Chapter 20


Michael spent the night thinking about Cee. It was the first time he'd ever given any indication that he was more than an ordinary robot. Robots didn't think about death; they didn't take responsibility; they didn't worry about being loved or hated.

He knew he'd have to put this in his report to his grandfather. He could hear his grandfather's questions. Perhaps thinking it was hated caused him to fall behind in emotional development. That's crazy, Michael thought. Butler didn't have emotional development. He had a pompous response which developed as a result of Thom's completely unscientific gushing over its every little act. It wasn't a child, it was a machine, expected to perform certain tasks. That the machine accomplished those expected tasks was not a matter of boasting and pride. Thom had created an egotistical bore.

"But how do you feel about Cee?" his grandfather might ask. "How did you feel when you first acquired him?"

When he'd first acquired him . . . Michael remembered that day now. He had gone to apprentice with his grandfather, and the next morning after arriving at his new home, his grandfather had presented him to Michael. "Since the A unit was taken, you may have the C unit. It and Thom's Butler are the only two like it in the world unless we can get the A back. Take good care of it."

And Michael had gritted his teeth and pretended to agree, angry that his grandfather thought these stupid machines were more important than Kayden's life. Her fingers were more important than this stupid new machine he had.

Michael watched the sky above the mountain brighten. When he could see, he tried to move. His right shoulder was almost useless. He couldn't raise his arm. He managed to look through his pack, but surprisingly nothing was broken. His shoulder must have taken the brunt of the blow.

It was hard to straighten his back to walk, but he gritted his teeth, ignoring the pain. "Which way, Cee?" His voice came out a hoarse whisper.

"To your left. If you cover as much ground as yesterday, you will be on Dr. Collin's property. Once there we can scan for any structures."

Michael forced his numb legs to move. His only hope was to make it to the doctor. He barely stopped when Cee pointed out some edible berries. He broke off two branches and then pulled the fruit off with his teeth as he walked. But as the day wore on, he became weaker. He plodded ahead only to see the trees come falling down on him. He'd run until he fell, and then Cee would coax him up again, telling him which way to go. The third time it happened he wanted to stay down. He knew he was hallucinating but couldn't stop it.

"Michael," Cee whispered. "Michael, you must keep going."

"I can't." His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, and he didn't think he said what he meant.

"Michael, I caught a brief scan of something similar to two buildings. I need you to stand so that I may rescan."

Michael tried to ignore him.

"Michael, I can not scan the area pressed between you and the ground. You must stand. There may be structures ahead. Dr. Collin's house."

Cee was lying. He had to be lying. But to shut him up, Michael forced himself from the ground and wobbled forward.

"Yes! There are two structures down and to the left about two hundred yards ahead. You can make it that far, Michael."

A house! There was actually a house. There would be people and help and food. Water. He needed water. He stumbled along following Cee's course adjustments until he broke out into a tree cleared level patch of ground. A cabin stood to his right and a stable to the left.

He stumbled to the house. "Hello?" His voice barely croaked above a whisper. He tried again. He saw no one. The door opened when he tried it, and he stumbled inside. The light was fading outside, and he could barely see, except he knew there were two single beds, one on each side of the north end of the room. Michael fell into one and was instantly asleep.



It wasn't the sun, but Cee's voice that woke him. "Michael." "Michael."

"Cee?" His words stuck in his dry throat, and he ached everywhere.

"I believe there is a pump outside the door. You can get yourself some water."

"Where is the doctor?"

"No one is here, Michael."

"I need a doctor."

"I know. I wish I could find one for you."

Michael closed his eyes for a few more moments and then decided he'd made it this far, he had to keep going. He sat up and looked around the cabin. It was furnished and neat, as if waiting for its owners. He stood and slowly made his way to the other side of the room. Cupboards lined the kitchen portion of the cabin. Michael opened them. "Food, Cee." He pulled down the familiar trail rations he'd had before Twilight was killed. "Where's that water?"

"Just outside."

It was hard to pump the water with just one hand, but he managed it. Cold and refreshing. The food and the water gave him hope, and he no longer felt he would die any moment. He searched the rest of the cabin. He found an additional room filled with dried plants and packets of powders. "Cee?"

"It must be the doctor's pharmacy."

"Oh, yeah." He assumed they got all their medicine from the hospital in Alexandria.

Outside he found a garden, a riotous mass of color and shapes. The artistic part of his mind wanted to try to duplicate the vision, but with his right arm nearly useless, and survival foremost in his mind, he didn't entertain the thought long. Instead he tried to determine if the gardener had attended the garden recently. He didn't recognize the plants, and they didn't seem to be growing in any particular order. The barn was large, but it, too, was clean, and it was impossible to tell when the last animal had stayed inside it. He found a compost pile. "Cee, how long ago was he last here?"

"I cannot be certain. Probably within the last month."

"Not last week?"

"No. The data seems to favor three to seven weeks."

"But he'll return."

"It doesn't appear that he planned not to."

The house and garden stood on a ledge and had an excellent view of the valley below and the neighboring mountain. The birds sung in the trees, and the sky was a restful blue. It was perfect.

"Maybe you should rest here until Dr. Collin comes back," Cee suggested.

Michael decided Cee was probably right. He went back to bed. He slept most of the next two days, taking time to explore everything in the house, but he found no evidence of Kayden. There was nothing of a personal nature anywhere in the place, except for a few pieces of artwork and the pharmacy.

He still could not easily move his arm. But on the third day, he felt strong enough to do more than rest. "How far is the landing site?"

"Two miles south."

Michael hitched his bag on his shoulder and began walking again. He hadn't gone far when he felt the trees overwhelm him. He was tired, but he kept going.

"Here is where the pod was destroyed."

"Any sign of anything?"

"No. Not even of the pod's destruction. It was five years ago, and the erosive forces on the planet would have erased any footprints. Bodies would have been eaten. Only the A might have survived, and I do not sense him anywhere."

Michael bit back the sharp reply he wanted to make. Cee was again condemning Kayden to death. He hadn't made it this far to fail. "Which direction would the A unit go for help?"

"If he saw Dr. Collin's house before he landed, he may have gone there, but I doubt that. I saw no evidence to suppose a mechanical unit was anywhere near the cabin. The other path would be to the lake below us. I can sense fresh water from here and a large variety of known edible plants. He may have taken her there. I can not see the doctor's cabin or barn."

Michael glanced through the trees and saw the glimmering blue below them. He headed toward it, half sliding down the slope.

"Michael, perhaps today is not a good day to go down there."

"I'm this far, I might as well check it out."

"But Michael, your health is not . . . ."

"Kayden is alive! I know she is. The answer has to be here somewhere."

"Michael, please turn back. The mountain is steep here."

The angle of descent made his progress faster, and he could barely get his foothold before gravity forced him to take another step to keep from falling on his face. And then he missed a step, rolling through the underbrush until he grabbed onto a sapling. His left arm yanked in its socket. Michael groaned in pain. He hoped this didn't put both his hands out of commission. Slowly he picked himself up off the ground.

"Please go back now, Michael."

"We're almost there. There must be some clue down here."

"Michael, your fever is up again. You are not well."

"I'm fine." He ran out from under the trees to the stony shore of the lake and stopped. "Now where?"

"There is nothing here."

"You're lying. You just don't want to find her." Michael stalked to the water's edge and stared out across it. His legs began to buckle, and before he knew it he was sitting on the sharp stones. It was freezing now, and he managed to wrap his numb arms around his chest.

"Michael! Hide!"

Michael looked up and saw the red-orange flame coming, but he didn't know how to stop it. He tried to reach his laser, but his hands refused to work for him. The glistening looked like fire in the sky. It was beautiful and frightening, and at the last minute he fell to his face in the stones.

The fire dug into his back, ripping into his flesh.

"Get your laser, Michael," Cee shouted.

Pain radiated into his neck and arms, but he forced his numb fingers to grasp it and pull it from his pocket as the ground slipped away from him. He could barely lift the laser, but he blasted at the strip of fire in front of him -- the beast's tail.

And then he was falling.



"Michael!" Cee called. He wasn't responding. He was dying. Cee knew he was. He could sense his lowered pulse, his shallow breathing. He could detect every one of the lacerations on Michael's back which were slowly draining his precious blood into the dirt. Michael hadn't killed the monster; he'd just maimed it. Cee was afraid it'd come back any moment and lick Michael's battered body from the stony shore. He needed help, but there was not any help around.

The only thing he could do was to send out a distress signal. It was useless, he knew. There wasn't any equipment on the planet which could hear it, but he sent it anyway. It was all he could do.

"Michael, don't die." Michael had been his master almost from the moment he'd been activated. He'd always wanted to please him, to help him, but he'd never been good enough. And now the ultimate failure.

"I'm sorry, Michael. Butler was right. I am just a dumb robot, not good enough for an android body. Michael . . . ."

A beast was coming. Not the same one, but it didn't matter. It was over.

The dragon landed beside Michael's body, and its nose sniffed along him. "Who are you?" The voice was not audible but through the same channel he had sent the distress signal.

"Michael needs help."

"Who are you. Not him. You."

"But Michael . . . ."

"Tell me who you are first."

Cee felt the probe into his core, and he put up his shields against it, even though he knew it was useless. Whenever Butler wanted information, he would bust right through Cee's defenses.

But the probe stopped, leaving his shields intact. "You are scared. I won't hurt you."

"Michael . . . ."

"I will get a blanket to carry him in." The beast jumped up and flew away.

The unit was in a dragon. The unit was the dragon. How was that possible? Did all dragons talk? None of the others they'd encountered had even attempted to do anything other than kill.

The beast returned with a blanket. Then it carefully used its clawed forepaws to lift Michael, take the pack from his shoulders, and lay him gently on the blanket. He took the laser from the ground and dropped it in the pack. "Now, who are you?"

"Jamel 5000C. Michael calls me Cee."

"5000C? Why are you here?"

"To find you. You're the A, aren't you?"

"Do you wish to remain on Michael or in the pack?" A forepaw reached into Michael's pocket withdrawing Cee, the badge, and the picture, dropping them in the pack without looking at them. Then he wrapped the blanket around Michael, bringing the ends together. "This will keep his head from hanging and the chill of flight from him," the A informed Cee. He grabbed the blanket and the pack, and then he was airborne.

"Where are we going?"

"To a doctor in the Village of Hope."

"Hope is a long way."

"No one closer."

They flew in silence for a while. Then Cee ventured, "How did you become a dragon? Did you take over after you were eaten?"

The A gave a laugh, surprising Cee. "I do not think that would work scientifically. Now tell me. Why are you looking for me?"

"Charles Jamel wants you back."

"I am not leaving the planet. Not ever."

"But . . . ."

"I am helping you save this man's life. You must help me. I do not wish to go back."

"Why not?"

"I am a dragon! Dragon's do not do well on space stations."

Cee had to concede that would be a problem. "But your core . . . ."

"Is attached. I like this body. I will not easily let it die."

Cee wondered if he would give up a body like that. "I only have a pathetic robotic unit. Butler, the B, he's an android."

"Where's your robotic unit?"

"Back in Michael's room at Centauri Research University. Where is yours?"

"Cee, you must not tell Michael about me. I do not want to go back, and I will be hunted and killed by the locals. Please keep my secrets."

Cee debated if he could. "What will I tell Michael when he asks?"

"Don't answer. Change the subject. I would not be in danger if I let Michael die on the beach."

"Are you sure he will live?" Cee whispered.

"My doctor friend will save him."

"You met Dr. Alex Collin, the owner of the cabin, didn't you?"

"Yes. He lives in Hope. He is an excellent doctor."

"Was he able to save her life?"

It seemed the dragon's wings missed a beat. "If either of you hurt Kayden, I will kill you."

Cee had almost allowed himself to forget that the A was a killer. "I remember. I saw your message. Michael won't hurt her. He loves her."

The A was silent until they were no longer flying over trees, but fields. "Will you tell him about me?"

"No." Cee hesitated. "Your master. Will you tell him of me?"

"What is your wish?"

"It would be better for Michael if no one knew of the tech he has. Can we agree to keep silent on each other?" It was a bold move, and Butler would have labeled him a silly little robot. Cee waited for the A to scorn him, the A with his beautiful dragon body.

"We can keep silent. I am telling Collin I found him at the lake."

They were approaching a house, and the door flung open. A man rushed to meet them, taking Michael into his arms. "Good job, Jamel. I'll let you know how it goes." He carried Michael into the house.

"He calls you Jamel."

"That is my name." Jamel carried Michael's pack with Cee and all Michael's tech into the loft of a large barn, hiding them in a corner behind bales of hay. Then Jamel curled up his dragon body and slept.



Collin took the blanket covered man into surgery and turned on the electric lights. They made working at night so much easier, and with dragon wounds, he needed all the light he could get. Blood caked the blanket to the man's back, but not as much as had soaked the strips of his shirt. His pulse was weak, and Collin guessed he didn't have much blood left. "Jamel, wake Kayden."

Collin ran warm water into a bowl and began soaking away the man's ripped clothing.

"Dad?"

"Can you get Quinn?"

"And Gaben?"

"No. Someone will need to be alert in the morning. Let him sleep."

Kayden left to get Quinn, and a few minutes later she returned, silently setting out his instruments for stitching. Quinn joined them, looking over the man's back. "Is this the worst of it?"

"Looks that way."

"How'd he get so lucky?"

"Maybe the same way you did," Kayden teased.

"No, Jamel found him this way," Collin said. "He estimated the attack took place about an hour before he found him, and he was up at the lake."

"The lake? That's hours away."

"Two by Jamel's measure. And it looks like the dragon encounter wasn't his first injury. He was sick when he was attacked."

"Can you save him?" Jamel asked.

"I hope so."

After accepting that Jamel could talk, it was only a small leap for Quinn to accept that Collin and Kayden could hear him from a distance. He didn't question them, accepting whatever Collin was willing to tell him. And he often took the liberty to enjoy Jamel's company, especially after a disagreement with Tara. But Collin hadn't told Gaben, and as far as any of them guessed, Gaben still didn't know that a dragon lived in the barn loft.

Now that they had a small refrigeration unit for the hospital section, they could keep a limited supply of intravenous solution, and he first started the IV. Then they stitched the man's torn muscles and flesh and reset the dislocated right shoulder.

Gaben came in before they finished. "Who is he?"

"We don't know. Not a local. Someone found him like this and brought him in."

"You get all the work this morning," Kayden teased. "We get to go back to bed when we're finished."

"Sure you will. You'll be out in the barn as soon as you're finished."

"Only if you're not," she bantered lightly.

Since he'd gotten back from Alexandria, Collin had noticed a tension between Kayden and Gaben. He waited for Kayden to confide in him, but she hadn't yet. He could only assume that Gaben was pursing, and Kayden was not sure if she should accept or not, and wanted to decide for herself without help.

"This will probably hurt him, but I need him on his back so we can get some nourishment in him." Collin, Quinn, and Gaben carefully turned the man making sure his IV didn't get tangled. Then Collin inserted the feeding tube.

Quinn and Kayden started cleaning up. When Collin finished washing his hands he looked back at the man. Kayden stood beside him looking down into his face. Then she ran her finger along the edge of his stubbly beard. She glanced up at Collin and shrugged. "The beard and mustache fuzz doesn't seem right on this face."

"It's fairly new growth. Probably since he first became ill. Maybe a week, two at most. He'll probably shave when he's feeling better."

Kayden studied his face. "And wash his hair." She reached up to touch it.

Gaben took her hand, and Kayden pulled it back, looking up into his face with a frown of annoyance. "What?"

"He's just a stranger. Probably one of the new convicts. You're not usually so interested in a man's face."

"I'm not." She whirled around and stalked from the room.

Gaben glanced back at Collin, but Collin decided not to interfere. Kayden had not asked him to yet, so he'd hold his peace. But after Gaben left, Collin studied the man's face wondering what Kayden had seen in it. Maybe just an alternative to Gaben's affections.




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