around to touch his shoulder.
Michael patted his nose. He hadn't known animals could be so friendly. He wasn't sure he wanted to trade Twilight in for a wingdeer even if he did manage to kill a dragon.
He laid out his blankets and settled in them for the night. "When do we turn off, Cee?"
"Another five miles."
The next morning they were off at dawn and turned from the road into complete wilderness. "Where's the trail?"
"There is none. There is nothing by the crash site. No villages."
"None? Not even a mining settlement?"
"No. All the land in the vicinity is unowned, except for a plot registered to Dr. Alex Collin."
"A doctor? Why didn't you tell me this before? This is great." Kayden really was safe. She'd landed near a doctor.
"You did not ask before."
"Can't you sort between relative and useless information? I could have brought a 1000 with me."
Cee was silent.
"Which way?" All the trees looked the same. And he couldn't even use the sun anymore as a gauge for direction. "You're going to have to keep me constantly on course now." He lifted his hand to keep a low tree branch from slapping his face.
Cee began giving him course corrections.
That night Cee pointed out a cave which was little more than an impression in the rocks. He also suggested a fire, which Michael had a hard time starting. Sleeping was difficult, and he heard noises that chilled his blood, screams and cries of night animals he could not even imagine.
The next morning they started out again. "How much further to Dr. Collin's property. Is it closer than the crash site?"
"It's slightly closer. Five days at our present rate of travel."
"She must be with Dr. Collin's family." A tree branch slapped against his arm. No matter how he tried, he was getting banged up. "Why would there be a doctor way out in the middle of no where? Are you sure there are no other people around?"
"I am not sure. I only know there is no other registered property owners for close to eighty miles."
Michael felt a little ill. It wasn't right. Doctors lived near people not away from them. "He's a medical doctor, right?"
"He is registered with the Medical Board. Do you wish his statistics?" There was little else to do, but ride and avoid tree branches, so he said yes.
"He apprenticed to Dr. Hans Vita in Shade. The papers state that Alex Collin studied from 2535 to 2542. Dr. Vita filed the paper in 2549 right before he died, cause of Dr. Vita's death, dragon ingestion. Death certificate signed by another former apprentice, Dr. Geoff Napier."
A large pig-like animal charged at them, squealed and then veered away. Twilight rose up on his hind legs, and Michael tumbled back. He lay on the ground a moment, stunned, the wind knocked from him.
Twilight brought his nose into Michael's face. Michael finally laughed and pushed him away. "Okay, you brute. I accept your apology. No need to keep kissing me. I'm alive." Michael stood, but decided he'd walk for a while and lead Twilight.
On the fourth day into the woods, he stopped for his evening meal. The cave Cee had found was again barely an indentation in the rock, but the trees were a little sparser here. The sun slipped behind the mountain as Michael walked back to Twilight. "I guess it's time to get those bags off your back."
Twilight pranced nervously away. Then he snorted up at the sky, his eyes showing white with fear.
"Get down, Michael!" Cee shouted into his ear.
Michael dropped to the ground, as a rush of wind tore by him. Twilight screamed. Another scream, this one a roar of might, of triumph. Twilight's squeals ended abruptly. Michael rolled to his back. Fifty yards from him, a huge glimmering green beast tore into Twilight's stomach, spurting blood and entrails.
"Hide, Michael," Cee again yelled into his ear.
Michael couldn't move.
The beast turned his large head toward Michael. Michael fumbled in his pocket for his laser. The beast rose into the air, grabbing Twilight in its claws. Michael pointed the laser and fired. He hit nothing, and the beast was gone with Twilight over the ridge of the mountain.
Michael curled into a ball and tried to stop the chills that swept through him again and again, but he couldn't. He was out here alone. Twilight was dead. His only friend was gone. He hadn't been able to save him. "Kayden. I'm sorry, Kayden."
He wasn't sure how he made it through the night. He just knew that when the sun rose, he had to start moving again. All he had was his pack on his back. His food and camping supplies were gone with Twilight.
"You need to hunt food, Michael."
Michael didn't bother acknowledging Cee. He didn't feel like talking, but he held his laser in his hand and began shooting at tree branches and rocks. He missed. Again and again, he missed his target until he threw down the laser and sat with his head on his arms over his knees.
"There are some apple-like fruits on a tree just ahead," Cee said softly. "Perhaps after you eat a few, you can practice some more."
Michael picked up the laser and then found the tree. He gathered enough apples to fill the scant extra space in his pack. Then he started on.
He practiced shooting the laser a little more, but finally curled up at dusk, hungry and hugging his pack in the corner of a small cave.
The next afternoon he managed to hit a hopping creature. "I did it! Cee, Look. I did it." He grabbed the animal by its tail and held it up. It was heavier than he'd thought it'd be. Then he listened as Cee told him how to prepare it. Cee told him how to use the laser and dried forest debris to start the fire. He ate that night, and again in the morning. He carried the rest of the creature with him. That afternoon he stopped to eat again.
"Michael, you cannot eat that meat."
"The flies have laid maggots in it already, and disease has set in. It is not healthy for you."
Michael dropped the meat. "Why didn't you tell me this a long time ago? I could have been looking for something else, and not wasting my strength carrying this rot. You're useless."
"I'm sorry," Cee said in a tiny voice.
"Sorry! Twilight's dead, we're in the middle of hell, and you're sorry?"
Cee was silent.
Michael stalked into the trees in the direction he'd been going. "How far to Dr. Collin's house?"
"We do not know that he has a house on his property."
Michael grabbed his laser, anger running through him. He pointed it at the nearest tree, and sliced away, up and down the trunk.
Michael realized he'd made a mistake. His anger fled, replaced by panic. The huge tree began dropping branches, shuddering and falling. Michael ran through the underbrush as fast as he could, until he was knocked to the ground. He waited until the forest was still. Surprisingly, he was alive, but trapped under a thick layer of leaves. A heavy weight pinned his shoulder to the ground.
"I hate robots."
"You will have me destroyed when we return?"
"What are you talking about?" Michael felt the laser in his hands, now beyond his head. Slowly he worked his arms back so that he could aim the laser at the branches without hitting himself.
"Butler said that unwanted and unloved units are destroyed. You never wanted me. You hate robots."
Michael stopped trying to move. "Hate's a rather strong word, Cee. That's not what I meant. Love and hate really aren't the right words for machines. No one really loves a machine or hates it."
"Thom loves Butler. Even Falice loves him. Everyone loves him. He would have been able to keep you safe."
"Butler's a pompous windbag. I don't love Butler, and I wouldn't want him here. Can you see if I'm aiming this right to cut that branch on my back?"
"Yes. You may cut."
Michael cut the branch, intensifying the weight on his back. He slowly reached and put the laser in his other hand. "Okay. Now?"
Michael cut the other side of the branch, and then he tried to lift himself up. The severed log rolled off the pack on his back, hitting his head before landing on the ground beside him. Michael cursed. He had never cursed before, but somehow it seemed like a good time to start.
Michael made it out of the tree branches as the sun set. "Oh, great. I was probably safer under there. Do you see any shelter?"
Cee was silent.
"I see nothing, Michael. I'm sorry."
Michael walked in near blackness until he found a large rock. He curled up beside it, keeping his laser in his hand. He wouldn't know until morning how much of his remaining equipment was damaged.
"Will you have me destroyed?"
"What? Cee, it's pitch dark out here. No one is getting destroyed, except maybe me."
But as the noises of the night closed in on him, he found his thoughts going back to Cee's strange words. "Why are you worried about getting destroyed?"
"Butler always said you would because you hated me. You wished I was an android. And Charles said he would if you died."
"Charles? My grandfather?"
"He said not to let you die. But I keep doing things wrong. It is my fault if you die. I am sorry."
Michael sat up and leaned against the rock. "Cee . . . ." He didn't know what to say. His computer was worried about death. If he wasn't so astounded, he realized he should be extremely worried himself. He finally lay back down. "Won't be your fault, Cee. It was my decision to come. Don't lose any sleep over it."
"I don't sleep."
"Yeah. I probably won't either."