Chapter 25


Collin motioned Quinn from the surgery and back into the pharmacy. He closed the door and then pulled Cee from his pocket. "I suspected Michael was a tech spy, but not that he was a spy with a deep anger against computers. Care to enlighten me?"

The black box was silent.

"What is your name?"

"Unit Jamel 5000C. Michael calls me Cee."

"Hello, Cee. I'm Dr. Alex Collin. Our friend is Dr. Quinn Stone. Can you tell us why Michael hates computers?"

Silence.

"Cee, he gave you to me, and I will not destroy you. Now isn't it your duty to give me the information I ask for?"

"I am loyal to Michael."

"Good. Now be loyal to him by letting me know what's going on. I want to help him."

"I trusted Jamel. He hurt Michael."

"Jamel?" Quinn asked.

"I'm sorry," Jamel said meekly. "I should be destroyed, like he said."

"No one is being destroyed. Now answer me. Michael hates computers and yet he apprenticed in artificial intelligence. Why is that?"

"Collin," Jamel said in his ear. "I found out that I was stolen. Kayden was used to help the thief escape. It appears that he blames me for Kayden's pain. If the man hadn't wanted me, Kayden would be safe. Truth is, it's all my fault. If I had killed him earlier . . . ."

Collin summarize for Quinn who couldn't hear. "Kayden was used as a shield for a killer stealing one of these computers."

"Wait, I thought she was raped."

"Yeah, and tortured. The shuttle crashed, or tried to crash on the planet. I happened to be close enough to recover the victims in the escape pod, a computer and Kayden. Her attacker was apparently vaporized when the tech satellite destroyed the shuttle." Collin studied Quinn, but only his eyes were wider now. "Knowledge is dangerous here, my son. I didn't want you to be hurt by it."

Collin thought about the machine in his hand, a machine that had perhaps had very little love since its activation. He looked at his adopted son. Then he reached over and slipped Cee into Quinn's front pocket. "Keep him safe, and don't tell anyone. He's Jamel's brother."

"But Jamel's a . . . ."

"With a brain that looks like a little black box. Knowledge can get us killed, Quinn. Are you ready to live dangerously?"

Quinn stared at Collin for a full minute. Then he raised his hand to cover his pocket. "I'm ready for whatever you need me for."

"Then treat that little guy with a lot of love and respect. He's like a child, Quinn. And a child needs to know he's loved to grow into his full potential. Now we've got a man in there waiting for an operation."



Quinn assisted Alex with the operation, acutely aware of the black rectangle in his pocket. He watched Alex pull a small brownish oval from behind Michael's ear, and it clinked when he dropped it in the metal dish. The operation was minor, and Quinn stayed with Michael as he recovered. Alex had needed to go up to Kayden.

Quinn leaned against the wall and removed the black rectangle. A computer. He actually had a computer. He'd only heard about them in stories, as things they had in the rest of the galaxy, but not here. He heard movement at the door, and he quickly slipped the little box away.

It was Tara. "Are you ready for lunch? Is that Michael again?"

Quinn gave a slight smile. "Yeah. He doesn't know how to stay off the table. Afraid I'll have to eat in here today. He's still coming out of it."

Tara glanced at Michael's bandaged ear. "Did she attack him?"

"No. He hurt himself somehow."

That was still a little disconcerting. He'd seen a few self-mutilations, and the patients who did such things were, in his two other experiences, very mentally unstable. He hoped the man before him did not fall into that category.

Before Tara brought his food, Michael Jamel stirred on the bed. "No! Stop. Don't hurt her. You've got to help me. Kayden!"

Quinn touched his shoulder. "Hey, friend. She's safe. Remember."

"Stop him. We have to stop him."

"He's stopped. She's safe," Quinn said, realizing that Michael shared Kayden's nightmares -- the nightmares of a helpless man. Quinn sometimes had those dreams, too, when his father had chosen his mother or sister instead of him. "He's dead. He can't hurt anyone anymore."

Tara set the dinner tray on the counter by the sink. "Who is dead?"

"Whoever is in the nightmare. You know they sometimes say strange things coming out of it."

Tara gave Michael another glance and then focused on Quinn. "You've been working too much. We should take a trip to the city. We have some money."

"Aah, I'll have to check with Alex."

"Does he ever check with you before he runs off?"

"Tara, we are busy this week. Maybe next week." Michael's eyes were open, and he watched them now. "How are you feeling?"

"Tired." The word slurred out.

"I'll give you a few more minutes before we move you to the other beds." Quinn looked up as Alex and Kayden entered the room.

Kayden's face was still whiter than normal, and she clutched Alex's hand as she approached Michael from behind him. "Oh, Michael," she whispered, her free hand hovering and then resting on his hair.

Michael looked up at her. "Kayden. I love you."

"I know. Jamel told me."

Michael shook his head, closing his eyes. "Bastard machine. Never was worth it. Never." His voice was low and weak.

Kayden's lips trembled. Collin wrapped his arm around Kayden's waist and kissed her temple. "Let's forget all about machines for a while. Why don't you concentrate on recovering from those dragon wounds? Kayden has decided to rest down here, so the two of you can share a room today, and we can treat a few other patients who don't insist on an operation every day."

Alex helped settle them both in the patient guest room and then dismissed Quinn to help with other patients. He would work in the pharmacy, which was close enough to hear when he was needed.



Collin wasn't sure if Kayden's memory had returned completely. She spoke little, but smiled at Michael's gentle teasing. The following day she insisted on working in the barn, and Michael walked out with her. Collin almost expected to hear of another emergency, but they were at the evening meal not any worse than when they left, although tired.

Later that night, Collin tapped on her door. She let him in and hugged him tight before releasing him and sitting on the edge of her bed.

"How'd it go with Michael today?" He took the armchair.

"Good. We both are afraid to say too much, I think." She frowned. "I didn't attack him like I did Ty, did I?"

"I'm not sure what triggered your breakdown. You don't remember?"

Kayden rolled her eyes and lay down on the bed, staring at the ceiling. "I never remember anything. 'Cept a little more about Michael."

"Tell me about Michael."

Kayden rolled to her side and propped her head up with her hand. "I remember his father wanted him to go away to study, but Michael didn't know what he wanted to study. He'd been working with his dad, but he wasn't very happy in engineering. I'm not sure if it was the work or his dad. I remember I never felt comfortable around his dad. He always seemed like he never was pleased with anything. At least that's the only picture of him I can see right now."

"And his grandfather?"

"I don't think I ever met his grandfather. At least I don't remember him. I don't think Michael knew him well either, but since his grandfather had asked for him, he decided to go. I was pretty upset about it. He was my best friend, and he was going to be with some dumb computers." She frowned. "I think I acted a little childish."

Collin couldn't help the soft smile. "Perhaps because you were still a child, my Dear. Sounds like you're remembering quite a bit."

"Yeah. But that's it. Nothing about my mother or father or sisters or brothers. And . . . and I'm not sure I should ask him. He doesn't seem to want to talk about the past at all."

"Maybe he's afraid of reminding you again."

Kayden plopped down and stared at the ceiling. "I wish he didn't have to be. It's like . . . I don't know. He isn't happy. Even when he teases I can see how sad he is. And . . . and I'm afraid to ask."

"Let him have some time to recover, Sweetheart. He's been knocked around so much in the last few weeks, he probably isn't sure what is up or down."

"But he gave up his transceiver," she said quietly. "I can't imagine giving up Jamel. He's like my constant companion."

"Give Michael time. We have plenty of time. Remember, you can't rush a healing wound, especially a mental one. Just be there, and perhaps one day he'll confide in you or me, and we will be able to help heal him." He stood kissed her cheek. "Good Night, Sweetheart."



Quinn knew he was doing something wrong. He had to be. He was sure he'd heard the little black box talk to Alex, but no matter how he tried, he couldn't get it to talk to him. He wanted to ask Alex, but he could not easily get Alex alone. He kept a close watch on Kayden and Michael, helping out in the stables, and then he'd take house calls. Even when he worked in the pharmacy, Michael or Kayden was with him. He had begun teaching Michael about medicine preparation, and Michael appeared willing to learn whatever they wanted to teach him.

Gaben seemed withdrawn, not staying to talk medicine or about the happenings in the village. Quinn guessed he didn't like seeing Kayden and Michael together, but he didn't stay long at the breakfast and dinner table either.

Even if Gaben was available he couldn't talk to him about his deepest frustration. He'd carried Cee in his pocket almost a week, and he'd yet to hear one word from him. Perhaps he'd broken him already. How could he tell Alex? And he definitely couldn't talk to Michael about it.

Quinn tucked Shanika into bed and read her a story out of the book Alex had given him when he'd taught him to read. Then he went downstairs. He heard Tara in the dining room.

"It's just not fair. I know. Alex has cheated you, after all your work."

And then Gaben's low voice. "And he's already talking medicine with him. I think he's going to make him an apprentice. So that's it. I'm out in the cold, after all these years."

"Just not right," Tara repeated. "I warned you that girl was unstable, but for Alex to go along with her whims is simply wrong."

Quinn stepped into the room. Tara was facing him at the table, watching Gaben eat the leftovers from dinner. "You'd never be 'out in the cold', Gaben. We need you here."

Gaben shoved the chair back from the table and moved it to face Quinn. "Yeah. Till he finds someone Kayden likes better."

"Kayden has nothing to do with the practice."

"She gets half."

"If Alex dies, which he won't, but if he did, she'd have half the property. It's so she always has a place to live and work. It has nothing to do with the running of the practice."

"She gets half. I get nothing."

Quinn studied Gaben, unsure why this was so important. "Alex isn't going to die, and if he does, I won't change the practice. I'd need your help even more."

Gaben rolled his eyes. "I'm not working under you my whole life, Quinn." He stood. "Sorry, but I just can't." He brushed past him out of the room.

Quinn stayed frozen to the spot as if Gaben had punched him. For so long he hadn't dared to believe they were good friends, and just in the past six months, he'd started to relax. Gaben was his friend. He respected him as an equal. But now . . . now he knew the truth. Gaben didn't respect him. Not enough to let him be the head of the practice. Not enough to be an equal friend.

"Well, I don't blame him none for being angry," Tara said. "Alex Collin has been completely brainwashed by that tramp. Who knows what he'll give her next? I don't doubt one day she'll just up and say she doesn't want us here anymore, and that'll be that. A will isn't really a guarantee until he dies. And he's died before and come back." She grabbed Gaben's dirty plate and cup and headed for the kitchen.

He hated it when she got into these rants against Alex. If he defended Alex, the fight would be a bitter one. If he avoided it, they lived in peace, and the next morning she treated Alex and Kayden as if she'd never cursed them behind their backs.

"I'm going to the barn," Quinn said.

Tara peered around the door frame. "Why? Can't that girl take care of her responsibilities even with the extra help?"

"I'm going to check on Rae," he lied, using his wingdeer as an excuse as he often did. "I thought I saw a limp earlier."

As he reached the front door, Tara called, "Don't forget the sword. Remember that no-good, silver dragon that's hanging around."

Quinn ignored her, leaving without the sword. If the no-good, silver dragon killed him, it'd only be fitting as he'd given him almost three extra years of life.

At the barn he lit the lamp on the shelf by the door and carried it to Rae's stall. She welcomed the attention, but Quinn's thoughts were on the box in his pocket. "Cee, are you alive?"

No answer.

"Did I break you?"

No answer.

"What am I doing wrong?"

No answer.

At least if anyone heard him, they'd think he was talking to Rae, but Quinn really wanted to talk to Jamel. He hadn't seen him since Michael had arrived. He sighed, took the lantern, and climbed the ladder into the loft.

When he was up, he shined the lantern around. Nothing but hay bales and Jamel's riding tack. Quinn sunk down to sit on one of the hay bales, disappointed.

Then the huge beast flew through the dragon-hide strip curtain covering the large loft doorway. He touched the floor and walked the last few feet to him. "Quinn. I missed you."

Quinn smiled and rubbed the snout Jamel pushed into his chest. "I've missed you."

"Do you want a ride?"

Quinn shrugged. "Guess I just need some help."

Jamel rested on his chest before him, turning his head to look directly at Quinn. "I love to help."

Now Quinn hesitated. Looking at Jamel yet again, it was hard to imagine him as any type of machine. He was so powerfully flesh and muscles. "Alex said . . . said you . . . ." He withdrew Cee from his pocket. "I think I broke him. I didn't mean to. I don't know what to do."

"Why do you think Cee is broken?"

"He won't talk to me. He's supposed to talk like you, right?"

"I have a voice enhancement unit. Without it I sound quite unimpressive." He lowered his head to eye the small unit.

"Oh," was all Quinn could think to say to that unintelligible comment. He couldn't imagine a dragon with an unimpressive voice. But then again, before he'd met Jamel, he'd never imagined a dragon with a voice at all.

"He is not broken. He does not wish to speak to me either. He says I hurt Michael. Cee, I tell you again, I am sorry. I only sought to prove whether he loved Kayden or was here to find me. I didn't want her hurt. I will do whatever I can to make it right."

"Nothing will make it right. Michael hates me. It is your fault."

"I'm sorry. Look, Quinn wants to be your friend."

"I am only loyal to Michael. I do not trust you or your friends. I will not speak again."

Jamel swung his head from Cee. "You have never made a mistake? You are perfect? Perhaps you are. I am not. I need Collin to teach me right from wrong. Please forgive me, Cee, because if I'd thought of how Collin would do things, I never would have done that. I shouldn't have agreed to keep the secret. I was unable to consult him as freely as I am accustomed to. Collin has ordered me to stay away from Michael, or I would try to find some way to make it up to him. He really does love Kayden. I should have believed you. I am afraid of losing her. Cee?"

Jamel focused on Quinn. "It is no use. He hates me. But I will tell you both about my first weeks with Collin. I had broken my programming and killed the man who hurt her. I knew I had malfunctioned, and I begged Collin to destroy my core. He would not do it. Instead I stayed silent in his pocket for three weeks. I learned about this man, saw as he tenderly cared for Kayden, his care for his pets, and back here, his care for you, Quinn, and how he responded to Burke. I learned he was a man of honor and integrity, and I wanted to be like him."

"I want to be like Alex, too," Quinn admitted, having a hard time seeing Jamel in Alex's pocket.

"Quinn, my friend, all I know is what Collin told Kayden. Give it time. Try to think about how Collin would treat a person. Do you want a ride now?" Jamel crawled over to his tack and looked back, as if hopeful.

Quinn slid Cee into his pocket. "Sure, Jamel." He couldn't resist the temptation any longer.

They flew through the night. Quinn leaned forward against Jamel's neck and savored the wind rushing past his face, the power of muscles beneath him, the joy of complete freedom. When Jamel dived, Quinn let out a deep yell of laughter, his heart racing as the ground rushed toward him. And then they soared up into a spiral so high the buildings of the town were only visible as dots of light from windows, making a reverse starscape.

When Jamel finally flew back to the barn, Quinn's tension from earlier was gone. He released the safety straps and jumped off his back. Then he leaned against Jamel. "Thanks. I needed that." He ran his hand down his soft neck and then removed the saddle, hanging it back on the hook.

As he walked back to the house, Quinn's thoughts returned to Cee. The little machine wasn't talking on purpose. He sounded hurt. He'd been rejected by the one he loved most -- Michael. Quinn remembered the bewilderment of a child unable to please a father he wanted to love, but in the end couldn't. And he remembered not speaking for fear of angering the one he wanted to love him. And he remembered Alex's gentle words and kindnesses, his patience and his gifts.

How could he show this little box the tenderness and love that Alex had shown him? How could he give him anything? There was only one thing that he knew the little boy wanted -- he wanted Michael.

Quinn stopped on the front porch and leaned against the railing. "I wish you wanted to stay with me. I wish you and I could be like Alex and Jamel. But you want Michael, don't you? The only thing I can do for you is to help Michael get well enough to love you. Then maybe you'll be happy, you'll want to live again, and you'll be able to trust." Quinn rubbed his hand over his pocket. "I will try to be a good friend." He took a deep breath and entered the house.

Tara was in bed when he made it up to his room. Quinn slipped out of his clothes, carefully folding his tunic with Cee, and setting him on the night stand. Then he crawled into bed beside Tara, wrapping his arm around her soft body. She snuggled closer to him, and he kissed her neck. She rolled to her back and her lips sought his, her body arching to meet him. His heart would beat like the dragon's again tonight.




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