Chapter 24


Kayden had taken Michael out to the barn again, but this time she led him to a bench under the lone tree in the pasture, and then she brought each horse and wingdeer to him, telling him all about them. Michael was sure he'd never remember all their names. He couldn't even tell the wingdeer apart. At least the horses were different colors.

And then a flock of kittles landed near him, which turned out to be a mother with three kittens. "They're ready to find new homes." Kayden stroked one of the kittens. "Wilma usually does that. She loves kittles."

"So do you," he teased, remembering her affection for them on the space station.

She smiled. "Yeah. They're cute little guys. But I keep busy with the wingdeer. Like Collin says, if I try to do too much, I won't be happy because there isn't enough of me to go around."

Kayden glanced toward the house. Gaben was approaching. "I better get Tess ready for him." She made a noise, and one of the huge beasts separated itself and came to her.

"She's Gaben's?"

"Yeah. Collin finally gave her to him last year since he was always the one to ride her." Kayden led Tess away from him and had begun haltering her when Gaben reached her.

He watched her a moment, not offering to help, or even agreeing that he needed the beast saddled. Kayden finished the work and handed the reins to him. Gaben grabbed her hands. "Wait."

"Let go of me."

"Wait," he repeated so low, Michael almost didn't hear. He stood to help her. "When he hurts you, I'll still be here."

"Please don't wait," Kayden said quietly. "I'm sorry. I just don't feel anything more than friendship."

Michael stayed where he was. Perhaps she didn't need help.

"What you feel for him is just the infatuation of a child."

"I'd like the opportunity to sort it out for myself."

"You'll be hurt."

"Probably."

"He doesn't love you."

"Let go of my hand. You know I hate anyone touching my hands."

He released her. "He's just after Alex's property."

"Alex will outlive us all. Don't worry about the property."

Michael approached then. "I hear there's plenty of unclaimed property in the mountains. You just have to file a deed in Capitol."

"Yeah, well why don't you go and get it. Your career won't suffer for lack of people."

"You mean my career as a stable hand?"

"We're breeders, Michael. Not just stable hands. You're going to have to study genetics and wingdeer biology and horse biology and all kinds of neat stuff. Real study, Michael," she teased. "Just like I did."

He grinned. "I think I'll manage. But I'll stay away from those mountains. Too many dragons up there."

Gaben turned to leave, jerking Tess's reins. The animal reared up, yanking his arm. He began a soothing litany of sounds to calm the beast.

Kayden motioned Michael back to the bench and they sat. "I should ask Collin what you should study first." She looked out over the field filled with her charges. "Don't you just love it here? There are so many different and beautiful creatures on this world. Just last month up at the cabin I saw a sparkling gold bird with red tipped wings. It stayed by our window for three nights, singing us to sleep. Collin said it was a Blood Glitter. Geneticist Elaine White designed it. She and her husband designed a lot of birds."

"You have been studying without me, haven't you?"

She rolled her eyes. "You aren't taking me seriously, are you?"

"Of course, I am. The most beautiful thing I've seen on the planet tried to kill me. I'm a little jaded to beauty right now." He rested back, closing his eyes. "Why am I so tired all the time, Doctor?"

"Hardly a doctor. You lost a lot of blood. You're still recovering."

"But you gave me some. I saw when I paid for it."

"If I'd given you all you lost, I'd be dead. Now, do you think you can rest here, or do you want to go inside."

He kept his eyes closed. The breeze gently massaged his face. "I want to stay with you."

"Well, I've got stalls to clean, but call if you need me." She walked toward the barn.

Before he could protest he heard a voice. "Michael and Cee."

"A?"

"I wish to apologize to both of you. Cee informed me that it is a breech of protocol to speak directly to you unless I do it openly, which I will not. I'm sorry, Cee. I did not mean to cause you trouble. Nor am I trying to make your Michael love me. I am content with who I am and where I am. Although I wish sometimes I could not hear him speak to you. I do not like that he doesn't appreciate all you do for him. I know I couldn't stay with someone I was not happy with."

"I am happy with Michael," Cee said. "I want to serve him always. He is a good man. You just do not see it all yet."

"Perhaps not."

"A, you belong to me, also. My grandfather gave you to me."

"No, Michael. You must know that I killed the man your grandfather gave me to."

"He gave you to me. That monster was stealing you."

"Cee, is this correct?"

"Yes, Jamel. You are Michael's."

"No. I am not Michael's. I'm sorry, Michael. My information is fitting together better now, but I will not be owned by you. I have pledged my loyalty to another."

"Is it Kayden?"

"If you hurt her, you will regret it."

Michael left the bench and walked to the barn. "Kayden!"

Kayden came from the back of the barn, pitchfork in one hand.

"Where is the A unit?"

"What?"

"Where is the robot that was on the shuttle?"

Kayden threw down the pitchfork. "Liar. You say you came here to find me. You say you love me. You want to marry me. Go marry a stupid computer. You were going to leave me for your grandfather's computers anyway, weren't you? It's always for . . . He wouldn't . . . ." Her face turned white, her anger fading off to pure panic. "Don't! Stop!"

Michael took the last steps to her. "Kayden . . . ." He tried to wrap his arms around her, to hold her, comfort her.

"No! Don't hurt me. No. Not my hands." Her screams pierced his ears.

"Kayden. Kayden, please."

"Stop it. Please stop." She curled into a ball on the floor.

Michael knelt down beside her. "Kayden. Kayden, please."

"Stop. No. Don't." She screamed again.

And then Michael was lifted by the back of his collar and swung around. A fist connected with his chin, sending him flying against the stall wall.

"Kayden," said Quinn's soft voice.

It was Quinn? Quinn hit him?

Kayden screamed again.

"It's all right, Kayden. I won't let him hurt you."

Michael struggled to sit. "I wasn't hurting her."

Quinn tried to hold her, but she scooted away from him until her back hit the wall. "Don't! Please stop."

"Kayden," Michael tried again, this time not touching her. "It's over. You're safe."

And then Doc Collin rushed into the barn. He grabbed Kayden and lifted her into his arms. She pounded and screamed, but he simply held her to him, letting the blows rain against him. "It's okay, Sweetheart. You're safe." He carried her from the barn.

Michael allowed his tired body to fall back against the wall.

"What happened?" Quinn asked, sitting and leaning against the opposite wall.

"I asked her a question. She . . . she must be remembering." Michael leaned forward and put his head in his hands. "What have I done? She was happy, and I bring back the hell of those memories."

"Why did you ask her about her rape? What kind of fool . . . ?"

"I didn't ask her that. I'm not that heartless. I asked . . . I asked . . . Why didn't I see? The A was part of the nightmare. She doesn't know what happened to it, does she? A? Wait a minute. You know a Jamel. Where is he?"

Quinn stood, brushing off the back of his trousers. "I don't know what my friends have to do with you. And I don't keep constant tabs on them. If he wants to meet you, he'll most likely introduce himself."

"Quinn doesn't know anything," Jamel said. "I met him over a dragon's carcass. But keep his secret. Kayden would hate you if you didn't. She loves him like a brother."

Michael struggled to stand, but his weakness made him pause on his knees to regain his strength. Quinn stopped beside him, his booted feet all Michael could see. And then his hand rested on his shoulder. Michael tensed. "Why?" he said in a weak voice. "Why can't I just die instead of being beaten, eaten, and attacked by trees, beasts and humans? I hate this planet."

But Quinn didn't finish the beating he'd started earlier. Instead he helped Michael to his feet, and then let him lean against him as they made their way into the house and up to his bed. When he lay him down, Quinn examined Michael's chin. "Sorry about that. Thought you were hurting her. No one hurts her, understand?"

"I understand," Michael mumbled too tired to even talk.

Quinn left and as Michael started to drift to sleep he heard the A again. "You are a liar, just like she said. You care more about taking me back to suffer in your lab than you do about Kayden's feelings. Don't play games with her, or you'll end up like her last torturer."

"Jamel, please," pleaded Cee. "He did not mean it. He loves her. I know he does. Charles wants you back. Michael has always hated how Charles put you first over Kayden's life."

"You bastard, A," Michael whispered. "If not for you, Kayden wouldn't be hurting."

"Well, Michael, you're doing the same as your grandfather. If you love Kayden, you'll forget about me. You can't hate me and love her. It's not possible. Decide your priorities before you go near her again. Will her well-being always be second to the acquisition of a small black box?"

When Michael slept he shared Kayden's nightmares.



Collin held Kayden as she slept. He'd had to give her a tranquilizer, but he was not at all sure it would keep the nightmares at bay. He had come as soon as Jamel yelled for him and opened the channel so that he could hear Kayden's screams, Michael's words, and Quinn's words, until he took her away.

Collin rested his cheek against her hair. How he loved this precious child. And she was a child right now. He'd known Michael's presence would probably break the mental barrier she'd placed around those memories.

A knock sounded on the door, and Kayden stirred. "It's okay, Sweetheart. You're safe." He kissed her forehead and then left her.

Gaben stood just outside the door. "What happened? Is she okay?"

"I think her memory returned. She's resting."

"And you . . . ."

"I'm staying with her. You and Quinn can get by without me."

"You still want the bastard to stay?"

"Get back to work and leave this to me." He shut the door, and then he moved the armchair closer to the bed so he could reach over and keep a hand on her shoulder as they both slept.



Michael made it downstairs the next morning, but neither Collin nor Kayden came down. Quinn entered their dining room, spoke to Wilma in the kitchen and then sat across from Michael. "Sorry about that bruise."

"How's Kayden?"

"Tranquilized. Mostly sleeping and nightmares. Alex is keeping watch over her. She'll be okay."

Michael lowered his forehead into his upturned hands. "I should just leave, shouldn't I? It's all my fault."

"I thought you wanted to marry her. Course if you can't love her through this, then you should leave. She doesn't need the reminders."

"Doc Collin offered me a horse?"

"I'll ask." He took the tray Wilma brought and left the room.

Michael could barely eat the meal she had prepared. His stomach felt like lead. How could he leave Kayden? How could he stay when the memories tortured her so? He pushed away his plate and lowered his head to the table. He heard boots across the floor, and then the man sat.

"You're not well enough to travel," said Doc Collin.

Michael raised his head. "The memories. I can't stand to see her hurting."

"It's part of love to suffer with the one suffering. If you don't love her enough, then I'll have Quinn take you wherever you want to go. What are your plans?"

"I . . . I can get a job in Alexandria. I can't go back to Capitol until . . . well, I guess I can just tell them I gave up." He ran his hands over his face. "Man, I hate this place."

"Then go home, Michael. If you don't love Kayden enough to see her through this, just go home. Quinn will take you back to Capitol tomorrow. The weather is bad for travel today."

"I love her! I'd be right there beside her if you'd let me."

Collin stared at him. Then he stood and held out his arm toward the rest of the house. "I'll let you. Do not talk about how she got here or anything related to the incident. Go. Sit in the chair and assure her she's safe now. It's over."

Michael made his way up the stairs and then stopped in the dark hall before her door. He gave a light tap and then opened it. The room was bigger than his with a window over the desk, letting in the murky light from the overcast sky. Kayden lay on the bed covered with a pieced together blanket. She faced the wall, and all he could see was her long chestnut hair.

Opposite the window, Quinn rose from an overstuffed chair. "What do you need?"

"Doc . . . Alex said I could stay with her."

Quinn glanced back at Kayden. "So you've decided to stay."

"I love her."

"You love her, or you want me," came a small voice in his ear.

"I love her," Michael repeated. The A was the most annoying machine in existence. He thought Butler was, but at least Butler didn't invade his mind . . . of course he hadn't had the implant then. He'd refused one until he needed it for the trip.

"Then don't hurt her. I'll be downstairs, but I'll be checking on you." Quinn left, closing the door softly behind him.

Michael sat in the arm chair and lowered his pack to the floor beside him. He reached over to touch Kayden's shoulder. "I love you, Kayden."

"Do you want to know where I am, Michael?"

"Leave me alone."

"Do you want me? I'm in the barn."

"Is he, Cee?"

"Yes."

"Come on. I won't be here tomorrow. I'm leaving tonight. Leave Kayden and come see me."

"Leave him alone," Cee said. "Why do you want him to see you?"

"Are you trying to lure me into a trap, A? Do you want to kill me?" Michael asked.

Kayden stirred on the bed. "No," she moaned. "Don't kill . . . ."

Damn that stupid robot. Michael moved to the edge of the bed and rubbed her shoulder. "It's okay, Sweetheart. You're safe."

"I wouldn't kill you. I won't hurt you at all. I promise."

Michael ignored him, focusing on Kayden.

"It's me or her, Michael. You can see me today. See if you'll be able to get me into space."

Kayden rolled to her back. "Michael?"

"Kayden."

"I . . . why are you here?"

"Alex said I could sit with you."

"But she's better now," the A taunted. "You can come get me. Come and dismantle me. You know you're only staying here to get me. Kayden doesn't matter to you."

"Stop it," Cee shouted the words Michael wanted to say. "Just stop."

"I . . . I'm okay," Kayden said. She indicated she wanted to get up. "I need to get out to the barn. The horses need . . . need exercise."

Michael stood, and Kayden slipped out of bed. "No, Kayden. Don't. You need to rest." That psychotic A unit was out there.

"But . . . the horses. You . . . ." She raised her hands to her head.

"Tell her you can take care of the horses," the A whispered.

"I thought you were my friend, Jamel," Cee said.

Michael wrapped his arm around Kayden's waist. "I'm sure Alex or Quinn or Gaben are looking after the stock. What do they normally do when you aren't feeling well."

"I . . . I do feel sick."

"Do you want to lie back down?"

"I . . . I want . . . I want . . . yes."

Michael helped Kayden into bed and sat beside her until she fell back to sleep.

"Now's your chance," the A taunted. "You know you want me. She won't miss you. She'll never know how much more your hate means than she does."

Michael clawed at his ear, but the damn noise wouldn't stop. If he yelled back at him, he'd disturb Kayden.

"Michael . . . ."

Michael ran from Kayden's room and down the stairs, into the waiting room and then back into the examination rooms. "Where is he?" he asked, grasping Gaben's tunic with one hand and clawing at his left ear with the other. "Where's Doc Collin?"

Gaben knocked his arm away, glancing back at his patient. "Get out of here."

"Where is he?" He stumbled from Gaben back through the doors to the surgery.

"Michael, I'm in the barn . . . ."

Michael tried to stop the noise. He ran through the doorway and made his way back to the pharmacy.

Quinn and Doc Collin looked up. Michael stumbled to Doc Collin. "Kayden?" Collin asked.

"His ear," Quinn said.

"Please stop the noise. Stop it. He won't leave me alone. Take out the implant."

"Who won't leave you alone?"

"That bastard A."

"A? Not . . . Jamel? Do you know about this? The man's ripped his ear almost off."

"No," came a low voice. "No, Collin, I didn't mean to hurt him. I just wanted to make sure he loved her more. I didn't want her hurt. Collin . . . No. Is he hurt bad?"

Michael was drawn into the surgery, supported by both Quinn and Collin. They lay him on his side on the table. A pillow supported his head, and he felt them moving his hair to examine his ear.

"Jamel, I don't want you talking to him again. Ever. You got that."

"I'm sorry," said the A, his voice meek. And then it was gone.

Collin reached into Michael's front pocket.

"No," Michael moaned, realizing he was taking Cee.

"And you, my friend, no using the transceiver for at least three days. I'm sure you have a voice."

Cee's tiny little voice spoke. "I only listen to Michael."

Collin chuckled. "I see that." He put Cee back in Michael's pocket.

"What . . . what was that?" Quinn asked.

"Computer. But let's not spread it around. We don't want to have to stitch this guy up any more than necessary."

Michael felt his body relax as Collin and Quinn cleaned his wound. He closed his eyes. "Kayden! She's alone."

"Jamel will tell me if she wakes. It looks like I won't have to remove the implant."

"Take it out."

"But Michael, it will not be easy to replace here."

"Take it out."

"But what about your friend."

Michael hesitated. But then his resolve strengthened. Cee was corrupted by first Butler and then the A. "I don't care about any damn machine. I'll tell my grandfather they were both destroyed." He pulled Cee from his pocket. "Here. I'm sick of voices in my head."

"Michael, no!" came Cee's tiny voice.

Michael ignored him. "Destroy both units. Your A unit is mine, too. Destroy it. My report will state that the B unit back at the lab should be terminated also."

"If you give it up, I will not return this unit. Are you sure you don't want it."

"Destroy them both!"

Collin silently slipped Cee into his pocket. "I'm going to have to anesthetize you. It'll be about fifteen minutes before I'm ready for surgery."




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